Today I want to talk about designing moves for PbtA games. The originator himself has a very insightful series really showing what is possible under the move format. Today I will stick to the most common implementations, learning to warp before you gate and all that.

I assume you know the general setup and what a trigger is. Triggers are very useful to communicate the theme and mood of your game. When you go in guns blazing… is very different from When the bullets start flying… after all. I will mostly look at the rest, the move’s body today. So the first rule of thumb is:

Do not spell out the miss on basic moves.

I see this on many first drafts and my only reply is: Don’t do that. You see when you miss a roll and there is no specific miss entry, the GM is allowed to get creative on you. That’s good for evoking that feel of loss. You just lost your control of the situation whatever the outcome. Explicit miss entries are a good idea if you do not want to bother the GM with this thing. So mostly on supportive or setup moves that will be followed by something else or those that happen at the beginning or end of session.

So what happens on the 7-9 and 10+? First of all, moves are not necessarily success checks. Even a 10+ can be rather bad, if say your game is about kid detectives and the move is about facing monsters like the Demogorgon. The best we would expect here is damage mitigation. But that doesn’t mean it has to feel like a loss to the players. Unlike the the 6- the players should have some say about the bad things that happen on a hit.

Success at a cost

The minimal input you could have is, having the GM name a cost and condition and the player can accept it or not. This would be like Dungeon World’s Defy Danger. So there, you get what you want on 10+, but on a 7-9 the GM will throw in something. You take it or leave it. One thing you should be aware of is that you make the GM work. Just like on a miss the GM now has to come up with stuff with little guidance right now. Be sure you want to burden your GMs so.

You can of course give the player some option about the cost they want to incur. Either because you explicitely give several choices or word things so that the players can at least suggest the downsides. The moves quoted are all from my current project:

When you encourage, help or show kindness, roll +Heart. On a hit, choose 1.

  • They take +1 on their roll.
  • You ease their suffering.
  • You guide them through a spell you have mastered. They can use it right now.

On a 7-9, also choose one of these.

  • It costs you something.
  • You expose yourself to a problem or danger.
  • You reveal something you wish you hadn’t.

Of the potential downsides one is totally the players job. They should know what they might inadvertendly show. The problem or danger is mostly GM’s job, while the cost can be shared brainstorming. You can also defer problem to a later point. This can prevent a situation from escalating when you don’t want it so.

When you sneak after someone or go where you are not supposed to, roll +Ambition. On a hit, you learn or find something valuable. On a 10+, there are no complications on the way back.

The complications happen definitely after the juicy secrets have come out. The GM is of course tasked with coming up with those juicy things but those will hopefully be part of their preparation and do not have to be made up on the fly. Of course “success at a cost” is only one of the options to structure the 7-9 and 10+ parts. For even greater player choice you want to give them…

More or less choices

This includes the the “ask X question” types of moves as well as typically the most action oriented moves in the game, like fighting. In the latter case, often there is some good options and the option to avoid some bad thing, like not getting hurt. You can of course tailor the number of good and bad options to show how dangerous the thing is. Here are two more from my game to show the difference:

When you face an opponent, roll +Virtue. On a 7-9 choose 2, on a 10+ choose 3:

  • The GM will tell you something about either your or their abilities. Take +1 forward.
  • They concede something of your choice or suffer.
  • You impress someone else.
  • You come away clean.

When you address a problem with magic you have not mastered, make the necessary preparations and roll +Learning. On a hit, you can do it. On a 10+, choose 2. On a 7-9, choose 1.

  • You don’t have to break any rules.
  • There are no side-effects.
  • Gain Training with this spell.

Special: If you have Training with this trick, take +1. If you do break rules, remember to raise your Scrutiny.

Comparing the 4 moves shown, the help move has the most open ended downsides, on a hit. This is intentional, because it can be used in a variety of situations and it is optional. If the players want to provide that +1 bonus or whatever, they may well pay for that. Next in line is Magic You Have Not Mastered, because, well, magic is risky. Whereas Face An Opponent is comparably predictable.

There are some other common patterns and we haven’t even touched on typical ways to make playbook moves, but I think this should serve as a baseline.