Briefly: As a very picky GM I've fought past my prejudices and found a rules system that wasn't just great, it blew my mind. While the system initially seemed like a big turn-off, putting it in the right context made it crystal clear: Why aren’t all roleplaying games made like this? Well, D&D and many other games have their own place, but IMHO this is how pure roleplaying games should be done. Fiction and story first, and it's actions of player characters that really matter. I’ve never found rolling dice for a horde of enemies and counting steps for them really that exciting, and with PbtA games that won't be necessary anymore. Depending on the game, there's a more or less solid rules system that fades pretty much to the background. Even if you like tactical combat like D&D, you should really read how combat goes in (at least in some) PbtA games.
(Sidenote: I did some updates to my site, and the looks seem a bit exploded right now - sorry for that! I'll try to fix that soon)
(Edit: Added images)
But let’s start from beginning.
As I mentioned I’m very picky about rpg systems. Once in a while I find a system I get interested in, and often after reading rules of a new system I find a number of details I don’t like - sometimes I try to adapt to the idea, sometimes I try with changing the details and sometimes I just lose my interest, if those features are too fundamental or there’s something really off-putting.
I believe I’ve steered past Apocalypse/Dungeon World before. But after trying to find a system that’s _really_ fast and furious (While I like Savage Worlds, I don’t find it very fast after all) I stumbled upon some recommendations of Apocalypse World Engine/Powered by the Apocalypse. After reading a descriptive example of gameplay I wanted to read more about the system - I'll give you an example if you read further down. I kept reading, and while the system need a lot of digesting and change in state of mind, once you try it a bit more, it may really surprise you how well the system works! To get a better picture of the rules, I (and many others) very much recommend Dungeon World Guide [pdf].
I’d be all over Dungeon World if it wasn’t for one (big) detail - it tries to mimic Dungeons & Dragons too much. While D&D is great, using D&D abilities, immersion-breaking hitpoints and damage rolls is cumbersome ballast for the game. I wanted to run scifi anyway, so my first game I’ve started with PbtA was Uncharted Worlds. It’s not perfectly to my tastes but it’s quite remarkable anyway, and it’s easy to wing it where I want it to behave differently. Besides, I really prefer my games as physical books, and ordering PoD from DrivethruRPG or RPGNow wasn’t too pricey. For comparison, the book is a bit smaller than Savage Worlds softcover (see image on right).
Uncharted Worlds has something I really like. It’s a clean, cool package. While there’s details I’d like to handle a bit differently, I like to use UW as a system I’m learning Powered by the Apocalypse -mentality and perhaps even base for my own hacks. And it’s quite easy to wing some things - for example, what I want to handle with more details is combat, and reading Dungeon World Guide shows how it’s done in DW and these techniques are quite easy to adapt to Uncharted Worlds too. And sometimes, I want combats to be over as fast as Uncharted Worlds suggests, that was one extra rule I was trying to tweak for Savage Worlds a while ago.
Ways to run games and getting used to it
The idea of how to run Uncharted Worlds (and to some extend most PbtA games I believe) is a bit different from what you probably have used to. You are expected to throw the ball to players once in a while. You are suggested to create a Jump point (starting point for a game) and make something happen, and then start asking players questions, eg. “Door opens and a group of heavily armed men crash in and start shooting. Zak, you see symbols on their uniforms and it gives you chills. What symbol is that, who are these men? Why are you afraid of them?”
This is excellent for a gamemaster who wants to run games but wants to use little time for preparation. Or, if you have prepared an adventure, you can relax and ignore any attempts to railroad, and give the steering wheel to the players when they do the inevitable and step off the course. This is what one of the PbtA guidelines, "Play out to find out" means - you may have no idea where the game is actually heading! It's good to prepare starting point and some details you want to introduce, as well as some extra threats and other details, but you don't plan when you are going to bring them in.
But, I wouldn’t say running a game in a more traditional way is bad either. That’s what I’ve mostly been doing, It’s a big change in thinking to start letting players to decide what happens, and while I’m trying to do it more, it remains to be seen how comfortable I’ll be with it. Right now I’ve mostly prepared my games, but it hasn't been preparation in the traditional sense - I've mainly put to paper thoughts I’ve got when doing something else, so the effort I've made for preparation isn't that huge.
PbtA in Practice
In most roleplaying games, while results of rolls may often be more or less realistic, they lack the excitement. When a hero attacks a monster and and monster attacks the hero, and they either miss or drain a few hitpoints from each other, it starts to feel gamey, often also repetitive. The idea in PbtA is that you skip this. GM throws a situation at you and you tell how you react to it, and if it requires you to roll dice, the result tells if you succeed, you succeed with complications or if you fail to respond to the situation. Failure is never 'Well, nothing happens', that part is fast-forwarded. If you fail, that may for example mean you don't manage to complete your task before the trouble finds you. An experienced lock-picker will pick pretty much any lock, but may face other complications.
In combat, the brilliance of this system becomes very clear. In traditional rpg's, when a combat starts, GM asks for initiative and game halts for a while, and people are acting in more or less random order. In PbtA, the action takes place in logical order. The enemy attacks the most logical target, perhaps the scout that failed his scouting roll. GM describes the monster suddenly attacking the scout as a continuation for the scouting situation, asking him what he's doing, and the situation intensifies. In D&D for example, there's the pause for initiatives and the situation much possibly jumps to a character that is somewhere further away from the situation. So, instead of *GM asks to Roll for initiatives* *GM asks results of each player* *GM writes numbers up* *GM rolls for monsters* *The wizard in the back row who rolled a 20 casts a spell* *GM rolls save for the monster* *Wizard's player rolls damage* GM tells how the monster is rushing towards the scout and asks what he's doing, then probably asking his player to roll. If another character wants to interfere, he probably can, if the action fits the situation.
Settings and variations
Amount of settings for PbtA games is growing. There’s a number of free Hacks, if you wish to try the system. Some of them are quite brief and require some familiarity with the system, some unfinished, and some quite long and complete. There’s one that’s under continual development for Star Wars (called Star Wars World), one with theme similar to Uncharted Worlds (Impulse Drive), although I can't find the link right now. While there are some jewels in the settings, I'll have to say I like general setting selection of Savage Worlds more. In addition to there being more settings, many of the Savage settings are very cool. I may well keep using savage settings with my PbtA games.
Anyway, with each setting there comes a different variation of PbtA rules. Some are more simple, some more crunchy; The rules have been tinkered to fit the setting in question, and to it's creator's idea of optimal rules, so the variations may be quite different. For example, in Dungeon World you go through a combat more like in D&D, you tell who you're attacking and how, deal damage and suffer from consequences. It may take several hits to take down an opponent. GM is supposed to decide most things, and some player moves like Discern realities, Spout Lore and Defy Danger force the GM to come up something on the spot - of course he doesn't want to be a boring GM! You can see DW tricks here ( http://www.dungeonworldsrd.com/moves ) and some analysis here ( https://rpggeek.com/thread/958940/three-brilliant-moves-defy-danger-spou... ). Uncharted Worlds instead may handle a smaller combat with a single roll, after which GM and the player together tell how the combat goes, result and control of the story depending on the roll results. UW expects you to turn a lot of questions and descriptions back to player, and it doesn't have a move like Discern realities.
About the commercial ones, some that I've been eying at with great interest are City of Judas (Sword & Sorcery with some historical religious touch) and Urban Shadows (modern fantasy). Fellowship looks also interesting, but it's again a lot more different from traditional roleplaying games, so I'm a bit hesitant about it... It's villain vs. players without GM, interesting nevertheless!
PbtA isn't perfect. While I'd recommend everyone to drop their prejudices and try it, it may feel quite radical compared to traditional games. It will never be liked by everyone. I'd say it is liked much more by people who haven't played before, who don't have presumptions set by D&D, WoD or other games. And as this post's title says, I think PbtA feels more like a real roleplaying game than many others. It could be thought of as old school roleplaying redesigned. The game focuses on story and player characters with very unobtrusive system.
One very important note: Apocalypse is more for cinematic games than for realistic ones. It helps you keep the game and action going by dropping excess details - in realism, there would be lots of boring moments in situations Apocalypse fast-forwards. Indiana Jones -like game would work very well with these rules. But it also does something very well for realistic games too - numbers can never reflect realism. Strict rules often guide towards results different from logical and realistic ones, and a GM who for example knows a lot about swordplay, how people handle stress, what injuries really do etc. could run an excellent game with PbtA. There's one person that immediately comes to my mind, and that's Guy Windsor. He teaches European Swordsmanship and I've seen some of his lectures about topics close to roleplayers, and if he'd run a PbtA game I believe it would kick ass :)