Monday, September 27, 2010

Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World

Vincent Baker has a real knack for taking subjects I have little or no interest in and turning them into games I really want to play. First, he did it with pseudo-Mormon moral enforcers in a West that might have been in his game Dogs In The Vineyard and now he does it with post-Apocalypse survivors in his new game Apocalypse World.

He's done other games as well, but these are the two RPGs he's done that I'm familiar with.

Another thing Vincent Baker has a knack for is coining one line rules for RPG play that can be applicable to just about any game. In Dogs In The Vineyard it was "say yes or roll the dice" which is more or less self explanatory: either say yes to players or have them roll dice. Don't say no, and don't have them roll the dice if you want it to just happen.

There's several candidates in Apocalypse World for one-liners that can summarize a style of play, but my favorite is this: "look through crosshairs." This one might not be as immediately obvious in its meaning as "say yes or roll the dice," but it really emphasizes something that I can be bad at. What it's saying is to look at your NPCs and other GM creations through crosshairs, and don't be afraid to pull the trigger. In fact, when in doubt, pull the trigger.

As a GM I often become too attached to my creations, to the point that I will actively protect them from harm in the game. Baker tells the GM in Apocalypse World (he calls the GM the MC for Master of Ceremonies, but I will continue to use GM) to always consider killing or destroying the stuff he owns in the game whenever that stuff appears.

While this attitude is especially appropriate in a setting like Apocalypse World, it's also something worth keeping in mind in any other game. Nothing works as well to signify that the characters' actions have consequences than watching the world change around them in response to those actions. Nothing signifies dramatic change better than death and destruction.

Besides this possible new universal guideline for running games, there was one other thing that really stood out for me. The GM in Apocalypse World never rolls dice, ever. There is one optional rule where the GM can roll dice for the player in the one instance where rolling high is bad, but this is suggested only if the players are having a hard time accepting that in that one case it's bad to roll high.

Instead, the GM plays off what the players roll. At its most basic, if the players attempt to attack someone and they fail, then they are the ones that end up getting hurt instead of their target (it's actually more complex than that in terms of possible outcomes, but I don't want to just regurgitate the rules here). The GM never rolls for the NPCs, instead determining their actions and reactions based on what the players roll, and a set of guidelines (the latter of which is where the "look through crosshairs" line comes from).

Overall, the system is fairly simple at its core, but innovative enough that it wasn't until I got near the end of the book that a lot of it started to click. I'm not sure when we'll get a chance to play it given that it's campaign oriented, but I hope to do so some day!

One final note: A third thing Vincent Baker has a knack for is creating games with mature themes, and Apocalypse World is very much for "mature audiences" on more than one level. There's the ultra-violence of the post-apocalypse setting. The complex look at human relationships where everyone is at least a potential threat, even other PCs. And of course, there's also the naked woman on the cover (the picture above is an interior illustration, the cover is a photograph), and the fact that characters have an ability that keys off having sex with another character. You have been warned.

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