The first time a game of Apocalypse World was suggested by somebody in my group I was wary. I had heard of Apocalypse World, though I couldn't tell you what I heard people saying about it beyond describing it as "sexy." I expected that it would be a short game, and that it might have an interesting hook but that after playing it I would also likely forget most of the rules. Ultimately, this expectation is why I didn't fight the suggestion and just said, "Sure, let's try it." I treated playing Apocalypse World like ripping off a band-aid: I was going to get it over with as quickly as possible.
We were given choices of characters to play. Similar to D&D classes, each character starts as a playbook, a character that fits within the genre and conventions of the post-apocalyptic setting. There are 11 playbooks in the rulebook accompanied by 9 more “limited edition” playbooks that can deepen the setting, or make it weirder. There is also a player community that has created over 50 more playbooks for expanding character creation into stranger, crueler, or more horrific directions.
Since my main point of reference to post-apocalyptic settings was one of my favorite films, The Road Warrior, I eyed the Driver, a character with a powerful vehicle who was better behind the wheel than outside of his car. I also got interested in the Hocus and the Brainer because they were psychic characters that had some unique moves related to coercing other characters. When it came time to pick characters I chose mine last. That was a mistake! Other players had managed to choose every character I had been interested in. Out of desperation I grabbed the Chopper, the leader of a rambunctious biker gang, because I (incorrectly) believed it was as close to the Driver as I could still get.
During the first session, one of my gang members was being assaulted by somebody and I said to the GM, the Master of Ceremonies (MC), "I pull out my shotgun and shoot him." I rolled the dice and received the best result possible. The MC asked "Where are you shooting him, exactly?" and I said "As close to the head as possible. What do I roll for damage?" She replied "You don't. He's dead, you blew his head off."
I was stunned into silence. No hit points? No damage? He’s just dead? “That’s what you wanted, right?” the MC asked me. Oh sure, I guess. I had never played a tabletop game before where that kind of power is given to a starting character and is just a single dice roll away. I dived into the game after that and became a murderous wrecking ball knocking over players and NPCs alike in my quest for power.
There is no alignment system, no faux morality scale to judge one’s actions upon, and this freed up playing so I could actually discover where my character’s sympathies lied. I discovered that I was playing a control freak, every setback and each failure felt like an opportunity to rush forward and wreck my opposition. I was the ultimate murderhobo but my prize wasn’t money or magic or anything luxe and fancy, it was simply to declare myself the most unstoppable badass of the wasteland. Anybody who challenged me ended up dead or disfigured. By the time the game ended four months later I had already retired that character, but I never wanted to stop playing the game.
"There are a million ways to GM games; Apocalypse World calls for one way in particular. This chapter is it. Follow these as rules. The whole rest of the game is built upon this."
- excerpt from the Master of Ceremonies chapter, Apocalypse World
Apocalypse World has a very specific method for GMing the game. The MC is given an agenda to follow with the instruction that everything you say and do is meant to follow this agenda. There are principles of conduct to follow that assist the agenda, and these principles maintain an emotional distance between the MC and the world so that they don't play favorites. There are even rules for what to say, which help to highlight how the MC is in charge but is still playing the same game with the other people sitting around a table.
Characters have very broad abilities called Moves that when executed successfully allow them to push NPCs around, give them things, and can even define new aspects of the game world. Sometimes these Moves come with a heavy price, and failing the roll of one of these Moves can come with a heavier price. Every time you roll the dice, the state of the game can potentially change regardless of success or failure. The characters can’t prevent everything bad from happening, the slow march of entropy eventually seeps in and crumbles away at any status quo that the players try to cement.
I imagine there are numerous internet forums and essays on blogs where the author says something similar to "When you roll dice and the character fails, saying 'nothing happens' is boring." I've heard this sentiment expressed and restated in different ways and I don't know who first said it. I'm sure it was probably first addressed as a bit of generic GMing advice because I can remember hearing the statement as far back as 1993. The Master of Ceremonies chapter in Apocalypse World follows this philosophy not just in advice to the MC, but provides solid rules (the Agenda, the Principles, the Hard Moves) that drive this sort of play. Failure always has something interesting or challenging to throw at the player and every time a player rolls the dice something is either going to happen or going to change.
At it's crunchy core Apocalypse World has a pretty simple mechanic for determining success. You roll two six-sided dice then modify it by one of your character's stats, -2 is the worst and +3 is the best. Other factors could adjust that modifier, but usually it's just one of your stats. If you roll 10 or higher, that's the best possible result. But if you hit between 7 and 9 you get a partial success, or a success with a cost. If you roll 6 or less, you missed the roll completely and the MC gets to make a hard move. Sometimes this hard move is in addition to some negative effect of the roll you were making.
Why does the MC get to make this hard move? Because the MC never rolls dice.
Instead, when a player rolls the dice and they fail the roll this generates the hard move for the MC to use which in turn keeps the action going and sometimes presses the player to make another roll. A hard move is something bad that's going to happen and that you know is likely to happen, or it's letting the player know that something bad is going to happen. If you're in the middle of a gunfight and you miss your roll, it’s obvious to everyone at the table that you're likely to get shot, which could be the MC’s hard move -- the character gets shot.
But the MC might instead declare that a barrage of gunfire forces you behind cover and you lose sight of what's happening, or you might see one of your opponents has a grenade in his hand and he just pulled out the pin, or you might realize that the tractor you're taking cover behind just had a hole blown through the gas tank and the ground at your feet is quickly pooling gasoline. These are all variations of the same hard move, and there are about two dozen hard moves that the MC could use, each is a narrative decision which metaphorically throws a brick at the player’s head. The MC is instructed to always follow up a hard move with the question “What do you do?”
All of these pieces work in concert. The MC’s Agenda tells them what to push for in their Hard Moves, the MC’s Principles keep them brutal and honest and impartial when a Hard Move is called for, and the MC’s Moves keep the game moving along briskly and unpredictably. Follow the rules and Apocalypse World teaches you how to be an effective and exciting GM that is capable of devising challenges on the fly while also being able to sit back and allow the players to drive the action of the campaign. This has always been what I wanted from a GM and what I’ve always striven to do as a GM.
Apocalypse World is built upon a simple philosophy of scarcity. The characters of Apocalypse World do not have ready access to food, water, shelter, safety, or health. How the players push their characters forward to secure these things often defines what a campaign is about just as much as how a campaign will unfold.
When players create their characters during the first session, this actually builds the skeleton of what a campaign will become. Each player establishes their character not just by the playbooks they selected and the abilities they chose but also by defining who their character is, where they came from, and how they got here. Through the character’s growth in experience, all the way to retirement, the players inform the campaign world around them just as much as anybody else at the table does. It would be fair to say that the players are more in control of the world than the MC is, because the MC merely builds off of what the players give them.
In the game I played, my character was always seeking to overthrow tyranny and injustice. In the course of four sessions I had traded one tyrant for another, and in two more sessions I became the tyrant myself. The MC never prepared for these upsets of power or the turnabout which put my own character into the spotlight. Following the rules allowed the MC to always stay one step ahead of me, and using my character’s Moves brought me to the eventual conclusion that she was just as much a villain as those who had come before her.
Characters in Apocalypse World have their retirement coded into their character sheets, the Playbooks. As you gain experience from session to session, you acquire Advances that expand your character thematically and allow them to “level up.” Some of the “upper level” Advances involve abandoning your current playbook and taking on a new one, or creating a secondary character to play. With my first character, I began to fill every Advance and got access to the “upper level” Advances fairly quickly.
When I brought in my second character I felt like I had made a real achievement because I had succeeded at so much in such a short amount of time. Looking back, I never finished any goal that I had set for myself yet I had ended up with a character who was in control of the local community, was relatively secure, had access to plenty of food and water, and feared by many if not all who came into contact with her.
One of the Advances reads “Retire your character to safety” and by the time I had filled everything else on my first character, it was the only one left for me to choose. I chose the moment of my character’s retirement - the player is always in control of what happens to their character - and could have prolonged it forever if I wanted to. In the end, I asked “I don’t think she would leave for a safe place. Can I retire her as a threat?” and the MC answered “Sure, that’s cool.”
As I write this, I haven’t played Apocalypse World in months. I miss it.