A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.


Review: Apocalypse World

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 13, 2017

Tagged: vincentbaker megueybaker apocalypseworld pbta storygames breakoutcon breakoutcon2017

My character sheet for *Apocalypse World*

My second day of BreakoutCon began with a game of plain old Apocalypse World. There are many games built on top of the rules for this game I often forget that underneath them all there is a game about playing horny people in the post-apocalypse. Our game was based on a one shot adventure written by Baker to introduce people to the game—his Keep on the Borderlands, I guess.1 At the start of the game we were asked if we wanted a game that was gonzo or serious. I think we were all on the fence and so ended up with something in the middle.

I wasn’t fussy at all about what class I played, so I let everyone pick their playbooks first (classes in Apocalypse World) and I picked the last one, a Skinner. My character was a hot singer whose gender was ambiguous, dressed in some haute couture whose origin and continued upkeep was unclear. You get to pick two moves when you start. I picked one that pushed my Hot stat to +3 and another move that sort of charms people who see me perform my art (singing). And then we started asking each other questions.

Apocalypse World has rules for building relationships between the characters that are great and seem like the most interesting innovation in the game. Each class has a series of questions you ask. Other players chime up to answer, granting you a history bonus with that player’s character. By the time everyone has asked their questions you have a web of interconnection between everyone at the table. Too heavy for the sorts of of OD&D games I play where I make characters in a few seconds and refuse to name them till they survive the session, but on the whole this wasn’t an onerous process at all. For games like 5e where you are likely to create characters you hope to have stick around for a while these sorts of mechanics should be stollen whole hog. (I can imagine questions for each of the classes in D&D.) This is the mechanic to steal from this game, not that 2d6 business. That’s pedestrian in comparison. Before the game had started there was already a little heat.

The set up for this one-shot involved everyone getting a letter that told them a little bit of the action and asked them to roll and see what the current deal was, a custom Apocalypse World move to start their game. These letters introduced additional backstory and adventure hooks. The hard holder failed their “love letter” roll so our game began with us trapped in our hard hold, surrounded by an enemy gang, with things looking bad for us. Also, a rival faction inside our compound split off and holed themselves up. Also, there were a bunch of spies working a against us inside the compound. Also, the mud flaps, weird fish people we were trading with, were suffering the effects of a highly contagious disease. Also, the worlds psychic maelstrom was fucking with several of the NPCs (and myself). Also, a whole other bunch of stuff was happening. I appreciate that there was lots of things for our characters to latch onto and explore, but it meant that a lot of the interpersonal adventure hooks we figured out earlier never really came into play. It was comical how zany and hectic the opening situation was. (Also, the villains name was Ambergrease, which I love.)

Unlike D&D where you usually adventure as a group, in this game all the characters were usually off doing their own thing. Everyone was running around trying to figure out how to make sure things didn’t explode. This felt a bit awkward at times: there were often long gaps between a player being called on to narrate what their character was getting up to rolling to see what was going on. We’d all listen to what the Chopper was doing, or the Angel, or the Brainer, and then wait for things to circle back to us. I personally don’t mind this: I liked being able to relax and listen to what was going on around me. There was always something going on.

The tone of the game was quite different than that of Night Witches. Failed rolls lead to more complications, but in Apocalypse World proper success would often be just that. My character began the game with a +3 Hot. This is pretty sweet, and made any actions I needed to take with my Hot stat an easy success. The starting stats in Apocalypse World (in contrast to Night Witches) produces fairly competent characters from the get go. My Skinner was amazing at being Hot. It was unlikely i’d fail if called on to roll against that stat. This encouraged me to deal with problems by using my ample hotness whenever possible. I don’t think this is that unusual: D&D and most games with stats will reinforce your character’s roles and personality by incentivizing moves that require a particular attribute. With this game those situations where we were pushed to leave our character’s comfort zone were usually more interesting, because these end up with the failures or partial successes that produce interesting plot twists. Night Witches scales everything down, and you can produce a lot of strife and conflict that’s also very quiet. With Apocalypse World to generate that same level of conflict felt like it required a whole lot of action to be going on. One thing we didn’t do in our one shot that I suspect would result in people choosing to use their less amazing stats is the rules for marking stats and advancement. The DM and the player you have the highest history with each mark one of your stats. When you roll a highlighted stat you mark experience. In this way the game can encourage you to not just use sex to get your way.

Apocalypse World looks to focused on producing narratively interesting situations. The problem solving in the game will usually require you to make one die roll, that leads to another, and another, and another. In the book they refer to this as moves snowballing. Trying to minimize how many rolls you need to make to accomplish your goals might be the approach to the game more tactically minded players take when playing. (How do I work the situation so my Skinner can seduce this person rather than threaten them with violence.) As far as I can tell you don’t give out bonuses for coming up with an amazing plan that ultimately requires you shoot someone, though perhaps the steps that lead up to you shooting someone might set things up so that you don’t need to roll to make that shot and execute them. There is a different sort of player skill at work. That said, my guess is people are playing Apocalypse World because they care more about interesting narrative than “winning”.

By the time our session was wrapping up we had maybe wrangled enough food to survive and held off the rival gang, but were likely in the midst of being overrun by infection disease and evil brain control. It was a fun game, and I’m glad I got a chance to finally play Apocalypse World.

I’ve had the book for several months now, having backed the Kickstarter. There is a lot to love about Apocalypse World even if you have zero interest in playing the game and think everything I’ve said thus far sounds dreadful. The book is worth owning for the DM advice. The book presents one of the best summations of how to run a sandbox game. (The Warren takes that advice even further) There are some OSR products I’ve seen recently that do a good job here, but I suspect many were inspired by how Apocalypse World presents its advice. The book is very practical in how it talks about running a game. The tone is conversational.2 The advice is direct. You do this and then you do this and then you do this. These are things I think other game publishers could learn from.

That said, I don’t think this is a good book to learn how Apocalypse World games work. Both Night Witches and The Warren do a better job of explaining the rules to their game (and games like them) than Apocalypse World does—in my opinion. Of course, Apocalypse World is a much heavier and more complicated game. Each playbook is quite different from the next. There are lots of moving parts in the game. (You can ignore what you find complex and the game will chug along just fine. We looked to have ignored a fair bit while playing our one shot.) The second edition book I own includes advice for hacking the game, which is likely also of interest to people who are game nerds.

The book is good, but could be great if someone helped with some of the information design and layout. (Why print the character sheets in the middle of the book: it’s 2017, no one is going to photocopy them.) There is lots of great writing scattered throughout the book, but it’s sometimes hard to find. I own the hardcover which is fancy: if you can find a copy you should grab one.

Even if you’re a big D&D-head I think there is something to be said for this game. (Whether you play it or just steal from it.) I liked it.

The most amazing thing about Apocalypse World is that it talks about special sex moves on its 11th page and somehow manages to recover just fine. — Me, August 20th 2016

  1. I looked this ‘adventure’ up while writing this review: it’s fantastic. It’s a very broad skeleton with a worksheet you work through to produce some basic notes for running an adventure. 

  2. Sometimes the tone is too conversational. “You are hot and you do this fucking thing you hot person.” The way the book talks to you can be annoying. It flies too close to the sun. I both write, talk, and sound annoying: there isn’t anything wrong with that. 


Have them Act!

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on January 31, 2017

Tagged: vincentbaker megueybaker apocalypeworld pbta

Remember that the purpose of your prep is to give you something interesting to say when the next session starts. Remember that your NPCs are just not that complicated. You’re not holding back for a big reveal. You’re not doling events out like you’re trying to make your Halloween candy last until New Years. All your threats have impulses they should act on and body parts leading them around, so for god sake, have them act! — Apocalypse World, pg 121, Vincent Baker

I am reading Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meguey Baker, which seems appropriate given the current state of world affairs. Sometimes I find the way it is written annoying, while other times I appreciate its direct and casual manner. On the whole the book is great and the advice scattered throughout can and should be picked up whole hog and used in your most oldest of old school D&D games. Apocalypse World tells you how to run a sandbox game without ever calling it that. The book seems quite revelatory, while managing to not take itself so seriously.

When I was running my Carcosa game I had a lot threats in the wilderness so subtle and so slow moving my players would often not bother investigating to see what was going on, or would get bored of the investigation and move on with their lives. Their biggest enemies were the Jale Slavers, dirt bags who kept on showing up in random encounter rolls, and The Dominant Reflection, an insane Bone Man sorcerer who they had inadvertently set free in the first session, and his cult. These two groups were antagonistic. Trying to deal with them was a clear and obvious goal. After they displaced the The Dominant Reflection the sessions that followed were in an awkward place where they was really only one enemy in play: they were on good terms with most everyone else they interacted with.

In hindsight I should have been far more pushy and straight forward with all the groups I had in play during that game. My Snake-Men from the distant past never once showed up in the game directly because I thought of them as ‘boss monsters’ to be encountered later. The players would see the aftermath of their actions, or stumble upon their army of Carcosan Zombie Men wandering the wilderness, but I never really gave them enough clues to indicate what was going on. Similarly I had a cult North of where the party spent most of their time, but because the party never ventured North after the early sessions this other faction just sort of sat fallow “exploring” a megadungeon the party didn’t care about anyway.

The advice I’ve quoted above seems simple and good. There isn’t much point preparing stuff just to have it sit fallow. Your NPCs Machiavellian plots are probably quite lovely, but I suspect at the table simple and direct action is likely just as much fun to play.


Review: Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 08, 2013

Tagged: osr lotfp kickstarter vincentbaker jackvance

I am currently reading Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions by Vincent Baker. It’s the first of the LotFP adventure modules I helped fund last summer to ship. Between then and now the book somehow ballooned from a 32 page adventure to this 100-something page splat book about wizard’s lairs.

The book is full of tables upon tables to help you come up with your own wizard’s seclusium.1 The book opens with some discussion on magic and seclusiums. Baker than details three particular seclusiums, the titular Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions being the most fleshed out of the three. These three example seclusiums show the reader how to go about using the tables presented in the last part of the book to create a seclusium of their own from scratch. The evocative is mixed with the mundane to help you come up with a cool adventuring location. It is all very Jack Vance.

There is D&D the the role-playing game, and then there are all the meta-games that surround that game. For some players trying to min-max the ultimate character is more fun than actually using that character in a game of D&D. For others drawing and stocking a dungeon is all they want to do. In some ways making a seclusium is its own mini-game: you roll some dice and see how it evolves, imagining its backstory. In this way The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions reminds me a little bit of How to Host a Dungeon. Though the later is clearly presented as a game in its own right, I think it’s particularly appealing to those who enjoy imagining what’s going on in the dungeon they are growing. Similarly one could take The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions and add more elements to make it more of a game in and of itself.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested in the book when I first heard about it. There were other adventures I had hoped would fund. The reviews for this book have been a little bit mixed2, but I quite like it. I own nothing else like it. I’m really glad it funded after all.

Update 2013-08-21: Alex Schroeder has posted a great follow-up to his earlier review on his blog. His opinions of the book now more closely mirror Zak’s.

Update 2013-08-23: I got the actual book a couple days ago, and it is so damn nice in real life.

  1. A seclusion being, “a place to which a wizard withdraws from the world to pursue mastery,” of course. 

  2. Wayne Rossi really didn’t like it. He felt it could have been put together much better. Zak Smith seems to have enjoyed it for the most part, but finds it lacking in how it presents and uses random tables. Alex Schroeder seems to share my generally positive opinion of the book. Finally we have this review by Patrick Stuart in the style of the book itself. 10’ Pole reviewed the book: they are not a fan. At all.