As an avid fan of tabletop RPGs who never really gets to play them, I have a growing list of games that I want to try out but probably won’t get to in the foreseeable future. One of the games on that list is Apocalypse World, an RPG by Vincent Baker with such an enjoyable core mechanic and gaming philosophy that it inspired a cornucopia of hacks and spinoffs. My favorite tabletop RPG Dungeon World drew its inspiration from this game, and while I typically don’t enjoy the post-apocalypse genre I would love to explore Apocalypse World regardless.
What drew me initially to Apocalypse World, what inspired me to want to play it despite my love of Dungeon World, is that AW feels more modern. Dungeon World feels modern compared to something like Dungeons and Dragons but because it borrows mechanics from that very game, it falls somewhere in between when it comes to being a streamlined experience. With its simple barter system and gritty way of measuring harm, Apocalypse World feels even more like a game where the focus is on narrative. And boy do I love narrative!
If you’re not at all familiar with the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) genre of games, this game is their namesake and introduced the core mechanic that they all rely on. You describe your character’s actions in the narrative, and when those actions constitute a move, you trigger that move. This typically involves rolling dice, in which case you roll 2d6 and add an appropriate stat. On a 10+, you do what you intended with little trouble. On a 7-9, you still get what you want but it will cost you something or have unintended consequences. On a 6-, something happens and you are not going to like it.
The whole idea of something happening on a failed roll is a big part of what drew me to PbtA in the first place. Games I’d played previously did not feature that sort of thing (unless you had a GM with experience and good instincts, and since I was the GM – well, we didn’t have that). I hated failing a roll and having effectively wasted my turn. It was boring. In Apocalypse World, a failed roll doesn’t mean nothing happens – it means something happens that propels the action forward, and it will likely be very unpleasant.
Speaking of, when it comes to turn offs to Apocalypse World part of what has kept me from playing this game so far is the general atmosphere of unpleasantness. It comes with the territory – this is the post-apocalypse, after all, a genre that is as gritty as they come. The end of the world supposedly will bring out the worst in humanity, so subject matter can get seriously sickening in a setting like this. It’s important to establish boundaries in the beginning so everyone can be comfortable in the game environment. Call me a “casual,” but I wouldn’t have a good time at the table if subject matter got into the territory of pretty much anything awful happening to children, so I’d need to play with a group that avoided that. Sexual violence would also be a barrier for me.
Still, I find this game to be really compelling and I think I could have a good time with it when playing with a solid group of people. I have ideas both of what I would want to do if I were playing a character in the game, and what I would want to do as the Master of Ceremonies (MC) of the game.
As a player, I am most drawn to the Brainer class. These guys or gals (or whatever in-between you can imagine) are truly disturbing. Their psychic powers make them frightening and unknowable, and everyone is creeped out by them at least a little bit. Brainers have cool powers like being able to affect people across a distance by using only their mind, reading other people’s minds, and planting suggestions in their heads to get them to do things. In their description, the game describes brainers as having “eyes like broken things,” and that line is particular jumps out at me as compelling. I picture being stared at by someone with those sort of eyes and shivers run down my spine. I normally play characters that are pretty four-colored in nature, so this would be an awesome way to break that mold a bit and play something more disturbing.
Of course, I have other classes I am interested in. The Maestro d’, a new playbook to the second edition of Apocalypse World, actually seems like a lot of fun. This class controls a key location like a bar or bordello and offers a “service” that other people want. The Maestro d’ has connections that he or she can utilize to get information or to accomplish more insidious goals. I’d also be interested in playing the Skinner, a playbook focused on beauty and art that can mesmerize people with their craft – or by getting naked. Whichever. There’s this one Skinner move where you simply whisper someone’s name into the psychic maelstrom and that person will find themselves inexplicably guided to you – that power is so cool to me.
As the MC of the game, I’d want to run the Fallen Empires version of Apocalypse World. This setting is a fantasy post-apocalypse rather than a modern one, and I could get behind that idea a little more. It’s less overdone, I think. Whenever I think post-apocalypse, my mind immediately goes to things like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us and it all feels like I’ve seen it a million times. The end of the fantasy world, though – that’s something different that I could work with.
Apocalypse World is interesting in that you play the game around the characters that the players have created. It takes multiple sessions to build up because the game is all about stories and connections. That approach makes it difficult as the MC to plan ahead for a campaign – the story I tell would be completely based on the characters in my game. If I could choose, though, I’d love to do a story focused around a specific hardhold (or stronghold in the Fallen Empires version) rather than constantly traveling around between locations. I’m intrigued by the concept of a group of people working together to survive the harsh conditions of the world, and wouldn’t care quite as much about pitting characters against each other. I’d prefer for conflict to arise from outside forces rather than having a ton of internal strife. Not that internal strife is bad – I would certainly want that present, particularly as political struggles are key elements of characters like the Hardholder. I wouldn’t want to end up with a scenario where all of my players want to kill each other, though.
That’s gonna be it for me today, adventurers. Hopefully sometime in the future I will get to play this game – in the meantime, I might just try and see if I can find some livestreams or Let’s Plays showing it off. If you have any exciting experiences with Apocalypse World, feel free to share them in the comments and make me jealous. And if you enjoyed today’s post, check back here on Adventure Rules every Tuesday for even more tabletop shenanigans!