Trying, 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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?