At The Table: Apocalypse World

Role Playing. You either do or do not, there is no middle ground.  I’m not going to try and beat you over the head on why you should game at an open table or why you should find a bunch of strangers and kill things together – in a dramatic fictional kind of way.

No, I would never try and do something like that, ever. Okay, I’m lying, I totally would try and sucker you in to try tabletop RPGs, only because I think given enough time, everyone can learn the joy in a hack and slash dungeon crawl – even if it’s only from time to time.

I get it though: Role Playing Games aren’t for everyone. Not everyone can sit down at a table and imagine bold new worlds and ways to break down it’s evil government. Not everyone has the fanese to talk their way out of countless bounties. Not everyone can sing a dragon to sleep. Actually, none of us can, it’s why we use dice.

I won’t sit here and tell you what to play, how to play it, and why you should have fun doing so. I can only tell you what I’m currently playing, how it’s played and why I enjoy doing so. It’ll be a lot of “hey, look at this, it’s fucking shiny!” and a lot of “Wow, this feels like one big pile of shit…” but it’ll be an opinion, open to all kinds of discussion.


In this first installment, I’ll be talking about D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. You’re probably wondering “Why are you covering such an old game?” and the honest answer is “because I’m broke” and I missed out on it’s initial launch success.

None of my offline friends game, mainly because I have very few offline friends that still live in the area. One, Steven, is a huge Cthulhu mythos fan and we’ve played some Call of Cthulhu and even some Mechwarrior but those are different posts all together. I bring him up, because he was one of the first players at my Apocalypse World table.

I met the owner of a local gaming hole that had recently opened and told her I wanted to give Apocalypse World a shot. She gave me Tuesday nights, added me to the calendar and on our first night we had seven players. It has whittled down to four players and myself, because of scheduling and adult things, but it’s been a wild ride.

First (finally?), Apocalypse World (AW from here on out) is about a few things, but at it’s base it’s about character interaction, their choices and the fall out (good or bad) from those choices. As the name states, the world has fallen upon some apocalyptic moment.

That’s the thing – it’s all open for table talk. The first session you spend molding the world, the events, and things in it. No two campaigns will ever be the same because of this one detail: the players and Master of Ceremonies (the MoC; the Dungeon Master of AW) work together to build the world, it’s feel, it’s desires and it’s strengths and/or weaknesses. Once you feel you have a good canvas for the game, you then create characters inside of the canvas.

My group had decided that there was some kind of central government that broke apart because it reached out into the universe too fast. This caused a fall mainly from the outer planets in, but a collapse none the less. This created the perfect opportunity for military groups to go rogue and space pirating to become a legit way for people to live.

The starting planet, Terranova, was named so because I asked “Who has been on this planet longest?” and that player was then asked “What’s the name of the planet?” Simple, right? SIMPLE! This is something AW does so well – it gives the narrative to the players more than the MoC.

We also agreed on a few other things – religious cults are a thing, mercenaries, power crazed militia leaders, alien races, etc.

Now, AW brings into play what is referred to as The Psychic Maelstrom, which interlocks every living being, in this Dues Ex Machina type way. The Maelstrom is open to any and all characters, and all they have to do is roll the dice and successfully interact with it, and in that moment they get information from and give information to the MoC. This information is used to build character backgrounds, and for fuel to light under the players when the MoC needs to.

Once we had a rough starting idea of our universe, we created characters using the themes of the world. Now, the character differences between AW and say something like Dungeons and Dragons, is that when a player chooses a character playbook, no one else can have that same playbook. In D&D you can have a party of 5 fighters, but in AW there may be a lot of different people who can heal or shoot well, but there will be only ONE Angel, and only ONE Gunlugger, and your characters are them.

This brings a very deep moment for AW: it’s not about the NPCs, the worlds you visit, but the player’s characters. More so, they call one another by their character’s name, and they speak for that character. It isn’t “Well, Murlock does this…” but it’s “I’m going to do this…”

Reading through the AW book, I was slightly turned off by this but my players slipped into their characters rather easily, and I’m happy to say referring to them as their character has been just as fun.

During character creation, there is room to change characters to fit one another, just as you would to fit the fiction of the world. AW characters all start knowing one another, somehow, which explain why they’re together at the beginning of the game. Luckily enough, Hammer was the head of a motorcycle gang, and the characters all became long and short term members – each with their own bike.

So, here we were, characters and a world to explore, threats I had begun to make on the fly, ideas for plots, and we began to play.

I won’t do a week by week breakdown but I’ll give you the “not-so-long” of it:

Hammer’s crew met Shit (later the group learned his name was Deuce), the leader of a ‘family’ at a compound called Broomhigh on the outskirts of a city, Old Grotto. Deuce allowed Hammer’s crew to park on the vicinity of Broomhigh, if they went into the city to retrieve a bit of cargo they dropped during a recent salvaging run.

Typical RPG storyline, right? Yeah, as the MoC, I’m allowed ZERO preparing coming to the table the first night. I’m to work with the players, take notes, and come up with some things based around the world we create together. The MoC can’t really (and shouldn’t really) prepare until the end of the first session.

In my notes, Deuce is the head of this religious cult whose only goal is to open one of nine seals that bring upon an actual full universal apocalypse.

I can type that out without fear of them finding out because in a few sessions two new members joined the table – Bendrix, a meek salvager, and Space Pirate Captain Match Hazard – then Broomhigh fell.

But that’s right: Space. Pirate. Captain.

Originally Match was to be a run of the mill pirate until someone mentioned how the government had reached too far into the universe. “So, there’s space travel?” “Yes.” “Can I be a SPACE pirate?” “Sure, cause I thought that’s what you meant.”

Hammer had to leave the table because sometimes being an adult sucks and you have to schedule other things around role playing. I wrote his character off by having him and his motorcycle crew attacked and some of them caught by the local militia group led by Helm – a crazy dictator who has glorious plans of universal domination, who then sold him to a slave trader, Butch, who Hammer had originally told me he owed something to. I was able to write him out with information he had given me weeks before. AW gives you the tools to make all kinds of connections.

The same week Hammer was off screened captured, Hazard got wind that Deuce and his people, who may look and act like pacifists, were planning on bringing a real apocalypse. Match wasn’t having any of it. He slaughtered Deuce and Deuce’s brother leaving the ‘family’ to fend for themselves. They locked themselves underground and split up, now with Deuce’s young son as leader. Later, Bendrix rewrote their fortune by saying he had met half the group as they had split up after the attack. Again, player mediation of fiction.

The players decided they were going to free Hammer by sneaking into Grotto and stumbled into the militia’s hidden weapon stash.

They attempted to blow up some buildings but got caught in the process, were hauled up to Helm’s space station where they triumphantly defeated Helm and got out of dodge just in time, back on Hazard’s trusty ship – The Minotaur.

Some other things have been going on since the space station blew up, more connections between characters have been unfolding, and a new threat looms on the horizon – a mercenary group known as The Order of the Ebon Hand.

We decided to take a break until January, so on that final night, I gave them a 4 hour long battle against lower members of the Ebon Hand. This “lower member” had power armor and a small gang of robots and officers with their own smaller power armor. I threw a small army at them.

It took them all night, moving each side back and forth inside an attack ship. At the end of the night I heard one of them go “I wasn’t sure if we were going to survive that one.” I have put fear into their characters and they haven’t a clue what’s coming when we get back together and neither do I – but that’s the beauty of it!

I’ve spent most of this rant giving you the thememantics of the game, how the story roles along, but I haven’t touched on how things are decided.

Simple – 2d6 and plus or minus your stats. That’s it. If a player is shooting at one of my NPCs, the player rolls 2d6, add or subtract their “Cool” stat and if they get a seven or better, they hit. The higher the number, the stronger the hit and the less they suffer from retaliation. In other words, their dice roll also determines how my NPCs react. The MoC does very little rolling, just a lot of interpretation and improve. So. Much. Improve.

What does the MoC actually do? Panic when a plan of their falls to pieces (Broomhigh for example). They also pay a lot of attention to every little detail the characters give you and run with it.

Bendrix’s mother, who has only been seen in the Physic Maelstrom, had drug problems, and forced those same problems onto him making Bendrix a border line addict and I am ever so gently playing those strings. The ship’s NPC medic offers Bendrix all kinds of pain killers.

The MoC also create vibrant NPCs to fill this dying world and they also setup and “move fronts” for the characters.

Fronts are best described as things that can and will screw with your characters. They are there to help the MoC handle off screen things, build threats PCs know (and sometimes don’t know) about, and remind the MoC things set up in earlier game sessions. These can be NPCs or general overall arching fears, like greed or hunger. I use these fronts to make off screen situations make more sense when they become on screen ones.

Using Deuce, for example. I had Deuce as a front. In this front I had key things he did when the characters weren’t around. When the players brought Deuce this black obelisk he’d begin to get nervous, protective of it. Another key moment was if Roof (his brother) or his son (whose name escapes me) dies in the presence of the obelisk, Deuce would become threatening and even attack if provoked. The next key moment was if he’d touch the obelisk. A great fire would break out and injure anyone around it at the time. None of this came to pass because Hazard slaughtered Deuce and Roof in the same roll. hey, it happens.

Our group meets back up in January where I plan on throwing the entire Ebon Hand after them, after they face off against Butch and his band of slavers. This group doesn’t have a clue what’s around the bend, and even though the world has already ended for some, their time is a ticking too. I’ll follow up then on how things go, and even do something when it’s my turn to pass the MoC torch and sit on the player’s side of the table in our Season 2.

If you’re interested, Apocalypse World can be purchased through Drive Through RPG and Night Sky Games. If you’re still not sold on it, there are plenty of really good Lets Play on YouTube, “Apocalypse World” or my personal favorite d20’s Game Master Series which features a great cast, hell of a plot hook and a separate MoC series that follows along.

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