Apocalypse Keys Review

Powered by the Apocalypse, or PbtA, is one of the most popular RPG rulesets in the indie gaming sphere. After getting its start with Apocalypse World and the Bakers’ permissive license, PbtA blew up first among single designers and small groups and then in the wider gaming sphere. While Apocalypse World was modestly successful in its own right, many of the games it spawned, including Monster of the Week, Dungeon World, and Blades in the Dark, multiplied its success many times over.

Mainstream PbtA success continues to this day, fed mostly by two mid-sized publishers: Evil Hat Productions and Magpie Games. Magpie Games, arguably the largest and most successful company to design primarily PbtA games, first saw success with titles like Urban Shadows, Bluebeard’s Bride, and Masks, and has gone on to rake in millions of dollars from some of the first licensed PbtA games, Root and Avatar Legends. Evil Hat Productions, more known as the company behind Fate, doesn’t design PbtA games in house, but publishes several of significance. Evil Hat publishes Monster of the Week, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and Blades in the Dark, and they’re about to add another PbtA game to their library.

Apocalypse Keys is designed by Rae Nedjadi and tells the story of monsters from outside society that must stop those trying to bring about the apocalypse. The challenge, of course, is that every character carries the capacity within them to become a Harbinger of the apocalypse themselves. Playbooks include the Fallen, a divine being brought down to Earth, the Last, an alien creature who is the last of their kind, and the Surge, a monster of immense, uncontrollable power, in addition to four others. While there are touchstones like Hellboy, Men in Black, and Doom Patrol, the text and art (even in the preview version) come together to build the premise into something unique, and also able to be built upon by every group of players who try it.

Premise

Apocalypse Keys is a game of supernatural monsters; elements of the game (including Playbooks) reference gods, the fae, aliens, and vampires, though like any good PbtA game the exact details are left up to each individual play group. The big touchstone used here is Hellboy and BPRD, and both the existence of a paranormal investigation group and many monsters with dissimilar origins makes it as good a starting point to explain the setting as any. That said, while Hellboy and other comic monsters of ambiguous morality are clearly reference points to the setting of Apocalypse Keys, it does a very good job of taking these reference points and going somewhere else with them, making Apocalypse Keys feel more distant from its genre references than, say, Masks or Apocalypse World.

Apocalypse Keys casts the players as Omens, monsters walking among humans who have been tasked with saving the world from various Harbingers of the apocalypse who would seek to end the world for their own personal gain. Assigning them this task is a paranormal investigation and defense force known as DIVISION (laugh all you want, but as the game Chill called their world-saving group, well, SAVE, this is not the worst acronym for a paranormal defense force by any stretch). By working for DIVISION, the PCs find that those of their kind, the other monsters in the world, now distrust them, while the work they do to save humanity is often thankless. That said, the divide between the monstrous and the human extends down from society into the sense of self of all of the characters.

Instead of defining conflicts vaguely with ‘Threats’ or ‘Fronts’, Apocalypse Keys is upfront about who the antagonists are: Harbingers of the apocalypse. Each mystery has one such Harbinger, who is trying to open a Door of Power for their own personal enrichment (and perhaps bringing the world closer to disaster). The PCs must find the Door before the Harbinger does by looking for the eponymous Keys, which are defined first by the GM (or the prewritten mystery) and then in more depth by the players as they make the connections from the Keys they find to what’s actually going on. These Keys and other elements of the mysteries are grounded by specific rules, which I’ll discuss in more detail. The tricky part, though, is that part of the PCs’ monstrous nature is the potential for them to become Harbingers themselves. Each character is grounded to their notion of humanity by themselves and the people around them, making these relationships the only thing standing between them and their downfall. While this sort of tension has been explored in other games, what makes Apocalypse Keys so interesting and appealing is that there is a robust but tight set of rules which create all of this drama for the players. These rules are both familiar and yet different, and it’s these differences which makes Apocalypse Keys stand out.

Rules

While Apocalypse Keys is PbtA, the game makes some small but highly impactful changes to the framework. At the high level, players still build their characters by choosing Playbooks, and they still engage with the mechanics by triggering Moves. The core mechanic, however, has been altered. In most PbtA games, Moves where there is uncertainty as to what happens are resolved through rolling 2d6. If the dice come up 6 or less, the Move is a ‘Miss’ and the GM takes control of the narrative. If the dice come up between 7 and 9, the Move is a ‘Hit’, but with some sort of mitigation or complication. If the dice come up 10 or above, then the Move is a ‘Complete Hit’ and the character achieves the aim of the Move and gets what they want. In Apocalypse Keys, the ‘Miss’ is still structured the same way, though now it comes up on a 7 or less. A ‘Complete Hit’, where the character gets what they want, comes up between an 8 and a 10. If the dice come up 11 or above, though, the Move is a ‘Catastrophic Success’, where the character’s control of their powers (or lack thereof) causes significant fallout or complication. We’ve seen these sort of ‘blackjack success’ mechanics before in other games (like Good Strong Hands), but what makes it interesting here is another mechanic which gives players a bit more control over their rolls. Characters in Apocalypse Keys have no stats; given that everyone is an inhuman monster of some sort or another, grounding abilities to comparative numbers doesn’t make much sense. Instead, each player has a pool of Darkness Tokens. Darkness Tokens are earned through ingame actions which are defined for each playbook, as well as embodying Conditions (more on this in a bit). On each roll, a player can choose to commit between 1 and 3 Darkness Tokens to the roll, earning a +1 to +3 bonus in the process. Given the way the dice results are structured, any commitment of tokens will increase the odds of some sort of success, but the impact they have on getting that 8-10 result is more interesting. If you assume that most dice rolls happen without additional penalties or bonuses (as is typically the case in PbtA), then adding 2 tokens has the highest chance of producing a Complete Hit; +1 and +3 have the same impact on the probability of a Complete Hit but +3 produces higher odds of a Catastrophic Success. Though PbtA may not attract number crunchers in the way more trad games do, players who do the math will immediately notice that every quantitative mechanic in this game is tuned very carefully. Take, as an example, the other main way to impact roll results, Bonds. Bonds are an interpersonal mechanic that will be familiar to PbtA vets, and they are earned both at character creation and as a consequence of a number of Moves in the game. When you spend a Bond with another character, you’re able to add either a +1 or -1 to your roll, which is a very powerful means to tune your result. Characters are grounded by the connections they have with each other, and given what a Bond can do, mechanically, players won’t forget to spend them.

As characters gain abilities they do so along two axes, XP and Ruin. XP works the way you’d expect it to, with characters earning XP primarily from end-of-session questions instead of ingame actions (though accumulating Bonds and some Moves will trigger XP as well). As a character gains XP, the player can take new Moves and otherwise expand the character. There’s also Ruin, which is a corruption mechanic. Ruin also unlocks new Moves and abilities, but like with other corruption mechanics, the Ruin Moves make it significantly easier to gain more Ruin, and the end of the road is retiring your character as they become a Harbinger of the Apocalypse.

The other mechanic of note is the damage mechanic, Conditions. Conditions in Apocalypse Keys are superficially similar to the same mechanic in Masks: Both PCs and NPCs have Conditions (with the number that NPCs have tied to their threat level or significance), and marking all Conditions takes a character out of the action. Conditions in Apocalypse Keys have very different effects than those in Masks, though. Each playbook has their own four Conditions, and when they mark a Condition, they can choose to embody that Condition in order to earn more Darkness Tokens. Once a character marks all of their Conditions they hit their Breaking Point. The Breaking Point is a massive, destructive action, and while the character need not exit the scene, they’ve probably ended it catastrophically if nobody intervenes. One fun option among the Ruin Advances is the option to permanently mark a Condition, making it much easier to earn Darkness Tokens but forcing the character closer to the edge of control.

The neat thing that ties all the mechanics together is the central conflict each character has between wanting to be more human and wanting to give into their more monstrous side. Darkness Tokens, Bonds, Ruin, and Conditions all reinforce this in their own ways, and they all tie together as well. If a character ever has more than five Darkness Tokens they trigger the Move Torn Between, and must earn Ruin or spend a Bond to avoid losing all their Darkness Tokens. While Bonds can mechanically ground characters to each other, characters also take Bonds with What The Darkness Demands, a central internal conflict which is chosen at character creation. Players spend these bonds as normal, but instead of being grounded by a relationship they’re getting closer to becoming a Harbinger of the Apocalypse. Conditions and Ruin are already intertwined, but characters can also gain Ruin Conditions, permanently marked conditions that further accelerate the accumulation of Darkness Tokens and enforce more roleplay of the character’s darkest aspects. Everything works together to make the story of the characters, their emotions, and their humanity just as present and just as mechanically robust as the mysteries that the characters will solve.

Story

Apocalypse Keys is at its heart an investigation game, and the investigation mechanics are really neat. Each mystery is about a Harbinger of the Apocalypse opening a Door of Power to gain more power and thus bringing the world closer to its doom. In order to stop the Harbinger, the PCs must find the Door of Power and unlock it themselves. This is done by linking Facets, elements of the mystery surrounding the Door, with Keys, clues which will lead to an understanding of where to Door is and how to access or neutralize it. Both finding Keys and eventually unlocking the Door to drive back the apocalypse are defined by Moves, Grasp Keys and Unlock Doom’s Door, respectively. The way these Moves work help center the way the whole ruleset is balanced, in a manner that I find very clever. The first thing I noticed when reading Apocalypse Keys is that the dice mechanic is fairly brutal. Getting an unmitigated success happens between 33% and 44% of the time, depending on how many Darkness Tokens you spend. That means that the majority of rolls will result in something bad happening, to an even greater degree than most PbtA games. The flipside to this is that Grasp Keys, the move which actually drives the game forward, always gives an option to uncover a Key (though there are consequences for a Miss or Catastrophic Success). Much like in GUMSHOE, the investigative elements are designed so that no die roll will actually get in the way of the investigation that’s taking place. Unlock Doom’s Door, on the other hand, has a clever and genre-reinforcing design which leans into the harsh probabilities of the dice mechanics. The roll to Unlock Doom’s Door is calculated by rolling 2d6, adding the number of Keys the party has uncovered, and subtracting the Complexity of the Mystery, a number which both qualitatively defines how many moving parts a mystery has and quantitatively defines how long the party has to solve it via the Doomsday Clock (more below). If the party rolls that elusive 8-10 on Unlock Doom’s Door, they’ve found the Door, know how to unlock it, and know how to do something which will beat back the apocalypse and otherwise frustrate the Harbinger’s plans. They’ve won, the rest is clean up. If they roll that 11+ Catastrophic Success, they get to the Door right after the Harbinger does, and must now fight to keep the Harbinger from accessing the power on the other side. If the roll is a Miss, the party has simply not found the Door yet, though they do mark a tick on the Doomsday Clock. The Doomsday Clock is, barring that 11+ roll described above, the mechanic which tracks how close the Harbinger is to discovering the Door. Like most PbtA clocks it is driven primarily by the GM (though there are a few moves like Unlock Doom’s Door which trigger a tick), but unlike most PbtA clocks it is specific and enforced by the game. If the Harbinger beats the party to a Door and lets its power out into the world, there are consequences.

Apocalypse Keys is intended for a limited run, defined by 2-4 mysteries leading to a final mystery. In the final mystery, elements from all previous mysteries are linked to one ultimate apocalypse; there are also optional rules to grant Harbingers powers based on filling the Doomsday Clock in a previous mystery, accelerating the accumulation of Ruin leading up to the final Door, and even making the Final Door highly decisive by giving the party exactly one chance to unlock it. What’s great about the mystery structure here is that there’s enough mechanical delineation (moves for Keys and the Door, linking Keys to Facets) to guide the players through the mystery, but enough leeway that everyone can still Play to Find Out What Happens (one of my favorite PbtA Principles which is repeated in this game as well). The balance, of course, is that while finding Keys is relatively easy, and unlocking the Door possible to guarantee (if you find enough Keys to make a Miss impossible), the constant drama, conflict, and temptation of darkness that each character faces the entire time means that the story is guaranteed to twist in unpredictable ways.


Apocalypse Keys demonstrates the power of a game ecosystem by being additive. If you’ve played and read a lot of PbtA games, it’ll become clear that Apocalypse Keys has borrowed a lot of mechanics and design elements from existing titles. That said, what makes the game intriguing is that it takes all these elements and add them up to something completely new. This is also seen in the genre influences, which clearly contribute to the game but yet don’t diminish it by being so obviously visible.

After reading Apocalypse Keys, it’s clear why Evil Hat picked up the game and is helping Rae and the rest of the design team cross the finish line with the ongoing Kickstarter. Apocalypse Keys is funding until October 11th, and if you pledge you’ll immediately gain access to the same preview copy I used to write this review. The campaign has crossed over the $100,000 mark at this point, but there are still a few stretch goals which will add new content. That said, there are already four new sections which will be released to backers as PDFs, as well as art and printing upgrades which have already been unlocked. With this Kickstarter campaign, Apocalypse Keys is well on the way to being the next high-volume PbtA success; after reading the game, I can safely say that it’s well-deserved.

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2 thoughts on “Apocalypse Keys Review”

  1. Some misunderstanding in there: “… there are still a few stretch goals which will add new content to the book. That said, there are already four new sections which will be added to the final book” — they won’t be added to the final book, they will be released to backers as PDFs. That way the funded stretches won’t alter the publication timeline (adding months of delay, potentially changing price, etc) of the book itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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