1/17/11 Apocalypse World Review-No fluff, no crunch, just the potential of the human race.

As one of the innovators of the whole Indie RPG movement, Vincent Baker of Lumpley Games has now released his version of a RPG where human survival is questioned in a destroyed Earth with the game Apocalypse World.  Within this desolate wasteland created by mankind’s arrogance, a new group of individuals who are besieged by a psychic maelstrom while trying to survive and build a new civilization; raise their malnourished hand and flip the bird to all those RPG corporate games.  There are no splat-books, booster pack cards, hard cover expansions, limited edition miniatures, nor anything purposely to squeeze your pocket books-good lord; you don’t need to buy special dice.  Apocalypse World defiantly asks “what the hell are you doing here?” and then makes a game out of it, all you have to do is bring 2d6 a pencil and all the creativity you can muster. 

The best way to describe Apocalypse World is “Ad hoc.”  There is a simple resolution mechanic where you roll two six-siders and add a single modifier, 7-9 means there is a partial success or a cost with full success, 10+ means full success and the “Master of Ceremonies” aka Game Master cannot mess with you.  The mechanic is straight forward, efficient, and has a wide range of applications; why add on to and complicate it?  Mr. Baker does not and that is where the genius shines through.  There are no complex stacking bonuses, changes in die types, added dice, nor inconsistencies, and the resolution is always two dice and a single modifier; instead Mr. Baker complicates what you can do.  Apocalypse World boils down what characters can do into “moves” and this is where you can add on to your range of abilities.  There are basic moves that all players can do.  There are class moves that only certain characters can do.  Experienced characters can gain other classes’ moves or widen their range within their field.  For those really experience characters, they can gain a boost to the result of a pre-existing move.  Additionally, every move is based on intention to move the story forward, adding onto the current situation.  If the player’s moves resolve things then it’s the MC’s moves that continue the story.  Sounds complicated, of course, most players want it that way. 

 The Soft Chew-Setting

The whole game book is written in flavor, but if you are looking forward to slowly digesting some original background concepts you are going to go hungry.  Mr. Baker directly tells you that he is not telling you anything- the group figures out where their characters are sleeping, along with how and why.  That’s right, no cannon or background-I cannot even tell you if the planet is a burnt charcoal or muddy wasteland.  That’s all up to the group playing.  However, there are three things about the setting that are given in the rules.  First, you are playing characters that are second generation after the apocalypse; so this is just how it’s been your whole life.  Second, the big end happened somewhat in our future, this explains some of the weird gizmos in the rules.  Third, there is this psychic maelstrom that is just outside of your vision that you can tap into to gain insight.  There is no explanation for why; things are just the way they are.

 Without the black and white fluff stating “elves hate dwarves,” you have to look at the nuances of the game system to really get an understanding of the setting.  Apocalypse World asks the question what it would be like to live in the savage remains of earth.  This world is not be about killing mutants and searching for awesome technology, but rather communities trying to survive and your relationships within them.  From this premise the game structure is created and inspires confrontation.  Characters can be cult leaders who naturally have followers, an alpha dog of a chopper gang, a warlord who controls a settlement.  These communities grant you special abilities; but also require some care and investment from the character you are playing.  Additionally, these groups are not isolated, the individuals NPCs can cross over and have various relationships with other groups.  Bob can be a follower and a member of a gang, whose girlfriend lives in the settlement.  All of a sudden, Bob loyalty is contested between the players.  If you don’t want to be a den mother, there are several other lone personalities; but they get extra stuff which requires additional needs outside the character, thus interactions with NPCs or players. 

 Another mechanic that places relationships at the front of this game is the history score.  Every character has a history score for every other character that is playing (not NPCs) this represents how well they understand and know them, not if you like or hate them.  This score is used to either aid or hinder other player’s moves.  Additionally, it is also used for advancing your character, the more you understand (increasing your score with a player) or completely misunderstand (dropping your score with another), gives you experience points.  Incentives to work those inter-party relationships.  Speaking of experience, the other method of gaining experience points is that another player and the MC each choose one stat from your sheet; every time you have a successful roll using either of those stats, you gain an experience point.  So, once again your advancement is affected by your relationship with other players.

 And then there are the sex moves

 Yes, there are sex moves.  No, they are not about the act, but rather the effects afterwards.  Each character gets special effects from sleeping with another player character.  At first this seemed rather disturbing; I don’t want to envision my players going at it.  But these effects are mostly relationship oriented and add a very realistic aspect to the setting.  You don’t have to give details and the focus is on the emotional aspect of sex.  Furthermore, you don’t have to make the game around just these rules.

The Crunchy Bits-system

There is not a lot of crunch to the system, I already explained the resolution mechanic; but Apocalypse World should not be considered “rules light.”  It is lighter that most games; such as D20, Heroes, or Mouse Guard; but it is not as simple as other indie games; such as My Life with Master, Zombie Cinema, or Kill Puppies for Satan.  Stats range from -3 to +3 and they are just modifiers to the die roll.  The system is really just a continuing expansion of the characters and what they are capable of.  What complicates the system is that the MC does not make any rolls; the story is all created from players rolls. The system generates the story based on action, reaction, consequences, and then reaction and so on.  Ad hoc.

 How is this done? By shifting character actions from the typical succeed /fail “check” to intention/purpose “moves.”  Players are not trying to roll an eight or higher to notice the pistol in some guys jacket, but instead they are rolling to read the situation and ask questions like, “who is the most dangerous person here?—well that guy who has a pistol hidden in his jacket, the other two guys look like they are about to bolt” It is a subtle difference, but the moves create a wider range of answers that adds to the story; rather than specific answers that are mostly yes/no.

 Let’s talk about the MC sections; it is not about crunch, but instead, play.  Apocalypse World has some of the best Game Mastering chapters out on the market.  The instruction for setting up a game is great.  Explaining how to MC during actual play is remarkable.   Mr. Baker takes the “social contract” that has been so well discussed over at The Forge forums and writes it into the game.  For many experience GMs much is already known, however, there are several things that are presented in a new light that you never really thought of in this way.  GMs are going to look at this and wish that they had something like it a dozen years ago when they started GMing.   Mr. Baker presents the overall agenda to playing the game.   He then outlines eleven general principles a MC should have while playing the game.  Lastly, he provides fifteen moves for the MC to use during the game.  These are the only moves the MC gets and they are great moves.  Naturally, they are all things that create and move the story forward.  Finally, there are examples galore, about a quarter of the book is examples of how the rules work, don’t work and correcting the calls.

For specific players

The Realist- “Making the game seem real” is listed first for the agenda; it’s top of the pops for this game.  The fact that every day in this world is about survival and the people who help or hinder you, makes every day to day things a potential story.  You want to role-play getting a new shirt, go ahead, a new shirt is going to cost and there are others competing for it.  

The Competitor- Most competitors are not going to enjoy the minimum crunch to this game.  The game is not about who has killed the most mutated rabbit or how to get the biggest bonus to the roll.  Rather off putting to many competitors.  However, the really competitive player will realize that much of the game is structured around the conflicts between players; what a better way to compete than going directly against a player.  Sure, you might not have a +10 machinegun; but everyone will know who the winner is when he is the one walking around in the new shirt at the end of a game.

The Novelist- Just like with the realist, every day is a story.  That story is led by the players not the MC.  The rules state that the MC is not supposed to have a pre-planned story, the game is all yours.  All the MC is meant to do is ask questions and wonder about stuff.  In this game your groups of players live the answers.  How cool is that.  Sure, you were not the one who started off wanting a new shirt, but you were the one to suggest which dickhead had it and why.  Then you were the only one who was instrumental in getting the new shirt, all the players had to deal with you.

In conclusion

Apocalypse World asks “what would it be like” from the setting and takes that answer, puts it at the core of the game system.  Then it strips down the conventional RPG to the abstract bare basics and uses those aspects to build upon the core, creating a wonderful unconventional game.  It has no fluff, it has no crunch.  It is a potential engine.  Potentially, a thousand different worlds can come from, never needing a supplement.  Potentially has all the right stuff for players to enjoy.  It potentially has a thousand stories.   After the fall of society, is our potential the only thing that will allow us to survive?

Explore posts in the same categories: Apocalypse World, Gamemaster, Table Top RPG

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