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Powered by the Apocalypse is the best way to get started with TTRPGs

With the animated series of Critical Role on the horizon, Dimension 20 preparing for its thirteenth season, and videos of artisanal dice taking over TikTok, it’s clear Dungeons & Dragons is sucking a lot of oxygen out of space. But it’s nowhere near the only tabletop RPG out there, and I’d say it’s not even the best to start with.

Beginners looking for a creative, flexible system can do better – especially if it’s their first adventure. World of apocalypse deserves more attention. It is a system that is as easy to use for game masters as it is to learn for gamers.

A creation by designers Meguey Baker and Vincent Baker, World of apocalypse is a game about the struggle for survival in a world that doesn’t want that. It has also inspired the creation of many other games that are called Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). Games with the PbtA label exclude elements World of apocalypse and apply them to a whole range of settings and genres – but more on that later.

What makes this game such a productive source of inspiration? To put it simply, it’s one of the most adaptable TTRPGs out there. Here’s a breakdown of the five best parts of World of apocalypse, and why they guarantee that a PbtA Rulebook is the right step for anyone new to TTRPGs.

Players advance the story

World of apocalypse realizes early on that a Game Master (GM) – or Master of Ceremonies (MC), as they are called in the rulebook – is not really responsible for the story.

“It is not your intention to make the players lose” World of apocalypseAuthors say, “or deny them what they want.”

Instead, MCing is about answers to player actions. Preparation and worldbuilding are encouraged, but an MC won’t go into a session knowing how to end it.

Whenever an MC interacts with players – by uncovering a new threat, separating the group, or doing harm – the rulebook asks the players the key question, “What are you doing?” The players’ answers to that question must guide the narrative . Is the group running towards or away from the plume of smoke? Do they take a minute to heal or do they rush right back into battle? Whatever they choose will determine what happens next in the story.

Rolling is easy

I enjoy rolling dice as well as the next one, but a lot of TTRPGs – D&D included – make things too complicated. You roll a 20-sided die to swing your sword, add bonuses and damage types, and check four times on your character sheet to see if you are doing the math right.

There’s something to be said for simplicity, especially when you’re trying to keep your players focused on the plot. In World of apocalypse, every movement works the same. Sneaking into a campsite? Hit a bad guy? Manipulate an ally? Regardless of the move, players roll two 6-sided dice and add one of just a few modifiers. Then they check the result: a 1-6 is a failure, a 7-9 is a mixed success, and a 10+ is a complete success. This is great for new GMs. There is no need to set levels of difficulty, read the section on calculating fall damage, or decide at the moment what the outcome of a throw should look like. Every time a die falls on the table, it is either a success or a failure.

It’s great for gamers too. There are only five modifiers to watch out for – cool, tough, hot, spicy, and weird – and everyone at the table knows what the outcome of a throw means to history.

We all want the same thing

The cover of Masks: A New Generation by Brendan Conway.  A group of teenagers in superhero costumes stand over a menacing robot, laid low and wedged in the pavement.

Image: Magpie Games

Nobody likes an edgelord at the table. For the (luckily) uninitiated, arguably the worst type of TTRPG environment is one where players who insist on “realism” say they have no reason in the world to cooperate with the party; An edgelord is someone who is not interested in being nice, working together on a common goal, or having the best of the party at their center.

World of apocalypse‘s character creation process is also a party Creation process that helps to tie a table together and to overcome the dreaded “I’ll go alone because I don’t know you” phase of things. In World of apocalypse, this is called Hx, short for history. At the start of the first session, players introduce their characters and then ask each other player at the table a Hx question that makes connections and, as you guessed, the story between the characters. This helps stamp out Edgelord tendencies from the start: there is no logical reason for a character to go against the Party’s goals if someone in the party has saved their life – or maybe they exist, but the character in question is forced to give a narrative satisfactory rationale for their actions, which makes a more interesting story. The first session sheet of World of apocalypse it says pretty clearly: “Your characters don’t have to be friends, but they should definitely be allies.”

Preparation is minimal

the World of apocalypse The set of rules for MCs makes this principle clear: “Do NOT plan any action in advance and I will not fuck around.” That ties in World of apocalypse really player-oriented as it is the job of the MC to react to player and character actions instead of guiding them through a given action.

Ask the players questions about their everyday life: where do they shower? What’s a delicacy that’s hard to get your hands on? Identify what players have no control over and turn them into threats, vulnerabilities and blind spots. Most of this is done through conversations with the players, on another crucial point: How a session turns out depends on how the players react to different baits.

Players who unexpectedly immediately defeat a threat may encounter some clues suggesting they are the real Villain, or that someone acted under duress. A group unsure of what to do after arriving at a scheduled location might hear a scream in the distance spurring them to action. This is an ointment for my tired, eternally GM heart, as is the instruction to “leave things to themselves that one may wonder about later”; You don’t have to have all the answers! Spice up your world with holes and fill it up later as the stakes rise and bonds form.

One size fits all

A purple pen doodle forms the cover of Velvet Glove: Notebook Edition by Sarah “Doombringer” Richardson.

Image: Magpie Games

If all of these mechanics and principles sound great, but dirt, death, and devastation aren’t really your style, then I have great news, and here it is where Powered by the Apocalypse is coming in.

PbtA is not a system in itself; as Meguey Baker and Vincent Baker put it, its use in a game means “that the game was inspired by” World of apocalypse in a way that the designer thinks is important. ”In other words, games that use the PbtA label are oriented towards World of apocalypse in relation to many things: a session zero, how the cube mechanics works or even aesthetic and design elements.

Although I would still highly recommend staying in World of apocalypse, there are so many different ways to jump into other PbtA style games. In Magpie Games’ Velvet glove You can be a ’70s high school girl gang; in Evil Hat’s Monster of the week You can be a group of detectives hunting monsters. Do you want to get really silly? How about Adam Schwaninger’s Peace was never an optionin which a flock of geese is tearing the city apart. You could also try my personal favorite, Masks: a new generation, starring a couple of goddamn kids who are obviously secretly superheroes. The possibilities are endless: there are over 500 PbtA Rulebooks that can only be viewed and / or purchased on itch.io. They don’t all have the same exact rules, of course, but most are beginner-friendly.

The world of tabletop RPG can seem daunting, however World of apocalypse may be the friend who hold your hand by her. All you need is a rulebook and table of friends who are just as excited as you to roll the dice and kick the ass. Go there and apocalypse!


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