I love Dungeons & Dragons. Like many young dweebs, I came to D&D after playing fantasy video games for years. It was like magic—compared to video games, the freedom given to me as a player in D&D felt infinite. But after several years of playing weird, unfulfilling D&D campaigns, I started to see the limitations of the game. Because while you technically can do almost anything in Dungeons & Dragons, there are some things that the game wants you to do more than others.
For instance, if a D&D player wants their character to be a Conan the Barbarian-esque killing machine, most of the rulebook caters to the ways in which they’re going to do their murders. Conversely, if a player wants to play a Conan O’Brien charmer who can talk their way out of dangerous situations, they’ll have access to maybe a couple of actions to represent those skills.
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy D&D. But sometimes this imbalance gets in the way of the stories you’re trying to tell.
Because ultimately, Dungeons & Dragons tells a few kinds of stories in pretty specific ways. The player group is typically composed of powerful travellers who solve problems by killing a range of monsters and bad guys, and accrue gold and experience for killing them. They get stronger, fight stronger things, and the scope of the problems they solve by fighting increases. The game system goes into great detail about different fighting styles, offensive spells, and so on because it places a high priority on physical combat as a mode of drama.
But maybe you don’t want to get into the granular tactics of battling a group of goblins. Maybe you want to zoom the action out a bit. Maybe you want to tell different stories with your friends in a more streamlined way. Where do you start?
There’s an immense number of roleplaying games out there, and that can be intimidating as hell. But reading new roleplaying games is almost as fun to me as playing them, and as I recognize that most people have cooler ways of spending their time, I’m going to put my vast and pointless knowledge at your disposal and give you a few places to start looking. The games I’m going to recommend are easy to learn and share a lot of the same central rules and philosophies. And we’re going to start with one of the biggest indie RPGs of the last decade—Apocalypse World.
Welcome to the Wasteland
Published by D. Vincent Baker in 2010, Apocalypse World is all about telling high-stakes stories in a gritty, brutal post-apocalyptic setting. If you want to play something with the tone of Mad Max or Fallout, Apocalypse World has your back. The differences from D&D are apparent from the start—the game calls the player who runs the show the Master of Ceremonies, and gives them less authority than a typical D&D Dungeon —which also means the role requires less work and preparation. Whereas a Dungeon Master needs to spend a chunk of time before play picking out appropriate enemies from the monster manual and balancing combat encounters to the party’s capabilities, Apocalypse World plays a lot faster and looser, and can be run with virtually no prep. Baker even addresses the MC in the rules and straight up tells them not to bring any “adventure ideas” to the table—and he’s not kidding around.
While D&D places the responsibility for answering questions about the world and the game’s secondary characters squarely on the shoulders of the Dungeon Master, Apocalypse World divides that responsibility a bit more evenly between the players. Since the division of roles is less concrete, if you’re playing Apocalypse World according to the rules, it’s almost impossible for player characters to get forced into a plot where they don’t feel like the primary actors.
At the heart of Apocalypse World’s quick pace and constant drama is its simple dice mechanic. In contrast to traditional roleplaying games which involve a bewildering variety of dice and different mechanics, Apocalypse World uses a simple system based on two normal six-sided dice. It works like this: when you try to do something that has a reasonable risk of failure, and for which failure is a potentially interesting outcome, roll two dice. On an 11-12, congrats! You do the thing, tell us how you do the thing. On a 7-9, you do the thing, but some bad stuff also happens! This will vary based on what you’re trying to do in the first place, and when I play Apocalypse World, there is usually a fair amount of haggling between the MC and the players about the consequences of this roll. Finally, on a 6 or less, you don’t get what you want, and bad stuff happens.
Let’s say one of my players, an empathic psycho witch with her own dedicated cult, tries to open her brain to the world’s psychic maelstrom for metaphysical guidance. She rolls a 7, and the rules as written tell me—the MC—to give her a vague impression of what she’s looking for. In the spirit of the game, however, I might offer her a full success on the condition that something problematic and weird also happens. Maybe her whole cult sees the vision, and a group of them begin plotting against her because of what they think the vision means.
Apocalypse World is a game about reckless choices and catastrophic risks, and after all, one of Baker’s primary commandments to the MC is that they make the player characters’ lives not boring. The MC never rolls dice, so most of the obstacles and consequences they will throw at player characters come from this roll. In practice, it’s less a challenge of tactical decision-making and more an engine for making collaborative drama.
Dungeons Minus Dragons
So maybe this system sounds cool to you, but the impending climate apocalypse is keeping you from enjoying post-apocalyptic media the way you used to. Maybe you still want to play a group of D&D-style adventurers plumbing fantastical dungeons for riches and getting violently drunk in the tavern of every hapless village you visit. Good news, Adam Koebel and Sage Latorra made a game for you! It’s called Dungeon World and it shares the same basic mechanics as Apocalypse World, but trades in the wailing raiders on motorbikes and all-consuming psychic maelstrom of the Apocalypse for the goblins and wizards you’re used to.
More than its post-apocalyptic predecessor, Dungeon World will feel familiar to D&D players. Characters plunder powerful weapons and learn devastating spells in their travels, but the power of these items is more abstracted and descriptive than statistical. While it’s more streamlined than D&D, there are still some simple modifiers and optimizations to fiddle with, so I consider Dungeon World a comfy halfway point between the familiarity of D&D and the quick-and-dirty lunacy of Apocalypse World.
Since Vincent Baker is a radical guy, he made the core rules of Apocalypse World free for other designers to use in their games—those that use them are are collectively referred to as being “Powered by the Apocalypse,” or PbtA for short. At this point, there’s an ever-growing number of PbtA games in just about any genre you can think of, and thanks to the core mechanics being rock-solid, most of them play well. We’ve already covered fantasy and post-apocalypse games, but now let’s talk about one set in an even more dangerous setting—high school.
The Real Monster Was Teens All Along
For your consideration, I present Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts—a game that doesn’t confront players with warlords or demons, but with the extremely real challenge of growing up. It’s a game made to tell supernatural teen fantasy stories like Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Teen Wolf. And like the characters of the stories that inspired it, the characters in Monsterhearts are horny. Really, really horny. Every character has a dedicated “sex move”—a concept actually originating in Apocalypse World, which is no slouch itself in the horny department— an effect that occurs when that character gets down with another.
Additionally, any character can take an in-game action to try to “turn on” another character. Like real teenagers, the characters in Monsterhearts don’t get to choose what turns them on, and that generally sucks and makes situations more complicated than they need to be. Because heterosexuality is a pretty narrow construct, most of your characters end up queer—and that matters in the stories the game tells. I haven’t played a single game of Monsterhearts without exploring gender, sexuality, and their intersection with the difficulties of growing up and learning how to be a good person.
You might play a lesbian werewolf who skips class to smoke and violently lashes out at anyone who tries to tell her who to be or how to act, and maybe you’ll eventually learn to face the human cost of your outbursts. Maybe you’re a pansexual infernal, fruitlessly running from your bargain with the Devil and finding brief refuge in the arms of your lovers, selfishly spreading His influence so you can feel a little like a human again. Playing a game of Monsterhearts without those conflicts would be like playing Dungeons & Dragons without magic, or sword fights, or a flagrant disregard for the property of others.
At the end of the day, all roleplaying games are just books. Sure, they’re books that help you tell stories rather than telling you one themselves, but just like any book, they’re limited by the imagination of their author. Just like reading a variety of novels will widen your perspective as a reader and a person, playing a variety of roleplaying games has helped me grow as a player of games and a teller of stories.
One of the things that makes Powered by the Apocalypse so special is the simple vocabulary it establishes across multiple games by a wide range of diverse creators—once you’ve played one, it’s easy to jump into another. As a result, the game has lowered the barriers needed to play, and importantly, to make roleplaying games—a revolution that’s radically transformed the medium. Thanks to Apocalypse World and other modular RPGs, more people than ever are creating games that explore all kinds of situations and experiences. And I’m excited as hell to see what else the Apocalypse will bring.