Kingbeast's Lair

Growling about the RPG industry and my gaming life. RPG and anime reviews from a passionate fan. (Formerly John's Hero HQ.)

So What Is The PBTA Thing People Keep Talking About???

November 01, 2018 By: John Taber Category: Games, Growlings

What Is PBTA?

PBTA stands for Powered By The Apocalypse.  Apocalypse World is an RPG by Vincent Baker that was released in 2010.  It was the first system to present these rules.  Small-press RPG that utilize these rules are classified as PBTA.  PBTA defines the base mechanics that are being used behind a lot of small-press games these days.  For the old school folks think of the Hero System and Champions.  Champions is an RPG that uses the Hero System.  Masks and Blades In The Dark are RPGs that are PBTA.  😉


(I need to make a disclaimer before I continue.  I am not an expert in PBTA games.  I am an enthusiast coming from an old school RPG upbringing who is now starting to run PBTA games more frequently.  😉  If there are PBTA guru out there please correct me!  My goal is to get really good at running PBTA based games.)

Where Can I Learn About What Makes PBTA Different?

I would recommend these sources.

The Dungeon World Guide

Dungeon World is a classic fantasy RPG that is PBTA.  As part of that game some industrious fans created a wonderful document that explains to D&D players the major mind shifts that are needed for Dungeon World.  Brian Fernandez actually tipped me off to this document.  Highly recommended for getting your head around the changes.

PBTA For The Old School

Recent blog post about PBTA for old school role-players from Trilemma.  This one I do not like as well as I think it sort of dances around some of the main points without jumping out and revealing the answer.  See what you think.  Worth a read.

What GMs New To PBTA Don’t Know

This is a pretty good article from the creators of City Of Mist.  (City Of Mist is a noir-supers setting that is PBTA.)  I wanted to include this one because it is good for GMs.

What Does John Think About PBTA?

PBTA games have several important qualities.  I want to cover some of the ones that I think are important and give my option on some of them as well.


Moves define the various things that players and GMs can do.  Their impact and effect are driven by how the Move is written.    The name of the Move often conveys the genre or setting as well.

Moves can be setting specific.  For example, Masks, an RPG about teenage superheroes, has a Move called, “Unleash Your Powers”.  You can guess what it does by the name.  Notice how even just the name drives home the setting and how it comes into play.

Characters are built using predefined Playbooks.  Playbooks are kind of like Classes in D&D.  (These will be discussed in more detail below.)  Each Playbook has Moves that only that character can perform.  For example, the Driver in Apocalypse World can choose, “A No Shit Driver”.

GMs, or MC (Masters Of Ceremony) as they are called in PBTA, also have their own set of Moves.  In Dungeon World MCs have moves like “Reveal An Unwelcome Truth”, “Put Someone In A Spot”, and “Use A Monster”.  Again these drive home the setting and genre.


Playbooks are used to define the character and describe any Moves that are specific to them.  They act as characters sheets but have Move details as well.  Often they also include rough details on how the character might look, their affiliations, etc.

Playbooks provide most, if not all, of the rules that the player will need.  This allows them to focus on the story and not their list of spells or how a particular stunt works for example.

The Playbook name, style, and look again drive the setting and genre.  In The Watch, a dark fantasy RPG, there are Playbooks called The Spider, The Bear, The Wolf, etc.  Just the name denotes detail about the focus of that Playbook.

The Playbook will also often include statements that provide Bonds to other PC.  These are an excellent mechanic for immediately tying the PC to each other.  For example, in Dungeon World the Wizard has, “X is keeping an important secret from me.”  Notice how these can drive the setting and genre.

Fail Forward

The dice rolling in PBTA games is one of the hardest things for most traditional RPG players and MCs to grok.  The import rule here is that players do all of the rolls.  The MC first present the situation that is in front of the player.  The player reacts by describing what they do.  Often this involves fiction first then activation of a Move.

The results of the roll drive the results of that piece of the encounter and push the fiction forward.  This is a really important thing to grasp.  Most PBTA RPG systems break down the rolls into a 2d6 roll with modifications.  2 to 6 is  Failure, 7 to 9 is a Success with a Complication, and 10+ is a Success with often fewer or no Complications.  Sometimes even a full Success will mean picking options from the Move.  Move often spawn questions or a response from the MC.

Here is a fast example of how this works.  While exploring a dark cave the dwarven warrior Gimli runs across a group of three goblin scouts.  The MC then describes the action, “The goblins jump out from behind a rock and charge forward with their rusty swords swinging!  What do you do?”.  Notice how the MC starts with action from the scene.  Gimli’s player responds with, “For Crom!  I drive my hammer down on the head of the first goblin!”  The MC looks at the available Moves and says to make a “Hack & Slash”.  The player rolls a 5.  This is a Failure but it does not stop the fiction!  The GM responds with, “Moving forward your hammer glances past the left ear of the goblin who nicks your arm with his blade.  Now that you have moved forward the other goblins charge in from all sides!  Take 4 damage.”  The idea is to push the fiction forward and let the character act even more cool after getting out of a jam.


PBTA games are definitely more difficult for the MC as there is a lot of response and setting up action before and after every roll.  The back and forth play is difficult to run until you get more practice.

Another thing that can be difficult when running PBTA games is driving the difficulty of a challenge.  For example, in my example of the combat with the goblins I could have still let the character smash the goblin then have the next one land a blow.  The associated complications to a failure take time to master.  It gets even harder when you have to handle this for a group of players.

This system begets a storytelling heavy session.  There are not a lot of crunchy bits that get in the way of the fiction and the actual resolution is often very quick.  I have found that throwing tons of things for the characters to respond to is the best course of action in PBTA games.  This way each element of the encounter presents a more intuitive response.  It also gives something for each character to do in the scene.

I am still in the learning how to run PBTA games.  So far I am good for the first couple of rolls but then I will start to get lax and fall into common tropes, “You failed take some harm.”  That is not how the system is geared to work.  Saying that…I really want to get good at it.  I have played in some absolutely amazing PBTA games over the last four years so I know it works well if properly executed…I just need to get it to sing for me.  🙂

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