Barf Forth Apocalyptica! Review: Apocalypse World

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.

Capsule 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.

Character Generation

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.

Some examples:

  • 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

Comments

  1. Sounds kinda cool. Definitely not the game for me though, as I am pretty actively disinterested in post-apocalyptic stories. Everyone keeps trying to tell me this game is different and will totally change my mind on it, but if it’s a story game, focused on post apocalyptic stories…I don’t see how.

  2. The game system can totally be hacked for Sci-Fi games like Serenity/Firefly and even dungeon crawling. Have a look at the game’s forum for hacks. (The book has a few)

    http://apocalypse-world.com/forums/index.php?action=collapse;c=4;sa=expand;sesc=36d710b49abd4c59bc63efdf409da5e9#4

  3. I fell in love with this game after seeing the preview/beta/whatever-thingy. There are a lot of good stories you can tell here. You can quite easily make AW into the Walking Dead if you want; countless variations

    The question-driven storytelling is pretty much my main mode as a GM, so a lot of the GM advice was already in my (armored) wheelhouse.

    One interesting point to add is that Baker seems to advocate some character/player separation. One of the rewards you can get down the line is an extra character, for instance. Having this mode of “I am not my character, but I control him/her” is crucial for making the sex mechanics work I think. I was honestly a little shocked when I first saw the “If you sleep with a PC, get X”, trying to imagine how to deal with that discomfort at the table of explaining that.

    When you come from the traditional “I am my character” model, sex between PCs becomes a touch personal and possibly awkward. Maintaining that separation where we are all just controllers of these story pieces makes that hot character on character interaction much less personal, and therefore just another aspect of the game. All players can still be really involved in the story and making it as awesome as possible, but I think we are meant to associate so deeply with the character so we can tell an even better story.

    Other than that one point, from my perspective you’ve hit all the major points. Nicely done and can’t wait to hear what you’re up to with it in the future!

  4. You are entirely right. The game pushes really hard to have the MC make a clear distinction between players and characters. One of the game’s MC principles is “Talk to the characters, never the players” when making moves.

    In that sense, if the players pick on that (or are downright informed during the setting expectations phase), that might make the PC on PC sex less creepy for my poor trying-to-cling-to-traditional-rpg-rules-tropes brain.

    :)

  5. I guess it makes sense that a college professor specializing in animal genitalia would encourage superpowers to blossom when characters have sex together. It’s like the math professor fantasizing that people increase their sexual prowess by shouting out Van Kampen’s Theorem while in flagrante delicto.

    I think I had enough of Vincent Baker’s designs after Poison’d. Thanks for the review, but I’m going to stay clear on this one. :)

    Good to see you trying out new things, though, man! I look forward to seeing where else your journeys take you!

  6. Ya know Zach, I have trouble making out if you are actually voicing your opinions on game designs, making a joke or being dickish here. I’m confused here, help me out please.

    I don’t know Vincent/Ron beyond what they do in the RPG industry (hell I stayed clear of Edwards diatribes on RPG theories) so I can’t/won’t comment on the inspiration that led them to develop sex mechanics in RPG. For my part, seeing how America is downright schizophrenic about the subject, I like to see how this creates ripples.

    That being said, the sex part is entirely optional but does drive the advancement mechanics and has interesting side effects. I really don’t expect my players to touch that… not by a mile.

  7. Thanks for the review!

    I’m happy to answer any questions about the game that anybody might have, so please ask away.

  8. Wow. Dickish? OK. Nice shot at Americans, too, while you’re at it. :(

    Just not my cup of tea, man. We’ll leave it at that. No offense to you meant.

  9. Whoa Whoa Whoa Zach my man. I probably misread your comment and made a response that got directly to your fighting brain. I apologize, no harm or insult wanted but like I always do, I stand by my words, right or wrong. I was just surprised about the whole college teacher analogy and answered in kind.

    Let’s leave it at that and call bygones okay?

    Peace out.

  10. By all means, man. I got nothin’ but love for you.

  11. The thing about the sex moves is that they don’t turn on superpowers. It’s more like, “You just had a good time, and you’re all worked up. Take +1 on your next roll because you’re feeling awesome.” Small, but mechanically significant effects like that.

    The sex moves add an interesting dynamic to the game. Between PCs, you can get important mechanical benefits from bedding down with another PC: +1 is a big deal to add to a roll, and so is improving your Hx (history) with somebody since it makes it easier to help or interfere with them, as well as gets you 1 XP out of the five you need to “level”.

    With NPCs, sex can be huge for getting leverage when playing the more social PC classes.

    Why the sex moves are interesting though, is that they are inherently complicating. If you do that just for the min-maxing bonuses, the MC is going to grin, remind you that your motorcycle gang leader Brimful has the hots for the other PC and is now coming for your blood with the full gang behind him, and then ask, “what do you do?”

    The game holds out a carrot and says, “Here’s this thing—comfort, companionship, release, whatever—this thing that’s not only scarce and valued for these poor suckers in this nasty world, but you can use it to game advantage too. Do you want to stir the hornet’s nest of your society for that, though?”

    The point of the sex moves isn’t *actually* to give the PCs more powers, but rather to hang a big sign on the fictional activity of sex and say, “If you do this in game, it will take a hammer to your status quo and ring it like a bell. This is a big deal socially. Everyone wants it, but nobody can get it without unexpected consequences.”

    (Except the Battlebabe of course, but that’s the whole point of the Battlebabe: untouched, untouchable.)

    So from a sociological perspective, yeah, the sex moves are interesting. They don’t fit into the game in the way they at first appear to.

  12. Hans Otterson says:

    Chatty DM–I really enjoyed your review. I’ve been having a great time with this game and it’s fun to see someone pick the thing apart after reading it. One small correction: the MC never rolls!

  13. @Vincent: Thanks for showing up. I really liked talking to you and I’m slowly working up my players to start a game this week.

    You have any tips for the first session? Flow with the obligations that come from the “holders” (Operator, Chopper, Hardholder, Hocus)? Go with questions? Use Future Badness for a demo “oh shit moment”?

    @d7: Thanks for the analysis and perspective. I’ll see if my players stumble upon this. I have one serious psyuchodramatist instgator that I know will LOVE this game and want to explore that. Much to the expected queasiness of my other, straighter Myers-Briggs Mastermind friends.

    @Hans: Welcome to the blog and thanks for confirming what I suspected but wasn’t quite sure! Stay tuned for my play report as I’ll be happy to have qualified fans help me learn from my experiences.

  14. Cool!

    My big recommendation for the first session: announce future badness and announce offscreen badness like CRAZY.

    I think you’ll be fine. The game’s easy, easy to run.

  15. Wyatt – Chatty already alluded to this, but there’s lots of great hacks that move the system to other settings and adapt it accordingly. I’ve had a lot of success with Tony Dowler’s Apocalypse D&D and turned it into my own Dungeon World: http://www.latorra.org/dungeon-world/

  16. “This is NOT Fallout the RPG.”

    This was a great review, but I’m not so sure about this line. I think this depends on what you got out of Fallout. A person who enjoys the games for the weapons, nifty power armor, and tactical combat is probably not going to get what he or she is after in Apocalypse World. On the other hand, a person into the games’ story and the interactions between the various factions might be really impressed with AW – I know I was.

Trackbacks

  1. […] – life is all scarcity and brutality, it makes for some harsh characters. I forgot to mention, Chatty DM has posted his thoughts on Apocalypse World recently if you're interested in taking a look from a d20 gamer's point of […]

  2. […] but as it turns out, my good friend the ChattyDM was hard at work right after Gen Con and posted a review of the game. I was going to post my own when I discovered something hidden under the surface of the […]

  3. […] few weeks ago, I reviewed Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World role playing game and found it very well written and intriguing enough to give it a few session’s worth […]