ChatGPT wrote a PbtA game. We tried it.


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Yesterday I joined the online convention of the German 3W6 community ( discord invite link ) to play “Transhumanist Ruins” a game written by ChatGPT and prompted by our then GM anlumo. Anlumo had assembled the AI’s replies into a kickass online sheet, before play.

The game was fun, and especially one of the players really did a good show and helped us overcome that system, asking questions like “Wouldn’t be good if that happened..”, “Couldn’t we rather do this…”, “We could treat that result as..”.

The plot was rather simple. One player played a slighty deranged and physically sick posthuman Elijah (Exile playbook), the next his doctor called Tornado and I played the child of some nomad clan called John. We were following Elijah’s beeping thing that he insisted was a treasure finder (in fact a Geiger counter) to some lone hut in the wilderness and found stuff therein. Elijah interfaced with a computer system, learning about the “Red Queen” who was apparently in stasis in some broken arcology not too far why and wanted to be rescued.

Leaving the shack, we encountered another scavenger who claimed ownership (summoned by a 7-9) and was quickly overcome by Tornado. We rode some mutant buffloes, enticed by Elijah towards the arcology tower, John giving directions, but were stopped hard by a canyon that John had not heard about. Elijah managed to build us a paraglider from some dead animal (playbook move) to carry us over that canyon. On the other side John let the group toward another friendly nomad group, where Tornado managed to acquire some motor bikes for to continue our journey. The roll also meant there would be rival appearing, we all agreed it would be more dramatic if they came up after we found our target.

Arriving at the tower, we were send away by the group that currently claimed it, but we managed to sneak past them through Elijah’s other playbook move. In the tower we split to surge it, Elijah and Tornado both got electrocuted a little bit hanging wiring, while John found a computer archive, but couldn’t do much with it.

We ended the session there, because we were all tired. It was a fun experiment, I really enjoyed playing with those guys and trying to make things work.

I will now poke and prod at those moves and playbooks the AI made, and it won’t even be sad when I say bad things about it. If you haven’t read through those amazing laid-out character sheets, do it now.

Basic Moves

So let’s look at those basic moves. The first thing to notice is that all the basic move are very similar in their internal structure. 10+ is always “you successfully ${do whatever} and avoid the drawbacks”. The drawbacks on 7-9 have some similarities as well. There is always the “unwanted attention” clause, often the “suffering” clause, sometimes the “sacrifice” clause. So basically ChatGPT seems to have Simple World down. The way they are nnow, those moves could have been boiled down to a single one like Simple World or World of Dungeons do. The AI just rephrased it over and over.

We might call a move design like that a move with creatively complicating drawbacks. Options like that make your plot sprawl sideways (and then a rival appears, and then a monster appears, and then you suffer this and then you lose that) and they require creativity and judicious application to use repeatedly in a satisfactory manner. This can be problematic in obligatory high-frequency moves.

If you want to use a move with drawbacks, you can mix those creatively complicating drawbacks with mechanical drawbacks. That requires some resource that we can’t count down or up. To give an example, this a high-frequency move from my game.

When you approach a problem with magic you have not mastered, roll +Learning.
On a hit, you might do it and gain Training. On a 10+, choose 2. On a 7-9, choose 3.
– You’ll need extra preparation.
– You’ll have to break the rules. Raise Scrutiny or suffer.
– There will be side-effects.
– Seems simple enough. Do not gain Training.
Special: If you have Training with this trick, take +1.

This move notably hits you with some drawbacks always. Even on a 10+. That’s alright. A 10+ doesn’t have to mean that your result will be perfect. It just means that this is the best result, you may expect for this thing given the emulated (sub-)genre.

This move also always hits you with at least two things, instead of ChatGPT’s one, but you never have to take the creatively complicating option: side-effects. You can rely on the mechanical drawbacks, no training plus scrutiny or suffering (= marking a condition).

The remaining option of extra preparation is not complicating, it is creatively slowing. It begs the question: What preparation do you need? It makes us take a step beg and allow us to make something up about this piece of magic. It doesn’t necessarily make things more complicated. A simple “help me set up those candles” might suffice. It is an opportunity to add some color and world-building.

Another great example of a creatively slowing drawback is Hit the Streets from Urban Shadows.

When you hit the streets to get what you need, name who
you’re going to and roll with their Circle. On a hit, they’re
available and have the stuff. On a 7-9, choose 1:

  • whoever you’re going to is juggling their own problems
  • whatever you need is more costly than anticipated

Again we may learn a little bit about that NPC. It might forward us to a subquest, but maybe they just need a bit emotional support. But even with a subquest, we are still on track to get our original problem solved. It doesn’t suddenly summon a new problem for us to cope with right now, we just added one or more scenes to our projected story flow.

The main take away is: Don’t force players to pick a creatively complicating drawback on an obligatory high-frequency move.


ChatGPT made the same mistake here that I see often with PbtA hacks and did the first time I tried as well: Playbooks should not be skill packages. The typical question when making a class for an RPG might be: What are they good at? We are trained to think that way through several decades of RPGs. So an AI should forgiven in mimicking us there.

The problem is that if some capability is required in the game’s typical situations and that class is not in play, what are you going to do? Otherwise known as “someone play a cleric, please”. The obvious solution is to not gate any required capability behind a class choice.

To avoid this outright, do not name your playbooks after jobs. “Doctor” or “Diplomat” are therefore suspicious by title alone. “Scavenger” could work maybe, but probably doesn’t for this particular game because everyone is supposed to scavenge. See the basic move. It’s like having an Adventurer class in D&D or a Hunter creed in Hunter: The Reckoning.

Instead, when making up a playbook, do not ask “What can you do?”, but kindly refer to Bablyon 5 and ask “Who are you?”, “What do you want?”, “Why are you here?”. Any of those will do. So Nomad, Exile, Hacktivist and Renegade are actually fine playbook titles for the game.

How do we make playbook moves then? If we cannot make something necessary exclusive to a playbook, we can make playbook better at it, right? That’s what ChatGPT here tried. And yes, that works, but it’s overall rather boring, if a playbook is just that and nothing else.

You can look at peripheral things that come with the playbook’s concept. Like “When you meet other people of the Wasteland…” for the Nomad, a “What you brought with you…” for the Exile, some “Cause” for the Hacktivist (actually ChatGPT tried for that one), possibly military tactics or provisioning for the Renegade.

You can also try to look at the some theme through the lens of various playbooks. You can do so explicitely like the Sex Moves in Apocalypse World. Every playbook has one, the move has always the same trigger, but then different things happen. Same with the team moves in Masks.

You can also do so more covertly, with varying triggers and mechanics. Since this is hard to find in a finished product, I will cite my own game again. These are playbook moves, concerning friendship and helping others. Not all of my playbooks have one for that theme, but here are the ones:

  1. Presents. When you give someone a personal present, you take +1 on encouraging them and you can do so while absent, as long as they have the present with them.
  2. Soulbound: Pick another student. You are bound to them on a fundamental level. You each have a general impression of one another’s wellbeing. You may also suffer in their place. Take +1 forward when you do.
  3. Fashion Sense: You know the hottest trends, stars, and fashions. Take +1 when appropriate. You may dress up others for the same bonus.
  4. Power of the Heart: When you try magic you have not mastered to help a friend, roll +Heart (instead of +Learning). On a miss, you both suffer whatever consequences.
  5. Honor: When you trust someone and they trust you, they take +2 (instead of +1) when you help them successfully.

Another thing you can do is, again, mechanical, that is adding private tracks and resources to the playbook and things to do with them. Going into that would explode the post so I close it here.


Magic systems in RPGs


There are notably two meanings of “magic system”, the one used in fantasy literature (which I blogged about), and the one used in RPGs. Today I want to look at different types of the latter.

Self-contained Powers Systems

Probably the most well-known method. There is a bunch of powers or spells that characters can choose from and they have all kinds of special effects, though the usually have a common model for resource costs or rolling dice. Here is the one my longest-running character had most fun with (link including the full meta-data), Time Hop. It notably works on objects too:

The subject of the power hops forward in time 1 round for every manifester level you have. In effect, the subject seems to disappear in a shimmer of silver energy, then reappear after the duration of this power expires. The subject reappears in exactly the same orientation and condition as before. From the subject’s point of view, no time has passed at all.

In each round of the power’s duration, on what would have been the subject’s turn, it can attempt a DC 15 Wisdom check. Success allows the subject to return. The subject can act normally on its next turn after this power ends.

If the space from which the subject departed is occupied upon his return to the time stream, he appears in the closest unoccupied space, still in his original orientation. Determine the closest space randomly if necessary. 

Systems like these allow players to pick from a wide variety of abilities and allow publishers to sell many books. They also require a lot of text. For a one-person hobby project, I would probably not go this route, but I guess some people are more dedicated than I am.

Games vary greatly in how they package these powers. They could be separate gifts that characters buy. They could come in lists (WoD) or other graphs (Gurps) that have to be taken in order. They can also be automatically available, once characters have certain classes and levels (D&D clerics), or take certain skills (Reign, take the Ob-Lob supplement (zip) for example).

Complexity Assignment Systems

This is often called “free magic”. It works like this: A player describes what they want to do with magic. Then through some mixture of table lookups and handwaving we assign to the problem a numeric complexity that the player needs to meet with rolls or resources spent. That might require getting an appropriate amount of resources first.

There might be some general rules what is (not) possible with magic in general, and often there are specific areas that a character must buy into to use that particular kind of magic.

Ars Magic and Mage: The Ascension are certainly the most well-known systems doing this. The method is also commonly used as a kind of secondary fallback system for a Self-Containd Powers primary. Changeling 20th, Scion 2nd or Godbound come to mind. Those secondary systems are notably less complex than Ars or Mage, where everybody gets to play a mage and uses them all the time.

Once-off Recipe Systems

Whereas under the previous scheme, we can theoretically come up with a complexity number ourselves, this method absolutely requires another person who comes up with a specific recipe by some aesthetic standards. In PbtA circles, this is also called the Workshop special, in Nobilis it’s called Projects. In Dungeonworld it looks like this:

When you draw on a place of power to create a magical effect, tell the GM what you’re trying to achieve. Ritual effects are always possible, but the GM will give you one to four of the following conditions:

    It’s going to take days/weeks/months.
    First you must ___________.
    You’ll need help from ________.
    It will require a lot of money
    The best you can do is a lesser version, unreliable and limited
    You and your allies will risk danger from _______________.
    You’ll have to disenchant _________ to do it.

Unlike Complexity Assignment systems these do not require any a priori limits and boundaries. They are case by case in any case and so serve mostly as a sub-quest generator.

Rare Intervention Systems

This system I have never seen as the primary and only one, though there is no reason why it couldn’t work in the right game. There only really is one effect here: Make the current problem go away.

In turn, it is hard or expensive to get them going. The cleric in D&D can roll a d100 once per week for Divine Intervention. In Masks, each character type has a unique expression on how this might look. You need to spend an advancement to unlock it and and each character can do so at most twice. Unlike with D&D’s cleric, narrating the details is here assumed to be the responsibility of the acting players. Example for the Delinquent (pdf):

This is when you show them what you really are. Whether you’re the hero underneath the rebel
facade...or the one who can make the hard choices heroes can’t make. You do whatever it takes
to show that truth, whether it’s saving the day from a terrible villain or stopping a bad guy once
and for all. Of course, once you’ve shown what you really are, there’s no going back to playing the

Normal Mechanics Systems

Magic uses the same rules as other things in this game. This can be done in several ways.

  1. What characters do is inherently magical. This is the case in Nobilis where the PCs are gods. So the basic rules of the games are the magic rules. Actually, it’s miraculous for the PCs which is super magic under the game’s terminology.
  2. What a character does is potentially magic. This is the case in Masks: A New Generation where the characters are super heroes. If you are mind-reader for example, your social actions are probably always super. They don’t function differently, but you might get a read on people, for example, without directly interacting with them. So your abilities potentially offer more options, but not better chances.
  3. There are certain common actions that are labeled magic. Like the appropriately named Use Magic in Monster of the Week (pdf, 2nd page) Unlike the Complexity Assignment systems above, there is a fixed list of possible effects here, much like other actions or skills in the game only provide for certain effects.

Of course there are corner cases and mixtures. And possibly things I’m missing. So if you know any such, feel free to comment.

The stat called $theme



Some time ago, I had a discussion. The other person said that a game about Wizards should have a magic stat. I vehemently disagreed.

It would be like having a stat or rolling mechanic for finding treasure in D&D. You can totally have something like that in other games. My current project features this playbook move.

Santa Claus: The universe conspires to give you stuff. To find something magic, roll (no bonus). On a 10+ choose 3, on a 7-9 choose 2. Time must pass, before you use this move again. 

  • It’s immediately useful to the problem at hand. 
  • It’s good for more than one use. 
  • It’s legal for you to have. 
  • It’s inconspicuous and easy to carry. 

But something like that wouldn’t work in D&D. Having such a mechanic shows that getting stuff is exactly not the point of the game.

In short, you do not want to roll on whatever your game’s theme is.

There are a few different ways to turn a game’s theme into numbers anyway though:

  • Make several stats showing different aspects of the theme. Like Ars Magica has different magic words that players can buy. The theme “magic” is partitioned into several aspects.
  • Make a contested stat. That’s basically two stats in one like in Lasers&Feelings. You pick two endpoints and players can pick any point between these ends as they like. For a game of magic you could have Dark and Light magic or whatever. The nice thing about this is that the rating can easily change during play.
  • Make it an overall character level. Which still mostly goes up during play, but you can’t spend any further resources on it. It might factor into certain roles or provide other benefits. This is useful for the characters advancing to new tiers. Sanity in Cthulhu is the same thing only backwards.
  • Add a supplementary raw stat. This is the pattern used by the nWoD/CoD games for their power stats. If you play Mage: Awakening, you have a general magic stat called Gnosis that you can raise with XP, but it is not used for rolling but only secondary benefits. This signifies the characters effort in pure potential as opposed to the various types of magic you can get.

Rebellion: People after the Rebellion (Glog)


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Near human people like Elves, Dwarves and Orcs are a typical element of fantasy settings in RPGs. Not generally in fantasy literature, as it happens. The Rebellion setting came out of an RPG campaign, though, so it had those.

A typical question in world building is how all these different peoples arise. For Rebellion, I chose a simple option. They all started human and then either the gods changed them or they did it themselves.

There is a problem though. Especially elves and dwarves are usually rather old people. That doesn’t simply work with them being rather recent post-humans. Good thing, there is time travel. When the gods led their loyalists into the deep pasts, the group that would become the Fae and help the Rebellion succeed, waylaid the Great Cultivator and landed much closer to present. They also caught what would become the the setting’s dwarves in their wake.

Long story short, here is a list of People after the Rebellion (google doc) for use with Glog.

Glog is an OSR inspired system framework. Many Rats on Many Sticks by Skreeples is like a default implementation. Here are some more classes that would fit the setting. Magic would need it’s own setting specific classes. For an overview full of weirdness you can look at this reddit post.

Dice Rolling Maxims



In my first post and second post here, I talked about Dice Systems. Now, to be clear, 99% of RPGs are Please Roll systems. There is however something to be said to apply the criteria used in these posts on Please Roll system, from which everything else arose. Specifically: When to roll. I posit there are several maxims that can contribute to dice being rolled.


  • Characters do something daring.
  • Someone opposes the characters.
  • There is a combat.

Mechanical / Structural

  • Dice have not been rolled for some time.
  • There is a nominal skill on character sheets for just this kind of thing.
  • There is an explicit subsystem for this.


  • The description of characters’ actions are vague, high-level, glossing over details.
  • Failure would be interesting.

I might be missing some.

The thing is, a lot GM advice is about which of these maxims to recognize and which to disregard. Like, the narrative crowd, will tell you to roll when there is something at stake, when failures might be interesting. The OSR crowd will tell you not to roll, when the player has a concrete and plausible way of achieving things (“player skill”). That is, the process description is not vague and high-level.

Notably both of these are authorial, they come from a point of looking at the evolution of the fiction. So it makes sense that people would have to be reminded of them. They are rather “meta”.

The OSR also proposes not to have (“character”) skills. So you cannot fall for rolling just because there is a nominal skill printed there. So we can tailor our rules to reinforce or prevent certain structural maxims.

Meanwhile a lot of dice systems that have evolved out of Please Roll, are explicitly about circumventing authorial maxims. In PbtA, you roll when there is a subsystem (move) for it. End of story. In The Pool you roll about once per scene (dice have not been rolled for some time), when there also is a conflict (someone opposes).

Descriptor interactions



Last time, I suggested some vocab on how to talk about descriptors for the sake of answering what attributes and abilities might be. This time, let’s see how descriptors interact with one another across levels, looking at some example games. This survey therefore excludes games that only have one kind of descriptor. I will also generally ignore further descriptors beyond clearly recognizable A-Rank and B-Rank, unless it is of particular interest.

D&D 3

  1. Ability Scores. A-Rank Universal. Check Bases, Formula Components, Insulation (against ability damage).
  2. Skills. Universal B-Rank Check Bases & Allowances (*), each tied to an ability score.

First we see that Ability Scores do more than add to rolls. When ability scores and skills are used to together their interaction is additive. Increasing either ability or skill will change your chances in a linear way.

Some skills can only be used, if you have a point in them. They therefore act as Allowances.

D&D 5

  1. Abililty Scores. A-Rank Universal Check Bases, Formula Components.
  2. Skills. B-Rank Universal Tags (for adding proficiency), each tied to an ability score.

The situation is similar to the above. Ability scores are mostly the same, except no ability damage. Skills are rather different though. They don’t have levels by themselves. You either have training with the skill or you don’t. If you do, you get your general proficiency based on your level.

Shadowrun, 2nd edition

  1. Attributes. A-Rank Universals. Formula Components, Check Bases (*), Potential (adjusting costs for associated skills).
  2. Skills. B-Rank Universal Check Bases.

With Shadowrun we will see that older things are often more idiosyncratic then newer stuff. First of all, you do not generally use attributes in action rolls. They are used in resisting damage, initiative and similar systematic rolls. There other primary use is for calculating your Dice Pools. Pools refresh every round and you can use them get more dice for rolls.

You can use your attributes in place of skills as a fallback. Curiously you can also use any other skill. You walk a special diagram, and the difficulty increases for every dot you pass. We can say the interaction is substituting with drawback.

Fate 2

  1. Aspects. A-Rank Made-Up Pooled Bonuses.
  2. Skills. B-Rank Universal Check Bases.

Unlike newer editions in Fate 2, aspects had levels and stored charges for you to spend. In Fate 3+ they are reduced to tags that allow spending fate points. Is this the carcinization of game systems? Anything but most high ranking check bases can be reduced to tags as editions go?

Unknown Armies

  1. Attributes. A-Rank Universal Check Bases, and Potential (skills cannot exceed their attribute)
  2. Skills. B-Rank Made-Up Check Bases & Allowances, each tied to an attribute

UA is a d100 system. If you roll below your attribute, you have a success. If you roll below your skill too, you have a critical success. I find this really elegant. For some checks, you need a critical success, your skill is therefore an allowance to do those.

How do attributes and skills interact here? Attributes are like your base chance, and skills are your crit range. I say their interaction is categorical.

Changeling: The Dreaming, 20th Anniversary edition

  1. Attributes. A-Rank Universal Check Bases.
  2. Abilities. B-Rank Universal Check Bases.

So this is a WoD system, both attributes and abilities range from 1 to 5, and you use an attribute + ability to determine your dice pool. You can theoretically use any attribute with any ability. In reality though, you will not roll Strength+Computers. This is a major problem, when you go for free combinations, in my book.

I chose this particular version of Changeling (character sheet pdf), because it most clearly shows a pattern common to WoD games. You have a mundane hierarchy of descriptors and also a supernatural one. In this case, you have:

  1. Arts. X-Rank Collectible Check Bases & Allowances (for using certain magic effects)
  2. Realms. Y-Rank Universal Check Bases & Allowances (for affecting certain targets)

Again we have free combination of Art+Realm as a dice pool, but here it works much better. You can have really funny combination like Wayfare 1+ with Props 1+ to pull someone’s pants up. Wayfare 1 is for jumping, Props 1 is clothes. You jump their clothes. Each level of an art allows you a new effect and each level of realm gives you new targets.

Star Trek Adventures

  1. Attributes. A-Rank Universal Check Bases.
  2. Disciplines. B-Rank Universal Check Bases.
  3. Focuses. C-Rank Made-Up Check Bases.

Here we have a three level system (character sheet pdf). It works like this. You usually roll 2d20, but possibly more if you spend a crew resource called Momentum. You want to roll under your freely combining Attribute+Discipline. This works better here than with WoD, as the number of descriptors on each rank is smaller and they are therefore more abstract. Still certain combinations are more likely than others.

In any case, you count successes rolling low and have to beat the difficulty like that. If you have an applicable Focus, rolls under your Discipline count double. I treat Focuses as Check Bases, not Bonuses, because they have a unique role within the system and are explicitly explained within the rules. The interaction with the other two is multiplicative.

And that’s it. As to whether it’s good idea to have attributes and abilities, my take is, if you claim to have freely combining check bases at different levels, make sure they actually do freely combine.

Attributes, Abilities, things…


So a question that I see come up with some frequency is whether people prefer games with only attributes or with attributes and skills. And of course people have an opinion. And then I often wonder if everyone is actually talking about the same thing.

The thing is of course that the attributes in D&D for example are called ability scores. In WoD abilities are what in D&D are skills. But you always use them together while you have a modifier in D&D. And Fate only has skills, in a way, but also has Aspects.

Let’s disentangle that.

We are talking about Descriptors for characters (or character like entities when you stat your starships or bases or patron spirits or whatever). As Descriptor has some fictional state or potential to it that we then imagine for the character. They also are connected to game mechanics in various ways with them. Before we look at that, there are different Sources for Descriptors.

  1. Universal: Every character has this, if only at a default level.
  2. Collectible: You pick these from a (potentially big) list.
  3. Made-up: You can invent them yourself.

We also find that in there descriptive quality many games have a hierarchy of ranks. Lower ranking Descriptors are more specific. When people talk about “Attributes” they often mean A-Rank Universal Descriptors. When people talk about “Skills” they often talk about B-Rank Universals. Descriptors might be related to those on a longer rank, like each skill belonging to an attribute in some way.

That doesn’t tell us what these things do though. And that is crucial. If we want to decide whether having “Attributes” AND “Skills” is a good idea or not, we really should have an idea about their use. It also does not tell us about how they are associated either, if they are. But let’s look at what can descriptors do first:

  1. Check Base: These regularly factor into rolls, increasing your chances for good result. These are usually numeric.
  2. Formula Component: The descriptor factors into the calculation of some other metric. Often defensive or perception metrics.
  3. Allowance: With these you may do things in the fiction, you otherwise couldn’t. That might the depend on the presence of the descriptor, or its level, if it is numeric.
  4. Tags: A tag enables certain other mechanics. You may only use a certain mechanic or use it differently, if a tag applies. Where allowances are fictional, a tag’s effect is purely mechanical. Its applicability might be tied to the fictional situation though. Like an allowance it might depend on presence or level of the descriptor.
  5. Bonus: Bonuses add to various metrics. Unlike check bases or regular formula components a bonus is not expected; they are exception based. They might be seen as a subtype tags, as they mess with a mechanic by changing a number.
  6. Insulation: The descriptor is decreased by certain adverse situations. If it cannot be decreased any further, bad things happen.

Allowances, Tags and Bonuses might also be Pooled. Pooled means this descriptor can be spent from in order to invoke it’s effect. If it’s empty, it wont work any more.

I’m probably missing some uses here.

Next time I will look at some example systems and how descriptors interact across levels.

You’re a wizard Harry, because…


… your parents or some ancestor was a wizard. It’s often called genetic magic, but since it doesn’t usually work like genetics at all, let’s call it hereditary magic rather.

… you were born when the moon was in the 8th House of Aquarius. Or some other astrological occurence. What happened with other people who share your birth date?

… you have lived in a certain place for long enough. Unlike astrological magic origins, you do not necessarily have to be born there. Unless you’re a hermit, other people will probably have magic too. And what happens when you leave?

… you performed some deed. This might be a one of a kind thing or staple of your culture. Hunting certain beasts, climbing mountains or towers, kill the demon lord.

… you found an artifact. Or several of them. Who made this thing? Why were they wizards? Are there similar things?

… you made a deal. Usually called a pact. Or again several of them. What’s your end of the bargain? What kind of entities make these pacts? Why?

… you had a very, very bad day and – boom – the magic happend. Such triggered outbreaks do not necessarily entail you wearing a cape. Oh, and try to be nice to people. Otherwise they might – boom – magic.

… you got medicinal treatments. Who performed them? Who else got those too? What are the side effects?

… you learned how. Where can one learn? What learning resources are there? If it’s institutionalized, who owns the institution? Why have they set it up? What are the requirements to get in?

Am I missing something? Probably. And of course you several of these might come into play together.

Trek Space ain’t empty


It’s a good time be a Star Trek fan. Strange New Worlds is great. So in case you want to play Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures or some other Star Trek RPG, you might run into certain questions about space and navigation. Especially: Why do they have battles in open space? How can you blockade a Romulan fleet with a hand full of ships from reaching Klingon space? What even is the probability of meeting anyone?

Rest assured, Trek canon has an answer. Space isn’t empty. Of course there are visible phenomena like the Badlands, but in the TNG episode Force of Nature we learn that space is navigable only in a small corridor around the Hekaran homeworld. Data has a presentation and explains that ships cannot travel at warp outside the corridor.

The Hekaran corridor might be an extreme case, but we see that there is good space and bad space in terms of warp travel. So whenever they appear to be defending strategic points in space, they are actually defending some piece of good space.

This also makes navigation a much more complex task. You cannot just go in a straight line towards your target. You have to avoid bad space. And if you want to account for erratic travel times in the shows (even when they take the same way back and forth), just assume it’s not a binary distinction. There is space that is more or less amenable to warp traffic, maybe even in a way of going uphill and downhill.

It can also explain some other weird numbers like the Federation stretching over 8000 ly. The number is big. Like the milky way is 1000 ly thick. And also ly is a measure for length, not for area, or volume as we might expect to describe the size of a 3D political entity. So what Jean-Luc is referring to might be 8000 ly of warp highways the Federation controls.

Primary Conceptual Elements


Whatever RPG we play, at some point we will called to describe our character. This has several functions. We must introduce our character to the other players, so they might react to our character in certain ways. We might also communicate what we want to see or do during play. When I play a navigator, I probably want to do some navigation. This might also help in negotiating niches with other players. If I play a navigator, other players probably don’t need to.

When we give that description we might of course tell about some points we have just made up. My navigator is called Ms. Fiddlebottom and grew up Schnackpuck. We might also just read out some points that are on the character sheet. Like “I play Dwarven Wizard” (D&D), “I play an Irraka of the Night Hunters” (Werewolf: The Forsaken), “I play a Thorwaler” (The Dark Eye), “She is a Secretary To The Inner Council” (Dresden Files/Fate), “My character is a Rigger/Decker” (Shadowrun), “I picked Cyrus Vance” (Lady Blackbird).

Things on your character sheet that help you describe your character by reading them aloud, I call Primary Conceptual Elements (PCEs). And games found a variety of ways to achieve that.

So this will be a list of some strategies games used for PCEs in different games. If you know other strategies, please comment. Of course, I make this so that you never have to argue again what a “class” might be.

Of course the following might be combined. When you are a Dwarven Wizard in D&D, you have the PCEs of Dwarf and Wizard. And while the Wizard is much more notable in play, the Irraka and Hunter in Darkness of the aforementioned werewolf are pretty much on the same level.

Character Rosters

Games like Alice is Missing or Lady Blackbird simply have a fixed roster of characters. You pick one. Your character as a whole is therefore your PCE. Characters in Lady Blackbird have stats, while those in Alice is Missing do not.

Free-form Character Traits

In games like Fate, The Pool, Wushu or Risus, you write down traits for your character as you like. There are rules how you can factor those traits into a roll. The trait itself might have a rating, you might take a flat bonus for each trait that is made applicable, or they provide a pool of points to spend (Fate 2). Fate 3 has the extra rule to elevate one of your free-form traits to the status of “High Concept”, making it the PCE. In the other games mentioned your traits work as PBEs equally.

Starter packages

The races in current D&D or the hero types in olden The Dark Eye. Starter packages affect starting stats and might give you certain automatic abilities or disadvantages. This might have extensive consequences. In TDE you rolled your stats and then got the starting values for your skills from your hero type (cf. page 2 of the character sheet). So you might start with -7 in a skill which is pretty damning.

Price Lists

The strategy used in the World of Darkness series. When you choose your splat or splats, this will give you access to certain supernatural abilities to choose from during character generation, but it will also affect the XP costs that you might buy them at later. In some cases you might require a teacher for abilities not favored by your splat. In WoD these templates only affect supernatural powers, whereas attributes and abilities have the same costs for any character, but other games might handle this differently of course.

Level Progressions

Under this strategy you will open up one or more level progressions that act as PCEs. Each level will give you certain bonuses, points to spend and/or special abilities. This is of course D&D classes. So if you want to be specific, say that D&D has a PCEs called “classes” that implement the strategy of level progressions. Games might also have overall level progressions that are the same for all characters. The Dark Eye used such an overall level progression with its Starter Packages. Such an overall level progression is not a PCE.

Comprehensive Character Sheets

Also known as playbooks. With this strategy you choose a character sheet that includes all the information you need to make your character. This is of course typical in PbtA games, take the Masks playbooks for example, but PbtA’s cousin Old School Hack does the same. Under this strategy there might be options to get stuff from other character sheets, as described on your sheet.

Pseudo-PCEs: Archetypes

Shadowrun is odd. It managed to establish something akin to PCEs without naming them in the mechanics sections of its rule books at all. Everyone who plays Shadowrun knows what a sam or rigger is. And there are example characters in the book with these designations, there are extra source books like the Rigger Handbook, and those words are used in the extensive collection of novels and stories, but there is no single point within the crunch that says: “Take this to be a street samurai!”