Friday, September 2, 2016

Why This Game Is Great--Powered by the Apocalypse

This decade has been a pretty innovative decade in terms of tabletop RPGs.  The highly successful and critically well-received 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out and revitalized the flagship tabletop RPG.  As I mentioned in the last post, the Cypher System and MCG came onto the scene.  The next post in this series is going to discuss 13th Age, which is probably my #1 RPG right now and came out in 2013.  And there are a number of games that I have not had a chance to look at in depth that other people rave about--the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars line, Torchbearer by Burning Wheel HQ (bough the book at Gencon, haven't read it yet), Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games (which I played at Gencon for the first time), as three examples.  It's a good time for new stuff in the hobby.

But it seems to me that the most influential game of the recent period is D. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, which first came out in 2010 and is in the process of getting a 2nd edition (as an aside, Baker's first "big hit" was a game called Dogs In the Vineyard, which I have been trying to get my hands on for a while without success).  Putting aside the merits of Apocalypse World as a game itself (which we will get to in a bit), it has spawned a universe of games running on the same basic game engine, referred to as "Powered by the Apocalypse" games ("PbtA", in the lingo).  Probably the most prominent of these is Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, which basically attempts to recreate the feel (or, perhaps, a feel) of classic editions of D&D.  I actually came to the Powered by Apocalypse games via Dungeon World, and I am much more familiar with Dungeon World than Apocalypse World, to the point where I have only read, but not played, Apocalypse World.  So, I am going to talk about the PbtA games as a whole here, not just Apocalypse World.

But, not all trends are good trends--are these PbtA games cool?  Yep, definitely, in at least three different ways.  First, the PbtA games really provide a very character-driven, somewhat gritty, narrative play experience.  The rules mechanisms are both relatively simple and constructed around discrete, somewhat self-contained "blocks" called Moves.  These blocks are easy to pick up, but they also do a good job of fading into the background during most of play, which allows the story to take center stage.  This strikes me as exactly what you want for a narrative game--the rules come into play in at a meta-game level, and in specific circumstances where you need some mechanic to resolve conflicts, but otherwise the story created by the players and the GM is not going to be bogged down by lots of rules intrusion.

Now, narratively-focused games are not everyone's cup of tea.  For people formed by games in the style of Dungeons & Dragons, they require you to shift gears a bit (especially, I find, for the GM).  But if you are going to go down the narrative road, I think the way that the PbtA games approach narrative play is the way to go.  They still feel like tabletop RPGs in a way that some of the more experimental narrative games do not--you still have character stats, you are still rolling dice to determine actions, etc.  On the flip side, some of the other narrative-focused systems I have read have relatively complicated rules sets that I had a bit of a difficult time wrapping my head around.  On a certain level, that seems to defeat the purpose of having a narrative game in the first place--if you are still tripping over the rules in your "narrative" game, you are taking away one of the biggest advantages in playing a narrative game.  I have found very little of that in the PbtA games, and it allows them to showcase the advantages of this style of play.  

[Side bar.  If you are looking to get a feel for how the PbtA games work in play, or you just want to hear a fantastic tabletop RPG actual play, you absolutely should check out the Friends at the Table podcast.  Their first season utilized Dungeon World, the second season utilized a couple of different systems including The Sprawl which is a PbtA game, and the third season is going back to Dungeon World.  Friends at the Table is awesome, and you absolutely should check it out.]

Second, the PbtA family has created a slate of very innovative, hyper-focused RPGs that I don't think would have come about otherwise.  For example, at Gencon I played a short session of a PbtA game called Night Witches, in which you play members of the all-female Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment in World War II.  That's it--as written, you can't play members of the companion Soviet all female fighter regiment, or any other air squadron, or anything else.  Moreover, the structure of the game presumes that you will follow the Night Witches through various events that the squadron participated in during World War II.  I am sure you can take pieces of Night Witches and repurpose them for other scenarios, but as presented the game tells one story in one location at one period of time.  Likewise, there is a game called Sagas of the Icelanders, which I haven't played or read, in which you are a towns-person in 9th Century Iceland.  Not fantasy Iceland, but real Iceland--the whole game, as best as I can tell, is about having interactions with other villagers and playing out your social roles in 10th Century Icelandic society.

On the surface, this hyper-focused quality seems to be at odds with Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, both of which are extremely open-ended in terms of setting.  But the commonality between the PbtA games is the experience of play, even if the nature of the setting and how it is constructed are different.  In other words, while the setting of the some of the games is very focused and some of them are very open-ended (and, in any event, very different from game to game) the kinds of stories that end up getting told through those games and the tone of those stories is very consistent.  Also, I am not aware of any other game system that tells the kinds of stories that PbtA games do.  If you tried to run something like Night Witches in another system, it would end up being far more combat-oriented and cinematic, which would cause you to bump up against the constraints of the setting much faster (how many times can you tell the story of near-suicidal bombing runs before it gets boring?).  By digging deep into the character-driven elements, it allows these focused settings to be playable and interesting, where for other games the premise would be too tight to make a workable game.  As a result, PbtA has opened up new conceptual spaces for tabletop RPGs, which is always a cool thing.

But the final part is the part that can best be ported over to other tabletop RPGs, and that is the approach to GMing that it has.  Probably the number one barrier to entry for people getting into RPGs is finding someone to GM, and figuring out how to GM is probably the most intimidating part of getting to the RPGs.  This is compounded by the fact that most tabletop RPG books have the paradoxical quality of being useful primarily to people who already know how to play.  For example, take the GMing section in the Numenera corebook, which is generally seen as being quite good (and I agree).  It has pages and pages of information on how to GM Numenera well--how to emphasize the discovery component of Numenera, how to keep the themes of Numenera at the front of the game, etc.  But it doesn't really tell you how to GM from a blocking-and-tackling perspective, besides some pro-forma description of "what is a roleplaying game."  It just sort of assumes that you understand what the GM is actually supposed to do to make a tabletop RPG work, and goes from there.  If you were totally new to RPGs, watching ten minutes of Matthew Mercer GM on Critical Role is probably more useful in figuring out what to do on a basic level than reading most RPG books.

PbtA games avoid this problem by actually telling you how to GM by giving the GM specific rules to follow that lay out what you are supposed to do while you are sitting at the table.  For example, the GM is told in Dungeon World to "address the characters, not the players"--in principle, if you don't do this, you are GMing Dungeon World wrong.  This is helpful to brand-new GMs because it is a concrete task that communicates exactly what the GM is supposed to do when you are actually running the game on a minute by minute basis.

There is a segment of folks, especially old-hands with RPGs, that are rubbed the wrong way by being told how to GM in such explicit terms.  Moreover, the PbtA games are very opinionated about the right way to GM, and the point-of-view espoused is not one that is universally shared among fans of RPGs.  In particular, Dungeon World goes out of its way to say that prepared adventure plots, in which the GM sketches out ahead of time what will happen to the players, is Doing It Wrong.  That's a controversial idea, as a big portion of tabletop RPG product consists of prepared adventure plots.  But, I think if you think of the advice as "this is how you should play this game" as opposed to "this is how you should play every game," I think you can accept the approach they are offering without internalizing it as an attack on every previous RPG experience you have had.  Moreover, I appreciate that they are trying to provide some concrete guidelines on how to GM, and taking a stand on how to GM is a necessary part of providing that concrete advice.

[Speaking of GM advice, one more plug.  Adam Koebel, one of the authors of Dungeon World, has a great GM advice show on his Youtube channel.  Also very much worth checking out].

Plus, you owe it to yourself to give their approach a shot.  PbtA games provide a robust set of tools to help you set up a structure inside of which you can have a free-form game that dynamically reacts to player actions.  In particular, Dungeon World and Apocalypse World introduces the concept of "fronts," where the GM prepares antagonistic factions that have their own internal goals and methods that advance through the campaign.  So, the GM might set up four fronts early in the campaign.  If the players focus their attention on one of the fronts, they might be able to shut that front down completely, while the other three fronts are advancing their agenda off-screen and getting closer to their nefarious objectives.

The concept of fronts really changed the way I think about running campaigns from the GM perspective.  Rather than try to funnel the players to a pre-set plot, you throw a set of options in front of them and let them pursue their own objectives.  It makes the players feel like they are dynamically engaging with the world and are the masters of their own destiny.  It also makes the world feel more alive--the decision to focus on the evil wizard had the consequence that the swamp cult grew in power and influence.  Plus, because the fronts system is entirely fiction-grounded and not dependent on the PbtA mechanics, the concept of fronts is entirely portable and can be used in most other RPG systems.

Even if you never play Apocalypse World or Dungeon World, even if story games are not your cup of tea, I think the PbtA games are worth taking a look at, especially if you are a GM.  I think the ideas in PbtA games will help anyone approach GMing in a different and better way, even if you never play them.  The PbtA show the scope and creativity of tabletop RPGs, and that makes them great.