The Genius of Apocalypse World- Part I

Apocalypse World is one of the most influential games to come out in a long time. It’s been commented frequently that hacking AW is the new d20. Perhaps not quite, but there’s a lot of AW hacks out there.


Why is Apocalypse World so awesome? There’s a couple of reasons. They aren’t all revolutionary (I think one of them is), any one of them in a game is enough to make it interesting, but the pieces coming together make a very awesome game.


These reasons are:

*The resolution mechanic is awesome.

*Character creation is really fun.

*The game tells you how to run it.

*The game encourages you to hack it.

*The move structure is a genius insight into how roleplaying games work.


Okay, part one: resolution mechanic.


The resolution mechanic is pretty simple. Roll 2d6 and add your stat. Note that the GM never tacks on modifiers- you can get mods from other, preestablished moves, but there’s no moment to moment “that’s a hard roll,” which means players can always expect the same level of competence. But more importantly, is what happens when you’ve got your result. You either have a failure (6 or less), a moderate success (7-9), a strong success (10+), or with the right advances, a critical success (12+).

All of these are interesting and fun results.


Too often, there are games where the result of a die roll is boring. There’s games with binary success/fail, where success gets stuff, but failure stalls the game. Fail the roll to find a clue or secret door? Guess you’re stuck. Failure often maintains the status quo, which is boring. All dice rolls should change the state of play. A failure in Apocalypse World is a license for the MC to screw with you, and always makes things more interesting.


The 7-9 level often involves some scarcity, choosing an option, or a less perfect version of total success- the iconic indie hard choice. The player has certainly succeeded, so they are better off than they were before, but they don’t always get everything they want, and often (depending on the move) there’s some price to their success.


On a 10+, awesomeness all around. You rock the house. Everyone loves being awesome. With the right character build, you can get this result a very high chunk of the time.


Why does this resonate with people? It’s fun. Every possible outcome of the dice makes the game more interesting, with hard choices, the play advancing, and no status quos.* Rolling the dice becomes exciting, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you get to engage positively with the system. Picking choices puts some of the power of resolution in the player’s hands.


Also, these decisions- the GM’s hard move on a failure, the hard choices and spending resources- these all happen after the roll. A criticism of explicit stakes systems- those where the consequences of failure or success are laid out before the roll- is that there’s too much ‘play before you play’ and that the aftermath of the roll is an afterthought. There’s none of that here. I don’t know if this was intentional on Vincent’s part, but thinking about it, the gameplay seems to flow much more naturally.


Even if one does not take the 2d6 Apocalypse World mechanic wholesale, the notion of the GM getting to make a hard move on a failure is pretty easy to understand and export- after all, haven’t some of us been doing that all along? This codifies it, and gives the GM guidelines for what’s fair and what’s not.


*There are a few weaknesses here. Help seems a little weak; I’ve seen several 7-9 help rolls go off that did not factor into the success or failure of the main action, and the MC didn’t apply any cost. Also, a huge fight, gang vs. gang, or a single badass person invading a stronghold can drag out, with many, many die rolls involved.

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One thought on “The Genius of Apocalypse World- Part I

  1. sabrecat says:

    Gotta second the bit about the portability of the ideas here. Some of the most annoying/frustrating features of traditional RPGs can be addressed or at least patched over by using “yes, but” or “hard move” outcomes on failures when, by the rules as written, it’d simply be “nothing happens.” For instance, in my nostalgic favorite, In Nomine, the skill check for spell-like powers called Songs was a real pain: if you miss your roll, you spend the Essence (mana) and nothing happens. A big bummer that encourages people to use only those Songs for which they’ve got min-maxed stats. If instead we presented a choice or a yes-but, they’d be much more playable: a miss could mean “you use the Song but generate more Symphonic disturbance than usual,” or “the miracle comes off but with an unexpected side-effect,” etc.

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