PBTA – Moves overload

Part of the job of a game designer is to consider the level of cognitive burden and handling time required to run a game, and pitch that at a level which works for the intended audience. I have been noticing recently how that counts in spades for PBTA.

The player-facing side of most PBTA games consists of a series of Moves, each of which has some sort of fictional trigger, and then mechanical steps you execute whenever that trigger occurs, which in turn feed back into the fiction. It’s the first of these – the fictional trigger – that makes cognitive burden a particular challenge for the PBTA designer.

The reason is that, because each Move has a fictional trigger, and because that fictional trigger is (typically) a fairly specific circumstance occurring, you have to constantly scan the fiction as it develops to check if that trigger has happened. Most PBTA games take as fundamental “to do it, you have to do it” and “if you do it, you do it” which is PBTA-speak for “if the fictional thing happens, the Move is triggered” (and vice versa, though I’m less interested in that here). This means you can’t just wait for someone to decide they want to use a particular Move and call it out – their actions in the fiction may mandate that Move.

Take a typical example from Night Witches “when you act up (by acting like a hooligan, by acting like a lady, by acting like a natural born soviet airwoman). This Move requires you to notice when someone is acting outside their normal social boundaries, and then decide whether that acting out fits with either of the three categories (if not, it doesn’t trigger the Move). So it’s a fairly complex, nuanced decision you have to take. You could miss a moment where the Move should have triggered, if you don’t pay attention.

All of this is therefore inherently cognitively burdensome, and the designer must therefore consider in each case whether that level of burden is worth the benefits delivered. Sometimes a complex, nuanced Move is worth it, sometimes it’s better to go for something simpler than might not be as precise.

Of course, it’s not just the complexity of individual triggers (though that is a factor), it’s the sheer combined weight of all the triggers that have to be considered. You could write a PBTA game with 100 basic Moves, but nobody could play it; they’d constantly fail to notice when they were triggering Moves, even if they were fairly simple.

This leads me to some critique of PBTA games I’ve played recently. They’re games I like and have enjoyed, and which are pretty popular, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not going for a take-down of anyone’s game here. I’m using them as examples of an issue which needn’t be fatal to a game, but which I find difficult in play.

The first example is Sagas of the Icelanders, a game which attempts to emulate the eponymous stories of the early Icelandic settlers. In doing so, it imposes some quite restrictive roles on the characters, specifically relating to their gender. If you play a man, your Moves are focused on physical feats and (rather more complex) defending your honour and attacking the honour and dignity of other men. If you play a woman, your Moves are focused on influencing other characters (particularly, but not exclusively, men) through reason, emotion and sexual attraction. (The way this is set up creates a focus on male characters that is interesting but not the focus of my critique.)

Whenever a character takes action in Sagas, like every PBTA game, you have to mentally compare what they did to the Moves to see if one was triggered. Of course, you first have to focus on the correct set of gendered Moves, since actions that would trigger a Move for a man won’t necessarily do so for a woman, and vice versa. So gender introduces an element of complexity up-front. But – particularly for women – the specific triggers are quite nuanced. You can raise your voice and talk sense, but only to player characters. You can goad to action, but only aimed at a man. And because of the very specific and culturally relevant triggers, many things that intuitively feel like Moves aren’t. All of which is fine, but kind of hard work to parse in play.

Next example is Urban Shadows. Urban Shadows has Moves which are somewhat more intuitive (for me) than the likes of Sagas, which is a plus. Many of the Moves only trigger in fairly well-defined contexts (more on this in a moment). However, it has a lot of Moves. The Urban Shadows Basic Moves sheet has 15 Moves on it, not counting the rules on advancement. That is a lot of mental checks to go through every time someone does something! It’s a lot of possible mechanical triggers to remember, full stop. [Edit: discussion elsewhere has reminded me that the theoretical limit of human short-term memory is seven items, plus or minus two.] On top of that, there are four different triggers for advancement, and a trigger for corruption, that you have to keep an eye on. Again, this is fine, but kind of hard work.

So what can you do about this, if you’re designing a game? Well, the obvious stuff is:

– Keep your Moves simple, with straightforward, intuitive triggers that don’t require a lot of thought to judge.

– Try to keep your Moves list as short as you can. This in turn means…

– …focus on the Moves that really matter for the game you’re trying to write. Don’t waste your players’ mental space with Moves that aren’t all that important – PBTA lets the players and MC negotiate the fiction pretty well even if a Move isn’t triggered.

Another trick is to try and group your Moves by the context in which they occur. Apocalypse World, for instance, has Battle Moves. Including them roughly doubles the number of Moves in the game, taking it from a pretty simple half-a-dozen Moves up to more like a dozen. But you only have to think about the Battle Moves if you’re in battle. If nobody has any weapons out, you needn’t waste any brain space thinking about them. Similarly, Night Witches divides its Moves into day and night Moves, and in almost all cases you therefore only have to think about half the potential Moves at any given moment.

You might think that the Sagas approach is kind of like grouping Moves by context. Well… I don’t know what to tell you. That’s not how I experience it. Two characters are having a conversation, one of them starts to talk sense, and then I realise that person is a man, so the “talk sense” Move doesn’t apply. That small mental effort, repeated several times a session, is burdensome in a way that “am I in a battle right now” isn’t.

None of this is to say that you can’t write a game with complex, nuanced Moves. With lots of Moves. With Moves that only apply in specific circumstances that require a bit of thought to judge. All of this is permissible, and can be good design. But it is a cost that you are making your players pay to play your game. Make sure you’ve chosen punchy Moves that deliver something worthwhile, so that it’s a cost they’ll be glad they paid.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

6 thoughts to “PBTA – Moves overload”

  1. This is a very insightful blog post. I have been trying to write my own PbtA game, and I am studying what other games do with their basic moves.
    I don’t have too much of a problem with Urban Shadows. They have separated their moves into Basic, Faction and Debt moves. Like you said, they are separated by context, which makes them easier to digest. But I do have problems with the corruption and intimacy triggers, which is a bit harder to remember (although I still love the flavour they brought to the game).
    I do have a problem with games where the MC chooses the consequence on a 7-9. It takes control away from the player, which I don’t like.

    1. Thanks for your comment Arthur! It’s definitely a challenge when every playbook has individual triggers to remember on top of everything else. I guess on the plus side, you’ve got a strong incentive to pay attention to corruption, to get those sweet, sweet corruption moves.

      I’m in the middle of designing a PBTA game myself, so lots to learn. My sense is that you inevitably go through an expansion process where you design in lots of moving parts; the trick is to winnow it back down to the stuff you really need to make your game work. Of course everyone has different tastes as to how many moving parts is too many.

      Good luck with your game!

  2. I concur, these are good things to keep in mind, and it’s solid advice to not have too many moves. But at the same time, isn’t the focus of the game generally on “the conversation” so that you really only reach for the rules when the situation practically calls out for it? There’s a focus on the fiction, is what I mean to say… and it’s only when the outcome feels like it might be uncertain that you look to the game mechanics to help?
    All that being said, I think I know what you mean, there’s a certain anxiety to having all these different move mechanics and you might feel like you’re failing to use the system to its fullest if you overlook one or two during play. But I wonder if you are indeed.

    1. I think that although what you say may be the intention, the presence of rules kind of brings about a pressure to use them — consciously or not.

      The ‘weak’ aspect of this is that if we were conversing away happily moving the story forward, and only subsequently noticed that actually we did something that should have triggered a Move, then we may feel we have let the design down: we probably led to an outcome which is not the outcome (or maybe even within the range of outcomes) that the designer intended to happen in that situation. In extreme cases, this may change the whole flavour of the game, if done often.

      The ‘strong’ aspect is kind of like Chekhov’s gun. If there are Moves given to us on the pieces of paper in front of us, then we may feel that we ought to use them, in order to get ‘value’ out of the game and out of our playbook. A session in which one doesn’t use one’s playbook signature moves may feel like a session in which one might as well have not played that particular character; and so, rather unsatisfying. It’s not rational, perhaps: but I think these textual steers can have pretty powerful subconscious effects.

      1. @Jon as I see it, the moves are part of the conversation. PBTA absolutely isn’t about saying “let’s stick to talking, without using the mechanics, as much as possible”. Remember, to do it you have to do it – which means if you do the thing in the fiction then you must make the corresponding move.

        From a design perspective (which is what this article is mainly focused on), if I put a move in there, it serves a definite purpose in shaping the conversation. It is generally aimed at introducing tension, or drawing out conversations that might otherwise not happen. If you’re talking away without using the mechanics quite happily, that’s one thing. But if you’re getting a sub-optimal experience because I overloaded you with mechanics past your ability to navigate them in play, that’s quite another.

        With that said, I think it’s a good point that one should try to design a game to be resilient when people fail to use the mechanics every time. The PBTA core loop of player acts -> MC responds with a move -> player responds is pretty good for this. Even if you forget to trigger a move, hopefully the MC responding in accordance with their principles will get you at least halfway there.

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