Review: Worlds In Peril RPG

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming, Reviews

Worlds in Peril is a tabletop RPG that is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), that is, it uses the basic structure created originally by Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World RPG (trigger-based character moves, etc.). This puts it firmly into the ‘narrative game’ category, one that is much more concerned with making up a story rather than lots of number crunching and lots of granularity when dealing with minutia of damage, position, power balance, and such.

But instead of post-apocalyptic adventure, Worlds in Peril is about super heroes – what they do to protect the world and how they actually fit into that world. So you get to explore both the awesomeness of super-powered duels in the streets, and how fighting the good fight affects their mundane lives.


Like many PbtA games, Worlds in Peril does not come with a default setting. Instead the game is intended to model a type of setting in a particular way. The details of the setting are worked out during character creation and during play.

Worlds in Peril does make several assumptions about the superhero world, and the mechanics of the game reflect that. It assumes that the there is more to the hero’s life than what just happens in the fistfights in the street. Who the hero is outside of their secret identity is important, and how they are connected to the people they know and the city they protect is key to their power and motivation. There is also an assumption that the more powerful a superhero is, the less they can relate to the rest of the world. That makes growth and recovery more difficult.

The relationships in comics and movies are modeled nicely here, whether they are to sidekicks, loyal servants, or the boyfriend you have to keep in the dark for their own protection. In playing various superhero games, this common trope gets lost quickly, in my experience. By centering a key mechanic on those relationships, it forces players to pay attention to it and reclaims that as part of the hero’s story. I think the game is the better for it.

Beyond just the hero’s personal connections, the game also makes their connection to the city (popularity among the residents and the local government) and law enforcement in particular part of those relationships that affect them and that they have to pay attention to. How a hero deals with the city and the police is another typical element in comics and movies, and it’s nice to see it reinforced.

The Basic System

For the uninitiated out there, PtbA is based on something called a move. Most of the time, you are just describing what you are doing in a free-form role-playing way, and the GM (called an Editor-In-Chief) responds and reacts; it is an ongoing conversation. However, what a character does may trigger a move, and dice get involved. You roll to see how well you do, and the move specifies what happens as a result. These effects are often very broad, in which you and the GM then decide on the details.

For example, if I am running across a plaza to get to the little old lady trapped in the burning car and I’m dodging plasma blasts flung by Dr. Evil Antagonist, that triggers the Defy Danger move. I roll to see if I do, in fact, defy the danger. Or, I may be able to defy the danger but pay a cost doing so, or the GM gets to stick it to me. Once I get there and try to save the little old lady, that triggers the Serve and Protect move, etc.

Moves are really the heart of any PbtA game. How they are defined determines what types of actions are important (and thus need dice) as well as well as what sort of consequences the game is built around. You understand and evaluate a PtbA primarily by its moves.

The moves in Worlds in Peril are very intent-focused. The same action can trigger one of many moves depending on what you are trying to accomplish: if you are trying to avoid an unpleasant consequence then you are Defying Danger, whether you are using your athletic skill to dodge bullets or you are trying to convince the cops to not haul you in as a dangerous vigilante. Players who are used to games that are very action- or skill-focused (“I use Dexterity to fire a bow”, “I use my Charm to fast-talk the guard”) may have a bit of trouble wrapping their minds around it at first.

The standard moves of the game reflect the superhero world: Defy Danger, Serve and Protect, Gather Intel, Take Down, Aid or Interfere, etc. There are a few that add some nice touches: Use Environment is for all those superheroes who pick up cars or rip parking meters out of the ground to use as weapons, for example.

Moves are traditionally formulated in a very simple “when I do X, I roll dice and the resulting situations is Y” format. However, Worlds in Peril does a very good job at explaining these moves and their effects, with discussion on what all of the possible effects mean and when you would use them. There are several well-written examples with each move as well. For that reason, I would suggest Worlds In Peril as a book for people new to PtbA games to get a good sense of how such a game is played.

There are a few moves where Worlds in Peril really shines. First, lets talk about the Fit In move. Your relationships, called Bonds, can be used to boost dice rolls and represent how those NPCs will react to you. The Fit In roll is triggered when you spend time cultivating your Bonds: creating new ones or increasing the strength of existing Bonds. In addition, Fit In is the only move that allows you to recover from conditions that are inflicted on you. So dealing with your normal life is vital – it’s the primary way you ‘heal’.

Next are the Last Chance and Dead For Now moves. If you get taken down by a villain, it triggers your Last Chance. Depending on the roll, you might be able to keep going, or you might be able to keep going only if there is someone in danger that you could be trying to protect. Or, if you get the villain monologuing. If you do go down, it triggers the Dead For Now move. You have a chance to just come back in a few sessions, or possibly come back but changed somehow or with some other challenging, drama-inducing problem.

While the game as a whole does a good job of reinforcing the feel of the superhero genre, this combination of moves is what really clinches it for me. These tropes are classic comic book, and weaving them into the game like this is brilliant.

Let’s Talk About Powers

So, superheroes need powers, right? This is where you get all the fiddly bits in most superhero games: lists of powers and tables of effects. I like fiddly little things like that (I am the proud owner of one of the original Marvel Super Heroes books called the Ultimate Powers Book, after all).

Worlds In Peril handles it in a completely different way, and honestly, it impressed the hell out of me.

You describe you power set narratively with a Power Summary (like “Olympic-level athletics; pinpoint accuracy” or “psionic knives; telepathy”). For specifics, you fill in some details in your Power Profile. First, you describe if and how your powers are dependent on stuff which could be taken away from you. Then you describe a number of power effects in terms of how difficult the effect is to do. This defines the things your character normally does with their powers, how hard it is to do those things, and what they can’t do.

It sounds a little basic and loose, but it’s actually pretty clever. Once again, Worlds In Peril mechanics are focused on effects. If what you are trying to do with your powers is in your power profile, you can just do it. That doesn’t mean you are automatically successful; the action may still trigger Defy Danger, Seize Control, Serve and Protect, etc. like any other situation. Spiderman swings on a web – it happens. If he’s swinging between oncoming heat-seeking missiles, he’s got to Defy Danger and deal with what that move dictates.

However, if you try to do something with your powers that is not with your Power Profile, it triggers the Push move. If you make a good roll, you add what you did to your profile – congratulations, you just figured out how to do that! If you roll poorly, well, things could go badly. Comic book heroes do this sort of thing all the time, and this is a great way for your actions in game to directly cause your hero to grow and advance. A similar move, Burnout, is triggered when you go for broke with your powers – it’s a high stakes move with potentially high cost. World in Peril once again does a great job in baking the feel of the four-color comic into the basic rules of the game.

Character Creation

Making characters in Worlds in Peril is a fairly collaborative process, as is typical for PbtA games and the current wave of indie games. You get to define details about the game universe, how common heroes are, what city you are based in, and how and why you are working as a team. You also decide on your initial Bonds and create a few Bonds that connect you to the other heroes. If you are familiar with the games that already do this sort of collaborative brainstorming, this will be old hat for you. You’ll also define common resources like the all-important superhero base, because heroes have cool bases.

PbtA games usually have a set of classes (playbooks) that define archetypes in the game. Worlds in Peril does not provide classes, but rather asks you to choose from a list of Origins and a list of Drives. These reflect how your character got their powers and what pushes them to be a superhero. Each option gives you a few special moves that your character can trigger based off of their history or motivation. For example, the origin I’m A Freak has a move called That’s Right, I’m a Monster. It triggers when you use your freakish nature to intimidate someone into doing what you want.

Drives also form a narrative framework for advancement. Each drive has a prerequisite condition; if you fulfill the condition in game, then the Drive becomes available to you. Then you unlock Drive moves by doing specific things related to your Drive. When you unlock a Drive, you get points you can use to improve your stats, add things to your power profile, and so forth.

If I have a problem with anything in Worlds In Peril, it’s in this area. In terms of the text itself, the details and discussion around Origins and Drives are really sparse. Gone is the depth of discussion that made the basic moves section so useful, and the examples are minimal and not very enlightening. The description is muddy and vague in a way that the rest of the book is not.

Also, the point-based advancement system that comes out of unlocking Drives feels really out of place given the narrative nature of the rest of the system. The rest of Worlds in Peril is a wonderfully-textured story game that is based on qualitative differences rather than numbers. Suddenly, there is a point-buy system plopped in the middle of it.

But, I think there is something really awesome hiding in the unlocking Drives idea. In fact, it gives me ideas about alternative forms of growth in RPGs that I will probably play with if I write any other games myself. There’s a kernel of genius in it, but it doesn’t get developed at all. Hopefully any supplements that come out for Worlds in Peril will delve into that more.

For the GM

The latter part of the book is your GM advice section that is standard for most books, so I don’t have as much commentary here as I do have on the rest.

As a PbtA, it follows the structure of GM Agendas to promote, and Principles to follow. Also here is the list of GM moves and discussions of choosing moves and responding to players. GMs familiar with PtbA games will know that the details these sections are really important for getting the hang for the tone. I’m a big fan of this structure in general (it inspired my approach to a few sections in Unwritten).

There’s nothing revelatory in this section. There is a lot things you see in every other PtbA book, as those form the core of the GMing philosophy behind this style of game. There are bits that do address the genre of superhero games as well, and they are nice reminders. But I don’t think there is anything there that someone familiar with the genre won’t know anyway.

What does make a return appearance is the helpful discussion. Each of the points raised have are talked about and provide useful insights on how to apply them. This is another thing that would be useful to GMs unfamiliar with the style of game even if they don’t like superheroes.

There is also discussion on how to prepare for a Worlds In Peril game. This can be different from traditional games because so much of PtbA games are improvised. The book talks about how to prepare the setting and how to develop threats and challenges for heroes to tackle. The list of common tropes is a little scatter shot, but it does provide a lot of inspirations if you get stuck.

You’ll find good advice on how to develop your super villains and how to develop their master plans. Worlds in Peril provides a good structure for various levels of opponents, one that is tuned to superhero games. You’ll find a few helpful examples as well.

The Verdict

Worlds in Peril is a good game and one that I think is worth buying. I wish I’d backed it on Kickstarter when it came up.

It captures the feel of the superhero game without tying you to a particular setting. If you like looser games, you’ll find this one interesting. If you like a lot of numbers in your superhero games and a lot of ‘crunchy’ rules, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are willing to try a different way of doing things, you might find something you really like here.

The writing is clear and helpful, though it does drop the ball in one particular area. But even there, you’ll find diamonds in the rough. If someone were to ask me for a game that would be good for people who are unfamiliar with Powered By The Apocalypse games and want to know more, I’d suggest Worlds in Peril as a good option.

You’ll be able to play a diverse set of superhero games using this game. I could see playing four-color campaigns, as well as games like the Marvel movies or even grittier settings like Watchmen (though you’d need a few tweaks here and there for that). If you wanted to play in existing universes or even existing heroes, I think you won’t have a problem with using Worlds in Peril for it.

For you game hackers out there, the game is also a great source of ideas. Its take on super powers is interesting; it could be ported easily to any other PtbA game or used as a basis for a game which has ‘abilities’ that are diverse and resist quantification into specific moves. The Drives concept is just begging to be developed more as well. Get on that, Internet.

Some Unwritten RPG Developer’s Notes

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming, Unwritten RPG

While I don’t have an official set of developer’s notes, I thought I would write up a few things that readers might find interesting about the development process for Unwritten, some of the things that happened during, and why I made some of the decisions I did when writing the book.

Missing the original deadline

During the kickstarter, we set a very aggressive publishing deadline, which we managed to miss by a year. In the annals of Kickstarter, this actually isn’t that bad, but it always bothered me quite a bit. I had a draft of Unwritten done by the end of kickstarter, and released it to the backers not long after the kickstarter ended. So what took so long?

I had the good luck to be able to hire Leonard Balsera, developer of FateCore and all around hoopy frood, to give me a development review. Lenny is a big Myst fan (one of my favorite quotes of the development is Lenny saying, “Kadish? Yeah, f**k that guy.”). So, he brought a love of the game to the review as well as his extensive expertise. To paraphrase his general comments, while my first draft was a serviceable example of using FateCore to run a D’ni game, it wasn’t a Myst game. He felt that Myst deserved something better, something that captured the essential nature of what Myst games are about. He felt I should double-down on that.

I realized that Lenny had really hit the nail on the head, and after a few brainstorming discussions and long evenings talking over ideas with my lovely wife, I had some ideas about how to put those themes front and center. And thus began a complete rewrite of the book. There are still some chunks of the old draft in the final product (as well as bits of the Fate SRD), but everything was reworked. Many chapters were rewritten, others were cut apart and rearranged, sometimes sentence by sentence.

Add in some life traumas (which seems to happen in a lot of Kickstarters for some reason; Kickstarter creators are very unlucky people it seems) and underestimating the amount of time layout would take… well, it added a year to it all. I was very worried that I’d become one of those Kickstarter horror stories and that I’d have backers tracking me down for legal action. Luckily, my backers were very generous in their understanding. And I think they got a much better product in exchange for their patience.

Differences from FateCore – Non-violence

I began writing the book before FateCore came out. Once FateCore was available, I quickly adapted what I had to it. And then, ultimately, I departed from it in major ways. I think that is the intent of FateCore in a way, to provide the grist for hacks and adaptations.

The biggest change from FateCore was both thematically and personally motivated. One of the reoccurring comments about Myst games is on their non-violent nature. You don’t solve things with violence, you solve them with cleverness. You rarely actually ‘die’ in Myst games (this was a big difference from adventure games of the time). So, I wanted to emphasize that aspect since it felt so fundamental to the experience.

Thus, I removed the Attack action. What better way was there to de-emphasize violence than to remove the mechanic that is all about it?

Suddenly, I found that a lot of other mechanics fell apart. Stress tracks were entirely dependent on the Attack action as it is the only real way to take stress. I didn’t like stress anyway (I have some fundamental issues with the stress track mechanic that are too complex to get into here), so I decided to remove it as well. The nature of conflicts (that is, the scene mechanic explicitly named ‘conflict’) in FateCore were based around the traditional RPG combat scene (turn by turn, initiative, etc.), as well. I can still see places where you might need that really structured blow-by-blow scene, but without the tactical nature of combat it really wasn’t necessary – it was no longer a central feature of the game. So I just yanked it out in favor of challenges, contests, and just free-form actions.

Without stress, being taken out no longer made sense either. But I felt that it was still a key mechanic – sometimes things simply remove you from the scene. But I needed a way to get there besides beating on each other. I still used consequences (though less as damage per se, rather emphasizing their nature as lingering effects), so being taken out by filling up your consequences made sense. I just needed ways to take consequences. One was the sacrifice, in which you exchange consequences for fate points (an idea cribbed from Fred Hicks). The other was give players a way to place consequences. Extending Create an Advantage so that you could place a consequence on excel/success with style seemed natural as well. If you really wanted to ‘do damage’ that way, it would work.

It felt like there wasn’t quite enough on the line, however. I picked up the Firefly RPG by MWP and they had the concept of dangerous actions, where if the situation just seemed dangerous inherently, you just made it so. I really liked this, so I stole the idea and adapted it (not that it took much). That rounded off what I feel is a rather neat little method of amputating the Attack from FateCore.

Difference from FateCore – Discovery

Whenever I asked a Myst fan what the point of a Myst game was, I got a consistent answer: exploration. Myst fans love to figure things out. Unwritten had to reflect that. Where a fight scene would be the fall back or even the center piece of a traditional RPG, discovery would have to be at the core of it. Non-Myst fans always said ‘puzzles’. But here is the thing: explicit puzzles in RPGs rarely work. Either people are annoyed by them, or they are engrossed in them. Either way, play slows down or even stops.

I remember spending a lot of my time in Myst games figuring out things worked, which reminded me of the scenes in CSI where everyone is doing overly-technical tests in a montage with a snappy song in the background. I imagined that doing things in Unwritten should feel like that – enjoying yourself by finding things out.

The first element to that I hit on randomly in an alpha test. Players were rifling through a library and I didn’t want them to spend the whole game doing it, so I said “Roll and I’ll give you as many questions as you get shifts.” This worked really well and became the Discover action. It shifted the mechanics from doing points of stress to earning ‘points’ of information. At my wife’s suggestion, I added in a hint mechanic for those people who do really well on their rolls.

The second element involved the Investigate skill. Besides, say, Notice, it seemed like Investigate would be used all the time. I mean, it’s about figuring things out and the game is about that. So I decided that ALL skills are Investigate skills. Any skill, when appropriate, could be used as a way to collect information. That made the Discover action universally applicable.

The third element is that we needed something to explicitly be that CSI scene I discussed above, one were characters were looking around, asking questions, poking at things to get more info, etc. So since I’d taken out one type of action sequence (conflict), I added one based around asking questions. It’s not all that different than a challenge, but I added the first look (inspired by GUMSHOE) and limited each person to one roll unless they actually did something to merit another discover action. My hope is that people will use that to simulate all those times in CSI when they bring in another device, set up another test, or look at the scene in a different way.

Finally, I wanted something where players could be creative, something that simulated the Sherlock ‘ah ha’ moment and exposition. I tried several different things here and none of them really worked. Ultimately, I asked the makers of Atomic Robo if I could steal their Brainstorm mechanic, because it seemed to embody the concept just as I wanted. It’s turned out to be a really powerful option.

Other Differences

There are a number of other little differences. For example, there is no explicit Trouble aspect for characters. This is pretty traditional in FateCore games. However, I felt it was unnecessary. Requiring that one of the character’s aspects be a trouble is really just a way to ensure that the characters generate drama. I feel that the game has an implicit way to do that: by presenting mysteries. If you want, you can think of all Unwritten games having a default universal trouble of I MUST KNOW.

There are a number of little changes, especially in terminology. Not anything major here; I just wanted to shift the feel a little bit. “Excel” sounded more Myst-like than “success with style”, and “overwhelmed” felt less violent than “take out”. That sort of thing.

What about lore?

Myst fans will notice that there is a lot of lore that is not in the book. This is intentional, for two reasons. The first is that the main book is more about getting started, getting into the feel of the game, both from a rules and a lore perspective. I tried to keep the lore to things that all modern explorers would know, and those things which would be most useful to someone building a game. This is why we have a chapter on D’ni civilization, as the nature of D’ni informs a lot of the choices about what modern explorers would discover. There’s a little detail about what happens in the Myst games, because I figured people who were not Myst fans would want to know where that fit with the default setting.

The second reason is that I wanted people to fill in their own details in many places. While the supplements will have more details, there really are a number of better places out there to get all the details of the games and history. Rather, the game is supposed to encourage people to be creative and take chances with the setting. Veteran gamemasters will do this anyway, but I wanted to get across the openness of the possibilities even to the hardcore canon-loving fans. Just like your Relto is your instance of Relto, so is Unwritten your instance of the D’niverse.

Aspect Case Study: Total Darkness

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Gaming

On the Fate G+ community, someone asked a question an aspect on a scene named I Can’t See the Back of My Hand. After thinking on it, I feel there’s a lot to be learned by giving this some careful consideration.  So, let’s look at the aspect Total Darkness (to be more generic).

Most importantly, an aspect is true. Because it is true, that leads to justification. So, if your characters are in Total Darkness, that means they can’t do things that involve sight. That’s it. It does not require a penalty to their actions, nor does it require a compel to affect them.

That last point is requires some clarification. Fundamentally, compels need to fall forward, that is the complications that they create need to generate drama. Compels should be interesting. Something that simply says “no” to the players does not fulfill that purpose – it’s just a blank wall that players that bang their heads against.

In this way, Total Darkness is an aspect as an obstacle. It is something that is preventing the characters from taking action in a particular way. The obstacle remains in place while the aspect does, that is, as long as it makes sense. If a character turns on the light, the aspect goes away – no more obstacle.

Sometimes, though, obstacles need to be overcome. Maybe the character needs to search for the light switch, or they have to pull its location from their memory. This is where you can break out the dice and do an Overcome action.

Even if there is an easy solution to overcoming an action, consider an Overcome roll anyway. Rather than using the action to simply remove the obstacle, you can use it to determine the effects of an action. For example, one of the characters has a flare in their pack, which they pull out and light. If they fail, rule that they drop the flare. Or if they choose a cost to succeed, choose that the flare catches something on fire. If they succeed with style, the sudden light blinds the ninjas that were sneaking up on them in the dark, giving the characters a boost.

This underlines an important nuance to actions in Fate – they don’t really tell you whether you accomplished something or not. Rather, they tell you whether your action resulted in complication, success, or an unexpected benefit.

Okay, back to Total Darkness. As I said before, you don’t need to compel it for it to affect the characters – it affects them because it is reality. However, you can compel it. Once again, compels need to fall forward, so a good compel of Total Darkness creates more problems: a character knocks over a priceless vase (pronounced ‘vaaz’), or they hurt themselves by unexpectedly walking face first into a wall.