Hidden Gems: (Reviews of the Indie or Obscure); Powered by the Apocalypse system.

Ever since the beginning of the hobby, the role-playing game has, at its heart, always been about co-operative storytelling. About friends sitting around a table, spinning exciting adventures with courageous heroes (or otherwise, protagonists) that they made up themselves. But one issue that needed to be overcome in these games is to avoid the kind of “Did not!/Did too!” arguments like the ones we’ve all had with our friends when playing “let’s pretend” on the playground, be it pretending to be “Cowboys” or the ever popular “Cops and Robbers”, and the like. So the first designers knew they needed solid conflict resolution and task success vs failure mechanics as a part of the game, as well as rules to reasonably limit characters to acts that are “realistic” to the character and within the game setting. Early rulesets were solid enough, but not overly expansive, and could be easily house-ruled to cover any unexpected occurrence in the game. As they progressed, differing ideas as to how best handle conflict/task resolution have grown and evolved over the years. Some systems attempted to quantify everything and include rules for any type of scenario or situation they could conceive of, resulting in lengthy tomes of “crunchy” rules, and lists of all possible equipment, powers, and special abilities, and the ever popular expansion supplements and rules errata soon followed as more ideas for said situations came to mind. Some of these systems were even written to be “universal” with no one default setting or genre, while some chose a genre, setting, or intellectual properties to simulate and tailored the rules to fit them. Some of these have started out being used for one particular title, but when they were successful in sales, quickly got licensed out for use in other genres/IPs, such as the Open Game License (OGL). Some have went with the “simpler is better” method, and have even stripped or lessened some of the more complex or excessive rules from one edition to another. (Such as the “Less rules=More Fun” tagline D&D used for their 4th Ed ad campaign.) Others have tried “rules-light” approaches where rules are minimal and interpretation of them was left open to GM and or player agreement. Both types of systems have seen varying degrees of success and failure as gamers tend to favor a particular style that suits them. That being said, the system I’ll be reviewing today has taken the latter approach, though it would be more accurate to describe it as “mechanics-light” rather than rules-light.

This is “Powered By The Apocalypse” or PBTA for short.

The Powered by the Apocalypse system saw its origin in the titular game “Apocalypse World” by Vincent and Meguey Baker. While that game, as the name suggests, is about surviving and adventuring in a post-apocalyptic world. But, much like OGL, the system has in the last few years been adapted and tailored to many other genres and IPs such as superhero, action movie, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, and even some more niche or cliche genres such as 1970s tropes.(One of my favorites, and I hope to do a review of it, as well as some of the games in the genres I’ve listed, and more.) Even old tried and true medieval fantasy has gotten a treatment with this system. But, today’s review is about the system itself.

One of the first things I’d like to discuss is the “mechanics-light” approach to the rules. In some of the crunchier games out there, the story can sometimes get bogged down or even obscured by the rules coming into play and it can pull the focus more onto your rolls instead of what you’re trying to do. Sometimes the rules can get in the way of storytelling if you let them. PBTA has addressed this issue by reducing a character to a few basic stats, and creating a core mechanic called “Moves”. Moves are how you resolve tasks and challenges, but, the important thing is that you don’t just tell the GM “I wanna do this move”. Moves are typically linked to a stat, and operate on the premise of “Start and end with the fiction” Basically this means that Moves must be triggered by something that occurs in the fiction and they only come into play when needed, whether it be a melee or ranged attack, or simply trying to observe a room or scene, dodging/avoiding something about to harm you, or attempting anything in which success isn’t guaranteed and failure would result in something interesting or compelling. Once you get the result of your roll, that result determines how the fiction goes from there. Moves and their accompanying stats are often named according to the theme of the game they are employed in. A melee move may be “Hack and Slash” in a medieval fantasy game, while the same or similar move might be called “Directly Engage a Threat” in a superhero game, or even “Throw a Beatdown” in a 70s themed game. A fun, yet unique touch. Aside from that, the game progresses as a conversation, with no tactical maps, initiative order, or the like. (Though visual maps/drawings may get used if the GM is so inclined and wants to present you something useful and pretty to look at.)

Before I go on, I need to describe Moves in a bit more detail. First, there are 2-3 types of moves: Basic Moves are for actions and such that all players are able to do. These cover general activities like perception, persuasion, combat (Which is sometimes split between separate Moves for Melee and Ranged attacks), and the like. The other type of Moves are “Playbook Moves” (More on playbooks later), which are effectively “class abilities”, or specialties of the playbook you choose. Some of these playbook moves will allow you to do things other characters can’t do (like use magic or shapeshift), or are areas of expertise for your character (like detective skills, or mechanical repair). Some simply give you a bonus for a particular stat or basic move (you’re just naturally better in this area), or simply expand or change the way a particular basic move works for you or allows you to use a different stat than the default for a given move (you can perform a basic move in a unique or non-average manner, like using your agility to melee attack instead of brute force, or persuading someone with cold logic and intellect instead of personal charisma). You typically start the game with 2-3 of the playbook moves of your choice “unlocked” with the potential to “unlock” more later after you’ve gotten enough XP. Sometimes the GM might allow you to unlock a move if events in the fiction make sense. (Such as if your playbook has a “lair” as one of your unlockable moves, and your character finds a secluded and unused location and chooses to set up shop there. At that moment, the GM may tell you to mark “Lair” as unlocked.), but they can be lost in this same manner. (If one of your playbook moves is a special/unique vehicle that you have unlocked via XP, and later decided to sacrifice said vehicle to stop the villain from using their superweapon by ramming it into their spaceship. In this event, the GM may tell you to unmark the “Vehicle/Craft” from your playbook.) There are GM moves too, but they don’t require dice-rolling and are to move the story along, often in response to player roll results, or if the players “give you a golden opportunity”, which means basically that if the players give the GM an idea, or simply just looks to the GM for what happens next, time for a GM move. But, back to player moves. Moves have 3 parts, the Trigger, the Roll, and the Result. (Remember, start and end with the fiction.) They move the story along. Moves aren’t simply success/failure mechanics, but a guide for the fiction to progress. When a move is triggered, you typically roll 2d6 and add a relevant stat. If the total is 10+, it’s a “full success” and the outcome typically goes as planned, and the GM might prompt you to describe the “really cool and awesome way you succeeded, and how it made you look like a total badass.” A result of 7-9 is usually a “partial success” or “mixed success”, which usually means you do what you set out to do, but there is a complication, or you get a lesser result or otherwise you didn’t succeed as well as you had hoped. Maybe your attempt to leap across a pit left you dangling by your fingers instead of landing safely on the other side like you hoped. Maybe you could only convince your contact to sell you 5 guns instead of the 12 you asked for, or maybe he would sell you the 12, but at double the cost. Maybe your attack hit, but your opponent also got a hit on you as well. Maybe you learned something, but you don’t yet have any idea how to make use of what you learned. Normally, each individual move will tell you generally what happens on a 10+ or 7-9 result, at least mechanics-wise, and sometimes you’ll have some choices to make regarding the potential results. A roll of 6- is typically a “failure”, but that isn’t always the case. Maybe you succeeded, but your actions also resulted in something REALLY bad happening as well. The GM can be pretty fiendish when a 6- is rolled, because let’s face it, simple mechanical results like “your sword swing misses” or “you fail to pick the lock” gets boring after a while. But on a 6 or less, interesting things can happen out of the blue that are bad, but still move the plot forward and/or make it more exciting. Maybe your sword swing goes wide when you whiff and gets knocked from your hand, or it gets stuck in the wall. Now you need to try to recover or free it while trying to avoid further attacks from your opponent. Maybe your attempt to pick the lock on a chest or door is successful, but the door/lid accidentally slams loudly against the wall or it hits an alarm button, alerting nearby guards to your presence. You try to dodge the giant’s club, but you not only get hit and take harm, but get flung back a considerable distance, or you do dodge the club, but it hits the wall behind you causing you to be buried or pinned by rubble. This keeps it challenging and interesting, and cuts down on getting stuck in ruts of “I just keep re-rolling the same skill until I succeed”, or just the repetitiveness of combat. Moves are quick and decisive. Say what you want to do, if a move is triggered you roll the stat for the move, then say what happens in the fiction as a result of the roll. Again “Begin and end with the fiction” is the key. BUT, fear not. Results of 6- aren’t all gloom and doom, because in most (but not all) PBTA games, a result of 6- also often awards you a point of that game’s version of XP. You heard that right, you can gain XP for messing up. This represents you “learning from your mistakes”. There are two last concepts about moves; The first is “To do it, do it.” If you want to trigger a particular move, say what you want your character to do in the fiction to trigger it. Not “I want to do this Move”. The second one is “If you do it, you do it.” or “Once it’s done, it’s done.” This means that once you trigger a move and the dice hit the table, you’re beholden to the results. No take-backsies. The GM may ask, for clarification on whether you intend to trigger a move, but once it’s done, no backing out of it. What happens happens, and you move on with the story. And another good thing about the moves mechanic is that having more moves doesn’t technically make a character “more powerful” in a traditional sense. They just have more options for things to do or ways to do them. Since this is the case, it isn’t game breaking if a PC dies, and that player has to create a new character to continue playing, or if a new player joins your ongoing game. The GM won’t have to “nerf” encounters for the new characters, and it doesn’t drag the rest of the PCs down while waiting for the new PCs to “catch up.” Also of note, some games may have a list of “Special Moves” that for one reason or another aren’t a part of the Basic Moves list, but are still usable by everyone. These often cover rare, but still possible occurences like trying to avoid dying after taking a lethal amount of Harm. Kind of like one last “death save”. Or maybe to cover the events of long journeys. Some game even have a “special move” for advancement or to “level-up”.

Now on to the aforementioned “Playbooks”. PBTA has abandoned the use of blank character sheets in favor of partially filled out “Playbooks” for each character class/archetype in the game. Typically most PBTA games have a rule stating that only one copy of each playbook for each game/campaign. So all your player can’t just all choose the same one. This ensures variety, and that a party has multiple bases covered, if not all. All playbooks have a set of “stats” or “attributes” if you prefer, and they either have pre-assigned values based on the individual playbook’s needs, or they give you a “range” of values from negative to positive (usually -3 to +3 in most cases) for you to assign as you see fit. Stats are typically named thematically just as moves are. While your medieval fantasy may use the standard array of Str, Dex, Int, etc, etc, a superhero game might have “Smash”, “Maneuver”, or “Protect”. A 70s themed game might have “Hustle”, “Cool”, “Brains” as stats. Then there is some cosmetic stuff like your looks/background for you to customize your character and make them your own. They also have some sort of experience track or record area, and a way to record your level of injury (usually called Harm). Some even have your starting gear chosen for you. (With one or two options among them to pick from.) Often, there will be a section of “connections”, which are usually short sentences about how you already know another PC. (More on that later) The biggest part of the playbook is your playbook moves. As stated earlier, you typically get to choose 2-3 of these moves that are unlocked during character creation. Some individual playbooks have one or two playbook moves that are already checked without your choice because those moves are integral to your chosen character class/archetype. (A wizard isn’t much of a wizard if you don’t have “Spellcasting” unlocked, after all.) Each playbook is different in this regard. Some say “Choose 2 moves” to start, some allow you to choose 3, some will give you only 1 choice. (Though this is usually only the case if the playbook has 1 or more pre-selected moves.) Once starting moves are selected, you can unlock the rest via XP, or if it makes narrative sense, through events/action taken in the game. The Playbook method makes character creation super quick, and allows you to just jump right into the game. Many “session 0s” actually go straight into role play instead of waiting for next session.

The “Harm” tracker is usually pretty straight forward. In most PBTA games, a character can suffer 5 Harm in total before dying. (So a 2-3 Harm weapon is pretty deadly). Some games have more Harm levels than that, some substitute Harm altogether for a more traditional Hit Points and Damage Dice system, and some even go toward the abstract like taking “Conditions” which are either listed on the sheet (like “Angry”, “Afraid”, or “Unsure”, or they have a “write in” Condition system where you can simply write in what your injuries are. (“Bullet wound”, or “Broken Arm” with an accompanying penalty as appropriate.) Rules for how to recover from Harm usually vary from game to game. Some require you to take certain action in the fiction to mitigate them, or otherwise set off the “healing” process, such as rest for a minimum period of time, and/or have your injuries bandaged or otherwise tended to. In some games, they won’t even start healing naturally unless you first take said mitigating actions. Some games even have specific moves, either Basic or Playbook, or special powers, or gear/technology that allow you to heal more quickly or to even treat the wounds of others. It all depends on what makes sense for the setting. Superheroes definitely take or shrug off more damage and recover more quickly in comparison to normal humans from another game.

That brings us to Gear. In most games, equipment and gear are subject to a whole slew of rules and are sometimes statted out in detail to cover when, how, and why they are used. That isn’t the case here. While some gear does have a specific rule for how it works or is used, for the largest part, in PBTA games, Gear only gives you “fictional positioning” to do something. What does that mean? Effectively, in order to do something, you have to be in a position to do so in the game. Do you want to shoot the bad guy? Then you need a gun or other ranged weapon to even be able to do so. Do you want to climb to the second story window of a building. Well, you’re going to need a rope and grappling hook, or a ladder that’s long enough. (Or clingy spider powers if you are a super.) The fact is, unless you’re a superhero with a really weird attack power, no amount of pointing your finger at an opponent and shouting “BANG!” is going to cause them any Harm. You need to have a gun in that hand. Some gear does have a stat or two, like weapons will have a harm rating, and some limited supplies will have a “uses” rating so you know how many times you can use them before you need to restock. Gear and weapons also may have “tags” which are descriptive in nature, and are facts about them that may affect how they are used. Tags may be positive or detrimental. A spear that has “close” allows you to use it against people that are outside arms length, or “hand” range. A serrated sword may have “AP” and be able to ignore an opponent’s armor rating. A “Messy” weapon leaves a telltale mess when used, and is thus not good for stealthy kills because anybody coming across the scene will immediately know that some crap went down there. Neither would a firearm with a “loud” tag be a wise choice when you are trying not to alert nearby guards, but one with a “silenced” tag may just do the trick. A tag may even let a weapon be more or less effective against certain targets. A gun with silver bullets could have the tag “+2 Harm to Werewolves”. A piece of gear that is “valuable” may net you some extra cash if you choose to sell it, but it also might tempt others to try to steal it from you as well. Gear covers the gamut from hand-held personal belongings and weapons/armor, up to vehicles. All are capable of having tags, and all give you “fictional positioning” to do something with them. (An additional note: sometimes in super-hero PBTA games, super powers are treated this way as well. They might have no specific mechanics for how they work, but they give your character fictional positioning to perform amazing superhuman feats using the Basic or your Playbook’s moves. If it makes sense, even in a comic booky trope kind of way, and the GM allows it, you can do it.)

Next is XP, or experience. The way most PBTA games handle XP and advancement is really pretty awesome, and different from most games out there. While some PBTA games do in fact hand out XP awards at the end of sessions, a lot of them also will give you XP during the game. As mentioned before, in some PBTA games, whenever a player rolls a result of 6 or less on a move, they will gain an XP in addition to whatever happens in the fiction as a result of that roll. Some games even allow you to spend XP or to gain an advancement or “level up” mid-session/adventure. So if you acquire enough XP to gain an advancement, you might be able to unlock a new Playbook Move, or raise the rating of one of your attributes, or get some other new benefit ON THE SPOT, even right in the middle of a combat/scene. Often the GM will handwave that you’ve “been practicing” or “learning” off-screen to explain your newfound ability, but the GM may and can declare that you have to wait in order to be able to claim/use your new move/advancement if it doesn’t make sense for you to spontaneously develop it in the current scene. Such as a particular item gained through advancement that you didn’t have before now, such as items that are too big to carry or conceal on your person. (It wouldn’t make sense for you to just whip out something you didn’t previously have, like a bazooka, or a full sized laptop computer, or that you just so happened to “conveniently” have this helicopter in your back pocket. But once you’ve had some free downtime in game, you can describe the “off-screen” circumstances in which you acquired your newly earned gear or ability. Sometimes, the GM may allow you to “find” such items fictionally during the game. (“When you enter the next room, you discover it to be a hangar with an unguarded helicopter in it.”) Then you can use the current fiction itself to explain your acquisition, and it just adds to the verisimilitude of the story. Some games allow you to advance or “level up” in mid-session by way of a move, though such moves typically require you to have sufficient “down-time” in game, as well as enough XP to advance/level. Keep in mind, not all games do this, but a good number of them do, which is pretty cool. It is also possible for a character to switch playbooks due to advancement. Maybe your Assassin wishes to learn some mechanical repair skills, so when they have the XP, they choose the advancement that allows them to switch to another playbook. When switching playbooks in this manner, you keep gear and moves/abilities from your previous playbook as makes sense in the fiction, but you gain new moves/abilities from the new playbook as if you were starting out. You end up with an amalgam of abilities. (Such as if your Werewolf decides to switch to the Monster hunter playbook. The GM will work out the hows and whys in the fiction. Since the Monster Hunter is a human character, the player will likely lose the ability to transform into a werewolf, with the reasoning for this loss being developed in the fiction. But they might gain an arsenal, and possibly a workshop or vehicle. Maybe they stumbled on a cure, or broke the wolf’s curse, as long as it makes sense. If it makes sense to keep it, you keep it, but if not, you lose it. In the above example, the character would lose their werewolf based abilities, but would likely still retain any gear, or social abilities that was given with their previous playbook. You and the GM will just have to make judgement calls on what to keep and what to lose.

Another good thing about PBTA games is that it gives GMs a great deal of freedom and leeway for them to run stories. PBTA is low/no prep. In fact, most PBTA titles will straight out tell GMs “Don’t come to the table with anything pre-planned.” Part of the beauty of PBTA is the “Play to find out” approach. In fact, this is one of the “Agendas” that GMs are to have when running a PBTA game. The GM doesn’t know what’s going to happen any more than the players, and they both find out together. That’s part of the fun. “Principles” are also part of the GM’s guidelines, and if you stick to the Agendas and Principles, it really makes GMing these games go smoother. The system also allows the GM to craft the fiction as they go by asking questions, the answers to which they can then build on and move the story forward. This gives players more “buy-in” as they have a hand in worldbuilding and story crafting as much as the GM does. This level of player investment just draws them in that much more. Usually a “session 0” will begin with character creation, which often includes a questionnaire, either with the GM materials or on individual playbooks themselves. When asked these questions, whatever answers the players give in response to these questions become fact in the fiction of the game. If a player mentions that they are a reformed criminal who used to be in the “Green Paladins” biker gang, then guess what? Now there’s a biker gang in the world/fiction of the game called the Green Paladins.” Does another player hail from a city on the other side of the country called Hyperion City? Now there’s a Hyperion City on the other side of the country in your game world. (Note: there needs to be a level of trust & understanding here between both the players and GM. The players have a lot of freedom with the worldbuilding involved when answering these questions, but the GM can still veto, or aske players to change any answers or concepts that they feel clashes with the theme or tone of the game they are trying to run. So they don’t have to simply accept all “answers”, such as a player in your cyberpunk themed game saying that their character comes from places with silly names “Fart Town” or “Barftropolis”, or that their mentor during their time in the Vietnam War was called “Captain Turdburgler”. Once the first session, or session 0 has concluded, the GM should have a good bit of information gained by listening to the responses and remembering the actions the players had taken and can build on them from there. They can list individual possible threats, and then detail a progressing list of things each will do if unopposed by the player characters. If the goblin prince isn’t prevented from attacking Birchtown, they will move on to the next town, or they might discover the cave with the magic crystal, then they might deal with the evil wizard who is seeking it if they aren’t prevented from finding the cave. So, the world continues to move on around the player characters. They might stop the goblin attack on Birchtown, but since they spent their time doing that, the evil wizard was able to kidnap the king’s twin daughters in order to blackmail him into surrendering the location of the magic crystal’s cave because the players were busy dealing with the goblins. They can attempt to rescue the twin princesses once they learn of the kidnapping, but then something else goes unopposed. Everything progresses forward at the same time. It’s pretty much a big sandbox, but the player’s actions and inactions have consequences, as in the example above.

As mentioned before, the GM has Moves too, but they don’t roll dice. Their moves are made in response to PC moves and actions, especially when the dreaded 6- comes up on the dice. GM moves are things like “Inflict/trade harm”, “announce future badness”, “offer an opportunity, with or without cost”, “separate them”, etc. as the fiction allows/demands. Yes, “separate them”. I know, I know, all of us, from the eldest Grognard, to the newest of green players have heard the most well-known axiom of RPGdom: “Never split the party.” Well, that doesn’t apply here, because the challenge is pretty much built into the Moves instead of the actual opponents the players face. In fact, most of the time, NPCs don’t even have stats aside from some of them being able to take different levels of Harm before defeat/death. NPC actions are determined as a result of PC’s Move results as much as their own actions. As such, no need for calculations of Challenge Ratings, statting them out, and equipping them and such. (Note: some PBTA do have opponents with actual stats and the like, but that is more the exception than the rule.)

All of this makes PBTA one of the most versatile, yet easy to learn systems. It’s good for newer players setting out, but has something for the more experienced players and GMs as well. If you decide to pick up a copy of any PBTA game out there, I wish you luck and hope you have as much fun with it as I have.

Below is a link to a list of PBTA games. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good start and there are more PBTA titles out there in ever increasing numbers. If there is a specific genre out there that you like, there’s a good chance that there’s a PBTA title that fits the bill.

Good hunting, and have fun.


Published by Tim Osburn

Has been gaming on an off since the late 1990s. Enjoys both tabletop board games as well as TTRPGs.

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