Go From Superhero to Superweirdo In Apocalypse Keys

Tell stories like Hellboy, Umbrella Academy or Doom Patrol

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A superweirdo is a main character in a story that follows a lot of the beats of a superhero story like secret identities, Fortresses of Solitude, saving the world but is not the usual masked billionaire or last son of a dying planet. Think of stories like Hellboy, Umbrella Academy or Doom Patrol where the main character struggles to make human connections and resist the desire to become full-on villains because of their massive power. These are the types of stories told by Apocalypse Keys, a Powered by the Apocalypse game created by Rae Nedjadi. Evil Hat Productions recently sent a review copy for me to peruse. How does this game stand out? Let’s play to find out.

Apocalypse Keys tells the story of DIVISION, a secret government (?) agency whose purpose is to stop the end of the world as we know it, which is apparently happening more often than we know. To this end, it’s collected a team of powerful beings as Omen-class agents. Each of these agents could potentially end the world too, but the agency has found that by putting them together on a team and directing them at other Harbingers means they are less likely to end everything. And, on the off chance they do, there’s a whole bunch of powerful beings who can stop them that know all their strengths and weaknesses.

Players choose their playbook from one of several types of Harbinger. One of the organizational elements about the game that I liked is that the playbooks are sorted from simple to complex. If you just want to play, say, a half-demon that likes to brood and punch fellow demons, that’s one of the early playbooks. For something more complex, like a fallen god reckoning whether they want to accept their new mortality or blow up this imperfect world, that comes later. Not only do players choose the moves for their characters they also choose moves that reflect the resources DIVISON has on offer. These choices help to give the world an unusual flavor: sure there’s stuff like an advanced armory or access to a forbidden library, but what about an agency that keeps the ghosts of its dead agents on retainer?

Apocalypse Keys uses Powered By The Apocalypse as its chassis but it modifies a lot. Even the basic mechanic is changed to better suit the story it wants to tell. It keeps the basic structure of strong success/weak success/GM move but it flips the location of the successes. Rather than static modifiers, players acquire darkness tokens by acting in accordance with their playbook. When they make rolls, they spend the tokens to add to the roll. However, complicated successes come up as 11 or better, while solid success is 8-10. The complicated success is also usually expressed not as a failure or as a weak hit but as the character’s power overwhelming them to make things complicated. Sure, the psychic contacts the ghost they wanted but also riles up every specter within a two block radius.

The game also uses one of my favorite PbtA mechanics from the past few years. Players determine the truth behind the mysteries in a manner similar to Brindlewood Bay. There’s not a predetermined answer to the weirdness going on in an episode. They must put together the clues, make a roll and see whether their idea is correct or if the GM gets to twist it around. These clues often tie in with each player’s mysterious background. That cult might have been worshipping you at some point but now its turned to a new dread god. Can you wipe them out knowing that the first person you ever loved it at the altar behind the grotesque mask?

Many of these mechanics might be familiar to long time players of PbtA games but they’ve been modified and reimplimented here to fit the genre in a better way. This leads to the main criticism I have for Apocalypse Keys. Getting into the mainset of PbtA games can be a challenge for some folks. It may be the terminology or the narrative shift or a version that doesn’t explain its moves clearly. Getting the most out of this game seems like it would require players who are not only comfortable with this style of game but are interested in a version that changes up some of the most central mechanics. I like PbtA games because I think they can be very easy to teach to new people. This isn’t one of them. I would play Apocalypse Keys with people who are already comfortable with this style of game and start off newbie with something like Monster of the Week or Masks first.

For experienced PbtA gamers, Apocalypse Keys brings the massive power and massive feelings of superweirdos to the table.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland


Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Without owning the book, this reads like something that could be played with just the core book of Monster of the Week already (also from Evil Hat, interestingly), with everyone using the Monstrous playbook.

Other than some mechanical tweaks to the core PbtA system, what does Apocalypse Keys bring to the table that MotW does not?
 

Without owning the book, this reads like something that could be played with just the core book of Monster of the Week already (also from Evil Hat, interestingly), with everyone using the Monstrous playbook.

Other than some mechanical tweaks to the core PbtA system, what does Apocalypse Keys bring to the table that MotW does not?

Completely off the mark here. Apocalypse Keys has very different mechanics geared toward a specific kind of play (wildly powerful and tragic characters all with the potential to destroy the world), and playbooks that are basically nothing like what's in MotW. Overall MotW is very old PbtA tech at this point. This is newer PbtA, pulling from lots of different games and bringing in new innovations. For example, Wieland went over that core dice roll change, and that using a Darkness token to get a +1 before you roll makes you more likely to succeed, but also more likely to go overboard (11+). What he didn't mention is that after you roll, you can burn a Bond—a relationship—in order to bump your roll up or down. Meaning if you lose control, you can burn your friendship to reign things in, losing a piece of what makes you human to avert disaster. So the power and tragedy of the premise are baked into the mechanics.

There's plenty of other interesting/new stuff in the game, but yeah, it's not MotW at all.
 
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Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
There's plenty of other interesting/new stuff in the game, but yeah, it's not MotW at all.
That wasn't my assertion.

Rephrasing my question: Other than the mechanical changes to the core engine, why is this kind of game one that one couldn't play with MotW, which already grapples with a lot of these themes?

It sounds like you're saying it's higher powered, which can help (although I think you could certainly play Hellboy in MotW without any problems), and you can burn relationships for mechanical currency, which would be a nice addition to a future edition of MotW (it would certainly be good at representing some storylines in Supernatural and Buffy, for instance).

But no RPG, especially a PbtA game, is just its mechanics. Are there other things happening in this book that especially lend themselves to telling this kind of game? Adventure frameworks? Compelling advice? Amazing examples?
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
Sounds interesting. I’ve played an intro game in MotW, and liked it, but never had any other experiences with PBtA games before or since. Might pick this one (and MotW) up this year.
 

pemerton

Legend
Rephrasing my question: Other than the mechanical changes to the core engine, why is this kind of game one that one couldn't play with MotW, which already grapples with a lot of these themes?

It sounds like you're saying it's higher powered, which can help (although I think you could certainly play Hellboy in MotW without any problems), and you can burn relationships for mechanical currency, which would be a nice addition to a future edition of MotW (it would certainly be good at representing some storylines in Supernatural and Buffy, for instance).

But no RPG, especially a PbtA game, is just its mechanics. Are there other things happening in this book that especially lend themselves to telling this kind of game? Adventure frameworks? Compelling advice? Amazing examples?
I dunno, I think saying "other than the mechanical changes" seems to be missing the point a bit. Between the different approach to resolution of moves, and the different approach to establishing backstory ("whodunnit"), this seems like it will deliver a pretty different experience from MotW.

Maybe MotW could deal with the same sorts of fictional content, but it seems like in a very different (rather GM-driven) way.

I'm reminded of the difference between The Green Knight RPG (the GM brings the theme and stakes) and Agon 2nd ed (the players bring these).
 


Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Between the different approach to resolution of moves, and the different approach to establishing backstory ("whodunnit"), this seems like it will deliver a pretty different experience from MotW.
Maybe, although like a lot of DMs, I've long shamelessly stolen what the players think as going on to inform what actually is. So a game formalizing that isn't a big change for DMs like me.
 

That wasn't my assertion.

Rephrasing my question: Other than the mechanical changes to the core engine, why is this kind of game one that one couldn't play with MotW, which already grapples with a lot of these themes?

It sounds like you're saying it's higher powered, which can help (although I think you could certainly play Hellboy in MotW without any problems), and you can burn relationships for mechanical currency, which would be a nice addition to a future edition of MotW (it would certainly be good at representing some storylines in Supernatural and Buffy, for instance).

But no RPG, especially a PbtA game, is just its mechanics. Are there other things happening in this book that especially lend themselves to telling this kind of game? Adventure frameworks? Compelling advice? Amazing examples?

One of the defining features of PbtA games is how closely their mechanics align to their premise, and how non-portable those mechanics typically are. MotW happens to be one of the more trad PbtA games, in mechanics as well as premise and how the premise gets resolved, but that doesn't mean it's particularly versatile or homebrewable.

But anyway the reason I focused on the mechanics I did is because those give a sense of what makes the game so different. You're a group of Hellboys, basically, all with the potential to end everything, and in many cases as much a danger to the world as anything you're investigating. And like other good PbtA games the mechanics directly reinforce those themes. Darkness tokens and Bonds aren't minor mechanical options, but representative of decisions you have to grapple with constantly. And the end result is situations that are much bigger and more dramatic than just about anything in MotW.

As for other stuff, there's a huge preview of the game (45 pages) and most if not all the mysteries on the Evil Hat site:

 

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