roleplaying games

I’ve got the whole (Apocalypse) world, in my hands…

I’ve been running tabletop roleplaying games for close to 15 years now. It’s the one activity that gets me writing, and gets me excited about (quite literally) making things up off the top of my head. It’s also started to lose its luster over the last couple years, started to become more like work. Then I discovered and subsequently ran a game that immediately got me excited.

There’s a lot of things about Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World that are quite different from other roleplaying games. While the “playbooks” which describe character roles are similar to character classes from Dungeons and Dragons of yore, they work very differently. Each playbook has a small set of very specific, predetermined “moves” which account for the entirety of each playbook’s unique abilities. Each playbook can only show up once among your players. And each move, whether unique to a given playbook or universal, runs on the same die roll: 2d6. Roll a ten or above, you succeed. Roll seven through nine, there’s a cost or difficult choice that comes with your success. Roll six or below, you miss and the GM makes his move. That is, mechanically, the entire game.

But what excites me is the GM (or MC in Apocalypse World parlance) side of the game. One of the biggest priorities of the game is “play to find out what happens”. As the person running the game you are expected to have no pre-written plot, NPCs or events that could encourage you to try and skew the results of play. Since this is not only unusual but downright antithetical to how most RPGs have worked since time immemorial, Apocalypse World has structures to help you develop a setting and conflicts alongside your players. The first session of any game is designed to take place on this mostly blank slate, while you the GM ask your players pointed questions about what your players’ characters do, what they look like, where they live, who they know. Through copious note-taking, by the end of this first session you should have two dozen NPCs, half a dozen interesting locations and the ideas for plot forming in your head.

But after that, you’re still playing to find out what happens. The game structures these potential oppositional forces into “fronts”, and gives you rules for determining the moves these enemies make, what their goals are, and what’s going to happen as they try to reach these goals. If you as a GM do your homework with each of your fronts before each session, it’s going to appear to your players that there’s a living world around them, filled with dangerous people and places.

And *that* is what excites me so much about this game. I’ve run one session in Apocalypse World, just the initial brainstorm session, and it was electric. My players got excited, I got excited, and I have no idea what’s going to happen (though I sincerely want to play and find out). And there are other games being written with this framework that I want to try too: Dungeon World takes D&D tropes and up-ends them, The Sprawl does the same for Cyberpunk, and Urban Shadows does for supernatural urban fantasy. And that’s just a few of the examples out there.

It’s not entirely laziness that leads me away from writing a plot, it’s also the continuing experiences I’m having where getting your players invested takes a lot more than good writing. I really do believe that Apocalypse World has given me a system that will help get my players in and excited about games I run in the future, and it’s made me more excited about running games as well.

Apocalypse World

Dungeon World

The Sprawl


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