“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” ― H.P. Lovecraft
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
'Something's wrong with the world and I don't know what it is.'
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction have become more and more common these past years, and is generally a well-known genre. Things that come to mind are movies such as Mad Max and The Postman, as well as videogames like the Fallout series. The reasons for an apocalyptic world are numerous, ranging from some sort of nuclear war in The Book of Eli, to a zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead or an all-out alien invasion in Falling Skies. The genre allows for a wide variety of stories to be told; from survival to social interactions and how people deal with each other in this new world, to rebuilding or preserving a civilization.
The front cover of the digest-sized rulebook.
Apocalypse World is an independently published roleplaying game, created and published by D. Vincent Baker. He was previously known for the Dogs in the Vineyard game. The game is available as a 300-page digest sized softcover, or as a PDF. This PDF comes for free with purchase of the physical book, or can be purchased seperately, but it doesn't have any bookmarks or internal hyperlinks. It does come with a printer friendly version though, as well as with a seperate PDF with all the character playbooks, which makes printing and assembling them easy. The game can be purchased (along with Vincent Baker's other games) directly from here.
The cover art is in color, but all the interior art is black and white, and consists of stock photos that have been edited and photoshopped by Vincent Baker himself in a consistent style, which gives it all a very dramatic feel that is very cool and invokes the gritty atmosphere of the world that the players will be interacting with. The layout of the book is very crisp clean, and it feels professionally done.
The basics of the game
The game master in Apocalypse World is called the Master of Ceremonies, or the MC for short. The players will create characters using playbooks, which are sort of like classes. These playbooks are printed on one sheet, back and front, then folded in three to create a small booklet. The main rulebook comes with eleven different ones, but there have been many more published, both by Vincent Baker himself (also called the limited edition playbooks), as well as a whole slew of fan-created playbooks. In fact, if you purchase a physical copy of the book directly from Vincent (using the link above), you also get a PDF with an extra nine playbooks, called the Limited Edition playbooks.
The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world of some sort. The only thing that the book mentions about the actual apocalypse is that it happened fifty years ago, and that the oldest people might still have childhood memories about it. Another thing that is very lightly described is the psychic maelstrom, which can basically be anything the players want it to be. It probably has something to do with the apocalypse, but wether it was the cause of it or just an after-effect of it is completely left up to the people playing the game. After all, Apocalypse World is a storytelling game, where the players have a tremendous amount of freedom. Worldbuilding also happens in a collaborative effort.
Each character has five stats; Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp, and Weird. A sixth stat is called Hx, which is slightly different from the other ones. These stats range from -3 to +3, and are used when making "moves", which are basically what dice checks are called. There are several basic moves, a few peripheral ones, and a lot of unique ones in the various playbooks for the characters. Some examples of moves are going aggro, seducing or manipulating, reading a person, and opening your brain.
I mentioned that the sixth stat, Hx, is different from the others. Hx stands for history, and represents how well one character knows another character. Each character will have several numbers for this stat—one for each other player. They are rolled at times when these characters interact with each other, and form quite an important mechanical layer of the system. They also go up and down more frequently than the other stats, and at the end of the session, each player will pick another player who got to know their character a little better that session, and tell them to add +1 to the Hx for their character. Throughout the game, these interpersonal relationships will be very important to craft a compelling story.
The way that the moves in the game work is that the players have to say what they are doing, then roll the relevant stat the move is linked to. Rolls are always done by rolling two six-sided dice, and adding the stat modifier. A result of six or lower is a failure (also called a miss), and 7+ are successes, with a result of 7-9 being called a weak hit and 10+ called a strong hit. The difference between weak and strong hits are listed with each particular move. Failing a roll has consequences, which are either determined by the move made, or by the MC, who has special moves of his own that he can employ when a player misses a move. These are things like seperating the players, capturing someone, inflicting harm, or offering opportunities, with or without cost. An interesting aspect is that the GM never rolls dice. He just makes stuff happen, especially when the players miss rolls.
Something special that each character has is a sex move. Basically these are special effects that happen when two player characters have sex with each other. Most of the playbooks have unique effects, and depending on the playbook, it might also happen when they do an NPC, but usually it's only with a PC. This is pretty unique for a roleplaying game, and so this is probably also a good time to mention that the author doesn't shy away from harsh language—so if you're bothered by that fact, be aware that the game may not be for you. In my opinion, it fits quite well with the subject material, and helps to set the dangerous mood of the game.
Talking about dangerous—while Apocalypse World is not a game about combat, that doesn't mean it won't happen, of course. Combat situations in the game are quick, dirty, and deadly, at least for the NPCs. Damage inflicted by weaponry is static, meaning each weapon has an amount of harm it causes. Harm is suffered by filling in segments of a harm clock, and depending on how much harm you suffered it will either heal slowly, or get worse rapidly. That said, PCs are pretty robust, and don't die easily—the same can't be said for NPCs. For comparison, a PC that suffers six harm is dead, but can still be revived. For NPCs, two or three harm is often enough to kill them outright. PCs can also at a certain point avoid taking harm by choosing to take a debility, which are permanent reductions to a stat.
Character creation and the first session
For the first session of the game, the MC is explicitly told not to create anything yet that resembles a storyline or NPC characters. The first session will be mostly character creation, and some worldbuilding. The MC should ask a lot of questions about the world, and the players will basically just follow the characters around for a day, to get a feel for them and the world. This means game is definitely not suited for a one-shot session; the author specifically mentions this at the start of the book, and he even admits he doesn't consider it much of a game until six sessions.
An example of a character playbook, this one being the Angel from the main book.Character creation is very simple, a point proven by the fact that the character creation chapter in the book is only ten pages long. In fact, the MC can just hand out some playbooks, have the players choose which one they want, and sit back as they work through them, answering questions when the players ask them. Each player will need to pick a unique playbook—duplicates aren't allowed. The book gives a lot of really excellent advice for the MC, and one of the first things that he should press upon the players is that they should play their characters as if they're real people. They will be cool and dangerous, but also, and most importantly, very real.
When creating characters, the MC should be sure to tell the players that, at the very least, they know each other. They don't have to be friends, but they should be allies of some sort. They might not stay allies, but they shouldn't start out as enemies.
Players create their characters by picking things from the lists found in each playbook. This starts off with names, and then looks, which consist of several keywords. Next, they need to choose an array of stats. They then get all the basic moves, and based on the playbook, they usually get to pick some moves specific to their character. Gear is also dependent on (and usually, unique to) each playbook. When all this is done, people go around the table to introduce their character, and they need to list the other player's names on their playbook, after which they determine their Hx stat, based on what their playbook says.
Finally, the players who's character has the highest Hx on any other character's sheet will get to highlight one of their stats. The MC then highlights another stat for each character. These highlighted stats are one way for a player to earn experience.
In the main book, we get eleven character playbooks, which I'll discuss here in short.
Angel: If this was Dungeons & Dragons, the angel would be the healer. They're the ones that keep people alive, if stuff hits the fan, and they get special moves to heal people, as well as possible access to an infirmary.
Battlebabe: Good in battle, but also very social creatures, and very dangerous. What's funny is that the author mentions that battlebabes might be better at stirring up trouble than getting out of it, and that if a person wants to play the biggest badass, they should play a gunlugger.
Brainer: The freaky weird psychics of the world, brainers have an especially strong connection to the psychic maelstrom. They get moves that allow them to manipulate people's brains.
Chopper: These guys lead biker gangs. This means they have a lot of weight to throw around, and their gang can be used as a weapon. They always start with the same moves, but they get a bike.
Driver: Drivers get a car. This car will be awesome, but the disadvantage is that the character itself will be a lot less awesome when he isn't actually driving. They have moves that of course use their car, but they can also pick moves to get additional cars.
Gunlugger: The biggest and baddest of them all, gunluggers start off with several moves that makes them a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. They also get an impressive array of weaponry.
Hardholder: These are the guys that rule over a stronghold of some sort, as well as having a gang of their own that they're going to have to deal with. A game that has a hardholder is going to have a pretty immobile base of operations. Like the chopper, they always start with the same moves.
Hocus: The religious weirdos of the world, a hocus is sort of a cult leader with his own bunch of followers. They're good at dealing with mobs, since they get a lot of practice dealing with their cult.
Operator: This guy is the person cooking up odd jobs left and right, trying to keep his head above water. An operator has always got something to do, and his moves reflect that, with special ones that give him gigs and extra barter moves.
Savvyhead: When something breaks (and stuff will break), the savvyhead can fix it. He gets his own workspace, and moves like having things speak to him or just being there at the right moment and right time, with the right tools.
Skinner: The hot, sexy, social creatures of the world, skinners are artful and gracious, and get moves that make it very hard to ignore them.
All of these characters are very unique, and the player's choices of which ones to play will have a tremendous impact on the game. As I mentioned in the hardholder description, someone choosing that playbook immediately lets all the players know they will have some sort of steady base. If on the other hand there's a chopper or driver in the game, the dynamics and setting might completely change, and they might be more of a traveling convoy. Fun fact: nine of the eleven characters are actually based on Firefly characters. Bonus points if you can identify all of them!
Players get to improve their characters in various ways whenever they have marked their fifth experience. Experience is earned in a variety of ways, the first of these happens whenever a player rolls a highlighted stat. Wether or not the roll is successful doesn't matter. This urges players to make moves that make them roll those stats, and also gives them some way to influence what the other players want to roll by highlighting those particular stats.
A second way to earn experience is when Hx is reset when it reaches its maximum. Like with the other stats, Hx ranges from -3 to +3, so if Hx goes under or over that, it gets reset to -1 or +1, and the player marks experience. The last way is when a move tells you to.
Every playbook lists what improvements a character can get, and a lot of them are dependent on what playbook you're looking at. A few examples are +1 increases to stats, a new move from your playbook, or even a new move from a different playbook. Starting with a character's 6th improvement, they can get some new options, which are the same for all the playbooks (or at least, all the standard playbooks). These are; another chance at a +1 increase to a stat, retiring a character to safety, creating a second character to play, changing your character's class, and most interestingly of all, advancing moves. The basic moves can all be advanced with character improvements, which means they get a super special effect when the player hits it with a 12+ on their roll. The effects of these again depends on what move we're talking about.
Apocalypse World Engine
The Apocalypse World game has proven quite popular, and quite flexible. The author encourages the reader to create custom content for their games, such as custom moves. Many have heeded this call, and numerous custom character playbooks have been created as well, with people regularly trade these amongst each other. This has sparked the creation of several hacks of the original game, with several of them garnering a lot of popularity of their own, such as Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, and Monster of the Week. While I'm not very familiar with any of these, I am very interested in checking them out, due to the excellent game they were spawned from.
The final verdict
I will readily admit that Apocalypse World has a special place in my heart. Even though I have only played in two play-by-forum games that both did not last very long, the game has sparked something in my mind. I am intrigued with the potential in this little book, and it just oozes awesomeness. The layout, the art, the way it's written, it all just flows very nicely, and is an actual joy to read. The whole book really does wonders to evoke the subject matter, and the mechanics themselves are very ingenious as well. The highlighting of stats, the Hx stat, and the sex moves (which not all people may take a liking too), are quite ingenious, and written in such a way that they encourage the players to interact with each other in certain ways.
The book is also filled with a lot of really good advice and guidance, and the author takes a very no-nonsense and informal tone when adressing the reader. I even think that the book is a good read for any gamemaster, even if they never intend to play this game. The advice that Vincent Baker gives can be employed in a lot of games. For instance, he mentions that as a GM, you need to be a fan of the player characters, and you need to encourage them to describe their actions. Ask questions like what they're doing, have them fill in the world and you'll find out what they're excited about. Look at the characters they've created, and run with that, look for where they aren't in control and push in that spot.
He also gives advice on how to prep for sessions, which is something that is rarely discussed in rulebooks. The game comes with 1st session worksheets and sheets to create "fronts", which the author calls series of linked threats that can fuel your games, and he explains how to create them. These threats can take numerous forms, but again I will stress that this is not a game about combat. Apocalypse World is definitely not Fallout: The Roleplaying Game. It's about survival, roving a desolate landscape where food and water are scarce, it's about biker gangs and warlords in concrete compounds, and most importantly, it's about the player characters.
My advice to anyone who likes story games is to pick up this book, and read it. In fact, read it several times, do everything that Vincent Baker says, and play to find out what happens!
Note: Iron Reviewer 2013 - Entry #60
I turned Old & Chaotic Evil Bob to Lawful Good (for a day...)
I was introduced to Apocalypse World last year, and it completely changed my RPG paradigm.
NO accounting exercises on thirteen page character sheets! No more clunky rules that bog down the play! No mechanics that take the players out of the world as they deal with them!
I'm glad you found it, too!
I was introduced to Apocalypse World last year, and it completely changed my RPG paradigm....
Agreed on both counts -- very fine review! And I've mentioned on many threads how this game blew my little RPGing mind apart. In my estimation, it's the biggest act of genius in our hobby since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first hatched their little scheme...