Apocalypse World First Impressions: Only One Step from Chaos

Last weekend was supposed to be my first shot at playing Apocalypse World, but a lengthy character creation exacerbated by technical limitations meant we never got the chance to put dice on the table. This weekend I hosted a virtual double header for my players – out of the five folks who had originally participated in character creation, three could only make one night while two could only make the other. So we broke out our first session across two evenings, two consecutive play sessions that added up to one highly chaotic in-game night. It was a fascinating look at how the mechanics of Apocalypse World flow.

Let’s start with characters. On night one the crew consisted of an angel (a medic), a maestro d’, (a bar owner), and a savvyhead (a mechanist). Two specialize in fixing things – either broken people or broken technology – and the other provides a space for people to relax and socialize. It created a very obvious first scenario: an accident happens which requires the attention of both the angel and the savvyhead, who then go to the maestro d’s bar to blow off steam and get caught up in the trouble brewing there. On night two I instead was working with a gunlugger (a mercenary) and a brainer (a psychic). Each one is deeply focused on a specific set of game mechanics: the gunlugger on battle moves and the brainer on interacting with the psychic maelstrom, a default part of Apocalypse World’s setting that grants visions but also has dangerous implications for humanity. Neither enters the game with a notable home base nor many meaningful connections to NPCs. This led to a scenario that was much less social and much more task-based as the two were hired for a job to find someone distributing “illegal” weapons.

The blueprint for the “hardhold” our campaign is currently centered on, a modified cruise ship that wanders a ruined wasteland on shoddy mechanical legs.

This points to how distinct each playbook feels in action when playing Apocalypse World. Each character type has a core mechanic that drives it: the angel’s medical kit, the savvyhead’s workshop, the brainer’s unique psychic powers. These mechanics are ingredients that when brought together create a unique dish; a different combination of playbooks creates a different vibe for the game. What if the angel and the gunlugger had been together instead? Someone who inflicts violence and someone who undoes violence together as a team would almost certainly lead to a combat-heavy scenario. What if the maestro d’ and the brainer had been the stars of their own show? The maestro d’s bar is the perfect playground for the brainer to practice social manipulation, creating the question of who is really in control of the environment. The particular set of characters in play at any given time creates a different type of storytelling opportunity, some easier to imagine than others. And while the game is meant to be self-directed rather than the MC just handing the players scenes to resolve, that proposition is easier for someone like the maestro d’ – who is already given a ton of building blocks – versus someone like the gunlugger who comes in with a bunch of guns but nobody to shoot at by default.

When it comes to resolving action, Apocalypse World uses two six-sided dice modified by one of the character’s stats, usually ranging from -1 to 2. This creates a focused pool of results ranging from 1 to 14 with a heavy concentration of combinations that give a 7-9. Apocalypse World has three possible outcomes for any given move. A roll of 6 or lower is called a miss, while a 7 or higher is called a hit. Between 7-9 is a weak hit while a 10 or more is a strong hit. On a strong hit you essentially accomplish exactly what you set out to do, while on a miss the MC gets to make one of their moves in direct response to yours. All of the basic moves read: on a miss, be prepared for the worst. The weak hit zone from 7-9 essentially gives the player what they want, but it often comes with a complication or cost. This space is where Apocalypse World thrives, throwing in those little bits of cost that snowball over time and become serious problems down the road.

My players have played plenty of Powered by the Apocalypse titles and are used to this system of resolution and the move snowball, which made it pretty easy to get used to Apocalypse World from a gameplay standpoint. Folks immediately recognized what an exciting roll was and what a bad roll was and that led to some big reactions at key moments when somebody accomplished a move that was very hype – or very disastrous. The crew has a good sense of comraderie too, so folks were happy to jump in and help by trying to push those perilous 5’s and 6’s up to a 7 with the help or interfere move. With so many tools at their disposal, a proper miss is a big deal; during our second session the brainer rendered an essential witness catatonic with a poorly-implemented attempt to give them psychic orders. If that NPC ever comes back into play, who knows what these events will mean for them.

This location is our maestro d’s establishment, which serves as a social hub for the player characters and a natural brewing place for threats hiding under the surface.

From the MC perspective, my role in Apocalypse World is to make moves when the players give me the opportunity and make good on the many threats in my arsenal. Every NPC, location, and even vehicle is some kind of threat to the player characters and the community at large. Some threats are obvious, like raiders or cops who get violent at the drop of a hat or the deadly natural environment outside of the moving city the players call home. Other threats exist in the form of seemingly-harmless folks in the community or the secret factions of which they are a part. I spent my time during each session making moves and planting seeds, pointing at what the game calls future badness by hinting at the under the surface motivations for some of the key NPCs that the heroes interacted with during the session.

One thing I still need to do for my threats is create a series of countdown clocks and potentially design some custom moves for them. Threats have goals they want to accomplish and steps to take towards those goals – while my players should have the opportunity to interfere with those plans, uninterrupted the goals of my threats should pose a serious threat to the tenuous “status quo” of Apocalypse World. I wanted to wait until after our proper first session to start building out the threats that I think the players are most likely to be interested in; I’ll still need time to truly see which ones stick, but I can begin planning the initial moves for each threat and use that to test what the group finds most compelling.

Overall, I had a pretty good time with this double header event and it seemed that my players did as well. The threats that did manifest in small ways did so with aplomb and the mechanics made good opportunities for moments that had the whole table hooting and hollering – or grimacing as they realized how south things were about to go. I know what skills I need to work on for future sessions – particularly building out interesting characters and threats for players who didn’t come with those connections by default. I’m excited to see where future sessions take us and to see how the mechanics of the game we haven’t gotten to engage as much yet influence play over time.

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