Game Tasting: Apocalypse World

I know, we’re late to the party.

The internet has been very excited about Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World for some time now, but we’ve only just gotten to play it. I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining the game, because at this point I figure you’re all familiar with it. What I will do is talk about our thoughts and reactions to it. It was perhaps a less-than-ideal game, too, but it was quite fun.

Due to scheduling fail,1 we had only a very small group: it was me MCing, and Austin and John playing. On top of that, Austin was playing the Battlebabe and John was playing the Hardholder. This, and the fact that we played only one session, meant that we didn’t get to see and play with a lot of the game. Particularly, the Hx mechanics and special moves didn’t come up—the former because, with two characters, they were a little flat, and the latter because with the Battlebabe, they were nullified. So, I fully acknowledge that there’s a lot about the lateral play of the game that we didn’t get to experience.2

The characters

We were, at least, lucky to have those two characters in play. The different characters seem to come with different amounts and kinds of intrinsic motivation, and the Battlebabe is made of too-cool-for-school, so her player has to bring all the motivation. The Hardholder, though, comes with a lot of setting ties and motivation, so John had a lot to go off of at the start. Austin’s character, conversely, was good at providing trouble, which helped keep things moving.

I think that those are, in fact, features of the characters. But like a lot in this game, it’s the product of a delightful sleight-of-hand. John expressed some curiosity at the list of names and list of options for your character’s look, saying that they don’t really do anything. And he’s right. Certainly not in play—but they do a lot to help get you into the Apocalypse World. Even the options you don’t chose, simply by reading them, help form the post-apocalypse in your head. And the same applies to things like the characters’ stats—”I’ve got a high cool. I’ll play that.” And thus, the Battlebabe does what she’s supposed to.3

The play

The experience of play was undoubtedly good. A few details in character creation provided just the right place to jump off from, and Austin’s life-long absorption with all things post-apocalyptic provided great flavor. When we had finished, John said, “I want to play again. Right now.” But, for my part at least, while I shared that feeling, it wasn’t because of the crunch.4 The reason I wanted to play again was the setting and the situation. I think that Baker’s ability to make systems that encourage interesting situation has matured since Dogs in the Vineyard. Certainly, that was an interesting system, but this flowed.

I think that a lot of the most interesting mechanics in the game are in the MC section. It sounded, at times, like a lot of the advice in Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe. The explicit space for uncertainty, the encouragement to fuck-with, not fuck-over, the exhortation to say yes-and rather than no-and (which Baker puts quite well as “give them what they want, but not what they expect”). All of these really helped make MCing this game a pleasure.

The author

A lot of the game made sense to us particularly because it was a Vincent Baker game. From John:  “Contextualizing the rules by knowing who wrote them is a new process for me.” For me, as an academic, it’s important to know the source of an analysis, paper, idea, because that gives it a particular context that may prove crucial to understanding it. So, it seems that Baker doesn’t care much about crunch, only mechanics, based on his other games, and as such, the 2d6 used this game, with all of the action and interest pushed to the fiction and the table-dynamics makes perfect sense. And it’s something Baker’s really good at writing and designing.

But I think we at Transneptune care a bit more about crunch. This is probably inherited in part from our experience with The Impossible Dream’s Dread, which has crunch that perfectly captures the feel of the game. It’s a unity of effect thing: we want every detail of the system to point towards the, well, point of the game, even down to the dice you roll. Apocalypse World‘s 2d6 certainly do the job, but they don’t feel very apocalyptic.

This is part of the difference between what Baker thinks of as lines in the dirt, and we think of as fenceposts.5 John commented at a certain point that the highlighted stats were a very interesting fencepost, but I think he’s wrong. They’re a line in the dirt; they don’t constrain, they remind. Baker’s all carrot, we’re a lot more stick. I think we could stand to learn some more carrot from him, though.

This game encourages in weird ways sometimes, though. We’re not quite sure how or why yet, but it encouraged characterization through undercutting immersion. To quote Austin:  “I felt like this game did call to the curtain a lot. I was aware of the separation between character and player. But actually I felt like it let me play the character more. It was very Tank Girl.” That bears more thought and investigation. In any case, it was cool.

The rest

There are a few more miscellaneous points to make.

John wasn’t really sold on the per-class moves, but he was playing the Hardholder. Not much choice there. But in any case, the moves answer a problem that John doesn’t have. One of the important things that the moves do is provide a list you can look at to help yourself answer “what do I do now?” John, lucky fellow, never finds himself at a loss for an answer to that.

We all loved the manipulation mechanics. They are a perfect blend of obligation and free will, stick and carrot. They’re something we could stand to learn from in Et in Arcadia Ego, a heavily social game that’s bound to have a lot of manipulation.

As a bunch of improv-types, we all like uncertainty. And this game thrives off of filling details when they’re needed, so it worked for us. It’s easy to see how that wouldn’t work for some people.  In John’s words, “If you’re trying to figure out how many miles it is to the next city, you’re probably doing it wrong.”

The end

It was a very fun game, and educational for our game design process. Like many media I like, though, I am better at finding flaws with it than expressing why I liked it. But I think there’s no question that the MC rules and the way they lead to an organic situation provide the bulk of the system-interest. The rest? Everything on the players’ side of the table? That seems to be there to let the players just play.

I’d play it again, but this week is spoken for! Tonight: Don’t Rest Your Head.

  1. As John said, you can’t sell someone on a Baker game. Either they’re the audience, or they’re not. And in this case, the rest of our potential players just didn’t show up. []
  2. The Hardholder’s special move: have sex with someone, and you can give them, for free, something worth 1-barter. The Battlebabe’s? Nullify anyone else’s special move. No choice. So John pointed out he’d love to see the scene where the characters sleep together, and the Hardholder tries to give the Battlebabe some shiny, and she’s just like, yeah, whatever, leave it on the table, and walks out. []
  3. One thing, though, that I liked in Dogs in the Vineyard that I felt was missing here: in Dogs, during character creation, you’ve got to enact some of your character’s history. In this, you are given a set of options, and told which is true. It feels a bit more constrained. Constraint is not necessarily bad, but it depends on the players and the placement and kind of constraint. I’m not entirely sure if this is the right kind for me. []
  4. Crunch, to me, is smaller-scale than system or mechanics. Crunch is things like what dice you roll when, while mechanics can be things like how you decide who gets what narrative authority when. []
  5. And if you mix those metaphors, you get something about a ha-ha. But let’s not go there. []