What is PbtA?

PbtA stands for “Powered by the Apocalypse.” It means games inspired by our original game Apocalypse World, and now games inspired by other PbtA games more generally. It’s a self-applied label: because it depends on a game’s inspirations, only the game’s creator can really tell you whether their game’s PbtA or not.

History of PbtA

We began writing Apocalypse World in 2008 and published it in 2010.

While we were working on it, we shared our drafts and playtest documents with a number of our colleagues. Several of them, inspired by what we were doing, started work on games of their own. By the time we published in 2010, these games were already in development:

  • Dungeon World
  • Monsterhearts
  • Monster of the Week
  • Tremulus
  • and Ghost Lines, an immediate precursor to Blades in the Dark

We knew what was coming. We announced our policy toward inspired-by games, Meg coined the term “Powered by the Apocalypse,” and we set up a webforum to support new game development.

For a couple of years, we were able to keep up with the development-in-progress of almost every new PbtA game that came out.

For a couple of years after that, we were able to maintain a database of nearly all the PbtA games.

By 2015 or 2016, we gave up trying to keep track. New PbtA games came out faster than I could update our database.

There are hundreds of PbtA games available today.

Our Policy

Our policy toward PbtA games is based simply on our read of copyright law:

  • If you want to publish a game inspired by Apocalypse World or by other PbtA games, please do!
  • To publish our words — passages directly from our games, verbatim or close versions of our moves or rules text, copies of our lists — you need our permission. Contact us and tell us what you’d like to include in your game, so that we can grant it.
  • To publish your own work, we’d love to hear from you, but you don’t need our permission at all. We ask that you include a line in your credits or notes page to the effect that your game was inspired by Apocalypse World by Meguey & Vincent Baker.
  • If you’d like to use our PbtA logo, you do need our permission. Please contact us so we can grant it.

As far as we’re concerned, this is what “Powered by the Apocalypse” means. Any game is PbtA if its creator was inspired by Apocalypse World or other PbtA games, and has chosen to call their game PbtA in turn.

Conventions in PbtA Games

Apocalypse World had a number of features that made it stand out from other games at the time. These came to be associated with PbtA games more broadly:

  • “Playbooks” as a form of character class.
  • 2d6+Stat dice rolls.
  • 3-tier dice results: 10+ as a strong hit, 7–9 as a weak hit, 6 or less as a miss.
  • “Moves,” succinct and narrowly focused action-based resolution subsystems.
  • Sets of “basic moves” common to all PCs and “playbook moves” unique to each PC.
  • Exclusively player-side dice rolling, where the GM never rolls dice.
  • “Master of Ceremony”-style GMing, based on a system of agendas, rules, principles, and moves.
  • “Play to find out what happens,” meaning that the GM doesn’t prep a storyline or future events.
  • …And more.

While many PbtA games include some or all of these features, others don’t. You shouldn’t expect a game to adhere to any particular PbtA conventions, just because it calls itself PbtA.

When you encounter someone who says “PbtA isn’t a system,” this is what they’re talking about. Pick up a GURPS book, a D20 book, or a Fate book, and you already know what rules it’s going to use. GURPS, D20, and Fate are game systems. This isn’t true of PbtA! Pick up a new PbtA book, and you don’t know which rules trends it’ll include and which it’ll contradict.

If you’ve created a game that’s been inspired by Apocalypse World or other PbtA games, but ignores or contradicts PbtA conventions, it’s your own decision whether to call it PbtA. As a matter of policy, we don’t insist either way.

Once in a while there’s someone who tries to gatekeep PbtA, telling our fellow creators that, for instance, their game “isn’t PbtA enough,” doesn’t “add anything worthwhile to PbtA,” or will “confuse a PbtA audience.” We have no patience for this.

PbtA Offshoots

Some notable outlier games have inspired new trends and design movements of their own:

  • Blades in the Dark, with Forged in the Dark.
  • Dream Askew & Dream Apart, with Belonging Outside Belonging
  • Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands, with the Firebrands Framework.

To us, these games and their offshoots represent great successes of the PbtA project. I’ll hold them up as examples: boldly defying PbtA conventions is a fun and worthwhile effort, not something you should avoid.

Alternate Definitions of PbtA

As far as our policy is concerned, this is the definition, but depending on the context, people might use the term PbtA in a few other ways:

  • Games that are not only inspired by Apocalypse World, but that adhere to the conventions of mainstream PbtA design. For instance, I’ve heard, “sure, Apocalypse World started it all, but it’s a pretty weird game, I’m not positive it’d even still count as PbtA today.”
  • Games that were evidently inspired by Apocalypse World, whether their creators identify them as PbtA or not. For instance, I’ve said myself, “not all PbtA games are called PbtA by their creators, sometimes for very good reasons.”
  • Games that share certain core design features, that the speaker considers essential to PbtA design. For instance, I’ve heard, “all you really need for a PbtA game is playbooks and MC principles.”
  • Games that, from a consumer’s point of view, match the expectations you’ve formed about PbtA games. For instance, someone once wrote me, “hey Vincent, I saw ‘PbtA mech pilots’ and clicked ‘buy now,’ but Firebrands is NOT the game I expected. Can I get a refund?” (Yes, you certainly can!)

This is fine! There’s no sense wrangling over which is the true definition. They’re useful for different purposes in different conversations — and knowing that there are different definitions can help you navigate them.

The best approach is surely just to be clear how you’re using the term at the time, the same way you’d approach any term with multiple possible meanings.

PbtA Over Time

A diagram of concentric rings: Apocalypse World at the center, then Classic PbtA games in the first ring, Contemporary PbtA games in the next ring, and Future PbtA games in the outermost ring. PbtA, it says, has gotten bigger over time, and will continue to grow with future PbtA games.

Each new PbtA game changes and expands what “PbtA” means and includes.

Don’t ask:
Is this game really PbtA?

Instead ask:
How is this game like and unlike other PbtA games?
What and how does this game contribute to the changing medium?

Digging Into PbtA

I’ve written a series of articles digging into PbtA from a designer’s point of view, with more installments to come:

Powered by the Apocalypse
Part 1: Philosophy & Foundation
Part 2: Walkthrough
Part 3: Basic Moves & the Conflict Model
Part 4: Playbooks
Part 5: Move Variations
Part 6: An Alternative to the Conflict Model
Part 7: Q&A: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3, Round 4
Part 8: Tricks for Drafting Moves
Part 9: That’s What’s Happening

If you’re interested in a deeper look, please check them out.

Summary

  • PbtA means “Powered by the Apocalypse” — games inspired by Apocalypse World, as self-identified by their creators.
  • By the time we published Apocalypse World in 2010, there were already several PbtA games in development. We knew what was coming.
  • If you’ve made a PbtA game, you need our permission to publish our work, but you don’t need our permission to publish your own work. Please list Apocalypse World’s influence in your game’s credits or notes, and if you want to use our PbtA logo, contact us so that we can grant permission.
  • There are a number of trends, fads, and conventions in PbtA games, but PbtA itself isn’t defined by any of them. Any given PbtA game might include or contradict them, align with your expectations or defy them. “PbtA isn’t a system,” the saying goes.
  • Don’t gatekeep PbtA for other creators.
  • Some outlier PbtA games have launched offshoot design movements of their own, like Forged in the Dark, Belonging Outside Belonging, and the Firebrands Framework.
  • As far as our policy is concerned, there’s only one definition of PbtA. However, in other contexts, other definitions might be useful. The best approach is always just to define your terms and try to make it clear what you mean.
  • Each new PbtA game — from Apocalypse World to the classic PbtA games, to new PbtA games and future PbtA games — changes and expands what “PbtA” includes.
  • For a deeper look into PbtA as an approach to design, check out my article series, starting here: PbtA Part 1: Philosophy & Foundation

Thanks!

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