by D. Vincent Baker
Want to play a game of sexy, larger-than-life, post-apocalyptic bad-asses in a world gone wrong, full of desolation and horrors and surrounded by the weird, pervasive, and prophetic, psychic maelstrom? Then check out "Apocalypse World" by Vincent Baker. I'd heard good things about it, and it's by Baker, of course, and he's some kind of game making wizard. So I was expecting something special and I wasn't disappointed.
The "setting" of Apocalypse World is simple: About 50 years ago (whenever that was) there was an "event" that destroyed the world, leaving behind only a suffering, struggling fraction of humanity and an invisible force at the edges of perception that the game refers to as "the world's psychic maelstrom". And unless you count the implications presented by the "playsheets" (ie, "classes") that's pretty much it. And that's all you need. The rest is filled in with all of the Mad Max, mutant, zombie, whatever from your favorite books and movies and video games or your own twisted imagination. And don't count out the players, because the very act of playing fills some of those gaps and details. Despite all of the wildness, however, Apocalypse World isn't really "zany". It's closer to "Fallout" than "Gamma World", though it's probably even grittier and more personal than that. "The Book of Eli" is probably a good match for Apocalypse World, and like that movie, it'd probably be "rated R for some brutal violence and language".
Apocalypse World is a little different from (and at the same time a lot the same as) your standard post-apocalyptic RPG. For one, it gives the guy running the game, here called the "Master of Ceremonies", or "MC", a very explicit and fully explained set of instructions for running a solid game of Apocalypse World. The game insists that these are best practices for Apocalypse World, and that the MC should always abide by them. You can of course do what you want, but honestly, from reading and playing the game, I'd have to agree that not following the MC rules is only going to make the game harder to play and possibly a poorer experience as well. And honestly, the rules of the game are just codified advice as to how this game is meant to be played. That said, a lot of the GM rules in Apocalypse World are just things that you've probably already been doing for a long time now. Vincent Baker just gives them pithy names and lays them out for you so you don't forget. Some of the techniques might even apply nicely to other RPGs. And if you aren't familiar with running RPGs, then the direct nature of the GM rules will make the game much friendlier to new MCs ("GMs").
What kind of characters do you play in AW? Choppers (biker gang leaders with their very own gang), Hardholders (warlords protecting a small settlement of survivors from the ravages of Apocalypse World), Brainers (creepy psychic mind-fucks), Gunluggers (all the badass you could possibly want), Battlebabes (as hot as the sun and just as dangerous to touch), Drivers, Hocuses, Angels, Skinners and more. All of these playsheets are filthy with "flavor". Some of my favorite Character Moves (ie, "special abilities") belong to the Gunlugger, for example. Take the "escape" move called, "Fuck this shit", or the move that lets you fight on even terms with a whole gang of opponents called, "Not to be Fucked With".
Now, a big element that makes the game rock, are the "moves". They basically go like this: Roll 2d6+Stat. 10+ succeeds. 7-9 technically succeeds, but there's a cost or a hard choice involved. A 6 or less is a failure, and an invitation for the MC to make your life... "interesting". And that's not sarcasm. Yeah, whatever the MC describes will probably, almost definitely, be something you won't like, but hey, the game's not called "Unicorn World". For example, the aforementioned, "Fuck this Shit".
Fuck this shit: name your escape route and roll+hard.
On a 10+, sweet, you’re gone.
On a 7-9, you can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind, or take something with you, the MC will tell you what.
On a miss, you’re caught vulnerable, half in and half out.
Now, for all of the rules (which aren't much more complicated than the above), Apocalypse World leans heavily on the fiction. That's an important point, and I think it appeals to all sorts of gamers. If it doesn't make sense in the fiction, something's wrong, right? Apocalypse World has a rule of "If you do it, you do it. To do it, you have to do it." That's a catchy and confusing way of saying that if you want to use a move (the game mechanics) you have to describe doing something in the story that would trigger it. Likewise, if you describe your character doing something that would trigger a move, you have to roll for the move (or take back what you were describing and have your character do something else instead). That's handy in that a player doesn't even really need to know how to play. He can just say what he does, just like in other RPGs, and the GM will let him know when he has to roll dice or make a decision.
Characters are already the "stars" of the show, badasses who can best most NPCs without even trying. In my recent game, Kobe the Hardholder took on a gang of about 15 thugs with just his two bodyguards as backup. Sure, he got hurt pretty badly, and lost one bodyguard to a bloody hatchet-death, but he decimated that other gang. It ceased to exist. Even then, XP and character improvement generally come really fast, if the player works at it, bumping up stats, getting new moves, moves from other playsheets, and eventually the right to change his character's type, retire him (or her!) to safety, or even play a second character.
Characters also have a stat called "Hx" (ie, "History") for each other PC, that represents how well you know and understand him. This stat fluctuates as the game progresses, and when it "maxes out" you get an XP and it resets. It's useful for helping or interfering with other PCs (the better you know them, the better you know how to help or hinder them), but what's really awesome about it is that during character creation, Hx is determined by how you answer certain questions. Like, the brainer has instructions to choose another PC, and that PC is determined to have slept in the brainer's presence (not good). That gives the brainer a bonus to Hx with that PC, presumably because she was able to read his mind. But that brings up questions. Why did it happen? When? Did the PC know? All of the various questions from all of the PCs form a web of relationships, both close and troubled, that prime the story for instant drama.
And here's something to wrap your mind around: The characters' "Special Moves", commonly called thier "Sex Moves". Now, now. Don't get weirded out. Let's face it, when the world goes to crap, sometimes all you have to offer is your body. When there's nothing good in the world (and no TV at all!) then physical intimacy can be the highlight of your whole stinking month. Whatever. You don't have to do it if you don't want to, and you certainly don't have to go into any kind of creepy detail, but let's face it, this stuff happens. Maybe just, "off screen". Anyway, the "sex moves" give you a little benefit when your character partakes (consensually, of course). If nothing else, these say a lot about the sort of character you're playing. The Brainer, for example, gets to do a deep psychic scan of anybody she has sex with. Very powerful if she can get anybody to sleep with a weirdo like her. A favorite is the Driver. If he rolls poorly after doing the deed, he gets a -1 penalty to everything until he can do something (probably extreme and/or dickish) to prove that "it's not like she owns me or anything". That's awesome.
There's really so much more to it, and the core system is amazingly hackable and there are a variety of hacks in progress (including "Dungeon World", sort of an old-school D&D style hack).
So there it is, my incomplete review of Apocalypse World.
It's a 301-ish page, digest-sized, soft-bound book with black and white interior. (The art is simple, but stylish and evocative.) You can buy it, as well as download playsheets and read forums and such at: http://apocalypse-world.com
<In-Brain Puppet Strings> Go out and buy it! </In-Brain Puppet Strings>