Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

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. []

11 responses to “Game Tasting: Apocalypse World”

  1. […] Macro Mechanics Game Tasting: Apocalypse World […]

  2. To evoke something we’ve discussed before: I think crunch is a texture that some mechanics have, by which we sometimes identify mechanics as metonymy, the way we sometimes identify a quantity of food by its taste: “sweets,” for instance.

    1. Sure; how’s that pertain to the definition of “crunch” that I’m using?

      What I mean to say, is that many (though not all) games have a subset of mechanics that are “crunch”, the things that you do with points, cards, dice, dance contests, etc. In Apocalypse World, there is a bit of crunch, where you roll 2d6 and add a number. This crunch feels like an afterthought, but this makes sense given all of Baker’s designs—he’s concerned with larger-scope mechanics much more than he is concerned with what I am calling crunch. This isn’t bad or good, it’s just a recurring quality in his games.

      Does that make sense?

      1. Oh, I see what you mean. I was talking about something else because I am self-centered, but yeah, that makes sense. Although it is so hard for me to think about “roll 2d6 and add a number” without the trinary resolution! The trinary resolution really -is- the texture of AW for me.

        1.  Well, I guess “crunch” isn’t rigidly bordered, so the ternary resolution is certainly part of it! But right there, that’s where you get the boxes pointing to the clouds, and in the case of AW, that happens by way of the super-crunch mechanics, I think, so I’m gonna pretend that there’s still a distinction.

  3.  Also you guys managed to pick the weirdest two-player class combination.

    1.  Yeah, but it worked really well!

  4. Jonathan Walton Avatar
    Jonathan Walton

    The thing that happens in Dogs initiations happens in the part of AW character creation when you determine your Hx with the other PCs.  You don’t act it out, but it can have a similar effect, in my experience.  Read the Hx rules for the various playbooks and you’ll see what I mean.

    You guys didn’t find enough crunch in the rules for gear (guns, vehicles, special tech) and gangs (including holdings and followers)?  Or in the host of special moves you can buy?  Maybe you weren’t far enough along to encounter it fully.  That 2d6 mechanic does a lot of work and gets used in a lot of different ways. It’s not GURPS or Exalted, but there’s some crunch there. Much more than The Mountain Witch or other one-roll indie games.

    1. In Exalted the crunch is the feel of your teeth biting down on over 9000 tiny knives, and your nerves shouting “what the christ are you talking about!!!!!!!!” 

      1. Also, looking up whether Teeth of 9000 Knives is combo-ok in the middle of an hour-long combat. 😛 

    2.  What I mean about “choosing which is true” was referring actually to the Hx rules. Specifically, I was thinking of the Brainer Hx options. They all do “change that Hx to +3”, with different fictional backgrounds. So there are three relationships that I, as the Brainer, can chose to have.

      We didn’t play enough to get into gear, gangs, and such enough. We also all three of us basically hate gear, so we tend to gloss over it. And as I said, given the small set of characters and the particular ones they were, moves didn’t get a lot of screen time. So I acknowledge that there’s more room for more “crunch”, but even then, I don’t think that’s quite the kind of crunch I mean in my limited, jargon-y use of the term.

      Which is not to say I’m unsatisfied with that—I think that the gear systems and moves look great, at least on paper. It’s just that the 2d6 is a pretty transparent and one-dimensional fortune mechanic. There’s no room for trade-offs and such in it. To be fair, that does support the game’s unity of effect—AW is a brutally direct world.