Four years and countless adaptations later, the original is still the best. Quibbling over the extent of its innovation (or which gaming primogenitor deserves to be recognised as the “true innovator”) is fundamentally missing the point. This is a landmark achievement of game design, and one of the best RPG releases of the decade. When gaming historians look back at The Forge and the Naughties’ story gaming movement, Apocalypse World will stand out as its crowning accomplishment.
Apocalypse World is determined that a rulebook should not just teach a game or provide a reference guide in play – it should also be fun to read. There are no background chapters (it’s essentially a settingless game), but vulgarity and nihilistic sentiment are weaved into the text alongside every new rule or explanation. Some people hate this kind of thing, preferring to keep fiction in its designated area, with the ruleset kept “clean”. When Apocalypse World flaunts this convention, it’s not doing it solely to reinforce tone, or to be contrary or “indie”; it’s a statement of intent. Apocalypse World isn’t interested in constraining its players in a crunchy or obstructive ruleset, but nor is it interested in “getting out of the way” whilst the players roleplay freely. Instead, its narrative and mechanics are intrinsically interwoven. It’s impossible to engage with one without engaging with the other.
When combat breaks out in Apocalypse World, it’s often without warning and without fuss. There are no initiative rolls, no difficulty modifiers, no randomised damage. The circumstances of your environment are absolutes: you made it to cover, or you didn’t. There’s dice rolling, sure, but often no more than would be required to go on a scouting run, or convince another PC to have sex with you. It feels brutal and shocking, especially in contrast to other RPGs. Paradoxically, the violence feels different because the violence is not special; it’s resolved as effortlessly as every other aspect of the game. After the apocalypse, it’s just another fact of life.
If I had to criticise Apocalypse World, I’d complain about its labyrinthine layout, its unintuitive mechanical notation, or its unnecessarily legislative GM’ing chapter. But none of these things put a dent in my enthusiasm. This is about as good as RPGs get, and tabletop gamers of both traditional and indie backgrounds would do well to make a place for it on their shelves.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)