Powered by the Apocalypse is the best way to get started with TTRPGs

With Critical Role’s animated series on the horizon, Dimension 20 gearing up for its thirteenth season, and artisanal-dice pouring videos taking over TikTok, it’s clear that Dungeons & Dragons is sucking a lot of oxygen out of the room. But it’s far from the only tabletop role-playing game on the market, and I would argue it’s not even the best one to start with.

Novice players in search of a creative, flexible system can do better — especially if it’s their first time adventuring. Apocalypse World This deserves more attention. It’s a system that’s just as easy for game masters to run as it is for players to learn.

This is the creation of Meguey Baker & Vincent Baker. Apocalypse World is a game about fighting to survive in a world that doesn’t want you to. In addition, it’s inspired the creation of many more games, which sport the term Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). PbtA games include elements taken from Apocalypse World and apply them to a whole host of settings and genres — but more on that later.

Is there something about the game that is so inspiring? To put it simply, it’s one of the most adaptable TTRPGs around. Here’s a breakdown of the five best parts of Apocalypse WorldWhy they are so certain that you’ll get a PbtA Rulebook is the best move for someone new to TTRPGs.

Story progresses when players are involved

Apocalypse World establishes early on that a game master (GM) — or master of ceremonies (MC), as they’re called in the rulebook — isn’t really in charge of the story.

“It’s not your agenda to make the players lose,” Apocalypse World’s authors say, “or to deny them what they want.”

Instead, MCing’s purpose is to Please respondPlayer actions. Preparation and worldbuilding are encouraged, but an MC isn’t going to walk into a session knowing how it’s supposed to end.

Every time an MC interacts with the players — by revealing a new threat, separating the party, or inflicting harm — the rulebook says to ask players the key question: “What do you do?” Player responses to that question must guide the narrative. Is the smoke causing the party to run towards or away? Are they going to take some time to recover or go back into battle right away? What they do determines the next chapter.

It’s easy to roll

I enjoy rolling dice as much as the next person, but many TTRPGs — D&D included — overcomplicate things. You’ll be rolling a 20-sided die to swing your sword, adding up bonuses and damage types, and checking your character sheet four times just to see if you’re doing the math correctly.

There’s something to be said for simplicity, especially when you’re trying to keep your players focused on the storyline. It is not. Apocalypse World, Every move is the same. Sneaking into a campsite? Do you want to hit a criminal? How to manipulate an ally The players must roll 2 6-sided dice. They can also add any of a few modifiers. Next, they verify the results. A 1-6, 7-9, or 10+ are all misses. This method is ideal for new GMs. There’s no need to set difficulty ratings, turn to the section on calculating fall damage, or decide in the moment what the outcome of a roll should be. Each time a die hits the table, it’s either a success or a failure.

It’s also great for players. There are only five modifiers to keep track of — cool, hard, hot, sharp, and weird — and everyone at the table knows what the result of a roll means for the story.

All of us want the same thing

The cover for Masks: A New Generation, by Brendan Conway. A group of teens in superhero costumes stand over a menacing robot, laid low and wedged into the surface of the street.

Image: Magpie Games

An edgelord at the table is not something anyone likes. For the (thankfully) uninitiated, arguably the worst kind of TTRPG environment is one where players insisting on “realism” say that they have no in-world reason to cooperate with the party; an edgelord is someone who isn’t interested in playing nice, collaborating toward a common goal, or having the party’s best interests at heart.

Apocalypse World’s character creation process is also a Party creation process, which helps tie a table together and move past the dreaded “I’m going to go off on my own because I don’t know you guys” phase of things. The In Apocalypse WorldHx is short for History. The first session begins with players introducing themselves and asking Hx questions to each other at the table. This creates connections between characters and establishes history. This helps stamp out edgelord tendencies all the way at the beginning: There’s no logical reason for a character to go against the party’s aims if someone in the party saved their life — or maybe there is, but the character in question is forced to find a narratively satisfying justification for their actions, which makes for a more interesting story. This is the first session sheet. Apocalypse World says it pretty clearly: “Your characters don’t have to be friends, but they should definitely be allies.”

The preparation is very minimal

It Apocalypse World rulebook for MCs makes this principle explicit: “DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around.” This ties back into Apocalypse World really being player-focused, in that it’s the job of the MC to respond to player and character actions, instead of leading them through a predetermined storyline.

Ask the players about their everyday lives. Where do they take their showers? What’s a delicacy that’s hard to get your hands on? You need to identify what players don’t have control of and make that into threats, weaknesses, or blind spots. Conversation with players is the most important part of all this. This is because how players respond and react to bait will determine how your session progresses.

Players that unexpectedly defeat a threat right away might come across some evidence that indicates that they didn’t catch the RealitätA bad guy. Or that someone was under duress. A party that isn’t sure what to do after coming across a planned location might hear a scream in the distance, spurring them into action. This is a salve for my weary, forever-GM heart, as is the instruction to “leave yourself things to wonder about later”; you don’t need to have all the answers going into it! As stakes increase and bonds are formed, you can season your world with gaps and then fill them later.

All sizes are possible

A purple pen doodle forms the cover of Velvet Glove: Notebook Edition, by Sarah “Doombringer” Richardson.

Image: Magpie Games

If all these mechanics and principles sound great, but grime, death, and desolation aren’t really your style, I’ve got great news, and it’s here where Powerful by the Apocalypse!

PbtA isn’t a system in itself; as Meguey Baker and Vincent Baker put it, its use in a game means “that the game was inspired by Apocalypse World in a way that the designer considers significant.” In other words, games that use the PbtA label are ones that take their cues from Apocalypse WorldYou can ask about a variety of topics, including how to run a session zero or the mechanics behind dice.

While I’d still highly recommend getting into Apocalypse WorldThere are many ways you can get in to other PbtA games. In Magpie Games’ Velvet Glove you can be a ’70s high school girl gang; in Evil Hat’s Monster of the week You can become a team of monster-hunting detectives. You want to make it really funny? How about Adam Schwaninger’s There was no peace.This movie stars a bunch of geese that tear up the city. Another option is to try my favorite. New Generation of MasksThe film stars two goddamn boys who are secretly super-heroes. You have more than 500 PbtA. You can browse and/or order rulebooks on itch.io. They don’t all have the same exact rules, of course, but most are newbie-friendly.

It can seem overwhelming to explore the vast world of tabletop gaming, but it’s not impossible. Apocalypse World You could have your friend there to help you through the process. You only need one rulebook. Your friends will be just as excited as you to begin rolling dice and getting riled up. Get ready for the apocalypse.

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