Talking About An Apocalypse: Looking At Apocalypse World 2E
  • Talking About An Apocalypse: Looking At Apocalypse World 2E


    Apocalypse World is the first game to use what we now call the Apocalypse World Engine, published in 2010. It's an innovative system that builds the world as part of character creation, and where the GM (here called the MC) has essentially the same rules as every other player. The second edition of the game was Kickstarted in 2016, and brought the game a bit more in line with the dozens of games that came after.


    Apocalypse World takes place in, well, a world of apocalypse, the exact nature of which is not given. The world is built largely by the players, with their specific knowledge provided by their playbooks (think classes). A lot of the appeal of Apocalypse World is this lightened burden on the GM or MC. Due to the collaborative nature of setting up the world and the relationships of the players, there's very little prep work that needs to be done to run a game, which could be a pleasant change for the perpetual GM.

    One of the best things I think this game introduced, and that I think nearly every RPG could borrow from, is the MC section detailing the agenda, the principles, and what you should "always say". It's nothing more than a couple paragraphs of bullet-pointed text, but it provides a very reliable fallback for when you get into a tight corner, unsure of what to do next. To the best of my knowledge, each "Powered by the Apocalypse" game includes a one-to-two page section with this, and giving some pointers on how the first session should go. It's an easy-in for the new or inexperienced gamemaster.

    This part may or may not be bad, depending on your players, but it's a warning nonetheless. Apocalypse World itself is edgier than a lot of the games that followed it, with playbooks like the Battlebabe and the Gunlugger and moves like "f*ck this sh*t" and "f*cking wacknut". Each character's stats are Cool (calmness), Hard (intimidation), Hot (attractiveness), Sharp (violence), and Weird (psychic). So, word for the wise, this game is not G-rated, for all that many of the successors are.

    The Apocalypse World Engine is a significant adjustment to players and GMs who are used to a more "traditional" game like D&D, or a more typical GM-player relationship. This system places a much larger share of the creative burden on the players, shared much more equally with the GM. I can see where some GMs or some players wouldn't enjoy that split of responsibilities. If you're looking to run Apocalypse World for a group you know, it would be best to get a good gauge of your players' comfort level with taking on more of the worldbuilding.

    One of the things that really caught my attention in this edition is the Harm countdown clock on each playbook. It's a simplified clock, with segments from 12-3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-10, 10-11, 11-12. As you take more damage, those segments get slimmer and slimmer, increasing the drama of the fight. When the Harm countdown is maxed, "life becomes untenable", and that player can choose to come back minus a limb, plus some Weird (psychic), as another playbook completely, or to just die. This is such a unique way of tracking damage, like a literal countdown on your life, and I think it's extraordinarily well-suited to that gritty tone of Apocalypse World specifically. Given the sheer number of imitators, it's hard to say that much of Apocalypse World is still truly unique, but it would be impossible to say that it wasn't and hasn't been groundbreaking.

    contributed by Jennifer Adcock
    Comments 17 Comments
    1. Doug McCrae's Avatar
      Doug McCrae -
      So in at least two respects the GM's power is more limited than it is in traditional games? World creation, and PCs don't die unless the player consents.

      How does this compare to other PbtA games?
    1. JenKatWrites's Avatar
      JenKatWrites -
      Quote Originally Posted by Doug McCrae View Post

      How does this compare to other PbtA games?
      Well, we have a whole series of articles planned reviewing different PbtA games and seeing how they compare!

      For specifically the aspect regarding GM control over the world, Iím finding that quite similar across the board. Death and damage are handled very differently across different iterations of the game, and thatís something Iíll be looking at in future articles.
    1. TwoSix -
      Excellent read. I'm more familiar with Dungeon World and Monsterhearts, but excited to see more of these articles come out.
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      Well, I've played Apocalypse World and a few other spinoffs (Dungeon World, Monsterheats and Monster of the Week). While they were neat games, and perfectly enjoyably for what they were, I cannot see how they are any different, really, to so called 'Traditional games'.

      Gamers have been collaborating on game world creation and scenario development for as long as there has been roleplaying games. I guess some people just need a game to tell them what they have always had the opportunity to do before. It was no 'significant adjustment' for me and my group. I find the distinction to be a bit pretentious.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Doug McCrae View Post
      So in at least two respects the GM's power is more limited than it is in traditional games? World creation, and PCs don't die unless the player consents.
      Well more than that - the GM's only there to

      1) cue players that they've made a move when they didn't realize it

      2) get players to describe the move they want to make in narrative terms.

      3) provide opponents when the players don't

      4) run those opponents

      5) kick things off if the players don't.

      The MC and Players jointly define the world...
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      Quote Originally Posted by TrippyHippy View Post
      Well, I've played Apocalypse World and a few other spinoffs (Dungeon World, Mosterheats and Monster of the Week). While they were neat games, and perfectly enjoyably for what they were, I cannot see how they are any different, really, to so called 'Traditional games'.

      Gamers have been collaborating on game world creation and scenario development for as long as there has been roleplaying games. I guess some people just need a game to tell them what they have always had the opportunity to do before. It was no 'significant adjustment' for me and my group. I find the distinction to be a bit pretentious.
      Hmm, yes, pretentious.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      Quote Originally Posted by aramis erak View Post
      Well more than that - the GM's only there to

      1) cue players that they've made a move when they didn't realize it

      2) get players to describe the move they want to make in narrative terms.

      3) provide opponents when the players don't

      4) run those opponents

      5) kick things off if the players don't.

      The MC and Players jointly define the world...
      I was wondering, and that helps.

      Still "world" means a lot of things. Drama (and hence story and rpgs) also depend on the protagonists expectations being occasionally exploded. I guess the GM still has scope to surprise?
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by TerraDave View Post
      I was wondering, and that helps.

      Still "world" means a lot of things. Drama (and hence story and rpgs) also depend on the protagonists expectations being occasionally exploded. I guess the GM still has scope to surprise?
      Per the RAW, only when the players stall things or it's time for the NPC's to act.

      That's still a large opening.
    1. Fuseboy's Avatar
      Fuseboy -
      PbtA games are so broad, mechanically, that it barely makes sense to call it an engine. Vincent Baker calls it a design style, for instance. (Having said that, 2d6+stat, 6-, 7-9, 10+ is obviously common for many of the game-specific mechanics. But some don't have this.)

      In terms of the GM's limited authority, I just don't see it. The GM moves are a list of sensible things for GMs to be doing, but together they're so broad that they basically don't exclude anything. It's more like GMing advice structured like rules.

      For instance, these GM moves, together, let the GM do pretty much whatever: announce future badness, put someone in a spot, take away their stuff, inflict harm as established, make a custom move.

      Some PbtA games have explicitly player-authored stuff in them (e.g. the Veteran's Old Friends, Old Faces move in Urban Shadows is hilarious that way), but for some PbtA games (e.g. The Regiment) there's no more than you'd expect from 'What's your backstory?'.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      This from Vincent Baker seems relevant for thinking about resolution and GM-authority in PbtA games:

      That's, if you ask me, the big problem with task resolution: whether you succeed or fail, the GM's the one who actually resolves the conflict. The dice don't, the rules don't; you're depending on the GM's mood and your relationship and all those unreliable social things the rules are supposed to even out.

      Task resolution, in short, puts the GM in a position of privileged authorship. Task resolution will undermine your collaboration.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      That's, if you ask me, the big problem with task resolution: whether you succeed or fail, the GM's the one who actually resolves the conflict. The dice don't, the rules don't; you're depending on the GM's mood and your relationship and all those unreliable social things the rules are supposed to even out.
      This is where the game loses me, if I roll a success, then I expect to succeed; otherwise what we are playing is advanced mother may I.

      The truth is, is that the player can always quit easier, which balances out the GM's investment; in the middle there is a no-fault area of the game not being for that person, then on either end, the GM or player can be at fault for the relationship not working. Nevertheless, like any other relationship, commitment and investment are the keys to success.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by dragoner View Post
      This is where the game loses me, if I roll a success, then I expect to succeed; otherwise what we are playing is advanced mother may I.
      I'm not sure which game you're referring to.

      But this, from ]url=http://lumpley.com/hardcore.html]the same post by Vincent Baker[/url] that I linked to above, seems like it might be relevant to:

      In task resolution, what's at stake is the task itself. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you crack the safe?

      In conflict resolution, what's at stake is why you're doing the task. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you get the dirt on the supervillain?

      Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.

      Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.

      In conventional rpgs, success=winning and failure=losing only provided the GM constantly maintains that relationship - by (eg) making the safe contain the relevant piece of information after you've cracked it. It's possible and common for a GM to break the relationship instead, turning a string of successes into a loss, or a failure at a key moment into a win anyway.

      Let's assume that we haven't yet established what's in the safe.

      "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
      It's task resolution. Roll: Success!
      "You crack the safe, but there's no dirt in there, just a bunch of in-order papers."

      "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
      It's task resolution. Roll: Failure!
      "The safe's too tough, but as you're turning away from it, you see a piece of paper in the wastebasket..."

      (Those examples show how, using task resolution, the GM can break success=winning, failure=losing.)

      I've read a lot of adventure modules that exemplify the point about task resolution.

      In the context of PbtA, this closing remark of that same post seems apposite:

      Something I haven't examined: in a conventional rpg, does task resolution + consequence mechanics = conflict resolution? "Roll to hit" is task resolution, but is "Roll to hit, roll damage" conflict resolution?
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I'm not sure which game you're referring to.

      But this, from ]url=http://lumpley.com/hardcore.html]the same post by Vincent Baker[/url] that I linked to above, seems like it might be relevant to:
      In task resolution, what's at stake is the task itself. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you crack the safe?

      In conflict resolution, what's at stake is why you're doing the task. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you get the dirt on the supervillain?

      Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.

      Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.

      In conventional rpgs, success=winning and failure=losing only provided the GM constantly maintains that relationship - by (eg) making the safe contain the relevant piece of information after you've cracked it. It's possible and common for a GM to break the relationship instead, turning a string of successes into a loss, or a failure at a key moment into a win anyway.

      Let's assume that we haven't yet established what's in the safe.

      "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
      It's task resolution. Roll: Success!
      "You crack the safe, but there's no dirt in there, just a bunch of in-order papers."

      "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
      It's task resolution. Roll: Failure!
      "The safe's too tough, but as you're turning away from it, you see a piece of paper in the wastebasket..."

      (Those examples show how, using task resolution, the GM can break success=winning, failure=losing.)

      I've read a lot of adventure modules that exemplify the point about task resolution.

      In the context of PbtA, this closing remark of that same post seems apposite:
      Something I haven't examined: in a conventional rpg, does task resolution + consequence mechanics = conflict resolution? "Roll to hit" is task resolution, but is "Roll to hit, roll damage" conflict resolution?
      I am talking any game, and ptba2 if relevant. Rarely do I run or play in a situation so linear as not opening the safe and things simply stop. ISTR that's the secret door trap where if the players don't find the secret door, the adventure stops, that's bad. Not that I'm 100% innocent of making mistakes, but the GM should generally try to be a protagonist of the players. There's a high likelihood of when the safe-cracking scene going south, the players will try something else, such as removing the safe and running with it. The GM shouldn't block that. No matter what, any conflict, task, or consequence should be interesting.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by dragoner View Post
      I am talking any game, and ptba2 if relevant. Rarely do I run or play in a situation so linear as not opening the safe and things simply stop. ISTR that's the secret door trap where if the players don't find the secret door, the adventure stops, that's bad. Not that I'm 100% innocent of making mistakes, but the GM should generally try to be a protagonist of the players. There's a high likelihood of when the safe-cracking scene going south, the players will try something else, such as removing the safe and running with it. The GM shouldn't block that. No matter what, any conflict, task, or consequence should be interesting.
      Well, I think in a PbtA game there typically is no "the adventure". And in conflict resolution there typically are no retries.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Well, I think in a PbtA game there typically is no "the adventure". And in conflict resolution there typically are no retries.
      It's also much more essential to allow fail-forward.

      EG: Trying to break into the safe to get the dirt on the badguy...
      Success: you get the dirt.
      Failure: You destroyed the dirt, but there's still coin surviving, at least once the fire dies down.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I'm not sure which game you're referring to.

      But this, from ]url=http://lumpley.com/hardcore.html]the same post by Vincent Baker[/url] that I linked to above, seems like it might be relevant to:

      In task resolution, what's at stake is the task itself. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you crack the safe?

      In conflict resolution, what's at stake is why you're doing the task. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you get the dirt on the supervillain?

      Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.

      Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.

      In conventional rpgs, success=winning and failure=losing only provided the GM constantly maintains that relationship - by (eg) making the safe contain the relevant piece of information after you've cracked it. It's possible and common for a GM to break the relationship instead, turning a string of successes into a loss, or a failure at a key moment into a win anyway.

      Let's assume that we haven't yet established what's in the safe.

      "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
      It's task resolution. Roll: Success!
      "You crack the safe, but there's no dirt in there, just a bunch of in-order papers."

      "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
      It's task resolution. Roll: Failure!
      "The safe's too tough, but as you're turning away from it, you see a piece of paper in the wastebasket..."

      (Those examples show how, using task resolution, the GM can break success=winning, failure=losing.)
      This example, and a lot of discussion I've seen about it bother me. IMO, they skip over the importance of setting the stakes of the conflict in the first place, and the necessity of rules involving that in a game that utilizes Conflict Resolution. This makes the difference between conflict and task resolution appear much more like an arbitrary matter of scale rather than a qualitative difference.

      I didn't really get Conflict Resolution until I played Capes (an obscure indie game I bring up perhaps a bit too often around here). In that game, which relies entirely on Conflict Resolution, Players can put conflicts into play* (like..."We discover dirt on the bad guy".) As play progresses, players vie for control of the final resolution of that conflict. Two rules govern what they may narrate for their actions:
      "And then..." If you fail to take the lead in control of the Conflict, you may narrate your action, but the controller gets to add additional narration possibly explaining what went wrong.
      and
      "Not Yet" You cannot narrate anything that would effectively resolve a goal that is in play. (Unless you have just won that goal.)

      So, unless someone put a "the safe is opened" event in play, you can use your action to open the safe or not.

      Interestingly, the "Not Yet" rule can be used to control the speed/flow of narration, by introducing a goal that blocks certain actions until the goal is won. So, If I throw out "Medusa turns a hero to stone", then a player (the medusa or anyone else) needs to win that goal before it can happen. (Hero players might vie for control as a defensive measure.)

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I've read a lot of adventure modules that exemplify the point about task resolution.

      In the context of PbtA, this closing remark of that same post seems apposite:

      Something I haven't examined: in a conventional rpg, does task resolution + consequence mechanics = conflict resolution? "Roll to hit" is task resolution, but is "Roll to hit, roll damage" conflict resolution?
      I've seen this before, and I tend to think not, because "10 points of damage" isn't a narrative event or description, but only mechanical. Although IMO cumulative "Roll to hit, roll damage" rolls usually approach Conflict Resolution, but the GM can abort it by introducing a call to surrender or similar event. i.e. The Conflict to be resolved is only presumed to be "which characters or monsters will die in this fight?", but that isn't clearly only table, its only a presumption.

      I'm very curious about the Index Card rpg, which (If I understand it) adds mechanics similar to HP and countdown timers to non-combat resolution. I don't know if that approaches Conflict Resolution.

      I don't think the PbtA engine really adds anything in particular to Conflict Resolution. Although I would suppose that would depend greatly on the wording of the moves in question.



      *There are also a few rules about objecting to poorly-worded goals or events, and resolving or rewording them.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      I don't think the PbtA engine really adds anything in particular to Conflict Resolution.
      I'm no PbtA expert, but I think it does provide some interesting examples - for example, the way information gathering is resolved.
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