What started out as a short review ended up being a 1500 word text where I try to summarize what the game is about so I can run it next week. Feel free to read the Capsule Review and then jump to “So Chatty, what are your thoughts”
The first new RPG I bought at Gen Con 2010 is Apocalypse World by Dogs of the Vineyard designer Vincent Baker. I met him early during the con and he made a great pitch while I was looking for a post-apocalyptic game for my gaming group. Our mutual interests collided and I left with a beautiful, autographed, pocket-sized paperback.
I’d likely play it next week with my gaming group so here’s a chatty style review.
Not for the faint of heart from both a thematic and playing philosophy point of view, Apocalypse World presents a very clever and apparently engrossing game. It’s main focus is not so much on player accomplishment or setting exploration(although the PCs are complete badasses) but rather the relationships that form between PCs and the constantly mutating loyalties and rivalries between them.
If you’ve started enjoying story games that thrive on failures like Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel but want to explore a darker, very adult theme, Apocalypse World is well worth giving a try.
Buying the book+PDF: Click Here
The Core Play Philosophy
As can be expected from a Lumpley Games RPG, Apocalypse World is first and foremost a Story Game focusing not on collecting whacked out technological gear while fighting mutants. Rather it’s very much about the loyalties and rivalries that form when exceptional, kickass beings (the PCs) band together against a merciless, you’ll-get-screwed-no-matter-what world of decay, scarcity and multiple threats coming from everywhere.
Play focuses on players getting into trouble and how they resolve it (usually by getting into more trouble, leaving behind numerous dead NPCs). The PCs follow their own agendas for survival: performing tasks, raiding groups of NPCs (or even those of other PCs) to gain resources and acting on obligations that often crop up.
Play also follows meta-plots, called Fronts, where events and/or major NPC groups move in the already busy schedules of the PCs to make things more interesting and prevent players from establishing too much stability in the world.
For example, a new cult can move in near the PCs holding, bearing a strange viral plague that reprograms people into new fanatical converts before they die horribly of some form of brain cancer 3 months later.
Finally, the game forcefully tells GMs (called Master of Ceremonies or MCs) to refrain from prepping stories and adventures. Prep focuses on keeping NPCs and organizations created through play straight (there are plenty of tools available online for that) and organizing the game’s fronts.
The Implied Setting and World building
The game’s implied setting starts unspecified yet remains very specialized:
Here be the post-apocalypse and some serious, undefined shit is brewing in some ethereal entity called the psychic maelstrom.
The world takes shape as the players flesh out their characters while the MC innocently peppers the discussion with questions about the PCs pasts, current location, make of vehicles and names of every NPC around them.
The answers of such questions, with healthy doses of “Just make it up” whenever players falter, create the world as the MC notes relevant details on the very elegantly designed 1st session worksheet.
Characters are presented to players as playbooks: a combination character generation rules, character sheet and character specific rules. Each playbook represent an established Post-Apocalyptic badass archetype and two players can’t play the same since each represent a unique exceptional individual.
- The Angel heals people, and has a medical clinic with staff.
- The Battlebabe kills and intimidates everyone with her custom whacked up weapons.
- The Gunlugger is the ultimate killer badass with more guns than shorts.
- The Hocus is a religious leader prophet controlling a cult of NPCs (think Season 4 Gaius Baltar).
- The Brainer screws with people’s brains with her psychic abilities.
- The Hardholder is the leader of an established community of variable size .
And so on.
The playbook outlines all the choices that players make to create the PC, from names, look, equipment, and stat range so it is a clever, self-contained document.
Oh yeah, and thanks to Ron Edwards’ influence (among many other Indie luminaries), the PCs have special powers when they have sex with one another.
Yeah, that kind of game.
The Game Mechanics
Mechanically speaking, the game is an exchange of narrative “moves” where a move describes an action/event/game element with a significant impact in the game’s fiction.
All characters have basic moves like “Going aggro” and “Read a Situation” and character specific ones like the Angel’s “Healing Touch”. Establishing success of such moves (when significant) requires a player to roll 2d6 and add a relevant stat (which usually goes from -2 to +4). A 7-9 is a soft success (i.e. it works but something goes wrong/different than planned as described by each moves) and a 10+ is a hard success.
While the player will use the terminology of their moves (basic and character-specific) to clearly indicate to the MC what they are attempting, the MC will ask the player to fictionalize said move to make it cooler by saying, over and over again: “Cool, how do you do that?”
The Master of Ceremonies
The MC is guided by a set of formal narrative principles like “Barf forth Apocalyptica” and “always respect the logic of the game”. He also has very specific moves like”Announce Future Badness”, “Separate them” and “‘take their stuff away”. In essence, the MC announces that something happens whenever he makes a move and asks players to react with moves of their own. For example:”A bad guy slinks away behind you and loops a steel wire around your neck, what do you do?”
Most everything the MC does in the game is make moves that lead up to the “what do you do” question, the MC almost never rolls dice. PCs get hurt (Shot at, drugged, strangled, etc) when they fail rolls. It’s the move players choose reactively that either gets them out of trouble, lands them into different trouble or leaves them lying in a puddle of blood.
The MC must also makes crap up on the spot (NPC moods, appearances, actions) while narrating. When well done, players don’t notice anything other than an apocalyptic tinged fully interactive story that remains internally consistent with both the rules and the apparent onscreen/offscreen logic…
Things become really interesting when PCs either miss a roll or give the MC a golden opportunity to screw with them… thus the MC is invited to go to town and make the most heinous-yet-interesting-for-the-PCs move he can think about. A bit like Mouse Guard’s failure mechanic… only not G-rated and guided by the MC’s list of moves (and any custom ones that fit the game).
The MC also names everything so that all NPCs gain a semblance of substance… but never so much that he gets to hesitate to get them killed, maimed, destroyed at the players whim.
The game’s fuel is the MC’s questions to the characters (not players). Those questions (and answers) build the world and shape where the action goes. Many (if not most) of these questions should be embedded in the MC’s moves or in response to players Moves/questions (i.e. turning player questions back to the group).
Chatty: You’re reading this awesome review, What does it remind you of? What does it make you feel like?
Exactly like that.
So Chatty what are your thoughts?
After reading the book and going over the game’s forums, I definitively want to try it for a few sessions. This is NOT Fallout the RPG. There is very limited space for armour, explosives and advanced weaponry. What it is about is scarce water, savage gangs of bikers/cultists, warlord raiders, driving through the desert in search of medicines and trying to decipher what the hell is the Psychic Maelstorm before it rots everyone’s brains.
Oh and see if you can get in Marie’s pants before she makes a move on Roark.
I’m completely intrigued by a game with no formal planning and especially by the “you don’t roll stuff, the players do”. It makes me feel the game is hard to master for both players and the MC. There are a LOT of little bits here in there that can be easily forgotten.
I’ll spend the week thinking of some visuals and sub-themes so I can barf forth the appropriate levels of Apocalyptica.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask… this is a hard game to describe.
Buying the book+PDF: Click Here