Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Apocalypse World


Something’s wrong with the world and I don’t know what it is.

It used to be better, of course it did. In the golden age of legend, when there was enough to eat and enough hope, when there was one nation under god and people could lift their eyes and see beyond the horizon, beyond the day. Children were born happy and grew up rich.

Now that’s not what we’ve got. Now we’ve got this. Hardholders stand against the screaming elements and all comers, keeping safe as many as they can. Angels and savvyheads run constant battle against there’s not enough and bullets fly and everything breaks. Hocuses gather people around them, and are they protectors, saviors, visionaries, or just wishful thinkers? Choppers, gunluggers and battlebabes carve out what they can and defend it with blood and bullets. Drivers and operators search and scavenge, looking for that opportunity, that one perfect chance. Skinners remember beauty, or invent beauty anew, cup it in their hands and whisper come and see, and don’t worry now about what it will cost you. And brainers, oh, brainers see what none of the rest of us will: the world’s psychic maelstrom, the terrible desperation and hate pressing in at the edge of all perception, it is the world now.

And you, who are you? This is what we’ve got, yes. What are you going to make of it?

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column meant to introduce SF Signal readers to the world of roleplaying games. We’ve talked about some of the heavyweights of roleplaying, the ones that you have most likely seen or even played yourself. This time out, we’re going to head on into the world of small press “Indie” games with the latest game from D Vincent Baker: Apocalypse World!


Post-Apocalypse games are certainly nothing new in roleplaying games. Experienced gamers and new gamers might have played either the old school or new school version of Gamma World, which takes a gonzo look at a world after the apocalypse has torn it down. Paranoia is a post-apocalypse world where everyone is living inside of an immense computer complex. Dark Future was a hybrid roleplaying game/tabletop action game that channeled Mad Max with the sense that the world itself was undergoing a change. And the world of Shadowrun certainly is on the far end of a time of tumult where creatures of magic and fantasy make an explosive return to the world.

Apocalypse World takes a violent, bloody and adult look at a post-apocalypse world and sets the players to make of it what they will. It’s the latest creation of D Vincent Baker, and like all of his previous work, it is an “indie game”. No major publisher stands behind Apocalypse World, a small press game.

Indie games are, in a real sense, the bleeding edge of roleplaying games. Or, if short stories are where fantasy and science fiction get experimental and try new things, indie games are the short stories of the roleplaying genre. However, without that exposure, these indie games are often difficult to find. A group of gamers I belong to in Minnesota regularly seek out and play these sorts of games, but even well stocked game stores often have a very small amount of these games available and accessible.

Thus, I am sure almost all of the readers of this column probably have never heard of Baker before, and it is my pleasure to introduce his work to you.

D Vincent Baker first emerged on the roleplaying scene 7 years ago with the creation of Dogs in the Vineyard, a game loosely based on Mormon theology and teaching, which allows a group of players to take on the roles of agents touring towns and settlements, solving problems. At the time, its poker-like method of bidding dice was innovative and different, and the game is very interesting to play even if the trappings are not to your taste. (I have seen Dogs successfully reskinned to work in a number of different milieus and environments.)

In a Wicked Age is a small booklet of a sword and sorcery game, using a card deck to aid in getting conflicts and characters creation for a scenario on the fly. Unlike most games, when you sit down to an In a Wicked Age there is little telling you just what sort of character you are going to wind up creating, because the world emerges from the Oracle list from the card draw and the imagination of the characters. The booklet and its text aren’t extremely inviting to new roleplayers, and the nature of the game, I think, makes it a “palate cleanser” of a game for regular roleplayers to play while in between trying different games.

And now, we have Apocalypse World.

Apocalypse World does not specify how the apocalypse happened, or why, or even what the world is like afterwards. (There are a few common elements, such as the “psychic maelstrom” that just hovers outside of the perception, but can be accessed, with extreme risk). The hows and whys don’t matter to the game, what the world is like is something that is determined by the GM (called the MC in this game). The GM is encouraged to “barf forth apocalyptica” on what this post-apocalypse world is like. The Minnesota Indiegamers and I played two different campaigns of Apocalypse World over the last several months. The first had a post-apocalyptic world dominated by insect swarms and plant life gone amok, and we played a caravan traveling through the U.S. and Canada staying one step ahead. The second had the worst nightmares of ozone depletion leading to sunlight being deadly, life moving underground/indoors, and coming out only at night.

At its heart, Apocalypse World is a relatively simple game that is carefully tuned and focused for both the MC and the players. It’s a story focused game that is driven by character relations to each other and this world. As the back cover says: “And you, who are you. This is what we’ve got, yes. What are you going to make of it?”

Character creation is a focused and directed process. There are “gamebooks” for each type of character, and the characters range from the mind-bending Brainers to Chopper gang leaders. There are five stats (Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp and Weird), and a list of choices of “packages” for those stats. You choose one of those packages, you choose a couple of moves (powers) for your character, set up how your character interacts with the other characters, and you are ready. There are basic moves that any character can use, too.

Baker has also released a few “Expansion” gamebooks in various bundles and offers around. The gamebook concept forces that there’s to be only one player for any type of character, and even though characters can later get moves from other playbooks for their character, each character is guaranteed to be different…and better at what they do than any other character.

GMs are not immune to the gamebook idea, either. They get worksheets called “fronts” which provide a defined and structured way for the GM to throw stuff at the players. Both GMs and players do things through moves, the “skill rolls” of the game. The game encourages players and GMs alike to think of the story/game first, and the name of the move second. The mantra is “To do something, do it”. Instead of “Amber is going to act under fire to get into the underground base”, its “Me: Amber is going to sneak past the guards and get into that compound. GM: Excellent. Roll to Act Under Fire to see if Ricter and his gang spot you going in.”

Mechanics for resolving moves such as Act Under Fire are simple. The only dice you need are two six-sided dice. You roll the two dice, and add or subtract the appropriate stat. Other players can roll to help or hinder this roll, and things like ongoing penalties and bonuses can modify it, but otherwise, it’s dead easy. So in the example above, I would roll two six sided dice, and add my cool. For most moves, a 10 or more on the dice plus stat is a complete success, a 7-9 is a partial success (which can often lead to trouble) and a 6 or less is a miss, in which case, look out!

Like Dungeons and Dragons, your characters can gain experience, but not by killing monsters, but rather through using your stats. At the beginning of every session, the players and GM together may choose two of your stats to be “highlighted” for that session. Only skill rolls involving that stat will gain experience. Thus, to use Amber again, in one of the sessions, one of the players told me to highlight my “Hot”. What this means is that rolls involving that stat, and the other chosen by the GM (which happened to be “Cool”), were going to gain me experience. So in a way, Eric and the GM were telling me. “I want to see Amber manipulate people and to get into tense situations”. The game thus provides a formal mechanism and a way to reward people for doing stuff the other people at the table want to see. With enough experience, players can develop their characters and even bring second characters into play, retire their old one, or change their character into a new type entirely.

The only thing about these mechanics that really struck my friends and I in playing it is that player versus player conflicts (as opposed to player versus GM’s non player characters) were sometimes tricky to adjudicate and figure out who had the right to roll. It’s a kick-in-the-teeth, balls-to-the-wall sort of game that both players and game designers are paying attention to. In the ludography (list of game inspirations) in this book, Baker lists a number of games that helped shape Apocalypse World. I fully expect in the years to come, in the Indie game community anyway, Apocalypse World is going to feature prominently in those games own ludographies.

One other thing I should mention explicitly about Apocalypse World that I only casually mentioned before is that this is a game for adults, not little kids. The game is violent, sharp and the language in the book includes words that I can’t publish in this space. Each of the types of characters has a “sex move”, which means they get to do something cool if they have sex with another character. So, this is a game you might play with your 17 year-old, but I wouldn’t go younger than that.

Is Apocalypse World worth your time? It’s certainly a different game. Thinking about it now, having played two full multi-session games of it, while I think you can bring newbie players to a gaming table with this game, you need a GM who has run a game before — even if its Dungeons and Dragons — to really make this game come alive. And it does come alive. The Indiegaming group I am in prides itself in trying new games and new systems. We liked Apocalypse World enough to start a second game, with one of the players from the first game taking the GM role, and adding a new player to the mix. We are all more than satisfied with Apocalypse World. Hell, I’d love a try to run this game myself.

One of the valuable things that Apocalypse World tells us, however, has nothing to do with games themselves, but rather books and e-books. There are large concerns about the future of books and publishing. Can authors and creators make it in a world where large publishing companies are having their ways of doing business threatened by e-books? Well, game designers like Baker are already living in that world. They are learning, struggling and trying to make a living in a world where they can’t go to a Wizards of the Coast to get their game published. They have to work with readers, players and other game designers to find new methods of bringing their games to an audience. They are already there and already making a go of it.

One thought on “Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Apocalypse World”

  1. Very enlightening article. I wasn’t very convinced with Apocalypse World, even being a fan of post-apocalyptic settings. I first found all that “moves” thing confusing, but now I might give it a chance.

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