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Apocalypse World RPG Review

Posted on May 20, 2011 by Flames


Available at the indie rpgs un-store

    While at PAX East this year, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a panel on developing independent RPGs. Vincent Baker was among the panelists, and I was incredibly excited to see the man who had created the well-known and critically acclaimed Dogs in the Vineyard. Immediately after the panel I went to his booth and saw that he had another game for sale, Apocalypse World. Its cover, featuring a nude, ambiguous form in a gas mask, haunched over and lit from behind, intrigued me– I had just finished my thesis on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and was on an apocalypse kick, so although I had gone to the booth expecting to pick up DitV, I came away with a game I hadn’t even heard of before.

    With Apocalypse World I didn’t really know what to expect. I admit, I don’t have very many systems under my belt– I’ve read far more games than I’ve actually played, and I don’t like to pass judgment on a system without actually playing it. But just from the get-go, Apocalypse World had a lot going for it.

    The first thing I noticed was the “playbooks” that come with Apocalypse World, its take on character sheets and possibly the coolest thing about the game overall. Since I bought Apocalypse World at a con, it came with the playbooks already printed and folded, though you can download and print them yourself at apocalypse-world.com. These playbooks are the heart of Apocalypse World. In any given game, only one player can take each character class, or playbook, though isn’t a problem as options are vast. In fact, it has the benefit of making each player at the table unique and valuable in their own ways, and making for seriously interesting parties. Players can be anything from a Chopper (a motorcycle gang leader), to a Battlebabe (a gorgeous and sexy fighter), to an Angel (the medic) or Brainer (a sort of weirded-out psychic). Players pick a playbook and then essentially just fill it out– everything needed for character creation is in any given playbook. Players just read it and circle/fill in the dots, and it’s as easy as that. But that’s not to say it’s restricting– there are dozens of combinations for any given playbook even at character creation, and tons of more options become available as your character levels up.

    The basic mechanic for the game is equally simple. Players have five attributes, and all of their moves correspond to one of these attributes rated -3 to +3. The attributes are “Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp, and Weird”, respectively. When any given move is made, the player rolls 2d6 and adds the values together along with the corresponding attribute score– the final sum being how well a particular action succeeds. Ten or more is typically excellent, 7-9 is good, and anything less is a miss or failure. The game gives options for what happens on any of the three different outcomes for any given move, so describing the outcome of any event isn’t hard for the “Master of Ceremonies” (the game’s Game Master).

    Likewise, the MC’s job is streamlined. MCs are given a list of moves to respond to the moves the players make– like trade harm for harm and separate them– as well as a list of imperatives, things the MC has to do over the course of the game like look NPCs through crosshairs, respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards, and barf forth apocalyptica. This sort of streamlining becomes interesting especially when it comes to describing the setting: the MC is encouraged not to come up with everything on their own, but instead to encourage the players to help by describing what they see, where they live, what the “psychic maelstrom” looks like– at which points the MC adds to it by barfing forth apocalyptica, essentially “making it the dangerous” and “adding dark, Apocalyptic details”. It’s an interesting direction to game mastering, and it works well, although it may not be for the novice GM.

    Additionally, this streamlining and sharing of world creation comes to a head when you consider this: there are really only two points to the setting of Apocalypse World. They are: “the apocalypse happened fifty years ago”, and “there is a psychic maelstrom”. I do not exaggerate when I say that those are the only two major pieces of setting information given in the book– the rest is all generated by the players and the MC, mostly over the course of the first session. This is an awesome approach to world creation, and the way it’s handled in the book makes it fairly easy and extremely interesting, though it can be a little hard to manage. Players can find it hard to accept that there is no explanation for things like “the world’s psychic maelstrom”. It’s there and it has reality-bending properties, but other than that every aspect of it– how it appears, what it looks like, how players interact with it– is generated by the players during play, and sometimes getting players to describe something that central to the setting can be a bit like pulling teeth.

    Where Apocalypse World may shine however, is in its overarching themes of survival and relationships. It is, perhaps most of all, a game about relationships. Players have a score, a stat called Hx (History), for every other player character indicating how well they know them– not necessarily how well they like them, how well they know them– and it changes during gameplay. Each time the score reaches 4, it resets to one, the player marks experience, and their relationship goes to the next level in whatever direction it’s going. Additionally, many of the character types have specific moves, their Special Move, that centers around having sex with other player characters. This, also, typically gives the player experience or increases their Hx score. These special moves were one of the first things I noticed when I first flipped through the book, and I admit to being a little wary when I saw it. Encouraging characters to have sexual relationships with one another? That may be asking for a bit more maturity than most gaming groups can provide. If you have a good group that’s role-play centric it shouldn’t be a problem and instead serve its purpose to the fullest, but it’s a function that– in the wrong hands– could easily generate a downward spiral of awkwardness. I know I was worried about it for my group, but– surprisingly– they handled it well, and with a level of maturity I had not expected. There were the jokes, of course, but in-game they kept it to a realistic level.

    Concerns over immaturity are helped out by the fact that sex is not the only way to gain experience and level up. At character creation, the players go around the table and each have two of their stats highlighted– first, by the player with the character who’s Hx is the highest with them, and second by the MC. Every time the player rolls one of those highlighted stats they gain experience and move one step closer to leveling up, and the highlighted stats can potentially be changed at the beginning of each session. Overall, these relationships between the characters make the game focus on interactions both social and physical, and make the characters feel more realistic.

    The game’s theme of survival comes out in the pure lethality of the game. There are dozens of threats in this game, all of which are pressing and threatening. Disease, brutes, dictators, cults, starvation– all of which and more could be encroaching upon the player characters at any given moment. The setting is as brutal as the MC and players make it, and they’re encouraged to make it very brutal. Combat is dangerous– especially for NPCs. If you fire a gun at someone, there’s little that needs to be rolled. All weapons have a “harm” value, which determines how much damage the weapon does for any given attack, minus any armor values. Notably, all characters have the same number of “hit points” in the form of a Cold War-esque countdown clock divided into six segments worth of damage. A shotgun that does 3-harm, for instance, would fill three segments to an unarmored opponent. That’s dangerous for a player character, and for an NPC it’s nearly a death sentence. Combat can be quick and brutal or drawn out and cinematic, but either way it’s lethal.

    Overall, Apocalypse World is a fantastic and innovative game. The entire game is self-contained in one book, but there are already communities gathering to trade limited-edition, pdf-released playbooks for different types of characters. The game runs for $28.00 + s&h out of Lumpley Games, and the price is well worth the game. In the two short sessions I ran, I had players who– normally morally upright, cautious and collected– found themselves running off the beaten path, guns ablazing, caring almost nothing for NPCs and instead looking out for their own interests. It’s a dark and dangerous game that promotes players to step out of their typical comfort zones and try something new, to throw themselves into the heart of danger and see how they make it out. If you’re tired of more “mainstream” gaming experiences, definitely check out Baker’s Apocalypse World– it’s worth it.

    Review by Zachary Woodard

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