Grade the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) System

How do you feel about the PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) system?

  • I love it.

    Votes: 34 24.3%
  • It's pretty good.

    Votes: 29 20.7%
  • It's alright I guess.

    Votes: 22 15.7%
  • It's pretty bad.

    Votes: 7 5.0%
  • I hate it.

    Votes: 8 5.7%
  • I've never played it.

    Votes: 40 28.6%
  • I've never even heard of it.

    Votes: 0 0.0%

As a general thing, PbtA (AW) was designed to be a 'pressure cooker', something is going to blow because there are always these consequences stacking up, creating more pressure, pushing the situation from status quo to some kind of explosion. You cook dinner for the boys and there's no more meat. They start to make trouble, the boss got meat, by gosh we're going to get some too! Your perfectly fine little hard hold is now a powder keg (I rolled an 8 on a hold event resolution move).
I haven't done a 'light hearted' PbtA game, so I'm not sure how this sort of design works out there, but I heavily suspect that absent some heavy tweaking, these games are going to 'snowball' pretty easily.
It depends what you mean 'light hearted'. I can't imagine PbtA ever working and being gentle. That said comedy as well as drama work well as escalating spirals of character driven consequences. Comedic and even slapstick PbtA would work pretty well. I've never tried using a PbtA game for comedy - but the best two I have have been Cortex Plus and Blades in the Dark precisely because of that explosion of consequences that they share with PbtA games.
PbtA games are not aimed at depicting mundane situations and a kind of equilibrium state of affairs. Instead the core system is engineered to make all hell break loose reliably and soon, so you can stop fiddling around in the market place and get to the 'dungeon', or else!
But all hell breaking loose in the marketplace is fun!

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Doing the best imitation of myself
It depends what you mean by "telling the story". PbtA games are spiralling nests of consequences. If you tried to write the story in advance it's going to fight you.
This is such a good point. When I've played and run PbtA games, there were plenty of times where everyone at the table knew where we wanted things to go. One die roll later they moved off in a different direction. And that was okay because it's what "play to find out" means. This is something that's very different from D&D I've found, but also something that can make D&D better if you use it.

Sorry, but this all reminds me heavily of the way 19th Century Pastoralist/Naturalist painters admonished the shibboleth of the impressionists with their emphasis on conveying the idea of their imagery as opposed to the minute details. Every medium evolves away from its roots, and there will always be that old geezer shouting from the corner about how the new way is a 'misuse' or how it degrades/perverts the 'one true way'. lol. Its fine to like or dislike whatever, but when you start using phrases like 'misuse of the medium', you have definitely gone over the edge...

I think you're projecting things I didn't say. When I say its a misuse of the medium, I mean it in the sense that they aren't really using it, and when they do its a fairly shallow use.

I believe I mentioned somewhere about these being close to visual novels (i at least thought it anyway), and Id levy the same thought at those.

Visual novels use all the same components, but they don't really leverage what the medium is good at doing.

And meanwhile your analogy to painting falls short because you're talking about specific styles, when what Im talking about is mediums.

Impressionism isn't a different medium from realism or anything else on those lines. Its all painting.

For your analogy to work you probably should have pointed at something like digital vs traditional painting, but even that would have still fallen short as an analogy as the underlying principles of painting still apply regardless of medium, and likewise the same holds true for games.

Ergo, the analogy if taken to its conclusion would have to insinuate that I, in my argument, am making an argument akin to saying a digital painting is somehow lesser than one of its traditional counterparts.

But thats not what Im saying. What Im actually saying is that these particular styles of traditional paintings aren't actually making much use of paint as a medium, and could just as easily have been sketch drawings or doodles, and they'd likely take far less effort to create and enjoy if they did.

So translated back into the actual argument, games as an overall medium excel at generating interactivity, particularly in the long term. Its what makes them such a potent artform over many other kinds of art, as games can sustain engagement for a far longer period of time than most others, and even things like serialize novels or television struggle to compete with them on that end.

PBTA as games do not, on the whole, do a good job of leveraging that interactivity for sustained engagement.

Its no secret these games aren't great for longer form campaigns, and thats because they are closer in structure to improv theater, which is a good game structure for short term, spontaneous and often entertaining storytelling, but not so much for fostering long term engagement with an interactive and ongoing narrative.

Ive also said elsewhere that, ultimately, I don't need a game to gamify writing. Writing is already fun on its own, and no game is going to be capable of adding to that experience without fundamentally limiting it, and that is what PBTA does.

As much as I like Ironsworn and Starforged, its a problem when I get to a point where the game becomes superfluous, and I get there way faster with other games in this family.

Ive also said over in unpopular opinions that, stripping away all of this pomp over narratives and storytelling, there isn't much left to PBTA. Whereas, despite their problems, if I do the same to DND or Pathfinder, or even an OSR game like Black Hack, DCC, and the like, there's actually still quite a lot, enough to still be playable.

This is what I get at when I've talked about how PBTA solves the problem of bad mechanics by just deleting them. It works, but the game quickly becomes unplayable if you stop leveraging the promise of great storytelling, and doubly so if the player loses interest in using the game to tell great stories.


As I've been pointing out in the "Narrative Mechanics" thread what is being called "Narrative Mechanics" are almost entirely absent from Apocalypse World. The codification is largely on when and how much the GM should act. Meanwhile there isn't much DM guidance at all in 5e or too much support of any playstyle.
See, I'd disagree with the latter part. There's nearly 50 years of DM guidance, a lot of it very, very good and nearly all of it transferable to other games. It just hasn't been put into a single list the way PbtA games do. MotW has "reveal future badness" as a Keeper move and "put horror in everyday situations" on a Keeper agenda. There's an entire chapter of how to run horror games in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft which basically says these exact same things and supports the playstyle. In fact, I learned a great deal how to run horror from 2e Ravenloft.

It's just that, as I said, there's no single list. You have to look in a lot of books and magazines that have been published over the years, which a lot of younger gamers simply don't have access to.

Like, I'm working on a "Powered By The Requiem"--PbtA-style Vampire: the Requiem. I posted what I had to Reddit and got seriously downvoted because I had not yet done Storyteller moves or agendas. People insisted they had to be done first, were the most important part of the game; that the only true way to tell what a PbtA game is supposed to be like, and the only way to judge a playbook, was to read the moves and agenda first. Oh, and that the rules had to be followed exactly and you weren't allowed to change anything.

(This is ignoring that Vince Baker said to create your own game in whatever order feels most comfortable to you.) Literally the only useful advice I got was from 1-2 people who were fans of Vampire to begin with. It was quite disheartening to have my desire for constructive criticism to be answered with what amounted to "you're doing it wrong."

But I, who have been gaming since the early 90s (yes, I'm a babe in comparison to many of the people here, but old in comparison to many of the people on Reddit), and who had been running horror games since long before MotW was ever published, had read the agendas and moves from several different games. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about them, because they were standard for just about every horror game I had ever read or played in. But to many of the PbtA players, they were new ideas.

It depends what you mean by "telling the story". PbtA games are spiralling nests of consequences. If you tried to write the story in advance it's going to fight you.
I mean, MotW has a "Mystery Countdown," which provides the story beats. I'm not talking about plotting every step of an adventure out.

See, I'd disagree with the latter part. There's nearly 50 years of DM guidance, a lot of it very, very good and nearly all of it transferable to other games.
I didn't say "DM guidance"; I called out D&D 5e in specific. I would say that oD&D/1e and 4e both have excellent guidance which is very different because those are two different games. 3.0/3.5 and 2e both have a lot of guidance - and while I may disagree with what either game(s) try to do the guidance is definitely there. But that's four separate sets of DM guidance that in places overlap, and in places really don't.

And 5e chose not to pick a lane and doesn't have good guidance or tools for any of these DMing styles. It's not even that there's "no single list" - it's that 5e doesn't really try. This is a targeted criticism of the one specific game (and one that happens to be the market leader).

In the absence of mechanics, all that is left is storytelling. That the game also requires you to be good at improvising does not fix that, it makes it worse, because many people aren’t.

The complaint is not that it creates a railroad, it is that it lacks mechanics
This is rather an odd kind of statement, especially about PbtA as a category of games. PbtA games USUALLY DO and CERTAINLY CAN include almost any arbitrary mechanics, just as other types of RPGs do and can. Dungeon World for instance has quite a few. It has ability modifiers, alignment, bonds, a hit point/harm system, a system for inventory/gear, a whole subsystem of tags which can be used to attach special mechanics to things (and a bunch of tag definitions). This is all on top of the core game play process and its 'throw 2d6 to resolve a move' core mechanism. There are some other GM-side subsystems as well, related to fronts, GM moves, customizing moves, NPC/Monster nature and motivations, etc. AW has roughly similar mechanical heft. The move architecture also EMBODIES many of the things that other games simply place in free-standing rules or subsystems, such as how combat works, social interaction mechanics, etc. These are supplemented by whatever is in the playbooks, which can cover almost anything (DW has at least one magic system, rules for 'thief stuff', bards, etc.).


But at least on these boards, most of those whom I see criticising Apocalypse World also assert that their games are not railroads!

Prompted by this and some of the replies, I thought I'd just mention a few things, and leave it at that:

From p 288 of the AW rulebook:​
The entire game design follows from “Narrativism: Story Now” by Ron Edwards.​

From the essay "Narrativism: Story Now":​
Story Now requires that at least one engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence be addressed in the process of role-playing. . . .​
There cannot be any "the story" during Narrativist play, because to have such a thing (fixed plot or pre-agreed theme) is to remove the whole point: the creative moments of addressing the issue(s). . . .​
It all comes down to this: a "player" in a Narrativist role-playing context necessarily makes the thematic choices for a given player-character. . . .​
in playing in (say) a Werewolf game following the published metaplot, the players are intended to be ignorant of the changes in the setting, and to encounter them only through play. The more they participate in these changes (e.g. ferrying a crucial message from one NPC to another), the less they provide theme-based resolution to Premise, not more. . . . In designing a Setting-heavy Narrativist rules-set, I strongly suggest . . . full-disclosure . . . and abandoning the metaplot "revelation" approach immediately.​

So Apocalypse World is intended to produce RPGing in which the players, in the play of their PCs, are obliged to make thematically-laden choices. Although there's a lot of subtlety in its design (see eg Baker's discussion of the structure of the Seduce/Manipulate player-side move on p 284 of the rulebook), the core of the system is straightforward:

*The GM makes a soft move. These all take their orientation from what the players want for their PCs, because they are about badness, opportunities, being put in a spot, etc;​
*The players respond by declaring actions for their PCs - if no player-side move is triggered, the GM continues with another move;​
*Eventually, a player-side move will be triggered, and either (i) the player will get what they want for their PC (success on Seize By Force or Seduce/Manipulate; success plus the appropriate GM decision on Go Aggro), or (ii) the GM makes another soft move, or (iii) the GM makes a move that is as hard and direct as they like, such that the player irrevocably loses something they wanted for their PC.​

So the system pushes the players towards either violence or seduction/manipulation to get what they want for their PCs, at which point either the action continues to rise, or some sort of crisis or resolution occurs. By choosing when, against whom, and for what they force the issue, the players express their thematic choices. The game doesn't ask or require the GM to judge those choices; it just requires the GM to follow through with a move that makes sense, and to withhold irrevocability unless entitled to make as hard and direct a move as they like.

No storytelling is required: the players play their PCs, the GM plays "the world". But a story that has something to say about the brutality of the post-apocalyptic world will result. (@Neonchameleon gave some nice examples upthread.)
And IMHO this is really the best explication of the EMERGENT NATURE OF STORY in (at least) Apocalypse World. This is the whole point, the essence, the beating heart of PbtA. This is what it offers to the world that was NOT AVAILABLE in RPG play previously (well, it was in some other indy games which emerged in the years leading up to AW). This is what the narrativist agenda part of what Forge was talking about is driving at.

I have run and played RPGs pretty close to since the beginning and NO other game design paradigm has really delivered this. The designers of the '70s and '80s were pretty much clueless about how to get there. Maybe now and then someone like Stafford produced a game like Prince Valiant ('86 I think) that could get you there, but it was clearly not true that people understood WHY or HOW this worked. WW famously managed to invent a sort of neo-trad play in the '90s that actually (IMHO) made things worse, but it took Edwards and those who have followed, to really explicate it, and the Bakers to bring it to full fruition. THIS IS EMERGENT STORY. Sorry, most of what came before was failed attempts at it.

I know, I keep trying to find phrasing that wouldn't slam DW into the ground, but would dissuade from using DW as someone's only 'I'll try PbtA!' game...
I found that the only real problem with DW is D&D players! They THINK they understand what they're doing, and its worst if one is the GM! Unless the person is also versed in narrativist play, they're going to basically jam the game into the mold of a sort of D&D Basic and lose the whole point. If I start out with 5 naive players who have never run or played D&D then DW works fine. AW is ALMOST the same game, with some differences in thematics, but because it LOOKS different from D&D it is far more likely to lead to participants escaping their preconceived notions and playing it well. I assume the same goes for other PbtAs, though the only other ones I have any real familiarity with are Stonetop, and Ironsworn. I think Stonetop MIGHT run into the 'DW problem' a bit too, as it is really not thematically very distant, but maybe not. The quite different playbooks would help there.

Honestly though, as an aside, I think Stonetop's playbooks need some work still. I guess it is not a finalized design yet, so hopefully they'll revamp some things a bit.

pretty much

I am not sure I consider no mechanics an improvement over bad mechanics... ultimately I see how whatever is left cannot get in the way of whatever story you want to tell, but to me that is throwing out the baby with the bathwater
I think what you all failed to 'get' in this part of the discussion was what the DW/PbtA rules are focused on. There are a huge number of rules governing what the GM can do with the DW Basilisk! They are found in the section detailing the GM's agenda, principles of play, and general move architecture! These are simply reinforcing the core goals of play described in the DW introduction. THESE ARE RULES.

So, what I'm saying is, when the GM is wondering what move to make next, she consults her prep and finds that there's a danger lurking nearby, Ankheg! Be a fan of the characters (give them stuff to gain glory!). Use your prep. Do what follows. Depict a fantastic world. I can go on, all these RULES, and they ARE RULES, demand at this point that the soft move the GM owes the players is "the ankheg appears!" I mean, sure the GM could do other things, but this is a damned good option under the circumstances! Its like KP to D4! Likewise the moves @pemerton suggested. The fictional potentialities of the ankheg ARE depicted in its stat block! It can spit acid. Now, sure there isn't some 'range 27 feet' and whatever, but DW is definitely a ToTM sort of game! Nobody complains about that being true of 5e, so... Unless you all are using a battle map to play out your 5e you're all just winging it with ranges and angles and whatnot anyway.

There is NOTHING about this play in DW that is more 'foggy' or ill-defined than a similar sort of play in 5e. Nothing. Just put a stake in this nonsense!

which are all the things that tell me what it does in game...
(this was in reference to the 5e basilisk statblock stating it has a 50' range on its gaze, or something like that)

NO! This tells you next to nothing. There's no established way to determine what the distance between party members and the basilisk is, or their arrangement in space, except the imaginations of the participants (and presumably the GM is principle here). So, yes, you get told that it can gaze at you 50' away, but who knows how far away you are! The GM is going to decide, so its all JUST AS MADE UP as the situation in DW!!!!

Now, this might not be true in, say, 4e, where there's a battle map that is always assumed to be in use and everyone is, by rule, placed on it during combat. So, we might say that 4e offers some additional rule-based details (mechanics). While I love 4e I actually found it a challenge to mesh its strict 'board game like' approach to combat with its more narrativist nature. It's doable, but it is NO surprise to me at all that a game like DW would eschew that and leave it up to the GM to decide, just like they do in 5e!

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