Mini-Review: Apocalypse World

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.

ApocWorld

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.)

4 thoughts on “Mini-Review: Apocalypse World

  1. I can’t argue with anything you’ve said here, but I’d be interested in hearing your experiences of actually playing the game. I think the game design is excellent, but I’ve had only partial success when I’ve played it.

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    • I’ve never actually played the game, only run it. (I generally don’t review something unless I’ve played AND run it, ideally a couple of times, but I’ve played in enough other Powered by the Apocalypse games and run enough sessions of AW that I felt I knew it well enough to critique.) The campaign I ran remains, in my opinion, the second best campaign I’ve ever run, and whilst a lot of the credit for that goes to the players, an equal amount goes to the system and its quality. It’s a brilliant engine for generating the kind of dramatic, violent, sexy stories we were all looking for – some of the decisions that were made mechanically were genuinely heartwarming, which isn’t an adjective I associate with game mechanics very often.

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  2. Apocalypse World is one of two tabletops I intend to run this year – there’s a lot about it that I really love. But in one sentence, you surface the single biggest problem I have with the game:

    “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’s the single mechanic that give me the most heebie-jeebies in any (good) game I’ve ever seen (caveat there because I’m aware there are systems that are much worse, but they’re also utter horrors). It’s why I flat out don’t want to play Monsterhearts, because it takes that line and makes it a heavy focus for the whole game.

    I absolutely get that to an extent, it’s about the gaming group you choose to play it with, and that basically in incumbent on all players to handle that kind of material in a game in a sensitive and grown-up manner, but still: I find the game a little to eager to invoke system alongside sexual conduct. I personally believe that system mechanics should *never* be a factor in determining a character’s sexual agency.

    I don’t care how Hot a character is, if a PC doesn’t want to have sex with them, they system has no business even getting as far as “chose to either have good stuff for doing what I want, or bad stuff if you refuse me” in a sexual context – the equivalent behaviour in real life would be unacceptably creepily coercive *at best*. Even the idea of restricting that sort of thing to NPCs only leaves it feeling pretty creepy and I’m not sure I want to allow it.

    I get that Apocalypse World doesn’t *require* a gaming group to use the +Hot mechanics like that, but it does offer everyone a Sex Move as well, and if you clearly tie mechanics in at one point in the, erm, sexual process, I think it’s pretty hard to argue that they’re not intended to be used at others. Most other games with a stat that can be abused for “roll well on this for sexytimes” are pretty careful not to quite so *expressly* link it to sex, and they’re not so coercive about the outcome of a roll.

    None of which stops it being an awesome game that I’m looking forward to running later in the year, but I do feel like I have to carefully and expressly delineate a chunk of the system as off limits in some respects in order to make it socially acceptable, whereas with other games, I sort of feel like it’s just generally understood that the system is not to be used for creeping on characters. 🙂

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    • That’s a very interesting perspective! I disagree, but I couldn’t honestly say if that’s because it isn’t a problem for ME rather than it not being a problem at all.

      For me, the two critical factors are…

      (1) The move that’s usually there for making sex happen is “Seduce or Manipulate”, which to my mind is about as broad as the “Persuasion” skill in most other games for allowing-but-not-mandating direct sexytimes initiation. You can very easily get through a whole AW campaign without the-thing-you-want from another character being sex – and it isn’t even something that reduces the amount of sex that happens in the game, since the people I play with tend to be eager for their characters to leap into bed with each other anyway.

      (2) No PC is ever made to engage in sexual acts they don’t want to. Yes, there are penalties for not doing so, but none so tyrannical that it feels like an actual punishment to me.

      If you do run a game, and make any mechanical changes to address your concerns, I’d be very interested in seeing them 🙂

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