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Sell me on Apocalypse World (or don't)

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  • Sell me on Apocalypse World (or don't)

    Hello fellow pretend Creatures of Light and Darkness!

    I assume at least some of you are familiar with Apocalypse World, the RPG, and I would like to ask those of you that are to try and sell it to me. I have bought it (in PDF from), so it's not a literal sell, but a metaphorical one. I have tried to get into it at least twice now, admittedly only by reading, but bounced off hard both times. It seems that every second RPG I encounter is "Powered By The Apocalypse", so there must be something to it.

    What am I missing, if anything?

    For context, the reason I am asking here, and not on <insert larger RPG site du jour> is that my playstyle and ST/GM/DM/MC/blabla style is probably very influenced by WoD games, and not that influenced by DnD, so our tastes might align better.

    I have ST'd and played one previous game by Vince Barker, Dogs In The Vineyard, and found the setting very captivating, while the gameplay mechanics were a bit lacklustre and dragged on. Personally, I felt that on some level, VB did not understand his own mechanics, as he has adding more dice, which is always good in gameplay terms, described as a malus for certain outcomes.

    I have also ready the rest of the Lumpey Game Library, or whatever the bundle was on DTRPG games, and my main impression is that they are somewhat stereotypically indy games, spun around a central mechanic or setting idea, and sometimes cringe-inducing in how transgressive they try to be (insert "how do you do, fellow kids" meme here).

    OTOH, I fully acknowledge that someone unfamiliar with WoD could perhaps level the same accusations against WoD, so this might be my biases, rather than a failing on VB's part.

    And now onto why I bounced off Apocalypse World:
    1, I found the book(s) to be annoyingly structured. I got 4 or 5 PDFs, all named somewhat unintuitively, and even in what I assume is the core rulebook, the need to be quirky and unique seems to overpower sensible editing
    2, There is a persistent need in them to rename everything. Master of Ceremonies. Moves. Hurt. Sharp. A health bar that is an allusion to the Doomsday Clock, for no clear benefit.
    3, Constant fourth wall breaks, with VB interjecting himself into his work to tell me how cool, awesome, and sexy the whole game is
    4, I am by no means a prude, but the whole "oh, this game/setting/character is sooo seeexy" came across like a try-hard and a creep talking.
    5, When I read up on this, everyone seems to be in love with it, and takes the GM advice section as some sort of holy writ and revelation. I found it numbingly obvious (don't railroad, make failure interesting, etc), mostly because I have been a very narrative-focused player and ST.

    Is it just me?

    Last edited by Herbert_West; 05-30-2018, 01:45 PM.

  • #2
    It’s just you.

    That said, I personally thought it was a little easier to learn PbtA from Monsterhearts 2 and Urban Shadows, and then to go back and grok Apocalypse World a little easier. Vincent’s writing style is evocative, but not terribly useful in teaching you a ruleset. PbtA’s greatest strengths are focused mechanics and a GM whose role is to improvise and react to the fiction their players drive.


    Call me Regina or Lex.

    Female pronouns for me, please.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Herbert_West View Post
      1, I found the book(s) to be annoyingly structured. I got 4 or 5 PDFs, all named somewhat unintuitively, and even in what I assume is the core rulebook, the need to be quirky and unique seems to overpower sensible editing
      2, There is a persistent need in them to rename everything. Master of Ceremonies. Moves. Hurt. Sharp. A health bar that is an allusion to the Doomsday Clock, for no clear benefit.
      3, Constant fourth wall breaks, with VB interjecting himself into his work to tell me how cool, awesome, and sexy the whole game is
      4, I am by no means a prude, but the whole "oh, this game/setting/character is sooo seeexy" came across like a try-hard and a creep talking.
      5, When I read up on this, everyone seems to be in love with it, and takes the GM advice section as some sort of holy writ and revelation. I found it numbingly obvious (don't railroad, make failure interesting, etc), mostly because I have been a very narrative-focused player and ST.
      For 2, all I can say is that WoD games are notorious for doing this, too. People who aren't immersed in WoD vocabulary are always rolling their eyes at all the Special Capitalized Words: Embrace, Freehold, Vitae, Ensorcelled, Coterie, endlessly with every new game. The advantage of new words is that they might bring up new images for people playing the game. You're not "losing HP" or "being damaged," you're getting Hurt, and you just visually moved a few slices of pie chart closer to dying. Characters in Apocalypse World aren't defined by their Wisdom or Constitution or Dexterity, but by how Hot or Sharp or Weird they are.

      I agree that 3 and 4 are annoying, and that voice is unfortunately endemic to a lot of (but not all) PbtA games. It's a style choice that's meant to appeal to people other than you and me. I'm very happy that Vincent Baker is excited about the game he wrote and how fucky the characters are. Just as one WoD example, the Requiem 2E corebook was also slathered in this voice, and I've had more than one player tell me "yeah I'm not reading this, this is too goofy."

      For 5, if you're already onboard with the GM advice, great. A looot of people, especially coming from D&D/Pathfinder, aren't as familiar with that approach and have found it to be a really radically different way of running games. I'm one of those people who thinks the GM advice is maybe the most important part of AW, and I think it's prone to being misread. The thing that made it click for me was realizing that you don't say "okay, I'm going to Go Aggro on the warlord now." The primary thing you're doing is talking conversationally about "the fiction," the situation in the game world, and using Moves to resolve situations when they come up in the fiction. The way the moves are written like "when you offer something you know somebody wants, do this thing" isn't Baker being cute and quirky, it's very literally saying "if you're playing and this situation arises, that means you roll this move to find out what happens next." This is what he's talking about with that "to do it, do it" stuff. It's a different way of thinking about what you're doing and describing and rolling for when you play the game, and it tends to click more when you're playing around the table.

      There's a well-known post that talks about fighting a dragon in the spinoff Dungeon World, and it's a good example of how PbtA games can be unique: https://www.latorra.org/2012/05/15/a-16-hp-dragon/

      Apocalypse World is just one example of a system that has been refined and used better in subsequent games. I think Monsterhearts 2E is the most tightly designed PbtA game right now, and it's similar in tone to World of Darkness stuff. My favorite PbtA game is Masks, a relentlessly bright and fun and colorful game about teen superheroes, which is mercifully free of VB voice.


      2E Legacy Updates
      Brotherhood of the Demon Wind
      Choir of Hashmallim (plus extra Summoning content)
      Storm Keepers

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      • #4
        (My favorite PbtA game is Night Witches, and both it and the absolutely stellar Monsterhearts 2 are both shining examples of clear, focused design. Bluebeard’s Bride is also a masterpiece, but is dark enough that I don’t think I’ll ever see it to the table.)


        Call me Regina or Lex.

        Female pronouns for me, please.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by atamajakki View Post
          It’s just you.
          a GM whose role is to improvise and react to the fiction their players drive.
          Not to hijack the thread here, but this is the one thing that makes me hesitant about PBTA. As someone who likes tight narrative structure in RPGs, the idea of a game where the players are supposed to drive the narrative and the GM is supposed to be primarily reactive is not very appealing. Both of the TAZ mini-arcs that were played using PBTA games sounded extremely fun to me, but seeing how many PBTA fans disliked the way they ran them, I question if the “right” way of playing it is for me.
          Last edited by Charlaquin; 05-30-2018, 04:33 PM.


          Onyx Path Forum Moderator

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          • #6
            It's absolutely not just you.

            Apocalypse World was the first PbtA book I read and I almost blew the entire system off because of it. Fortunately I came around due to other games that use the system to appreciate the fun to be had. If you want to get into AW? Play some of the other PbtA games mentioned here until you get the feel of the system, than if you feel like revisiting AW, give it a go.


            Originally posted by Caladriu View Post
            For 2, all I can say is that WoD games are notorious for doing this, too. People who aren't immersed in WoD vocabulary are always rolling their eyes at all the Special Capitalized Words: Embrace, Freehold, Vitae, Ensorcelled, Coterie, endlessly with every new game. The advantage of new words is that they might bring up new images for people playing the game. You're not "losing HP" or "being damaged," you're getting Hurt, and you just visually moved a few slices of pie chart closer to dying. Characters in Apocalypse World aren't defined by their Wisdom or Constitution or Dexterity, but by how Hot or Sharp or Weird they are.
            I think there's a big difference here in that Herbert is talking about the out-of-game lexicon, where you're talking about in-game lexicons. The WoD games have lots of new words in them, but they describe things in the setting of the game; some have further mechanics attached and all. Embrace, freehold, vitae, ensorcelled, coterie... these are all in-universe terms characters will actually use. Characters aren't going to talk about what Move their going to use, how many slices of Hurt they got, or how they're going to use their Hot to get out of a speeding ticket. Those are the words the games use to communicate the rules, not in-setting elements.

            The real one I think has value is Moves. Hurt doesn't really communicate something that 'lose HP' or "take damage' doesn't. I think there are games that make way better use of "approach" based traits rather than "aptitude" based traits, where different terms feel more useful and less "different to be different," (thought I don't think PbtA does this in general).

            Moves though are something that I think helps a lot of highlight with a term that's less familiar like, "action," for what a character is doing, because it highlights PbtA's rather different take on how to handle this.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by atamajakki View Post
              (My favorite PbtA game is Night Witches, and both it and the absolutely stellar Monsterhearts 2 are both shining examples of clear, focused design. Bluebeard’s Bride is also a masterpiece, but is dark enough that I don’t think I’ll ever see it to the table.)
              Night Witches is exactly the game that prompted me to re-examine AW. I might get the game itself to see if the mechanics, when not told in VB's irritating style, grab me.

              Heavy_Arms is spot on vis-a-vis my gripes with the lexicon. The redefinition of common terms that is not reflected in universe is exactly that "different for the sake of different" that puts me off.

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              • #8
                Just chiming in to agree with Lex, it's easier to learn from Urban Shadows.

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Charlaquin View Post
                  Not to hijack the thread here, but this is the one thing that makes me hesitant about PBTA. As someone who likes tight narrative structure in RPGs, the idea of a game where the players are supposed to drive the narrative and the GM is supposed to be primarily reactive is not very appealing. Both of the TAZ mini-arcs that were played using PBTA games sounded extremely fun to me, but seeing how many PBTA fans disliked the way they ran them, I question if the “right” way of playing it is for me.
                  The TAZ material using PbtA made me so frustrated that I quit listening to TAZ.


                  Call me Regina or Lex.

                  Female pronouns for me, please.

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                  • #10
                    Also, I basically live and breathe PbtA these days, and am just shy of refusing to play anyhing else. Happy to answer any questions, and quietly hoping this becomes a general thread.

                    (I have games I wanna talk about.)


                    Call me Regina or Lex.

                    Female pronouns for me, please.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by atamajakki View Post
                      The TAZ material using PbtA made me so frustrated that I quit listening to TAZ.
                      I wanted to talk about this when you brought it up in the You Know What I Hate thread, but I decided that wasn't the appropriate time or place. I hope you don't mind me bringing it back up here. Personally, my feeling was that the intended player-driven style of PbtA would not have been a good fit for their podcast. It may well be the best way to play the game, but TAZ is a performance piece as much as it's a game, if not more so, which means tight narrative structure is even more important, because it needs to be a satisfying experience for the audience as well as the players. The listeners cannot have any input on the narrative, so they don't benefit from a player-driven narrative the way people actually playing the game might. And the issue is only magnified by the short lengths of the mini-arcs. They only had a few episodes in which to get a feel for the system, pitch the setting to the rest of the cast, and provide listeners with a complete story arc. That doesn't leave a lot of room for the kind of play I feel player-driven narratives create. But then, I haven't actually played any PbtA games, so it's entirely possible I'm missing something. I just feel like broadcasted games need to be thought of more like TV shows than like actual games, and I don't think a TV show where the actors have more narrative control than the director would be very good. They actually discussed exactly this in the TAZZ breakdown of the mini-arcs, though it was in reference to FATE, and why none of them thought Commitment was a good choice to move forward with.

                      TAZ aside, I'm interested in how someone who enjoys PbtA feels the player-driven style improves the play experience. I'm generally not a fan of "sandboxy" RPGs, as I feel there ends up being a lot of flailing about, which makes them less enjoyable to me as a player than games that might get derided for being "railroady." Does a PbtA game run "right" lend itself to stories with solid narrative arcs, with beginning, middle, end, catharsis, pathos, etc? What is one missing out on by playing in a PbtA game run like Griffin did?
                      Last edited by Charlaquin; 05-30-2018, 09:24 PM.


                      Onyx Path Forum Moderator

                      My mod voice is red. I use it so you know when I'm speaking in an official capacity, not as an indication of tone.

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Charlaquin View Post
                        I wanted to talk about this when you brought it up in the You Know What I Hate thread, but I decided that wasn't the appropriate time or place. I hope you don't mind me bringing it back up here. Personally, my feeling was that the intended player-driven style of PbtA would not have been a good fit for their podcast.
                        See, I feel like that means maybe they should've chosen another system, just the same way that I think if someone wants to run a game with minimal combat, they should look somewhere other than D&D. "Play to find out what happens" is the fundamental Principle of PbtA gaming, shared across all of them, and choosing to duck that in favor of Griffin's very strong authorial voice just feels sorta ridiculous to me. There are other systems; they didn't need one counter to their purpose, and now they're introducing people to these games with a completely backwards portrayal of them.

                        As a brief, petty aside, when the magical character in their Monster of the Week game rolled a 10+ on her roll, the best possible result, and Griffin said "your powers go out of control and the building catches on fire," I quit listening. You might as well not have the players roll dice if you just want to tell your story despite what they and the rules say.

                        TAZ aside, I'm interested in how someone who enjoys PbtA feels the player-driven style improves the play experience. I'm generally not a fan of "sandboxy" RPGs, as I feel there ends up being a lot of flailing about, which makes them less enjoyable to me as a player than games that might get derided for being "railroady." Does a PbtA game run "right" lend itself to stories with solid narrative arcs, with beginning, middle, end, catharsis, pathos, etc? What is one missing out on by playing in a PbtA game run like Griffin did?
                        Don't mistake what I've said for these games having weak or passive GMs; every single PbtA game has a list of essential Principles they need to abide by, and Move lists, just the same as the players, that dictate their responses to things (albeit without rolling dice). The GM is also welcome to introduce their own characters and plots (and indeed, Apocalypse World encourages this, and both Urban Shadows and Monster of the Week practically demand it), but the key distinction is that the full shape of the plot is never planned in advance. You can easily have satisfying plot arcs - Urban Shadows' webs of owed Debts, favors called in, and personal spirals into Corruption are very rich, Monsterhearts almost can't help but tell solid, poignant stories about identity and relationships, Masks basically exists to do new episodes of Young Justice for you, and the Night Witches session I ran not only felt complete and killer, but could've easily spun out into a fuller campaign - it's just that they aren't largely dictated in advance by the GM's plotting.

                        PbtA's successes for me are the ease of GMing (as someone who has always, always been improvisation in how I run games), and that players are not only empowered but expected to play interesting people who really impact the stories they're in. A session of Apocalypse World or Monsterhearts is always going to be dramatic and explosive, because the rules make compelling characters with compelling problems.


                        Call me Regina or Lex.

                        Female pronouns for me, please.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by atamajakki View Post
                          See, I feel like that means maybe they should've chosen another system, just the same way that I think if someone wants to run a game with minimal combat, they should look somewhere other than D&D. "Play to find out what happens" is the fundamental Principle of PbtA gaming, shared across all of them, and choosing to duck that in favor of Griffin's very strong authorial voice just feels sorta ridiculous to me. There are other systems; they didn't need one counter to their purpose, and now they're introducing people to these games with a completely backwards portrayal of them.
                          But like... The dice mechanics, Playbooks, Moves, etc. all seem to work really well for their format. And again, maybe its because I haven't seen how the game is "supposed" to be played, but it doesn't seem to me like it was harmed by the strong authorial voice at all. I'm all for picking the right system for your purposes, but where D&D breaks down too far outside of heroic fantasy stories featuring combat as a primary means of conflict resolution, it didn't seem like PbtA broke down without the players being in the driver's seat. Where the rules of FATE seemed to resist Clint's attempts to run it like he might D&D, Monster of the Week didn't seem to me to resist Griffin in the same way, nor did Urban Shadows give Travis trouble. On the contrary, both games ran far more smoothly than the Balance arc ever did because they weren’t worrying about a big ol’ Skill list or remembering the specific mechanics of a spell, or reminding Clint which one is the d20.

                          Originally posted by atamajakki View Post
                          As a brief, petty aside, when the magical character in their Monster of the Week game rolled a 10+ on her roll, the best possible result, and Griffin said "your powers go out of control and the building catches on fire," I quit listening. You might as well not have the players roll dice if you just want to tell your story despite what they and the rules say.
                          Yeah, I rolled my eyes pretty hard at that too. Griffin really just shouldn't have called for a roll there. But he had the same problem during Balance - he hasn't quite grokked yet that you should only call for rolls when there's a chance of success, a chance of failure, and a cost or consequence for failure.

                          Originally posted by atamajakki View Post
                          Don't mistake what I've said for these games having weak or passive GMs; every single PbtA game has a list of essential Principles they need to abide by, and Move lists, just the same as the players, that dictate their responses to things (albeit without rolling dice). The GM is also welcome to introduce their own characters and plots (and indeed, Apocalypse World encourages this, and both Urban Shadows and Monster of the Week practically demand it), but the key distinction is that the full shape of the plot is never planned in advance. You can easily have satisfying plot arcs - Urban Shadows' webs of owed Debts, favors called in, and personal spirals into Corruption are very rich, Monsterhearts almost can't help but tell solid, poignant stories about identity and relationships, Masks basically exists to do new episodes of Young Justice for you, and the Night Witches session I ran not only felt complete and killer, but could've easily spun out into a fuller campaign - it's just that they aren't largely dictated in advance by the GM's plotting.
                          We might have a bit of a language barrier here. When you say "the shape of the plot is never planned in advance," that sounds to me like the GM is necessarily in a passive, or at least reactive role. Maybe an example would help make sure we're understanding each other. One of my first steps in preparing a campaign is deciding on motivation, structure, and resolution. For example, I might want to run a werewolf game about a new pack claiming their first territory. The motivation in this case is fairly self-evident. The there is a territory the PCs want, but there is something preventing them from claiming it. Maybe a Pure pack is also trying to claim it. The resolution, then, is when the PCs either permanently drive the Pure out from the territory and secure it for themselves, or are permanently driven out by the Pure pack. This kind of story probably lends itself best to an open or branching structure, so I might prepare a handfull of SAS-style scenes, and plan for the players to be able to take these scenes on in pretty much any order.

                          If I did something similar to that, would I be overstepping my bounds as a GM in a PbtA game? What does your prep for a PbtA game look like?

                          Originally posted by atamajakki View Post
                          PbtA's successes for me are the ease of GMing (as someone who has always, always been improvisation in how I run games), and that players are not only empowered but expected to play interesting people who really impact the stories they're in. A session of Apocalypse World or Monsterhearts is always going to be dramatic and explosive, because the rules make compelling characters with compelling problems.
                          I just don't think any of these strengths are in any way mutually exclusive with pre-planning a plot. Improvisation is just planning and executing in the same step - an important skill for any GM, but whether a given GM finds it easier to lean more on pre-planning or more on improvisation is largely a matter of personal preference. Compelling characters and compelling problems are an important part of any good game, regardless of who's driving the plot. And a strong authorial voice doesn't prevent the players from having a real impact on the story. To go back to TAZ, look at the "Arms Outstretched" scene near the end of the Wonderland chapter.
                          Last edited by Charlaquin; 05-31-2018, 01:36 AM.


                          Onyx Path Forum Moderator

                          My mod voice is red. I use it so you know when I'm speaking in an official capacity, not as an indication of tone.

                          Going by Willow now, or Wil for short. She/Her/Hers.

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