Friday, October 24, 2014

Clean, Efficient Apocalypse Power

You might have been hearing a little bit lately about this strange phenomenon of games "Powered by the Apocalypse" as if that was some sort of thing now.

And, as it happens, it is very much a thing. A remedially basic one, and yet a quantum leap of sorts.

It's a Trade Paperback World After All

It began with Vincent Baker's game, set in a land so ravaged it's unrecognizable to past eyes, called appropriately enough Apocalypse World. Like so many indie games, it did things a little differently from most other games. Unlike so many indie games, it encouraged other enterprising authors to take the basic mechanics of that game and repurpose it toward their own ends. And they are doing so, too.

First Second, there was Dungeon World, which was the result of a successful Kickstarter. It repurposed the post-apocalypse paranoia and mayhem into a medieval game of monsters and treasures.

Then there was World Wide Wrestling, which took the parts of the Apocalypse engine and gave them a serious retooling to fit the paranoia, mayhem, and exigent threats of ...professional wrestling, of all things.

And there is yet another called Broken World, which is another post-apocalypse game, although more strongly flavored with traditional post-apocalypse elements. And then there's one called Sagas of the Icelanders that covers the settling of Iceland in around the 9th or 10th century.

So yeah, there's a lot of apocalypse, both in apocalypse and non-apocalypse forms. How does the Apocalypse Engine work, and what makes it so inviting, beside V. Baker's invitation?

Moves: Highly Formalized Call-Response Action

I'm sure I mentioned this elsewhere in this blogroll, but all roleplaying games boil down to a single principle: The call-response mechanic, otherwise known as a feedback loop. GM describes scene, player describes action on scene, GM further responds with what effects the player has had on the scene, and so on. Even if there's no GM, there is still a call-response loop, because the players fill in the details of the scene between themselves, and respond to the zeitgeist formed between them.

In the Apocalypse Engine games, this call-response series is highly structured. There is a set of Basic Moves that any player can perform, and a set of stock Responses that the GM is encouraged to draw from when called for, usually when the players don't perform a Move quite well enough. Some Moves have their own consequences when someone doesn't roll quite well enough, too.

Note though that Moves are kinds of actions; they don't necessarily specify who's doing what to whom, only what is happening in the vaguest of terms, so most can be applied any number of ways. This is what allows it to be "highly structured" without it being "tightly regimented."

There's a set of Basic Moves that everyone gets, and then there are Advanced Moves that only certain people get. Which brings us to...

Playbooks: Part Character, Part Multiple Choice Quiz

If you pick up an Apocalypse Engine game and turn to the back looking for the stock character sheet, you might be confused, because there isn't one. Or rather, there's one for each type of character and they're usually tucked into the early-to-middle part of the book.

Any Apocalypse Engine game has a set of "Playbooks." Each Playbook is a type of character, and this includes the GM. (The GM's title is "The Master of Ceremonies" in Apocalypse World and "Creative" in World Wide Wrestling. In Dungeon World, it's "The GM." Hey, it worked this long...) But of course, the GM gets a much more interesting playbook, designed to cause problems for the player characters.

Now, it'll depend on which game you're playing, but in the characters' play books, you're going to find details like:

  • The character archetype's name (like "The Battlebabe," "The Paladin," or "The Golden Boy")
  • The character's physical description, with several choices for each element like hair, eyes, clothes, etc.
  • Several suggested sets of attributes, of which the player can choose one
  • A set of Advanced Moves particular to that character, of which the player can choose one or two to start
  • A set of rules for creating relationships with the other player characters around the table

Intermission: The Cure for Too Many Choices

By now, you may have noticed something in common between them: Those things are all about limiting choices. And make no mistake: This isn't a bug of the Apocalypse Engine, it's a feature.

First, having only so many choices mechanically enforces the focus of the game, whether in character creation or play. Even if someone comes along who doesn't know what a "ranger" does or who thinks "hardholder" sounds dirty, they can pick up what it means from things like special moves, relationships with other characters, etc. It's harder for someone to play a character against type when the type is pretty much encoded into that character's particular ruleset.

Second, having a limited set of choices speeds things up. Just the act of picking a name for a character is accelerated immensely by reducing the set of possibles from any string of length 4 to 30 down to a canonical set of about twenty or so. The twenty will be appropriate for the character; the other method could generate either word salad or something easily pronounceable but inappropriate for the campaign.

The relationship creation part of character creation is a fine example. Each playbook will dictate what kind of relationship each character has with several others. This creates instant dramatic tension and opportunities for interesting conflict between characters.

A third benefit is that any given setting, no matter how foreign and weird it might be initially to the players, will be easy to pick up. The playbook makes it difficult to create an out-of-gamut character, and the catalog of moves on both player and GM sides ensure that actions fit within the scope of play. Any given Apocalypse-engine game is inherently self-focusing.

A Hill the Apocalypse Engine Can't Climb

Can these limits hamper extremely creative or unusual play? Certainly they can; there's no way you're going to be able to cross characters between the fantasy game and the professional wres...


Right, there's something strangely awesome about the idea of injecting fantasy races into professional wrestling. After all, a similar whim worked for Shadowrun. Will have to develop independently. But it still won't work in the crossover of the two Apocalypse Engine games. It'd need its own implementation of the Apocalypse Engine system, or maybe another game altogether. [insert obligatory reference to generics here]

Fronts: Unified, Against the Player Characters

This may well be the thing that most inspired me to write this post in the first place. The "front" as it's described in any given Apocalypse Engine game is a unified threat of some sort to the player characters. It may be decided upon between all the players during the first session, or it might be created from whole cloth by the GM beforehand, but it's ultimately, one way or another, what the PCs will have to face off against.

Again, this isn't so much a matter of limiting play as it is focusing it, guaranteeing that the same threat staring at the PCs across the battlefield last week will be more or less the same one staring at them this week, unless they totally destroyed it.

A lot of games don't mandate this sort of solid focus, and that could be one reason why campaigns collapse, because they get bogged down under the weight of too many problems or those problems are presented in a spotty fashion or the players just kind of lose interest in those threats because they're not threatening enough. The opposition just isn't focused enough on them and vice versa.

Frankly, I'd consider it worth picking up an Apocalypse Engine game just for the guidance on making the key villains of the piece. The "big bad" doesn't necessarily have to be big, it doesn't have to be totally bad, but it does have to be there, and consistent enough to be a palpable concern.

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