Tabletop roleplaying games are one of my oldest hobbies, but at some point I realized that I’ve played in so few games over the years, that I don’t actually know what is happening in the world of RPGs. I embarked on yet another endless project to get up-to-date with what’s been happening in RPGs on two fronts. First is mechanics – what are the new novel ways of organizing the rules. Second is worlds – reading stories gives you those stories, but reading about an interesting world gets your mind racing and creating dozens of stories by itself. This is the first victim of that project.
As soon as I asked questions about interesting recent RPGs, Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) titles started to pop up. Consensus seemed to be that Dungeon World is the best, so off I went to pick up a copy.
So, PbtA seems to be a system, that in itself kind of defines the genre, the common actions in the genre and thus the common actions in the game. That is, the system works as a sort of guideline to the style of games intended to play with it. It seems to me that the system works best, when the focus is quite narrow and well defined. As far as I’ve heard, the bad PbtA games tend to be the ones that don’t have a clear focus and try to do a bit of everything.
The beef of the system are the aforementioned actions. Those actions start with the fiction – when you are not involved with the rules, you are co-creating a story, and when that story hits a spot that sounds like a defined action, you jump into the rules of the action for a while. The actions contain some resolution mechanics, and finally they return to the fiction, that is, the resolution given by the action is usually defined in pretty general terms, and that resolution should be fleshed out to fit to the story being created. That is, although generally you are creating the story, when the story hits a conflict point, you give chance a role to find a resolution to the conflict, and then you fit the resolution into the story again.
The system is very lightweight. In a conflict, the traditional RPG systems usually involve a lot of dices being thrown and tables being consulted. Mostly you jump out of the fiction for a long time, or you even let the dice tell the fiction completely for the duration of the conflict. Here, the system gets in seamlessly triggered by the fiction, and when you are done with the system (which should happen quickly), you are right back in the fiction. It is a system that allows you to add excitement and chance into an experience of collective story telling, instead of being a system of combat simulation.
Among RPG hobbyists, D&D is usually thought of as the most simple, most generic type of fantasy. It has orcs, who are green and usually angry, it has elves, who have pointy ears and are usually lofty. That literally is the entire depth that the D&D worlds have. Obviously the game is the oldest RPG around and has spent all of that time (I think) as the most popular RPG in the world, so the amount of stuff released for the game is mind blowing, and inevitably there’s mostly more depth than that, but it’s still simplistic. The world is literally an excuse for going to dungeons to bash in the heads of monsters in cool scenes and loot their stuff to be more powerful for the next dungeon.
Dungeon World is D&D done with the PbtA system. In order to keep the PbtA system running in a well focused manner, Dungeon World takes D&D and actually simplifies it a lot.
That’s ok though, since PbtA is not geared towards a complete world with a bazillion details – it’s geared towards starting somewhere and seeing where it goes. You are supposed to be creating most of the stuff on the fly anyway. This means that the depth of the world is entirely up to you. Obviously the system keeps things limited to the strengths of Dungeon World, and those are quite narrow and simple – kicking the asses of bad guys and taking their loot. Hopefully there’s a plot involved somewhere.
D&D style power fantasy has its time and place. With D&D you get the benefit of endless amounts of material to run with. Ready made adventure and campaign modules are endless and thus it’s easy to jump in and play for a bit. I think I’d still go with Dungeon World next time I’m in the mood for something like this, since with it you can just create a few quick characters and start running and see, where it goes. The system is mostly out of the way and concentrates on making things interesting. It doesn’t get bogged down on endless details, but keeps things, where they are interesting – in the fiction. This was definitely an interesting acquaintance and now I’m the mood for one or two of the other more praised PbtA games.