Sunday, November 13, 2011

Playing Apocalypse World

We've played Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker three times now, me being the GM (or Master of Ceremonies - 'MC' - in AW's lingo). I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. I've probably not yet grasped it right - it feels awkward and unbalanced in some aspects, despite its many awesome parts.

The moves are cool! In AW, everything a player or the MC can do is structured as a move. Each one is described in this "If you do MOVE, roll +ATTRIBUTE. On 10+ you succeed, on 7-9 something more complicated happens and otherwise you fail." straight-forward and colloquial style typical for Vincent Baker. Its easy to understand and pretty quick to use. The really great thing about in my opinion is that every move description is basically the designer saying "do this for fun". Compare that to the design approach common to many other role playing games where the designers apparently spend lots of time to devise rules for how to simulate and decide different types of conflicts but forget to think about when and how those rules are fun to play out. Moves are really direct disgn-to-play tools. AW's moves are a lot of fun and in fact I think its where most of the enjoyment of this game comes from.

Most of the moves are cool, but the rest of them are truly awesome! Giving the players explicit powers to ask the MC questions is simply ingenious. The back-and-forth between in-game fiction an at-the-table mechanics works like a charm most of the time and is lots of fun.

The simplicity of the mechanics is cool... sort of. Everything is 2d6 + some attribute, success on 10+, partial success on 7-9. Thats refreshing after having to deal with dice pools or systems that have different dice mechanics for every other type of conflict. But AW's mechanics are also too simple for my taste...because there are no opposed rolls and in fact, the MC never rolls any dice!

I can see that it is a neat feat to write a major game like that, sort of as a design challenge. But does that improve the game? I think not. You see the PCs improve in their capabilities quite quickly. As the game goes on, they get more and more competent and the only way the MC can counteract is by raising the stakes, by increasing the hurt in case the PCs do fail against all odds. But at the same time, as a fan of the PCs you do not want to kill them. I may be wrong but I think that the game can unhinge after a few session if the players do not actively work to keep it in the tracks.

All this only has a chance of working out because AW has a very limited range of conflicts: You basically have only firefights between humans and one-on-one diplomatic/manipulatory contests, both of which are at least initially balanced by the design. You also have lots of minigames like healing, contacting the psychic maelstrom or taking care of an off-screen job. But those are each completely defined and isolated by a move so that the execution of each move is almost never influenced by context or by other moves.

To put it in another way: The designer chose the moves and fine-tuned their difficulty and risk to a certain balance, relying on a system that does not allow for mechanical complications. That works fine at the beginning, but because you also have quite substantial character improvement, it can quickly lead to very potent PCs. Combine this with the kind of gonzo play that is encouraged by the setting and the examples and you will arrive at play that I personally do not enjoy.

AW also has explicit moves for the MC/GM. If you follow those, you'll basically be mastering in sandbox fashion. I like that in this game, Vincent not only tells you not to plan plots or events ahead, he also pushes GM tools into your hands that make you do just that and stay organized and prepared to whatever the players decide to do. This starts with simply listing rules and moves like "introduce future badness", "spout forth apocaliptica" or "be a fan of the PCs". All of which are on the one hand just prose and non-mechanic but still binding because of their presentation as explicit, non-negotiable rules. But there are also more mechanical techniques like fronts, threats and threat clocks. I like all this a lot but strangely I did not use most of those rules... It just did not feel like fun to do nor did it seem necessary or convenient. Or maybe its just my laziness showing. So I think the idea is great but the actual design of the tools seems to be not to my taste or needs.

On a related note, since non of the MC moves require the MC to role dice, anything the MC does is either powerful GM fiat or ... fluffy GM fiat. Some of the sandbox tools do have mechanical properties (e.g. the threat clocks) but even those impact the fiction strictly as interpreted by the MC. It would have been easy to add a dice throw here or there to the existing MC moves and rules and simplify some of the creative burden placed on the MC. I think this is a missed chance but I also suspect that Vincent designed this very deliberately because he is a strong believer of benevolent GM power. Personally, I like the principle behind random encounters or generally random event tables so I would have liked to see something similar here to.

I think I may like the sex moves, but none of the 5 players made a female character (!) and none of them was ready to seriously entertain homosexual relationships in the game... To bad. Play unsafe guys! I tried to bring some sex, erotic relationships or at least positive relationships into the game through the NPCs, with mixed success. I would have needed more time to really corner some of the PCs and force them to commit to in to binding and relevant in-game relationships. I also could have done a better job of advertising for this kind of involvement with the game world upfront, before and during char-gen. Ultimately, play would most probably certainly have improved with more intense positive relationships (Negative relationships are not a problem, they usually pop up by themselves). All this is not the fault of the game. But then again, there are no mechanical rules, neither in char-gen nor afterwards, that enforce player investment into in-world relationships even though such relationships are a fundamental premise of the whole game. A major flaw in my opinion!

This post already got much longer than I expected and I am not even sure I mentioned everything I wanted to. Obviously, I have been thinking about AW a lot in the last weeks, so I may have overcomplicated some of my points. Please ask for clarifications if I make no sense, I know I often don't.

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