Hellboy-inspired Apocalypse Keys asks who will hold you as the world ends

“Hell is other people,” reads the oft-quoted line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, a minimalist stage play about three souls trapped within the walls of a single-room purgatory. The characters confess, bicker, seek absolution, seduce each other, and wax on about the existential terror of bearing another’s judgment.

In 2013, cartoonist and writer Tim Kreider typed a line that would come to define a generation of online interaction: “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”

New tabletop role-playing game Apocalypse Keys shares much in common with these two disparate pieces of media, even if creator Rae Nedjadi and publisher Evil Hat Productions don’t mention either in the credits. Heavily steeped in Hellboy vibes and mustering an impressive mechanical pedigree, Apocalypse Keys puts the vital need for connection — even love — front and center alongside the literal end of the world. It asks if relationships can save us from our worst impulses while relishing in the full-throated heel turn toward oblivion.

Monsters working for DIVISION

Players embody monsters working for DIVISION, a clandestine government wetworks agency with a silly acronym but serious mission: Seek out Doors of Power and stop the Harbingers who would kick them wide open. Sessions consist of mysteries that the group, along with the guidance of a Keeper (the game’s moniker for a game master), flesh out collaboratively as they collect the eponymous keys of the apocalypse — evidence that can be as mundane as a waterlogged Walkman or as obvious as a bleeding crown of blackened roses.

Like Hellboy and its BPRD spinoff, the player-characters’ monsters have bucked their apocalyptic birthright in favor of saving humanity from unseen threats. Devastating power earns these monsters fear and disgust instead of respect from humanity at large, and many would argue that reaction is well founded. Each DIVISION asset is a few bad days away from becoming a Harbinger in their own right, and only the relational ties to their fellows on the absolute fringes of society might stave off a damned destiny. You need darkness to stop the apocalypse, but you need friends to hold back the darkness.

“I like to joke that Apocalypse Keys is built on the concept of ‘We’re not so different, you and I’ between the players and the Harbingers that they fight against,” Nedjadi told Polygon in an interview. “But it’s also a very emotional game — aside from the stakes about the world ending, which is a very huge possibility. It isn’t about whether you’ll get physically hurt, but whether your emotions are going to get the better of you, if you’re going to create havoc and cause problems for the people you care about.”

Powered by the Apocalypse

Veteran tabletop players will immediately notice the chassis lifted from the tried-and-true Powered by the Apocalypse school of design: classes as worksheet-like preconstructed playbooks, fiction-forward feats known as moves, and an emphasis on players injecting their own ideas into the lore of the world itself. Nedjadi lovingly referred to their game engine as a “Frankenstein’s monster,” borrowing interpersonal gameplay mechanics like bonds from emotional wuxia RPG Hearts of Wulin; anxiety-inducing in-game timers known as clocks from Blades in the Dark; and lifting the delightful mystery-solving mechanics from grannies-meet-Cthulhu title Brindlewood Bay.

Newcomers reading through the 300-page core rulebook won’t feel lost among the chapters, which manage to dissect and present Apocalypse Keys’ agenda like a step-by-step guide to heart surgery — staggering to imagine in full but surprisingly simple once you start. The playbooks, which slot into an increasing spectrum of emotional and narrative complexity, come with a primer and best practices notes, and the Keepers section outlines helpful tips for sticking each type of character in the most interesting (read: tragic) situations.

One of the smartest little tricks in Apocalypse Keys’ bag is the devastating success. Like other RPGs of this ilk, the success of every playbook move is determined by rolling two six-sided dice and adding the relevant modifiers. Traditionally, anything below a six is a miss, results beyond a 10 count as unmitigated success, and everything else ends up mixed — that is, leaving room for the Keeper to allow success, but add a complication or a price.

When playing as fallen gods, eldritch scions, manifestations of endless hunger, or undead soul fragments, these characters want to keep their dark impulses in check by rolling in that sweet middle spot. Going higher than nine means slipping toward the baleful fate promised (or threatened) by whatever lurks in their hearts’ hidden shadows. Progress toward this corruption is tracked as ruin, and accruing too much can force characters into early retirement, giving up the game and ushering in the apocalypse as the newest harbinger.

Luckily, players can modify their results both up and down by drawing on their bonds to each other, key non-player characters, and the demanding Darkness at the heart of their abilities. As the rulebook reads: “You have so much power, but what you truly have is this: magic and fear. Healing and hope. It will have to be enough.”

Staged as flashbacks or small interpersonal moments, leaning on these connections might prove the difference between thwarting a Harbinger or watching the world be remade in the horrific image of whatever lurks beyond the door.

Nedjadi said designing Apocalypse Keys saved them during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and their own mounting health crisis, as it was a project they could always prod forward inch by inch when nothing else made sense. As the pandemic continued, their despondency relented into a cautious hope reflected in the final version of the game. The importance of bonds deepened, as did the hopeful bent to the RPG’s mysteries and playbook descriptions. The two currencies — darkness tokens and bonds — represent this tug between our worst impulses and better natures. Apocalypse Keys doesn’t judge those who struggle to maintain balance.

Perhaps most importantly, Apocalypse Keys doesn’t judge those who struggle to maintain balance but instead provides moments of connection, vulnerability, and intimacy as valves for the pressure of a judgmental, callous world pressing down on your characters’ shoulders. Apocalypse Keys champions player expression wherever possible, providing constant on-ramps for interaction between the group, revealing a terrible secret or complication, or melting into the arms and lips of your fellow monster — heck, there’s a whole section in the book titled “I Almost Called This Game Apocalypse Kisses.” Hell isn’t other people in this RPG, but they might be the only thing standing between you and a rapidly opening door to cosmic annihilation.

Apocalypse Keys is available now via the Evil Hat Productions online store, via Amazon, and from your friendly local game store.