Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Genius of Apocalypse World: Part III

So Apocalypse World tells you how to run it. Is this innovative? Don’t all games tell you how to run them?


Actually, no. For many, if not most games, the gm advice is woefully inadequate, and often contradictory. (Any edition of D&D, and any White Wolf game, I’m looking at you in particular.) Where the is GM advice, it often takes the form of long, winding suggestions about theme and tone, without giving the GM actual concrete tools. Some GM advice is also actively harmful towards cultivating a fun play environment.


The MC advice for Apocalypse World is short and sweet, and tells you exactly how to play. Follow these rules, and you’ll run the game correctly, and it will kick ass.


First, you’ve got the Agenda. This tells you why you’re playing:


*Make Apocalypse World Seem Real.

*Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring.

*Play to find out what happens.


Between these three sentences, you already know a lot about your roles. Verisimilitude is important. Interesting things should happen. And no, it’s not all about your story, or anyone’s story, really. Uncertainty in outcomes is not okay, its desirable, a goal unto itself.


Then you’ve got the Always Say rules, telling you what the players can reasonably expect from you”


Always Say:

*What the Principles Demand

*What the Rules Demand

*What your Prep Demands

*What Honesty Demands


This means that the Principles are rules, that you have to follow the outcomes of the dice, that your notes are fair game, and you cannot lie to the players. It goes further on to encourage you to be generous with the truth and information. (Secrets are there to be discovered.)


And then the meaty Principles (with some short notes on purpose)


*Barf Forth Apocalyptica (gritty, dirty verisimilitude)

*Address Yourself to the Characters, not the Players (immersion)

*Make your Move, but Misdirect (immersion)

*Make your Move, but Never Speak Its Name (immersion)

*Look through Crosshairs (be willing to destroy your own stuff)

*Name everyone, make everyone human (no cartoon villains or monsters, everyone’s sympathetic)

*Ask provocative questions and build on the answers (involve the players in worldbuilding)

*Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards. (fuckery in this case means to put your own stamp on things, to take what the players give you and twist it and build on it)

*Be a fan of the players’ characters. (This is such an important rule. I want to see them suffer, but succeed.)

*Think offscreen too. (World building, verisimilitude, future threats)

*Sometimes, disclaim decision making (play to find out what happens).


Then the MC has a list of moves, things that you get to do when the players fail a roll or its naturally your turn to do something. Unlike the players’ moves, these are all narrative concepts, like “Offer an opportunity, with or without cost,” or “Announce future badness.”


These are a little more interesting, and I found them a little funny to grasp at first, because up until now, a move has been a player driven roll the dice thing that interfaces with the rules. But the MC moves are all about the rules-narrative feedback loop (what Vincent calls clouds and boxes).


I’m going to digress here. All rpgs consist of three separate spaces (these are my own terms): the Game-rules space, which includes things like position on a battlemap, hit points remaining, relationship traits, if your game has them, and in game spendable resources (like wealth points or gold coins, in games where shopping matters), the Narrative-space, which includes things like Narrative positioning (“Keeler’s got the high ground, what do you do?”), fictional descriptions of things (“that wound is gushing out blood”), how characters actually feel about each other, and in-setting spendable resources (wealth if your game doesn’t have shopping rules). Then there’s the Meta-space, which includes things like the relationships and drama between the players, the actual physical setting that the game is played in, and the physical components used to play the games (minis, maps, dice, character sheets).


All roleplaying is a function of feedback loops between these three realms. Something that happens in one realm changes the others. The object of roleplaying games is to use the Rules and Narrative to provide enjoyment on the Meta level.


Roleplaying games focus on the feedback loop between Rules and Narrative. What the mechanics accomplish (in apocalypse world, your PC moves) have narrative consequences. The players push on the game largely with mechanics. The MC pushes back with the narrative.


What I think is revolutionary about this is how its encoded in the rules: this is what you do and how you do it. I’m sure this is a functional model of play that’s been done before (doubtlessly by Vincent), but I haven’t seen to many games that champion it. Here, in Apocalypse World, Vincent tells the MC- your job is to wrangle the narrative, and tell the players what’s going on. Play the world. Let them come in with their mechanics, their tools, and try to put their stamp on it. You react with honesty. Let’s play to find out what happens.


The Genius of Apocalypse World Part II: Character Creation is Fun

Why is character creation in Apocalypse World so enjoyable? When I started up a recent AW campaign, one of the players said they could just make characters and have a great time with it. Now I’m the type of person who likes making characters, but I agree, there’s something that makes character creation jump out at people. And that’s the Playbooks.

A Playbook in Apocalypse World is like a Class, but really so much more. What’s the difference?

In a game like Dungeons and Dragons, which is explicitly class based, or White Wolf (where your different splats are effectively classes), your class tells you what you can do, and what play options you get. Often your Class intersects with another gameplay option, to allow for character differentiation (in D&D it’s mostly Race-Class combos, in something like WoD its usually your skill choices.)

In Apocalypse World, your playbook is more than that. In addition to including a mechanical role, if often implies a narrative role. (The Hardholder is in charge, the Battlebabe causes trouble, the Angel provides support). So the mental footprint of the playbook is larger than a class. This is accomplished with the flavor of the name and look lists, and the inspiration provided by the quotation. Picking a playbook gets you into a mindset to act as that playbook.

More importantly, all the character creation rules are in your playbook printout. It’s everyone’s own little character creation menu, oozing with fun options, that they don’t need to flip through or pass around the table. This is key. Think of how many games where you have to pass the book around and flip through to find different things- in a recent game, we had stats, occupations, class abilities, and equipment. Crunchier games might have feats/special powers, skills, magic spells, and all sorts of thtings to look up. With only one or two books, this can get quite cumbersome.

Finally, one of the precepts for the GM of Apocalypse World is Ask Questions like crazy. Character creation has built-in setting and situation creation baked into it. Assigning Hx values will introduce both relationships between the characters, and a backdrop for those relationships.

For example, in my recent game, the Driver assigned a high Hx to the Brainer, because he had to trust the Brainer at one point with driving his car when things went to hell. I asked where that was and what happened, and the town of White Church was born.

Asking questions like ‘where did you get that,’ ‘why did that happen,’ ‘who do you work for,’ and others put world creation on the shoulders of the players. Part of this takes the initiative of the MC to work, but many of the playbooks have wonderfully strange and evocative bits in them that scream at the players to figure out how they came to pass.

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