2d6 and 3 out of 5

On a very primal level, one of my favorite things about the various Powered by the Apocalypse games is that they use 2d6 for resolution. It’s just about the simplest possible way to generate a curve, using the most ubiquitously available dice. The math is easy and fast. It uses an even number of dice, which may seem like a small thing, but is important when you want to buy cool dice (you don’t want to know how much I paid for the metal set I picked up at Gencon).

But PBTA was far from the first 2d6 system, and and I can’t think of another such system that has been so sticky. A big part of that is, I think, that PBTA has driven forth a very concrete means of reading the dice that only generates 3 outcomes1 with very little player training. Once the player has internalized that 7-9 is the middle result, they can easily infer whether they’be done better or worse.

There’s some interesting knock-on effects to this. First, it rewards the simplicity of the dice. It would be easy to produce a more nuanced curve with more or different dice, but that could impede the ease of learning that core number. It would also introduce a temptation to get fiddle, which would also detract from the simplicity.

It also allows for the designer to play GM in a very concrete way. The design of a move is a decision bout how an activity should look – that’s one of its big strengths. It’s apparently simple design actually conceals something a little more complicated. I’ve talked about this before, but the most direct way this is expressed is the range of outcomes. Consider:

10+ Success with Benefit
7-9 Success
6- Complication


10+ Success
7-9 Success with Complication
6- Problem


10+ Success with Complication
7-9 Not Quite Failure
6- Ha ha ha ha ha

As you look through PBTA material, you can find all three of these patterns (and others) reflecting the designer’s take on that particular sort of action in the context of the genre. Sometimes this is applied with grace and nuance, sometimes it’s shotgunned across things as an expression of the designer’s taste. Which is fine – PBTA is an opinionated game system, so this is a feature.

But, of course, it makes me go hmm.

If one wanted to start from the core idea (a simply expressed narrow range of outcomes) it would probably be possible to create an ur-list of maybe 5 outcomes. You could theoretically produce three sets of moves out of it (high, medium, low) out of that set. So, suppose the list is:

  • movespectrumSuccess with Added benefit
  • Success
  • Success at a cost
  • Mitigated Failure/Complications
  • Disaster

So a “nice” move would be

10+ Success with Added benefit
7-9 Success
6- Success at a cost


And an average move would be

10+ Success
7-9 Success at a cost
6- Mitigated Failure/Complications

while an “unkind” move would be

10+ Success at a cost
7-9 Mitigated Failure/Complications
6- Disaster


Such an approach would not need to replace any existing moves so much as simply provide a set of guidelines for whipping up moves on the fly. And that works on paper, but it has one big drawback – it is effectively a back donor for inserting difficulty into PBTA and that is probably a very bad thing indeed.

So I’m not so sure there’s much use for this idea in the context of PBTA as anything but a shiny bauble. However, as an indicator for how to maybe steal a chunk of PBTA tech and use it elsewhere, this may prove a very interesting starting point.

  1. Yes, there are ultra-positive results in some builds, but they are something of a sidebar. ↩︎

9 thoughts on “2d6 and 3 out of 5

  1. thiago/bispo

    Hm… interesting analysis.

    Regarding your last statement (“[…] an indicator for how to maybe steal a chunk of PBTA tech and use it elsewhere, this may prove a very interesting starting point”), do you think all moves must follow a pattern (generous/average/harsh) or they can be interchangeable inside a game idea?

    Speaking differently, on a “nice” setting (e.g. Care Bears RPG) there is room for a “harsh” move?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      So, I don’t think any game would use any mode *all* the time, but you might decide on a baseline, then vary from it as the situation arises.

  2. Luca Beltrami

    John Harper’s Blades in the Dark pretty much runs in this direction with the idea of Postion (fictional position rather than physical)

    Seen through the lens of PtbA, Blades in the Dark has only one move, Act Under Fire, which comes in 3 variants depending on how dangerous the situation is for the character, although rather than moving up and down the slide, it stays at success/success at cost/failure for all three variants but increases the cost and consequences of failure

  3. Avi

    “it is effectively a back donor for inserting difficulty into PBTA and that is probably a very bad thing indeed.”
    Why is that the case?
    I’m not disagreeing, it’s just not obvious to me.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It’s a question of intent – I don’t think it’s *supposed* to have difficulties, so it’s bad insofar as it ignores that design intent.

      As to whether it’s *actually* bad? That’s probably more fiddly.

      1. Sandra

        Also, I think that adv/disadv rules, or difficulty rules, is a very effective way of getting fictional positioning to matter (Fate aspects are another way) and AW already is built around a third way to do it — the moves and outcomes.

        It can become redundant and inelegant to cross the streams. (But, Always Be Testing — it can become awesome maybe?)

        1. Avi

          Blades in the Dark explicitly includes difficulties that arise from fictional positioning. I guess it moves towards Rob’s 3 of 5 approach and generalises the moves.

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