Nouns and Verbs

Got the TouchI occasionally remark, with no real explanation, that Fate is a game of nouns and Dungeon World is a game of verbs. This is probably a little flip of me, so I figured I’d take a minute to explain it a little more fully.

To understand this, understand that I see that the big sentiment that Fate and Dungeon World share is a spirit of emulation. That is, they strive to capture a certain sort of fictional ideal, not by simply reproducing it, but by reproducing the structures that enable it. That structure raises the very interesting question of what fiction is made of, and this is where the difference emerges.

Fate is predicated on the idea that the smallest practical element of fiction is descriptive of character or situation. The brave knight. The locked room. The haunted duchess. The action and interaction of these make for fiction. Notably, Fate is not terribly unique in this, and games like Heroquest and Risus use similar units of fiction.

Dungeon World is predicated on the idea that key elements are the actions that define things. The clash of blades. The race over rough terrain. The duel of wits. It is these actions which reveal and transform the other elements of the fiction. This is, I think, a focus which is fairly unique to the *World games.

Importantly, they’re both right, and they offer no contradiction. Rather, they’re simultaneously distinct, rather like the whole light being a wave and a particle thing. And equally importantly, this is not a pure thing- Fate has plenty of support for actions and DW has plenty of support for people and things. But that difference in approach informs many of the difference between the systems.[1]

I like this comparison because I feel it gives me greater insight into the way moves do and should work. At their most ideal, moves are the things which – if you were watching this movie – you would know that character was going to do. The ranger is going to track a dude. The Fighter is going to wield her badass weapon. In short, you can design for *World by imagining the ideal outcome, and designing back from there. That’s powerful[2].

But it has also highlighted a faultline for me. The discussion of Discern Realities touched on the edges of this, but I think I’ve got a better grasp on it now. See, in the ideal, a move in a *Worldgame is a moment. It’s that thing, and it’s going down. The game is built to deliver that moment, and the move is an expression of that.

But not every moment is a moment. There’s a lot of interstitial stuff along the way, and a lot of stuff that the character does is interesting and play driving, but is not definitive. Not in the same way. And that creates a bit of a disconnect. it is the difference between fighting a few thugs in the alley and the bloodied last stand against the evil warlord. The situation plays into it, but at it’s heart, it’s that moment when a little voice chimes up “Now’s my time to shine!”, your theme music starts playing, and it’s on.

But, mechanically, there is no difference between that moment (move) and any other. Which is a shame.

The hilarious thing (to me) is that Fate has the same problem. Aspects are always true, but sometimes you want them to be big T True, a huge, defining element of the character, something to which all other things bend. You can play it that way, of course, but the mechanics don’t differentiate.

Mind you, I’m not here to offer a solution. I’ve been wrestling with this one in Fate for as long as the game has existed[3] so it’s somewhat comforting to be coming at it from a different angle. Perhaps I can even find something in between. I use the word casually, but I think perhaps there may be something in the idea of a moment. In the abstract, it is a fiction beat which reveals essential character (noun) through action (verb), so perhaps the solution exists when both are brought to bear at once.

Something I’ll be thinking about, certainly.


  1. Another core difference is that there is no true “vanilla” *World game. Even Apocalypse World is emulating a very specific vision. Fate is designed with that backplane, which is expressed through specific builds. it might be theoretically possible to articulate the “Generic” *World system, but I doubt it would be practically worth it.  ↩
  2. It is also why both games are such genre chameleons. Just as Fate’s aspect allow you to make the characters that should exist in a given genre, Moves allow you to design for the actions and activities which define the genre. If you do a highlander game, then you build from the essential action of chopping off a dude’s head.  ↩
  3. Literally. The iconic example of this was Finndo’s “Duty” aspect in the very first Fate game. It was big T True and then some.  ↩

13 thoughts on “Nouns and Verbs

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It’s been sitting in my “To Read” queue for a bit. Going to have to get more aggressive about that, I think. (And I’m unsurprised because Avery is a genius)

      Reply
  1. Brian Bentley

    This brings up an interesting tangent related to music. When a character has a genuine Moment, what is the song playing in the background? I think it’s the sort of question that can help solidify characters. I saw the picture in the article and was immediately transported back to the 80s. These are scenes that I can remember years later with vivid clarity because it was both Optimus Prime’s and Hotrod’s Moment. I literally can’t envision those scenes without that music and it defines something about those characters.

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yeah. “The Touch” is pretty much the definitive “This is the moment!” song for me.

      Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Largely depends upon whether you think that the essential element of Fate is Aspects (nouns) or the ladder (adjectives). To my mind, Aspects are the thing that are the reason Fate and Fudge are different things.

      (And it gets weirder when you get to Fae, which is arguably all about adverbs!)

      Reply
      1. Howard M Thompson

        I think Fate is about aspects. But, when I look at, “The brave knight. The locked room. The haunted duchess.” I focus on brave, locked and haunted. So, I guess it’s really the noun with its modifiers.

        Reply
  2. Jesse

    I’m going to second TheOtherTracy in recommending A Dream Askew.

    A lot of games have some sort of scarce resource that, I think, is supposed to help with this: willpower, hero points, etc. They often seem to degenerate into economic fiddliness or other, interesting but not what you’re looking for, dynamics.

    I think part of the difficulty is that, for those *moments* you want the whole table to be invested in that character’s awesome, naturally, which is hard to coordinate mechanically. Resource mechanics seem instead to try to put forth what a “fair” distribution of moments is, so people don’t object — but that’s different from the really engaged buy-in.

    Reply
  3. Alan

    Minor thing: the ↩ link for [1] doesn’t work for me. The ones for [2] and [3] do. I think the [1] link is missing id=”fnref:1″

    Reply
  4. Iain

    This reminds me of the WEG Star Wars Force point mechanic. Not only was it a bonus but it was a big one and it’s use at dramatically appropriate times was rewarded. It’s the part of Fate that doesn’ go far enough. Certain moments need to bend the narrative morecthan they do.

    Reply
  5. Josh W

    Jenna Moran handled this in an amusingly cheaty way in her game WTF (which does a lot of amusingly cheaty things)

    She defined character abilities in terms of valence, truth, and effectiveness.

    Instead of having a skill, you have an aspect-like-thing that says about a truth of your life, rated in 3 categories; valence says whether it makes your life good or bad, truth says the extent to which you can stand on it as something substantial, and effectiveness says the extent to which you can use it to do stuff.

    And then she pretty much leaves it there. But it’s an elegant point to make; one of the implicit things about GMs handling the context for tasks is precisely about how a task can be immediately successful but in the long term just create problems, but more importantly, the truth measure means that you can decide how much this is something you can take as read in the game world, how much you can use it to gainsay proposals or to make advantages implicit.

    Fate leaves valence and effectiveness largely up to the players and the fate point economy, but leaves truth in a grey area. I feel like there’s still some thought to be done on what always true means, along that previous distinction; how much veto power do they have, how much do they implicitly structure things?

    In modern fate, with it’s lower numbers of aspects, aspects are always true seems to me to automatically be a more natural thing to do, because unlike the old hoard of aspects brought in situationally by compels, these are more like constant free-standing things, a short list of descriptions of the character. It makes me wonder whether there could be a more general kind of aspect shortlist, covering the most relevant and in-focus aspects of the moment, and you could manage aspects moving in and out of that shortlist according to some scheme, so that people focus first on those elements of the story over others when coming up with stuff.

    Like (untested idea incoming) you spend a point to highlight an aspect, and highlighted aspects are expected to shape all contributions for a short period, like a kind of slow motion compel for effect, and the fate point spent goes to whoever gets their aspect knocked out of the highlighted list.

    Reply

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