5 Tips for New PbtA GMS!

Hello GMs!

Are you eager to run your first Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, but aren’t sure where to start? Are you an experienced game master for traditional games —like the ones with dragons—but looking to try something new? Have you never run a game in your life?

We got you!

Some of the benefits of PbtA are the reduced prep time, quick character creation, and greater player involvement in world building.

Tip 1: Involve the Players in the World
The fastest way to involve players in your world is during Session Zero. While we typically discuss Session Zero as a method of establishing safety tools, it’s also the ideal place to discuss tone, theme, and setting with your players. Allow them to help you create the world. What are they looking forward to seeing or what places are they looking forward to visiting? What type of campaign are they interested in tackling? One with a lot of combat and derring-do? Or one of romance, political intrigue, and mystery?

Character creation in many PbtA games like Magpie’s Bluebeard’s Bride and Epyllion have players create bonds between their characters as part of character creation. Not only does this tie the players to one another, it also establishes what kind of world they want to adventure in. For example, did they grow up together on a farm? Now you know there’s a farm in the game. Did they rescue a baby otterbat from the clutches of a venomous bearsquid? Well, those are creatures in your world now.

Another way PbtA truly shines in player involvement is that players can continue to create the world throughout gameplay. When arriving at a destination, ask a player to describe it. (For example, “Alucard, you’re from this town, where should we eat? What’s the town delicacy?” “Professor Buttons, this is your grandparents’ home. What does it look like?”) Note that not all players are accustomed to this and may be reluctant to “co-GM” in this way. Never force a player to take on this role if they are unwilling. In our experience, however, players are more willing to take on this role than their GMs expect!

Tip 2: Always Fail Forward
Unlike in many traditional games, failure in PbtA never never stops the flow of gameplay. In fact, it’s often how to gain experience! Players want to level up, so let them fail magnificently and often. Another way to tackle a failed roll is to give the players what they want, but at a steep cost. Perhaps the players convince the werewolf they mean them no harm, but now the werewolf comes to them whenever their pack needs help. Perhaps the players have to choose between an endangered creature’s habitat or their squadmate becoming possessed. Make it hurt, within the bounds established in Session Zero, so the stakes are always in their mind.

Tip 3: Keep the Spotlight Moving
We’ve all experienced spotlight hogs. Part of the role of the GM is to bounce the spotlight around from player to player. You know their backstories and bonds from as established in Tip 1, so bring them in and see how they react. Be sure to spotlight players or characters who aren’t speaking up as much to ensure they get as much gameplay as they would like. Note, however, that some players truly enjoy taking a backseat role. If you offer them the spotlight and they hand it off to another player, don’t force them to be in the foreground.

Tip 4: Force them to Make Tough Choices
PbtA is all about tough choices, as we touched on in Tip 2. This does not mean punishing your players. Instead, give them a hard choice and see what they do. Will they sacrifice themselves to save a favorite NPC? They have established their goals, values, and ties with each other in character creation, and ideally, these are frequently enforced through gameplay. Press on these relationships, as well as their relationships with NPCs to see how they respond. At the end of each GM move or tough decision, Aalways ask “what do you do?”

Tip 5: Play to Find Out Together
After the stress of running traditional games where the GM determines everything, PbtA is a place where you can relax a bit. You’re not in charge of everything for once! Isn’t that nice? Let your players take you to weird places. They are likely aching to go to them, so follow them on the journey. If introducing players to a new game, be mindful that your players might not know the names of the moves. Guide them based on what they tell you they want to do, tying the moves to the fiction of the game. (For example, Player: “I feel like I want to skirt past him. Can I roll to sneak?” GM: “Sounds like you want to Mislead or Trick. Roll me some Cunning, please!”)

If you’re running a campaign, a great way to stay on top of players’ needs and interests is with a session debrief. Ask them their favorite parts of each session as well as what they’d like to see in upcoming sessions! This allows you to shape the campaign to suit everyone’s desires. Remember you’re a player, too, so speak up in those debriefs and have fun!

Good luck and have a great game!


Author: Jessica Marcrum (she/her)
Twitter: @Miss_Jess03