Apocalypse Keys: the Deep Dive

Every game makes you a promise: the game will be about this thing and will support you this way. Some games wisely under-promise and over-deliver. That’s just good life advice. But under-promising is hard to do when you need to generate excitement for your game, otherwise people won’t buy and, hopefully, play it. So we live in a world where games frequently over-promise and under-deliver.

I’ve never liked writing critique that lands on “this is good” or “this is bad.” My interests don’t lie in making purchase recommendations. Instead, I look at the game’s promises, how it delivers on that, and how that delivery intersects with our actual play at the table.

That reads like I’m about to deliver terrible news, but I’m not. But I am going to talk about how Apocalypse Keys over-promised and under-delivered for us.

Keys, Not World

Rae Nedjani’s Apocalypse Keys, published by Evil Hat, is about monsters fighting monsters while struggling to retain their humanity. There’s a constant tug between light and dark, the game promises. Every Omen-class monster (the PCs) has the capacity – either fated or as an inevitability of their world-changing power – to become a Harbinger. Harbingers want the world to end, for various reasons, and Omen-class monsters are all that stand between them and their goals.

Apocalypse Keys is a PbtA game, so it has the trappings you’d expect: playbooks, moves, interpersonal bonds, the 2d6 bell curve. The most mechanically novel thing in the game is the Darkness Token economy. Throughout play, players tag a list of playbook-specific triggers and acquired conditions and pay themselves Darkness Tokens. When they make moves, players roll 2d6 like in any other PbtA game, but instead of adding a stat they spend Tokens, up to 3, to add to the die roll. If they roll too high, they overshoot their power. This push your luck game feels terrific in play, although due to the nature of bell curves, the overshoot doesn’t come up that often. And if they do, characters can always spend their Bonds to provide +/-1 nudges. That, in turn, incentivizes the Reveal Your Heart move to recharge those Bonds.

The bulk of the action orbits around solving mysteries. Apocalypse Keys is in the same family of mystery games as Brindlewood Bay, where instead of gathering clues and solving an existing mystery, the characters accumulate Keys (little weird objects and phenomena), author a theory by linking them to Facets (the must-answer questions at the heart of the mystery, i.e. who is the Harbinger and how are they going to open a Door of Power, among other things), and rolling. Roll too low and it turns out you were wrong, resulting in the Doomsday Clock ticking closer to the endgame. Roll too high and it turns out you were too late, and the Harbinger must be stopped but is already well on their way to victory.

The Real Monsters Were The Friends We Made Along The Way

There are a couple major themes promised by the game: the Omen-class monsters are constantly struggling between their humanity and monstrosity, and they’re all faced with the possibility of becoming a Harbinger and destroying the world. Obviously these things are entwined: you don’t want the world to end because that’s where the humans live! However, while you’re busy saving the world you’re also gaining Ruin, another economy of the game that unlocks terrific new moves but also ticks you closer to becoming the next Harbinger.

We played a single low-complexity mystery that came in the rulebook called The Parasitic Library. It’s maybe not the best scenario to start out with, because there are very few NPCs to interact with. The setup is that the eponymous Library is a living thing, directed by someone or something to attach itself to the headquarters of DIVISION, the BPRD-like transnational agency charged with the care and feeding of Omens to save the world. But we wanted a brief taster to see the game work, so we went with it.

There’s a single entry, about ⅔ of a page long, that talks about life in between mysteries. But let’s talk about what an Apocalypse Keys mystery looks like first.

The Mystery-Shaped Thing

An Apocalypse Keys mystery has a number of facets that must be explained before the mystery can be solved. The characters do that by exploring the setting and gathering keys. The premade mysteries come with a list of keys, ranging from totally mundane but provocative stuff like “a journal written in an unbreakable code” to deeply occult stuff like “a sigil that weeps blood.” As the characters gain keys, they start theorizing about how they might connect to the facets. By the time they make the “solve the mystery” move called Unlock Doom’s Door, they’ve strung together a narrative connecting clues to questions. The novel thing is that the GM does not have an answer before the players roll: they see whether their invented theory is true or not alongside the players. You have to run the game in a vague anything-is-possible way because anything has to be possible until the waveform collapses and reality emerges from the roll.

Some of the playbooks have really interesting moves that allow you to nail down “irrevocable truths” connecting keys to facets. Others allow the character to add or change the mystery’s very facets! This all sounds really interesting, but our playbooks didn’t have any of those.

For real though, our Fallen’s Be Not Afraid mode was our favorite part of the game.

In our playtest of Apocalypse Keys, we had The Surge (an overpowered danger to everyone trying to not cause harm), The Fallen (a divine creature relegated to walk the earth), and The Hungry (an emo vampiric creature that feeds on something; in our game, it was a Renaissance-era scientist/occultist who craved too much knowledge and now is consumed by his hunger for magic and secrets). Only the Hungry had a move that allowed them to manipulate the mystery game: they could “feed” on a key and extract additional factual statements from the GM about them.

The Writer’s Workshop

The mystery solving element of the game was tough for my players to enjoy. Authorship just feels different than discovery, from both the GM’s and players’ perspectives. I think the dissonance would have been less prominent if they had actually made their first Unlock Doom’s Door move. We were disappointed because it was such a good, fun theory that pointed at a bunch of future scenarios! But they had to discard that theory and come up with an all new one.

This process felt more like a creative writing exercise than puzzle-solving, and it mostly irritated everyone at the table. Authoring a mystery creates a mystery-shaped object; discovering a solution touches on accomplishment, problem-solving, and other personal payoffs. They both end up in the same place, but the processes produce different aesthetic products.

As a GM, running the game such that any answer is possible requires maintaining a lot of vagueness. Funny thing is, this is a fairly natural mode to my play anyway. I’ll regularly leave questions unanswered until the players force my hand, so to speak, and I have to commit. Okay, it turns out this faction is behind the assassination. Okay, it turns out this NPC was the one holding the knife. And so on.

The practical difference between my own practice and the Unlock Doom’s Door procedure is that I’m juggling possible answers in my own head as GM, and playing toward those answers via foreshadowing, closing off my own possibilities, slowly making the revelation inevitable. Because this postmodern mystery-generating process means you might never get the correct revelation, I can’t use any of those techniques. I need new techniques.

Struggling To Struggle

As tough as it was for us to appreciate the aesthetics of mystery-authoring, it was connecting with the characters’ humanity that was our biggest challenge. Our difficulty started with character creation, which paradoxically also is one of the most fun, weird, and provocative processes I’ve ever seen.

To be clear: you get a great Omen-class monster! There are seven playbooks, all with clear media touchstones but also enough options to make them your own. Zero schtick infringement. Very distinctive, interesting moves that both evoke lots of apocalypse-monster vibes as well as touch on some meta-mechanical stuff in the game’s investigative system in interesting ways.

What we didn’t get is anything human and relatable. My players found it hard to find the humanity the characters are supposed to struggle with. The NPCs they created from various move choices are ripe to be nice human connections, right? But NPCs are hard to integrate into your mystery – or, perhaps, they were just hard to integrate into a Christie-style closed room mystery like The Parasitic Library – and there’s very little said about what monster and DIVISION life is like outside of mysteries.

The bond questions between PCs are often actively hostile to creating natural human bonds as well. The text says relationships can be friendly or romantic, but the bonds felt like they defaulted to romance. Or at the very least, an unearned level of intensity and intimacy that feels hard to just step into. For example, The Summoned has a must-take Bond question: “Why can’t you tell me you love me?” In fact, every playbook’s second Bond question relates to love. It’s hot if everyone’s on board with that level of intensity, but it’s obviously romance-defaulted and not necessarily the right fit for every table.

Our table ended up with fraught, barely-frenemies relationships between the three Omens. Maybe if the playbooks had more and broader Bond questions to choose from?

Looking For Goldilocks

After our run through The Parasitic Library, we felt Apocalypse Keys is a bit over-programmed. The setup questions were overloaded, the bonds felt narrow, the Darkness Token triggers overly specific – more like improv notes than bigger flags to aim for. Even the Impulse questions, a decision you make every session that lets you earn XP or Ruin, often felt too specific for the players to engage with. It felt like the game didn’t trust the players to make genre-appropriate decisions.

In other cases, move outcomes felt overly broad and poetic, not specific enough. Some of the concepts of the game, in particular What The Darkness Demands Of You, require a lot of GM creative lifting to fit into the game whenever invoked. For example, our Surge said one of his WTDDOY choices was “to seek what is beyond Doom’s Door.” Interesting! Provocative! No idea what to do with it in actual play.

Meanwhile, the supporting text that is there is really sharp. There’s a breakdown of the first session play that’s detailed, like down to minute-by-minute estimates, that I’ve never seen anything like before. Every playbook has a solid few pages that discusses their strengths and narrative levers. It’s close to best-in-class for play support. And yet…and yet.

Life Outside The Job

That ⅔ of a page talking about life between mysteries is the single biggest lacuna of Apocalypse Keys. It feels like so much interpersonal context could arise between cases. But other than a couple questions about how your game’s DIVISION works, there’s not much to go on other than “do roleplaying things.”

We felt this especially acutely in the Parasitic Library adventure, of course, because it’s a sealed pocket dimension. No good ways to just drop in that grand-niece who will occasionally accept the Surge’s power, or the immortal wanderer the Fallen has known since biblical times, or the priest of a Harbinger from a possible future where it wins. Those all sound pretty cool, right?

I think a lot of this comes down to mission-based play, too. The game’s holding environment is about professional relationships, not necessarily social ones. The Bond questions try to force more personal connections but they’re too hot, too intense, too unearned. If I were to run it again, I would lean more on life in DIVISION, how Omens and other monsters exist in the world, and advocate harder for characters that weren’t functionally immortal demigods utterly separated from humanity by time and choice.

Authorship Versus Discovery

So what is it about invented mysteries versus discovered mysteries? As a practical matter, it’s hard to foreshadow, to hint, to do all the things one does in other media explorations of mysteries. It’s also quite hard to show the effect of the mystery on the people it impacts and draw clues and conclusions from that.

Now, each Apocalypse Keys mystery does have a ticking clock that pops each time they miss their Open Doom’s Door move (or whenever the GM feels like kicking the game in the pants to get it moving), but I’m not sure the triggered events create much new information or urgency. We ticked two of the four clock bits in our Parasitic Library play, and those were good opportunities to add additional interesting context for the players to grab onto. It worked okay. I would be generous – or, perhaps, sadistic? – about inflicting those ticks faster in future games.

I think, in the end, invention and discovery are just different mental and creative phenomena. Solution-inventing produces a product that looks like the necessary completion of a mystery, no doubt. But the process is from the opposite end of the telescope: you produce an answer because the genre requires it, not because the characters do. The process left me feeling a bit like how I feel when I read chatbot content: you get a mystery-shaped thing but…not an actual mystery. That said, if what the game needs is a mystery-shaped thing to drape the interpersonal play around, this is a fine solution.

A Future Con One-Shot

In the end, we found Apocalypse Keys to be an odd duck. Great playbooks, but a setup, holding environment and play cycle that didn’t feel like it would support longer-term play. The mystery-authoring bit of the game didn’t work for us, but gosh does the gameplay get interesting when you start using some of the playbook moves that directly address it.

There’s a lot to like here. And I fully intend to put it on the table as a one-shot at future conventions. It pushes a lot of fun genre buttons and just begs to be played broad and big. But for longer-term series, I think you need to do a lot of lifting to fill the spaces between the mysteries, and between the characters.

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