Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Apocalypse World: Recap and Review

So, Apocalypse World.

It's an RPG by Vincet Baker, the same dude who did Dogs in the Vineyard which, I'm told, is incredible. I think I would really like Dogs in the Vineyard, which is to say, I didn't like Apocalypse World but I don't think it's total crap, either. What follows is both my review of the system and my re-telling of our brief campaign.

The GM hands out eleven character folios. Each player gets to pick one, so there's no doubling up on classes. I rolled up a Battle Babe to go with the Hardholder, the Gun Nut and the... Scavenger? Should've taken better notes. The guy who gets Barter as his schtick. We had a nice, well-rounded group with plenty of kill and plenty of talk, our own street gang, and our own settlement to defend. Very Walking Dead: Season 3.

For me, character creation was the most fun aspect of the game. Your characters begin play knowing one another, and you have a History (Hx) score that determines how you interact with each other, mechanically speaking. Cool idea. And since you can't double-up on classes, each player's selection brings unique skills to the game. As you level, you get options to "borrow" abilities from the other classes in play, which means you can coordinate some really quirky stuff if you've got a mind for it. (Some GMs might rule that you can borrow abilities from classes which aren't in play, which further increases your character customization).

Our first session involved choosing our apocalypse. We did this by playing a one-shot, one-page RPG similar to The Quiet Year, but whose name eludes me. (Coincidentally, I recommend playing The Quiet Year over a couple stiff drinks with some nerdy friends. Last time, we wound up defending a desert island from lusty mollusk-men. It's good fun.)

Our Apocalypse was unique - a huge climate disaster had rendered most of Earth's atmosphere un-breathable, so we were confined to underground grottoes in subways and sewers, where the survivors desperately tried to grow crops using hydroponics and heat lamps. On top of that, we faced incoming threats from the remnants of the U.S. Army, a cult called the Children of Ash, and mole-men, which our GM eventually wrote out of the story because he thought they were silly.

Our particular setting felt very "Metro 2033"
Everything boils down to this: Roll 2d6. Add your relevant modifiers. Did you get a 10+? You succeed, exactly as you intended. Did you get a 7-9? You succeed, but the GM decides to what degree. You might kill your enemy, but be so overcome with bloodlust that you can't act next round. Or you might succeed in charming the merchant, but before he sells his secret stash to you, he needs a favor... 6 or less you fail.

There's a Doomsday Clock, too, that ticks closer to midnight with every failure. This is something I disliked - I'll go into why later. Health is handled in a similar fashion.

You level up by using your skills, but there's a twist: Your friends and your GM decide which skills will be useful in any given session, so your best stat might never get used to gain experience, while your worst stat might be the one you constantly rely on. Quirky. Anti-power-gamer technology in action, I suppose.

In our little hard-hold of New Plymouth, we have the following: Electricity, scrap, water, and guns. The rest? Well, we're hurting. That's why the Hardholder, the man-in-charge, decided to talk to the remains of the U.S. Army about getting some food shipped over in exchange for some of our people. The Colonel who showed up to represent the Army was a showy chauvinist, and he made a bold display of force by surrounding our little town with tanks. He didn't so much barter as threaten, demand, and steal. Not a good sign.

Later, that same day, after the tanks had left with a bunch of our supplies, a man calling himself Mr. Burns appeared to the Gun Nut in a vision. He was a floating skull covered in fire. He talked pretty, but everyone the Gun Nut told about the vision got real suspicious. Mr. Burns said the Children of Ash were coming, and that meant trouble for our little town.

Being a weird sort, I decided to do a little voodoo. The Battle Babe and the Gun Nut got all covered in body paint and asked questions of the Spirit World: We learned that the Children of Ash have a neat trick. First, they burn someone alive in a ritual. Next, everyone that person knows starts to burn. The closer you are, the more danger you're in. That's why, whenever the Children roll into town, they like to kidnap someone popular, someone everybody knows and loves, and burn him to a crisp. If they can nab a celebrity, they can barbecue an entire city.

The Scavenger knew a guy who had some info, so we set up a satellite phone and paid some bribes, etc, discovering that the Children were camped in a ruined gas station some five miles away. We rode out, guns blazing, and slaughtered thirty of them in a haze of blood and bullets. Turns out the Children don't need gas-masks to breathe the cloudy air. They don't even need food. They just eat ashes and turn that into sustenance. Also, those thirty? They were just a scouting party. Turns out there are millions of Children of Ash.

(OK - This is where the game started to fall apart for me. Not the system's fault, but rather our GM's. How the hell do you beat an enemy like that?)

The next day, all depressed, we woke to the sound of Mr. Burns approaching the city walls. He yelled out his demands for our leader in a fiery voice, and our Scavenger had a brilliant idea. We agreed to hand over a leader, at a set place and time, and (with a boxcar die roll) we convinced the Children it was a brilliant idea, too. Our Hardholder radio'd the Army Colonel and said, convincingly, that he'd cave to the Colonel's demands. You can have whatever you like, sir. Just meet me at this place and time. Come quiet - I don't want my people to know how badly I've failed them.

The story ended how you'd expect: The braggart Colonel meets us in the ruined town square at dusk, and a mob of ash-covered fanatics swarms him and his tankers, hoists him high, and burns him alive. A whole regiment of the U.S. Army goes up in smoke alongside him, and the Hardholder, who doesn't know the man so well, gets a bit crispy but lives to tell the tale. Our Gun Nut, though, has an ecstatic vision and very nearly finds a new religion on the spot. Something about a glorious conflagration, a holy inferno, and the Battle Babe punches him in the mouth and shuts him up.

A group of South American pirates showed up and started to posture aggressively. They docked in the harbor east of our settlement, and offered us all passage off the continent. The Hardholder wasn't hearing any of their honeyed lies. He was also getting damn sick of the Army, who had returned in greater numbers and re-established their charred campsite to the north.

After much deliberation, the Hardholder decided he was going to lead a gang to intimidate the pirates into fighting the Army. And...

This is where the game bogged down. The GM and the Hardholder had to look up rules for gang warfare, and the whole session devolved into rules lawyering and active reading. The GM ruled that the Hardholder's gang was much weaker, so the Hardholder's plan was doomed to fail.  The only other major action of the session came from the Scavenger, who stole a bazooka from the pirates and used it to sink their ship, rendering the work of the previous hour completely pointless.

I missed this session and I'm glad I did. Competitive book reading is the worst.

The Battle Babe returns to New Plymouth hard-hold, her motorcycle covered in mole-man skulls. She catches up on news, then suggests the group try again with the pirates: After all, she reasons, they only sunk one ship, and with her sword skills and overall hotness added to the mix, they have a much better chance of actually persuading the pirates to fall in line.

She also suggests a suicide pact. If any one of us gets captured by the Children, that one needs to die, and not by fire. It's the only way to keep the Children from killing all of us. The Hardholder agrees enthusiastically; he confesses that he sees no way to defeat the Children, and wants to abandon his stronghold. There's nothing good left in New Plymouth anyway. Either we die to fire, or we die by starvation, or we die by tanks. Unless we get out, we're just dead.

We ride on motorcycles to the coast and hold audience with the pirates - different ones from the ones the Scavenger killed with a bazooka - and they make us an offer. South America, where the air is breathable and there are no Children of Ash. All it costs us is our barter. We all decide it's best to abandon our hard-hold and go South, and do so, abruptly ending the campaign.

How anti-climactic was that?

Finding a way out of death traps is what RPG players do best. When a game is, essentially, one giant, inescapable death trap, players will find a way out by leaving the game. In my opinion, that's a huge flaw in game design, and one of the reasons I didn't like this game overall. There's no point in playing a game nobody can win. The Doomsday Clock is a count-down to the world ending. As players fail checks, and they will fail, the Doomsday Clock reminds everyone that their characters are ephemeral and everything they're doing is meaningless. Fun.

Our GM had enough material to run a single session well, and he did. Session one was great. Session two I missed, and session three lasted about forty minutes. I'm not sure why the GM wrote a campaign ending scenario into the third session of the game, but there you have it. The Children were too powerful. The exit was too visible. There was really only one way this was going to go.

Despite my bitching about the final session and some of my GM's more baffling decisions, I have a lot of good things to say about Apocalypse World. I recommend giving it a go if one or more of the following applies to you or your group:

     * You've got a large group of gamers who don't want to learn a complex system. Mechanically, AW plays really fast and isn't very complex, so you could realistically have seven or eight players at a table and still feel like you all accomplished something at the end of the night.

     * You've got several die-hard post-nuke aficionados in your group.

     * You're only planning to run a few sessions, and everyone is operating with the understanding that you're all going to die. So, AW could be great for something like a post-nuke Battle of Thermopylae.

     * You've got a very collaborative approach to gaming; the GM borrows from players' ideas and players are constantly adding details and working together to create a cool thing. It won't work if you've got a GM who is like, "My way or the highway."

I admit, too, that my attitude is influenced by my game's totally unsatisfying conclusion and the sour attitude that crept in during the second-session rules debacle. Your mileage may vary, and honestly, I hope it does. If you GM it, here's my takeaway:

     * Don't build 'campaign ending escape clauses' into your game. Your players will take them as soon as they get frustrated. They might not even realize what they're doing until you reveal that the game is over.

     * Don't make enemies like the Children of Ash. While they're literary and would be really intriguing in a novel, there's a big difference between a novel and a game. 'Scary' and 'intimidating' are fun. 'Terrifying' and 'impossible' are not.

     * Make rulings quickly. If you can look up a rule in under a minute, do so. If you can't, arbitrate. Don't waste a game session reading a rulebook.

Lastly, if your GM is doing any of this stuff, tell him. Good GMs like feedback, if it's presented constructively, and even the very best GMs make mistakes. Oh well, Apocalypse World. At least we'll always have session one.

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