I’m impulsive. I’m an improvisor. I’m also in recovery because I love quick hits, risky choices, and endless novelty. Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games are perfect for me.
Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, released in 2010, made an extraordinary impact on RPGs. Its implied setting, streamlined mechanics, and the introduction of moves and playbooks changed the way people played – energizing an improv heavy style that only really clicks if the game master (MC in Apocalypse World) and the players collaborate to create the world and the narrative.
PBTA launched an indie revolution, resulting in hundreds of variations, and PBTA-adjacent games like Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark have expanded on the formula and are just as electrifying to play. The principle of “play to find out what happens” which enforces a low-prep approach, creates a narrative and improvisational tension akin to the “yes and” principle in improv comedy. There is no sitting still, no dead air.
When a PBTA game is going well you feel like a trapeze artist being caught and released by an endless series of partners. Each time they let you go you know you can tumble madly through the air confident you will be caught.
That sense of cooperation is fuelled by the responsibility to co-create. “Ask provocative questions and use the answers” is to “use the character’s backstory” in traditional D&D, as break dancing is to line dancing. They both have merit, but I know which one I’d rather be doing. You are always on in PBTA because you need contribute, you need to listen, and narrative driven initiative means you might be put on the spot at any time. I have never picked up my phone during a PBTA game.
As a GM, PBTA pushes me to the edge of my creative limits – the free-flowing plot usually ends up having more tributaries than the Euphrates, and constant player input requires flexibility and on-tap inspiration. There are preparation techniques and in-game devices like Dungeon World’s fronts and Jason Cordova’s 7-3-1 tool that ease the burden, but most of the time it’s like trying to co-write a novel during a tennis match. The thrill comes from pulling it off at all. And I’m always shocked by the narrative coherence that emerges – a good story, no matter how chaotic its creation, will always find its balance.
Co-creation creates a sense of camaraderie and collective ownership that extends into the PBTA gaming community. Listen, I love the OSR, and embrace the history of our hobby but there’s a simmering, stand-offish quality to some of the purists that I haven’t found on the PBTA blogs, forums or Discord channels.
Let’s unpack that a bit. A maybe be a bit inflammatory.
By its very nature, PBTA demands an inclusive mindset, and benefits greatly from diverse perspectives (there’s a reason why games like Monster Hearts work so well). Also, you can’t play if you can’t share. And I often wonder if the vitriol present in our hobby’s darkest corners towards so-called “story games” might be a result of that loss of control – which not only emerges in reaction to narrative control, but also seems to be a reaction to the inclusivity and diversity PBTA games foster.
Which is a shame because at the centre of PBTA games there’s a glowing sign that reads, “We’re All in this Together.”