So, to further illustrate exactly why Apocalypse World has never worked for me, here’s an actual play log, to demonstrate just how hard I’ve tried to make it work.
TL;DR – As written the game constantly and consistently gets in the way of the story, of immersion, of improvisation, which – to me – is essential for good games.
The scattered nature of the rules, the many exceptions and Moves, at least as written, make the game heavier on book-flipping and reference than even conventional games like D&D.
You frequently run into situations where the results of dice rolls should shape the narrative, but can’t. In the situation with the rats, for example, there was someone controlling them, but there was no mechanism or means to make a ‘notice check’ to see if they were there. Things as simple as an athletics check, a perception check – vital in games – are utterly absent which really throws a spanner in the works.
The system is also not granular enough for decent character development or more equipment or situations to make much difference, unlike – say – Cypher, which also puts every roll in the hands of the players, but pulls it off without the same sorts of problems.
The idea behind the central mechanic is fine, and how it can drive the action and choices, there’s just no depth there and the execution completely fails to cash in on the promise.
Look, the full set-up isn’t important, since this is just an example session. In brief, however, it’s a future scenario in a flooded, hot, swampy London. Think Mad Max with boats, but not Waterworld. People are living in the half-flooded ruins and stringing platforms and bridges between them. Disease is rampant, people scavenge – even fifty years later – and find things beneath the waters.The game centres around a hardhold in an old, brutalist, concrete housing bloc from the 1970s and their acts of scavenging to keep their hardhold going.
Lane – The chief of the Hardhold, an athletic woman who dresses in urban sports gear and body armour, an old gasmask etc. She leads from the front, with a gang of miscreants in her wake. It’s a savage, decadent existence.
Haus – Pilots a tug, it’s a brute of a little boat and able to tug enormous weights, but it’s slow. He’s well armed.
The Hook and the Game
GM: “It’s been a hard winter, and a wet spring. The flood waters have risen, flooding another floor of the Hardhold and cramming more people into the upper floors. Summer has come in with a vengeance, turning the air soupy, the stink from the shit-pools is especially vile. With that heat has come the skeeters, horseflies and along with them… disease. Unless you get some decent medicine, and soon, the disease will gut the Hardhold and make people lose faith in your leadership. Already they’re killing anyone who shows sign of the disease, sacrificing them to Father Thames to call for his mercy.”
Lane: “OK, so the Hardhold survives by doing all sorts of things, including scavenging, and it has the perk of a bustling market. I rolled 13 before play started, to see how much extra barter I’ve got, and that makes 4 personal barter for today. Can we check the market to see if there’s any of the pills we need, or a herbal remedy or anything?”
[This is trouble. My plot hook relies on them needing to get rare and hard to find medicines. If I just allow them to barter for it, the whole adventure idea is borked. If I don’t, I’m violating the Hardholder’s character and Hardhold concepts. You can choose to ignore the Barter Move, but since I didn’t establish that before play, it’s going to be a violation. Even if I make the cost of the medicine absurd, Lane can just have sex with Haus over and over and over again to produce free and endless barter (until and unless Haus leaves). Still, maybe they’ll fail and it won’t be a problem].
GM: “You can go down to the half-flooded pontoons and piers and ask some of the scumrunners, divers and scavs if you like. They stink worse than anywhere else, and everyone has their face covered with old gas masks, alcohol-soaked bandanas and other breathing apparatus.”
Haus: “We can split up to cover more people, and I’m a scavenger myself, they might be a bit more open with me. I roll Hx +3 to help, I only get a 7, exposing myself to a downside, damn.”
GM: “Hump, a scav you owe barter to, is prowling the piers with his gang of mutants. If you can’t pay, you’d better stay clear.”
Haus: “I’ll keep out of the piers and stand guard on the stairs then, trying to look busy.”
Lane: “Bartering is based on Sharp, so I get ten.”
[What do I do here? They’ve already got a ten, but should they have a bonus for their Hardhold having a thriving market? Is that a tag? What do tags do? Can I add bonuses or penalties to their rolls? Nothing in the main book, only in the appendix and online the discussion seems to be anti, even in Dungeon World which is a bit more ‘traditional’. Uh oh, they’re looking at me flipping madly through the book and typing things in, and this is a simple thing to understand in most games. The commentary at the end says +/- one or two, the help/interfere actions suggest the same thing, but without any skills or anything this renders the choices you make for your characters virtually meaningless as – by standard – you only really get +/- one to two, three at the outside. That means the outcome of anything is, essentially, random! What a load of old shite… bugger, better make a ruling. I was hoping they’d fail so I didn’t have to override them and invalidate their character choices.]
GM: “It doesn’t seem like anyone has access to the pills that you need, but there is a diver who claims they know where you can find it. If you’ll barter her some lead. (That’s three barter in game speak).”
Lane: “Well I can cover that from my stash then. I do the deal, unless I can argue them down?”
GM: “Nah, three is the price, you got a ten so it’s not going to get any better.”
GM: “Meatcalf, the diver, is an odd duck. Greyish skin, knife-shaved hair, water – and snot – constantly drips from her nose. The water isn’t exactly clean in the city, even fifty years after the floods came. Her raft is covered in recovered solar cells and posts a small wind turbine on its mast. Her baskets are full of old bits of electronics, most inoperable, and there’s a smell of stinking plastic as she melts down old circuit boards for the precious metals.”
GM (As Meatcalf): “Hello Lane, what can I do for you – cough – ? Gold, copper, a working calculator perhaps?”
Lane: “You know why I’m here ‘Calf. I’m looking for something to help my people who are sick. Something to bring down the fever so they can survive, even maybe some antibiotics. I hear you know where we can get some.”
GM (As Meatcalf): “I do, I do – cough – but it’ll cost you plenty. That shit’s precious. You’ll have to get it yourself, but I know where you can. You give me that lead I want, I’ll give you the information.”
Lane: “OK, I’ll have the lead loaded on Meatcalf’s raft, but make sure a few of the guys are around in case she tries to run.”
GM: “She doesn’t, she scrawls you a map on a piece of bleached wood with an ancient marker-pen. You recognise the landmarks and you know where it is.
GM (As Meatcalf): “It’s a farmy-cyst, where the olds kept their medicines. Only it’s not on any of the old maps. Must have been changed-a-fresh when the end came. Shelves and shelves.”
Lane: “So why didn’t you take any?”
GM (As Meatcalf): “I like the – cough – ‘tronics. Not the medicines.”
Lane: “I’ll take the map and join up with Haus.”
Haus: “Do I know anything about the area on the map, being a scavenger and everything?”
[Oh dear. There isn’t anything like a knowledge roll, to make. No moves seem appropriate and the state of the city will be in constant flux as different factions fight, so it’s not appropriate to just give or withhold the information. ‘Read the Sitch’ sounds like the right thing, but isn’t, it’s for reading people. The general guideline is ‘if it’s not a move, just do it, but that doesn’t seem appropriate. After thoroughly flipping back and forth through the book, there’s fuck all guidance in here and any time you do try to look anything up you’re looking for something really specific, a ‘move’. I’d improvise and just ask for a Sharp roll, but the point in examining a system is to play it by the book].
GM (Pulling shit out of his arse): “Nothing current. Front lines and arenas shift so often that you’re learning afresh every time you head out there.”
Lane: “We’d better get going then. I’ll leave the gang to keep order and protect the Hardhold. If word has gotten out about the sickness, we might come under attack.”
Haus: “Off to the tug then.”
GM: “This is the first time we’ve done anything to do with your ship, so why don’t you tell us about it?”
[This will give me a little more time to think].
Haus: “It’s an old pre-apocalypse tug, with some heavy modifications and makeshift repairs. She’s a brute, and rides low in the water, but she’s powerful and tough. The only problem she has, is that she guzzles biodiesel like it’s going out of fashion. There’s some makeshift armour hung around the outside and the cabin, and a powerful winch with a variety of hooks and cables. Her name’s painted on the side, ‘Unnatural Disaster’.”
Lane: “There’s no time to waste, so let’s get going. I’ll sit on top of the cabin and keep watch, you steer and navigate.”
Haus: “Yes m’aam. Right, I’ll top of the tank, start her up, cast off and follow the map as best I can.”
GM: “OK, give me a moment.”
[If they got lost that could be interesting, but it should only happen if they fail at navigation. There’s no such Move and again this falls afoul of the ‘if it’s not a Move, just do it’ rule. So the only way I can have them get lost, or not, is to choose. If I arbitrarily decide to make them get lost that’s a dick move, and puts the onus for that onto me rather than the dice. If I don’t, I’m making things easier on them than they should be. Once again the game’s lack of adaptability or – ironically – room for improvisation lets me down. Rules, typically, allow me to introduce potential problems or threats and allow characters to avoid them if they’ve invested in that area. They help build the game organically. This doesn’t let me do that. I’d rather not be a dick, so they can navigate there no problem].
GM: “It takes about an hour of chugging through the waterways of the drowned city to get there. You see a few others out and about, scavvers hooting at you to stay away from their claims, hunters from the blood clains – though they give you a wide berth. Seems like the news about the disease has spread and they’re unwilling to catch it. Finally you reach what seems to be the right coordinates. The water is fairly still here, though it is thick and dirty with a slowly disintegrating mulch and the rotting plastic of the time-before. The place you want should be beneath the four buildings here that stab out of the mire, a crossroads of the before-time.”
Haus: “Do we notice anything out of the ordinary? Want to be safe before we dive down.”
[Well shit. Is there an awareness type move? A notice-hidden-things type move? If I’m pitting their alertness against an enemy’s ability to be stealthy what the shit am I supposed to do here? Enemies don’t even have stats exactly, even less so than in something like Numenera. So I can’t even pro-actively roll for the bad guys to see if they succeed on being sneaky – and there are bad guys here. Again, I’m forced to make a choice in which neither player competence nor bad-guy ability play a roll. Acting Under Fire comes close, especially from the examples, but not really. I have to be a dick and impose it, whatever way I decide to go, and that tends to lead me to play nice, since it’s all on me and not emergent from the dice].
GM: “Uh, well, it’s been occupied at some point. That seems for certain. There’s still some remnants of old rope bridges between the four buildings – or at least the ropes. The thickness of the muck suggests a fair few people were here fairly recently. There’s no real sign of any people now though, though there is a fair amount of junk on the roofs and an old windmill is still turning at the corner of one of the buildings. Otherwise, all you can see are a few rats, sitting and grooming themselves on the flotsam and jetsam.”
Haus: “Alright, I’ll chug us on in, slow and careful, bump the tug up against one of the buildings to help hold us in place and drop anchor. Gauge the depth.”
Lane: “And I’ll stand watch still, but if we’re coming to a stop I’ll stand up.”
GM: OK, so…
[Still no way to handle stealth or alertness that makes sense in this situation, Read Sitch isn’t appropriate, again I don’t want to be a dick and Lane is standing watch, but ugh. Just ugh.]
GM: …As the tug comes to a halt there is a sudden rushing sound, almost like water, from the building you’re anchored to. Lane sees sudden movement from within one of the empty holes that used to be windows and then realises, in horror, that it is a tidal wave of rats. Huge ones. They gush out of the opening like a firehose has been connected to your nightmares. They’re huge, sleek, well fed, mutated or bred to be enormous and squealing with malevolent glee. What do you do?
[Enemies don’t get much in the way of stats, so there’s not a great deal to differentiate one enemy from another. These rat-dudes exist in great numbers though, even though individually they don’t pose much threat. All I really get to control is armour and harm. So let’s go base harm 0, base armour 1 (hits are only really going to take out individual rats and leave the swarm relatively untouched). This makes the enemies rather statistically flavourless].
Haus: “Fuck, I’ll dive for the ship’s motor and move us off. We’re anchored, but they’ll have to swim in order to reach us. I know rats can swim, but they won’t be able to just rush out of the building on to us.”
Lane: “I’ll stomp the shit out of any rats that make it to the tug with my boots.”
GM: “Alright, let me just figure this out…”
[Is Haus acting under fire? Are they helping Lane by increasing the distance, or hindering the rats? Why is helping or hindering dependent on your personal relationship, rather than what’s being done? Lane is obviously Going Aggro, and the ratswarm is clearly attacking, doing potential harm. That harm, from the rats, is going to be base 0, +3 Harm for size difference, 1 Armour, +3 Armour for size of the swarm. Oof. For rats, or anything else for that matter? I’m going to have to fiddle something here. First things first though. Let’s call it helping].
GM: “Uh, OK, so you’re trying to help Lane, essentially, by stemming the rate at which the rats can attack. So make an Hx roll.”
Haus: “I only get 8… wait, do I add the tug’s power here?”
GM: “One sec… yes, I think so.”
Haus: “Ten then.”
GM: “Alright, so that’s enough. The tug starts pulling away, though you’re still anchored for now, you’ve only got the play left on the chain. Lane, roll for Going Aggro.”
Lane: OK, with Haus’ bonus that’s… still only 7.
GM: “Wait… I think it’s Seize by Force, though that’s really counter-intuitive. Same result?”
Lane: “Same result.”
GM: “OK, choose two of the combat options.”
Lane: “I will ‘take little harm’ and ‘inflict terrible harm’.”
GM: “Stompy boots and going all out will give you one damage, terrible harm raises that to two. You’re stamping and mushing rats underfoot, but for every one you crush, two more leap onto the deck or swim up to the side. They swarm up your legs, biting at you, tearing your clothes and squirming inside. You take… three harm, minus one for armour, minus another one for ‘take little harm’. So one harm, roll that, 2d6+1.”
GM: “In your desperation to scramble the rats off you and to stamp them to death, you lose your footing on the blood and guts and tumble off the tug into the water with a splash. Well. More of a splat really.”
GM: “Arse indeed. So the rats continue to pour out of the building, splashing into the murk, squirming through the water, scrambling up the side of the tug to bite and devour in a furry wave. What do you do?”
Lane: “I swim for my life towards the building, maybe I can get inside.”
Haus: “I drag my shotgun from its holster and unload a blast of shot into the biggest knot of rats.”
[I guess swimming away is an Act Under Fire, though it doesn’t seem appropriate, but nothing does and the ‘only a Move is a Move’ rule gets in the way once again. Haus is ‘Seizing by Force’ I suppose, but that’s really badly named].
GM: “Lane, Act Under Fire, Haus, Seize by Force.”
[I’m supposed to offer a worse outcome, a hard bargain or an ugly choice here, but it’s hard to see what that might be here. Harm? It’s not an explicit outcome of an Act Under Fire, but it’s implied in the examples. So she takes harm, but gets into the building I guess.]
GM: “The rats are crawling all over you, biting, squirming, it’s almost like you’re swimming through a sea of rats, rather than the water. Take three harm, minus your armour, that’s two harm. Roll for it.”
Lane: “Ugh, fourteen.”
[Balls. This wasn’t meant to be remotely this tough. Lane is getting really fucked over by this rat swarm].
GM: “You manage to scramble into the building, covered in bites. The room is on a slope and half full of stagnant water, but the rats aren’t following you in, they’re looping back towards the tug.”
Haus: “I add the power for the tug, right, since I’m on it?”
Haus: “Eleven. Booyah. So that’s three options. Can I put all three into damage?”
[There’s nothing that says you can and nothing that says you can’t. It would let me get them out of the trouble they’re in, but if I let him do that it sets a dangerous precedent for later on in the game, though maybe I can find some justification not to let them later on].
GM: “Sure, I guess. It’s a spread weapon and they’re lots of little creatures.”
Haus: “So that’s six damage.”
GM: “Minus their armour, is five. You blast your sawn-off into the wave of rats that’s cresting the tug, shattering many of their tiny bodies and clearing the deck of most of them. With another cartridge still in the chamber you’re able to advance down the deck and blast the window hole they’re scrambling out from, that seems to stem the tide, with the ones that are left scattering in all directions and squirming back into the building.”
[Bugger, I forget the size difference, but what the shit, let’s just get it done].
Lane: “When I think it’s safe I’ll climb around the outside of the building back to the tug.”
GM: “Rats or not, this does seem to be the right spot. You still need to get down there and find the drugs you need.”
Haus: “I think we’re best of you go down and I keep watch. I know how the ship works, I’ve got the gun. I stand the best chance against any other attacks or problems.”
Lane: “And the settlement will respect me more if I’m the one that gets them what they need. Alright, I’ll strip down, take a rope and bag in one hand, and if Haus has a torch I’ll use that in the other.”
Haus: “Do I have a torch?”
GM: “Uh, sure, makes sense to have one, even if it’s old and battered. You have an old wind-up electric torch with a cluster-LED bulb, most of which still work.”
Haus: “I’ll crank it to build a charge and hand it to Lane.”
Lane: “Alright, here goes. I’ll dive in and swim down, using the light to try and figure where this pharmacy is.”
[Bugger, another thing for which there are no rules. Generic athletics is so fundamental to most games that it’s conspicuous by its absence in this game. Just letting her do it (the rules as written) seems inappropriate. The closest thing is, perhaps, ‘Act Under Fire’, the ‘fire’ being the hazards of operating underwater, but again that just doesn’t really seem to be right. It’ll do].
GM: “Make an Act Under Fire roll then.”
Lane: “Seven. Shit.”
[Ah crap, now I have to come up with one of those worse results, hard bargains or ugly choices. It still really doesn’t adequately work here, but what can I do…]
GM: “In the gloom you spot the filthy remnants of the cross shape the old ones used to mark such places, but against all odds the windows are intact and the door locked. You’re running out of breath, the only thing you really have to hand to break the window is the torch, but it’ll likely break. Still, without it, you’ll have to surface and waste more time and risk another descent.”
Lane: “I’ll smash the window.”
GM: “The torch light flickers out after the third hit, but the ancient glass finally gives way. You can barely see but you scramble around in the dark, feeling for the shapes of pill bottles. Finally, with your lungs burning you break the surface with a few handfuls of plastic bottles, though the labels have long soaked away and disintegrated.”
Lane: “Once we get back we can try and make sure of what’s what. Can I dive back down a few more times to gather more?”
[Another problem. There’s no generic intelligence ability and you need a Savvyhead to have a Move that seems appropriate, and that rolls on Weird, which doesn’t seem right. Problem for another time].
GM: “Sure, but without a light you waste a lot of time finding your way and grabbing what you can. You’ve got quite a bit though.”
Haus: “Let’s head home.”
[This is more trouble than it’s worth, it would go much smoother to do a similar game using Interlok or something better suited, where things would work properly and improvisation would come easier].