What makes a good move?

When building a PbtA game, what is a good move? Is it a clear trigger? High utility? Powerful or cool outcome?


For me, the answer is “does this move have clear and interesting consequences?” Fundamentally, for me, a move is “trigger the move with an action, receive a clear consequence that shifts the situation”. Sometimes that consequence comes from a choice, sometimes it comes from the chaos of the dice.


In short: high utility trigger in the context of your game’s genre.

Long version:

When you say “when building a PbtA game” does it mean you refer to basic / playbook moves?

I think there is a big difference between core/playbook moves and game agnostic miscellaneous moves. This also changes what makes them good I think.

Take for example Bend Bars Lift Gates. It is good in Dungeon World cause it helps define the genre. This in turn means that BBLG is good also because the other moves tie in the same genre.

On the other hand the famous Labyrith Move. It is good when you want to abstract a specific situation: trying to reach a specific location by navigating an inscrutable and potentially dangerous environment. But if your game isn’t about this sort of exploration at all adding it to the mix only because everybody think it’s neat won’t do your players any good.


As a player, the moves I value having are the ones which shape the fiction even when they’re not in play - moves you play towards triggering; moves which define your character or relationships; moves which advance the themes of the game, make it truly unique.

For example, in The Watch, there’s a move Surrender to Weariness:

When you Surrender to Weariness—by marking four Weary or when a move tells you to—erase all your Weary and roll with the number erased. On a hit, you do something to emotionally distance yourself from those you hold most dear. On a 10+, erase all your Camaraderie for the two people with whom you have the highest Camaraderie. On a 7-9, erase all your Camaraderie for the one person with whom you have the highest Camaraderie. On a miss, you’re able to keep it together. This time.

That move (in context) has been responsible for some of my favourite roleplaying experiences. It cuts to the heart of what The Watch is about as a game, or at least what it was about when my group played it. You play to avoid this move, and then you have to play to recover from it. It helps us as players to create compelling fiction.

That’s just the showy moves though. You need bread and butter moves too in order to support the fireworks!


I’ve made this comment once or twice before but my basic thinking is that moves should signpost the conventions of the genre your game is focusing on. People with no knowledge of the genre (and that could also apply to a game whose genre you have invented whole cloth) can look to the moves to tell them what kinds of things their characters can do to create an in-genre story. They should also be so in-genre that people who know the genre well could just not even look at the move list and as long as they are playing their character within the genre’s tropes they will end up regularly triggering moves.


Welcome to the Forums @nonsonogiucas.


How I think of it is, is it obvious who’s going to call for this move, and when or why?

Having high utility and a cool outcome is one answer to this question: the player’s going to call for it themself, basically whenever they want the cool outcome.

Having a clear trigger isn’t an answer by itself, if nobody in particular is motivated to call for the move when the trigger happens.

And of course, clear triggers aren’t even necessary, if the move’s at-will or whatever.

So to me, designing a good set of moves means designing both how the moves work in the game’s fiction, and also how they fit into or create the dynamics between the players.


I think there is a big difference between core/playbook moves and game agnostic miscellaneous moves. This also changes what makes them good I think.

That’s a really good point. I think with a game as story-focused as PbtA, there’s a interplay between what is mechanically interesting and what is fictionally relevant.

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This post by Brendan Conway of Magpie Games crystallized something for me about the advantage of moves with triggers that are already tense and interesting moments of fiction. Read the whole thing, but here’s a highlight:

When you’re designing a new move, it’s worth thinking about which category it falls into . Is it the kind of move that is designed to put emphasis on the effect, to spin out interesting, snowballing fiction based on “what happens next”? Or is it the kind of move that spotlights interesting fiction that just happened, making sure everyone is paying attention? A lot of moves are examples of the former, and far fewer are examples of the latter, but that doesn’t make the latter category any less important.


Ohhh, I hadn’t seen that post before. That is good and valuable info.

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You just made me realize that there are moves in PbtA games that I never really considered as such… and most of those are trigger-less moves.

Take for example:
Armored - You ignore the clumsy tag on armor you wear.

Is it cool / appropriate for the genre in DW? Yes.
Is it a move? Yes… because it’s listed in the moves section of warrior’s playbook?

My question is: would it stop working if we said that PCs can have tags just like weapons?

Plate has clumsy
Clumsy: It’s tough to move around with. -1 ongoing while using it. This penalty is cumulative.

Warrior has armored
armored: ignores the clumsy tag on armor and shields.


Hey that’s nice and tidy.


I’m not sure I understand the question. “Would it stop working?” Would what stop working? The move? The game? The move clearly becomes extraneous, but I don’t see anything that would “stop working”?

I guess I could rephrase my question like this:
“Would we lose anything in terms of game mechanics, fictional positioning, flavor or readability by moving trigger-less-and-roll-less moves out of the moves section and into a tags section?”

More specifically, I’m talking about those moves that have no trigger and do not require you to make a roll. I’m tempted to put in this category also move upgrades that do not refine or subset the original trigger, but maybe I shouldn’t?

Armored and Iron Hide from DW’s Fighter
Limitless from Monsterhearts 2’s Ghost
Fake from Monsterhearts 2’s Hollow
Merciless from AW2’s Battlebabe
Professional Compassion fom AW2’s Angel


It might help players to neaten up what exactly is a “move”… I haven’t run into confusion over this in play, but my own design sensibilities are definitely in favor of carefully delineating what are moves and what aren’t. (For instance, I also am not enamored of moves that are simply stat increases).

One category of move I really like, though, are moves with a trigger and effect but no roll. They often put a really cool (potentially risky) sequence on the table for the player to kick off if they so desire. Example from Dungeon World’s Immolator:

Give Me Fuel, Give Me Fire
When you gaze intensely into someones eyes, you may ask their player “what fuels the flames of your desire?” they’ll answer with the truth, even if the character does not know or would otherwise keep this hidden.


Interesting responses and thoughts here. Urban Shadows has a large section on creating moves that you might want to look at.