Actions in Games

I was thinking today about Apocalypse World and what makes it different from older games like D&D and GURPS.

Ability Scores

Most RPGs have something called ability scores, attributes, stats, or something along those lines. They function as the fundamental mechanical measure of a character’s aptitude. D&D has its classic six of strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. GURPS similarly has strength, dexterity, intelligence, and health. What these games do is attempt to simulate the actual attributes of the characters. Strength is tied to how much one can lift and carry, for instance. For the most part, the attribute scores attempt to measure something about the character. Those six measurements then affect the various roles and derived attributes throughout.

Apocalypse World handles things differently. Characters have five stats: hard, cool, hot, sharp, and weird. These are not really measurable aspects of a character. At least not in the same sense of D&D or GURPS. The stats are more about how a character behaves than about what the character is. If your character has a lot of hard, he’s going to be one violent son of a bitch or at least good in a fight. Cool characters don’t lose it under pressure. Hot characters are sexy and seductive. Sharp are observant, intelligent, and skilled. Weird characters have something loose in a leaky brainpan.

That difference right there says something about the games in question. The older games create characters based on what the character is (strong fighter, intelligent wizard, etc.) whereas Apocalypse World builds characters based on what they do or how they do it. That leads me to my next point.

Taking Action

Apocalypse World is different from traditional games in that actions are taken for a reason. More specifically, the actions taken are a means to an end.

Let’s say we’re playing D&D and we come across a room full of kobolds and goblins with a chest (it’s gotta be full of gold, right?) in the back. What do we do? The characters roll for initiative and take action. They swing swords, cast spells, and generally engage in carnage and mayhem. Break that down into every action, though. The fighter swings his sword. Why? Because he wants to kill the kobold. That’s not really a compelling reason but that’s more or less what it comes down to. Actions aren’t necessarily tied to the fiction, or at least don’t drive it as fast as some of the newer games out there. D&D is a very granular or incremental game when it comes to taking action. There isn’t a Seize by Force move that the fighter can do to take the chest of gold. Instead he has to set his goal in the back of his mind and clear the room of all the kobolds and goblins before he can have the thief check it for traps and pick the lock.

Take the same scenario, recolored with Apocalypse World taint. A gunlugger, brainer, and angel want to get into a vault that supposedly has hi tech crap from the golden age. That vault is guarded by a handful of gang members. The gunlugger decides to seize the vault by force and rolls+hard. That’s it. Or the brainer could have the Direct-brain whisper projection move and go psychic aggro on the guards with the threat of, “leave the vault or we’ll kill you.” Violence, or the threat thereof, is a means to an end. The means and the end are both spelled out in the move. In D&D you hit a kobold and it loses hit points. It doesn’t change the situation. In Apocalypse World, you seize by force and take hold of something.

See how the action, intent, and result are all directly connected in Apocalypse World? That’s pretty cool in my book. It’s taking what people were already doing with their RPGs and puts it directly into the game. No middle steps required.

About PK

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