Atma is a card-based, rules-light, improvisational PbtA game, which is perfect for the first-time Game Master and for new role players. Rather than use maps, locations are represented as cards, and you gloss over how characters move between the locations, as the game is structured around three scenes (three location cards). Rather than character sheets, characters are also represented by cards, which will include a starting move, some random moves (drawn before Scene 1 and Scene 2), and a randomly selected Super Move for Scene 3. Any loot items the PCs find are also represented as cards, often unlocking additional moves.
For the GM, when a player rolls 6 or less on a 2d6, they take a token. Tokens can be spent by narrating harm to a character (placing the token on that PC’s card), by buying characters and complications from the cards available to them (which vary depending on setting), or to invoke powerful moves from NPCs’ cards. In most PbtA games, the GM needs to improvise what complications develop on a 6-, but this token system is much more beginner friendly. It also seems to make failures less punishing for players, keeping the narrative from spiraling out of control as can happen with traditional PbtA games.
Things I love about Atma:
- How little prep is required
- The overall structure of the game as centered on 3 scenes
- The great art and the evocative writing
- The virtual tabletop, as it turns out I like to look at cards during play rather than having to update a map (and of course spend prep time picking out a battle map and monster icons).
Things I could have done better when GMing Atma myself:
- I probably called for rolls too often
- I should have watched the clock better; we took 3.5 hours, about the length of a normal Dungeon World session
- I should have spent tokens on the NPCs’ moves more often
- I never let a player succeed on a 6- (I typically had more tokens than I wanted and they were succeeding a lot, so the last thing I wanted was an additional token).
Things I wished for:
- A card with the Script Change icons, so I could introduce that easily as a safety tool and narrative aid; in my first session GMing, we rewound once, only when I misunderstood what a character was trying to attempt
- A timeline (e.g., 15 minutes for intros, 30 minutes for scene 1, 30 minutes for scene 2, 45 minutes for scene 3; not sure what makes sense)
- A general NPC card silhouetted against a landscape, with four health (because I could put harm on it to lower its health); I didn’t have enough troops for what was developing in the fiction
- A generic loot box card as well, for use as a generic prop
- When I collapsed the players’ cards in the VTT, I wanted them to be side to side in a row so I could see their names
- Being able to log into the game later to see the transcript and cards, but the game was gone.
- It’s a hard game to homebrew – you’re not going to create cards as evocative as what comes with the game (not there’s much need to homebrew)
- Here is a fun read on the design effort that went into creating characters.
I strongly encourage everyone to try Atma. You know how you buy a tabletop RPG book and never get it to the table even though you want to? Atma is the opposite of that – geared for one-shots, we ended up playing it a bunch without planning to – we played it 10 times last summer! After playing online, we bought the physical cards, and had a great time working our way through the different regions. I describe Atma as “gonzo fun,” and we had gonzo fun, complete with antigravity motorbikes driving up the side of a skyscraper in one session!
Atma is madly creative, with a great built-in setting. This past year I’ve really been resonating with RPGs with great, dynamic structures for settings: Stonetop, Blades in the Dark, and Atma.
Illustration credit: Copyright 2022 by Pixray. Permission granted for non-commercial use.