Does my violence move work? (PbtA)

I’m reworking some of my basic moves for my PbtA game about cold war espionage. This is what I’m thinking for the basic fighting move:

When you use violence to harm someone who is fighting back, roll+hard. On a hit, you deal a wound to your opponent. On a 10+, choose one, on a 7-9 choose two.

  • You are hit during the fracas. Take a wound.
  • You are shaken. Take 1-stress.
  • It is loud and messy.
    On a miss, prepare for the worst.

I kind of want to make the point that violence can be a good solution to your problem if your problem is that someone is alive and you want them not to be. But I want violence to always be complicated and come at a cost.

My game doesn’t use harm in the Apocalypse World sense. A wound is basically lethal to a NPC, and a big deal for a PC. Two wounds means a PC is critically wounded and might die. Instead, stress is something that is tracked at a higher resolution.

What I’m struggling with in this way of formulating the hard choices, is how to handle weapons that are inherently loud or messy. Do those tags invalidate picking that choice from the list? Or should I just skip having those as weapon tags? But then, how should one handle genre staples as suppressed weapons?

What do you think? Or is it back to the drawing board?

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So my first thought is the Jason Bourne movies, and specifically the famous fight scene in the apartment against the assassins. This seems like a 7-9 result to me, with Bourne getting wounded and the whole thing being loud and messy. If we use that fight, and its many imitators, as our baseline for Loud and Messy, then is a unsilenced gunshot really Loud and Messy? It’s loud, sure, but its also extremely quick and tidy.

You might want to consider creating weapon classes: Silent Killers and Loud Weapons. In the first category, you’ve got your garrotes, knives, silenced pistols, and martial arts. In the second, you’ve got unsilenced guns, assault rifles and brawling. Then if a player uses an attack from the second category, they automatically throw the GM a complication to be used then or saved for later. Call it punishment for piss poor planning and being a dumb spy.

Then it can still be Loud and Messy on a partial success, it’s just going to be louder and messier than it would be with a silent weapon. The difference between “You shoot the baddie and he dies.” and “You shoot at the baddie and he dives for cover. He makes it to the door and starts to run. You chase him down the hall, firing away. After a half dozen shots you finally clip him. He stumbles into a wall, leaving a massive bloody smear in this very public hallway. You fire again and now he’s dead, but everyone in six blocks is awake.”


I’d reframe ‘loud and messy’ to an outcome the same way taking Harm or Stress would be: “You draw unwanted attention. Add one tick to the Heat Clock (or whatever mechanical bookkeeping makes sense)”

Then it can be loud, it can be messy, it can be picked up on cctv, that dude has missed a check-in, whatever, but it immediately puts the fight on a clock, which is a core part of that genre, and it gives weight to taking that third choice more than once.

Because, like, ‘loud and messy’ is pretty abstract, and once it’s already loud and messy, there’s no real disincentive to not just take that option every time.

You want the Loud and Messy choice to have the same tension-ratcheting effect as Harm or Stress, and it also lets you do stuff like “The embassy has heavy security, the Alarm Clock starts with 2 tics marked if you get in a fight here” that nudges players towards agreeing to get hurt (or y’know, trying harder than usual to avoid a fight) rather than get caught in some genre-appropriate situations.


I’d question the necessity of having violence owning its own entire move in a cold war espionage game. A move about violence means you want to see violence at the table. Maybe you do! But make sure that’s true.

Maybe you expect violence but don’t want violence to solve anything. Then your move could just be a series of ill-advised failure states of varying severity.


Yeah, this is the deeper question. I’ll give it some thought.

I do think it’s something that’s a part of the genre, even if I’m aiming more for Le Carré than Bond or Bourne. As for whether it solves anything, and at what cost, that’s the interesting thing to answer.

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Interesting point. To take an example from video games, is this for a first-person Bond like shooter or a Splinter cell like stealth game? A Bourne style story would certainly expect violence of the sort implied by the move BUT if the game is targeting proper spying, violence could be indicative of failure as a spy and put them in danger.

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I do have a Heat-currency in mind, so yeah, this might be a good way of bringing that to the forefront. Thanks!

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Maybe it’s just my own sensibilities, but I’d echo @Jmstar on this one.

One idea might be to reframe your violence move as a Shit Hits The Fan move, which might encompass random violence, but also burning down a building, dangerous high speed car chases, or other kinds of high-profile, dangerous activities that spies would ideally not have to do.

The other reason I think it’s worth distinguishing this is that missions that involve a planned assassination (poisoned umbrella, exploding cigar, faulty industrial blueprints) probably would not want to use the same move as a compromised agent fighting for their life in a bad situation.


Awesome title for the move! I agree. Perhaps only an assassins playbook has a “good” violence move.

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This is extremely fascinating. I’m also working on a Cold War espionage PbtA game—though mine has gargoyles, rusalkas, witches, etc.

Here’s the combat related moves I’ve drafted so far. We’ve got some overlap but it looks like we chose different ways to structure consequences:

When you resort to violence against a foe who can retaliate, roll +Weapon. On a hit, exchange blows, inflicting harm as appropriate. On 10+, choose two, on a 7-9 choose one:

  • You keep yourself safe from their blow.
  • You set your foe up for a doubly effective next attack.
  • You don’t end up entangled with or caught by them or their allies.
  • You take something away from them.

When you do violence against a completely unsuspecting or defenseless target, you just do it. The MC will tell you how they take the blow and what comes next.

When you take serious harm, roll +Stress. On a 6-, you’re in the clear. Say how you manage to shrug off the blow. On a 7–9, you take your licks. Choose one from below. On a 10+, it’s a doozy. Choose two from below.

  • Grit your teeth and push through. Mark a stress.
  • Something in you breaks. Mark a Condition.
  • Give ground so the opposition gets a juicy opportunity.

On a 13+, your number’s up. You’re out of the fight and you’re probably marking MIA unless there’s a really good extenuating circumstance.

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That looks really cool. I’m intrigued by your conditions, stress and MIA mechanics. :blush:

If you want to take a peek, the current bare-bones version of The Service can be found here. I’m going to be doing a pretty considerable reworking in the near future, though, so things are likely to change.


I quite like that, actually.

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A Sandbaggers game sounds like a really great idea, but of course the most used move would be “When you shout loudly at another functionary in an office”.

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When you snap at your secretary, roll+insufferable. On a 10+, choose two, on a 7–9 choose one.
You get +1 coffee
You get +1 intel
They don’t hate your guts


If the focus is on infiltration and stealth kills put in it something about how hard it’ll be to conceal the whole thing afterwards:

When you strike the unsuspecting, roll+whatever. On a hit they’re down. On a 10+ choose 2, on a 7-9 choose 1:

  • You don’t immediately attract the attention of others
  • There’s no blood or broken bits around (but you might still want to conceal the body)
  • They won’t get up before the mission’s over

I’m trying to nudge the game into more of a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-space at the moment, but something like this would be perfect for a Splinter Cell or Hitman type game.


Makes sense.

The point is that violence rarely has no point, the exception being you wanting to represent an element of brutal, random, unmotivated violence in your game.

In a game that has themes of survival, exploration and good vs evil like DW common reasons for violence are:

  • You stand in the way of X, therefore I kill you.
  • You mean to do evil to me, my community or the world at large, therefore I kill you.

Ask yourself what do you want your characters to gain (or to lose!) from using violence and model that.

I don’t think you need to concern yourself with HPs at all, especially if combat is not one of the main ingredients in your game. You could even rule out “violence” rolls entirely.
For example if you’re willing to say that for your characters using violence was never part of the plan then only have the statement “you kill them” appear as one of the options in ugly choices. If the player takes the violence option they still have to deal with the fact that a person died and someone else might want to investigate who did it, how and why.


Yeah, I agree definitely. And I like your point about doing violence being an ugly choice in and of itself.

I find that even in the gritty, non-heroic spy stories I’m looking to emulate, violence usually exists as a failure state in desperate situations or as a necessary evil that is invoked to illustrate the kind of ends-justify-the-means morality that is endemic to espionage.

Usually, though, it creates more problems than it solves, and it’s always ugly.


I like the idea of violence being a consequence rather than an action in a spy setting. I’m thinking of the Bourne series; violence happens when they track him down, corner him, or when stealth and subterfuge can’t get what he wants.

It may be that violence doesn’t need a roll at all. Violence isn’t the action, violence is the result. As the protagonist in this fiction, you either come out battered but alive, or you’ve suffered too many fight scenes and you’re taken out of action.


Violence is a means to an end. Enemies are obstacles between you and your goal. What are you actually trying to do? That’s why AW first edition didn’t have any generic ‘I shoot them’ moves. It only had Seize By Force and Go Aggro. The closest it had to straight up combat attacks was either ‘Go Aggro’ where what you wanted form them was to die, or SbF where what you wanted to take was their life.

Second Edition muddied this up by adding a direct toe-to toe Single Combat move that is clearly, distinctly worse of its purpose than either of the above. IMHO it should be renamed ‘When you are caught at a disadvantage in a deadly situation with no clear way out’.

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