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.


4 thoughts on “The Genius of Apocalypse World: Part III

  1. Doc says:

    I keep meaning to say: “Yes!” and since I’m thinking about this right now I might as well just comment instead of telling you what I think the next time I see you.
    I think describing how to GM as a list of moves and how the moves interact with player moves is the only innovative part of AW. But I can’t think of a single game where the ‘GM section’ describes how to GM as simply and as forthright as AW’s MC moves chapter. The MC moves definitely lean towards a specific style of GMing which seems uncomfortable for somebody like me, whose always read that the story is in the GM’s hands and the players are meant to go from point A to Z sometimes skipping around the alphabet. This seems okay though. I think the way AW describes putting power into an MC’s hands is probably a better way of learning how to GM then the way I learned with AD&D.

    • Willow says:

      So that approach you mention, where the GM has authored a story and then the players interact with it- I’m pretty much completely turned off by that style of play. I find the “play to find out what happens” style that you get from Apocalypse World and other games to be much more exciting and fun for everyone at the table. As MC, I do not know what is going to happen in a session, and that means I’m going to be as surprised as everyone else. I might have some ideas, and have some bad stuff waiting in the wings, but I don’t know what’s going to happen, where you’re going to push, or which rolls are going to fail and cause everything to spiral out of control.

      • Doc says:

        But, you do have your threats waiting in the wings and you know generally from what angles you’re going to push against us as well. Yes?

        I feel like “play to find out what happens” probably leaves a lot to player initiative. The players have to create goals for their characters to work towards. Threats (and how the MC moves can bring them into play) act as a sort of spark for lighting a fire under the players’ asses. I think it works really well as a guide for how to get things rolling and keep perilous acts in play, but just from reading the moves I do think it allows room for a GM’s story to lie underneath the threats.

  2. […] my GMing. (I’m roughly borrowing these phrases as they’re used in Apocalypse World; here’s a good overview of how Agenda and Principles guide the MC.) Hopefully this can be useful in your own […]

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