“Always choose a move that can follow logically from what’s going on in the game’s fiction. It doesn’t have to be the only one, or the most likely, but it does have to make at least some kind of sense. Generally, limit yourself to a move that’ll (a) set you up for a future harder move, and (b) give the players’ characters some opportunity to act and react. A start to the action, not its conclusion.” - D. Vincent Baker in Apocalypse World 2e p89
The Soft Move
Dungeons and Dragons leaves us without the language for what I want to discuss, and so I’m stealing, as I tend to do. In Apocalypse World, the Master of Ceremonies (DM equivalent) has moves they can enact. The list contains such gems as “Put someone in a spot”, “Announce future badness”, “Take away their stuff”, and “Tell them the possible consequences and ask”. However, not every MC move is irrecoverable. There’s an implied difference in immediacy between “Announce future badness” and “Take away their stuff”. The difference in immediacy is the difference between a Soft Move and a Hard Move. A soft move offers an opportunity to react, reverse, or defer. A hard move happens, and hurts.
As discussed in the lead quote, your moves need to follow from your fiction. As true in D&D as in AW. The key to the soft move is narrative authority, keeping threats consistent rather than falling into narrative Calvinball. Soft moves set things up and say to players and characters “this is how the story is starting to evolve, what do you do?” This then gives you, the DM, the narrative authority to enact the hard move. If you Signal to your players that you have a particular loaded gun, they will not be indignant when you pull the trigger. They knew it was coming, and they can see the rolls that lead to its firing.
Setup into Payoff
The second benefit is emotional. The setup-reminder-payoff feels so much more satisfying than a complication out of nowhere. Establishing a group of thieves on a “I want to find a merchant” roll is the setup. If later the player fails a (more dramatic) roll they may find something was stolen. That is infinitely more satisfying than finding out about the thieves after finding the stolen item. Setups prepare us for fulfilment: without setup, theft feels disjointed. With, it feels like the only logical resolution (“of course he stole something when he bumped me”).
Tools to Take Away
The Soft Move can either expand on, or build new threats. It can be something you’ve prepared, setting up for a specific resolution, or it can be world-building. This is the jab before the cross, and it’s a key part of your interest curve. Not every failure should put the PCs in a dire situation, threatening their lives, but every failure is an opportunity to set something up, or to remind your players of a threat set up long ago.