Level Up! | Let the apocalypse power your first tabletop role-playing game

Level Up! Is a biweekly blog about all types of games, from Dungeons and Dragons to Mario Party

By Sinéad McDevitt, Digital Manager

Dungeons and Dragons is probably the most well-known tabletop roleplaying game for people outside the community. After all, it was on Stranger Things, and Critical Role is popular enough that it got an animated spin off.

However, all the rules can intimidate new players. Fortunately, there are other systems that are simpler, and a lot of them use the same base “Powered By The Apocalypse” system, meaning once you get used to one, you’ll have an easy time understanding the others.

PbtA games are based off of “Apocalypse World,” which Meguey and Vincent Baker created in 2010. As the title suggests, it’s used to create stories set in the post-apocalypse.

“Apocalypse World” and other PbtA games have the same basic system.  Each game has different “moves” a player can take. In “Apocalypse World,” the player can “do something under fire.” Each basic move will have the Game Master offer the player a choice in what they would like to do in a roll.

Unlike the variety of dice required for D&D, PbtA games only require you have two six-sided dice. When the player wants to take an action, they roll the dice, and the results decide how the scene progresses. Rolling a 2-6 is a “failure,” a 7-9 is a “mixed success” and rolling 10 or above is a full success.

If you miss, something bad happens of the GM’s choosing. On a mixed success, you successfully attack your opponent, but the GM gets to choose a consequence. Finally, if you get a full success, you get to take whatever action you want unharmed and remain unharmed.

In addition to the basic moves, each PbtA game has classes, though they’re typically called playbooks, which have custom moves for both combat and roleplay. In “Apocalypse World,” the playbook “The Angel” gets access to an infirmary, but other classes don’t. Most games require the player to choose a different playbook to have a decent variety, each coming with their own perks and drawbacks.

The final common point in PbtA games is the advancement system. Every time you fail a roll, you get to mark “potential” on your character sheet, and after five, you can take a new move or an advancement.

Now that I’ve covered the basics, let me go over some specific games you can try out.

Masks: A New Generation

Generally speaking, I recommend Masks to new players, because you never have to worry about your player character dying unless you specifically want the threat of death to be part of your character’s story. “Masks” is based on teen superhero stories like “Teen Titans” or “Young Avengers” and follows a group of young heroes trying to save the world, among other things.

Instead of taking damage, characters mark conditions which make certain rolls harder, though they can clear those conditions in various ways. Another mechanic in this game is influence. Since the characters are all teens to young adults, other people’s opinions, whether they be adults or peers, have a large effect on them. Players can take advantage of their influence over side characters and other players.

Monster of the Week

This one is rather self explanatory — you play as a monster hunter. It draws from shows like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “X-Files” and “Supernatural” to create harrowing adventures. It’s meant for three to five players, and what sets it apart from other games is the luck mechanic. Each player starts with seven luck points that allow them to either reduce the amount of damage they take to zero or retroactively make a failed roll a full success. This game is well-suited for short one-shots because characters only get a certain amount of luck and can’t get it back outside of certain circumstances. Once their luck runs out, they’re in real danger.

Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined

If you don’t have an original character, store bought is fine! PbtA playbooks tend to be based on archetypes anyway, so it’s very easy to just take a pre-existing character and roleplay as them — a friend of mine does it all the time. If you’re still unsure, though, “Interstitial” in particular is designed for allowing you to roleplay your favorite fictional characters.

Conceptually, it’s based on “Kingdom Hearts,” though you don’t need to know that series to play. Just know the focus is on hopping between different fictional worlds, so it is especially designed for you to play your favorite character in a new setting.

Urban Shadows

“Urban Shadows” lets you make a character in an urban fantasy world filled with werewolves, fairies, vampires and more. Its central mechanic is centered around the different factions vying for control of a modern day city, mixing urban political power struggles with fantasy storytelling. It might seem intimidating on the face, but it is easy to get into with little difficulty.

There are many more PbtA games than I can list, but if you’re new to TTRPGs, it’s worth looking into. If you’re still unsure, you can drop into the Pitt Rollplayers’ Discord to ask for help or find a game. It’s also helpful to listen to or watch people playing the game to get a taste for the rules.

However, the best way to learn is by doing and these are some of the easiest games to get started with, so try them out!