Things to spend holds on in combat (pbta)

I am working on a light sci-fi pbta game. I’ve notice that when players use the combat move (Blast 'em!) they sometimes struggle to figure out what to spend an extra hold on. Here is the move as it currently stands:

Blast ‘em!: When you try to use violence to solve a problem, roll +Swashbuckling.

10+ Inflict one damage and pick two. 7-9 - Inflict one damage and pick one.

  • Avoid return fire (Costs 2)
  • Do extra damage (Costs 2)
  • Damage something critical
  • Be extremely precise
  • Give an advantage to a teammate. They gain one plot armor.

Extra damage and avoiding return fire have to cost 2 holds because of how my health system works.

I am looking for more interesting options to add to the list. I will probably add this as a one-hold option:

  • Temporarily pin an enemy in place

I am looking for other suggestions. The tone is sci-fi serial TV.


Copying some options I’ve seen around in various PbtA games, off the top of my head:

  • Kind of like pinning them down, flushing them out of cover? Or generally “force them to reposition?” “Control their position,” etc.
  • Impress, dismay, frighten an enemy
  • Take something valuable from them (an item, the high ground, an opportunity, etc.)
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There’s no try in pbta, if you do it, do it. And when you do it, roll the dice.

That said, as written the move is hard to parse, and there’s some basic info missing:

If one of your options is ‘avoid return fire’, then the fact that you’re exchanging fire should be clear from the Move.

It’s also unclear exactly what ‘solve a problem’ means. Like, is this explicitly a combat Move, or is it ANY time you use violence to solve a problem? Like, if you’re robbing the Galactic Exchange, and the Venusian Manager refuses to scan his retina for you, pistol-whipping his assistant is Using Violence to solve a problem, but none of those picks apply, and there doesn’t seem to be any risk of return fire, right?

It’s also extremely unusual to see a pick-list where some options cost more than others. If I were you, I’d say “on a Hit pick 1:” then list the 1-cost options and say “On a 10+ pick 2 OR ONE of the following” that’ll make it much clearer.

Mostly, I feel like you need to be super-clear about exactly what this Move is meant to do. If it’s an all-purpose ‘use violence to fuck someone up’ Move, then boil it down to that. If you want separate Moves for gunplay and swordplay, you can make pick-lists that make sense in those circumstances.


Wow, great point about the move trigger Jim! Such a basic thing and it never occurred to me. I will think more about how to word it.

Brock - thanks for those suggestions, they are helpful.

Yes, I think you’re struggling because you’re trying to cram too much into a single poorly-defined move.

Improve the clarity of your design and the answers will become obvious!

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Yeah, I think the way it’s worded makes it far too broad. It really is only intended to trigger when you’re trying to harm another. I will think more about the trigger.

How does this sound as a trigger?

When you fire a weapon, throw a punch, or otherwise act to physically harm another, roll +Swashbuckling.

Hard to say without more context, but generally in PbtA moves are used to direct players toward particular narrative goals. For your move, the goal is “…to physically harm another.” So I would probably just make sure that is what your players are trying to accomplish when they use the move, and think about if you need to rephrase or split the move.

An example from another PbtA sci-fi game, The Sprawl, is Mix It Up:

When you use violence against an armed force to seize control of an objective…

Which focuses combat around controlling objectives.

To reference my own sci-fi PbtA game, The Fleet (which admittedly focuses on space combat and so is a little different), I’ve got 3 different combat moves:


When you defend something by force…

Tactical Strike

When you make a powerful attack against a vulnerable target…


When you trade fire with a hostile force…

Skirmish is obviously a move that isn’t really concerned with objectives other than “fight the thing,” and, coincidentally, is the move that I’m probably closest to removing from the game because it doesn’t actually come up very often.

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Indeed. It’s good to create room for theme and colour in your choice of moves.

I saw a game in development that had two combat moves, for example:

“Fight fair and honourably”, and “fight to win, no matter what”. That ties nicely to interesting consequences and makes a bold statement about what matters in this game.