Apocalypse World, In Play

Admiral Rabalias is running Apocalypse World over G Chat, and we played our second session yesterday.

I’m not sure what to make of it. For a new-school indie game it’s remarkably like the aimless Rifts / TMNT / Paranoia games I played in my teens; we’d get together to generate characters who had nothing in common and no reason to interact, and the game would progress as a series of vignettes. Occasionally the GM would find some contrivance that would bring us together but give us a chance and we’d shoot off in different directions again. Maybe that’s a backlash against the staple dungeon-and-party games at the time; the games kept the old-school crunch but characters were special snowflakes (Rifts) with hidden agendas (Paranoia). What a delightful mess that was.

I think that’s partly a feature of the post-collapse feudalism that runs through those types of games; it’s no surprise that AW feels similar. AW at least has a support structure that helps with scene oriented play.

Rabalias reckons AW isn’t a story game. It’s hard for me to argue against this since AW is like no other game I’ve played, but it does seem to tick the Story Now boxes, chiefly with the emergent conflict, single character focus and avoidance of mission as pretext (there is mission, but we can engage with it as we choose). As an outsider I can also spot other Storygame tropes such as shared narrative/descriptive duties (the MC asks questions, the player describes certain features). The AW system hard-codes questions and responses into the mechanics, providing a perpetual cycle of action and reaction that encourages players to engage. The constant pressure to make a move reminds me of the questions at the end of each chapter of Breakfast In The Ruins.

That’s not a bad thing. Joe Mcdaldno, author of the AW hack Monsterhearts includes this in his definition of Story Games:

Story games allow us to experiment with storytelling, in a way that’s detached and playful. We can take on new roles, experiment with new ideas, and we can leave it behind when the game is over. That it’s a game takes away a lot of the pressure – of doing it well, of proving anything, of impressing anyone. The point is simply to play.

OK, but I don’t think the game aspect alleviates pressure. It requires the MC to ask all players in turn what they are doing and put them in the spotlight; and while I think all PCs should be given this opportunity some players will just want to play the thief that skulks in the background, opening locks and disarming traps when asked and occasionally backstabbing a troll for triple damage. The reward system in AW is contingent on characters making moves and will not tolerate passive characters. The fact that people are not under pressure to succeed or perform in a thespian manner is a red herring; they are under pressure to be involved, regardless.

So maybe AW isn’t a story game. It is a game about accumulating and using powers, and in that case it shares a lot (bizarrely) with Feng Shui and Exalted. The fact that the pressure is off regarding “winning” is what makes it different–it truly feels narrativist rather than gamist.

The framework makes player-player interactions work better than I’ve seen in any other game. This is partly because moves that might be considered taboo are written down with effects and consequences, and promote strong reactions. In yesterday’s session my Brainer tried to scan another character and unintentionally caused them harm, provoking a reaction from them as well as rewarding them with Hx and developing the relationship between PCs. In any other game there would be confusion and debate about whether the effect could happen, and probably bad feeling about the resulting fallout (especially with psionics).

On the other hand the freedom to connect with character histories and motivations requires a lot of the MC–either they prepare character motivations in advance, or they have to make a lot up on the fly. It’s helped a lot by the way the moves ask the right questions and so do the same for NPC exposition as they do for PC, but it requires the same level of contingency that one might build into a “Story Before” game, i.e. mapping likely patterns of PC behaviour based on what they experience and succeed or fail at. Mostly it points out that most games don’t fall into one or the other of Edwards’ diagrams, but somewhere in between.

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p>When I pick up a new game I mainly think about how I can bend it to my style, rather than how I can play in the given world. AW is exciting because in the words of its creator it’s designed to be hacked. Now I’m wondering what value hacking will bring over using a familar system that I’m comfortable with.

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  • Hey Smiorgan! Interesting to hear your throughs about the game and the campaign.

    I think the “unconnected characters” thing is my fault, actually. The game says your characters should be connected, and encourages the MC to ask questions about stuff which I think should probably have included leading questions like “Ethan, why *do* you spend so much time with Burrows?” or similar. I’m kinda new to this kind of game so it’s not a big surprise I fluffed that bit – there’s rather a lot to remember in AW – but I don’t think the game is meant to be like that, and I’m rather trying to row back from it now. Heh, maybe I’ll just ask that question at the start of next session.

    Regarding passivity, the way I would put it is that it strongly rewards active play. The playsets are all very powerful. Very powerful. A character with a bunch of advances will have an edge, but not be overwhelmingly dominant over a less experienced character. I’d also point out that some moves, like read sitch and read person, allow you to ask questions rather than take action, and allow the MC to provide a player with a steer on what might be a good action to take. So I don’t think it’s fair to say it won’t tolerate passivity, just that you’ll get more from it by being active.

    Having said that, the MC is encouraged to hit the players with difficult shit. If the players don’t react, that shit then hits the fan. Sitting still is like, presenting a stationary target. I doubt a passive player could keep it up for long.

    Blackrat called me on the “is it a story game?” comment, and I’d like to partially retract it. I think “story game” is a very poorly-defined term, mainly existing in opposition to “trad roleplaying game” despite the fact that they overlap massively. I think it has a lot more in common with a trad game than, say, Fiasco. It has an MC who runs all the NPCs, who is responsible for pushing difficult shit at the players, who needs to know the rules really well; and it has individual player charactes with stats and powers and stuff. All pretty trad. There’s lots that isn’t trad though: the MC is forbidden from planning what is going to happen in a session, must ask questions of the players and incorporate the answers into the game, the MC doesn’t ever roll dice, and the mechanics enforce failure being interesting. So I’d say it’s halfway between the two schools.

    The thing that has really impressed me about the game is the way the mechanics allow the players to ask the GM questions which would normally be forbidden, like “what is this NPC really feeling” or “what is this NPC’s biggest shame” or whatever. I hope this isn’t too much of a “behind the curtain” thing to say, but in the last session your character asked those questions of a character who was not especially intended to be important. Because you could force me to define certain aspects of that character, she suddenly became a lot more fleshed out and interesting, and could now be of significant importance to the campaign. That can happen in other games, too – but AW makes it a lot easier (it basically prevents the MC from wimping out when you take an interest in an NPC). That’s pretty damn cool.

    • I quoted Joe Mcdaldno specifically because he quotes AW in his storygame primer, and his definition is good enough for me; also what you’ve said about the MC being forbidden from preparing events in advance is aligned with, and probably descended from, Edwards’ Narrativism/Story Now approach.

      Perhaps AW is an evolution rather than revolution, but the central Story Now approach is absolutely fundamentally different from both the location based dungeoneering and the 90s storyteller act-chapter-scene structure that Edwards hates so much. I’d say that it’s a story game in the definition that most people who care about such things use. As an aside, I don’t think the Story Games “Roleplaying 2.0” moniker has done it any favours, although I can charitably assume they again mean an evolution, not revolution (i.e. Web 2.0 as an evolution of www).

      I stand by my remark regarding passive characters. You have singled out characters in your game and asked them very direct questions that provoke a response; assuming that’s how the MC is supposed to work, then there’s no opportunity for the character to simply allow the MC to narrate for them. At some point at the very least they are forced to narrate something, to state an opinion and take a side. In general conversation terms (real life as well as gaming) that crosses a boundary because it exposes them to the risk that someone may disagree with them.

      I think the way Baker has enabled that is quite amazing, but I reject any notion that a PC can remain passive, unless they refuse outright to engage with the MC and players. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all–it certainly gets around the WoD tropes of the ST narrating everything for the PCs and just piling misery on top of them (I played in those games, I ran those games) and the players taking it, because they’re masochists.

  • I guess we may just be at cross-purposes re what counts as passive. I’d say you can play a character with reasonable success using read person, read sitch and open brain to watch and wait. Every time you fail the MC will come after you, but you can always take evasive action, run, retreat, defend. That’s a passive character; of course, you may have little choice but to be an active player, in that (as you say) the MC can ask questions that force you to narrate elements of the world and your character’s background and inner life. The MC can even force you into difficult situations, preventing you from just staying home. But the MC can’t force your character into action. There’s degrees of passivity.

    Otherwise I agree. The structure is fundamentally different. No argument there. I’m not so sure about McDaldno’s definition, though – the bit you’ve quoted seems more like a marketing soundbite than a definition to me.