Friday, October 15, 2021

Powered by the Apocalypse Engine: An Overview

Cover to Apocalypse World 2nd Ed.
Art by Ivan Bliznetsov
©2010 D. Vincent Baker
PbtA Context

After my reviews of Dungeon World and Down and Out in Dredgeburg, it has become clear to me that it would be helpful to my readers if someone put an overview of the Powered by the Apocalypse engine up on the web that offered a neutral and detached view on it. So, I thought it would give the swing in explaining what Powered by the Apocalypse engine is, and what it is for.

Powered by the Apocalypse is a open game engine, meaning that it is a game engine anyone can use without royalties so long as they meet the relatively light requirements of the designer set out in the terms of the engine's system reference document. These are usually modelled on the Open Game License released for the D20 system back in 2000.

An open game engine allows any developer who wants to do to build a new game without having to develop the mechanics of the game from scratch. They simply take an existing game and modified until it is sufficiently different to fit their theme, world, or ideas.

Some other examples of open game engines include: 

  • The d20 system from Wizards of the Coast
  • The Forged in the Dark engine from One Seven 
  • The Mark of the Odd system by Bastionland
  • Every TSR-era edition of Dungeons & Dragons thanks to the legal safe harbor established by OSRIC
  • The upcoming Powered by the Middle Finger by DIY RPG Productions
  • The Open D6 engine.
  • FATE 2.0

What makes Powered by the Apocalypse stand out is that it is extraordinary popular, used by quite a few games. And it is one of two engines that has really defined the Storygame ethos.

The Engine

Task Resolution

The mechanical engine for Powered by the Apocalypse is fairly straightforward. Everything a player is likely to do that is genre appropriate to the game is covered in a set of moves. The moves are broad and artfully vague in their description.

Each move is resolved by rolling two d6, and applying a statistic, situational modifiers, modifiers from advanced equipment or a bonus accumulated from a previous move called hold.

The modifiers tend to be fairly modest. Plus one or plus two is fairly common plus three is rare, and plus four is exceptional and may never come up in a campaign. Penalties also can be levied at about the same range.

A roll of 6- is a miss, and has lifted consequences in the move. A roll of 10+ is a success. A roll of 7-9 is a conditional success.

Player Moves 

Most moves list either a single successful outcome, or they list four or more possible outcomes. Where you have a list of possible successful outcomes, a roll of 10+ will let the player choose 2 or 3 of them, depending on the move.

A conditional success rolled on a 7-9, which is the most likely outcome, also either lists a set of possible costs to choose from for success or allows the player to choose only one successful outcome out of the possible list.

For example, the take control move in Apocalypse World allows the character to grab ahold of an object from another character and control it. For example, seizing a gun from another character's hand. The move's results are possibly having total and uncontested control of the item, avoiding taking one point of damage yourself, dealing one point of damage to the person controlling the object, and intimidating the other person with the ferocity at which you take it.

This means on  a successful roll, your character might terrify someone by injuring them, and by being willing to draw your own blood to take uncontested control of an object. Or it might mean that you grab the object firmly and swiftly, taking it from your opponent, but not scaring them. Or I might mean seizing the object and avoiding hurting yourself, but also not hurting them.

On a 7 to 9 you only get one of those things. So you might take the object, but suffer harm, while your opponent is unharmed and not intimidated. Or you might injure them trying to take the item away, but they have a chance of getting it back and you've hurt yourself a bit, too.

As another more binary example, the hack and slash move from Dungeon World which covers hand-to-hand combat is fairly binary. On a 10+, you deal damage to the opponent. On a 6-, the opponent damages you or uses a special move. On a 7-9 you might choose that neither character takes damage, that you both do, or that the enemy gets to do one of its special moves in return for you doing damage.

Note that it is the player, not the GM who decides the outcome of the moves after the dice are rolled. The GM only calls out when a player should make a particular move based on the conditions of the narrative.

Each PbtA game comes with a set of moves designed to emulate a particular genre or type of story. Characters are a combination of ability scores designed to complement the list of moves, and a playbook. The playbook is a character class, in effect, that offers a set of special moves available only to that character based on their archetype, and further moves that can be selected during character advancement. 

In many PbtA games playbooks also come with conditions under which a character may gain  experience points to advance, which are based on role-playing conditions. For example, good paladin characters in Dungeon World advance when they protect innocent people.

GM Moves

GMs also have moves that are not mechanical in nature, they are prompts on different events that can occur in the Narrative. The task resolution system is totally player-facing. When a GM makes a "move" they narrate the next set of events and then prompt the players to declare their next action. They are mostly designed to help the GM stay within the genre.

The GM in effect becomes a facilitator for a collaborative story telling exercise where they hold relatively little influence over the content and structure of the story.

The Storytelling Method

Powered by the Apocalypse is more than a game engine, it promotes a question-and-response method of GMing that hands over more power over to players. Rather than assert 

"You are fleeing from a ruin with a hoard of killer robots at your back, they want to get back the computer core you stole from their factory" 

As you might in a game of Gamma World, in Apocalypse World you would say:

"You are running for your life through the ruins of a demolished city... What is chasing you, Steve?" at which point Steve decides what the PCs are up against. Then you might ask, "Why is it chasing you, Tom?" so Tom gets to decide why the thing Steve named is out to kill or catch the PCs. 

Apocalypse World

Powered by the apocalypse takes its name from the Apocalypse World RPG, which might be considered one of the very first games to focus on story in the way that defines the Storygame concept.

Apocalypse world is a post-apocalyptic game that, like Gamma World, Death is the New Pink, or The Wasted Hack draw much of their influence indirectly from Philip K. Dick novels like Ubik and Dr. Bloodmoney, as well as from derivative media like the Mad Max films, and the Fallout video game series. It has rules for zombies, mutants, and psychic powers, but mostly focuses on human conflict.

Apocalypse World as originally written did not include all the innovations that we see in newer PbtA games. Although most of them were included by the time 2nd edition evolved.

The Forge, GNS Theory, The Emergence of Storygaming

Apocalypse World was co-written by D Vincent Baker, who also was one of the major minds behind- and moderators of- The Forge (along with Ron Edwards). The Forge was a collaborative community of independent role-playing game developers that were interested in rewriting the way role-playing games were created and thought of.

The Forge is built primarily on GNS theory, which holds that there are essentially three different structural elements that build the experience of a game. Much of this is borrowed from video game developer theory, and I've heard the same ideas expressed by prominent video game producers.

GNS Theory holds that for a game to be successful it must provide a challenging structure game that can be understood and hacked or manipulated by players who prefer such (Gamification). It must also provide a narrative or story element that gives the game context (Narrativism), and finally it must attempt to simulate an internally consistent world (Simulationism).

Most of The Forge developers held that Dungeons & Dragons and other traditional RPGs were far too interested in the game and simulation elements to their detriment. And that these were less important elements than Narrative.

Simulation, they argued, suffers from a paradox. The more simulation is to game is, the more complex the rules have to be, the more during the experience, and the less realistic it actually is. They also argue the attempt to create things like realistic combat is futile given the constraints of a game.

Likewise, they held that focus on complex rules often led to not just unrealistic results, but annoying the rules lawyer and min maxing behavior that detracted from the fun of the game for others.

They move towards creating a system where narrative was king and both the simulation and the game structure were both subordinate to it. They serve the Story. Ergo they were not games so much about laying a role as creating a Story.

Because of D Vincent Baker's prominent position in the forge, and because he was a strong contributor to the basic theory, Powered by the Apocalypse has been held up as a exemplar of story games. It is built with a far more collaborative structure in mind, limitation on GM power, and means of strictly enforcing genre emulation through the choice of move and playbook lists.

The second edition of Apocalypse World strongly represents the evolution of forged thought, as he modified the engine to better suit the emergent philosophy.

In essence, Powered by the Apocalypse games are one of the best methods for achieving a different goal from traditional role-playing games. While a traditional TTRPG offers you a virtual reality experience run on the software of the GM's mind, a story game gives you a satisfying narrative you all created together with structured and fair methods of input, and hopefully are all satisfied with.

Why the Aversion to Heirachy?

Storygames try their best to eliminate Hierarchy at the table. The Powered by the Apocalypse engine does this by making the mechanics entirely player facing, that's the players build the scenario using the question and answer method, and have players decide on the conditions of their success and sometimes the conditions of their failure.

In this way, the theory is that the players will all be able to create a narrative they enjoy. Whereas, it argues, when a GM is in charge, they can shoehorn in whatever form of story they want regardless of the players desires or inputs.

I don't think this is necessarily the case, and it is admittedly and oversimplification of the philosophy. GMs are subjects to market pressures. A player can always walk away from the table if they are given the service they are looking for. However, it really does matter how much fine control each member of the group wants. Certainly, a PbtA game is far more collaborative, and offers far less power to the GM than D&D does. It does, however, rely on strong trust between the various players, and a desire to reach a consensus.

This is one of the reasons why the producers of Storygames have also worked hard at creating safety tools and promoting the concept of "consent in gaming." With every player contributing as much as possible to the story, you have to make sure all of them are on the same page about what is and isn't acceptable, preferably before the game begins.

It should also be no surprise that as the Storygame community has developed, their distaste for Hierarchy and interest in building consensus and consent has led the group to generally adopt strong progressive politics in general, which is reflected in many of the games.

Apocalypse World having complex mechanisms for sex, including coercive sex, seems strangely jarring in the context of the more modern Storygames and the Sworddream movement that has evolved out of The Forge.

Cover to Fiasco
©2009 Bully Pulpit Games
Satisfying Story vs. Immersive Play

Story gaming is those about creating a satisfying story, at the cost of the kind of in-character immersion that bounded player agency creates. More power given to the players and less to the GM that the game will result in a story.

Because of the primacy of story, player characters have to be given an incredible amount of fiat, inclusive means of overriding the dice and the GM. And, ideally, a game could be made that would be absolutely GMless, like Fiasco or Cosmic Patrol.

The Function of Moves

As PbtA has evolved, the function of moves has become primarily a means of restraining the Game Master and the other players. They have measures to override or mitigate almost every harm that a player character can experience. 

Nothing happens to the player character without their consent without giving them some kind of escape valve. For example, a character who has been seduced in Apocalypse World can instead choose to take a penalty to one of their attributes if they say no, or take experience points that they decide to roll with it. Even character death often has some kind of out, like accepting a devil's bargain in Dungeon World.

Dungeon World Cover
Art by Nate Marcel
©2012 Koebel & LaTorra
A Game of DMs

One idea that a commenter put forward is that it might be best to think of Dungeon World and similar games as games run by a fellowship of GMs together. During their turn, every player is doing far more to create and control the world and they are just moving a character around the board. They are, for a moment, a GM. While the person who is actually called the GM is more of a facilitator to allow a bunch of different GMS to build a world and a game experience simultaneously together.

I find this a fantastic way of explaining how a well-played PbtA game is. Every player is taking responsibility for world building. Every player characters taking responsibility for interpreting the dice on their turn. Every player is responsible for setting the tone and adjudicating events.

Dungeon World

Dungeon World in many ways is a fascinating case when looking at the Powered by the Apocalypse engine. It is designed specifically to emulate Dungeons & Dragons, while still using a story game structure and PbtA approach. You end up with a game that uses Dungeons & Dragons stats, Dungeons and Dragons classes, and Dungeons & Dragons races and monsters but that place to a totally different goal. In many ways, it was heralded at its conception as being one of the best tools for recruiting people do they story game and forge philosophy, and an excellent way to bring story games to the more traditional fantasy and sword and sorcery milieu. 

Down and  Out in Dredgeburg Cover
Art by Skullfungus
©2020 Skullfungus
World of Dungeons and Dredgeburg

One of the fascinating phenomena I've seen emerge recently is a trend away from strict adherence to PbtA's structural safeguards. There have been several games such as Down and out in Dregeburg and World of Dungeons that encourage the collaborative storytelling method, but have replaced moves with a single unified 2d6 + - modifiers mechanic where the GM adjudicates success, and offers options too the player when a conditional success or Miss is rolled. Putting a lot more power back in the GM's hand in order to build a much lighter system.

In many ways, these game subvert the intention of PbtA, while taking advantage of its light and robust system.

To be honest, I enjoy them far more than the strict move heavy and playbook-heavy PbtA systems. They are a good compromise between giving player characters choice and control, and creating a light and flexible game.

Who Is It For? 

PbtA games suffer a bad reputation among OSR gamers and other of traditional role-playing game enthusiasts. They are seen as needlessly heavy on rules for something with such a simple resolution mechanic. They require a lot of rule book flipping or reference to cheat sheets. They put players on the spot, when they would rather let the GM determine what's going on so that they can decide what their character does.

I do think that some of these allegations are fair. Moves require a lot of lists of possible outcomes. And that means having a reference sheet. Once you get the hang of it, they're very easy to reference, and very easy to remember. I don't think that they're any more complicated than the skill system that Dungeons & Dragons used in 3.5.

I do believe it is fair to say that the GMing style that comes hand in hand with Powered by the Apocalypse games puts players on the spot when they are not necessarily expecting it. Trying to run the game without using the question and response GMing style is possible... but only to an extent. The players still find themselves at the helm way more often than they might expect because of the way moves work. They have to make choices about the game itself, rather than just choices for their character.

Thinking about the game on that meta level often destroys the kind of immersion that traditional players are looking for. You have to learn to enjoy different things in order to enjoy a Storygame like Apocalypse World

Where I believe it is most appealing is to people who have a background in improv, or who enjoy gming, but don't want the full burden of it. It's a great one for a group of forever GMS looking for a break where they can use some of their creativity but not all of it. Or theater kids who enjoy improv games. If you're a new school player who is just coming into D&D and are more interested in having an experience like critical role, you might actually be better served by a powered by the apocalypse game and a game with a traditional gm. Especially if you want to explore yourself through your character.

It certainly would not be an effective to over someone who wants to be their character, or who is in fact looking for a traditional virtual reality experience. Nor is it for players who prefer not to have to be creative on the spot.

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