How I use Powered by the Apocalypse

A lot of this thinking comes from playing Babes in the Wood with the artist of this piece. Fun times, cousin. 🙂

Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games are derived from the Apocalypse World. Derived in that they might share one or more of these things:

  • GM Agendas, Principles, and Moves
  • Player Moves and Playbooks
  • “Success but” outcomes in addition to straight Success and Fail outcomes (usually on 2d6)

The more of these a game has, the more recognizably PbtA it is. Examples include Dungeon World, Uncharted Worlds, many of Magpie Games’s catalog including the Root RPG, Masks – A New Generation, Urban Shadows, and the official and massively funded Avatar: The Last Airbender RPG. Most of these games adhere to all three of those PbtA attributes.

What PbtA does well

PbtA games emulate genres. They have a specific pitch and then invite you to makes stories “like this.” There are usually specific touchstones involved, like the show Cowboy Bebop for the game Space Bounty Blues or the miniseries Over the Garden Wall for the Babes in the Wood. Both of these games outline a specific structure or guidelines that help create games that run like the source material with (some) deviation.

When running PbtA as a GM, it can feel like the game is holding your hand. It can be pleasant like holding the hand of a loved one, or like being yanked around like a unruly child through a supermarket. The game can almost “correct” your ideas of what will happen by interjecting things like “now introduce a new danger!” or “now the player has to show the NPC that they’re trustworthy” or “now the GM makes a move” kinda like a director. Like a director, the game can give good guidance or just be pushy.

For early GMs, this might do quite well. Many others I know point to Dungeon World or some other PbtA that showed them the fundamental to running a game well and making explicit what they may have already know. That’s how I got into PbtA initially, and it gave a really good impression.

After some time…

I remember reading a thread somewhere asking “What do people do after running Dungeon World for a while?” where the top response was “You’ll probably go back to playing other games, but with a new sense of how to run it. You’ll see the back and forth of GM and player moves without it needing to be written down. You’ll introduce those “Success, but” outcomes without the dice demanding it.” And that’s what happened to me.

Now there three ways I use PbtA games:

  • Brain fuel
  • GM-less games
  • One-move games

Brain fuel

It’s how I’ll be using the Avatar: The Last Airbender RPG when it arrives on my doorstep. There’s also a dope cloth map coming with it. 🙂

It’s inspirational to see your favorite media including shows and board games turn into games. Each page has you thinking “Ooooh clever. That’s meant to be like the moment in the show/game where…” fill in the blank. Each move outlines dramatic possibilities. Each GM move further illuminates the role of Game Master.

You can generate characters, leveraging the playbooks as archetypes more than rules. You often build interesting protagonists by selecting from a list of evocative options instead of rolling randomly.

PbtA, more than any other game system, shows possible gameplay and where things CAN go very clearly. Just read the moves and you can get a sense for what the outcomes can do.

GM-less games

Babes in the Wood, Space Bounty Blues, and Ironsworn all have GM-less options (I’m sure there are many more). And PbtA does quite well with this by guiding the table through the process instead of demanding that you ask the oracle the “yes/no” questions until something interesting happens. Each game outlines and structures how to move forward with play via it’s moves.

Having a game that holds your hand can go a long way at a table with three people looking at each other, wondering what happens next and maybe a little timid to just shout their version of what “should happen.”

One-move games

This is why people keep coming back to World of Dungeons. Well, one of the reasons. It capitalizes on the original dice mechanic that in itself creates so much good drama:

When you attempt something risky, sum 2d6 and add one of your attribute scores, based on the action you’re taking. A total of 6 or less is a miss; things don’t go well and the risk turns out badly. A total of 7-9 is a partial success; you do it, but there’s some cost, compromise, retribution, harm, etc. A total of 10 or more is a full success; you do it without complications.

That’s the move. Everything else more or less springs from this. It’s a loaded gun that forces people to ask “Okay, what’s something interesting that moves the action forward?” You can make a lot of Firefly, Star Wars, Indiana Jones-like moments just from this. But also TV interpersonal drama moments. It’s a very flexible tool.

To collapse other PbtA games into one-move, just remove the moves and replace it with this. And, I’ll argue, the numbers.

So, 2d6. 10 or more is success. 7-9 is “success, but.” 6 or less is failure. Even without adding anything, you have a 58% chance of getting “success, but” or better. That’s neither too punishing or too rewarding. Rolling is always a risk and still allows for “upset outcomes,” either positive or negative. Good. But why have the numbers?

The numbers create unneeded complexity, differentiation between characters and, worst of all, balancing issues. Just ask the DEX and INT stat which is used more at a table of Dungeon World. The numbers really don’t change player behavior anyway. And the archetypes do plenty of the heavy lifting for making players feel different. And advancement? If you’re thinking that the stats need to go up to encourage players to play, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Play promotes play. Especially in a game where every action can be met with “You did it. You did the thing. BUT, now there’s a new problem that arises. Things are getting more complicated. They always do for you, sweet adventurer, I know. What do you do now?”

That’s a lot of the driving force of these games.

One thought on “How I use Powered by the Apocalypse

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