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There are a million and one ways the world can end. We see this daily, and in the deluge of books, movies and games about the apocalypse. But these specific apocalypses often don’t capture what’s so conceptually upsetting about the end of the world: that it’s always coming closer. That realization, of course, obscures the other side of the coin: that we’re not doomed to inaction, and that we can choose what we do with our time, even if it’s impossibly limited.
ARC was created by Bianca Canoza, also known as momatoes, who started making games with the goal of welcoming players in with curiosity. While it’s a TTRPG about the end of the world, it uses humor and warmth as often as horror to imagine what responding to the apocalypse actually looks like.
What’s her favorite mechanic?
“Definitely the mechanic to replenish spells. I had always wanted to sneak in a way for people to eat doors.”
momatoes studied industrial engineering in university which exposed her to systems design. In 2019 she began making games with the support of fellow Filipino game designers, who aimed to represent meaningful cultural touchstones in their work. ARC begins with a tribute to this community:
“From the queer travails of coming out to Asian parents; to 1990s action heroes in bombastic Philippine cinema; to crocodile chieftains, mosquito witches and patchwork-reality gods in a monsoon village; even to simpler things like the ordeal of Malaysian traffic – RPGSEA embodies the deep diversity of its creators’ perspectives and experiences.”
momatoes also maintains Across RPGSea, a database of Southeast Asian tabletop games, which was nominated for the ENNIEs and the Diana Jones award. She says the encouragement of Filipino players and designers got her started, while expanding to the rest of the SEA community “made it feel like my game could have a purpose in connecting people together – which made the game design process truly rewarding.”
The idea for ARC came in 2020, when momatoes was feeling hopeless during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I remember, at the time, feeling helpless against this pressing situation that affected every aspect of my life.” This was the inspiration for ARC’s structure as a game where you fight against the apocalypse. Over one to three sessions, you work together to resolve the issue, which can be as big as a world-ending tsunami or as small as a bad breakup. The only requirement? That it be devastating to the characters’ lives.
The creator’s goal was to make a game she wanted to play. “I am the sort of player who’s always asking, ‘what is this?’ ‘what happens when I do this?’ ‘why does the game react this way?’ I felt like I wanted to welcome that kind of fresh-eyed curiosity and willingness to engage with ARC.”
Part of that mindset was making the game friendly to someone who’d never played a TTRPG before. “Looking at RPGs through the lens of a beginner was a great starting point to make an accessible, playable game that I could be proud of.” ARC’s manual starts with a set of guidelines for telling good stories, so the game master – called the Guide in ARC – can be prepared. It provides the mandate to “create beginnings” and collaborate in storytelling with your players, framing that as a process of providing suggestions. The art (also by momatoes) is another form of welcoming storytelling, rendered in deep blues, oranges and bright whites. The creatures are cute and their descriptions also add to the texture of the world (Skeleton: “Bony. Those willing to talk tend to have a drier version of their living personality”).
Some games describe themselves as beginner-friendly, but don’t do the work to onboard a true beginner to TTRPGs. ARC defines terms like “d6” and “skill check,” and I thought of several people I know who’ve never played any tabletop games before who could start with this quickly. There are a lot of affordances that make the game easier, maybe too many for such a short game. While characters can die if they get below 0 HP (“Blood”), you can choose to resurrect them with a consequence; it’s only when a given character gets six consequences that they’re gone for good. As with most of the mechanics, though, you could make things harder on yourself by just choosing not to use it.
One thing that doesn’t disappear is the Doomsday Clock. It advances every hour to half-hour (depending on the number of sessions), counting down to when the apocalypse happens. According to the manual, “The Doom is determined by the Guide and players. It can be large in scope – for example, a world-sundering earthquake triggered by a goddess’ death – or more intimate – the departure of beloved spirits, a cruel heartbreak or the farewell of an era.”
My favorite mechanic in the game is Omens, which are subplots that foretell the apocalypse that’s coming. There are three for the players to solve, represented by things like “The local cult is hoarding gold and gems” and “The wedding planner is going around town, inviting utterly ill-advised guests.” These have something to do with the Doom, and addressing them slows it down. It’s a way of sending out the tendrils of the main threat to affect the rest of the world more subtly, in the way the apocalypse surely would.
Doom and Omens might be large or small, but they give the game a sense of loss while making players feel time is always running out. The Doomsday Clock in the game is inspired by the Doomsday Clock created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who measured how close the world is to man-made nuclear destruction. You could be forgiven for thinking this was Metronome, the representation of the Doomsday Clock that runs next to NYC’s Union Square and shows the time left to 1.5 C (currently, 5 years, 36 weeks, 3 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds).
ARC’s inspirations are heavy, understandably so. And it’s the consciousness of this real-life mirror that sets a serious tone whatever the scope of the apocalypse you choose. In some senses, this makes escapism impossible: even in the most mundane settings, you’re playing with a rule set that moves inexorably towards destruction of the world you built.
But there’s a reason ARC’s subtitle is “Slay the Apocalypse” – “I felt the need to fight back,” says momatoes, describing the game’s genesis in 2020. “I siphoned this feeling into ARC, that desire to take destiny into my own hands and wield it against factors that threatened to suffocate me.”
The biggest feeling ARC wants to give its players is agency, in storytelling and result; goals take sacrifice, but they can be achieved even at great cost. Agency in macro-level narrative, and agency in small decisions like player safety checks and deciding how to divide tasks in the group. And even agency in rejecting or accepting the world’s end. That doesn’t mean guaranteed success, but it does mean acknowledging failure isn’t the end of everything.
“It’s possible for the heroes to do their best and still fail,” says the manual. “Stories, however, can live on.”
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Emily Price is a freelance writer and PhD candidate in literature based in Brooklyn, NY.