Powered by the Apocalypse games

Monsterhearts 2's teenage monsters staring out at the player

I am *so* excited to play this game.

I’ve recently discovered the Powered by the Apocalypse family of RPGs and they look great. It’s been a long time since I got this excited about finding new tabletop games1.

I ran across these while listening to a couple of podcasts, which are both also great:

  • One Shot, which does one shots of different systems. Their Monsterhearts episodes (among others) are riotously good fun (part 1, part 2, part 3)
  • Friends at the Table does long running campaigns, at least the first three (plus a mini season) have been PbtA games (haven’t started listening to their latest season yet)

What is “Powered by the Apocalypse”

PbtA is a large extended family of games that derive or extend some or all of their mechanics from Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker. There is a greater focus on collaborative storytelling between GM and players, rather than oodles of prep on the GM’s part. Stories are meant to emerge from the game as you play, which becomes pretty clear when you start seeing how one of the core mechanics, the move works. For example, the Spout Lore move from Dungeon World, an Apocalypse World hack that takes place in a world much like those of Dungeons and Dragons, looks like this:

Spout Lore

When you consult your accumulated knowedge about something, roll + INT. On a 10+, the GM will tell you something interesting and useful about the subject relevant to your situation. On a 7-9 the GM will only tell you something interesting–it’s up to you to make it useful. The GM might ask you “how do you know this?” Tell them the truth, now.

What I love about that is that last sentence–it immediately involves the player in constructing the world of the game, in a way that most tabletop games leave up to the GM.

Monsterhearts on the other hand, uses failures to create complications in the narrative for the characters, instead of causing harm:

Lash out Physically

When you lash out physically, roll + VOLATILE. On a 10 up, you deal them harm and they choke up momentarily before they can react. On a 7-9, you harm them but choose one:

  • They learn something about your true nature and gain a String2 on you
  • The MC decides how bad the harm turns out to be
  • You become your Darkest self

The Darkest self mechanic in Monsterhearts is great–each character (they’re all teenage monsters) has a dark side, and when they fall into it, they begin wreaking emotional and physical havoc until they can be brought out. Physically attacking people in the game opens you up to causing so much more damage than you intended, or could give someone leverage over you with a String, or could utterly fail. But it’s the first two that are narrative gold.

The other thing about moves in PbtA games, is that you don’t just say “I lash out physically”. The move is only triggered when you narrate how your character lashes out: “Samantha runs in, her fists clenched, and throws a punch right at Mike’s face when she seems him standing over her mom with a bloody knife.” Then you roll, and let the dice make your story a little bit more unpredictable.

Elegant failures

What I find really lovely about this system, is that it avoids the all too common feeling of betrayal by the dice.

In Dungeons and Dragons, when your d20 fails you, the action economy of the game means that you can often feel like you’re sitting on the back-bench for a round, even if you had this brilliant plan ready to go.

With moves in PbtA, the moves become invitations for things to change, and rolling 6 or under is often more interesting than rolling that 10+.

Added: I was just listening to the latest episode of Modifier, a game design podcast from the One Shot network, which talks about some cool mechanics in 7th Sea that are designed to address the failure as story-telling tool idea. Super cool.


I’m really looking forward to playing some of these. (Read: I haven’t played any of these yet). I may or may not have overspent my discretionary budget this month on a few games:

  • Dungeon World
  • Monsterhearts
  • The Sprawl, a cyberpunk game where you run missions, trying to eke out an existence as replacable semi-criminals
  • Blades in the Dark, which is one of the more removed PbtA games (it still uses moves, but changes a lot of other mechanics), set in a grim semi-steampunk city where you play a gang of criminals trying to pull off heists (really cool mechanic for flashbacks to plan, and the growth of the player’s gang in this one)
  • Noir World, a film noir hack that looks delightful (there’s a good One Shot of this too: part 1, part 2)

I’m about to start a Monsterhearts game with some friends from college, and I couldn’t be more excited.

  1. The last was when I discovered the original 3.x ed D&D compatible Iron Kingdoms and all their messy, gorgeous steampunk hacking around D&D. 

  2. Strings are a mechanic Monsterhearts has that allows players to tug at each other, and incentivize each other to do things they might not otherwise do. It could be a favor, or blackmail material–entirely up to the situation between the characters. 



New episode of Modifier is topical. Listen to it!

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