First released in 2010 (and with a revised second edition released in 2016), D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World took the world of role-playing games by storm. In many ways, it was the culmination of years of discussions by Baker and other notable game design luminaries like Ron Edwards (Sorcerer) and Luke Crane (Burning Wheel) on “the Forge,” a website devoted to game theory. It was ground-breaking in how it clearly and explicitly it turned many of the notions of “traditional” RPGs on their heads. Apocalypse World spawned an outpouring of adaptations (or “hacks”) of its basic mechanics by other designers—so much so that “Powered by the Apocalypse” has come to represent an entire role-playing game genre in its own right.
What Makes Apocalypse World Different?
In order to answer this question, let me first give you a little background on my own gaming experiences. Like many of my generation, I started playing red-box Basic Dungeons & Dragons in 4th grade in the early 1980s, eventually “graduating” up to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in middle school. That era was a magical time for RPGs, and we played scads of them; Star Frontiers, Top Secret, GURPS, Gamma World, Villains & Vigilantes, Mechwarrior, Twilight 2000—we couldn’t get enough. By the time I entered college in the early 1990s, we were on to Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, Rifts, Vampire: the Masquerade, Mage: the Ascension, and a ton of other stuff that I only dimly remember. By the early 2000s, many of the games put out by the bigger publishing companies were getting pretty long-in-the-tooth and there wasn’t a lot of innovation outside just putting out the next setting location sourcebook or adventure module. However you were starting to see a lot more independent offerings. We dabbled in Burning Wheel, and I had a friend who was always pushing us to try more fringe stuff like Dogs in the Vineyard (one of Vincent Baker’s earlier games).
It was during this time that a lot of introspection was being done by these independent game designers to examine some of the hard questions about why people play games, what they’re looking to get out of them, and how the mechanics could be created to really deliver on those drives. This is where I first heard people talking about “story-based games.”
Now at some level, most RPGs involve telling a story about the players’ characters. You are, after all, playing a role in a narrative you and your friends are essentially writing as you go, creating a story and using the dice to add unpredictability. But when people talk about “story-based games,” they don’t mean the underlying themes of the activity of RPGs in general, they mean the goal of the game mechanics themselves. In most traditional RPGs, the rules exist to enforce the verisimilitude of the setting. They provide the setting’s “physics engine” and serve to bound the players’ understanding of what is probable or possible. If your character has a high Strength rating, for instance, it stands to reason that he or she is good at doing things that require physical strength: carrying heavy objects, bashing down obstacles, punching people really hard, and so on. A character who has a lesser Strength score will be less adept at doing these things. These games live and die by applying situational modifiers and calculating degrees of difficulty and success to varying levels of granularity.
Here we find the first important change made by story-based games in general and Apocalypse World in particular: the rules DO NOT in any way model “reality.” Instead, the game’s mechanics concern themselves not with degrees of difficulty or margins of success, but rather with giving everyone involved some sense of where the story should go from here. Or put another way, the game’s mechanics don’t dwell on calculating the chances of success or failure, but on determining the consequences of success or failure.
Take a minute to let that sink in, because if you’re coming from a game like D&D or Pathfinder, it is paradigmatically different.
As an example, consider a dungeon-delving adventurer who is confronted by a crevasse in her path. In D&D, the player’s first question might be, “How wide is the crevasse?” which the GM will answer with a definite distance in feet or meters or hexes or grid squares or whatever. This in turn might lead to some calculations of her Strength or Dexterity along with some rules formula that indicates how far she can jump and what her chances are of clearing the obstacle. Informed by this knowledge, the character’s player will opt to try (or not) and dice will be rolled. If she makes it, great. If she doesn’t she’ll likely take some falling damage, as she has failed to clear the gap.
In Apocalypse World, the answer to “How wide is the crevasse?” is much fuzzier, more along the lines of “You think if you get a running start, you might just make it.” What this is communicating to the player is that there is risk involved with this action, and that the consequences of success or failure are the interesting part of the story. As I’ll explain in a bit, the dice roll will not determine what happens, but will inform what happens because you did that.
How Does Apocalypse World Work?
The resolution mechanics of Apocalypse World are alarmingly simple: you roll 2D6 and add the appropriate Attribute. Each PC has five primary attributes (Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp, and Weird) and another (History, or simply Hx) that indicates how well the PCs know each other (which is used when a character helps or interferes with another’s action). And here too it’s worth noting that these attributes are not measuring physical quantities; Hard is the attribute that is most often used in combat, but it is less of an indication of how strong or fast you are and more of an assessment of how likely you are to be able to look man square in the eyes and make the conscious decision to end his life. Hot isn’t necessarily how good looking you are, but has everything to do with your personal magnetism, glibness, and persuasiveness. And Weird, well, that one’s pretty self-explanatory. The attributes say things about your character’s personality, not their physiology.
Once you’ve rolled your 2D6 and added your attribute value (which can range from -2 to +3), you compare it to the following scale: on a 10+, you do what you wanted without cost or complication. A 7-9 is a partial success, meaning you might not get all of what you wanted or if you do you’ll suffer some complication or consequence in the process. And on a 6 or less, you have not only failed to do what you wanted but the consequences will likely be more serious.
Combined with this easy resolution mechanic is the concept of “moves,” which in a more traditional RPG might be labeled as “actions” or the like. But there’s another key difference here, which is that moves have both an effect (i.e. what happens once the dice are rolled) and a trigger (i.e. the conditions you have to meet in order to make the move in the first place). For instance, “When you read a person in a charged interaction, roll+sharp.” This seems easy on its face, but is more nuanced under the hood. “Read a person” is the move that lets you do super useful stuff like discern another character’s motivations or whether they are lying to you, but if the situation isn’t “charged” then the move doesn’t trigger and you don’t make the roll.
This gets to one of the most important underlying narrative aspects of Apocalypse World, the concept of “to do it, do it.” Put simply, if you want make a particular move and have your character do something that involves dice, you must narrate them doing it. And conversely, if you narrate your character doing something that can reasonably be interpreted as a move’s trigger, expect the GM to call for a roll of the dice. It’s not enough to say, “I go aggro on this dude.” But if instead you say, “I put the barrel of my Magnum against his forehead and say, ‘give me the diamonds, I will not ask again'” then you have triggered the go aggro move, dice are going to hit the table, and consequences are going to shake out based on the results of that roll.
This linkage between the fiction (i.e. what is happening in the game world) and the triggers of the moves (i.e. when the game’s mechanics are engaged) may seem like a distinction without a difference in traditional RPGs, but is crucially important in Apocalypse World because the GM never rolls dice. Like ever. The GM’s entire focus in the game is in deciding whether or not a character’s in-game actions trigger a move (and what move is triggered) and interpreting the result of the roll to translate it into consequences that propel the story forward. That means that a large portion of the misfortune that befalls your character is as a result of your own actions. And you might be thinking, “Well, if I never roll dice I can never fail and bad things will never happen to me! Checkmate, evil game master!” But all the fun stuff you’re going to want your character to do is going to trigger moves, which means dice are going to get rolled. And of course you can’t generate those sweet, sweet experience points without rolling dice.
Let’s go back to our crevasse example: our adventurer knows that there is some risk associated with leaping across, and the move that governs this sort of thing is act under fire (which is a roll+Cool). If the adventurer rolls and gets a 10+, no worries – she makes it across without an issue. If she rolls a 7-9, the GM will offer her “a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice.” So maybe the gap is wider than it looks and she doesn’t quite make it, being left hanging on the other side. Needing both hands to hang on and pull herself up to safety, she drops the gun/knife/sword/lute she was holding. She got what she wanted (to get across the crevasse) but it cost her something – pretty much the definition of a “hard bargain.” And if she rolls a 6 or less, well, this is the GM’s chance to throw in a more dire consequence. This could be something as simple as falling damage like in the traditional RPG case, but a better consequence might be far more interesting – the GM might narrate that the character cleared the gap, but the act of pushing off from the side she leapt from caused the edge to crumble and fall away, widening the crevasse such that jumping it is no longer possible for her remaining party members. They need to find another way around, and she is now on her own. Here the GM actually let her succeed on a failed roll, but made the consequences suitably dire as a result – an interesting turn of events indeed!
Using the mechanics to propel the story like this—as a set of prompts that explicitly encourage the GM to complicate the PCs’ lives—means a faster pace to the game. One of the subtle aspects of Apocalypse World is that there are very few inconsequential rolls. You know all those times you rolled to-hit but didn’t exceed the monster’s Armor Class? Or all those times you failed to pick the lock and had to roll again? Like maybe more than once? Yeah, that stuff never happens in Apocalypse World. Every roll is going to have some consequence – you’re either going to do something important (in whole or in part) and/or suffer some complication or consequence. Every time.
“I do it again” is pretty much never the answer in Apocalypse World, because the fictional situation will and should fundamentally change as a result of the roll. It’s not a question of “how many rolls will it take me to pick this lock?” but rather “I know my character is good enough to pick this lock eventually—but can I do it before the guards come back?” If the character fails the roll, it’s not because they aren’t capable of picking the lock but rather because they’ve been spotted by the guards and now something else is happening (like running or fighting). If there are no guards and the character has an unlimited amount of time to work, then there’s nothing at stake. There’s no danger, no “fire” under which the character is acting and thus no move will trigger, in which case the GM should just say, “Yeah, you pick the lock and steal through the door, no worries.” It’s not until the consequences of success or failure are important to the narrative that the dice mechanics ever come into play – again because the mechanics don’t represent the physics, they represent the story.
One of the things that is bound up in all of this is that it allows the game master to change the scope of a particular move on the fly as best fits the needs of the story. A battle where you carve your way through a horde of goons might be “zoomed out” in terms of the narration and handled with a single roll and some exposition, but the boss fight against your sworn nemesis is going to be much more “zoomed in” and granular in the actions that the PCs undertake. This kind of flexibility is a great tool for keeping the action moving and concentrating the session time on stuff the players find interesting and compelling.
The Role of the MC
In the parlance of Apocalypse World, the GM is called “the MC,” as in the Master of Ceremonies. While this might at first seem like just another kitschy alternate name for the game master, its use is intentional. In a TV game show or improv comedy night, the MC is the person who facilitates the action, who sets the pace, who smooths the transition between acts, who makes sure everyone gets their turn in the spotlight. It is explicitly NOT an adversarial relationship, and the MC is very much working with the players to tell awesome stories about cool characters.
One of the things that really distinguishes Apocalypse World’s MC from the GM role of more traditional tabletop RPGs is the explicit and conscious level of “GM Fiat” that is not obfuscated in the way it is in a game like D&D. More traditional RPGs put the GM fiat before the dice rolls – deciding how many of what monsters the PCs will face, or how wide the crevasse is, or what difficulty the lock is, or what spells the evil wizard antagonist can cast at the party. Once the GM has decided that you’re going to be facing a trio of trolls, the rest of the encounter plays out “by the rules.” And if you all die in the battle, well, the GM can just claim the dice went against you and hide their decision—their fiat—to throw trolls at you in the first place behind the game’s mechanics. Apocalypse World explicitly puts the game master’s decisions after the roll, meaning that the arbitrary decisions the MC is making are in coming up with consequences that fit the result of the roll.
Both methods put a lot of arbitrary decision-making power in the hands of the game master, but Apocalypse World is very good about circumscribing the MC’s fiat with rules and principles that simultaneously both enable creativity and limit abuse. In fact, the 16-pages of the Master of Ceremonies chapter in the Apocalypse World rulebook is some of the most insightful, articulate, cogent, and concisely-written advice for game masters in any RPG I’ve ever read. It should be required reading not just for anyone who wants to run an Apocalypse World style game, but wants to run a TTRPG in general. The simple MC agenda of “make the characters’ lives not boring” is hugely important, and “play to find out” is an excellent admonition against railroading your characters on a pre-defined “plot.” The clearly-articulated principle of “make your move but never speak its name” is excellent advice for couching your actions and decisions as game master in the fiction, providing immersiveness and maintaining the illusion that engenders suspension of disbelief.
Similarly, the section on the MC’s moves isn’t terribly earth-shattering in the sense that it’s probably stuff you were going to do to complicate your players’ lives anyway, but the way it outlines how the MC moves can be used outside the context of immediate consequences is insightful and instructive. From a narrative, story-based perspective, being given explicit permission/advice to “capture someone” not as the consequence of a roll but as a story prompt is amazing; “You wake up in a coffin-sized wooden box, with no clear memory of how you got there. You can tell by the way the box shakes from side to side and the sound of a horse’s hooves on cobblestone that the box is likely in some kind of coach or wagon. What do you do?” You don’t need to have all of the PCs make Perception Checks to spot the drug in their food, or make Saving Throws to resist it, or argue with the dwarf’s player that his physiology is sufficiently different that drugs like this don’t affect him—you can just start the next chapter of the story in media res and pick up from the important part of the action—the escape! You are making an arbitrary decision (the PCs get drugged and captured) without having to resort to a bunch of rolls (the difficulty levels of which would have been arbitrary anyway in a traditional RPG). Shit, that’s good!
I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the biggest potential downside here, which is that this style of running a game places a heavy emphasis on improvisational skills. Whereas the GM of a more traditional tabletop RPG can make his or her arbitrary decisions as part of the prep – designing the encounter, populating the dungeon, setting the Challenge Ratings, statting out the NPC enemies, etc – the nature of the post-roll decision-making process on the part of the MC means that he or she is constantly having to improvise. Of course the flip side of this is that you spend almost no time doing prep work, but a lot of game masters find this approach stressful. And it might not be for you, but I can say that like anything else, it gets easier the more you do it. The MC chapter also has some helpful hints and tips to ease the transition, and just having the list of MC moves in front of you when you’re considering an appropriate consequence is hugely helpful if you’re just starting out.
So What’s the Upside?
As I mentioned, the important benefits of the MC’s tools to keep up the pace and the lack of inconsequential rolls are that things happen quickly in Apocalypse World. I have a full time job, a house, and kids, so my gaming time is at a premium. And while as a college student I had ridiculous quantities of time to really min-max the hell out of crunchy game systems that took forever to resolve combat, I just don’t have that kind of time now. I want a game that is going to deliver action right now and where we can get straight to the business of having awesome characters do cool stuff without the entire session grinding to a halt every time guns or swords come out. I’ve played Phoenix Command, for gods’ sakes, so I know that of which I speak. But in Apocalypse World, the pace is snappy and the move structure naturally pushes the game towards concentrating on the stuff that matters to the story and cutting out the stuff that doesn’t. Apocalypse World has only the most abstract resource management for instance, and while some players of other TTRPGs might love tracking their characters’ inventory in loving detail, the action of The Lord of the Rings never turned on whether Aragorn had packed enough iron spikes or thought to bring his ten-foot pole.
The other thing that Apocalypse World offers in spades is “niche protection.” That is, each character archetype is only represented by a single player. Multiple PCs might lug guns around, but only one of them is “The Gunlugger.” The Gunlugger is the baddest motherfucker in the valley, and when it comes to murdering the hell out of people, he does it better than everyone else. Nobody messes with peoples’ heads like “The Brainer” and no one else is going to be able to jury-rig up reality-altering gadgets like “The Savvyhead.” The archetypes are unique and distinctive and interesting, and character creation is exceedingly easy. And each archetype comes with a set of question prompts that indicate how the characters know each other – their history with one another. Thus, you never have the problem of “you all meet in an inn” that plagues so many RPGs where character creation is not a collaborative activity.
Finally, a note on world-building: Apocalypse World makes no definitive statement on the nature of the Apocalypse. It only states that the world is broken. I have run numerous Apocalypse World campaigns and one-shots at conventions or games days, and in them the Apocalypse has been all manner of things – aliens, ghosts, demonic darkness, tectonic-plate-destroying technology, a lethal virus, extreme climate change, hyper-aggressive slime mold, the collapse of a wormhole, and a breakdown in the linearity of time to name just a few. We’ve run the gamut from hard sci-fi to sci-fantasy, to crazy weird stuff like island-cities floating in the sky (which we dubbed “aeroliths,” of course) over seas of lava while duking it out among themselves with WW1-style dirigible fleets. About the only thing I haven’t done is zombies, largely because they are so cliche at this point. The game really supports and encourages collaborative world-building, so if you are looking for a pre-defined, fully detailed setting you’ll want to look elsewhere for inspiration. But you can’t go far wrong by watching something like Fury Road and going, “That. Let’s do That!” which Apocalypse World will handle with ease.
Because of the simplicity of the dice mechanics and the tightly-written way in which the moves are structured, lots of people looked at Apocalypse World and said, “Yes! This is awesome and I can use it to tell awesome stories about cool characters in any genre I want!” And while I applaud their drive, most of them were wrong. Apocalypse World quickly launched an entire genre of games, frequently marketed as “Powered by the Apocalypse” or “PbtA”. They tend to share the dice system and concept of “moves”, but I’m just gonna come out and say it: there are some bad hacks out there.
Part of the issue is one of matching the form without matching its function. Rolling 2D6+attribute is easy – but what are the attributes? What is it you want to say about the characters’ personalities with them? And the trigger-to-effect structure of the moves makes for great inspiration, but what moves should everyone have access to when defining the key activities of the genre? What moves should be limited to the character archetypes and how should those be structured? How will the MC’s agenda and principles change with the genre?
Often, it comes down to how well the game fits its themes. Apocalypse World is great for conditions or settings that match its central themes – scarcity, isolation, instability, and violence. I have had great success running Apocalypse World as-is in alternative settings that match these themes (most notably in viking-themed games set in a fantasy analog to the Danelaw). But as soon as you step outside those genre or theme assumptions, you need to go back to first principles to determine what it is about the PCs that defines them or makes them exceptional and what kinds of actions or conflicts they’re going to want to take to accomplish their goals within that genre.
And that’s not to say that some people haven’t been successful in their attempts to capture a particular genre. I personally have no interest in reliving the drama of high school and don’t want to play the game, but god DAMN is Monsterhearts good. So good. If you ever wanted to play a game that delivered all of the supernatural teen angst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is without hesitation the game for you. Similarly, I personally have no attachment to pro-wrestling, but every actual-play account of World Wide Wrestling I’ve ever read has been hilarious to the point of downright magical. And if you want to experience the camaraderie, danger, desperation, and institutional misogyny that female Soviet pilots faced flying night-time bombing missions on the Eastern Front in WW2, Night Witches delivers that with a vengeance. And if your favorite TV show is all 349 seasons of Supernatural, then look no further than Monster of the Week.
But for every hack that captures its themes well and focuses the player attributes, moves, and MC principles, there are three that don’t. Or that capture some of it but not all of it. Or that sort of capture it but fail to explain it. And here again I’ll say that anyone who has any aspirations to run a PbtA game – even a really good hack – should get Apocalypse World and take the time to really read and digest it, because a lot of hacks just sort of assume that you know how all this MC shit works. If you are ever playing a game and you come to a point where you feel like a character is doing something that should probably trigger a roll of the dice but don’t immediately know what move is being triggered, it usually means there’s a hole in the genre assumptions. So if you’re planning on running or playing a PbtA game, give that game a thorough read through and decide a) if the genre interests you and b) if you feel like it addresses the core themes of the genre well.
In a very real sense, good hacks are a form of genre criticism. They distill the theme down to its very essence and eliminate the stuff that is extraneous. When they are done well they can deliver very specific gaming experiences in a way that is incredibly compelling and engaging. And if you are an aspiring game designer who wants to write a hack of your own, take this advice to heart and really make sure that your game is more than just “2D6+attribute, haha!”
In case it’s not abundantly clear, I really like Apocalypse World. I think it articulates a lot of really important principles very clearly and delivers a particular style of play very well. I’ve played an awful lot of it (and its hacks) and could write a ton of stuff (and maybe some day I will) about some of the more nuanced aspects of the game mechanics – like how the manipulation move preserves player agency, or how the different character archetypes affect different aspects of world-building, or how the questions a player chooses to ask when reading a person or a situation are a direct feedback mechanism to the MC about the aspects of the situation that player finds most interesting. But I’ll save that rambling for another time.
Whether or not the particular genre of a post-apocalyptic role-playing game appeals to you, the importance of the game as a springboard for a whole bunch of successors cannot be overstated. It really is amazing how much a small-outfit indie game has influenced the RPG world in the decade since its release. If you have the time and the inclination, you can’t go wrong by giving it a read. In the game’s parlance, go ahead and open your brain (that one’s roll+Weird, by the way), you’ll be glad you did!