#RPG – What IS the Appeal of Apocalypse World?!?

8850393Trying, again, to ‘get’ Apocalypse World

I’ve tried, several times, to get my head around Apocalypse World. I’ve appealed for help, listened to Podcasts and Actual Play and read the book over and again and I still can’t see how there’s really a playable game in here – worthy of the name – or what the bloody hell the appeal is to people.

This is immensely frustrating as I generally have an intuitive grasp of games systems and their appeal, even if I don’t personally like them very much.

So why not share my experience and frustration to see if that helps people help me…

The Basics

TB1. The first, major, problem with the game is that it drips pretension to such a degree that it is almost painful to read.

TB2. The archetypes and friendship-oriented play seems singularly ill-suited to the trops of a post-apocalyptic setting (with the exception of zombie horror, which is often ‘social horror’ in a similar way to ‘social science fiction’. Setting and system are not in harmony.

TB3. Bleh, psychics. See 2.

TB4. ‘Master of Ceremonies’, see 1. It’s kind of a tradition to rename Games Master at this point, but particularly bad choices still grate. At least it’s not ‘Hollyhock God’. Terminology in general is a problem this and a lot of other pretentious games have. It renders their communication more opaque than is strictly necessary.

TB5. Moves. I loathe and detest the whole idea of ‘Moves’ as they are presented in this game. For me the great, grand appeal of the RPG over other forms of interactive entertainment is the sheer freedom that they have, in spite of the limitations of rules. Apocalypse World, however, seems to hard-code into itself an extremely limited set of interactions that herd you into thinking in terms of ‘moves’ rather than ‘what is my character doing?’ Weirdly, the same problem 4e D&D had.

TB6. Strictly in terms of probability you’re going to hit a ‘7’ on 2D6 21/36 times (nearly 60% of the time). This seems a bit too easy for what’s supposed to be a dangerous setting and 10+ is a ‘strong hit’ – or a good result. Modifiers don’t seem to, normally, extend to more than +/- 3.

TB7. Character creation is normally pretty sacrosanct. Allowing another player to interfere with your character creation by ‘highlighting’ a statistic for you seems to me to horribly dismantle perhaps the most important aspect of player agency.

TB8. Stat terminology pretension rears its ugly head again and while Hx seems like a reasonable concept it makes less sense later on.

TB9. Gear isn’t well described here and the apparent rules raise some red flag but it’ll have to be understood ater.

TB9. Harm and healing seems needlessly complex and counter-intuitive. Debility seems to make sense though, not dissimilar to FATE’s consequences. Again, not well described here which makes it hard to know what to really think at this point.

TB10. Character advancement based on Hx seems to be just begging to be abused and could either turn every game into an orgy or a backstab-a-palooza.

The Characters

TC1. These characters just kill any desire I might otherwise have to play. The pretentious descriptions suck the potential joy out of them.

TC2. For a game with a largely non-explicit background, the explicit use of psychic weirdness relating to abilities not necessarily rooted in psychic power is an annoyance.

TC3. All these interwoven relationships are really going to fuck a game up if one of the players can’t make it from session to session and means that pregenerated scenarios for conventions are going to be in trouble if you can’t fill your table completely.

TC4. While you can get moves from other Playbooks with advancement, some moves on characters seem like things anyone should be able to get anyway and, again, the specificity of the moves is inherently limiting and anti-RP, a huge turn off.

TC5. Pre-set statistic grabs also limit your options and do not appear balanced, at all. EG: On The Battlebabe why would you take the second entry (total +3) as opposed to any other stat-grabs, which equal +4?

TC6. With gangs etc at your disposal from the get go, there’s much less impetus (or reason) to build, less goals for a character to have and less reason to take risks or do anything yourself.

TC7. Carrying +1 forward to your next roll often won’t make any sense. The Gunlugger, for example, will get a +1 on their next roll after having sex, but how will having had sex necessarily relate to what they’re doing?

TC8. Hardholder has all the problems that a Chopper has, but with the added problem of not being able to move, severely limiting game possibilities.

TC9. The other huge problem with ‘set moves’ is that they’re a bit of a throwback to very old RPGs where different things you did might have entirely different rules, whereas today (thankfully) most games operate under a unified rules-set. With every move acting differently, reference is demanded. I guess this is why there’s ‘playbooks’ but it seems like a sticking plaster over a basic design fault. Specialist booklets would normally be bonus material, not a necessity.

TC10. Helping or hindering people is based on your relationship with them, not your applicable statistic to the task at hand. So if you were trying to move a heavy object you’d be better off asking your girlfriend than Hunk Meatloaf the bodybuilder.

TC11. Rolling Harm in addition to taking it is going to slow down play. There’s also huge potential for abuse by Games Masters (sorry, MCs) and Players alike – repeatedly slapping the weapon out of someone’s hand on your attacks for example, will not be hard to do at all.

TC12. These Battle Moves aren’t explained at all. There’s a Battle Countdown but it doesn’t explain how it counts down, why it’s limited or what it does. It’s just thrown in there.

TC13. Why is ‘doing stuff under fire’ based on Cool and not based on what you’re actually doing? Given the layered rolling etc elsewhere why not roll Cool to see if you do better or worse at what you are really doing under fire?

Character Creation

Didn’t we cover this already? No, it’s more like the unspoken stuff from most games and a recap.

The Master of Ceremonies

MC1. So no predetermined plot. Fine. This is my favourite way to play but the game does not seem tailored to help the ‘MC’ with their improvisation, or indeed anyone else, another flaw with very set character types and set ‘moves’.

MC2. It’s useful to compare Apocalypse World with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Where LotFP takes a ‘this is how I do it!’ tone, AW seems to take a more ‘this is how it IS done’ tone, which is offputting.

MC3. This mostly seems to be fairly generic advice, which can be useful, but again it ends up dripping pretension which just makes me want to be contrarian.

The First Session

TFS1. This was always the problem with FATE as originally written too, spending all that time on a formalised getting-to-know-the-characters and linking their backgrounds made it hard as fuck to throw together a game on short notice and was actually less meaningful than building relationships in play or in a free for all, or even simply ignoring the problem altogether.

TFS2. The worksheets seem like a good idea in theory, but as presented here it just seems like a confusing mess.

Prep for Play: Fronts

FR1. Fronts seem – like much in this game – needlessly complicated and hard-set where they don’t need to be and vague where they don’t need to be either. When should the clocks count down and why use clock terminology when the ‘clock’ only has six segments anyway and would be better and more conveniently represented by a D6?

FR2. Stakes aren’t well enough explained, or how they come into play.

FR3. With regards to opposition, so far at least everything seems to depend on the players FAILING. Not on an enemy succeeding. This would seem to rather rob NPCs and enemies of agency or, indeed, having a point. This isn’t like in Numenera, ‘baddies’ seem to be genuinely pointless. This may clear up in a bit.

Rules of Play: Moves Snowball

RoP1. Yeah, even the example of play shows the problem with the set moves.

RoP2. MC ‘moves’ don’t even seem to be moves and have, again, been unnecessarily formalised. This is stuff that emerges naturally through play.

Rules of Play: Harm & Healing

HaH1. Sources of harm don’t appear to include enemy action (as a direct attack) just screwing up, still.

HaH2. Cinematic harm doesn’t seem to fit with the implicit setting.

HaH3. How does harm against/from enemies work? Seemingly by fiat, or by forcing the player to make a roll – and fail. Sucking the tension out of the game. NPC harm is also a special case – again – further complicating matters.

HaH4. Gang damage seems like it wouldn’t work too well in practice either. A PC group could blast away at an enemy army forever and never do it any harm – at least by the rules.


Imp1: Still not convinced the advancement system isn’t ripe for orgy-led/Hx tinkering abuse and handing over control of your highlighted stats to others robs the player of choice in character creation.

Imp2: Multiple characters? Because it leeches away player investment in characters and is ripe for abuse, again.

Basic Moves

BM1: ‘Bargains’ are a genuinely interesting ideas for a mechanic (yes, but…) but aren’t particularly well described or covered.

BM2: The battle clock is better described here, but still seems unnecessary and something that would emerge during play anyway.

Character Moves

CM1: Why are we filling a book with repetition?

The Character’s Crap

TCC1: Abstracting money is old hat and has always been super annoying. Abstracting barter makes more sense, after a fashion, but does harm immersion.

TCC2: As with most low-fi game systems the absence of distinction between types of gear and weapons makes them far less important, which can harm story and character specialisation due to the meaninglessness of the choices. The descriptive words here also seem somewhat useless or unnecessary to point out. This is especially an issue with the vehicles.

Advanced Fuckery

AF1: So it takes the advanced and optional rules before making things easier or harder is even an option.


This was probably the most useful thing in ‘grokking’ the game (even though its for Dungeon World), but I still l don’t really ‘get it’. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/3269630/dwdotcom/eon-guide/Dungeon%20World%20Guide%20pdf%20version%201.2.pdf

AW is complex where it should be simple and simple where it should be complex. The ‘moves’ make it relatively inflexible and each move restricts a player unduly by their playbook and in their actions – as well as being further disempowered by several, deliberate system choices as written.

Relying on players fucking up, rather than enemies doing well is done better, IMO, in Numenera and the rules here as a whole seem manifestly unsuited to the implicit setting, as well as being hugely open for abuse.

I just cannot understand the appeal here. The disjointed mechanics and design choices seem antithetical to roleplay, to immersion, to the implicit setting, to making reactive, in-character choices and on top of that are ripe for abuse.

Character customisation and scaling is particularly pathetic, you only have statistics that range (normally) from -2 to +2.

If I were to use this for anything I’d have to tear it down to virtually nothing, boost the scale (2d12 would at least take the scale to 10, -4 to +4), get shot of the moves and cut out all the needless hectoring and pretension.

I’m not saying any of this to be mean. I have issues with other systems whose popularity escapes me as well (Savage Worlds for example) but AW appears to be a particularly egregious example where I can’t see anything that it actually does well enough to justify the love some people seem to have for it. There’s pretty much nothing a more conventional RPG doesn’t do better.

The one good thing I can take from it is only the nature of dice results.

1. No, and something bad happens.

2. Yes, but something somewhat bad happens.

3. Yes and something good happens.

This also might work even better if it were further expanded.

The appeal of this game as a means of doing anything remains a total mystery. What the hell does it do well? Why did it get all those awards?

11 responses to “#RPG – What IS the Appeal of Apocalypse World?!?

  1. I see you have misunderstood almost every single point.
    The game really formalizes what takes many people a loooong time to learn about gm’ing, hence the GM “moves”. It’s also not a game about friends, or a party. It’s a game about doing what you need to do to survive in a hostile world. Hx is about how well you know someone, not whether you like them. That’s why you can use it to assist. You know them well, so you can predict their actions and therefore cooperate better. And you’d never roll dice to move a rock. You roll dice to enhance drama and move the story forward. Move a rock? You either do it, or the GM has already decided it’s immobile and will tell you so. Read the principles. “Always say what honesty demands.”
    You say damage makes no sense? Your character gets shot with a gun that does 2 damage. That’s the damage you take. How does that make no sense?

    Your take on statistics is flawed, to say the least. While yes, there’s a 60% chance for a succesful roll. However, when you fail, you don’t just miss your swing against the orc (to borrow an example from a friend), you get your bike stolen, or lose your blade, or get very hurt, or get pushed off a cliff. You roll for the fight, not a “combat round”.

    • I understand it just fine – now. What I don’t understand is the appeal of this inherently limited approach that sabotages the main appeals of RPGs. Hx still doesn’t make sense in that way in the example I gave. Capability, not relationships or intimate knowledge (which bizarrely resets with experience) determines the effectiveness of help.

      The abstraction of combat to the degree you mention contradicts the examples in the book and, like the monetary abstraction, seems a step too far. It was the biggest issue in my own writing on TDS.

    • PS. This was step by step through the book, explaining the problems, stream of conciousness from reading to the page.

      The GM moves IMO interfere with naturally emergent play and appear to be simply fiat, unsuitable for a starter-game as its a skill to learn how to apply that well, something to be eased into.

      Your comment about not being about friends or a party is contradicted by the previous web of contacts and the setting and the book as a whole.

      To reiterate the problem about Hx, knowing a cripple intimately or vice versa is not going to help either of you in moving a piano.

      The set moves and responses – as written – suck drama and immersion out of potential situations.

      The damage doesn’t make sense for a variety of reasons covered in the article (slowness, unnecessary clock-face, further specialist rules, largely set damage etc).

      The combat example doesn’t make sense, unless you have a cursed magical sword of bike-disappearing.

      I have tried many times with AW, first to understand the damn thing and then to see the appeal. You’re unlikely to ‘convert’ me, but try and explain what YOU see in the damn thing. To me it undermines the main appeals of RPGs over other forms of game – freedom of action, emergent play, character individuality and also violates function fitting form with a set of rules singularly unsuited to the implicit setting.

      Dungeon World is, slightly, better.

  2. Pingback: Why Did Everyone Oversell 5e’s Old School Appeal? | Cirsova

  3. (i know this is an year old but who knows you might read it)
    sorry to read that you don’t enjoy AW (and dungeon world?), i enjoy P(owered)b(y)t(he)A(pocalypse) games more than most rpgs (like d&d) but maybe i am just weird, i think you might find that you like blades in the dark better but you might want to watch the actual play videos on john harper’s youtube channel or the newer game on the itsmejp youtube channel both are gmed by john harper himself, as from what i understand it is a little weird to gm when you don’t know what you are doing.

  4. For me, the list of moves is a fundamental turn off. The real advantage that RPGs have over computer games etc is choice and being able to try anything, and a list of “moves” seems counter that. I also dont really understand the point of “fronts”. Finally, as I understand it, harm/death etc of a PC is very much GM fiat – the GM can choose to cause damage, or inflcit some other effect – the risk and results of combat are not transparent. I get the feeling the game could be very deady, or very lenient, but that it entirely depends on the GM’s decision at that moment. I like the focus on narrating and getting folks to RP more… but overall the system is not for me.

  5. PbtA games just provide a tightly-conceived method of telling a specific sort of story, instead of trying to graft “story” onto “thinly-disguised wargame.” That they focus abilities directly on narrative rather than mechanical simulation is a method for doing this that I suspect is widely popular because:

    a) It’s easier to grasp and engage with than more open-ended designed-to-do-everything story-focused systems like HeroQuest.
    b) It’s relatively easy to “hack” and recalibrate to tell different stories, which is why there are a seemingly infinite number of “PbtA” hacks floating around.

    Whether this works in any specific case would vary depending on execution — the original AW has never appealed to me the way various hacks of it have done — and on whether “Moves” are conceived broadly enough to fit the kind of fiction being simulated while providing enough freedom, but I don’t see how they’re inherently more “limiting” than a list of spells, skills, feats and gear. I don’t know that I would personally run a PbtA game, but I certainly *understand* the appeal. (And I definitely understand the appeal of any game that “abstracts” money and gear. Yes, I get that there are people who love long lists of equipment tables, but it’s good that there are games out there for people who are bored to tears by that shit.)

  6. (For a further illustration of what the appeal of a PbtA game might be, I would recommend checking out the “Friends at the Table” podcast, especially the Counter/Weight episodes. Austin is forever tinkering with different systems and I think they wind up playing at least three in the course of that series, but it provides a great example of a PbtA hack — The Sprawl — functioning where a different rules-light / fiction-focused system (MechNoir) proved nonfunctional. I also think that podcast illustrates some of the flaws of PbtA games, but it certainly illustrates their appeal, too.)

  7. I’ve played Blades in the Dark and was told that it’s PbtA. So I looked for the original AW and started to read it. I struggled to figure how it was so acclaimed. The system is quite rigid in a lot of ways and the authors fascination with inter-party sexual relations is just weird. The liberal use of ‘fuck’ doesn’t make it ‘adult with adult themes’ either.

    Never the less I’ve read as much of it as I could stomach and I’m still not seeing how all of the other derivations (Blades or Vagabonds of Dyffid or The Sprawl) really borrow anything other than the concept of 2d6 and the ‘clock’ mechanic.

    To be honest 2d6 + numbers to equal or beat target numbers is not exactly unique or novel so again I’m struggling to understand the accolades.

    I get that it’s easy to ‘pick up and play’ which is fine I suppose but find the notion that it doesn’t hit its stride until after 4 sessions. I wouldn’t watch16 hours of a rubbish film no matter the promises at the end.

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