PbtA games and player cleverness

I absolutely agree that most PbtA games are not a good fit for “player cleverness challenge” play. We could probably design one, if we really wanted to, but I don’t know that it would necessarily to a better job than old-school D&D.

PbtA games tend to have a very different focus, and the rules lead play in different directions.


How do you figure? I feel like PbtA and OSR games work very similarly with regard to what I think of as “player cleverness” – which is to say, that you can do a LOT of stuff without necessarily activating the rules at all if you are clever and work within the fiction, and that if you do engage the rules, the odds of it going smoothly for you are not very high.

What is it that you see about PbtA games that doesn’t fit well with “playing smart”?


Sure! Lots of things.

It’s generally a question of a) when the dice come into play within the resolution of a situation, b) what inputs the mechanic take in order to operate, c) what kind of results the moves generate, and d) the temptation to cut through the details, since the moves are so effective at moving play forward.

In most PbtA designs (in fact, probably every one I’ve ever seen), the structure of the moves is really effective at moving us forward and generating complications to our actions to make for interesting and exciting play.

In “challenge-based” play aimed at players cleverness, we want players to work hard to avoid generating complications, as the central goal of play, telling us whether we’re doing it well or not, but the moves generate them for us, creating drama and complexity. Those two things usually work against each other.

The moment of dice rolling tends to come into play at the wrong point in play, as well. (Consider any version of a disarm traps, manipulate someone, or information gathering/reading move in a typical PbtA game. They’re all about showcasing the competence of the character over the player.)

A perfect example might be rolling to Discern or Read a situation and getting to ask “what should I be on the lookout for?” There is zero player skill involved or required at any point of that process.


To follow up on Paul’s points, PbtA generally is going to have a list of maneuver to do these things in your basic and playbook moves. It’s not giving the player loose simulationist tools and leaving it to them to figure out the fun ways to use them.

Something like Inner Conflict in Hearts of Wulin – the game is telling you “this story is about people struggling with inner conflict and it can go like X, Y, or Z,” and then you maneuver to hit that move and it plays out like a genre-appropriate story. Inner Conflict isn’t a tool to use in 5-Dimensional chess to outwit challenges, you’re just supposed to use it as prescribed. Sure, there’s room to get creative and mess around between those spaces, but I think it’s a fair assessment to say that PbtA isn’t expecting “creativity” so much as a willingness to lean into genre-appropriate fiction as it guides you along the preset paths.


I feel like we are on the same page here with regard to a lot of this, which is why I am so confused. I 100% agree that PbtA moves are good at generating consequences and that in “challenge based” games you want to avoid consequences. However, I don’t see the conflict, because of how OSR games approach this stuff.

As I understand it, most OSR games, the GM just adjudicates stuff until the players do something that invokes mechanics. So far, this is exactly PbtA, and I think you’ll probably agree. Then, when the players do finally invoke some mechanics, possibly because they’ve given up trying to out-clever the situation, then the odds are that the GM is going to invoke some not-very-player-friendly ability-score-check or “Roll a d6 and it works if I roll a 6” sort of mechanic. Which absolutely does generate complications, because it probably fails.

I can see the complaint about “knowledge moves”, which are absolutely set up to avoid these sorts of things, but I view that as a problem with an extremely small subset of the game rules that isn’t even present in all versions of the framework. So it mostly comes down to “Dungeon World has some moves that trigger at the wrong time for strictly OSR-style dungeoning” which is…fair? But World of Dungeons is a thing, and it’s not hard to imagine a PbtA game that has a bit more instrumentation than that (Though honestly, if you want to really OSR-it-up, World of Dungeons does a pretty good job) while still not running afoul of any of these sorts of triggers.

I also disagree that most “manipulate someone” moves fall prey to this, since most of the ones I am familiar with require you to figure out what sort of ‘leverage’ you can use of the person first…which is goes back to ‘player cleverness’.

So I guess what I’m saying is: There’s nothing about the PbtA philosophy that is inherently incompatible with this mode of play. Maybe no one has built exactly the game this person is looking for, but I think enough games have come close enough to prove that it could be done.

Edit to address DeusExBrockina – I don’t really think the Hearts of Wulin reference bears on the question. Yes, you don’t want moves like that in a game that doesn’t care about that sort of thing, but you also don’t want moves like Inner Conflict in a game like Dungeon World. That just feels like comparing apples to oranges here.


Mm, I typed out a whole ramble but I felt like it was getting away from me, and also feeling like I’m maybe unwisely coming in on a discussion between you two that I’m not entirely successfully following along =P

So I’ll try to minimize how much I’m making a fool of myself and just say that I disagree that it’s apples to oranges. Inner Conflict is a more out there example of a move because it doesn’t have some obvious OSR or classic game counterpart in a skill roll (maybe a Will test…?). But the mentality behind it is the mentality I see behind pretty much all PbtA games and their moves-- you operate on the level of a sort of simultaneous writer/director/audience/actor, controlling not just your character but the scene and direction of the narrative. That’s true on all the moves in some way or other, not just one or another. I do think it’s fair to say that while there is room for creativity, the general experience is for the game to present clearly to you the sorts of options and outcomes you have, and ask you to write your story with those clear tools. As you say above, is it incompatible? Not really. But it’s not the experience the game is going any lengths to give you, so I could see why OP’s friend would look towards something else for that experience.

1 Like

I see where you are coming from, but I think it’s just a question of “these two games are about different things” rather than a fundamental incompatibility with the PbtA games in general, which seemed to be what the original poster’s friend was coming away with.


I think there’s a great deal of potential variability here. Having clear options at your disposal is, in my opinion, an advantage for player cleverness, because they have predictably-useful tools to work with.

Some games are built to leverage this, such as the way that you can do things to accumulate Debts on people in Urban Shadows, and then cash them in at an opportune moment (with a lot of decisions involved at all stages of this), or the various conditions that you can choose to slap on players in Monsterhearts, and the way you can use that to nudge them in a specific direction. There’s cleverness, just not necessarily the exact cleverness that people expect to see.

I think this is particularly felt in games where there’s a plethora of ways to solve a situation, whereas something like Dungeon World is pretty clear-cut.


I tend to agree with Paul here - and yes of course you can stuff mechanics of one playstyle into the ethos of another - it just rarely works as well as using the mechanics designed for that playstyle in the first place.

This isn’t bad - I’m a classic game play/dungeon crawl/faction hijinx sort of player, but there’s no way I’m going to suggest you use my favorite OD&D hack to play in a game about characters wrestling with inner turmoil where’s there’s an expectation of shared narrative control. It just isn’t meant to work that way. Likewise I’m not saying you can’t run a resource depletion/risk v. reward dungeon adventure using PbtA, but it’s going to be harder then using OD&D.

The problem is that this lesson is hard to learn. We like the systems and playstyles we like, we want to evangelize for them, and out familiarity and creativity directed towards them leads us all to think “How can I use my game to emulate that other playstyle” because we’re comfortable with the mechanics we like. My impression is that PbtA and classic games’ playstyle, ethos, goals and locus of play are generally different but some of the design principles are shared (both want to uplift player choice and use relatively simple rules to create story for example). That doesn’t mean that when someone says “I want to run B2 like Gygax did” that “Have you tried FATE” is a remotely responsive answer (and it goes the other way as well - 1981 Moldvay is not the game you want to run a story about high school age monsters dating).


Based on the existence of games like Vagabonds of Dyfed, and the top level operational methods of both games, I’m not really convinced that PbtA is as incompatible with this stuff as people keep claiming. Yes, most PbtA games aren’t designed in that direction, but there’s nothing about it that says you couldn’t.

Contrast with Fate, which inherently is more coherent than PbtA AND which doesn’t have the same sort of principles, and yeah, I wouldn’t suggest using that for a ‘clever solutions’ game.

1 Like

I agree that PbtA games might be better suited to “player cleverness” than a lot of other non-traditional games (as in your example of Fate, although that game is well-suited to players’ mechanical cleverness, which is a different thing). I also agree that, of course, it’s possible to design a PbtA game which leverages player cleverness more.

However, it’s not generally a thing that’s aimed for in PbtA design. I feel pretty comfortable saying that the field of PbtA games, as it exists right now, does not lean in that direction.

In theory, though, PbtA design is a flexible enough thing to do just about anything - sure!


What about World of Dungeons? Its minimalist design means that it has none of the move-related issues that people are taking issue with.

1 Like

World of Dungeons is so loose that it’s hard to say whether it’s even really PbtA, or to make sure we’re talking about the same thing when we talk about playing it. I think that the way it handles skills/abilities is nicely applicable to challenge-based play (it doesn’t have any abilities or skills that would work too hard against such a playstyle).

However, I think that the way partial success works is not ideal for “player cleverness” (it doesn’t reward smarter approaches, but tends to drive people to generate complications even when they might not normally think of them, and prioritizes the “mixed outcome” mathematically). It can work, but I think it’s not ideal.

The open-ended miss is also a problem for challenge-based play. Either the GM/MC needs some really strict guidelines/principles, or the stakes have to be negotiated and set before the roll, or something like that, and none of those things are “part of” World of Dungeons as written. The group that manages all that could make it work, I’m sure, though! I just don’t think it enables the playstyle very well.


I don’t really think there’s a lot of evidence for “World of Dungeons isn’t PbtA”; If games without dice rolls can be PbtA, I don’t see why it can’t be? To be sure, things can get pretty blurry on the ‘experimental fringes’ but to me, World of Dungeons doesn’t feel that experimental. That’s strictly opinion though.

I don’t entirely agree that the “partial success” is a bad thing, because in OSR play, it seems that “full fail” is about as common as Mixed success+Failure in a PbtA game, so that’s actually sortof a wash? Complications happen either way?

You’re right that the GM would have to play in a specific way to generate this experience, but I feel like that’s kinda par for the course. It is, however, not written into any games at current. Well, maybe Vagabonds of Dyfed, which I should get around to reading. But I think that’s part of the strength of the format, is that you can play it however you like and it still mostly works.


Can you expound on that? In my mind, it’s actually good for cleverness play in two ways.

  • It rewards clever play that avoids risk, because you’re most likely to get a mixed outcome if you roll the dice, so you want to avoid rolling dice
  • When complications are rolled, that creates opportunities for clever play because the entire situation is now less cut-and-dried, which gives players the ability to use those pieces of wreckage to build something out of

Sure. It’s a bit of subtle thing, not an obvious problem.

What typical three-pronged PbtA resolution does is it says: you might get what you want, or something else might happen, but the most likely thing is some kind of mixed outcome, where things will get more complicated.

Pretty much any situation can be handled this way, and we can think up ways to make it more complicated. The dice mechanics push us to do so; they practically say: “Hey, how can we make this more complicated?”

However, the player’s role in much of this type of gaming is to make plans which minimize their chances of things getting complicated.

I suppose you could enjoy that tension: hey, I’m trying to avoid complications, but the mechanics are pushing towards more complications. But, in most cases, that could be frustrating.

If you imagine a typical adventuring scenario, there are a bunch of critical points, and as we move through we want as many of them as possible to be resolved without rolling, with the remaining ones left to the dice. If what the dice do is generate more and more complications, that can be frustrating. We’re trying to resolve situations, and the dice are generally conspiring to make them unresolved. Sometimes a binary resolution is cleaner, easier, and more satisfying.

Imagine playing through a typical “dungeoneering” sequence, for instance, with most rolls resulting in 7-9-style outcomes. It would take ages just to play out a basic sequence of events, as it tends to snowball out of control.

So, in this style of play, you want to avoid rolling the dice. But that doesn’t jive well with the positive bias of the dice in PbtA play, nor does it jive well with the design of most PbtA moves, which are designed either to:

  • Give you a way to get what you want (rolling the move gives you a chance to achieve your aims, and often explicitly gives you some choice or control over the outcome) - the move is your leverage over the fiction, your way of asserting control and authority


  • Make a situation that might otherwise be simple into one that is complex and involved.

The other thing is that moves which privilege a “mixed” outcome (like a typical 2d6 PbtA move) must make room for that by making a full success significantly less likely. That’s also frustrating for the player: how do we reduce our chances of getting a complicated outcome without either avoiding the dice altogether or without making rolls so much in the player’s favour that they rarely fail at all?

We could make a PbtA game that does all this in a way that fits together, probably. But I don’t think any existing PbtA games do this well, at least not the ones I’m familiar with.


I get it - for someone with a hammer everything looks like a nail. For a lover of PbtA everything looks like PbtA.

From a quick skim Dungeon World is not a dungeon crawl game in the classic supply/resource management, risk/reward sense it’s more of a genre emulation game about the classic dungeon crawl. It appears to have no light mechanics, no exhaustion mechanic. About all it has is an encumbrance mechanic - it seems to even lack a timekeeping system that ties in to movement. It’s about as much a dungeon crawl game as 4E D&D.

World of Dungeons doesn’t even have torches or lanterns as equipment, it has no timekeeping system, no encumbrance system, nuthin.

All fun games I am sure - and of course such things could be borrowed from other games easily enough if you were in love with a unified 2D6 mechanic for everything - but their lack in the rule set shows something else, as does Dungeon World’s how to play advice (and we assume WoD - it’s pretty minimal as far as intent) - these aren’t dungeon crawl games. They aren’t meant to have puzzle solving or “player cleverness” as their locus of play - they are meant for something else.

Again, since this statement seems to have been entirely ignored in my first post on this, one could play them with hacked rules and a different ethos - but that’s not their goal.


Technically, as soon as we start talking about OSR or Dungeon Crawls we’ve left the spirit of the original post, wherein it was stated: “But he’s not into Dungeoneering, he rather like Star Trek ^^” So I wasn’t super interested in discussing OSR minutae like light and timekeeping. (For the record, I am of the opinion that there’s no such thing as a workable ‘light system’.) The OSR doesn’t have a monopoly of “player cleverness” play in any event.

I feel sortof bad for taking us down this road, but I still maintain that the core PbtA loop is pretty similar to the core OSR loop, especially with regard to “You don’t want to roll the dice unless you want complications”; I don’t think this represents me being someone with a hammer here.



I think World of Dungeons could be considered PbtA, sure, but the only feature of the game which is ‘PbtA’ is that you roll 2d6+adds and compare that to a 6-/7-9/10+ structure. It’s definitely PbtA-derived, but I don’t think it has the features that most PbtA games have, at all.

So, if you take a typical World of Dungeons roll, and arrange it so that “full fail is about as common”, you’ve got a system where full successes are almost unheard of. This means that either the adventurers are fairly incompetent or that you have to avoid rolling for anything with high stakes at all as much as possible.

It’s not competely impossible or anything, but it strains the system.

The short version:

If I’m playing a game which “values roleplay and cunning”, I want complications that come about to be due to something i didn’t think of or plan for, not because it’s baked into the dice mechanic.

1 Like


I agree with you somewhat about the “core loop”. The catch, though, is that pretty much no PbtA designs are built with “you want to avoid rolling the dice whenever possible” in mind. With the possible exception of World of Dungeons, you pretty much always have moves which are designed to give you authority, power, confidence, and impact on your surroundings.

Sure, we could make a PbtA where rolling the dice is something you want to avoid, but then we have to change the intent of “to do it, do it” a little, so that trying to avoid rolling is something that’s functional and beneficial. I haven’t really seen many games do that.