Apocalypse World:

It's the end of the world as we know it...

Feburary 23, 2011

So, Apocalypse World. What is it? Why should I play it? What should I lookout for?

Apocalypse World is the latest (from last year) role-playing game by D. Vincent Baker, one of the top role-playing game designers of the indie role-playing game scene. I am an unabashed fanboy of his games. I want people to play his games, read his games, and run his games as much as possible.

Apocalypse World takes the cast of Fireflyand slams them into the world of Mad Max. Each session, the characters trying to decide whether or not a person, place, or thing is worth fighting/sexing/killing for.

What makes this game innovative, or refined, in the world of role-playing games is that there is a strong task resolution system as well as a strong MC (the games term for Game Master or Dungeon Master) philosophy.

The task resolution system

Mechanically, it is very simple. Roll two six-sided dice. If you get a 7 or higher, you succeed marginally. On a 10 or higher, you really succeed. Each task is broken down by what it does. Are you trying to manipulate someone? Then roll the dice and at your Hot score. Are you trying to brain someone with a pipe? Roll the dice and add your Hard score.

However, the game gives specific descriptions about what happens with a really-success, a marginal-success, or a failure. If you marginally succeed in braining someone with a pipe, the rules gives you a list of options, but you can only pick two; do you choose to be on top of the situation, but perhaps suffer some damage and perhaps ticking off your target? Or do you choose to mitigate your damage but maybe not be in control and perhaps bring more targets into the fight? Or maybe you don't do much damage at all, get badly hurt, but scare everyone off so they will leave you alone in the future?

Since the player gets to choose these options, he/she can control what he/she feels is important to the character, to the game, and to the player, but leaves all the other aspects up to the MC (Master of Ceremonies).

This task resolution system gives concrete guidelines of what can happen, but provides enough flexibility that you can fit any task into the system.

MC philosophy

D. Vincent Baker has chosen his terms very carefully. The standard term for the guy running the game is "Game Master", which assumes that the Game Master (GM for short) is in charge of the game. This gives him/her a kind of psychic authority. He/she is in charge.

But a MC is simply guiding the action along. He/she is a central figure, but he/she is not the star. In the ideal case, the MC should never cause something to happen just because. Instead, the MC should always be reactive; something happens only because of player action.

For example, if the MC has asked a player if "Hey, has Red pissed off anyone lately? And why?" and the player provides an answer, then the MC could and should have that antagonistic character (which didn't exist until Red's player answer the question) come around and start some problem.

Or, if a player failed a roll, then the MC can have something bad happen.

In both cases, the MC is reacting to player action, be it a role-playing action (talking) or a mechanical action (dice).

For What To Look Out

The MC can push too much. When there is a pause in the action, it is tempting to throw something into the mix. But the MC has to remember that he/she has to react to the players. And that also means that the players have to be motivated. The MC has to make sure that the players are motivated to do something. If they aren't motivated, then the game will crawl to a halt.

The players can and will get into conflict with each other. In other traditional role-playing games like D"&"D, there is an implied/explicit expectation of cooperation. Sometimes this will feel coercive. Player A might want to do something that Player B doesn't like. D&D doesn't fully support this inter-player conflict, but Apocalypse World does. Of course, players that expect constant cooperation might not enjoy this kind of conflict. In the worst case, a player might take things personally.

I've ran two sessions of this game, and so far it's simply awesome. It's rare that I get to see how a story pans out in a game because most of the time, I have to make the story. The mechanics and philosophy gives me room to enjoy the same amount of surprise that the players will feel, except I get the credit for "inventing" the story when it's the players that do a good chunk of the work!