Powering Up

A New Player’s Guide
to Powered By The Apocalypse

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard little bits about what the Role Playing Game (RPG) genre Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) means. This article is provided as an entry to begin thinking about it, and a slice of what the PbtA games culture is talking about now (late June 2020). I assume, going forward, that you’ve played or watched some Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), but not much more. This piece is kind of going to be about communicating why I love PbtA, and how to choose the first game you try. 

About the Author 

I am an RPG analyst and descriptivist. I’m also the host of a PbtA podcast called “The Hard Move” and have an RPG review show in development called “dConstruct”. I am one of the many people who has made “thinking about games too much” a replacement for a personality. 

The Conclusion First

A game Powered By The Apocalypse means that it will be a Fiction First game that focuses on emulating genre and archetypes to “find out”, rather than simulating worlds to build story1. It is a system established where fiction conflicts with fiction, and the numbers support it. In comparison to D&D, where rules conflict with rules, and fiction is built in support of that. The joy, the “tactics” of PbtA are about driving your character into situations that you find engaging, and the game supports those situations with rules. Thematically, as a deviation from your experience with D&D, PbtA is far more cinematic and far less tactical minuta. It revels in the near-reality of western storytelling, in zooming in on points of action and zooming out on the bits in between, and each different game zooms in and out on different moments to establish a different kind of fun. In Powered By The Apocalypse “what makes sense in the conversation we’re having” is always the most important factor. 

Why should you play PbtA?

PbtA should interest you if you want to emulate your favourite tv shows, play out stories like your favourite moves, and be the main characters of the world you produce. It should also interest you if your favourite parts of D&D are the thrilling descriptions of wild magics, or the desperate fear of being charged by a Minotaur. If, for you, role playing is about saying interesting stuff rather than outsmarting a chess puzzle, then this is where you want to be. Because the fun of PbtA games is often in building good fiction to create interesting results, it means that those moments of awesome storytelling is so much more than just splashing colour and chewing scenery. Where, in D&D, good storytelling can support or surround play, in PbtA generating interesting fiction is the core experience of play, and so much more rewarding. 

It should also interest you if your favourite parts of D&D are the thrilling descriptions of wild magics, or the desperate fear of being charged by a Minotaur. If, for you, role playing is about saying interesting stuff rather than outsmarting a chess puzzle, then this is where you want to be.

Learning a New Game is Hard

Teaching PbtA has been, in my experience, a lot easier than teaching D&D. I used to run D&D learner tables at my local game store, teaching 6 new players each month, and it is drastically easier to teach and learn PbtA. Part of this is because the mechanics limit your behaviour a lot less. In D&D if a player attempts to do something outside of the game rules, I’m forced to say “no”. For example, a fighter diving into a horde of foes and striking out in every direction (“you can’t do that, you can only attack one enemy”). However, in PbtA I can follow that awesome story, and offer consequences commensurate with their actions. The other reason is that “the conversation” is an easier way to engage players than structured initiative and action economies. Players who don’t know the scope of their available choices in D&D can be met with “analysis paralysis”2. where in PbtA new players can respond to direct, pointed questions. These players don’t need to look to a move sheet to understand their options (though they can), rather, they can simply tell you what they do fictionally, and you can respond with moves, and when the players trigger a mechanic you can bring it up, as if you’ve “stumbled into” the rules.

The History

In 2010 a game was released that started all of this. That game was called Apocalypse World, and was written by Vincent Baker and published under his own lumply games. Since, a second edition has been published including Meguey Baker as a designer. To be reductive, Apocalypse World is a role playing game about post-apocalyptic communities and their scarcity and excess. Think Mad Max Fury Road, by way of Fallout New Vegas. This is the eponymous game from which all “Apocalypse” games are “Powered”. You’ll also notice that there is a general trend toward early PbtA games taking the *World titling scheme, though that is far from a defining factor of the genre (especially now, after some ten years of “worlding” every noun we could find). Apocalypse World’s largest innovation was the idea of “the conversation”. This is supported by rules through a codified list of Moves, both for the players, and for the Game Master, here called a Master of Ceremonies.

Sidebar: Colourful language

Colourful Language. Vincent Baker is a “cagey” writer, to use his own words. He’s also a master of evocative language taking the place of clarity, which has also become a mainstay of the genre. While this can be a barrier to entry of PbtA games, it is also what allows so much of PbtA’s mechanics to function. As we’ll see later, a lot of what makes PbtA’s rules special is the degree of interpretation. 

The Conversation

All PbtA play is framed by “the conversation”. The conversation is, literally, the talking we’re doing at the table. The conversation can look as simple as the diagram below. The “fluffiness” of the cloud is meant to represent the fluffiness of the discussion. It’s not anchored in anything, there’s no codified boundaries. We’re just vibing. While we’re not engaging with rules, this is what The Conversation tends to be. An example of this is the “free role play” style of D&D games (“We did a whole session and didn’t roll a single die!”) Low stakes exploration through cities, overworld travel, and the like. The important part of this is that we, as people, are engaging with this sort of ephemeral “shared fictional space”. This looks like a really basic discussion at this point, but we’re going to build up from here.

Moves

Moves are the mechanical “actions” of PbtA, they’re when the mechanics of the game take over. The importance of moves is that they are not triggered in the same way as D&D’s actions. In D&D, the player has permission to use a certain number of actions, and the player is allowed to build fiction around that if they wish. The actual permission for damage comes from the Attack action, and can only be modified in as many ways as the rules allow. In PbtA, the permission for a result comes from the story, and the mechanics are subservient to that fiction.

Sidebar: Move Structure

Moves structure is usually:
When you [do something in the fiction], you [engage with the game’s mechanics].
On a result of 7 or more, you get [pretty much what you want].
On a 10 or more, you additionally [get some extra benefit or avoid a consequence].
If, however, you get a six or less, [bad things happen]. 3

Here’s an example move:
When you directly engage a threat, roll + Danger.
On a hit, trade blows.
On a 10+, pick two. On a 7-9, pick one.
• resist or avoid their blows
• take something from them
• create an opportunity for your allies
• impress, surprise, or frighten the opposition 4

The move can be separated into 4 parts: Fictional input, mechanical input, fictional output, mechanical output. The fictional input is how we make the move happen. “When you directly engage a threat, then this is the rule that we use”5. The mechanical input is where the rules take over and randomness is added: “roll 2d6, add them together, and add your modifier for the Danger stat”. The mechanical output is then the choices that can be made. In PbtA Parlance, a “hit” is a 7+, a “miss” is a result of 6-. In this move, on a result between 7 and 9 inclusive, you will either take their blows back, or not get everything you want. The fictional output is then what follows, us bringing those choice back to the story. Astute readers will notice that this flow fits into “the conversation” as described earlier. 

So our conversation now looks like this, with a new notation. Cloud shapes indicate “fiction” and squares indicate “mechanics”.

The description above may make it seem like moves in PbtA and actions in D&D5e are very similar. They both take a game situation, look to the dice for a little spice, and then come back to the players for the story. And that’s a perfectly good way to look at them, the two core differences in Actions and Moves lay in the Trigger, and the Stakes. 

The Trigger – PbtA’s Special Sauce

Several different character actions may all engage with the same Action in D&D5e. For example, my fighter stands toe to toe with their sworn foe raising their sword, my ranger looses an arrow from their greatbow at their frightened quarry, and my barbarian attempts to smash down a door to escape a charging minotaur. In D&D5e, each of these three are different interactions with the “attack Action”. In each case, we engage with the same mechanic (roll+modifer+proficiency bonus), and in each case we engage with the same stakes (on hit, deal your damage, on miss nothing happens). However, because PbtA games want to emulate a specific genre, each of these fictional triggers may engage with a different Move. 

For example: The fighter stands toe-to-toe with a sworn enemy, triggers Divided I Stand 6. The ranger hunting from the shadows triggers Dirty Fighting 7. The Barbarian attempting to smash through a door triggers Bend Bars Lift Gates 8. The specifics of each Move aren’t important, what is important is that each of these games has decided that this is a discrete moment in play, and deserves its own rule.

This fundamental difference is where a lot of the fun of PbtA comes. When written well, these triggers are specific enough that they drive an interesting story, but broad enough that they offer players a fun way to interact with them. Players can engage with whether they attack their enemies alone to trigger the Divided I Stand move, or from a flanking position for Dirty Fighting. Or are they manipulating someone, or going aggro on them?

Apocalypse World’s primary Move for players to get information is called “Read a Sitch”, which has the trigger “When you read a charged situation,” and it is the specificity of the situation requiring some version of charged where a lot of juice gets made: 

Marie the brainer goes looking for Isle, to visit grief upon her, and finds her eating canned peaches on the roof of the car shed with her brother Mill and her lover Plover (all NPCs). 
“I read the situation,” her player says. 
“You do? It’s charged?” I say.
“It is now.” 
“Ahh,” I say. I understand perfectly: the three NPCs don’t realize it, but Marie’s arrival charges the situation. If it were a movie, the sound track would be picking up, getting sinister.

Apocalypse World 2e pg 126

In this example, the feeling of both the small-c “conversation” between characters, and the capital-C conversation between players has changed because the player wanted to engage with the Read a Sitch move, and to do so requires the situation to be “charged”. Now this isn’t a casual chat between these characters, it’s bristling. Because Apocalypse World wants to be a story that is focused on tensions and bristling violence between people, it can create a Move trigger that encourages that kind of fiction. It’s a story about charge situations, so it has Moves that demand charged situations, so players charge situations to engage with those Moves. It’s a beautiful cycle of design.

Different PbtA games will use different triggers to highlight different parts of the story. For example, The Veil is a cyberpunk game about philosophy of identity and humanity in a futuristic world. The Sprawl is a cyberpunk game about pulling heists and shooting guards. They want to angle toward drastically different parts of the story. For this reason, the triggers of the Veil are often more ephemeral and introspective (“When you search the vast accumulated knowledge of The Veil or interact with something new in an attempt to understand humanity and what your place may be in it, roll.” 9 ), while the triggers of The Sprawl are more concrete and actionable (“When you spring a trap for a target you have investigated, roll Edge” 10). Neither is better, mind you 11, which is why it’s important to consider what type of story your players want to play (because a player who wants to do a guns blazing, high octane cyberpunk heist will always find The Veil wanting). 

The important takeaway in our discussion is that the danger of the beast doesn’t come from the numbers, but from how it interacts with the triggers of the moves, and the interest to the characters isn’t about pitting numbers against numbers, but about spinning the fiction to generate an exciting story.

Stakes

The other difference between Moves and Actions is the stakes, and this is often the reason why “which move are we triggering here” really matters. Here’s an example: Monsterhearts 2 is a game of teenage drama through the metaphor of monster tropes. The shy teenager who feels “invisible” is actually a ghost. The pubescent boy with body changes and newfound aggression is really a werewolf. The major conflicts of Monsterhearts are social leveraging between teenagers, and two of its main moves in service to that are Turn Someone On, and Shut Someone Down. 

Turn Someone On 
When you turn someone on, roll with Hot. 
On a 10 up, gain a String on them and they choose a reaction from below. 
On a 7-9, they can either give you a String or choose one of the reactions. 
•I give myself to you, 
•I promise something I think you want, or 
•I get embarrassed and act awkward

Shut Someone Down 
When you shut someone down, roll with Cold. 
On a 10 up, choose one from below. 
On a 7-9, choose one from below, but you come across poorly, and they give you a Condition in return. 
•They lose a String on you, 
•If they have no Strings on you, gain one on them, 
•They gain a Condition, or 
•You take 1 Forward. 12

In this case, the fiction of the moves “turn someone on” and “shut someone down” are incredibly close (as they would tend to be for messy teenagers). Imagine our Werewolf. The player describes their fiction
I walk right up to CJ and place the football between us. “I saw you and your friends spying on me at practice. Like what you see?” And then I flash a smile that’s more teeth than joy.
Our player then needs to decide, are they trying to Turn CJ On with this posturing strength, or are they trying to Shut CJ Down? The answer matters, of course, because each has different outcomes. 

A player may say “yeah, I’m like, sweaty, and just rugged masculinity. This is me turning on the charm.” Or if CJ generated some kind of leverage over them, they may want to get rid of that. “Nah if it’s sexy, that’s incidental. I’m actually just trying to straight up get in CJ’s face here.” 

We can add this into our conversation under the heading of “clarifying fiction”. Sometimes this clarification will be required because of overlapping Move triggers (as in the werewolf/CJ example), and sometimes it will be because one or the other of the players will think that a move has been triggered when the other wont, causing a need to clarify the fiction (“I look around the room, trying to catch Plover’s eye.” “Are you reading a charged situation?” “God no! I’m just trying to make contact with her. We’ll charge this soon enough.”) 13.

Try Another Way and 16hp Dragons – The Secret Sauce in Action

One awesome play experience that PbtA can generate that D&D simply does not, is the “try another way” response from the MC, which leads to really interesting fiction. There is a thought experiment called the 16hp Dragon 14. In this thought experiment, while a Dungeon World dragon has low hit points (16, which the ranger can do in a single turn), the joy of a Dragon comes from the “try another way” of the fiction. A fighter can’t just run up to a dragon and Hack and Slash (the Move with “do damage” as the stakes), because they don’t meet the trigger of fictionally being in a position to hurt the dragon. We don’t pass the “did a move get triggered?” part of the conversation, because a first level fighter wielding a sword can’t do damage to a mythical dragon within our fiction. They need magical weapons. They need to first dodge past the dragons wild swings to get to its weak underbelly. They need to first tolerate the immense heat generated by its sulfur heart. The important takeaway in our discussion is that the danger of the beast doesn’t come from the numbers, but from how it interacts with the triggers of the moves, and the interest to the characters isn’t about pitting numbers against numbers, but about spinning the fiction to generate an exciting story. The real fun and skill and challenge in playing a fighter is not ensuring you have the right armour class or feat combos, but ensuring that you understand how your character moves and strikes and can weave a story of their struggles against adversity.

MC Moves – Adding Structure to Danger

There’s a lot of parts in our conversation diagram where the MC says what happens. In PbtA games, the MC is given a list of “moves” to use themself. They are usually MUCH less prescriptive, and look to be a list of creative prompts for MCs to enact as they wish. Here’s the list from Apocalypse World 2nd edition.

YOUR MOVES
• Separate them.
• Capture someone.
• Put someone in a spot.
• Trade harm for harm (as established).
• Announce off-screen badness.
• Announce future badness.
• Inflict harm (as established). 
• Take away their stuff. 
• Make them buy. 
• Activate their stuff’s downside. 
• Tell them the possible consequences and ask. 
• Offer an opportunity, with or without a cost. 
• Turn their move back on them. 
• Make a threat move (from one of your threats). 
• After every move: “what do you do?” 15

In each case, the MC move is designed to do one thing: Present a complication or challenge for our characters, and give them an opportunity to respond to it. In every case, the MC is playing as “a fan of the player’s characters”, meaning they cheer for their successes and lament their defeats.

Where these are important is that they define the tone of the conflict the MC can bring to bear, and also define a certain level of danger in the world. Also, differently to the GM in D&D who can say what they wish, the MC can ONLY introduce fiction that follows one of their moves. In every case in our diagram where we say “MC says what happens” we’re going to substitute “MC makes a move”. For example, there is no such thing as a casual conversation in PbtA games. If a player of The Sprawl, our cyberpunk criminals game, asks a contact for information, the MC is not allowed to just say “yes” or “no”. By our discussions above, we know what happens if this player fiction triggers a move (we look to the move, roll some dice maybe, and follow the results outwards), but if it doesn’t trigger a move, the MC needs to make one of their own.

In this case (and I’ll use MC moves from The Sprawl now), a few options for our MC could be “show them the barrel of a gun” by saying “of course, you can have it. But he gets this twinkle in his eye, the one he makes when he knows he’s got someone on the hook. Diamond ALWAYS gets payback. What do you do?”. Or our MC could “tell the requirements and ask” by saying “Diamond leers at you. ‘Look, you can have it, but it’s a big list. Too big. I’ll need you to scratch Ace Twofold off it, if you get me.’ What do you do?”  Or our MC could “inflict harm” by saying “Diamond hands it over. As the data slides over your body-machine interface you feel the familiar burn of your countermeasures destroying a tracking bug planted within. Take one harm. What do you do?”

In each case, the MC move is designed to do one thing: Present a complication or challenge for our characters, and give them an opportunity to respond to it. In every case, the MC is playing as “a fan of the player’s characters”, meaning they cheer for their successes and lament their defeats. They present challenges because protagonists need challenges, not because they draw joy from their failure. This is why it may seem like MCs are not hampered by the limitations of D&D (ie if you can just “Do harm” every time, why not do that until you kill the characters? And the answer is, because your goal is not to kill them, but to see them do cool stuff). The choice of MC move is a choice of which conflict comes next, and asking “What Do You Do” is giving the players a chance to flex against your antagonism. 

Choosing your first PbtA game

If you’ve read this far, you’re interested, and that’s great. Because now you understand the difference between each PbtA game, you can understand how to choose the one you want. Firstly, think about what kind of media you’re trying to emulate. “Fantasy” is a good genre, but it’s also a little too broad. Do you want a dungeon crawl experience like 2nd edition D&D? Then Dungeon World is a good fit. But if you want to have a political drama a la Game of Thrones, then The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power is a much stronger fit. If you want a space exploration drama by way of Star Trek, Uncharted Worlds offers to scratch that itch, but if you want a more weirdspace character drama like Firefly, then Impulse Drive is going to meet your play needs. 

My advice would be, firstly, to google “X PbtA” like “Cyberpunk PbtA” or “Regency Drama PbtA”, “game of thrones PbtA”, “Killjoys PbtA”. Or look at the Apocalypse World website which has a collection of some, maybe most, of PbtA games structured by genre. Other than that, itch.io and Drivethru seem to be the big centralised storefronts. 

Or there’s twitter. Just ask. People have opinions on stuff on the internet. If you can believe that nonsense.

Here’s a list of my top 5 starter PbtA games (and for clarity, while I know and am friends with many of these writers, no money has changed hands here): 

  1. Monsterhearts 2 by Avery Alder – Everyone understands Teen Drama, and the game is incredibly lean (there’s not a lot of unnecessary Moves to clog up your first play). It’s also a really good switch away from the “tactical conflict” of D&D, to the scenery chewing that is fun PbtA. 
  2. Apocalypse World 2nd edition by Vincent and Meguey Baker – The granddaddy of them all is still a great game. The language can be a little bit inaccessible, but it’s also got a ton of resources out there of people who have played it, and how they enjoy it. 
  3. The Sprawl by Hamish Cameron- A familiar genre goes a LONG way to making this a useful first edition. People kind of just get cyberpunk heisting. The key is that Clocks make for good “success with consequence” fodder, and to focus on bringing the threats of the world to bear so that your punks can do more cool shit. 
  4. World Wide Wrestling by Nathan D Paoletta – Yes, a professional wrestling RPG. It’s phenomenal. And it’s also a really good example of play you COULDN’T do with D&D. Like, you could never hack d20 to do a proper wrestling game, but because PbtA moves focus the story, it’s absolutely perfect. This isn’t about reduce HP for the pin, it’s about entertaining the audience, having backstage drama, and hamming it up with your mates. Note that 2nd edition will drop soon. But first edition is like $5 for a pdf now so seriously if you can’t wait, there’s no problems.
  5. Masks: The Next Generation – Superhero teen PbtA! Worth noting for the mass of good podcasts and discussion that exists for it. Playing Masks would be a great experience if you either like superheroes, or you’d like to watch some Actual Plays before you give it a go.

Worth a mention but probably not:

  1. Dungeon World – D&D as PbtA. It makes it very easy to get into, but also means you’re too likely to bring your old D&D baggage to it and totally miss the point of trying a new system. Also, it’s 2nd edition D&D levels of colonialist nonsense all over the place, and there’s a lot of current yikes about one of its lead designers. Your mileage may vary on both of those points, but honestly I’d direct you elsewhere.

Footnotes

1 – Please note that I am a descriptivist. While a big part of PbtA design of the late 2010s has been to find the edges of this design, and both Vincent and Meguey Baker have been hesitant to declare many limits on what PbtA is, I am making my judgements by looking at what has been produced, and how it has been played, and going forward from there. This is not designed as a prescriptive barrier for what PbtA can be. Also, remember that this is a 101, cut me some slack.

2 – A term dictating the inability to make decisions because there are too many options available, or the options cannot be adequately compared.

3- Brandon Leon-Gambetta (podcast host and game desinger) actually breaks a ton down in a quality twitter thread.

4 – From Masks: The Next Generation, written by Brendan Conway, published by Magpie Games

5 – It’s worth noting that fictional inputs are SO important that moves are often titled after them. The move highlighted here is actually called “Directly Engage a Threat”

6 – Divided I stand – Hunter playbook, Urban Shadows

7 – Dirty Fighting – Thief Playbook, Worlds of Adventure 0.2

8 – Dungeon World – Fighter Playbook. 

9 – The Veil second printing. Apparatus Playbook

10 – The Sprawl Hunter Playbook

11 – and if it was, I wouldn’t be the one to say so. 

12 – Monsterhearts 2 by Avery Alder published by Buried without Ceremony

13 – for a strong example of this, see Hard Move episode titled Spit in the Face of Guidance or Influence, where we discuss the joy of pushing a player to escalate further. 

(**9) Apocalypse World 2e pg 126

14 – Found here: https://www.latorra.org/2012/05/15/a-16-hp-dragon/

15 – Apocalypse World 2nd edition Reference sheets

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