Amazing New Discovery: An Ode To AW2E

Transform Your Gaming With This One Weird Trick

So I don’t know if you follow small press gaming very closely, but there’s this very clever little game that came out recently y’all should know about. It’s called Apocalypse World. There’s even a second edition of it.

Right so at…I want to say RinCon this year, a bunch of us aging indienerds were lamenting the fact that good old Apocalypse World never really gets played any more. There is so damned much PbtA hotness swirling around, and indienerds seem to mostly have a thirst for novelty, so the great granddaddy languishes, beloved when we remember to feed him but mostly ignored in the attic.

I had three strong players and a very early Tuesday game day start (430! Unheard of!), so fuck yeah, let’s throw down.

I read through second edition when I got my paws on it, kind of skimmed until I ran into obviously new stuff (battle moves, road war), nodded yup yup yup, didn’t really notice the smaller details, the little gestures. Turns out Vincent and Meg Baker packed a lot of small adjustments into the new volume.

It’s been, jeez, five years or more since I actually ran Apocalypse World. I think my last touch was playing with MadJay Brown​​ at a BigBadCon several years back. The infrastructure of the game is lodged in there tight because I’ve been brining in PbtA juice for years now. But actually playing the new thing again was eye opening.

Thoughts in bullet point form for your potty reading pleasure:

* Apocalypse World is an adventure game. AW is far less feels-oriented than many of its excellent offspring. I’d go so far as to say that AW isn’t my favorite iteration of itself! That said, jeez, shit definitely snowballs quickly and brutally. It’s still a master class in compact design! But I was kind of surprised to find that there’s very little ummm emotional manipulation happening with the various economies and incentives.

* It is the fastest PbtA to deploy. I haven’t played all the PbtAs but I’ve played enough that I feel like I’ve got an informed opinion on this. One thing I’ve seen among the new PbtAs is ever more elaborate pre-game situation setup. Frequently there’s so much (Urban Shadows, Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, Headspace, etc.) that we’ve sold ourselves on this setup-is-play ethic. Especially true whenever I’ve spooled these games out in a con slot: yes yes I’d also rather be playing than setting up, but since that’s not happening let’s at least try to enjoy the prep.

But this game, jeez. One of my buddies was marveling that we hit the ground running and played hard for four or five hours. The only setup they had to do was the Hx questions, plus my further interrogations, plus some very high-gloss “so where in the country? Four Corners area? Okay great let’s go” type stuff. That was, I want to say, not more than 30 minutes from playbook selection to the first hard frame.

* So many little changes. Did you notice that help/hinder is different now? I didn’t. It’s a good change! Act Do Something Under Fire’s 7-9 has always been, I think, the moment of heaviest cognitive load in the game, but help/hinder 7-9 was right up there alongside. Now it’s a +/- 1 on a soft hit, or +/- 2 on a hard hit. Excellent, simple, straightforward. It produces less draaaama but it’s also faster handling time.

Another one: lots of options and ideas for how to interpret Seize by Force. Very welcomed. It’s functionally identical as far as I can tell but now there are explicit ideas of what all you can Seize.

The new MC worksheet for doodling out the relationship map is very nice. It’s kind of a situation map (smap!), which always excites me. They’ve added a physical component to mapping out the threats (north or south, near or far, internal or external, etc.) which I think very much helps ground the game.

Oh jeez what else? There are way, way more common moves now — that is, if you count battle moves and road war moves among them. I do. That shit is all pretty frequent (first use of “common”) and everyone has access to them (other use of the word), so, yeah. Common moves. I’ve been auditing my entire PbtA collection for my own purposes and found that 8 or 9 common moves is the typical spread. AW itself has all those and several additional combat moves and road moves. It’s a lot of moves. It felt, in my opinion, foreign and unwieldy. But mostly just because I’m used to 1E.

The Battle moves are a welcome change in our group, by the by. The old Seize by Force stuff was definitely a speedbump for my people, so expanding on that and offering additional just-kill-em options are good for us.

The only move subset I’m feeling iffy on is the Tactical & Support set: lay down fire, stand overwatch, keep an eye out. They feel…fussy, maybe. I get that folks who aren’t right in the shit making the actual Seize roll want to feel involved, but tbh I kind of preferred ye olde Help/Hinder for that. Stand overwatch in particular I found hard to implement well. The target takes harm and that’s that? Really? I suppose the counterbalance is that they’re rolling more and therefore risking a miss more. But stand overwatch turned our Battlebabe into an overwatch machine with his +3 Cool. Which meant he reflexively bowed out of being involved in anything but a supporting role. Still deciding how I feel about that.

* I remember the game having more feels than it does. I don’t know why I remember it different. I can’t point at anything in particular; possibly it’s the Hx questions. Or it’s the fact that my more-favorite iterations (Sagas of the Icelanders, Urban Shadows, Masks) have more gut punches baked in. I didn’t ever really feel the emotional content of our game. Either that or my bandwidth was just being taken up with all the new moves and I didn’t have much brain left over to push buttons.

* It is ridiculously well tested. I mean, yeah. Obviously there are a zillion committed players and a very active community. And Vincent and Meg are smart as hell. But, like here’s a small example: one of my players took the Battlebabe, I think because he eyeballed the playbook as “better” than the Gunlugger because of the Battlebabe magic (dangerous and sexy). He quickly discovered that the Battlebabe’s secret sauce is that they have to directly confront people: Battlebabe is all about Go Aggro, not Seize By Force. So next up he went for Ice Cold, which lets the Battlebabe swap in Cool for Hard when Going Aggro. Then he earned an advance and went shopping through all the playbooks for a move that’d let him Seize By Force with cool instead of hard. We can’t find it! I don’t think it exists, and thank goodness otherwise you’d have a mechanically boring advancement track for the Battlebabe, who simply ceases to be anything other than cool. He grumbled that the Gunlugger has the opposite effect — swap in hard for cool — and thought it was “unfair.” I was surprised because he’s usually not sensitive to minmaxing, but in this case I think he thought he’d found a useful exploit. But he didn’t, because AW is ridiculously well tested.

* Wow so many reference sheets. Way way more than before.

So anyway, yeah. Our particular apocalypse isn’t super inventive and that’s fine: warring biker gangs lurking around southwestern Colorado, battles on the open plains, badass road fights in the mountains, lunatic evil juggalo bikers, a big unwieldy gang for the Chopper, a cool-ass Driver who’s just revealed her homebuilt tank, a louche Battlebabe wandering from hardholder to hardholder looking for the laziest/easiest gig even as a three-way war is bubbling up.

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0 thoughts on “Amazing New Discovery: An Ode To AW2E”

  1. lunatic evil juggalo bikers

    I love that.

    I’ve been thinking that I really need to get some ApWo under my belt. PbtA has yet to click for me as a GM, so I think maybe I need to go back to the source.

  2. I’m tempted to go back through 1E and see if I can pick that up.

    I suspect it’s because so much of what came after (Monsterhearts especially) did push those buttons and my dumb brain is assuming the original must have as well.

  3. First, love your clickbait title. Second, I got to play AW for the first time earlier this month (only PbtA or PbtA-adjacent before that was Blades in the Dark).

    I can’t speak to the lack of feels, but I totally agree with how fast it setup and went. We got from barely any concept to in deep shit in 3 hours.

    I am still agog at the moves and how nicely they work. I was a player and was jealous of the GM, because it seemed like all Gary had to do was to put narrative meat on the bones that were provided. In Blades, the GM still has to come up with the specific consequences and complications, the costs of failure, and so on. There are a lot of moves in AW but they provide so much direction that running the game seemed to skip a lot of unnecessary creative fatigue?

  4. Adam Schwaninger oh yeah for sure. It’s really easy to run! Until you hit Do Something Under Fire which is, you know, probably every third roll in the game. Even that one has gotten pretty easy for me. 7-9 is the heartbeat of the game, honestly.

    I still remember the extraordinary difficulty I had in remapping my facilitation brain to emcee Apocalypse World. It was as painful as my journey through Burning Wheel.

  5. It is still the best for me. I have not run 2E yet though as we are a bit PbtA-jaded at this stage. But I’m more likely to run 2E than anything else I’ve bought.

  6. So, one thing with AW is, there are going to be feels – but they develop slowly. Vincent’s word in AW1 was that the game takes around 6 sessions to actually reach full speed.

    Other PBTAs address “feels” directly, whereas with AW, in my experience, they’re an emergent element. A few sessions in you’ll have situations that are truly escalating, presenting characters with both very hard choices and opportunities to change things radically. And, by the book, characters will be involved in these situations, in these groups and with these NPCs in different, asymmetrical ways, but also have to cooperate and trust each other on some things at least. So when the chips are down and you’re making the hard choice, and changing things for good, suddenly all this sticky mess bubbles up, and there’s the feels.

    Again,this is largely my experience, I’m not sure.

  7. When you read Paul’s clickbait, roll + Sharp.

    On a 7-9 take 1 hold. On a 10+ take 3 hold. Spend hold 1-for-1 and choose from the following:

    * You slyly signal to everyone else in the know that you’re one of them. Everyone takes +1 Hx on you.

    * You earn +1 Hx on Paul.

    * You don’t take harm to your indienerd cred as established.

    On a miss, you actually fell for it. Be prepared for the worst.

  8. Paul Beakley

    On a 12+ you discover the real One Weird Trick: Playing games that are finished, thoroughly tested and known to be really good delivers excellent gaming sessions with better reliability than only playing the beta drafts of the currently-hyped new kickstarter star that is actually 2.5 years away from final publication.

    Something that I keep struggling to remember myself 😀

  9. I still remember the extraordinary difficulty I had in remapping my facilitation brain to emcee Apocalypse World. It was as painful as my journey through Burning Wheel.

    Was there a moment when ApWo clicked for you? Or was it a gradual process? What most facilitated the remapping?

  10. Paul Beakley, when you open your brain to a completely different game flow, and try to adapt to it, roll +Weird.

    On a 10+, choose 2, on a 7-9, choose 1.

    – There’s something new here, and you discover One Weird Trick about gaming that you had totally missed before.

    – You’re in the zone, and the new game flows well from the start.

    On a miss, you set a base difficulty for their feelings, and write sad things on index cards during combat.

  11. Mark Delsing well that’s an interesting question. I’ll talk about that from the MC side, ok?

    My first big hiccup was reconciling what felt like a very constraining set of rules. And they are, sorta kinda. But you probably know what I’m talking about, yeah? Looking at the MC moves as too small, too narrow, too limiting. Because I’d come to rely on an infinite decision space (which it never was, taking into account genre suitability, table mood, established canon, etc.). At some point I moved the validation step out of my head and trusted that darned near anything I might come up with in my typical fashion would probably fit in the MC moves list if you squinted. At some point, I was able to use it as an inspirational pick-list rather than “you may only do one of these things.” Honestly I don’t know what changed.

    The second hiccup was getting used to the badminton game where we lightly bat “the conversation” back and forth, I mostly just wait for misses, then escalate. Understanding the setup-first-then-hit-hard (soft then hard) pace on the MC side was a big one. Like, it’s totally not okay in AW to just make someone take harm. It has to be established. That’s a very easy procedure to remember! But like…it’s different, you know? It’s making something very trad visible: you see a group of orcs in the valley/we draw our weapons and advance/roll initiative/okay I go first, the orcs roll and miss/I roll to hit and I do 5 damage. The future badness was definitely announced, and there’s some randomness in when and how the PCs take damage, but the steps are all there just the same.

    In the big picture I do that with everything now, not just combatty things. But I kind of do it with … I dunno, different awareness than I used to. More purposeful?

    The third big hiccup for me was listening for when common moves get triggered. This is maybe the weirdest, non-trad habit I’ve developed. Rather than players setting out when and how they want to overcome challenges or complete tasks, they just talk and describe until a move button gets pushed. Obviously smart players will play toward those triggers, or play away from the moves they’re terrible at. It’s not new-new just different.

    I have a whole long thing I could probably write. I mostly don’t want to because I can already hear the arguments and well-actually and self-proclaimed experts on each of the three points I just put above. And writing in such a way as to sidestep the most obvious arguments is um. Exhausting. Especially when I’m doing this for free.

  12. To me the feels come in with the lightly structure social element. in most rpg groups I ran with a player making an ultimatum was considered bad form. If you start selling this drug I’ll tell the investigators about your operation. If you spare this death knight I’ll consider all of you enemies of the church. As a gm I found them problematic because inside a game like dnd there was no tools to resolve the situation without violence. So it became a weird meta question of if you do this thing ill leave the group. [Disclaimer of only personal experience. I’m aware there are groups who can handle this tension without rules to judicate.]

    A lot of the emotional depth I felt from AW came from being able to deal with those ultimatums head on without having to worry about ruining other players fun. Go Aggro combine with how fast and lethal damage was dealt out made choices feel irrevocable.

  13. My first big hiccup was reconciling what felt like a very constraining set of rules.

    I find it funny to think back to when ApWo first came out and remember how many Big Name™ designers asserted that the MC moves were too constraining and “why are you telling me how to roleplay” and etc. ApWo was obviously tragically flawed, or just an instantiation of how Vincent himself specifically runs games.

    And now you can look back and treat all of that like Gates saying a computer would never need more than 512k of RAM, or how pundits said the iPhone sucked for not having a hardware keyboard.

  14. Mark Delsing so true

    For me, In the post PbtA world, if a game lacks some solid, helpful structure for GMs to handle their side of the game, I find myself automatically side-eyeing it. It’s actually sade, because it made me frustrated with older games that I think are full of potential.

  15. AW lacks feels because I’ve pulled them out of your skull and implanted them in these frogs. Taste their secretions to know comfort, joy, satisfaction. Just one barter a lick. Try the blue one, it’s loving trepidation, like when you taught her to swim.

  16. (At the risk of some thread hijacking I just met MadJay Brown at the recently wrapped BigBadCon. He ran an awesome session of Mutant: Year Zero for us. And, a’course, M:YZ feels like AW’s cousin… at least when you are in the Ark. Anyways… apparently MadJay can give you apocalyptic fun & bleakness in many fruit flavors.)

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