Saturday, July 30, 2022

Apocalypse World

 I bought this book because I was really impressed with Urban Shadows and wanted to see where it all began. That plan, unfortunately, backfired, because it's been years since I've read Urban Shadows and my memory of that book is so vague it would take a painstaking side-by-side comparison for me to really understand what the later book took from its progenitor and what it sought to change (I suppose I could go back and read it again, but I am not so overburdened with time that this strikes me as a worthwhile project).

What I can say is that Apocalypse World, by D Vincent Baker, impressed me with its originality. Which is kind of an odd sensation to have, seeing as how it really should feel like a rougher version of something I've already experienced. I expect it's precisely because of Urban Shadows' greater polish. Reading this book really does feel like being present at the beginning of something, and I imagine the feeling was just as strong back in 2010, when it was first released.

In Apocalypse World, your character stats are mostly abstract - you've got Cool, Hard, Sharp, Hot, and Weird, and these vaguely relate to aspects of your character. If you've got a high Cool rating, then that means your character is cool and calculating, but it really means that you're good at making "acting under fire" rolls, and acting under fire is just a generalized sort of pressure. It can mean sneaking past an alert guard or talking your way out of an awkward social situation or mixing chemicals while your lab is taking artillery fire, and there's nothing on your character sheet that will let you play a steady-handed chemist who is not also a smooth-talking ninja. What your stats ultimately accomplish is suggesting a certain tenor of events that surrounds your character. A Hard PC is constantly getting up into people's faces and taking what they want. A Sharp PC has a really good idea about what's going on in any particular situation. 

I think what makes it work are the interesting character options, which straddle the line between character classes and preconstructs. The Battlebabe potentially (with the right choice of Moves) gets to use Cool instead of Hard when "going aggro" and that's not just a mechanical benefit, it also says something about the nature of the character - they are going to use violence in a calm and calculated way.  Two characters with the same stats, but different playbooks, are going to feel very different in play.

The essence of the book, though, is found in a line that I first saw in Nobilis 3rd Edition. To paraphrase: "a roleplaying game is a conversation." Both books came out at around the same time, so I don't think either one was quoting the other. I suspect it was just an idea that was floating around indie design circles in the late aughts. Yet, more than any other game I've ever read (aside from Urban Shadows, for obvious reasons), Apocalypse World is intensely focused on optimizing that conversation. The game mechanics are largely about encouraging you to say things that are relevant to the story you're telling. The basic moves are as abstract as they are because they are a kind of storytelling grammar. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if "going aggro" represents shoving a gun in someone's face and screaming or calmly explaining your superior martial arts technique, because what's really going on is that the stakes are being raised and bridges are being burned, and that's going to play out in similar ways structurally, regardless of how an individual character presents themselves. 

There's a phrase that keeps showing up in the MC (the game's term for "GM") instructions "make as hard and direct a move as you like," which sort of gets to the heart of this. Because it sounds at first like wide-open latitude, but then you realize "move" is a bit of system jargon and actually there is a list of allowable MC moves that you have to pick from. But then you realize that these moves are impossibly broad, like "announce future badness" or "put someone in a spot," and it becomes clear - the "rules" are largely suggestions about things to say and timing cues for when it's good to say them. The conversation is being managed.

Reading this book feels like being entrusted with a secret. The overall effect is like someone showing you the guts of how rpgs actually work, and it's thrilling. No wonder it inspired so many "Powered by the Apocalypse" games.

Ukss Contribution: There is almost no setting in this book. Mostly, it's content to just establish a general post-apocalyptic mood and trust that players will wind up creating their own worlds as part of play. So I think I'm going to have to go with something super basic - a character name. One of the example NPCs is called "Joe's Girl," and the thing that intrigues me is the way that it feels like a true proper noun and not an identity defined by a relationship. We never learn any other name for her, but we also never meet any character named "Joe." It's possible "Joe" doesn't even exist. The book suggests that after the apocalypse, names become divorced from their old cultural contexts, so that something like "Mother Superior" could just be an ordinary name. I choose to believe that's what's going on here. "Joe's Girl" is what her parents called her and what's going to be written on her tombstone, and there's just something delightfully weird about that.

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