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Review: Apocalypse World

December 2nd, 2011

Apocalypse World - D. Vincent BakerApocalypse World is both a roleplaying game and a really intense primer on D. Vincent Baker’s approach to GMing a campaign. In fact, the primer is so intense that it’s been baked right into the ruleset at a really primal level.

First, it says this about what a roleplaying game is all about:

Roleplaying is a conversation. You and the other players go back and forth, talking about these fictional characters in their fictional circumstances doing whatever it is that they do. Like any conversation, you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns, right? Sometimes you talk over each other, interrupt, build on each others’ ideas, monopolize. All fine.

This is one of the better and most evocative explanations of how you play an RPG.

And then Baker tells you that the rules of Apocalypse World are going to “mediate the conversation”:

The particular things that make these rules kick in are called moves. The rule for moves is to do it, do it. In order for it to be a move and for the player to roll dice, the character has to do something that counts as that move; and whenever the character does something that counts as a move, it’s the move and the player rolls the dice.

Usually its unambiguous, but there are two ways that sometimes they don’t line up, and it’s your job as MC to deal with them.

First is when a player says only that her character makes a move, without having her character actually take any such action. For instance: “I go aggro on him.” Your answer should be “cool, what do you do?” “I seize the radio by force.” “Cool, what do you do?” “I try to seduce him.” “Cool, what do you do?”

Second is when a player has her character take action that counts as a move, but doesn’t realize it, or doesn’t intend it to be a move. For instance: “I shove him out of my way.” Your answer then should be “cool, you’re going aggro?” “I pout. ‘Well if you really don’t like me…'” “Cool, you’re trying to manipulate him?” “I squeeze way back between the tractor and the wall so they don’t see me.” “Cool, you’re acting under fire?” The rule for moves is if you do it, you do it, so make with the dice.”

This really got under my skin (in a good way) because it forced me to look at RPG mechanics from a fresh perspective. What Baker is describing is not radically different from the way I’ve always played RPGs: We have a conversation about the characters and the world they’re living in, and when it’s appropriate we interpret the actions of the characters mechanically and use the mechanics of the game to resolve the outcome of those actions.

But what Baker puts front and center is this: You play a game by making moves. And here are the moves that you can make in this game. Bam.


It’s a subtle shift in perspective. But where Apocalypse World really gets up in your face about it is when Baker gets to the rules for the Game Master (which Apocalypse World refers to as the Master of Ceremonies): He gives the MC a specific list of moves. And then he tells the MC that this is all he’s allowed to do.

Wait… what?

Yup. He gives you this list of moves:

  • Separate them
  • Capture someone
  • Put someone in a spot
  • Trade harm for harm (as established)
  • Announce off-screen badness
  • Announce future badness
  • Inflict harm (as established)
  • Take away their stuff
  • Make them buy
  • Activate their stuff’s downside
  • Tell them the possible consequences and ask
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
  • Turn their move back on them
  • Make a threat move (from one of your fronts)
  • After every move: “What do you do?”

And then he says, “Whenever there’s a pause in the conversation and everyone looks to you to say something, choose one of these things and say it. They aren’t technical terms or jargon: “announce future badness”, for instance, means think of something bad that’s probably going to happen in the future and announce it. “Make them buy” means the thing they want? They’re looking to you to tell them they can have it? If they want it, they have to buy it. And so on.”

If you’ve got a lot of experience GMing, this may prove tough for you. (Since it’s likely to be a departure from your normal methods of GMing.) It was tough for me. But I really, strongly encourage you to give it a try. Not because you need to completely change the way you normally GM (although you might end up doing that), but because this is what will make Apocalypse World sing for you.

In general, Baker is pushing two things here: First, make whatever the PCs are doing interesting. Second, use aggressive pacing.

In other words, don’t rush the players or cut them off. But if they’re trying to do something and need feedback from the game world to make it happen, then it’s the MC’s responsibility to make that feedback interesting. (They’re trying to sneak into a building? Put them on the spot. They’re trying to find directions to the Blue Lagoon? Make ’em buy.) And, similarly, if the players have run out of things they want to do (i.e., things they find interesting), then the MC’s job is to aggressively introduce something interesting (either by bringing something interesting onscreen or by fast-forwarding to the next interesting bit).

By limiting the MC’s input to this specific list of moves, Baker is not only making them explicitly another player at the table (with a specific role to play just like all the other players have their specific roles to play); he’s also forcing the MC to make PC actions interesting and to aggressively pace the session.

Baker also introduces a list of Principles which the MC is to follow, and which end up coloring how the MC uses their moves. Most of these Principles are rock solid GMing advice, but there are a couple key ones that factor heavily in understanding how Apocalypse World is supposed to be played:

  • Make your move, but never speak its name.
  • Make your move, but misdirect.
  • Look through crosshairs.

“Make your move, but never speak its name” is fundamentally similar to the guidelines Baker gives for player moves: You don’t take your moves in Apocalypse World by saying the name of the move; you describe what happens in the game world.

“Make your move, but misdirect” builds on this principle. The effect of the move doesn’t occur because you chose the move; the effect is caused by something in the game world. (For example, the MC may choose the move “separate them”. But as far as the players are concerned, their characters have been separated because the plane they were flying in has just been chopped in two and they’re stuck in opposite halves.)

“Look through the crosshairs” basically makes it clear that you need to keep the stakes high and the pace intense. As Baker describes it: “Whenever your attention lands on someone or something that you own — an NPC or a feature of the landscape, material or social — consider first killing it, overthrowing it, burning it down, blowing it up, or burying it in the poisoned ground. An individual NPC, a faction of NPCs, some arrangement between NPCs, even an entire rival holding and its NPC warlord: crosshairs. It’s one of the game’s slogans: There are no status quos in Apocalypse World.”


What really makes Apocalypse World tick, though, is that everything I’ve written here is a vast simplification. Or, rather, it’s merely the core of the game.

For example, every player will be playing a specific character type. And each character type has their own list of custom moves (expanding what they can do while also focusing their gameplay).

Similarly, the MC creates fronts (representing various forms of active and passive opposition in the game world). And each of these fronts, just like the character types, have their own custom moves which also expand the MC’s list of available moves at any given time (while also focusing gameplay).

There are rules for your crap, rules for crafting, rules for psychic brain-fuckery, rules for ruling settlements, rules for running gangs… Rules for all kinds of stuff. And it’s all evocative and provoking and awesome.

Baker says this towards the beginning:

The game takes quite a few sessions to play, so choose friends with space in their schedules for a commitment. I don’t figure it’s much of a game until 6 sessions, and it can go much longer.

And that’s pretty much true. It’s a fun little game for a one-shot; but it seems to be shaping up for a very slick campaign. (Although I’m less sure about “friends with space in their schedules for a commitment”. I think it might be interesting to let the game loose at an open table: Most of the characters are drifters anyway, so it shouldn’t be too hard to aggressively frame a given session so that it focuses on just the characters present.)

In case I’m being unclear: I’m saying you should check this one out. It’s one of the best bundles of GMing advice I’ve read in a long time, and it packs that advice right into a really intense (and really fun) game system.

Style: 5
Substance: 5



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