Review: PbtA is a great system

Review: PbtA is a great system

Hello everyone,

today I want to talk to you about one of my favourite TTRPG-systems:

Powered by the Apocalypse, or short: PbtA. I will tell you how PbtA works, and whom it is great for.

PbtA is no actual system, but rather a "genre" of systems, like the ones in the photo. All somewhat similar, yet different.

A short history lesson

PbtA has its roots in a system called Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker, thus the name "Powered by the Apocalypse". Many other systems were built on Apocalypse World, thus quickly the term "Powered by the Apocalypse" was created.

There being many PbtA systems does not mean however, that PbtA is a generic TTRPG-system, like Fate, Savage Worlds, GURPS, etc. All derivations of Apocalypse World need work and playtesting, in order for them to be properly playable. Often they also add some own rules not originally included in Apocalypse World, like changing GMs, a Health Point system like in DnD, dice-less play, 2 player variants, …
Attempts to turn PbtA into a generic system did not work out well. The game sort of … breaks, and it still needs work, in order to actually be playable. Way more than in e.g. Fate.

Short rules explanation

How does PbtA work? What do all PbtA games have in common? … Well, some PbtA games even change the basics, but most of them.

Rolling dice

In PbtA you always roll 2 six-sided dice, and add an Attribute to them. You usually have around 6 of these Attributes, and they usually are between -2 and +2.
A result of 10 or more means, that you do what you wanted to do. A result of 6 or less means, you do not achieve, what you wanted to, however your enemy achieves, what they wanted to.
A result between 7 and 9 means, that you achieve your goal, but something bad also happens. In a fight this might mean, that your enemy also achieves their goal, so you may hurt each other, or maybe you manage to avoid trouble right now, but it is still coming, just later: "You manage to sneak to where you wanted to, but guards block the entrance now, unaware of you. You are in, but you cannot get out!"

This means: The GM (Game Master) does not roll dice. The players roll for themselves, but also for the enemies! This also means, that NPCs (Non Player Characters) do not need any stats, because the GM does not roll dice for the NPCs. The only things enemies need are hit points (usually pretty low, around 3 to 6) and some specialties that come from the "type" of enemy they are, which should be things they can "simply do", which is basically informed by the fiction. A dragon for example can "simply" fly, or "simply" breathe fire.

People who know statistics will immediately notice: The most probable result of 2 six-sided dice is a 7. This is intended: The players are supposed to achieve their goals, but they are not supposed to get it for free, and sometimes have to make "hard decisions". Hard decisions are a major thing in PbtA, more about them in a bit.



Anytime you want to roll dice in PbtA you have to do a Move. "Please roll a dice, because reasons" does not work in PbtA. Moves always have a similar structure:

WHEN [something happens in the fiction]
THEN roll (2d6)+[Attribute].
On a 10+: Yay.
On a 7-9: Not so yay.
(On a 6-/On a miss: It goes wrong.)

or an alternative result:

On a 10+: Choose 3.
On a 7-9: Choose 1.
(On a 6-/On a miss: Choose none.)
- Option 1
- Option 2
- Option 3
- Option 4

You having to roll 2d6 is often omitted, because you always roll 2d6. The result of a 6-/miss (it goes wrong) is also often omitted, because at a 6 or less, the GM gets to make one of their Moves (more about them in a bit). If a Move gives a 6- result it is usually a replacement for the GM Move. Especially the second kind of result is pretty popular, leading to more "hard decisions".

Since, you always have to do a Move, in order to roll dice, there often is a "Catch-All" move (while the game still works, if you only use this Move, you should not use this Move for everything, really), like this one from Apocalypse World:

Act under fire
When you do something under fire, or dig in to endure fire
Then roll +Cool
On a 10+: You do it.
On a 7-9: You flinch, hesitate or stall and the GM can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice.

Something "happening in the fiction" means, that it has to happen in the fiction, by the way. If you want to attack someone, and the Move says: "When you attack an enemy in melee", but the move is called "Hack and Slash", you cannot just say "I want to Hack and Slash them", but have to actually (briefly) describe how you attack your enemy in melee.
If you want to do the Move "Read a person", which says "When you read a person in a charged situation" you cannot just say "I want to read them", but again have to briefly describe what your character is doing.

Apocalypse World calls this "To do it, do it". To do a Move, you have to do what it tells you to do. This also applies in reverse though. If you closely analyse someone's behaviour in a charged situation you cannot say: "Naaah, I just want to see how they react", and dodge having to roll dice, or even get free information.
Not like this; to quote Apocalypse World "If you do it, you do it" – which obviously does not mean, that you as the GM should force players to roll dice, but rather ask: "Oh, you want to read him, cool. Roll your dice!", where a valid answer could be: "Nah, I just tell them what I said, see if they lose it, and if they don't I'll just leave them be".

Fiction and rules, but also rules and fiction being so tightly interwoven influences play strongly, and makes the game very narrative.


Playbooks are the "Classes" in PbtA. They decide what you are especially good at, and most importantly decide what special Moves you get, and/or from which special Moves you get to choose, when you level up. These special Moves are your … well, special moves!

They can be things like:

An arresting skinner
When you remove a piece of clothing, your own or someone else's, no one who can see you can do anything but watch. You command their absolute attention. If you choose, you can exempt individual people, by name.

With this move for example, this is just fact without you even having to roll dice, while as someone without that move you might have to threaten an enemy with a gun, in order to get their "absolute attention", which of course brings its own risks.

Or another special Move:

Cast A Spell
When you release a spell you've prepared, roll +INT.
* On a 10+ the the spell is successfully cast.
* On a 7-9 the spell is cast, but choose one: …

This special Move gives you the ability to cast magic, while without this move you would have to jump through several hoops in order to even cast a single spell.

The GM game

Not just the players play their game in PbtA, but the GM also has some guidelines of what they "should do" (which basically is just some good advice on how to be a good GM).
I talked about GM Moves before, briefly: Every time a player rolls a 6 or less, the GM gets to make one of their Moves. The GM also gets to make a Move, when the fiction demands it. The GM Moves are very different from the player Moves. Some examples:

  • Show signs of an approaching threat
  • Separate them
  • Make their lives complicated now
  • Deal damage
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without cost

You immediately notice, that some of these GM Moves are worse than others. This is intended. The "nicer" moves are called soft moves, while the "worse" moves are called hard moves. The GM should do what fits the fiction most. If somebody rolls a 5 to investigate a derelict camp-site, it is not very fitting for them to take damage, while an approaching threat is very fitting.
If someone rolls a 6 to read a kidnapper taking damage is pretty fitting though:

Before you know it he aims at you and shoots you in the arm!

While separating the party might work, but if you do this more often the players are going to think, that the GM does not have teeth to bite, and their characters cannot be hurt, which breaks the fiction, in the end.

The GM having complete choice of what exactly happens on a 6- (instead of taking damage while fighting a Troll, the GM might say: "The Troll takes your puny sword and throws it far away") means that death, unless it actually fits the story well, is out of the question in PbtA – it also means that the GM does not have to cheat fudge dice in order to keep the story narrative, aside from them not even being able to fudge dice, because they do not even roll dice.
GM Moves also prevent the GM from saying "You rolled bad? Yeah, well, nothing happens shrugs", which I hate.
Todays dosage of DnD bashing: Check - Just kidding, play whatever you want, but please do not ask for dice rolls if they do not mean anything, both on success and failure.

The GM having to do Moves, which flow from the fiction is written down in the GM Agenda and/or Principles. This includes phrases like:

  • Be a fan of the players' characters.
  • Play to find out what happens.
  • Name everyone, make everyone human.
  • Make your move, but never speak its name.
  • Look through crosshairs. (i.e. do not hold on to NPCs)
  • Say what honesty demands.

Which are again, just advice on how to run a good game as a GM, specifically fitted for PbtA though.
One of these points is, in my opinion, the core principle of PbtA: "Play to find out what happens", or in short "Play to find out". The players decide where the story goes, not the GM. Planning ahead too much, like you might do in DnD will go horribly wrong in PbtA. Railroading (dragging your players through the story you as the GM planned) is bad in of itself, but breaks PbtA entirely.

Sometimes in the Agenda, sometimes in the Moves, there is another bit of important advice: "End every Move with: 'What do you do?'" – this puts pressure on the players. They have to act right now, otherwise something bad is going to happen!

Noteworthy other stuff

There is barely any equipment in PbtA. If there is, it is rather abstract, described by one to three word Tags. There is no Gear Porn in PbtA like you would find in Shadowrun for example.
If characters level up, the only thing they get are a small attribute bonus and/or new special Moves. This makes character creation very straight forward, and allows for a Level 2 and a Level 10 character to be able to work well together, without the Level 2 character having to be afraid to be one-hit by any enemy.

3 Questions

A way to "objectively" (used very carefully) classify a TTRPG system are the three questions asked by Sorensen and Crane:

  • What is your game about?
  • How does your game do this?
  • How does your game encourage/reward this?

Time to dive into game-mechanisms, hold on to your butts!

What is your game about?

This explicitly does not mean the setting, but instead the abstract idea conveyed by the rules.
I briefly talked about this in my The Sprawl Review before, where I wrote about what I expect from a PbtA game (and how The Sprawl failed my expectations):

  • The story is about the characters
  • The characters are (pro)actively in the story involved
  • All characters are present in the story
  • There is one (or more) common problem(s) the players have to actively deal with themselves or else they will be in trouble
  • The story illuminates the inner conflict of the characters

I will add one more point to this: "The characters have to make hard decisions".
Not all of these points are relevant rules-wise, though, or can be summarized. Story is irrelevant for the rules, thus points 1 and 3 can be thrown out:

  • The characters are (pro)actively in the story involved
  • There is one (or more) common problem(s) the players have to actively deal with themselves or else they will be in trouble
  • The story illuminates the inner conflict of the characters
  • The characters have to make hard decisions

With a bit of hard thinking we can summarize these into one sentence:

The characters work on actively solving problems. In order to do this, they have to make internal and external hard decisions.


How does your game do this?

Let us look at each sentence independently:
Firstly, how PbtA makes the characters work on actively solving problems:

This happens both short- and long-term:

Short-term problems appear, when the players botch a roll or roll a 7 to 9. The players then having to deal with these problems on their own (actively), is reinforced by the GM (being told so by the their Agenda) asking after every GM Move: "What do you do?" in order to prevent the GM from solving the problems theirself.
Long-term problems come from GM Moves like "Show an approaching threat", again with the follow-up question "What do you do?". The GM's Agenda asks the players to actively solve these long-term problems. Beginning with "Play to find out", so that the GM does not plan to much ahead, continuing with another Agenda point "Make the characters lifes interesting" – interesting of course means problems the players have to solve.
In Apocalypse World specifically (even though many other PbtA games have something similar) there is something called Threat-Maps, recording where some problems are right now. These problems are not urgent right now, but will become urgent, if not attended to. When starting an Apocalypse World game the GM should already have such a Threat-Map, filled with some problems. Thus, right from the beginning, there are several long-term problems the players should deal with.
And again: "What do you do?" – It is pretty much implied, that the GM should basically always ask "What do you do?" very much fortifying that the players have to solve the problems.

Secondly: Why do the players have to make internal and external hard decisions:
For one, this is because of the story itself, influenced by Threat-Maps e.g., but most importantly the hard decisions come because of the dice. The most probable result on 2d6 is a 7, and your modifiers are usually between +0 and +2, thus the most probable dice roll is a 7 to 9, i.e. a success with a drawback. Success with a drawback means a hard decision, either because the GM gives the player a hard decision to make (for example with the Catch-All Move Act under fire), or the player has to choose from a list where he ideally wants all things from, but can only choose some:

Me sneaking around can leave no traces … or I arrive at my target without further complications … or I know a perfect exit … But I can only have one D:

These hard decision are of course external: If the guards catch the thieving protagonist they are going to be in trouble; but also internal: Is the risk too high for the character and do they prefer to have a perfect exit, or is the mission more important for them, and do they want to get to their target now?

How does your game encourage/reward this?

Actively solving problems is not really being rewarded, but a necessity to play the game; same thing with making hard decisions. PbtA is a pretty unforgiving game, actually. There are XP, but you get them by rolling on certain attributes, or failing rolls, so that is not much of a reward … other than a reward for actually playing …

The inner conflicts of the characters, about how to solve problems, and which hard decisions they make, make a very interesting story however, where no one initially knows where it will lead to. Neither the GM, nor the players.
You are often going to be surprised what happened, and at the end of a PbtA game you can say, that you have told an interesting story about Underdogs.
Not even in a general "You never know what is going to happen" way, like in DnD where there might be a Dungeon, with 4 ways to the final boss, and the players take 2 ways for a bit, then take the 4th way, and kill the boss using his weakness the GM knew about, but something completely unexpected by both the players and the GM.
This story, and the way it is very player driven, is the actual "reward".

The players are also encouraged to jump into chaos, and to pursue their goals. You do not die easily in PbtA, the dice are hard, but fair. Players will eventually reach their goals, and are thus encouraged to pursue them.

For whom is PbtA great, for whom is it not?

PbtA is great for people whose focus lies in the players exploring and creating the world themselves. If you want to make hard decisions in your characters mind-set you will have a great time playing PbtA.
If you do not have fun with hard RP choices you should not play PbtA, though. There are also no miniatures to move around, there is absolutely no simulationist element, or any mathematical-symbiotic effects to be had in PbtA. It is not a system for tactical fights and rational problem-solving.

What kinds of PbtA systems are there?

On this website there is a huge list of PbtA games, including things like High Fantasy (Dungeon World or Fellowship), Post Apocalypse (Apocalypse World), Cyberpunk (The Sprawl or The Veil), Superheroes (Masks: A new generation), Mythical Detective Noir (City of Mist), Cthulhu Shenanigans (KULT: Divinity Lost or Tremulus), or Space Explorers (Uncharted Worlds), and even a parody where you play game developers, developing a PbtA game inception sounds.
I am very certain that there is a system for you and your group.

Now you know what PbtA is, what its roots are, and why it works the way it does. If PbtA sounds like something you could have fun playing: Definitely try it out!