PbtA: Branding and Expectations

Okay so right up front let me set forth a few ground rules:

* This thread is not for criticism.
* This thread is not for publishers.
* This thread is not for designers.
* This thread is for consumers of games, so if you happen to be a publisher and/or designer who also consumes games, please jump in but be mindful of my first bullet. Take off your creator hat!

As a consumer of indie RPGs, when you see the label below, what expectations do you have of how the game will work or…feel?

I think anyone who’s played more than Apocalypse World understands that the PbtA label is pretty loose, right? It’s not as tight as seeing the Powered by Fate label, which of course has been put on a pretty wide range of interpretations. For today, let’s stay focused on PbtA. I want to talk about that looseness.

Now, I haven’t played or read all the games with this label on it, nor have I seen all the non-commercial hacks that are out there. But I’ve seen an awful lot of them, so I feel like I’ve got a good grasp of what I’m expecting.

Totally just riffing, and these things aren’t in any order at all, these are the things that come to my mind when I see the label:

* 10+, 7 – 9, 6 – dice
* Hits, mixed, and miss results
* Asymmetrical GM/player roles
* GM doesn’t roll dice
* Playbooks
* Niche protection
* Moves triggered by fictional circumstance
* Custom-built effect sets for every move
* Explicit Agenda and Principles
* Narrowly defined, sometimes idiosyncratic, moments where fortune is injected into the game.
* Common Moves
* Escalating GM moves (“soft” to “hard”)
* “The Conversation” — GM makes moves under specific but common circumstances (on a miss, golden opportunities, when the players are expecting you to — arguing that this is identical to traditional GMing is missing the point so please don’t)
* Narrative tags, sometimes with mechanics attached but mostly for fictional positioning
* Advancement in the form of new, specific Moves

I’m sure anyone who reads this blog could trivially name a game or more that directly violates any one of these, maybe even several of them. Again, not the point of this exercise. What I’m looking for is audience expectations: When you see “Powered by the Apocalypse” proudly emblazoned across a game, what’s your baseline expectation? As a followup: what element(s) would need to be absent for a game to categorically no longer be “PbtA” for you?

Feel free to add more elements that come to mind when you see the label, too!

0 thoughts on “PbtA: Branding and Expectations”

  1. /sub… Honestly, I think you covered all of mine. Except to specify that I look forward to opinionated playbooks, in the sense that they bring some baggage/built-in storyhooks/motivations, like the ones in AW.

    I think the reason I don’t play more PbtA is that most of the ones I’ve seen (other than AW) don’t really have playbooks that contain these elements (and here’s where I publicly confess the fact that I haven’t read or played Monsterhearts, which I guess DOES contain those playbook elements, from what I’ve heard.)

  2. I don’t expect escalating GM moves (honestly, “soft” to “hard” kind of doesn’t work if you really think about it)

    I also don’t expect custom effect sets for every move. A lot of them are just the same thing again and again.

    I don’t expect niche protection in the normal sense. You can play Masks and have 2-3 people all being “the super strong guy”. Since you’re not letting me say regular GMing is identical to The Conversation I won’t let you say that playbooks are identical to traditional niche protection. (smuggest possible smirk)

    I don’t expect tags, though they’re common.

    Otherwise you’re on point!

  3. I try not to have any expectations about what it means, but figure it out from the game. And I actively try not to. I don’t want any assumptions I have fucking up the game as it’s meant to be played, to the extent I can avoid that.

    (But then I’m an extremist, take-it-on-its-own-terms sort generally, be it games, shows, movies, whatever.)

  4. Robert Bohl okay so when you see that logo on a book it means literally nothing to you?

    That’s the question I’m asking. You see the Powered by the Apocalypse logo, what comes to mind? I mean if that’s your answer, cool, I’m just surprised that it carries with it no meaning at all.

  5. It tells me that it might contain any of the things you list, as well as some of the comments here, but then, like I said, I try to deny those expectations and consciously tell myself, “But who knows?” Like, why engage in that exercise before viewing the game and see what it means by its saying it’s PbtA? Better to set that aside.

  6. Of that list you provided, my main ones are:

    * 10+, 7 – 9, 6 – dice
    * Hits, mixed, and miss results
    * GM doesn’t roll dice
    * Moves triggered by fictional circumstance
    * Narrowly defined, sometimes idiosyncratic, moments where fortune is injected into the game.
    * Common Moves
    * Escalating GM moves (“soft” to “hard”)

    Thoughts on some of the others:

    * Asymmetrical GM/player roles – yes, but that’s not a defining trait for me.
    * Playbooks – Ehh… World of Dungeons and it’s spinoffs say to me this is not a must-have.
    * Niche protection – maybe? Again, I think it’s true, but not a thing I watch for or expect.

  7. As a consumer, I view PBTA games by Vincent as often fundamentally different from PBTA games by just about anyone else. When Vincent puts PBTA on Murderous Ghosts or Sundered Land or Firebrands, it seems like he’s actively trying to expand “what counts as PBTA” by subverting people’s expectations of what PBTA means (often very intentionally, I suspect). When I see it on most other games, I tend to make assumptions more like the ones you list above: that folks are going to stick pretty close to what other non-Vincent PBTA games do, and that major deviations are more likely to be unintentional reconfigurations (based on varied interpretations/experiences of how these games work) rather that super-intentional design choices to rework PBTA hallmarks. There are definitely exceptions to this and games that defy these assumptions, but that’s what my expectations are.

  8. I want to say “sex”, but I don’t mean sex. Instead, I mean a nuanced and interestedly foreign view on human intimacy and sexuality which is baked right into the particular mechanics and rules.

    That — nuanced of human connection — is more important to me than any number of dice or playbooks.

  9. My primary expectation for PBTA games is “fiction first” – i.e. moves are triggered by the fictional circumstances, like you said. For me, everything else starts from there.

  10. Oh man great topic. I suppose I would expect a majority of the things you have listed, where if you left out a few, that’s okay, but there’d be a tipping point somewhere. Like here’s a bowl with 10 ingredients and you have to use at least 6.

  11. Follow-up comment: and if you deviated from the above list, it would need to be in support of your game’s specific vision. If you left out the playbooks, it’s because X genre assumptions, etc.

  12. Matt Wilson I think in my own head, some of those ingredients are worth more points than others. And the point total has to hit, you know, 10 or something for it to accommodate my expectations.

    Which has nothing at all with it being a good game or whatever.

  13. As Matt Wilson said, there exists a large of list of things that are common in PbtA, it’s PbtA if it has some tipping point number…

    [these common attributes have been pointed out… not sure on what that tipping point would be]

    … but to get to your question of what would make me think it is NOT PbtA, even if labeled as such:
    * moves failing and no story progression, having characters being able to retry actions (or very similar actions) with no fictional change.
    * lack of thematic focus, this is most apparent when moves are not strongly themed, or when there are so many moves to try and do EVERYTHING. To me, less is more. The moves available should indicate what the story is about. If you have a move for everything… then your story is about everything… which is well not as interesting to me.

    There’s probably more… but that’s what I got right now.

  14. I’m going to echo J. Walton a bit, but it usually means 2 things to me:

    It will be playable and it won’t try to do anything new. I’ve been wrong about both these, but my assumptions will remain.

    Unless it’s written by a Baker or another designer that I consider innovative.

  15. I expect a play-to-find-out game where I can see a heritage of Apocalypse World as I read or play. I expect the game will have been designed with agenda and principles in mind and that they are likely to be explicated.

    I think I have fewer expectations than many of y’all.

  16. 1. Failing forward. If you can fai something and have nothing happening, it’s not PBTA.
    2. Moves embedded within conversation/fiction. You are not triggering the mechanic by saying so, but by describing what you are doing. Even though, more often than not, you will state you hack’n slash when you play DW, of course – but you won’t defydanger with your charisma. You’ll describe what you do and we’ll decide whether you’ll trigger a move.
    And the optionnal 3. hard and soft success.

  17. *10+, 7-9, 6- moves. With many of the moves having player facing options on the 7-9.
    *specific genre interpretation
    *rules for retiring characters
    *pacing that ends campaign after 8-10 sessions (advanced basic moves in AW eventually lead to things being wrapped up. Monsterheart’s idea of seasons is my favorite.)
    *specific procedure for the GM (when to talk / style of move)
    *specific procedure for the 1st session
    *doomsday clocks and fronts
    *fiction triggers

  18. For me, the label means the game designer used that from the bag ot typical game design ingredients you and other listed. It also means that the designer is interested in a way or another by the self-gathered pack of PbTA game, which is some kind of taste indication.

    My main expectations:
    * well defined, focused genre
    * fictional triggers for moves
    * a certain way of writing rules (agenda, principle, moves, conversation)
    * low prep for the MC, no prep for players, maybe rules for prep
    * no specific world, but world ingredients + color, in-game worldbuilding, often left to the table to figure out how to do that.
    * focus on PC and relationships
    * probably leaving out important things, not a good game for first time player
    * wonder of how relationships and xp will be ‘solved’ this time

    It doesn’t mean that I will see it as true to AW or to what I deem core to AW design.

  19. OK: Weeks later, here I am!

    When I see the specific PbtA logo, I think:
    1) 2d6 + stat = 6-/7-9/10+.
    2) Asymmetrical player/GM roles.
    3) GM role that is much more “structured improv,” ie, “improvisation structured by principles and moves.”
    4) Playbooks, ie, strong niche protection.
    5) Heavy theming that is borne out through the principles, moves, and playbooks.

    And not much more.

    For a game not to be PbtA, I think just that last point would need to be absent. I am comfortable with adjustments to the language of moves, the role of the GM, the types or presence/absence of playbooks. But if a game doesn’t have a clear theme and then support that theme by saying “This is your agenda! These are the limited options you have for system engagement. If there isn’t a specific option for what you want to do, then you aren’t engaging a mechanic, you’re just doing a thing” then it doesn’t feel PbtA for me.

    Of course changing the more upfront bits can make something feel not-PbtA, too. Blades in the Dark covers my 2-5, but has changed the dice far enough from 1 that I don’t think of it as a PbtA game, even though that’s definitely present in its DNA. In terms of Lumpley Games. I definitely get the PbtA-ness of Murderous Ghosts. I can’t remember most of the games in The Sundered Land, but I do remember A Doomed Pilgrim and… well.

    If you just showed me ADP and told me to play it, and I knew nothing about its provenance, I wouldn’t call it PbtA. But if you told me it was part of the PbtA family, then I’d waffle. Because, frankly, my rules are not very good, because they are “principles” more than features, and there are lots of ways to pursue those principles that don’t make something PbtA, which I think BitD proves as well, as does…

    Lady Blackbird. Obviously, LBB predates Apocalypse World. But I think the “community’s” reaction to both games is telling: both got hacked to all kinds of things, sometimes incredibly well, and sometimes not so much. Because they are good designs and imminently hackable, yes, but also because they do heavy theming in a rules-forward and self-reinforcing manner, which is something that a certain segment of gamer really craves. It bears comparison to the really tight freeform scenarios that have pregenerated characters and triggers and keywords and desires to incite very specific emotional responses.

    So, I guess what I’ve come around to is that when I see PbtA, what I think is that I’m going to get a game where someone felt they had a really distinct vision for a tightly-focused tabletop RPG and used the tools presented, demonstrated, and modeled by Apocalypse World and Monster Hearts to accomplish their vision.

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