PbtA Playbook Design

dark_shore

I’ve recently been working a lot of refining Bleak Rains, my Powered by the Apocalypse game of desperate weirdos trying to survive in a dogmatic, paranoid island city during a magical monsoon season. More specifically, that refinement has come towards the player playbooks, which I would thoroughly argue are the core of any PbtA game. After all, the playbooks define the sort of interactions that the player can have with the world, and often serve as a player’s most effective vehicle for expanding on the fiction.

When I first concepted out Bleak Rains, I had 9 playbooks. They were as follows:

  • Anchorlugger: Like a Lovecraftian Scarlet Letter, the Anchorlugger has to atone for past sin by carrying around a massive, probably cursed anchor
  • Raintouched: Touched in a unique way by the properties of the rain, a Raintouched can harness powerful magical abilities during monsoon season.
  • Lighthouse: Selected by the Overseers that lead the city, Lighthouses patrol the streets to hunt down monsters that have washed ashore from the sea
  • Captain: Leader of a faithful crew, the Captain has authority over one of the many sailing vessels that risk the unfathomable waters surrounding the city
  • Gillman: Born of a horrible crime, a Gillman is a powerful, but monstrous half-breed that traces their lineage back to the monsters of the depths
  • Graveswimmer: Last defense against the resurrective properties of the storm, Graveswimmers are responsible for the disposal of regular and animate bodies
  • Shaman of the Storm: A raving madman in rags, a Shaman of the Storm harnesses the raw power of the storms and channels them into magical effects
  • Darkdiver: A looter by any other name, a Darkdiver can descend into the depths to loot sunken hulks and flooded parts of the city
  • Low Overseer: Wielding a small fraction of the power of the city, the Low Overseer is a low-level bureaucrat and law enforcement officer of the city’s government

In my opinion, these playbooks offered a solid foundation from which to begin. They offer a broad, but interesting picture of the world they inhabit (it’s a totalitarian city, but one fraught with crime and heresy, which has both a symbiotic and antagonistic relationship with the magical rain and seas that envelop it). Many “classic” RPG archetypes can be found here, albeit in abstracted and unusual forms, giving players something of a base to latch on to in a unique setting.

However, few first passes of any game are any good, and I knew I had to do at least something of a revising sweep to knock out obvious problems before starting playtests. For this, I read as much advice on the subject as I could, as well as digging into the GM advice for all of the PbtA games I own, and also this fantastic player’s guide for Dungeon World. Now, I hope to be able to distill some of what I learned to help make your PbtA game’s playbooks stronger.

Keep your moves as short as possible

The first drafts of almost all of my moves were long. Damn near every move had a list of options to choose from, little pieces of commentary about the repercussions of your actions, the whole shebang. It wasn’t uncommon for one of them to take 4-5 lines in my Google Doc.

This, predictably, caused some issues. The first is the simplest to predict: when it came time to try and stick everything onto my prototype character sheet, I found that I rapidly ran out of room for moves, and the moves sections were usually walls of text. An immediate no-no.

But, also, as in most forms of writing, the most elegant way to get across an idea also the shortest. Look at this move, written by Eon Fontes-May, the author of the Dungeon World Guide:

move

It’s so elegant in its simplicity. The distinction between the yes, yes but, and no options are clear, and all of them lead to something interesting. There’s even a morsel of pirate-y worldbuilding in there too, it’s great. To contrast, here’s a move I recently cut.

bad_move

Look how long this is. The worst part is that, for any given player, you don’t need 50% of this text, because you’re only going to be invoking one of those bulleted pieces of effect text. There’s a ton of fluff writing that doesn’t really do any worldbuilding, it’s just vaguely and badly poetic. I trimmed this concept down a lot, to its current state:

aight_move

I’m actually still not in love with this, but it’s a step up. The list is pared down substantially, and is actually a list you can choose between, rather than a set of pidgeonholes to be forced into. The fluff text is gone, and I think the consequences are much clearer and more related to what’s happening in the fiction. It’s still long, but as a core move for a playbook, I’m willing to give a bit of depth.

Playbooks need to be widely applicable, or they need to be cut

Let’s talk about the Graveswimmer. The Graveswimmer was an idea I liked so much that it was one of the main points I covered when I first talked about this game. The idea behind the Graveswimmer was that the magical rains would resurrect the dead in this city, and Graveswimmers were the order responsible for, one, properly disposing of bodies, and two, slaying the living dead. It was cool, there were a bunch of rules about crafting your own burial ritual, it was neat and packed with flavor.

The problem was that the playbook was too specific. If you weren’t dealing with a dead body, in whatever state of animation, the Graveswimmer was sort of, if you’ll pardon the pun, dead in the water. The entire playbook identity was wrapped up in this one idea, and while that idea was dense, it meant that if that idea wasn’t applicable to the situation, the idea was pointless.

A similar issue arose with the Darkdiver, the submarine thief. As it turns out, when an entire playbook is based around going underwater, there’s surprisingly little for that player to do when they’re above water, which is, considering only two other playbooks directly interact with the sea in some way, probably where most of the game is going to take place.

Having a core playbook idea that’s dense is good, it makes it easy to come up with advanced moves, and it makes it more interesting for a player to explore the space provided by the character concept. But a character idea needs to be broad too, or else your player is going to be bored. Think of the playbook like the set of tools you’re giving the player with which to build their experience. If you hand someone a belt full of hammers, as the saying goes, they’re gonna be looking for nails.

As a result, I ended up cutting the Graveswimmer and transitioning the Darkdiver into a more open-ended thief class, while maintaining a diver motif, allowing the character to remain useful in a wider variety of situations.

Moves are actions, not reactions

Something I discovered in my writing was that a lot of my moves were reactive in nature: that is, instead of triggering whenever the player did something, they triggered whenever something happened to the player. This is not a pattern you see a lot in PbtA games, and there’s a good reason: it’s fairly uninteresting.

In a broad sense, players want to do, they do not want to be done to. Having a broad swath of one’s actions be reactive means that, when it is a player’s turn to act, their options are limited, and a lot of their neat tricks are locked away, only to be used when the fiction happens to turn in such a way that the specific conditional is triggered.

In all role-playing games, but especially in Powered by the Apocalypse games, players want to feel like they can shape the world, like they have agency. Having moves as reactions limits that substantially, and can contribute to a sense of being pushed and pulled by the fiction instead of being the driving force of it.

The Anchorlugger was subject to this problem in the first draft. As a social pariah, a lot of the playbook’s moves had to do with how people would respond to his presence, but it left the player with a limited set of options beyond “stand there and have people get upset at you”. A redesign merged the Anchorlugger and the Lighthouse, creating a playbook that was focused on a more active idea of atonement by involuntary monster slaying, which is rad.

Always fail forward

The key to PbtA design, the morsel of design thinking that should be in every move you make, should be that failure should still move the plot forward. This is a core concept of move design in general, but I think it’s so important it’s worth reiterating here. A player absolutely botching a roll should always put the fiction in a new, interesting place. For a simple example I’m proud of, check out this move for the Captain:

drunkmove

Failing on this move results in a complete change of setting and situation, which gives both the GM and the player room to make new choices and move the fiction forward. I’m actually not totally in love with this move, because one potential result, just taking -2 Weird, is mechanically useful but narratively boring. I’ll have to work on changing the options on 7-9 to ensure that every option available to the player provides an interesting story beat.

Don’t neglect the stuff

Moves are certainly the shining star of PbtA design, but don’t overlook the inventory of your characters. Your player characters’ gear is a perfect opportunity to slip a little bit of setting into the game in an inconspicuous way, and to set players up with some unanswered questions and unfulfilled opportunities at the start of the game.

Consider these three items, collected from assorted playbooks in Bleak Rains.

item3item2item1

Each of these objects is useful, but each also raises an interesting question along with it about the world or the character. Whose blood is it staining that scimitar, and why can’t you scrub it off? Is that a real eye, and if so, whose? What about the city of Indra causes the compass to stop working? For the addition of just a few words into each item description, you plop some fresh player characters into the world with questions to ponder.

In Summary

Playbooks represent the primary vehicle through which your players can interact with the world, and as a result, good design within the playbooks will affect every moment of a player’s interaction with the game.

On top of reading my (frankly probably useless) advice, see what other designers in the PbtA space are doing. Crib what you like, design responses to what you don’t, and don’t hesitate to bring your craziest, most interesting ideas to paper.

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