Way back when, at the genesis of this site, I wrote a “Novice’s Guide to Powered by the Apocalypse”, a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) 101, if you will. This article covered the basic mechanics and underlying assumptions of games written with the PbtA framework, and covered a few of the more popular games that were out at the time. Now, nearly two years later, PbtA is still growing, and has attracted many players to its fiction-forward, high-stakes style of gameplay. I’ve also run and played more PbtA games myself, and have noticed some really interesting elements that people have trouble engaging, take for granted, or even fight against. This 201 course to PbtA games should provide advice and information about getting the most out of the full range of PbtA games and campaigns.
Writing a campaign, even when the game tells you not to
Among all the difficult advice in games like Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, “don’t write a campaign” is one that sticks with people. Dungeon World was notable for this, as developing a campaign in D&D without starting prep is foreign to all but the laziest of DMs. These games encourage you not to write a story for very good reasons, but I’m here to tell you that there is a middle ground where you can set up a campaign world without destroying what these games set out to accomplish. Also, there are some PbtA games where going in without a vision will make them difficult to play.
First thing we need to understand is why Vincent Baker and other designers after him are so adamant that you don’t write a campaign for your PbtA game. It has to do, ultimately, with two things. One is about player buy-in, and the other is about the principle of “playing to find out what happens”. As far as player buy-in goes, PbtA games are designed so that the players tell the GM what they want to be doing. They tell you this in their character choices, and they tell you this in what they contribute to the session zero and other times when they are giving details about what is happening in the game. The intent here is that the characters are built into the setting as it exists, so that they’re keyed in to what’s happening as much as possible. “Playing to find out what happens” is a bit more straightforward; the game is designed to create drama and tension, and in general having any sort of storyline in a traditional sense will fight the game mechanics, make the game more difficult to run, and make it less fun.
So what can you do? First, you still can’t write an overarching plot. The game and the characters dictate what happens, not you (except when you make a Move, of course), so these aren’t the games to play if you have a story in mind. That said, it is possible to build a more specific setting and to sidestep the organic process of building things like threats. The important thing is player buy-in. For example, I am planning to run The Veil, a PbtA Cyberpunk game, with my main group sometime in the next year. I have a specific setting worked out, which combines some of the elements outlined in The Veil: Cascade with some worldbuilding I’m doing on the side. This does de-emphasize the joint world creation which is placed at the beginning of the game, yes. What will make this OK is I’m going to present my setting to my players, along with parts of the setting which aren’t yet defined. If they’re bought into my setting, we’ll look at playbooks and figure out how those playbooks fit into my vision of the world. I’m taking the worldbuilding power back, but still expecting to “play to find out what happens” once my players have bought into the world and chosen characters, and still leaving blanks for them to engage with as the story develops.
Newer PbtA games are more accommodating to providing different campaigns which must be set up by the GM beforehand. Consider Masks, and the Unbound and Secrets of AEGIS supplements. Each of these supplements offers radically different campaigns and ways to run them, and the GM must establish this before the session zero happens. Even Apocalypse World at least nods to an amount of pre-establishment when offering limited playbooks like the “Landfall Marine”, which require a specific and fairly divergent set of setting assumptions to work. As a GM, feel free to build out your vision of the setting…just know that you’ll need player buy-in and you’ll still want to “play to find out what happens” once the game begins.
Advancement mechanics and incentives
No other game this side of Burning Wheel provides the specificity in character advancement that PbtA games do. In general, when you earn XP in a PbtA game, it hinges on either a single roll or a specific action that happened in a session. These mechanics are picked carefully and have specific effects on the game. An easy way to hack any PbtA game is to swap these mechanics, but know how that impacts the game before you do. Here’s a few of the popular mechanics:
XP for Failure
XP for failure is one of the advancement mechanics most commonly associated with PbtA, even though it wasn’t an innovation from Apocalypse World itself. The idea is simple: if your character fails a roll, they get XP. It’s no coincidence this mechanic first showed up in Dungeon World: Games like D&D are supposed to have adventurers for characters, and it’s impossible to be adventurous without taking risks. XP for failure encourages characters to push their luck, in fact it actively rewards it. It also means that if someone is having a run of bad dice luck, they’re being compensated for it. XP for failure is one of the best ways to make a game more dramatic, because failure increases tension. It also leans into the idea that what’s best for a story isn’t always the characters succeeding.
Attribute Highlighting is the original advancement mechanic from Apocalypse World, and it has a profound and direct impact, especially when it’s the only advancement available. Players will use their character’s highlighted attributes more, period. This is why Apocalypse World (especially 2e) devotes some time to explaining which attributes should be highlighted. Highlighting high stats encourages your characters to play to their strengths, while highlighting low stats encourages them to push their luck more, like XP for Failure. Highlighting specific stats will change how that character is played…more psychic nonsense if you highlight Weird, more romance if you highlight Hot, and so on. It’s a blunt, Skinner-esque way to encourage specific behaviors, but it works.
XP for Moves
In some games, specific moves net you XP. Urban Shadows is the best example of this, where the faction moves are the only way to get XP. This is a much narrower way to encourage specific behavior than Attribute Highlighting, and it’s game-wide instead of character by character. In Urban Shadows, faction moves get you points because the game is trying to encourage characters to engage with the intrigue aspects of the system. This is driven home by the fact that it’s hitting each different faction, not a certain number of faction moves, that is required for advancement. This means that engaging with the social side of the game and the world is required for your character to get ahead…and that’s exactly what the designers wanted.
There are a couple different relationship mechanics with advancement, including the Hx mechanic in Apocalypse World and the Bonds mechanics in Dungeon World. Both of these are aiming for the same thing: encouraging characters to pay attention to and develop their relationships with other characters. These are often secondary XP mechanics, as very few games are focused entirely on PC-PC relationships. That said, even though essentially no game uses them exclusively, many games include them: Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, The Sprawl, Monsterhearts, Masks, and many others have at least one relationship XP mechanic.
There are other XP mechanics. Masks makes use of Drives…instead of offering XP for moves, a Drive nets you XP when you do something specific in the fiction. The Sprawl uses mission XP, where the whole party gets XP for accomplishing certain goals. These mechanics aren’t as broadly used in PbtA games in part because they’re somewhat similar to advancement mechanics in traditional games: accomplish this goal or do this thing (like kill the monster), get XP. They still work in PbtA in a limited fashion; in both of the above examples you can only earn XP once from an action.
As stated above, relationship mechanics often give players XP. Their design, however, can have a much more targeted impact on how characters interact. PbtA games care about relationships, especially PC-PC relationships, so it’s no surprise at least one of these mechanics shows up in virtually every PbtA game.
The original mechanic from Apocalypse World, Hx is heavily ingrained in the conversation of the game. From character creation, each character had a history score with each other, ranging from -3 to 3. If the score ever rolled over to 4 (in some cases, to -4), it would reset to zero and the character would get XP. Rather than reward specific ingame occurrences, changing Hx was based on answering a question at the end of a session: which character does your character know better, and why? This is not intended to directly spur behavior, rather to get players thinking about interactions ingame and what they mean. The XP award is recognition that developing relationships is worth rewarding, but that reward is much smaller, relatively speaking, than the time thinking about how character relationships are changing.
Bonds are a blunt instrument because they tell you exactly what the relationship is, providing a list of specific relationships like “[x] came from a rival gang, I don’t trust them”. Many games do this, but some (like Masks) do it for character-building and not advancement. Others, like Dungeon World, recognize that a Bond can be “resolved” as characters’ relationships change, and gives XP for that resolution. In both cases, Bonds are used to make players think about their character relationships and also to put forth specific relationships that are usually tropes in the game’s setting. Both Masks and Dungeon World benefit from this because of how narrow their genre is (Teenage Superheroes and Basically D&D, respectively).
Debts and Strings are two names for a fairly common relationship mechanic in PbtA games. Through both pre-game prep as well as in-game events, characters can gather Debts, Strings, or other obligation tokens from PCs and sometimes NPCs. These can be traded in to compel that character to do something, and in the case of NPCs there is sometimes a reward for eliminating those tokens by honoring a debt.
There are two basic iterations of this system: one comes up in intrigue-based games where there are transactional relationships between characters. Urban Shadows and The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power both use versions of this, though in the latter case it’s limited to specific relationships. The other comes up in dramatic games like Monsterhearts and represents social capital. Strings in Monsterhearts don’t represent owing characters something so much as the influence they have over you.
Speaking of influence…the Influence mechanic in Masks is a unique version of this. Rather than accumulating Strings, you either have Influence, or you don’t. You can spend this Influence much like spending Strings in Monsterhearts, but an action which would gain Influence when the character already has it has a different set of effects. And, as befits a group of teenage superheroes, all adults in Masks start with Influence over the characters, making the act of breaking that Influence a much more important mechanic in the game.
Ah, yes. The sex moves. Oft-maligned and misunderstood, intimacy mechanics are about mechanizing vulnerability for characters. In Apocalypse World, this was pretty narrowly defined as having sex. Same with Monsterhearts. Both of those games, though, have sex and sexual attraction as a core conceit of their settings, one that can add a lot of depth if handled well. Mechanically, these moves have nothing to do with sex, and even if they come up in your game and pertain to sex there’s no reason not to fade to black during a sexually intimate scene (and a lot of reasons you should). The important part of the mechanics is about vulnerability. How does your character react when they open themselves up to another person? The intimacy moves give you a starting point, but also mechanically identify these moments of intimacy (be it sex or more broadly defined) as important for your character. Considering it’s an element of human relationships that is pretty much ignored in most RPGs, this is a big deal. Vulnerability is a real, human experience, and having it in games both makes characters more realistic and helps players give it thought.
Player-facing worldbuilding for GMs and players
PbtA games are built around having a conversation. The GM may be in control of the sources of conflict, but the players have to contribute to the conversation and ensure that everyone knows why they care and why the conflict is interesting. This both increases player buy-in and makes the GM, who we already know isn’t supposed to prep anything too specific, have an easier time with the fairly large amount of improv they’d otherwise have to do.
Sharing the pen with regards to the world doesn’t always come naturally to players and GMs, but there are ways for both sides to make the conversation (and therefore the game) flow better.
In my experience, GMs understand what they can ask their players because they see the whole world and the gaps. What’s important for GMs is how to keep the players engaged in the conversation, but also how to use it to make your overall GMing experience easier. Think of any other game you’ve run, and any time a player has asked you a question to which you don’t have an immediate answer. Sometimes you stall and take a minute to think, other times you blurt out the first thing that comes to your head, and sometimes you consult a rulebook to see if there’s something which already exists. In PbtA, when a player asks you for information that you don’t have, your first response should almost always be “well, why don’t you tell me?” If it’s something they want to know, and there’s no reason they wouldn’t know, then as part of the conversation they can answer their own question. This can also work for informational moves, like “Open Your Brain to the Psychic Maelstrom” from Apocalypse World. While you should lead to make sure the dice result is reflected, players can add flavor and provide the details.
Another way you can keep the conversation going is to mechanize table talk. We all have those speculative players, the ones that talk about what they think is going to happen ingame and have inspired the phrase “don’t give the GM ideas”. It’s useful to listen to those sorts of players in any game, but in PbtA it’s absolutely wonderful, because they’re telling you what they’re thinking about the story so far. Engaging in that conversation can help steer the game in a direction the players will like, and you know that because they’re already talking about it.
The final thing to remember is that not writing a campaign (see above) doesn’t mean you aren’t prepping. PbtA games encourage you to treat your antagonists as people who react to things and have reasons behind their actions. Play the antagonists like characters instead of writing their storylines, and things will go well. Above all else, remember to “Be a Fan of the Player Characters”, and consult the other Agendas and Principles to get an idea for how the designer wants the game to feel.
So players, now you have a role in directing the game the way you want to see it go. Often having the GM pick on you can be intimidating, especially if you aren’t a GM and haven’t had much practice coming up with this kind of stuff off the cuff. There will be a couple key areas where you’re contributing to the feel of the game and the world. First, any move you make is going to invite you to describe the specifics. You might be playing a Bull in Masks, in which case you have to remember that your super strength is different than any other Bull’s super strength. What your character does will interact with the world differently depending on how you describe it, and it’s up to you, the GM, and your combined understanding of the fiction of your game to establish exactly what the repercussions are. The game being a conversation also means that a little bit of back and forth about a roll is OK. Don’t argue with the GM, necessarily, but if you roll a 7-9 result and have a neat idea that fits the move’s definition of a partial success, definitely suggest it.
Think about how you imagine your character and the world. If you’re engaging with descriptions from the GM and the other players, you may be surprised at how easy it is to offer details about what you think is happening. And don’t necessarily wait to be prompted…as long as you aren’t interrupting anyone or dominating the conversation, feel free to add your thoughts about what a scene looks like.
As a final piece of advice, remember that this isn’t a game where the crazy specificity of your action will invoke any penalties! Describe with gusto, and feel free to make your character as crazy/badass/colorful as you want. They’ll succeed and it’ll be awesome, or they’ll fail and it’ll be nuts, or you’ll be somewhere in the middle and it’ll get weird. For the sake of the story, these all can be excellent results.
PbtA is a rules framework which allows for drama-driven, story-forward games in essentially any genre. Beyond the simple basic rules and the clear intent of the Agendas and Principles are smaller yet still potent mechanics, and a gameplay loop based on a conversation where neither the GM nor the players know what’s going to happen. It’s a very different feel than other games, but if you engage with the rules provided the result can be a rich story filled with highly developed characters. Looking at the core gameplay loop and some of the peripheral mechanics, it becomes easier to see PbtA as an ecosystem and understand how each game is using the underlying scaffold to build up specific experiences. And from there, you can start from one game and hop to another easily, understanding the logic in design choices and the intent of the designers. And with so many games out there, that can make finding the one you want that much easier.