Catchy title, if not entirely accurate. You see, I want to ramble about Apocalypse World Engine games, but I haven’t actually played AW itself, only tremulus, its lovecraftian horror offspring. Still, I’m under the impression the games are mechanically similar enough (sharing the engine and whatnot) that this is a reasonable basis.
At its most basic, the mechanics of AWE can be described as “when you do something you may not succeed at, roll 2d6 plus an appropriate stat; on 10+ you do it, on 7-9 you’re going to have to compromise with the GM, and on 6- something interesting, usually bad, happens.” Player moves provide some constraints and mechanics for specific outcomes, and GM moves provide a slate of options to choose from. It’s not entirely accurate either, but we’ll keep this definition for now.
The issue many critics of the system have is that there’s no mechanical connection between what the PC do and what the GM can spring on them as the result of their failure. Something interesting happens. If a PC is trying to lock-pick a door into a seemingly abandoned mansion without being detected and rolls 6- on an Act Under Pressure roll, anything could occur. The lock could get jammed. A groundskeeper could come round a corner. Or a maniac swinging an axe. Or a distant wolf howl could send shivers down their spine. Or a bullet could hit them. Or… You get the idea. It should make sense, naturally, but that’s left entirely up to GM.
That’s not the way a straightforward game like D&D would handle it. In it, you fail – you do nothing. Maybe you get to try again, maybe something occurs to prevent you – but not because you made the roll. The same groundskeeper could show up. The same maniac, the same bullet. But not because of the roll. Even in games which embrace the “fail forward” ethos like Fate (and 7-9 is failing forward in AWE), the outcome of a failed Overcome roll like trying to open a door could be either simply failing or succeeding at a major cost. Such as “if you stick around long enough to get it right, you will be spotted by the groundskeeper whose footsteps you now hear.” It would be quite odd for a Fate GM to offer an axe-swinging maniac as the cost for success.
And this trips people up. Sometimes, it trips me up. I’m quite happy to see an axe-swinging maniac appear in a horror game, but why should my Reason stat impact the probability of it happening? How does failing to open a lock make the maniac come out? It’s entirely possible to avoid making such moves, to only have events occur that logically follow from the action itself, but the system doesn’t demand you do so, and I believe that’s purposeful.
That’s because AWE doesn’t have a task resolution system. It has a narrative rhythm system that masquerades as a task resolution system. It doesn’t tell you whether you succeed or fail, it tells you whether a good or a bad thing happens.
There are no difficulties in AWE, you always roll the same dice against the same numbers. There’s close to nothing players can do to stack the odds in their favor, they can only try and make some outcomes narratively inappropriate. Whatever PCs do, whatever happens, roughly the same proportion of good and bad/interesting outcomes will occur across every game.
But what about stats, you may ask, wouldn’t they affect this? And indeed they do. But once you start to consider AWE from this point of view, stats take on a different role too. Rather than helping or hindering characters in their tasks, they encourage players to match their actions to their characters’ capabilities. It’s not that having a low Reason score means you’re more likely to meet an axe maniac while you pick locks. It’s that you shouldn’t be trying to pick locks if you have low Reason. And if you’re desperate enough to try, the tension is already high and bad things will be happening to you. It’s narrative logic of tension and drama, not of skill and consequences.
We’ve started with a definition of the core mechanic of AWE, and I warned you it wasn’t quite right. That’s because you don’t roll dice when something may go wrong. You roll them when a move is triggered. The rules encourage you to not think of the moves or mechanics at all, until you need them. To never go “I use Act Under Pressure to pick the lock,” but “I pick the lock and, oh, looks like I’m Acting Under Pressure.” The rules act like an impartial observer, sometimes interfering to introduce a new direction in the story. In a way, AWE may work better if the players didn’t know the rules at all. Without the tangible link between lock-picking and axe-swinging maniacs, there’s no contradiction.
Is this the intended interpretation of the way the mechanics are meant to function? Probably not. But that’s what I get after squinting, turning my head just so, and staring at AWE for a while. The deeper, almost subconscious workings of the system. The narrative truth behind the mechanical lie. But perhaps we need the lie of actions and consequences to get us to follow along, to fool us into thinking we’re in control while the narrative rhythm does its thing behind the scenes.