Review: Apocalypse World

Every once in a while I come across something that is worthwhile even if I find it distasteful. Brazil was one such film; I didn’t like it, certainly didn’t enjoy it, but I recognized what made it a good film and felt that watching it was a genuinely worthwhile experience. It was art. To be honest, I didn’t expect to find a role playing game that achieved the same level of art.

Apocalypse World is that game. I don’t like post-apocalyptic fiction in general. I’m certainly not a fan of the weird apocalypse presented in movies like Mad Max or its sequels. So as people explained Apocalypse World to me I grew disinterested. Sadly, this is because they tried getting my attention based on the setting and not based on the truly excellent mechanics of the game.

My journey to Apocalypse World was long and circuitous. Sometime last year, after GenCon most likely, I heard about Dungeon World. Sage and Adam had published the iOS app for DW (which I’m going to have to review and talk about later) so I grabbed that for $5 on the App Store. It intrigued me so I hit up Dungeon World’s website and bought the basic set. I read that and was impressed with the way the game worked. It was clearly labeled as a derivative of AW, so I now had a basic understanding of the mechanics. Back in February I got my first chance to play Dungeon World at Jank on Demand. Kevin Weiser of The Walking Eye ran the game for us and it was a blast. Importantly, it introduced me to Kevin and I started listening to The Walking Eye (I’m weird; I prefer to listen to podcasts of people I know and somewhat actively resist listening to podcasts if I don’t know the creators).

A few weeks ago I finally broke down and bought Apocalypse World after listening to the review of the game on The Walking Eye. I printed the PDF off on a big printer and put it in a three-ring binder. Real life intervened and I only finished it tonight. I’m glad I did.

Apocalypse World is very clearly written with an agenda. Vincent Baker states his position on role playing games in no uncertain terms. The game is about the story, which is a shared fiction created at the table. The fiction centers around the characters. The players of the characters engage the mechanics by taking significant action in the fiction. Mechanics then inform the fiction. These are concepts I can get behind when implemented properly in a game and I think Vincent is one of the few designers to actually achieve these goals.

Mechanics

The mechanics of the game are very tightly woven into the narrative. The first thing you need to know is that every mechanical action a character, be it a PC or NPC, can take is called a move. There is a series of basic moves that any player character can make and then each character splat has a set of unique moves. Only players roll dice. The Master of Ceremonies (MC) makes his moves in response to the dice roll. Most moves have levels of success with guidelines. Typically, on a 10+ the player succeeds with a minimum of difficulty, 7-9 something bad happens, and on a 6 or less the action does not succeed at all. In every instance there are narrative guidelines for both the player and the MC.

The MC is restricted by the game rules in a number of ways but given a large amount of freedom. The game strictly lays out the MC’s agenda (make the world seem real, make character lives not boring, and play to find out what happens), what the MC must always says (what is demanded by the principles of the game, honesty, the rules, and prep), and a series of principles that enforce both the story now play style (“address yourself to the characters, not the players”, etc.) and the setting of the game (“barf forth apocalyptica”).

This is one of the first examples I’ve encountered where the game master is heavily restricted or has heavily mechanized actions. That is to say, the MC in Apocalypse World is restricted to actions that drive the narrative of the game. Contrast this with the dungeon master in D&D 4E who is given almost no mechanical guidelines – just a series of characters (enemies/monsters) with stats – and no rules that drive the narrative. I haven’t fully wrapped my head around the implications of this and how to fully articulate it though I suspect it can be explained as the difference between narrativist and simulationist or gamist philosophy

Playbooks

Stepping outside the realm of the game as a collection of ideas and into the realm of the game as a presentation of ideas or a collection of physical artifacts, I really like playbooks. Playbooks are the available character options. Each one is a self-contained character sheet with rules for character creation and advancement, all of the rules necessary for rolling dice and determining outcomes, and has some evocative art. A given playbook is sized to be printed double-sided on legal paper (8.5” x 14”) and then made into a tri-fold pamphlet.

Holy crap these are awesome. First, you can sit down a new player and give them a single tri-fold piece of paper for them to use and play. Second, they look great. Third, they’re incredibly useful at the table if anyone has any questions about what happens. Dungeon World uses them and I loved the playbooks in that game. It’s something I hope more games do in the future.

Story Telling

The basic method of telling a story is to create a conflict and then let it play out. Apocalypse World creates conflict through fronts, “series of linked threats [made of] people, places and conditions that, because of where they are and what they’re doing, inevitably threaten the players’ characters — so a front is all of the individual threats that arise from a single given threatening situation.” Each threat has some need that conflicts with the needs of the others around them. The player characters get dropped smack into the middle of the whole mess.

Here’s the key thing: player characters aren’t there to fix the situation. They are there so we can see what happens in that situation. Play to see what happens.

Any time that a conflict arises in the game, whether it is a firefight or seduction, the dice hit the table. Apocalypse World espouses the Let It Ride philosophy of rolling once. This is partly enforced by the outcomes of moves. A soft hit, 7-9, usually includes some form of badness that changes the state of the situation. Quite simply, the same move wouldn’t make sense in the narrative again. Beyond that the text explicitly states that unless something changes in the narrative, the same move cannot be tried again. Keep in mind that conflict could be internal. The Driver’s special move involves seeing if he can keep from freaking out over a potential relationship.

So every time the dice hit the table, something new is going to happen. The situation is going to change. When players engage the mechanics of the game, they change and drive the narrative forward. This holds true more or less through the entire game but combat heavy scenes play out much like they do in other games. The difference is that the MC’s moves in response to the rolls are very one-sided. MC moves include “takea way their stuff” meaning that a character can have the chainsaw ripped from her hands as she tries to chop up a few thugs (that’s an actual example in the text). Don’t take that as criticism – this actually is a really good thing. It allows the MC to complicate the situation, create tension, change the flow of the conflict and generally tell a more interesting, compelling story without needing massive stat blocks. As usual variety is the spice of life and the MC should use all of the moves available, not just a small sampling of them.

Themes

Apocalypse World’s themes are going to be largely up to the players at an individual game. The themes encouraged by the text are scarcity, corruption, constant struggle, and the freakshow aesthetic of weird post-apocalyptic fiction. The emphasis of this in description of the game is what turned me off from it for so long. In the end, I don’t think it’s so powerful that I wouldn’t enjoy playing Apocalypse World. The game itself seems well constructed and fodder for interesting role playing.

There is a strong emphasis on group politics in the game. Many of the available threats are groups – roving gangs, families, enclaves, etc. – and even several of the splats are built around having a gang of one’s own – hocus, hardholder, and chopper. This helps drive the conflicts in the game forward. Groups are easier to pin a motivation upon than an individual. It’s also one of the things that was removed for Dungeon World. Given that Dungeon World is an homage to old school dungeon crawls, it’s not really necessary for that game. I would love to see someone make a more faithful fantasy adaptation of Apocalypse World that involves barbarian hordes, orders of paladins, conclaves of wizards, and more.

Maybe I’ll do that someday.

Conclusion

Apocalypse World is a tightly written (if vulgarity ridden) story now game. If you are interested in playing games within the story now style, you should definitely read and play this game. If nothing else, it will give you food for thought when you are talking about games with other people. The list of MC moves and advice in Apocalypse World is applicable to any role playing game and is really the most impressive part of th entire game. Highly recommended.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.

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