Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Apocalypse World

Game Premise

There is something wrong with the world and I don't know what it is.

50 years ago, everything went to hell. Why? How the fuck would I know, do I look that old? One minute, things were great. Food was everywhere, people didn't stab each other over a blanket and I hear some old guys saying they had goddamn boats to put their planes on. Those days are over. Nowadays everyone is cold, starving and pissed off and anyone with a bunch of guns and some walls can call themselves king. Everything has a price and there's always someone who is willing to pay.

And then there's the maelstrom. What is it? Apparently some smart guy said a thing about abysses and how if you look at them, they're going to start looking back at you. The maelstrom is that. Some people use it to get info, some weirdos even worship the damn thing. Mostly it just sits there at the edge of your perceptions like a leaky tap and makes everyone just that little bit crazier.

Maybe things could be better? I don't know, you look like someone who might be able to make something out of this shithole world we now live in. Things weren't always this bad, so maybe we could fix it. So what are you going to do about it?

Game Overview

Apocalypse World, from the twisted and brilliant mind of Vincent Baker, is my new favourite game. Excuse me for being overenthusiastic for a moment, but if I had to describe the game in one word it would be evocative. Everything from the art to the rules to the examples are simple and bare bones yet brimming with ideas and potential. It's one of those games that really emphasises letting the players loose and seeing what happens. The way I'd describe the game in terms of tone and setting is if Sons of Anarchy became the apocalypse out of Book of Eli by way of Children of Men. By which I mean to say that everything is bleak and brutal, but it's done in such an awesome fashion that you don't care.

The game's core mechanic requires two six-sided dice. When using a Move (any action requiring a mechanical resolution) , roll, add or subtract modifiers and find the total. A 10+ means you've succeeded, congrats! A 7-9 is still a success, but often not as good and usually with strings attached. A 6 or less is a miss, which might not necessarily mean you've failed but there will certainly be consequences you have to deal with.

The game really places a lot of focus on the cost of your actions. While everything is more than a little bit bleak, what with the end of civilisation and all, the PCs can make things better. Heck, Retire to Safety is one of the goals you can achieve over the sessions. However, pretty much everything, including pretty much every successful action, has a trade-off. It's not an adversarial game, it's one where the Master of Ceremonies is told to say “Yes, but...” a lot.

I also can't talk about Apocalypse World without mentioning the Playbooks. Part character creation guidelines, part character sheet. They're printed out in a sort of brochure form, called Tri-Form, and have all the info you need to make your character and even have an awesome picture on the front. As well as the 11 found in the book, there are a whole bunch of supplementary ones, some from Vincent Baker and some made by the fan community. Some you can get by backing RPG projects, others trading with fellow fans and some will give them in exchange for tasks, like swapping the Faceless for a photo of you wearing a mask or the Grotesque for doing an act of charity. And hey, if you're a player, you're in luck! Leave a comment on this page or another with your email address and I'll send you a playbook out of my repertoire (I have all the official ones plus a few of the fan made ones like the Juggernaut, Tribal, Witch, Spectacle and so on).

The Character

Step 1) Select a Playbook

In Apocalypse World, each character belongs to a fairly strong archetype, whether they're the guy who is really good at shooting things dead (Gunlugger), the person who runs shit (Hardholder), the person who gets shit done (Operator), the creepy dude with psychic powers (Brainer) and so on. These are the Playbooks that I described above. They contain all the info required to create your character and double as a handy and awesome looking character sheet. Only one member of each playbook can be present in a game.

I'm going to be creating a Savvyhead. Savvyheads are the tinkerers, gadgeteers and tech genius. They're all quite odd people, but in a world where everything is on the verge of breaking all the damn time you're going to want one around.

Step 2) Pick a Name

When I said they contain all the info required to create your character, I wasn't joking. Each playbook has a list of Names you can pick from. If, like me, you're someone who struggles to come up with names for your characters, this is a real godsend. There's obviously nothing stopping you from coming up with your own name, but when you have options like Sundown, Proust and Ada Loveless, why the heck would you want to?

So, looking over the Savvyhead's list of names, I'm going to go with Lemieux. It's French, awesome sounding and has a first name as last name thing going on, which I like.

Step 3) Choose Your Look

They also have a list of things to describe how your character looks! Some of the features depend on the playbook, but there are generally a couple of common characteristics.

First, there's your Gender. What I like about this bit is that Transgressing and Ambiguous are options for all characters. I'm going to be boring, however, and pick Female. Lemieux is going to be a crazy old French lady who is good at fixing things. Well, crazy and middle aged, but looking a lot older than she should.

Next up is her Fashion and I'm picking Utility Wear Plus Tech. Lemieux can never been seen without a harness and baggy overalls with shitloads of pockets.

She also has an Open Face and Calm Eyes, always looking fairly serene for a person living in a post apocalyptic wasteland. She can often be seen staring off into the distance, as if she's not quite there. Don't worry, she's incredibly perceptive and is definitely paying attention to everything around her.

Finally, her body is wiry. She's not particularly muscular, but she doesn't seem to need help lugging her equipment around, despite having the general appearance of a 60-year-old. Her somewhat baggy clothing and plethora of tools can often obscure this.

Step 4) Pick Your Stats

Apocalypse World has five Stats, which are modifiers you use when performing Moves, the game's basic actions. Each stat has one or two moves linked to it. Cool is what you use when Acting Under Fire, which includes performing actions like sneaking into an enemy camp, having a conversation without undesirables overhearing or defusing a bomb. Getting a 7-9 means you either succeed at what you're doing or get away with it, but not both. Hard is what you use when Going Aggro, which is getting people to do what you want by threatening violence (and importantly following through with said threat if they don't do it) and Seize By Force, which is when there's no time for threats and you just want to kill/beat the shit out of/conquer your opponents. Sharp is used for Reading a Sitch and Reading a Person. In both cases, you roll and a success lets you ask the Master of Ceremonies a question from a list about the person or situation like 'What is my enemy's true position?' or 'What does this person really want?'. Hot is what you use to Seduce or Manipulate someone, which means getting them to do something with strings attached. Finally, there's Weird, which you use to Open Your Brain, specifically to the psychic maelstrom. This can provide you insight and new information about the current situation, but it also lets the GM ask you questions that can later come back to haunt you.

Each playbook has an array of four stat combinations, with one stat generally being +2 (the one they're most likely to use) and the rest ranging from +2 to -2. For Lemieux I'm going to pick the following: Cool +1, Hard +1, Hot -1, Sharp =0, Weird +2. All Savvyheads are a little bit weird.

Step 5) Pick Your Moves

The moves I mentioned above are the Basic Moves that every character gets access to. Each playbook also has its own moves, some being simple stat bonuses, others letting you do cool things like read minds, give other characters XP for helping you, having just the right tool for the job or leading a bikie gang.

I get to choose two Savvyhead Moves for Lemieux. The first one is going to be Oftener Right. She's a wise lady and when people come to her for advice and then take said advice, they take +1 Forward, which means they get a +1 bonus to a move later. The second will be Reality's Fraying Edge. A part of her workspace is an antenna to the world's psychic maelstrom and lets her use the Augury ability, available to a few characters. You roll, adding weird and a success can then let you manipulate the maelstrom, pulling, isolating or inserting information. It can backfire quite nastily if you're not careful.

Step 6) Select Your Gear

Every character has a list of Gear they get to pick from. Everyone will have a few Oddments of Barter, bits and pieces of scrounged goods and stuff that serves as an abstract currency. It might be a few pieces of jewellery, some batteries, a bushel of food, pretty much anything you can trade. 1 Barter is about a month's living expenses and usually the going rate for a playbook appropriate job, such as a week's maintenance of fiddly and delicate tech in my case. Lemieux starts off with 3 Barter worth of stuff.

I also get to dictate my personal fashion, which I outlined about in the Look step. Some characters get to have fashion worth 1 or 2 Armour, which obviously reduces damage by the listed amount. 1 armour could be a heavy jacket, armoured corset or anything sturdy, but 2 armour is quite decidedly armour, even if it's made of old street signs. Unfortunately, I don't get any.

I also get to pick three pieces of ordinary gear, specifically weapons. Taking a look at the list, I'm going to grab a Crowbar, which does 2 harm, is a Hand weapon and has the Messy tag, a non-mechanical descriptor meaning it makes a lot of racket and might cause some collateral damage. I'll also pick up a Shotgun, which does 3 harm, is Close in range and also messy.

Step 7) Details

Most characters have some bits and bobs that define them other than their moves and other stuff The Hocus has their cult, the Battlebabe her custom weapons, the Operator a bunch of gigs and so on.

My Savvyhead has a Workspace, which I can use to make new and exciting things. I think I'll set it in the burned out remains of an old mechanic's called Wrenne's Fixins. The way it works is that I tell the Master of Ceremonies what I want to make and they say 'Yes, but...” and create conditions, which could be everything from 'It will be expensive to make' to 'You'll need x character's help' to 'the best you'll be able to make is an unreliable, crappy version'. I also get to select three features of my workspace. The first two are going to be Machining Tools and a Junkyard of Raw Materials. The final feature, A Controlled Growing Environment will be special. It's Lemieux's antenna to the psychic maelstrom, a room that's full of mutated wheat and covered in potted plants. When she walks through it, her hands running over the plants, she can access the maelstrom.

I guess this section would be a good point to mention the Special, a move that every playbook has that involves sleeping with someone, be it NPCs or another character. Everyone gets a different benefit (or in some cases penalty), from the Chopper giving people a greater understanding of who they are to the Driver suffering penalties until they prove they haven't been, like, tied down man. I know some people are leery of this element, but I figure if the actual act is dealt with in a 'fade to black' manner the moves themselves are a great source of story potential, In the Savvyhead's case, she gets to emulate a Savvyhead move Things Speak, which normally works on objects, when she sleeps with someone, PC or NPC. This lets me ask three questions, including what emotions they're feeling and certain elements of their past. Incredibly handy and also good for drama.

Step 8) Work out Hx and Highlight Stats

Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to do this step properly since I would need a group for this. The idea is that all the characters, even if they're not friends, have at least worked together. The Hx stat (it stands for History) determines how well you know another character. Not necessarily like, but know. You can then roll Hx whenever you're trying to help or interfere with that character, giving them a +1 or -2 to their roll respectively if you succeed. Note, that Hx scores can differ between the same characters. I might have a +3 with my friend's Gunlugger, but they might have a -1 with me. These numbers can fluctuate throughout play for a number of reasons, primarily healing or harming the other PCs, both of which gives them a +1 on their Hx towards you (remember, it's not how much they like you, it's how well they know you).

Most characters will probably have a -1 to Hx with Lemieux because she's a bit odd. I also have -1 to whatever anyone else tells me my Hx with them is because Savvyheads are also fairly self-absorbed, the exception being whoever I think is the biggest potential problem with whom I get +1 to whatever number they tell me.

Once you've determined everyone's Hx, you then pick the player of the character with the highest Hx on your sheet and ask them to highlight one of the five stats. You then ask the Master of Ceremonies to highlight another. Whenever you roll either of those stats, you mark experience and when you've marked experience five times you get to choose a new benefit, which includes improving your stats, getting a gang or holding or new moves. This is the main way by which you advance, alongside your Hx with another character reaching + or -4, while some playbooks have moves that help you or others do so as well.

The Finished Product


Cool +1, Hard +1, Hot -1, Sharp =0, Weird +2

Oftener Right, Reality's Fraying Edge

3 Barter, Crowbar (2 harm, Hand, Messy), Shotgun (3 harm, Close, Messy)

Wrenne's Fixins (A Junkyard of Old Materials, Controlled Growing Environment, Machining Tools)

How I'd Run It

I'm hoping to run a campaign of this in the very near future! I'm not doing too much planning because, as I said before, the idea is to come up with a couple of basic ideas, let the players go wild and then run with it.


  1. Wow, someone else in the world actually knows about and wants to play this game? Finally! Even though I only have the free preview playbooks, AW has had me firmly in its grasp. Unfortunately, no one I know either can or will run the game.

  2. What I've found interesting about AW's character creation (and playstyle in general) is that at first glance it looks very limited; pick one of these, one of those, two of these. But once you understand how everything hangs together, you see that it's pretty much designed to stay out of the way as much as possible and provide a clear framework for what you can do in-game.

  3. This is incredible! I'm going to be playing in about two weeks once I get back to college. Idk if you are still monitoring this, but it would be awesome to get the playbooks.

  4. I completely agree with you about the 'this is my new favorite game' bit. I've just been completely blown away by it, and am now getting a group together just to play.

    Thank you for a very lucid review.

    Anyways, if the 'leave a comment for some sweet sweet playbook loot' offer still stands, I'd love to have some:

    dzagidulin at g mail.

  5. I'm just about to order this and this is a great review, many thanks. I think my group will love it.

    A playbook would be great too, thanks.

  6. Well, my GM just told us that he wants to play Apocalypse World via the Internet with us. After reading the homepage, I wanted more info before committing to buy a PDF. Thanks for the rundown! Pretty convinced I'm just going to buy it now.

    If the playbook offer still stands (after more than two years), my email is

  7. I must say this game sounds excellent, i'm all fired up after watching the Mad Max remake and fancy running an AW game, if the offer is still valid im up for some sweet playbook lovin'.


  8. Hey I know this is 3 years late but do you still have the playbooks? Let me know!