Apocalypse Keys Wants You to Fill in the Gaps

This is a critique of a tabletop RPG, which is not a video game! Though I've been personally exploring the world of indie TTRPGs for many years now, this is the first time I'm exploring it on my blog. I hope that in writing about indie RPGs I can contribute to a much smaller canon of RPG crit (relative to video game crit), deepen my appreciation and analytical eye for TTRPGs, and invite folks less familiar with the hobby into a wide and wonderful world of storytelling and play.

About a month ago, I began reading, prepping, and eventually running a tabletop RPG called Apocalypse Keys by Rae Nedjadi, a Hellboy-inspired game about monsters hunting down harbingers of the apocalypse while they wrestle with their own darkness. The book is inky and colorful, full of vivid art from an impressive range of artists and jampacked with evocative prompts and prepared mystery materials. While preparing to run it, I developed a sort of apprehension for how it might actually look in play, and how it might land for a new group of players. Once I was able to see it in action at the table, I found that many pieces fell into place, while a few others stuck at odd angles. Both the greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses of Apocalypse Keys boil down to the gaps it leaves open, some productive and intentional, others only surfacing at inopportune moments.

In order to talk about Apocalypse Keys, I'll need to talk about how it works and its design lineage. Apocalypse Keys is "Powered by the Apocalypse", a confusingly unrelated term that was popularized in the wake of Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meguey Baker, a seminal work in this particular branch of the indie TTRPG scene. The core system associated with Powered by the Apocalypse (or PbtA) games has been heavily borrowed and adapted into a number of other works, including Apocalypse Keys, and I'll endeavor to capitalize key nomenclature from both the system and specific games (like Move, Playbook, or Omen) for easier reference. Most of the elements of Apocalypse Keys that I name directly can be found in the reference materials that are freely available.

Player Authorship

Apocalypse Keys is a game about monstrous heroes called Omens solving dangerous mysteries. Unlike many other games that revolve around mysteries, it leans heavily on improvised and collaborative narrative construction. Player authorship is a crucial element throughout the structure of the game, one of clearest and most consistent design philosophies. From character creation all the way to actually answering the key questions of each mystery, players contribute a substantial portion of the narrative substance.

Let's start with character creation: characters rely on a resource called Darkness Tokens (earned via roleplay triggers, spent when taking actions) instead of putting points into stats. From the very get-go, there are no stat spreads that begin the work of defining a character. Playbooks (like archetypes or classes) consist largely of "pick lists" that prompt further elaboration. Players might choose to have "a name that reminds me of the life I lost" or the power of "shadow control", but the actual name and the nature of those powers is for them define. Once characters are established, intimate Bonds are formed between them via specific questions in each playbook, relying on satisfactory answers from their fellow players. The only especially mechanical decisions made during character creation are which playbook to use, and which starting moves to take. Starting moves can optionally include DIVISION moves, which link player characters to DIVISION (the monster-hunting organization that employs them) and invite the player to establish fiction related to the organization itself.

Image © Evil Hat Productions

Once the mystery begins, players will be prompted to answer establishing questions that link them to their contact and the mystery's premise. As they move through the story of the mystery, players will encounter new locations and NPCs including additional prompts for connections or details. All of these questions are embedded in the pre-written mystery descriptions and doled out as their accompanying elements enter the fiction at the table. As players seek out clues, some of them may involve providing further details of what they discover, often linking the mystery back to their histories or to their fellow player characters.

In one place, this impulse perhaps overreaches: the ticking of the Doomsday Clock, a pacing mechanism that the game master (referred to as the Keeper) manipulates in order to encourage the players forward and introduce intrigue and danger. Prompts included with these events interrupt moments of Keeper-driven narrative momentum in a way they don't during exploration. When players encounter a new location and are asked to help describe it, it flows naturally out of their own actions: they chose to move forward, and are working together with the Keeper to describe what they find. But when the Keeper chooses to tick the Doomsday Clock and introduce some complication or drama, it can feel odd to throw back to the players; after all, the Keeper is in the middle of using one of their tools for guiding the story's trajectory. I found, as Keeper, that I preferred to provide answers to these prompts myself so that the players would have more to react to and be surprised by.

The bias for player input has an impact on the format of the game as well. Apocalypse Keys comes with an introductory mystery designed for oneshots, but gently suggests that a oneshot format might compromise the narrative arcs of the player characters. While the inclusion of detailed oneshot guidance is both admirable and practical, the issues become apparent when looking at the pregenerated characters. Each pregen character includes a page or more of backstory description that elaborates the character conceit. The simple, stat-less character sheet design does little to convey evocative pregenerated characters on its own, leaving oneshot players stuck trying to digest detailed backstories in order to get a basic understanding of their options. On the other hand, at-the-table character creation shows how malleable and expressive the playbooks can be, bringing a certain weightiness to the small number of mechanical choices involved. Reading a page of backstory does little to draw players in, but writing it via the structure of character creation is much more engaging. My oneshot players struggled to embody their pregens, but a separate group of campaign players were drawn in by the creation process.

Image © Evil Hat Productions

The repeated structure of short, punchy player prompts with clear intentions (but wide open space to answer) generates a conversational character creation experience and sets the tone nicely. This looseness complements the genre stylings of Apocalypse Keys, where the dark powers at play are so overwhelming and otherwordly that they defy an overarching logic or power curve. Moreover, the Hellboy-inspired grim heroics and drama at the game's heart obviate the need for a perfect puzzle box mystery. I found myself prepping fairly lightly and focusing on imagery and ideas that would complement character themes rather than trying to preempt the direction of the story. This framework of play — which is so easily buoyed by light prep — is one of Apocalypse Keys' biggest successes, even if it takes some adjustment and faith. When the players feel ready to solve the mystery, they may attempt to "Unlock Doom's Door" by building a theory of what's really going on with each key aspect the mystery. With the scale of the mystery that my group completed, this "build your theory" conceit was quite functional, producing a surprisingly rich set of interconnected ideas that brought all the key details into focus.

Mechanical Imprecision

Inviting player input helps keep the story focused on heroes who are flawed, troubled, and never fully in control. Apocalypse Keys reminds players that their heroes rely upon dark powers that always risk harm or collateral damage. To accomplish this, the game avoids directly mechanizing combat or powers of darkness, ensuring that narrative stakes always drive the details of the action. As the book reminds, the player characters are powerful monsters with apocalyptic strength; the question is not "how hard can they punch", but "how do they contain their own immense power" while they contend with the Harbingers, grim mirrors of their own potential futures should they fall to their dark impulses.

This tension between power and restraint is captured elegantly in the dice mechanics. Rather than the standard Powered by the Apocalypse dice results (on 2d6: 6- is a miss, 7-9 a partial success, 10+ a full success), the scale is shifted up and its outcomes rearranged: 7- is a miss, 8-10 is an ideal success, and 11+ is a "disastrous success", which often includes collateral damage. In order to improve their odds, players must spend Darkness Tokens to add a bonus to the roll, hoping not to overshoot. Results above a 10 represent a failure to contain the terrifying power that gives the Omens their dangerous status, and bring with them additional consequences. A low result is a complete failure, usually giving the Keeper license to make things even worse. The metaphor of the Omens' lives is brought into wonderful focus: to act at all is to risk destruction and chaos, but to fail is even more terrible.

The details of the moves tell a more complicated story. PbtA games generally use "Moves" to decide when to roll dice. Moves consist of triggers and outcomes, where the trigger is a fictional cue (e.g. "when you summon a creature from another world to help you") and the outcomes might either be simple choices or a set of possible results based on a dice roll. Apocalypse Keys follows this formula with a set of Basic Moves (which reflect the core themes of the game) as well as Playbook Moves that bring particular character details to the forefront. It has a small set of Basic Moves with a refreshing variety of mechanical outcomes. It additionally offers players Ruin Moves, linked to the Omens' potential fall to the darkness, that are more powerful and more certain, eschewing dice rolls and instead incurring points of Ruin. These points push characters further towards becoming a Harbinger (which might, in itself, be something a player chooses to pursue).

The variety makes for a nice range of textures in the available moves. For example, the move Torn Between can trigger any time an Omen feels caught between their dark impulses and their inherent humanity, imposing on them a consequence for staying in control of their power or inviting them to indulge in it and step closer to becoming a Harbinger themselves. It does not involve a dice roll at all, which makes it an excellent cue to reinforce a player's own roleplaying instincts and give them an opportunity to mechanically support their storytelling goals (as well as a reminder that the Omens always walk a knife's edge).

Image © Evil Hat Productions

Unfortunately, Apocalypse Keys' Basic Moves also incorporate ideas that feel more like vestigial echoes of other games than expressions of its own themes. Perhaps my least favorite part of the Basic Moves is the outcomes for Unleash the Dark, a Move that triggers when the Omens try to inflict their will on others. The trigger is spot on, making sure to apply to both direct violence and coercion or manipulation, but the options for a success feel narrow and tactical when they could be more open-ended. Additionally, they partially rely on understandings of how Keeper-controlled characters function under the hood (specifically, Conditions), which can pull the players out of the fiction by asking them to engage with a tactical layer that's far too thin to warrant the disruption. A different sort of imprecision can be found in the move Reveal Your Heart, which focuses on contending with the drama, isolation, and romantic tension that fills the Omens' lives. Though it explicitly supports interactions between Omens and NPCs, the available options on an 11+ result are much clumsier when interacting with NPCs.

As is often the case with PbtA games, some kind of happy medium emerges as players and keepers get comfortable with the Moves, their triggers, and how to interpret their outcomes. There's a lot to praise in Apocalypse Keys' Moves, especially in their evocative triggers and dramatic failure outcomes, but some of the success outcomes tend to reveal unproductive gaps, ones in which the scenarios encouraged by the game's themes aren't fully accounted for or fall short of meeting player intentions.

Leveraging Prior Experience

The player-fillable gaps in Apocalypse Keys produce its most fluid and effective storytelling, inviting players to contribute imagery and themes while providing the Keeper a bounty of ideas to elaborate and complicate. Meanwhile, the mechanical gaps present in some of the Basic Moves sometimes left me scouring the book looking for guidance I might have missed. Overall, the book contains a fair bit of pregenerated material: a number of prepared mysteries, harbingers, and factions. It also includes detailed situational guidance for scenarios like a first session, a final mystery to wrap up a campaign, or a oneshot. What it often tends to lack, however, is much explanation of how to deploy its own component parts, notably Harbingers, Factions, and NPCs.

To address this, I found myself leaning on other games that built more strongly on similar ideas. Antagonistic Keeper characters have a notion of "Conditions", negative emotional states that can compromise their ability to stick around and fight, but the explanations thereof are quite limited. I looked instead to Masks, a superhero PbtA game that portrays its villains as people who will exit a fight when they're emotionally overwhelmed and discouraged, not simply beat up. It became a reminder to focus on the ways in which a Harbinger might still have some shard of humanity embedded within them, and the tragedy that this would entail. Apocalypse Keys doesn't offer as much guidance, and it spares barely a sentence to encourage Keepers to let Harbingers react when receiving Conditions, something that Masks explains in much more detail.

Prior to the actual encounter with the Harbinger, it can be difficult to properly frame them. Even though mystery resolution is a delightfully improvisational endeavor, the identity of the responsible Harbinger is only decided once the players build a theory to resolve the mystery. Good villains are hard to build without clear identities and thematic grounding; collapsing these two things involved retroactively attaching an identity to a villain concept rather than either building one entirely from play, or conceiving a villain in advance; it seems difficult to find satisfying outcomes in this tightrope walk. I leaned on experience running Monster of the Week (a PbtA game about exactly what it sounds like) to try to make the Harbinger an enigmatic presence in the periphery of the story.

Some of these gaps are briefly addressed in the section on building your own mystery, but they're critical elements of running the prepared ones as well. In attempting to leave Keeper guidance light and straightforward, Apocalypse Keys leans more on Keepers' prior experience than it really lets on. I would have loved to find a bit more direction for how to build a compelling conclusion to a mystery, how to integrate Harbinger concepts into the identities of the suspects that Omens have encountered, and how factions can introduce obstacles or intrigue in ways that individual NPCs can't.

Image © Evil Hat Productions

Resolving the Mystery

Apocalypse Keys' designer Rae Nedjadi suggests that TTRPGs deserve a "3 session rule", an echo of the popular "3 episode rule" that's often applied to exploring new anime: only after a few distinct engagements with the work can one form a sturdy initial opinion of it. His argument is reasonable, and it influenced my decision to put a complete Apocalypse Keys mystery to bed before sitting down to write out my impressions. It would have been difficult to truly assess the game without seeing the full arc of a mystery, including its crescendo with Unlocking Doom's Door.

Impressions are, of course, constructed cumulatively; vagaries that kept recurring became additionally frustrating, but elements that didn't stick the first time they came up landed better later. I wish I'd kept better notes on my feelings as I went, but the rule seems to hold; I needed to give Apocalypse Keys a few sessions before I had an answer the basic question of "do I like this game?" (criticisms aside, I certainly do). It's also a clear reminder of the challenges of critiquing complex works of design like campaign-driven TTRPGs.

Ultimately, I think the whole package provides a lot to love; it features numerous on-ramps for player and Keeper narrative investment and a nice mix of Moves with different triggers and resolution mechanics. Crucially, my players also left the mystery excited to continue the campaign, looking forward to further luxuriating in the hope and despair that their playbooks promise to deliver. As with any campaign-oriented game, I still have plenty of questions to explore as I continue to play. Does the mystery structure hold with a higher "complexity" level (representing the amount of clues the Omens should pursue)? Can I bring Factions into play in a way that really makes the world feel bigger? Will the players engage with Ruin enough to risk losing their characters? Do the added Moves for playing a "Final Mystery" help bring the story to its zenith? I guess we'll have to play to find out.