Grade the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) System

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

  • I love it.

    Votes: 33 24.1%
  • It's pretty good.

    Votes: 29 21.2%
  • It's alright I guess.

    Votes: 21 15.3%
  • It's pretty bad.

    Votes: 7 5.1%
  • I hate it.

    Votes: 8 5.8%
  • I've never played it.

    Votes: 39 28.5%
  • I've never even heard of it.

    Votes: 0 0.0%

Apocalypse World tells the GM do not [readacted] preplan a story.

That doesn't contradict what I said.

The entire point is to apply pressure and just follow things where they lead.

And that is the crux of the issue. I posted the link to that post for a reason, as those thoughts are in response to what these games are and what they actually do.

but I certainly have never felt like the games I mentioned above were trying to tell a damn story.

I think thats only because the stories these systems were telling were the same ones you wanted to tell.

Its not some secret that these games fall apart if you don't lean into the specific genre or story typing they're geared towards generating. Masks doesn't work if you don't want to be a teenager dealing with growing up.

And fyi, Masks in particular highlights exactly what its doing and relates that it is doing it on purpose:

MASKS is first and foremost about a team of young superheroes. They’re friends, rivals, love interests, allies…and always teammates, joint stars of their comic, and superheroes. They’re young; they’ve got abilities that make them special; they wear costumes; they use codenames; they save people; and they do it together. They’re growing up in Halcyon City, a place with plenty of older supers who provide an endless clamor of voices telling them who to be, and these young heroes are all trying to figure out their own way.
...
In MASKS, you play characters who are approximately 16 to 20 years old (with allowances made for stuff like the alien who’s actually 1,000 years old and is still a teenager in mind and body). They’re trying to figure out who they are, but they’re not so young as to have no idea at all. The trouble is all these adults around them, telling them what to do and who to be.
 

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And Ill further clarify that my critique that these games are trying too hard to tell stories isn't limited to these games.

Its an issue I have with the hobby as a whole, regardless of the specific games in question, and this in turn relates to what I was getting at about these games misusing games as a medium for storytelling.

These games don't trust mechanics to tell stories and they circumvent bad mechanics in other games by dropping or otherwise minimizing them, rather than addressing what makes them bad.
 

PbtA is a mixed bag for me. It does some things I really like a lot, while other properties make it hard for me to consistently enjoy it.
The games I ran most were Dungeon World and The Sprawl, and I have some specific issues with parts of their design, but would ignore it for the time being and be a bit more generic.

Somewhat overlapping with the list @Aldarc compiled above, things I enjoyed about the games I played and read were:
  • Playbooks really make both games and genres much more accessible for players, and have also provided a good first impression of how the game author understands the genre (I'm a fan of playbooks ever since I first saw them in Dungeon World)
  • The games often seem to condense a genre to its essential building blocks
  • Similarly, mechanics are typically relatively straight-forward, with just 2d6 (sometimes 3d6) and small modifiers
  • Rather being two modes of play, combat and the rest of the fiction are cast from the same mold, and thus flow easier
  • I appreciate the fiction first approach to gaming
The downsides I found were:
  • While moves facilitate genre-typical situations, it sometimes feels like the game is basically forcing you "back on the rails"; this becomes especially problematic when the understanding of a genre implemented through them is a bit different from your own (this problem surfaced a lot more in The Sprawl for me than it did in Dungeon World)
  • I found the games notably harder to hack than traditional games, since you need to make sure that any new move fits with the existing ones and doesn't break the flow
  • Probably the biggest issue: everybody at the table really needs to be into the concept of stories that escalate through moves. If they are not, their characters will feel rather incompetent (that was a common feedback with my trad game-trained players, who felt that, even though they succeeded with the task at hand, they didn't really succeed since the situation escalated). I tend to say, the PbtA games in general work better for people who view their characters as tools for story-telling, not as fictional persons they inhabit for the time of the game.
I have moved away from PbtA games for a while now, but I think, I'll at least have a look at Stonetop when it comes out. And hopefully once it's done, we will also see the new edition of Freebooters on the Frontier that has been discussed a few years back.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
It's worth noting that the 4 FATE actions are really different in their philosophy. In FATE, if you're trying to do something where "an interesting opposition" (sic) is present, then you need to roll the dice, and to roll the dice you have to choose one of the 4 actions. You're essentially saying "I'd like to do something, I think I should roll the dice for that, what box does it fit in?". There's nothing wrong with that approach, but it's very different from a PbtA.

In PbtA games, the interaction is reversed. First your character does the thing in the fiction, you need to describe what the character does ("I sneak behind the guard to hide behind the chest."). This can trigger a mechanical result: a move ("When hiding in shadows roll 2d6…"). If it does it generates an outcome that is then reflected in how the world reacts to the action ("5, it's a miss, as you walk behind the guard your dagger catches on his cloth and he turns arround suprised. There is a long second where you look at each other in disbelief, but you know it is only fleeting. What do you do?").

In this case the specific way you describe your action informs whether a move is triggered and what move is triggered in this case. You're not trying to fit actions within a box, if no move is triggered by your action then no dice are rolled and the result flows from fiction alone. ("I sneak behind the guard –You realize that there is no shadow here, your Hide in Shadows move won't activate, right?" "Yeah, that's ok." "As you walk behind the guard, he notices your shadow and turns arround, surprised to see you here."). (I'm sure most games would have a way to sneak without shadow, this is for the sake of example). That's a bit of a different dynamics.

Is it better than FATE actions? I like putting fiction first, I like the "you have to do it to do it" principle, and this flows well with the failing forward principle. On the other hand the GM generally makes the determination of what move is triggered by the fiction, and sometimes that can surprise players: "Alright, this is a Volley move, roll for it –Really? I thought it would be called shot.". The bad side of this is that it can lead to some frustration to fit your description to the move you want to enable. But on the other hand such negociations only happen if there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the fictional situation between the GM and player, and identifying and fixing that misunderstanding is a really good thing IMHO. At the end of the day, what matters to me is the story we build together, and that makes it all the more important that fiction remains the driving element.

Ok, but for real, is it better than FATE actions? I don't know. It's different that's certain, and different enough that the comparison isn't clear cut IMHO.

While accepting it was basic and off the cuff, I'm not sure that your example holds up too well. In Fate we'd have already established the scene "theres an alert guard standing in the brightly lit yard, theres some crates stacked behind him and more to the sides ...." (Aspect1: Alert guard, Aspect2: brightly lit yard) the player then declares "I want to sneak behind the guard" (fiction first) - GM: you sure? its an opposed overcome roll, guard is alert and the scene is brightly lit so he gets +4

I think thats also fiction first and much more straight forward as I'm not trying to pigeon whole it to the "Sneak in Shadows" move. The player wants to sneak, the player can try to sneak, or they can try throwing a stone to distract the guard (create an advantage: guard distracted). I dont need to start looking to see if their playbook has a "cause a distraction" move). They might even try “I use the crates as cover as I try to sneak behind the guard” then spend a point to invoke the Stacked Crates
 
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Evaniel

Filthy Casual (he/him)
  • Probably the biggest issue: everybody at the table really needs to be into the concept of stories that escalate through moves. If they are not, their characters will feel rather incompetent (that was a common feedback with my trad game-trained players, who felt that, even though they succeeded with the task at hand, they didn't really succeed since the situation escalated). I tend to say, the PbtA games in general work better for people who view their characters as tools for story-telling, not as fictional persons they inhabit for the time of the game.
This was really useful for me to read, as it helps me realize that this has been the biggest stumbling block for me in the few PbtA games that I've played. I think if I grokked the escalation mechanic a bit better, I'd probably have enjoyed them more.

Your remark about the "fictional persons they inhabit" vs. "tools for storytelling" has definitely been some of my dissonance. I just have a really hard time as a player not enacting that trad game paradigm. I like PbtA games well enough, but the next time I have the opportunity to play, I'd like to give them a go with this in mind. Thanks!
 

I was iffy on these games for a while until trying out Ironsworn. Ironsworn is so good that it basically taught me how to play all PbtA games.

If you haven't tried Ironsworn, I highly recommend it!

I don't think its a coincidence Ironsworn and Starforged are the only games in this family that Ive not only gotten really into but have actually learned from. They aren't quite like much of the others and they, imo, do a good job of well, not doing the thing Ive been criticizing other games for.

They were also a big influence on me to make my game soloable, which in turn has opened up a lot of clever design Im hoping to explore to make both sides of the game better than they would be alone.
 

PbtA is a mixed bag for me. It does some things I really like a lot, while other properties make it hard for me to consistently enjoy it.
The games I ran most were Dungeon World and The Sprawl, and I have some specific issues with parts of their design, but would ignore it for the time being and be a bit more generic.
For the record neither of these are considered particularly good PbtA games. Dungeon World is fairly obviously a slightly awkward mash of Apocalypse World and D&D to get a rules light system that gives you something - but not what a good PbtA game does. And The Sprawl is considered excellent for one-shots, but entirely lacks the down-time mechanics (Blades in the Dark has some excellent ones), the PCs are expected to be far more reactive and less proactive than in most PbtA games, and the genre-appropriate disposability of characters as well as their reactivity is a problem for producing the character driven stories where PbtA games are at their best.
The downsides I found were:
  • While moves facilitate genre-typical situations, it sometimes feels like the game is basically forcing you "back on the rails"; this becomes especially problematic when the understanding of a genre implemented through them is a bit different from your own (this problem surfaced a lot more in The Sprawl for me than it did in Dungeon World)
  • I found the games notably harder to hack than traditional games, since you need to make sure that any new move fits with the existing ones and doesn't break the flow
  • Probably the biggest issue: everybody at the table really needs to be into the concept of stories that escalate through moves. If they are not, their characters will feel rather incompetent (that was a common feedback with my trad game-trained players, who felt that, even though they succeeded with the task at hand, they didn't really succeed since the situation escalated).
To check these. The second is 100% true. The first is a complaint I've heard before about The Sprawl and is more about that game than about PbtA in general.

The third is that everyone needs to be into stories that steadily escalate rather than that sawtooth problem into problem solved the way D&D does than escalating and barely holding together things by the skin of their teeth. If you watch Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy basically never manages a clean success at anything. Breaking Bad is similar when Walt isn't actually making meth. I do find that Trad-trained groups find this much harder to adapt to than new gamers who don't have years of expected success.
  • I tend to say, the PbtA games in general work better for people who view their characters as tools for story-telling, not as fictional persons they inhabit for the time of the game.
I'd emphatically disagree here, and have a far stronger experiences of Bleed in PbtA games than most others. But as I've said Trad-trained players often find it hard to adapt, and I can see how the weaknesses of The Sprawl that requires pushing the PCs back on track would lead to that.
 

For the record neither of these are considered particularly good PbtA games. Dungeon World is fairly obviously a slightly awkward mash of Apocalypse World and D&D to get a rules light system that gives you something - but not what a good PbtA game does.
I am aware of their reputation, but unfortunately, no other game really captivated me enough to run it (and I read a number of others at the time). The closest one was probably Mythos World, but at that time my interest in PbtA had already fizzled.

I'd emphatically disagree here, and have a far stronger experiences of Bleed in PbtA games than most others. But as I've said Trad-trained players often find it hard to adapt, and I can see how the weaknesses of The Sprawl that requires pushing the PCs back on track would lead to that.
It's not limited The Sprawl. I have similar experiences e.g. with Trophy Dark.
But to be fair: a) there certainly were a number of moments when I felt "in character" when playing DW or The Sprawl, but they mostly happened outside of the mechanics, and b) this could certainly be a "me problem" (for the record: I also don't find D&D combat or anything that is similarly close to a tactical skirmisher very immersive).
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I suppose I'd have to say that I love that PbtA is a design approach, and that it exists. There are many PbtA games I quite like. Over the past few years, I've played in or run a few. As I type this, my home group is on their way to my house for our bi-weekly game of Stonetop, which is an excellent PbtA game.

That there are some poor implementations of the design is not in doubt. Some PbtA games aren't that great, or do nothing innovative or interesting with the elements. I don't hold that against the design philosophy, though. I think PbtA has really opened up overall TTRPG design and has reached some new audiences, and brought new ideas to what RPGs can be.

I'd think this even if I didn't enjoy some of the games. Like, I can't stand GURPS... but I'm glad GURPS is a thing and I hope it continues for those that like it, and for new folks to whom it will appeal.
 

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