Playing The Apocalypse – being a better player in PBTA games

Last weekend, I was at Revelation – possibly the world’s only PBTA face to face con. It’s in Sheffield, UK, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to get a big dose of PBTA or PBTA-adjacent gaming (games of FITD and similar drifts are allowed). It got me thinking on best practices for playing these games, which often take a bit of a shift in mindset to get right. There’s tons of GM/MC advice around, but I think these games – particularly the factiony / PvP ones – need a shift in mindset from everyone at the table, and so here are my player top tips

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Talk Hard

If you’re having a ‘proper conversation’ with a PC, or NPC, try to push it towards a move. What are you really trying to get out of them, and how can you get it? It’s fine to remind the GM what you’re shooting at, or to negotiate with them for what you’re going for, but in PBTA the split between roleplaying/talking scenes and action/combat scenes in many cases doesn’t exist. 

Often the “Find Information” move is underused in PBTA games – the questions you get to ask often develop plot really well – so pitch towards them where you can. You should expect to be triggering moves when you’re, for instance, asking about the murder or trying to persuade the cops to leave you alone.

Think One Step – But Only One Step – Ahead

In some player-driven games like Urban Shadows or Apocalypse World itself, there’s often an expectation on players to drive plot. The GM might well turn to you and ask what your PC does next, or even ask you to set the scene. This can be daunting! To avoid this, think about what your character’s next step is, and be ready to try and achieve that. It might be fairly loose – if I’m starting out as a Vamp in Urban Shadows, my first plan might just be to get some allies – so I’ll be visiting some established NPC or PC and trying to negotiate a mutual deal.

A word of caution – PBTA games thrive on twisting plots and loyalties, so thinking more than one step ahead is unlikely to be a fruitful exercise. But having a broad plan of action, and your PC’s next step, will give you something to shoot at.

Be An XP Hunter!

Many PBTA games have advancement, or XP systems, deliberately built to drive good play. So keep one eye on how you can earn XP, and be prepared to do it. For instance, in SCUP, you get an XP for the first Honor move you do each session, so you’re incentivised to bring your Faction into play and spend Honor points – do it! 

Many games have moves that allow you to earn XP by complying with other players – it’s absolutely fine and encouraged to set up these situations so you can both earn XP. Advancement will just unlock more options, many of which will drive plot and offer more interesting things to do, so feel free to use this as a driver when you’re picking your next step to do.

Don’t Overthink It

Playing RPGs in your head is rubbish. Your big secret plan, or long-contemplated backstory, is worth nothing if it isn’t shared with the table. This is always true, but even more true in PBTA! If you want something, go ahead and get it – don’t worry about showing your hand, or sharing your secrets, at the table. PBTA overwhelmingly works better when players know one another’s secrets and can bring them into play as well – as an author or an audience as well as an actor – so wear your heart on your sleeve.

Do What The Game Says

Having a moves sheet in front of you helps to show you the kind of things you can do (but obviously don’t look to it for the answer of what to do – for that you need your next step plan). The game will likely have advice on the playbook, or in the text, about best practices for play – and Player Principles – these are an actual part of the game. If you’re not following the Player Principles, the game won’t work – like MC Moves and Agendas, they’re as much part of the game as rolling 2d6 and adding a bonus.

So, there’s my top tips for PBTA play. If you’ve got any that you think I’ve missed (or that you think I’m wrong about – I’m aware there’s a school of thought that says move sheets should be kept MC-only!) – let me know in the comments!


  1. […] Playing The Apocalypse – being a better player in PBTA games @ Burn After Running – Some solid advice here. I’ve still not played any PBTA games, despite having a real interest in them. As such, I’ll be circulating this article to my fellow players before our upcoming game of Avatar! […]



  2. Your character is a protagonist. Your character has an agenda and the means to make things happen. You act on your own interest over the interests of the group. Play hard, play to win.

    PBtA is different from both old school adventuring thugs/puzzle solvers and from consensus based story games. Pulling your punches is less fun for everyone in PBtA.



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