PbtA games and player cleverness

I’m not here to edition war, so I’ll bow out.

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I wasn’t really suggesting that World of Dungeons full-failure was as common as it was in OSR games, I just thought there was concern about the “partial success” generating “unwanted complications” but I felt that “failure” is also an “unwanted complication” so that Partial Success+Failure roughly equaling the “fail” rate in a more traditional game would provide more or less parity.

Perhaps! My guess is that it would make actual failure far too rare for the purposes of such a game. Do that, and rolling becomes very much wanted, since it’s almost guaranteed to give you what you want. (Achieving the “parity” you’re suggesting puts us around +2/+3 in PbtA terms, all the time.)

In comparison, in most OSR games, your odds of success tend to be in the 50% (D&D5e) to 16% (old-school D&D) range.


Wait, I’m more confused. Why would you assume a +2/+3? I was operating on the theory that the roughly 16% chance of an unmodified roll was about on par for where we’d want to be? Since it gives roughly the same chance of “honest to goodness clean success” as oldschool D&D?

And on a related note, apparently Freebooters of the Frontier is… pretty much the game we are talking about and saying doesn’t exist.


You could try modifying Vagabonds of Dyfed to outer space. This is both OSR and PbtA. Or, perhaps Uncharted Worlds?

Airk, sorry, I misread you a little in that post. Still, I think my point stands: if we try to match the failure rate to a typical OSR-type resolution, it means that successes are practically never going to happen, which is unsatisfying. If we try to match the full success rate, on the other hand, then failures pretty much never happen, and now we might as well go to the dice to solve all our problems.

In either case, I think, we don’t get the most desirable results from our system. The primacy of the partial success in PbtA design, I think, generally doesn’t suit “let’s reward the players’ cleverness” all that well, unless you really want the dice to come into play only when it’s really bad for the player (and then designing moves becomes rather tricky).

I don’t think any of this is impossible at all, and I believe I’ve been saying that all along! However, it is difficult. There are features that we associated with PbtA design which work against trying to do this… but that doesn’t have to stop anyone.

I haven’t played Freebooters, but I would imagine it has to contend with these issues just the same. Here’s what the author has to say on the topic (they happened to comment on this just a few hours ago, I think):

You might say it’s in the same ballpark, sure, but it’s a different beast. It’s hard to do PbtA which doesn’t focus on character competency. Not impossible! Just not what the games tend to do.


I think something that regularly gets overlooked when talking about pbta games and osr games is that they are in a very general way two different sets of tools for doing two different things. The PbtA framework is generally deployed when trying to emulate/interrogate genre. (I talked about this a fair chunk in Some thoughts on genre fluency and AW-descended games). In general OSR games are trying to let players experience in their minds what it might be like to delve through dungeons, play factions against one another, explore the wilderness, etc. The tools the systems provide tend to lean in the direction being focused on.

Something else I think seems to be forgotten is that generally the intentions of the players as players are different. Generally with PbtA games players are engaging with the mechanics of play in order to tell a story - one they want their character’s actions (for good or ill) to alter. Generally there is either an intentional “I am doing this with my character because I want the story to change” and assuming the mechanics are sound they will use the mechanics to somehow change the fiction while emulating/interrogating genre conventions. Similarly they could just be playing their character in a way that they feel follows the genre conventions - and will trigger the mechanics as they go. A story of a specific genre, following certain conventions, is the game’s goal.

On the other hand in general OSR games tend to be more focused on interacting with the reality the characters are experiencing in a goal-oriented manner. This isn’t to say an interesting story will not come out of it (in the rear view mirror as it were) - but it is the situation at the moment that is the general focus and the desire to “do it right” (least damage to characters, most treasure acquired, least resources expended).

Most OSR games are played within a genre, but the guidelines of the genre are really up to the GM and the players at the table. They are the ones who are going to enforce any genre guardrails. On the other hand, in general, PbtA games enforce the genre guardrails via mechanics. In that if the game is designed properly, the mechanics will only be useful to you when you are are doing things that are genre appropriate. If you want to do other things - then that is between you and the other players. The system isn’t going to support or hinder you.

That may all be a long way of saying: in general with PbtA games the system mechanics are there to tell you what your characters should be doing to tell a story within the specific genre. Doing anything else is left as an exercise to the reader. (Create your own custom moves, etc.) OSR games seem to say: the people participating in the game will determine the outlines of the story they are going to tell and outside of some places where the designer has decided to say explicitly “deciding about how things are adjudicated in these specific circumstances use these specific rules” they will figure things out themselves. And that I think is why you see basically everyone using homebrew rules of one sort or another in the OSR - they have found other things their tables find important and clarified how to decide about those things.

This I think is a major reason you tend to see people pushing to play PbtA games rules-as-written (RAW). The game was designed to do a very specific thing and if you’re going to play it you are buying into doing that specific thing. With OSR stuff in many ways if you go a goodly amount of time without having to roll dice (which usually is how the mechanics are engaged) and along the way have made some progress on your goals - you are probably “doing it right.” (Or at the very least you don’t have a nagging feeling you might be doing something wrong.) As opposed to PbtA where there will be a general feeling of uncertainty about “doing it right” if you go a long stretch and none of the mechanics have been engaged.


Sorry to barge in I was lurking your interesting debate after seeing it linked from the Freebooter thread, since a similar topic emerged there.

This is probably a major misunderstanding about PbtA. Yes formally what you write is correct: the MC adjudicates stuff until the players do something that invokes mechanics, but invoking mechanics is so frequent that basically all the game is a series of very short loops where someone constantly invoke mechanics, being the players aware of that or not (hide your moves etc). In particular the common MC moves activation procedure from AW:

Whenever there’s a pause in the conversation and everyone looks to
you to say something, choose one of these things and say it.

This is often interpreted as an advice, but it isn’t. It’s a foundational rule and enforces the MC to make something happen. It doesn’t have to be a complication, it can also be an opportunity. But something will change on the current situation.
I say it’s a foundational rule because it drives the story-forward cogwheel, and it’s there to explicitly avoid stall and long-winded PC discussions about what to do next, sometimes known as “workshopping”. To be noted that this rule activates in a (maybe) less-known case whenever a player simply talks to an NPC, which is at least frequent.

So if you accept that rule the game will be almost never mechanics-free. This is a major difference with OSR from my perspective.


Yeah, we have to remember that the conversation in PbtA games is always underpinned by mechanics. Nearly everything MC says is an MC move. Conversation is governed by rules, always.


I would say something similar about classic game mechanics. They are just different mechanics - the ones I keep mentioning: timekeeping, supply, random encounters. It’s notable that none are player directed. A player can’t call for a random encounter to resolve an obstacle, but loitering too long or trying too many schemes will result in supply depletion or a random encounter.

It’s a risk (encounter/supply loss) v. reward (positive resolution of obstacle) mechanic which I think is different from the one described for PbtA?

In modern traditional systems it is somewhat different, because the game has handed scads of mechanical tools back to the players in the form of skills. This of course is widely disliked in classic play and OSR circles - “playing the sheet” “roll playing” and such. I think that some of the sense of similarity between PbtA and classic play, as well as the distinctions, can be found here.


The way I see it both the OSR and the indie/story game communities were a reaction to the bloat and such of the late 90’s and early 00’s (now called) trad games. The OSR said “screw this, we’re going back to the original game and starting over from there!” The indie/story game peeps said “screw this, we’re doing our own thing entirely!” They both used existing “chassis” though: the OSR used the practical “chassis” of OD&D and the indie/story crew used a theoretical chassis based on looking at structures of games they had played and the structures of narrative.


Do you have a cite for the assertion that the GM is supposed to break up “workshopping”? Because not only does that term not appear in either AW or AW 2nd edition, but in my opinion, if the players are engaged and talking to each other, this is not a case of “Whenever there’s a pause in the conversation and everyone looks to you to say something.” and you should not be making any kind of GM move at that time. Nor should you be making a move when someone asks you a specific question about the environment. If they can reasonably perceive it, it’s your responsibility to "Always say what honesty demands.’

Also, I’m going to be honest – while the GM moves are “rules” I’ve never noticed that anything a GM normally does falls outside of them. So all the game is really doing here is saying “If the PCs are floundering around and don’t seem to know what to do, you should do something.” Sure, at this point, you are technically “invoking mechanics” but functionally, you’re not doing anything different.

It is not my experience that PbtA games involve the GM interrupting players planning, nor is it my experience that they necessarily invoke the mechanics frequently. You can have quite a conversation without running into rules stuff.


Absolutely. Though I’d like to think they were their own things as well, different playstyles evolved with different intent and focus.

One of the things that attracted me to the “fantastical” as opposed to “nostalgia” side of the old OSR scene was that it was innovating, making efforts to retain/recover a mechanical simplicity that was already being overwhelmed by the time Gygax’s DMG came out. I tend to think that simulationist complexity drives narrative simplicity, if only because no GM or player has infinite time.

The ‘adventure path’ is already forming as a playstyle in 1979 with the non-TSR publication of Rahasia and is certainly becoming ascendent along with the Hickmans more generally in the mid 80’s. It may have been partially out of a desire to promote more wholesome adventures through TSR’s narrative control, but I think there’s an earnest desire for more cinematic/novelistic narrative structure as well for many players.

The Story and Classic gaming responses to the dominance of adventure path design and its loss of player choice is I suspect two sides of the response to that with different goals. A) Build a game that has mechanical tool for novelistic narrative creation via player input B) Return play to a state where narrative is unformed/organic and overridden by player choice.

There’s even the tactics and character building heavy systems response … shifting the locus of play and arena for player choice to tactical combat.


That’s a good point, Airk.

I think there are different ways to interpret the GM’s role in these games as well as different to interpret what “making an MC move” means.

Most people I’ve seen interpret the PbtA structure as one where the MC has a strong responsibility to drive play forward, frame scenes, introduce threats (and Fronts and Love Letters), “make the world dangerous”, “keep their lives interesting”, “be a fan of the PCs”, and “respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards”. The directive to respond to moments of quiet or indecision with new threats and developments is another example of this perspective.

In comparison, OSR-style gaming usually means that the GM is trying hard to be an impartial referee, and therefore avoid any Principles like the ones I’m quoting. The GM in this style of play is quite passive, allowing the mechanics and the players to pace the session and decide what’s happening.

Those two approaches enable “player cleverness” in very different ways.

Now, I can see an interpretation of all this which reads things like “make their lives interesting” and “be a fan” in a very strict sense of “when that works”, given the circumstances of play.

And I can see an interpretation where “make an MC move” will generally be asking questions and telling the consequences and asking. (In other words, “yes, I suppose you could do that, but be careful because you’ll probably need to buy more mules,” as opposed to “ninjas jump through the window!”)

I think it’s possible but it’s not how most people approach these games. If you did that, you’d certainly move closer to these game design styles being heavily overlapping.

When I think of moments of “player cleverness” in PbtA games, they’re often about clever ways to apply the mechanics to create interesting situations. (I once responded to a bunch of people trying to frame my character as a fake “Messiah” by taking the “healing touch” move on the spot and bringing someone back from the dead, for example.) In the kind of player cleverness play I think the OP is talking about, it would be operating with a different focus, and it’s usually not related to the rules or mechanics (in fact, it’s desirable to remove as many of those mechanics as possible so as to enable that player cleverness).

I think it would be a very interesting exercise to try to design a PbtA game explicitly aimed at enabling player cleverness challenge. Whereas in most PbtA games, the moves describe what characters do in that genre, in this design you might need to rewrite moves as things you try to avoid doing. That could be a really cool game, actually - your moves might be things like “when you’re caught out in the open without any supplies,” for example. But it would definitely look and feel quite different from most mainstream PbtA design, I think!


Until I saw this example, I never thought a PbtA and OSR hybrid approach really made sense. One or the other was great by me. This is a damn clever idea for a game though!



Actually, one good way to move ahead with this discussion is to sort of “put your money where your mouth is”.

Let’s consider a typical “player cleverness” scenario. There are a few that come up often in that kind of game.

For instance:

  • Finding and disarming a trap in a dungeon.

  • Interrogating a prisoner about an important secret.

Take a shot at either of those: how would you design a PbtA framework to handle those two situations? What would it look like and where would the “moves” happen?

I think doing that exercise will be more revealing and explicatory than pages of discussion. :slight_smile:


If you’re asking for actual answers I’d recommend a new topic in #game-design. :wink:


No, sorry for using an unclear word. Workshopping is just a term I use, I can’t remember if it comes from an old Italian rpg newsgroup or The Forge or other places.
The worst form of workshopping is if the players are regularly stuck in discussions about what to do next, both in and out of character and as a group regardless if they are currently toghether in a scene or not. That’s red flag to me because it means I didn’t work out my triangles well since I don’t have any NPC to invoke an MC move. It’s also a red flag for the players because it means that they are just consulting each other for every action to take as characters, and using the characters as a single “tool” to defy threats.

I get that interpretation from the AW chapter about Threats Moves:

Otherwise, make moves for your threats exactly like you make your
regular moves:
When it’s time for you to talk, choose a move (a regular move or a threat
move, it makes no difference) and make it happen.

So every time you talk (which in my opinion shouldn’t be always) you can make a move. And you can always say what honesty demands and making MC moves.
One more explanation I give for it is that players should (ideally) always be careful to what other PCs do, say or want to know, being them on the same scene or not. So if a player asks “how tall are the first branches in this pine forest? Is it easy for me to climb on one of them?” the others should be listening and looking at me too. And I can take that as a trigger to make a move “yes the branches are short enough to climb upon for you, but when you look at them closely you see that strange insects are rabidly running through the bark crevices and making tiny holes in it”.

To sum it up, there’s no rule about interrupting PCs talking to each other in AW, but if that happens too often in my experience it’s always a sign of bad playing practices and players milking it.

Well yes, you’re probably right! My broblem with that especially the first times I was MCing AW and DW is that I did not use MC moves enough, I let players wander and talk to alot of NPCs without doing nothing about it, just because I was excited about the “improv stuff” in the game. And that watered down and made drag my games alot. MC moves in that sense helps you giving a bit more structure to the inherent freeform threats management of PbtAs. Granted, it really depends on the kind of players you have. More proactive players can help you giving impulse to the game in any way, but that’s not about good MCing.


At a first look that sounds utterly cool! And then nobody stops you from combining “negative” and classic “positive” moves…
But wait… :thinking: how are those different from ES harm moves in AW? I report it here for convenience:

When you suffer harm, roll+harm suffered (after armor, if you’re
wearing any). On a 10+, the MC can choose 1:
• You’re out of action: unconscious, trapped, incoherent or panicked.
• It’s worse than it seemed. Take an additional 1-harm.
• Choose 2 from the 7–9 list below.
On a 7–9, the MC can choose 1:
• You lose your footing.
• You lose your grip on whatever you’re holding.
• You lose track of someone or something you’re attending to.
• You miss noticing something important.
On a miss, the MC can nevertheless choose something from the 7–9
list above. If she does, though, it’s instead of some of the harm you’re
suffering, so you take -1harm.

And also, having a bunch of stuff to avoid can be tactical to an extent but it doesn’t leave the space to find infinetely creative solutions to your problem… or maybe I’m missing something critical in your proposal.