RPG Review: Apocalypse World, 2nd Edition (and Description of Play)

I’ve known about the “World” games for quite some time; I’ve had a digital copy of Dungeon World wasting away in a forgotten corner of my iPad for years. But it wasn’t until this past week that I really gave the system the attention it deserved.

I had picked up Dungeon World not to run it, but because I’d heard that it was a “must know” for aspiring game designers. I’m constantly toying with ideas for RPG systems, and while I’ve never completed a ruleset I’d be proud to publish, I’m getting a little closer each time I think. So, with the idea that I had some things to learn from the illustrious Vincent Baker, I decided to take another look.

I purchased and began to read the second edition of Apocalypse World, the game that started it all, so to speak. Having read (but never played) Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, I knew going in that there was a powerful mind engaged in building profound storytelling games behind the work.

In the past, I’d only really skimmed Dungeon World, and it seemed too fast and loose for my tastes. Then again, I grew up playing Shadowrun, d20 and World of Darkness games and reading and re-reading the Rolemaster books, so my definition of fast and loose was itself pretty fast and loose.

In reading Apocalypse World, I was surprised to find a system that was deceptively tight, with rules determined to incessantly advance the story at all costs. Even more than Fate, one of my favorite systems over the past few years, this game is designed from the ground up to play out fiction-first games that put the characters at the heart of the narrative and keep them there. The examples of action—which I found to be believable portrayals of the rules in effect—reminded me constantly of a well-written and run television show—say Deadwood or Game of Thrones. The cast of characters is connected to the setting in ways that inevitably draw them into conflict, which is, of course, the essence of plot.

I don’t mean to say that Apocalypse World is a perfect system; there’s not such a thing. But AW does fit a certain playstyle very well, a playstyle that resonates with me. I like reading roleplaying games—they’re often great sources for both mechanics to adapt to other systems and setting ideas to explore in games or writing. But there are few that, upon a first read, make me want to go out and play the game as soon as possible. AW is one of those systems.

As a word of minor warning: if you’re not familiar, AW has some narrative space dedicated to sex, particularly the way sex influences relationships between characters and drives plot. Each character class gets or gives certain bonuses for having sex with other characters (with an explicit focus on these relationships developing between player characters). I fully appreciate the power of sex in the human psyche (and therefore as a motivating or driving force within fiction) and don’t consider myself prudish by any means, but the prospect of weaving a subject so fraught with sticky wickets into a tabletop game with my friends is daunting and doesn’t appeal. In the one game I’ve run so far, I’ve tried to take a middle ground in establishing that there are some sexual/romantic relationships between PCs and NPCs to get some plot mileage out of these connections but leaving the prurient details (well, most of the details, really) to remain in the background.

I give the warning above because some players and readers might be turned off (no pun intended, I suppose) by this content in the game. If that’s the case, and who could blame someone if it is, my recommendation is to ignore all the “sex stuff” and run the game without incorporating the rules dedicated to that aspect of the game. As is typical of any narrative or roleplaying game that addresses mature subjects, it’s best for the group to decide where the boundaries of those subjects lie by adapting the boundary established by the most sensitive player to the subject. This is just good teamwork, and a good roleplaying experience requires teamwork.

Which leads me to one of my favorite aspects of this system—it is collaborative between the gamemaster (called the Master of Ceremonies or MC) and the players in a truly effective way. The MC asks questions to be answered by the players and incorporates those into the story. This takes some of the improvisational and preparatory burden off of the MC (though an MC not comfortable with generating story on the fly should approach this game with caution) and gives the players some real skin in the game, with characters who have established ties to the setting influenced if not created by their own ideas and storytelling interests.

You can find plenty of reviews that detail how the rules play, so I’m going to skip that and talk more about the “feel” of the game.

I very quickly suckered some friends into trying the system out, so we set up a time yesterday to meet, make characters and start playing. Here’s how it went:

The game strongly discourages significant work on the MC’s part to “plan” game sessions and sets things up so that the MC is also “playing to find out what happens.” The prep I did was as follows: First, I created a few basic setting details—the game takes place in the Greater Houston area and the Apocalypse that happened about fifty years ago: (1) had nothing to do with nuclear annihilation and (2) involved massive sea level rise, making parts of downtown Houston look akin to Venice and completely submerging Galveston and some parts east of the downtown area (I looked at several map projections for climate change and sea level rise to get a feel for this). That said, I didn’t fully define the reasons behind or events of the Apocalypse—I’ll play to find out the details as they get created, just like the players. Second, I created a list of apocalyptic-sounding names to use for characters (the rulebook advises that the MC should “name every NPC” and make them feel like real living people). I printed the rules references and the playbooks for characters. I created an “Apocalypse World” playlist in iTunes with some movie soundtracks, a mix of hard rock, blues, Tom Waits, Nine Inch Nails and other seemingly-appropriate artists. I watched about two-thirds of The Book of Eli and about a third of Doomsday to collect ideas for—as the game puts it—“barfing forth apocalyptica.”

My players arrived around 11:00 to make characters. I’d set them during the week to thinking about the different playbooks/classes and what they might want to play. The choose The Angel (a medic-type), The Chopper (a biker-gang leader, think Clay Morrow or Jax from Sons of Anarchy), The Hardholder (the leader of a community, this reminds me somewhat of characters in Jericho but even more of Al Swearingen in Deadwood), The Brainer (a psychic with mind-control and mind-reading powers) and The Maestro D’ (the owner of a bar or entertainment establishment, the closest thing I can think of offhand, unfortunately, is Peter Baelish and his brothel in Game of Thrones).

There are a few things for each character to define and describe in that character’s playbook—The Chopper makes some decisions about the edges and flaws his gang has, The Hardholder defines some of the advantages of and threats to the hardhold, etc. I followed up on this by asking pointed questions and letting the players answer however they wished. For instance, we determined that the Chopper had once had someone betray the gang, the one rule they cannot abide being broken. But instead of killing the underling to make an example of him, The Chopper beat him badly and banished him. Instant villain—the banished character, who we named Ajax, has recently returned with a small army at his heels to get revenge.

We established that the hardhold is a rusted-out tanker ship washed fairly far inland by a tsunami, with Lita’s (the Maestro D’s bar) in the lowest deck and the upper decks providing the habitations, workspaces and other necessaries of the hardhold. This followed with the creation of some nearby settlements with whom the Hold (as the hardhold was quickly named) had tenuous relationships—a pseudo-feudal community producing much of the areas fuel and ammunition and a matriarchal society of slavers. Further questions established some history and relationships between the characters.

And away we went. Since the players had determined that the Hold had a bustling market for trade, that gave me a starting place—an injured caravaner arrived to explain how she and her fellows had been ambushed and robbed on a western road toward the Hold, territory The Hardholder was responsible for protecting. While The Maestro D’ stayed back to manage the hold (well, mostly her bar), the other characters road out in force, taking The Chopper’s entire gang, half to the Hardholder’s guards and several armored vehicles. They too were ambushed, though they fared much better than the caravan—only one of The Chopper’s men was injured by sniper-fire before the crew was able to eliminate the hostiles—too well, as explosive rounds left little to investigate about the nature and origin of the attackers except for a cryptic tattoo found on a remaining arm.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to point something out. This fight ran fast and smooth, with the characters making tactical decisions based on what they’d tactically do rather than looking to their character sheets for permission. There was the aforementioned enemy sniper, RPGs (that’s the other kind—rocket-propelled grenades), dragging the wounded to cover, exchanging fire from a mounted gun, near misses against the characters and more, with the whole thing taking less than five minutes.

Combat in AW (or any “World” game, as far as I know) doesn’t use initiative, with the MC just bouncing back and forth between players as narratively appropriate. Since the players roll all the dice, the MC only has to initiate a “move” and have the players roll to respond when the NPCs are doing something more than reacting to PC actions.

As an aside, I noticed that this is how combat was run in the “not-Pathfinder” game depicted in the show Harmon Quest—in a half-hour episode, quick combat is essential! Like D&D, it takes players who are either willing to do something non-traditional or unfamiliar enough with the system not to notice to pull something like this off, but I think it’s much preferred to the “classic” tactical combat of D&D or games like Shadowrun.

I have to admit that, when running RPGs, I sometimes find ways to shy away from fights because of rules that make them play out laboriously, slowly and without much excitement. AW does RPG fights right—the rules push the narrative of the fight but remain effectively in the background while allowing for narrative details to immerse the players and add nuance to the fight that just aren’t well captured in simulationist mechanics.

The players had determined that the ship had a functioning radio suite, one that was used both for communication with other settlements and for entertaining radio broadcasts. When the players had eliminated one “lead” to advance the plot I simply offered another—they began to pick up a new broadcast on the ship radios, one that sounded very much like a religious cult.

Once they’d returned to the Hold, I pushed more MC moves to advance things—an assassination attempt on the Hardholder, sabotaging of the ship’s power generation, the leaders of the other holds disclaiming responsibility, hard deals to track down the new cult—only to find out that it was a splinter sect and not the cult proper responsible for the attacks, etc.

It’s a general RPG axiom to never “split the party.” AW often encourages just this, and the Maestro D’ was working contacts in the Hold while the Chopper and his men went patrolling for other ambushers and the Hardholder, the Angel and the Brainer went on a diplomatic mission to secure help from the matriarchal hardhold. Because the action of the game carries forward pretty naturally, presents new twists and ideas to the story and allows the MC to not get bogged down in the resolution of events, there was no perceived difficulty at jumping back and forth between various scenes and characters. Unlike many games I’ve run, where players zone out when not actively involved in a scene, the players listened intently to the other player’s actions and scenes, wanting like the rest of us to find out what happens next.

The system is not fast and loose; it supports rather than controls a quick-pace of narrative and action. Just as with writing traditional fiction, pacing is important in roleplaying games and the narrative demands should control pacing more than mechanics—particularly overly-complex ones.

In all, not counting a pizza break, we played for a total of five hours. I haven’t played a single roleplaying session that long since I was in college, and never with so little preparation beforehand.

I loved Apocalypse World—mainly for the usefulness of the rules and the collaborative approach to plot and setting. In all honesty, I could probably take or leave the apocalyptic setting itself. Fortunately, there are tons of “hacks” for AW (Dungeon World, tremulus, Urban Shadows, Uncharted Worlds, just to name a few) and hacking one’s on setting or version of AW seems pretty easy to do. I certainly haven’t tested the system to its limits and breaking points yet (all systems have them), but I feel like even a single session of the game has greatly improved both my GMing chops and my game design toolbox. I highly recommend it for casual gamers, dyed-in-the-wool narrativists (though I don’t buy too hard in GNS theory) and would-be game designers; there’s a lot to sort through here in a tight and somewhat condensed ruleset.

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