Right off the bat, let’s preface this with:
- There’s no single correct way to design a game.
- There are a lot of components that go into making a design work.
That said, this twitter thread by Avery Alder got me thinking about what elements go into making a good playbook in a PbtA system. To summarize Avery’s thread:
Playbooks as Engines
PbtA is an Economy
Every PbtA system has its own internal economy that consists of the interplay of a number of resources, usually including:
- +1 forward
- taking or dealing harm
- fictional positioning
- +/- Hx
- gaining and spending hold
Some systems add new resources (conditions in Monsterhearts) or modify existing ones (Hx -> strings in Monsterhearts).
Gameplay in PbtA is the collaborative process of gaining resources and then trading those resources for the resources you want.
Each loop of
generate resource -> convert resource to a new resource -> spend resource can be referred to as an engine within the game system.
A good playbook should either layer onto an existing engine or add a new engine.
Layering onto an Existing Engine
Some playbooks should take an existing engine in the game and expand on it. An excellent example is the Ghost in Monsterhearts. It takes an existing engine (Shut Someone Down -> conditions -> +1 forward) and expands it, giving the Ghost new ways of generating conditions, as well as new ways to spend conditions for effect.
Creating a New Engine*
Other playbooks add an entirely new engine to the game. In Monsterhearts, an example of this is the Witch. They generate sympathetic tokens that they can spend to cast hexes.
Technically, this isn’t a new engine, since sympathetic tokens can be spent as strings, but it does effectively create a standalone engine that can operate separately from the game’s other engines.
Obviously, you only have to look at Monsterhearts to see that this design philosophy can be used to great effect for creating a responsive, well-balance system. On the other hand, clearly not every PbtA game (or even every good PbtA game) follow that design principle. So, I wanted to discuss what other design principles are used, or can be used, in designing PbtA playbooks. To start with, I’ll lay out what I see as the core principle of all playbooks, playbooks as thematic signaling.
Playbooks as Thematic Signaling
Picking a playbook is a three-way agreement between the player, the MC, and the system. It’s the player saying, I think this part of the game is interesting and I want to explore it in detail. It’s the MC saying, I recognize that you’re interested in this part of the game and I will help guide play in that direction. It’s the system saying, I recognize that you’re interested in this part of the game: here are the tools to explore it more effectively.
As an example, in Apocalypse World, if I choose the Hardholder playbook, I’m saying, I think that running a fortified compound is interesting and I want play to involve the complications that arise from doing that. In turn, I’m trusting the MC to say, Okay, I recognize that you’re interested in running a hardhold and I’ll make sure help center play in and around your base. And finally, the system say, you want to be a hardholder? Great, here’s your base and here are all it’s resources and problems.
A common way of transitioning players from systems like D&D to PbtA is by saying, “you pick a playbook, which is like your character class.” It’s a helpful comparison, but I think the thing that makes PbtA playbooks come alive more than D&D classes is that in D&D, picking Fighter just means that you want to be good at fighting. But in Dungeon World, picking fighter means that you want to focus play around solving problems through strength or through combat.
Anyway, what other design philosophies can be used when designing playbooks, and what are some examples of systems that use them?