This post has been a long time coming. The first Powered by the Apocalypse game I’ve played was tremulus. While it was far from perfect, I still loved it and ran multiple mini-campaigns in it. A couple of one-shots of Dungeon World followed, and didn’t leave a strong impression. Despite theoretizing about it, I never got around to playing Apocalypse World itself. Post-apocalyptic dystotopias are not my thing, either aesthetically or ethically. More on that in a gratuitous personal aside, below. With the second edition of AW out, I thought it was a good time to finally try it. And, well. I love the AW campaign we’re currently playing. The rules? Hit and miss.
Apocalypse World 2e is a refined, definitive version of the game that spawned countless spinoffs. Chances are, since you’re reading an RPG blog you are invested enough in the hobby to know how AW works, but for the sake of completeness, here goes. Apocalypse World uses 2d6 + an appropriate stat rolls, which are exclusively done by players when they trigger so-called moves. They always follow the same logic: 10+ means you get what you wanted, 7-9 means you mostly get it but suffer some misfortune or complication as well, while 6- means the GM gets to make your life interesting. Moves further codify these results, offering ready options for the GM or player to choose from.
Another foundational element of AW is the way it formalizes the role of the GM (Master of Ceremonies, as the game refers to the role) – they get not just a list of principles to follow, but also a list of moves of their own. It covers most things you might do as an MC, though the rules don’t actually limit you to them. The MC is supposed to “make your move, but misdirect” and “make your move, but never speak its name”, two principles which demand we hide behind the fiction, pretending it wasn’t a bad roll that was the cause, and the consequences weren’t picked from a list. This is a tall order.
Something is supposed to happen when a roll doesn’t go the PCs’ way. That’s the promise of all the failing forward and yes-but games. And if it’s not immediately apparent what that would be, the illusion of fiction driving the game falters. The magician (hah) gets tangled up in all the invisible wires, calls for a pause and fumbles through the print out sheets looking for the list of threat moves. The not-quite-sewn-in-half PC lights up a cigarete. Dice sit in the middle of the table, glaring at the party with their snake eyes.
Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a roll in the first place. But I’m no longer a novice to this kind of games, not even a novice to PbtA, and these awkward pauses still happen almost every session. They’re not a disaster, just a regular reminder that narrative games are hard to grok. The best way to use the MC move list that I found was not to reference it in the middle of the game, but to reread it beforehand. That way, when a move is called for, at least some of the options come to mind.
MC moves are a slight of hand anyway. The MC is prompted to make one when a roll is failed, but also when the party looks at them awaiting input. That is, whenever they feel like they should say something – exactly like they would in any other game. The book offers guidance on when and how to use these moves, suggesting you limit yourself to setting up a future harder move and giving characters the opportunity to react until you get a golden opportunity handed to you. To this end, the recommended setup moves are “announce future badness” and “announce off-screen badness” – develop the situation futher until decisions are made, PC moves are triggered and dice come out. The golden opportunity mentioned previously is either a failed roll or something you’ve been setting up that comes together without interference. That’s when nastier moves come out.
To put this another way, the situation should gradually escalate until the PCs decide if they want to interfere, at which point they eat consequences of their choices and their rolls. That’s how games work in general. While there’s nothing groundbreaking about MC moves, they do drive the game forward. Every time there’s a lull in the action, the game says, don’t dawdle. There’s no “stop and smell the flowers” move. “Put someone in a spot”, instead. The MC moves list also effectively conveys the expectations of the setting, prompting you to do things you might not have considered otherwise. Warlords don’t just “make a show of force”, but can also “buy out someone’s allies.” Grotesques don’t simply “ruin something”, they “display the nature of the world they inhabit.”
Displaying the nature of the Apocalypse World is probably the game’s greatest strength. Everything is highly thematic, from principles and moves to playbooks. They all but scream at you: “hey, fucker, this is what you’re supposed to be doing, this is what AW is all about.” And yeah, there’s plenty of swearing in the book, certainly an unusual approach. Unusual, but thematic.
Going Aggro, one of the basic moves, is an interesting example of how AW reinforces its themes. You Go Aggro when you don’t just threaten someone, but fully intend to follow through with your threat. If you make the roll and the target chooses to force your hand and suck it up, you don’t have the option to reconsider. No dicking around, you said you were going to shoot them, BAM. It’s a harsh (apocalypse) world out there. Too harsh, perhaps, as my players frequently find they don’t actually want to use this move. Worse, this typically leads to a discussion of what they mean and if they’re prepared to follow through, which takes us out of a tense moment. They’re not the only ones who hesitate…
Gratuitous personal aside
I’m not a connoisseur of post-apocalyptic fiction, and I’m sure there exist counterexamples to this, but the one thing that always stood out to me is the utter hopelessness of it. The world is broken, most people are dead, and the best our heroes aspire to is growing their cabbages in peace, unbothered by warlords, zombies, etc.. The genre wallows in despair. That’s its point, to depict the collapse of society, to serve as a dire warning at best, and ridicule the very idea of cooperation in times of strife at worst. It shows protagonists struggle to survive this new savage existence with no time to dream of a better tomorrow. It is, in short, the opposite of what I’m interested in playing or writing about.
The setting of my own making, in which I ran multiple campaigns and based my to-be-finished-no-really novel is fantasy post-apocalypse, too. It gets bleak, and, I’m told, characteristically Russian. But the central premise of it is a simple promise: through hardships and sacrifice, you will leave this world a better place than when you found it. The stories I want to tell are about fighting for the future. Apocalypse World lost its past and is afraid to dream of the future.
As I was reading the rulebook, another personal issue became apparent. Life is worth very little in AW, that’s what the examples convey: “this guy is annoying so I’m gonna blow his head off.” It’s true to the source material. It works well with the whole irrevocable consequences thing. It also disturbs me, a feeling that’s been growing over the last few years. I’m fine with killing monsters in D&D. Even if they’re not mindless, they could be Evil, and that’s somehow good enough. But AW says: “make everyone human.” And humans are very rarely Evil, just fucked up.
These two objections are connected, of course. By killing someone, even someone evil, you deprive them of the possibility to be better in the future. To which AW would say: “fuck you and fuck your future.” While it’s just a game we play, and it lets us explore morality and worlds not our own, I still am revolted by this.
And so the damage inflicted by the loss of life has been the central theme of our game from the start, becoming more and more prominent as the campaign progresses. Hell, we held elections on this topic last week. I never explicitly told my players this, as that would diminish the point – more than anything in this game, I wish their characters would decide killing others, while a convenient solution, is not a good way forward. So far, they haven’t, and after each session they’ve thoroughly enjoyed I feel like I’ve failed. But that’s my problem, not theirs, and not AW’s.
Welp, this got long. As you were.
Where were we? Ah, yes. Setting expectations. In a game that tries its hardest to emulate the entire genre of post-apocalyptic stories, the psychic maelstrom stands out as something uniquely its own. And it’s cool, don’t get me wrong, a malevolent weirdness that permeates the world it broke. I find it strange, however, that it’s the one worldbuilding element that we are saddled with. Everything else largely depends on our setup and the playbooks players choose. But even if we don’t pick any of the pseudo-psychic playbooks, the maelstrom will still be there, a part of the core rules. And it worked out perfectly well for us, the apocalypse in our game was caused by the nanobot swarm gone mad, so the psychic maelstrom is the distributed consciousness of the swarm. But would it be a good fit for a Mad Max-ian game? No idea.
A different kind of strangeness is to do with the choices offered by some of the playbooks. The game is all about living in a struggling community. Players get gangs, followers, radio towers. Responsibilities and ties to others. Things to want, things to lose. And then there are playbooks like Battlebabe and Gunlugger, that simply don’t give a shit. And while others are immediately embroiled in conflicts and intrigues their playbook has thrust upon them, the antisocial characters have to be additionally prodded until they get involved. On the one hand, that’s appropriate. On the other, even the antisocial archetypes have social ties. Those they’ve killed or screwed over, those they try to protect or avoid.
Your Gunluggers is Not To Be Fucked With? Great, what’s the name of the gang that’s last tried to fuck with him and has retreated to lick their wounds? That’s the kind of questions I expected all the playbooks to pose, creating the world by the time players are done making characters. Not including these hooks in all playbooks feels like a missed opportunity.
AW does a great job reinforcing, over and over, how dangerous and volatile it’s meant to be. There is not status quo, the book says. Everything and everyone is a threat. There’s even a Threat Map to arrange these threats, though I didn’t find it very useful. The threat types (each comes with its own set of moves) didn’t always fit the actual NPCs, either, but they did give me a few ideas I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Overall, preparing for the game felt like setting up dominoes, some waiting for PCs to knock on them, others already falling. Another mantra – don’t prepare future scenes, play to find out what happens. Which meant that once I knew where all the “dominoes” were, I could just show up to the game session – a strange feeling, and not necessarily a good one. It’s one thing to relinquish control over the narrative and let things develop. It’s another to find out things aren’t actually developing because PCs decided the falling dominoes weren’t a big deal, and don’t particularly want to knock over others. The first two or three sessions we had have been somewhat slow. Thankfully, there’s enough chaos, ambition, and threats in the mix that it’s no longer an issue.
The game engine contributes to this chaos. Nothing is ever guaranteed, moves snowball, things escalate. A bad roll leads to more rolls leads to carnage. If preparing for the game is akin to setting up dominoes, the rules make sure they’re set up on a minefield.
Lifestyle costs are meant to help get things moving by exerting a constant pressure on the PCs: hustle, or starve. Take gigs, interact with the settlement. Great! Except once the things are in motion and dominoes are falling left and right, doing gigs is no longer interesting to the players, and looking for sources of income becomes a drag. I could have insisted on this rule, and we would have had a different, more desperate kind of game. Instead, we’ve agreed to mostly ignore it after a while.
Turns out, PCs, at least mine, are all too eager to run around talking to NPCs and one another. Half the time, I’d just kick back and observe them. And, with 5 players in the group, so would the 3-4 not currently involved in the dialogue. While I as MC can just enjoy the drama I helped create, participate as NPCs or plot ahead, inactive players just get to be passive observers – a less than ideal situation. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend AW to groups larger than 4 players.
Another issue, and the biggest one I have with the mechanics, is the way armor negates combat. The game is centered on consequences and tough choices. Whatever unique moves you have, if you fail your roll, expect the worst. Except if you’re a combat monster in heavy armor (or an almost naked Battlebabe). The brutality of the main combat move, Seize by Force, which says you exchange harm once you’re in a fight, clashes with the guaranteed ability to ignore it. A bog-standard jerk armed with a bog-standard 2-harm handgun literally can’t do anything against a character wearing 2 armor.
Well, that’s not entirely true. By the rules, the MC can choose to say the player Suffered Harm even if it was 0, and so has to roll the corresponding move, which does have potential consequences. Still, that’s asking for a second unlikely roll after the first unlikely roll, just to have something happen, it’s somewhat obfuscated, and feels like picking on the character. Interestingly, Seize By Force doesn’t even have an option for a MC move on a miss, something that I think would have alleviated the problem.
If you got this far, you can see there are plenty of issues I have with AW, plenty of things I wish it had done differently, plenty of things that didn’t quite work for us. Despite these quibbles, the AW campaign we’re still playing is, in some ways, unlike anything we’ve done before. The rules fade into the background – just like they’re meant to. The principles hide in the back of the mind. At the forefront is the game world they help create. Messed up, farcical going on tragic, in-your-face, intimate. Apocalypse World.
What do you do?