The 15-Step Powered by the Apocalypse Hack
Recently, I’ve put a hold on a few personal projects— partially due to life events, though mostly due to good, old-fashioned New Year’s self-doubt and writer’s block. I’ve realized over the last few months that I kept trying to perfect the system of the games I was making (more on those forthcoming) without paying enough mind to how much fun I was having while making them. If I didn’t enjoy making the game, I realized, I probably won’t have much fun playing it. So, fair warning, the next few things I post will probably be broken or buggy or what-have-you, but I’m okay with that for now.
As a writing exercise to break myself out of that slump, I wanted to jot down a simple system for everyone’s favorite hack: the Powered by the Apocalypse game. Several of my favorite games right now are PbtA hacks (The Sprawl and Monster of the Week, for example), and while each one can be radically different in tone and scope, the core principles remain basically the same. Here, in 15 steps or less, I’ll walk you through the basics of designing a hack of your own:
- Pick a theme, and stick to it: Westerns, Sci-Fi, Gym Class, Anthropomorphized Turtles, whatever
- Write down one thing that players in that world can’t live without. Things like “health” or “oxygen” or “pizza” or “self-respect”.
- Write down five attributes that fit into the template. They can be called whatever, but fit the following general theme:
- What keeps the player’s “health” and helps them take it away from others in a very direct way. Examples: Strength, Meat, Brawn, Muscle, Grit
- What helps the player avoid danger, and create danger for others in an indirect way. Examples: Dexterity, Swift, Cool
- What helps the player know things that can be learned through traditional means. Examples: Intelligence, Savvy, Smarts, Edge
- What helps the player interact with other characters. Examples: Charisma, Style, Moxy
- What helps the character interact with the thing that embodies the spirit of the theme that you picked in step one. Examples: Weird, Wyrd, Synth, Qi, Spirit
- Players get bonuses to those attributes between -1 and +3. Usually the spread looks about like this at the start: -1 / 0 / 0 / +1 / +2
- Write some basic moves, using the standard PbtA system of rolling two six-sided dice, and adding the relevant attribute. Remember, a total of 6 or less is typically failure (though you can gain 1 "experience"), a 7-9 is a mixed success, and a 10+ is a no-questions-asked absolute success. Again, these moves can be whatever you need for your game. Typically, they will follow along this general theme:
- Attempt to take “health” from another character, roll + “Strength”. 10+ you do it, and maybe a little extra. 7-9 you do it, but “health” is taken from you as well. 6- “health” is only taken from you.
- Attempt to find things out about the world, roll + “Intelligence”. 10+ ask 3 questions from the list. 7-9 ask two. 6- answer a question about your character, in-character. (Write down a list of 5 questions that a normal person from your theme would ask if the line at Starbucks is taking too long.)
- Withstanding bad circumstances, roll + relevant attribute (decided by narrator). 10+ you did it, 7-9 you did it but have a lingering cost (usually cosmetic), 6- you don’t do it, and you suffer a mechanical cost (such as subtracting one from a relevant attribute).
- Help or hinder another character. 7+ they take +1 or -2 forward, your choice. 7-9 you expose yourself to danger.
- Convince someone else to do something they don’t want to do. 10+ they do it, 7-9 they do it in exchange for something, 6- it’s up to them.
- Copy and reword those moves as necessary, changing the specifics. Usually, this means changing the “select one” lists from gaining a positive thing to avoiding a negative thing. For example, create a copy of move 2 where instead of picking questions that get answers, you pick how you avoid detection, and don’t get screwed over.
- Write down five-ish unique names for character roles. What are there only ONE of in this world? For example, in a western game, there is typically only one Sheriff.
- For each job, pick the attribute that they best reflect.
- For each job, rewrite the two or three of the basic moves, keeping the job’s main attribute in mind. Make it easy to be good at the thing they’re good at. For example, the Gunslinger may make moves similar to taking health, but rolls a dexterity attribute instead, and opt to take no damage on a success. The Documentary Filmmaker may have a move that lets them ask one extra question when following a story. These moves are the job’s standard moves.
- Write four more moves for each job. Make them weird, and don’t worry about game balance. Make a move that makes the job look like the most that job can be. These are the advanced moves, available only after the character has reached a certain amount of experience (usually between 5 and 10 points).
- Write ten single-sentence bad things that happen all the time in this world. Be general. Things like “the shit hits the fan”, “you have a bad day”, “your least favorite song comes on the radio”. These are the basis for your moves as the narrator. Keep them handy for reference.
- Create obstacles for the players to come across. These can be traps, environments, or characters. Write down a list of ways that these things can negatively affect the players if they fail a roll. Things like:
- deal a little damage to the player’s “health”
- deal a lot of damage to the player’s “health”
- enact one of the bad things from step 11
- make the player vulnerable to another obstacle
- inhibit the player from using an item
- prevent the player from using an ability of theirs.
Rank the difficult of these obstacles: easy, medium, difficult, boss. Easy obstacles select only one of the items from the list, medium items select two, and so on.
- Have each player write down the ways in which their character is connected to two other characters. Call these something appropriate to the theme, such as “bonds”, “owed favors”, or “beliefs”. At the end of a session, if a player acted especially well on these connections (ie, good role-playing), grant them experience.
- State a thing that the players should want to accomplish: save the world, save the girl, save some money, build a barn, what-have-you. Place obstacles in between the players and those goals.
- Ask “what do you do?”
Alright, there it is. Not perfect, certainly not complete by any means, but there you have it. Let’s try it out:
Let’s say that I want to make a game based on Downton Abbey. I only need this to be a one-off, so I’m going to come up with attributes, basic moves, roles, and two standard moves for each role.
In this world, the thing that players can’t live without is STATUS, which each character begins with 6 of. Their five attributes are:
Players may assign the following numbers to their attributes in any order: -1 / 0 / 0 / +1 / +2
- Comment. Roll +RHETORIC. 10+ target loses 1 STATUS. 7-9 you and target each lose 1 STATUS. 6- you lose 1 STATUS.
- Query. Roll +EDUCATION. 10+ ask 3 from list below. 7-9 ask 2. 6- reveal a secret. Take +1 forward when acting on the answers.
- Who has the most STATUS here?
- What is the history of this place?
- What is the history of _________’s family?
- How is ____________ vulnerable?
- What is ____________ hiding?
- Excuse Yourself. Roll + Relevant Attribute (Narrator’s choice). 10+ you excuse yourself politely. 7-9 you excuse yourself, but at the expense of STATUS or an item (your choice). 6- you make things worse for yourself somehow.
- Embolden or Embarrass. Roll +SNOBBERY. 7+ target takes +1 or -2 forward, your choice. 7-9 you become involved in the situation.
- Convince. Roll +FASHION. 10+ the target does what you want them to do without question. 7-9 they ask something in exchange. 6- it’s up to them.
- Scold. When you make a Comment, on a 10+ you may select two from the list below. 7-9, you may select one:
- Target loses 1 more STATUS
- You lose no STATUS
- Target takes -2 forward
- Another player takes +1 forward
- Not Dead Yet. When you see a character lose STATUS due to another player’s actions, roll +SNOBBERY. 7+ gain 1 STATUS. 10+ give a character -1 forward. 6- the narrator may make you vulnerable to an uncomfortable situation.
- Ahem. When making a Comment, roll +SNOBBERY instead.
- Keeper of the House. When using Query, also ask “Who does _______ belong to?”
- Rousing Speech. When aiding another player, on a roll of 10+ give the target +2 forward.
- Years of Service. When excusing yourself, you may always opt to roll +SNOBBERY.
- I was there when you were born. When you successfully embarrass a target, they take -1 ongoing against you.
- Medical expertise. When using Query, you may also observe the target’s physical behavior to learn about their health. Take +1 forward when acting on what you learn.
- Alluring. On a failed Convince roll, you may make it a mixed success, at the cost of a more difficult request from the target.
- Well-read. When making a Comment roll, you may opt to roll +EDUCATION instead.
The setup and obstacles: your family has come into a large sum of money, and the relatives are coming over. Entertain them with dinners, tours of the town, grand celebrations, whatever you like. Most importantly: make them go away. There’s a knock at the door, what do you do?
And, there we have it. Not quite finished yet, as we need to create some Narrator moves and specifics about the obstacles, however I would need to brush up on Downtown Abbey to fill that in more completely. Things like, “introduce a new family member that no one’s heard of” or “propose marriage” would be conceivable in this setting.
Hopefully, using just a few general rules, this has helped inspire some of you to start making the game you’ve always wanted to play. Remember: it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even all that good. You just need to have fun doing it.