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I have tried reading several PbtA games, and repeatedly ran into difficulties understanding how Move sequencing/order is supposed to work. I feel as if these games are mere supplements for some sort of core book that explains the basics of the system and that anyone getting into PbtA is expected to be already intimately familiar with. But I'm not, so I have questions.

When is a given participant at the table supposed to 'take over' from another one and allowed to describe events/actions triggering a new move, particularly in time-sensitive situations (chases, combats, debates &c.)? Sometimes there are clear instructions about interruptions (fail this roll and the GM makes such and such a move), but most of the time it seems unclear. Some pages imply that chaining up to 3-5 Moves in a row is normal for a player (e.g. dive attacks in Flying Circus), while others seem to be leery of stacking Moves (don't remember which). There is also the puzzling matter that a triggered Move is supposedly mandatory, yet seemingly if one lacks the Tokens that need to be spend on a Move, one can just 'do something' without it being a Move (e.g. in Hilt//Blade); I'm not sure how that is meant to interact with the 'action economy'.

I know there is no such thing as the PbtA core book, so how do I learn the procedure for resolving this question? (Note: it is highly likely that if I ever get into a PbtA group, it will be over with no or very little prior experience, so 'monkey see, monkey do' is not really an option for me.)

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PbtA games have no action economy

You are correct: there is no rule "one move per player", because moves aren't supposed to quantize time in a PbtA game. Such a game doesn't use a concept of rounds at all. It follows the natural flow of conversation instead. Moves ≠ turns.

Here's an excerpt from the Apocalypse World, 2e:

THE CONVERSATION

You probably know this already: roleplaying is a conversation. You and the other players go back and forth, talking about these fictional characters in their fictional circumstances doing whatever it is that they do. Like any conversation, you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns, right? Sometimes you talk over each other, interrupt, build on each others’ ideas, monopolize and hold forth.

"No action economy" doesn't mean characters can make infinite amount of actions in any moment. The group decides, what actions are possible within an interval, in order to make the narrative consistent ("What do you do, while the Rogue is opening the lock?") This works quite well in freeform TRPGs as well.

When is a given participant at the table supposed to 'take over' from another one

As with any conversation, this depends on the group, AFAIK most popular options are:

  • The particular player has to say something, when the GM asks the group "What do you do?"
  • The particular player has to add something, when other player finished their part.
  • The GM, acting as a conversation facilitator, asks the particular player directly.

The rules don't specify, when exactly a particular player can say their part. Instead, all players follow the conversation, and apply the rules when needed:

These rules mediate the conversation. They kick in when someone says some particular things, and they impose constraints on what everyone should say after.

Here's another excerpt from the Dungeon World rules:

There are no turns or rounds in Dungeon World, no rules to say whose turn it is to talk. Instead players take turns in the natural flow of the conversation, which always has some back-and-forth. The GM says something, the players respond. The players ask questions or make statements, the GM tells them what happens next.

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The spotlight moves at a dramatic pace, not a mechanical one.

There absolutely is a PbtA corebook - it's Apocalypse World.

Is Apocalypse World an inspiration for your game? Enough so that you want to call your game PbtA? Did you follow Meg's and my policy wrt publishing it? Then cool, your game is Powered by the Apocalypse.

-- "An Open Letter re: PbtA", apocalypse-world.com

There's a whole lot of daylight in those conditions, by design - the Bakers aren't interested in playing gatekeeper on the mark. You don't have to do, like, a book report on Apocalypse World or anything to claim it. But if Apocalypse World is an inspiration for a game, especially enough so to claim the mark, there are worse things to consider as a core book, underpinning anything that claims the label unless it clearly cites a completely different inspiration.

A lot of parts of Apocalypse World aren't considered core to the game by the developers. The part of it I'm calling the Apocalypse Engine (only players roll 2d6 +something, result bands are broken out into 6-, 7-9, 10+, sometimes 12+) is actually one of those accidents of design, and a lot of games inspired by Apocalypse World use other resolution mechanisms in addition to or instead of it.

Something much more core to the game is the conversational pace of play, and Apocalypse World, especially in its second edition, offers a lot of advice for keeping that pace of play going. Oh look, here's some now:

First of all, emphasize that we have rules for this and we're going to follow them. When it turns to PC vs PC, everybody wants to start shouting all at once and race to be the first to roll their dice, and that's no good.

Then go around the table to find out what everybody's going to do, but have them hold onto their dice. Don't let them roll yet. Everybody gets a turn to say what they're doing, and they can change their mind if they need to, and nothing happens until everyone's had their say. Include your NPCs.

-- Apocalypse World 2e, "Moves Snowball", p.132

And it says it's for PC vs. PC situations, but really, it works for any kind of high-chaos situation.

And I say it works for any kind of high-chaos situation, but really, it works all the time, because there is no such thing as a different kind of play, only a different pace.

The Form and Pace of Conversational Play

Here's the rest of that section.

Once you know what everyone's going to do, have them roll dice in the order that makes sense to you, taking turns or rolling simultaneously as you think best, always following the logic of the moves themselves.

Sometimes a character's action won't count as a move. That's okay. Don't have the player roll, just acknowledge what they do and say what comes of it or how it affects everyone else's actions.

Sometimes a character's action counts as more than one move. That's okay. Have the player roll them all, in the order that makes sense to you.

After everyone's done what they're going to do, and you've resolved everyone's actions and overseen everyone's moves, sum up how the situation has changed. If it's resolved, move on. If it hasn't, go around again, having everyone say what they're going to do and hold onto their dice until you're ready to have them roll.

-- Apocalypse World 2e, "Moves Snowball", p.133

When it's PC vs. PC or any other kind of high-chaos situation it's important to be almost performatively fair, giving no primacy to anyone and giving everyone a say. But this is also the form of play when things are calmer, you're just being less explicit about asking people what they want and maybe just assuming people are okay with silently passing "their turn" while the more vocal members of the party steer it around.

There are some other questions you may still have. Like, "as the MC, how do I know when somebody's asking to do too much and needs to be talked down?" Or, "how do I know when somebody's asking to do too little and getting outpaced?" And Apocalypse World doesn't have a lot of answers for you, other than that your NPCs are in there too and maybe you can benchmark PC desires off of theirs?

But part of the reason it's not rigidly defined is that the acceptable scope of action also depends on the pace of play. You give people more slack in low-chaos situations and less in higher ones, and even the things that count as significant actions will change from scenario to scenario. Ultimately you the MC have the responsibility for deciding when someone's done enough for now and the camera should cut away, but that also means you have the power - you're never breaking the game to keep the camera on someone or pull it off if it feels like that's the right thing to do.

Perils Of The Multi-Move

The "one turn = one move" impulse isn't a bad one to have, necessarily - by omission, Apocalypse World's saying that it'll be the case most of the time. There are a couple common misreadings of situations that can result in you demanding multiple moves when one would do.

Don't overplay the danger. A lot of PbtA games will have kind of a catch-all move that just sets its fictional hook on "when you do something despite the danger". Act Under Fire in the original does this, for instance. But... most of the time, you're doing something despite the danger, right? The MC's got to have something on tap to make you regret rolling a 6 or less, otherwise they'd just give you what you wanted without a roll. But even outside of that 6 or less, a lot of moves will incorporate some amount of danger in them - many PbtA combat moves, for instance, begin with the assumption that you and your opposition will collide your full harm into each other, and the result of the combat move lets you tweak that outcome slightly. Requiring someone to make the catch-all move in addition to whatever they're doing is certainly possible, but more in the case of "there's some exceptional other danger over and above what you might expect" rather than a routine practice.

Don't make them roll for the same thing twice. The exact statement doesn't show up headingized until successor game Blades in the Dark, but the practice is always there. If you're sneaking into Dremmer's camp, you don't act under fire from each of Dremmer's guards in turn, you act under fire from the whole camp's surveillance - you roll once and then you know whether you can or can't sneak past any given guard. Not only does making multiple rolls to do the same thing mean that eventually the law of large numbers will catch up with you, it also means that making every roll other than the last one doesn't actually progress the story forward, which is the thing that rolls are there to do. It is possible to set up a genuinely push-your-luck situation where you're acting under fire from Dremmer's general rabble in the outskirts, then Dremmer's elite guards in his compound, then Dremmer's surveillance net in his personal stashvault, and at any time you could pull back with what you've got, because in that case each roll is advancing the story.

But with all that said, let's get down to the specific games you were worried about.

Specific Implementations: Flying Circus

The author of Flying Circus was inspired by media about the dawning of the aviation age, where a plane was something that a pilot had both a personal and an engineering relationship with. As such the game models its planes to a fine level of detail, which means it also models its aerialist sections to a similar fine level of detail so that all the detail can matter. However, even then, it doesn't depart from the general principle of "everybody gets to do one thing":

The important part is for players to describe what they do, in narrative terms. "I dive in, attack, and pull up afterward" or "I dive away from the fight and then throttle back" are both valid. You then break down those descriptions into the moves and do them in order: Altitude Adjustment, Open Fire, Pull Up, and Altitude Adjustment, Extend, Cool Off.

A good cut-off point for how many moves to use is that players can't make more than one distinct attack run, they can't run away from the fight and come back in one go, and they can't try the same thing twice.

-- Flying Circus, "Air Combat", p.64, emphasis original

And if you track the moves that are getting made in succession, both here and in the other examples of aerialist play, you may notice something: a lot of the moves are just about bookkeeping on the plane sheet, or about making a narrative choice. Often only one or two will actually have some die-rolling in them, and often at most one will have some die-rolling based on character stats, rather than plane mechanics. In this way, while somebody's "only do one thing" may wind up being highly mechanized, it's not as highly diced.

Flying Circus is a bit unusual in the degree to which it mechanizes its aerialist play, but that choice of degree is deliberate, and part of learning to MC the game well is to see a reasonable arc of action through the individual mechanical moves.

Specific Implementations: Hilt // Blade

The token economy as described in the initial pages of Hilt // Blade is a feature of a system often called No Dice, No Masters or Belonging Outside Belonging, which has its origins in the games Dream Apart and Dream Askew, both of which claim the Powered by the Apocalypse label but use that mechanical system instead of what I earlier dubbed the Apocalypse Engine.

The token economy is meant to facilitate a GMless game, where all players are looking out for each other and each making sure everybody else gets their fair say in the conversation. But, crucially, maintaining the pace of that conversation is left up to the players, rather than enforced by the token economy - the token economy is there to enforce narrative fairness, such that everyone makes an impact on the plot proportional to the setbacks they've suffered and the times they've been relied upon.

So, suppose you're playing the Orphaned Wunderkind and you've taken the advance that says "you can always reject what an adult tells you". That doesn't mean that while some other player's narrating a briefing scene, you can just pop out of an air vent to spout some invective at General Dad, even if nobody else wants you to. You still need to respect the flow of the conversation and let everybody get their fair say.

But, more crucially than this, Hilt // Blade actually packages two different implementations of its premise on two different game engines into the single PDF. The No Dice, No Masters version of the game runs up to page 33. The Apocalypse Engine version of the game, which it titles perhaps confusingly as Powered by the Apocalypse (but there is no commonly accepted term for "the mechanical guts of Apocalypse World", I've only made "Apocalypse Engine" up), runs from page 34 to 75 and includes its own playbooks and mechanical guidance on how to run it - the "get a token, spend a token, you can always" trichotomy of No Dice, No Masters is completely absent.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great referencing! +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 9:32

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