Powered By The Apocalypse: How A Rule-System Nurtured A Queer Fanbase

My first openly trans character-after having come out as a trans woman myself-was a Bull in a Masks: A New Generation one-shot. She was a lone wolf archetype style character. It was even her hero name (original, I know).

My second trans character was also in a Masks game, but now a  campaign. Her name was Apollo and she was a Legacy: the first trans woman to bear the mantle in a long line of women. While Lone Wolf’s identity was simply a part of her flavour, Apollya’s trans womanhood was intrinsic to who she was and what her story was about. The good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. And it was what I wanted.

Masks was the first game I felt like I could be the type of character I wanted to see in the superhero media. No, in all media. And I soon learned I wasn’t alone. There was a whole ruleset with a welcoming community, of an easy to learn system with gatekeeping kept to a minimum. It’s Powered By the Apocalypse. And it is my favourite system. And in my opinion, the gayest.

“I’m more comfortable making a character non-binary in an online Masks game, than I would be at a pickup game of 5e at a local hobby shop. There’s a lot of strength in how smaller fanbases allow a community to form, and if it starts with an inclusive and empathetic core it will allow a more diverse population to grow. That’s probably a big part of games like PBTA having such large LGBTQ+ representation in their fans.”

Cole. G, telling of how indie games nurture their communities.

When you look right next to the name-space of the Interstitial: Our Heart’s Intertwined playbooks, you will see a space for something very important to trans folx. Pronouns. As a game made by queer people, Interstitial wanted to get a message across with this action.

You are welcome. You belong here. Have fun. 

When Masks: A New Generation described words such as “Masculine, Feminine, Ambiguous etc” as expression and not your gender, they also got a message across.

This is how you look. It is not who you are. Who your character is will be defined you, not words on a sheet.

When Monsterhearts made sure to include an entire segment for how your character’s sexuality is fluid and how the playbooks can reflect the LGBTQAI+ experience, they sent yet another message:

This is a game by queer people, for queer people.

All of these games are Powered By The Apocalypse. And they are all – along with many more – hella gay.

The indies/the counterculture/the outsiders, whatever you call it, has always been a place for those who don’t belong. And when it comes to the TTRPG community, that still holds true.

There are amazing marginalized folx in the Dungeons and Dragons community, who are making amazing strides to make the space more inclusive. And I cannot support them enough.

But my heart has always belonged to the indie games. 

My first ever RPG I ran was Urban Shadows. While D&D had a sidebar saying “Hey, maybe make something other than a cishet white dude”, Urban Shadows had a whole bookmarked segment about how diversity is an outright strength of the game. About not putting the burden of representing a community on one marginalized character. About defying the stereotypes ingrained by society into our minds. About making a world that you can be seen in.

Urban Shadows was a game that didn’t care if it ruffled some feathers. It earned my recently out-self’s respect for that.

And there was a line of other Powered By The Apocalypse games just waiting to earn it again and again. 

“Moves tell you what a game cares about; what kind of actions has meaning to it. And, by extension, that tells us what has meaning to the characters we’re playing. It’s very easy to make those meanings queer, if that’s what the designer cares about.”

-Cassandra Lyn, affirming the power of mechanics

Gatekeeping is an ugly but real part of the TTRPG hobby. And the only thing people who deny it happens love denying more is that it happens to marginalized folx the most.

A particular part of this is “Difficulty Gatekeeping”. This is the act of making the threshold for entering a game damn near impossible by upping the complexity and difficulty of the game to ridiculous levels. Be it through puzzles you’d need a degree to solve, combat encounters that coincidentally just have resistance to a specific player’s abilities, or plain just making the player uncomfortable through situations and playstyle. Gatekeepers have far too many tools for their jerkish ways.

Powered By The Apocalypse exudes a welcoming atmosphere. The utilization of moves, while sometimes requiring a bit of discussion for how they work, allows the players, new and old, to easily understand what is it they’re doing. 

Roll 2D6. Add your stat. Check one of three potential results of the move. Decides if you want assistance to bump it. Follow the result’s description.

That’s it. No modifiers and modifiers and modifiers and modifiers. No “You must have the crystal hewn from a coal on the third day of the prince’s birth.” No suffocating weight.

Just cause. And action. PBTA is a game where, even when your character is at their weakest, you have control. For many queer people, we often lacked control throughout our entire lives. Whether it be how we came out, how others view us, or how our stories are told, it’s hard not to feel helpless. And PBTA doesn’t just give you control, it allows YOU to choose when you feel helpless. 

Your narrative. Your choice.

(…) Because even though play centers around combat, the system clearly frames combat as a metaphor for the characters’ emotional and moral struggle(…)

Jen Overstreet, referring to the appeal of Masks. 

As I just mentioned, feeling helpless and having control are not mutually exclusive in Masks as they so often are in other RPGs. When your character marks the condition “Angry” in Masks, you are not told how you act by the GM. You’re given direction by the book how to clear it, but it’s you who decides the action your character takes. How they process anger. 

Masks is a game about being a teen. A superheroic teen, but a teen nonetheless. For me personally, it allowed me to take back the youth I was denied. A youth where I was a girl. While I could have easily told my GM “Hey, I just want to play a cis girl”, I didn’t want that. I wanted one as the girl I was today. A trans girl. And I wanted the struggle. I wanted the pain that came with it.

Because it wasn’t simply a matter of living my lost youth as a girl. It was about living a youth where I was a trans girl who would have been far braver than the sad, misguided soul I was. And that meant picking my battles, knowing when to Directly Engage The Threat and when to Pierce The Mask.

Brandon Leon Gambetta described the “Secret Heart” of Masks being about finding your identity. And my character sure did find her identity.

“As a GM I really like how much responsibility is lifted from the GM’s shoulders and spread around the table.”

Austin, describing their experience in GM’ing PBTA.

Many TTRPGs have the stereotype of the GM being like a King, simply allowing the players to “live and play” in their already constructed world. You inhabit the world, but are not part of it.

In PBTA, I feel the GM and Party are more of a ship crew. The GM is the helmsperson, directing and steering the boat, but it’s far from a solo job. There are lookouts, making sure the way is clear. Navigators whom chart the way. Shipwrights keeping the entire vessel together. And yes, I’m using the anime One Piece as the inspiration for this analogy. Except for one key difference.

There is no captain. Simply a group working together. And this reflects both in the makeups of parties in PBTA and the the makeups of queer communities.

Take the original PBTA game,  Apocalypse World. While it would be easy to codify the Hardholder playbook as the leader and keystone of the party, they require every other part of the party to function. Be it the Angel for putting back together their hired muscle. The Chopper who provides the aforementioned hired muscle. Or The Skinner to secure the needed goods to keep this ramshackle hold together. In Apocalypse World, everything is a needed cog. Every playbook has a purpose.

In queer communities, there is rarely a “Head Gay”. Yes, sometimes cliques can form, but in a prime queer community, one rule is king: support one another. If someone struggles at a certain thing, another person helps and compensates. And the person who was struggling is not looked down upon for not being able to do this one thing. We are all different and unique facets of the community. Each a needed cog.

PBTA rarely has in their awesome relationship questions situate blood ties or birth family as a connection. The party is a found family. And damn if that form of community doesn’t relate to us queers.

“But what’s important is that the mechanics of the game supported the exploration of identity, as well as creating meaningful dialogue not just between the characters, but the players as well“

Rose Rain, describing an integral part of Masks: A New Generation.

In many games, your biggest choice is what your character does as a profession. Be it the “Fighter”, or the “Wizard” or the “Rogue”. And yes, amazing stories can be told with these characters. But they do not give you that shot, straight through the heart needed to prompt you to tell these stories. You gotta work for it.

But, as the game that is the closest meeting of D&D and PBTA, Dungeon World said:

“In this game, you’re not A Ranger. You’re THE Ranger.”

When I first introduced a personal friend to Masks (Please excuse me as I retreat back once more to Masks. It’s my fave.) he was delighted by how the mechanics already positioned his Reformed character as a part of the world.

Straight to the heart.

In Masks, the Janus is someone living with a dual life. One of superheroics and one of mundane teenagehood.

In Masks, the Legacy is someone who’s had their lineage of heroism given to them by a long line of family elders, all wishing for them to follow in the exact same footsteps.

In Masks, the Beacon is someone with little to no power who is so often told they don’t belong in the world of superheroes. That they don’t fit.

Now, let’s rephrase.

In life, many queer people have a double life. One where they’re out. One where they must remain in the closet.

In life, many families expect their children to be the same as them. To grow and have the same heteronormative marriage and family as they had.

In life, many queer folx are simply told we don’t belong in spaces where we have as much a right to be in as anyone.

While I have rephrased the elements, the theme remains the same. This is the power of playbooks and PBTA at large. We have character archetypes that prompt us to look and think “What of myself do I seen in this?” 

While there is nothing stopping you – and in fact, I encourage it – from making your DnD character trans, ace/aro, gay, or any other identity, it does not give the theme that so embodies those experiences. That lets us know we belong in this make believe world that we’ve gathered around the table to construct. PBTA often does.

And that’s pretty freaking sweet.

“It’s helped me understand why I do gender the way I do, and how I would like to change that to feel like a more genuine version of myself”

Melissa DeGenova, describing how Monsterhearts affected her.

Being queer can be hard. Ostracization. Exclusion. Stereotypes. Prejudice. Bigotry. Self-loathing.

But it can also be one of the most sheerly beautiful things in this world. To be your authentic self. To support your fellow siblings in the struggle and form relationships based on this shared truth. To be you is an amazing thing.

TTRPGs have been far from a perfect hobby for marginalized folx. But they’re improving. They becoming more open. More diverse. More accepting.

And I’d find it hard not to credit Powered By The Apocalypse in part for that.

Thank you to Austin, Rose Rain, Melissa DeGenova, Cole. G, Jen Overstreet, Cassandra Lyn and everyone from the PBTA community for their invaluable feedback in this article.

The header image is by M. Lee Lunsford, from the Masks: A New Generation core rulebook from Magpie Games.

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