Atma: Snappy Fun In A Spendy Package

My buddy Jay at Diceology has been singing the praises of Atma, from Meromorph Games, for months now: card-based, PbtA-based, no-prep RPG you can play in two hours that is also, allegedly, a ton of fun. I finally picked up a copy and once again, he was right. (Sign up for Diceology if you haven’t.)

The boxes, with a banana for scale

We’re square in the middle of summer vacation scheduling hiccups here at IGRC World Headquarters and I don’t have a con to attend until September, so I dealt myself a game with two characters and GMed myself through a scenario (click here if you want to read the notes I made about the scenario I played). I don’t have direct experience with what this game is like with other human beings, but for just-me, it’s pretty dope.

How It Works

Atma is a sci-fantasy game I read somewhere described as “Shadowrun+.” I think that’s accurate! There are AIs, drones, robots, psychic powers, magic or something like it – the “atma” in the title is a magical Macguffin substance that makes such things possible. Honestly, the game is about vibes and cartoony visuals and just rolling with what you see on the cards. There’s no meaningful canon to learn beyond the card content, both words and art.

It’s also not what I would call “character driven,” at least with me playing against myself and just trying to learn how the rules work and feel. It might be more character-driven with non-solo play and some very early decisions to direct play that way. But I think the game’s strength lies in letting it be a colorful, action-filled romp. 

There are currently two “seasons” of Atma cards available. Each season includes a selection of characters and several stages, or setting packages. You choose or draw characters, choose or draw a setting, a story within that setting, and three scenes within that story. Then you play. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. 


In season 1 there are eight characters; in season 2 there are 12. You don’t have to play them sequentially and there’s no throughline between the boxes, just more variety. Each character has a little backstory on the back of the card and a go-to move or effect on the front of the card. They also each come with four move cards and three super-move cards. You’ll play with two moves and one super move, with the first move flipped up and ready to be used in the first scene. 

My starting characters and a default moves reference card

As you play through scenes, you flip up the next move while still being able to use previously unlocked moves. The super move card, at the end, also bumps one of your stats. There’s some backstory on every move card that gives you a bit more narrative context for your character, but it’s all pretty vague and hooky. It’s up to the players to decide how they know each other and why they’re working together in this story. 

Because the game is PbtA-based, everyone also has a short list of basic moves, one for each of their five stats. It’s all Dungeon World-esque, with Defy Danger (called Survive in this game) your fallback move when it feels like you should be rolling but don’t know what move to go to. Otherwise the special, asymmetrical stuff shows up on a random array of moves you unlock as the game goes on.

The System

The main PbtA innovation of the game is to move the 6- miss system into a token based economy. If you miss, rather than the GM simply narrating whatever they want, they receive tokens: one if the player just fails, or two if you let them succeed. Then they have a pool to spend on NPCs (“extras,” each of which have a “star extra” version on the back with more specific narrative and more powerful moves available to them), props (neutral objects that appear in the scene and can be leveraged by any player) and twists (sudden betrayals and such). The rules strongly suggest not holding on to more than 3 token, which I stuck to in my own playthrough.

Otherwise, it plays and feels an awful lot like any other PbtA game like Apocalypse World or, more recently, Root. Only the players roll, and they may either score a weak or a strong hit. Moves give additional benefits for strong hits. The GM makes their moves when they have tokens to spend, otherwise they narrate toward the material on the cards they’ve drawn.

At the start of the game, the GM has chosen or drawn one of the several stages available in the season box. I drew the Lua Nova Terminal, a sort of Jurassic Park island, full of escaped genetically engineered monsters, that’s been turned into a launching pad for spaceships. Just go with it, it’s all good! Monsters, spaceships, corporate backstabbing.

Starting stage and story cards I ran with

Then you draw one of several Story cards, which includes an overview of the overall thrust of the scenario as well as a goal to aim for. I drew “The Consultants,” which indicates the characters have been hired to ensure the launch of an experimental new shuttle goes off without a hitch.

Finally, you have three face-down scene cards. You flip up the first scene, read off the text, and then let the players decide which of two scene goals to pursue. The players have to accomplish their chosen goal before they can move to the next goal. The first scene I drew was called The Green Line, and the goal was to either steal secrets from the cargo car, or switch tracks to avoid an upcoming obstacle. This is where having outside players would be interesting: I could vibe with a more personal “we’re really here to steal things” angle and not just doing the job. 

Every scene, the GM gets a small budget of tokens to buy their starting stuff. In the first scene, you only get three tokens, and in later scenes you get more. And of course players missing rolls generates more tokens. So I bought a giant cricket threatening the train as an extra, and a recently hatched monster as a prop. Like I said, this isn’t character-driven stuff here! But it’s everything you need to start up an action scene.

The spread of everything I used in our final scene; the scene cards are above

Once they’ve gotten through all three scenes, they’ve accomplished the story goal and the game is over. When I played by myself, it took just under three hours. And I was writing and editing as I went. The game advertises two hours and I believe them.

How It Plays

I think being a very experienced PbtA GM with strong improvisational chops helped lubricate my experience with the game. Every card has a nice array of hooks to grab onto: NPC names, situations, strongly or lightly implied little crises and conflicts. As you flip more cards, that context builds and builds. But I could see an inexperienced player would struggle to connect the dots in a confident way. I could also see players who aren’t vibing with an insecure GM not hooking into play. The play was terrific fun but I’m not sure Atma really plays itself

There’s also a lot of room and need for GMs to make calls, like always, about how and when to apply moves. For example, in my game (seriously, read it, it’s fun!) I had situations in which the characters were hacking computer systems with the help of their AI assistants. In a few cases, I (as GM) had to call that Coerce, a basic move, purely as a personal call. Totally normal play. But when I say Atma doesn’t “play itself,” this is part of what I mean. If you bring strong PbtA chops to the table, it works just fine.

What’s In The Box

I bought both boxes, totaling $90 via a sale that may still be going on. You get a lot of cards, and they’re all nicely illustrated and inspirational. You also get a pair of dice, a little baggie of tokens, and separators for the characters, stages, promos (I got several promo cards and don’t know how to use them) and something called “journeys.” Journeys aren’t a thing, yet, in Atma! 

Each box costs as much as an expensive, glossy RPG. Is it worth it? If you like one-shotting games, or have an ongoing need for such a thing in an attractive package, absolutely. This is going in my con bag for every event going forward. 

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