Review: Apocalypse World
I have encountered few games that are as gritty, grimy, and unapologetically in your face as D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. The game, a hybrid between sandbox and adventure, takes place fifty years after the Apocalypse. No one knows how or why the Apocalypse happened, and there’s no one left alive from before it. The only things left in abundance are bullets and gasoline, and to top it all off the psychic maelstrom, a chaotic mass of energy, howls incessantly at the edges of everyone’s mind. In this game Baker, who I feel I can safely call the Quentin Tarantino of RPG’s, has given us a ruined playground to play around in and asked us a single question: “What will you do with it?”
Let’s talk about the characters. Apocalypse World uses a traditional stat and class base for character creation, with some not so traditional twists. First, you pick your class. There are eleven to choose from and they all have names like Angel (a healer), Chopper (motorcycle gang leader), Hocus (Cult leader), and Battlebabe (sexy, shoot’em up warrior). After picking your class you get options for your name, your stat set, your abilities and your gear. Each class gets different options in each category.
Character stats bear some special mention out of all this. Instead of Strength, Dexterity, and the rest you get stats in Cool (keeping your head under pressure), Hard (emotional and physical toughness), Sharp (perceptive ability), Hot (beauty and persuasion), and Weird (affinity for psychic things). Character creation should feel fairly familiar to anyone who has already played a game like D&D. Players have a set of moves and like D&D, the rolls for those moves are modified by the number next to the appropriate stat. Unlike D&D, players roll 2d6 for everything. A 7-9 is a partial success (the player gets what they were rolling for, but there’s a price) while a 10+ is a complete success.
Apocalypse World realizes the game master has a daunting job and is very charitable to the GM because of that. The game includes a worksheet for the first session and gives the GM the entire session to figure out the details of the world and develop a cast of NPC’s. So aside from actually reading the book, there is no prep required from the MC before sitting down to play.
Let me say that again. You don’t have to do any prep work before sitting down to play your first session.
“But how?” you ask, staring at your computer screen in disbelief. Well, the answer to that is as simple as it is elegant. You all, as a group, build the world on the spot. The game master is responsible for using the game’s tools to guide the discussions that arise. And the game gives you quite a few tools. For instance, in between character creation and actual play is something called the history round. Each class has a handful of “history items” that help detail what kinds of relationships the characters have with each other. These can vary from “One of the other characters had your back in a firefight” to “You have watched another while they slept”. While the history round is going, the game master asks questions and expands on the answers, writing down names and making maps.
This light prep strategy exemplifies one of the core themes of Apocalypse World: You are what you do. GM’s are specifically instructed not to construct elaborate story arcs and then railroad the characters through their story. In this game the GM plays to find out what happens, just like the characters. Their responsibility is to make the characters’ lives interesting and make the world real. The GM asks questions like crazy to provoke the players into helping create the world, but also into helping them detail who their characters are, what their characters want, and how their characters relate to each other and to the NPC’s. At most the GM figures out who, or what, is threatening the PC’s and writes out what will happen if these threats aren’t stopped or interrupted. After that, it’s the players’ actions that determine what happens next.
+ System will feel familiar to players of more traditional RPGs, such as D&D
+ Light on prep without sacrificing complexity
+ Strong support for play in the book and in the game’s forums
+ Partnered world creation (GM/Players) increases “buy-in” from all participants
- Not “Family Friendly” (example: each class gets a special for something that happens when they have sex with another character)
- Some players may feel restricted by play (one must choose from a list of options for nearly everything)
- Somewhat genre-restrictive (it’s a game about Apocalypses)
Apocalypse World has attitude and plays by its own rules. Fortunately, those rules are a lot of fun. The game can feel somewhat restrictive at times, but it also serves as a testament for the phrase restriction breeds creativity. This would be a great game to play if you wanted to introduce a traditional D&D type of gamer to the wider world of indie games, and it’s not a bad play experience for beginners. If you want larger than life characters, pulpy action, and absurd plots, Apocalypse World is the game for you. Go to the un-store to pick up the book for $34 (includes s/h) or to download the PDF for $10.