Tabletop Game / Powered by the Apocalypse

Powered by the Apocalypse (a.k.a. Apocalypse World Engine or AWE) is a Game System originally developed by D. Vincent Baker for his groundbreaking Tabletop RPG Apocalypse World in 2010. Although not quite a Universal System, its elegant simplicity and built-in mod-friendliness resulted in a large number of hacks derived from it, ranging in genre from Paranormal Romance through Historical Fantasy to Cosmic Horror.

System Basics

The system is designed to facilitate smooth story flow, with a lot of focus on characters (Player Characters in particular) and overarching Central Themes and as few rules, crunch, and pre-published content in the way of it as possible. Ron Edwards' essay "Narrativism: Story Now" is credited as a major inspiration for this approach.

Like most Tabletop RPGs, the gameplay is a conversation between the players, one of whom serves as the Game Master (called "Master of Ceremonies" or "MC" in the original AW and a dozen other terms in the hacks). The players generally control a single Player Character each (although it's perfectly legal to play more than one at once), while the GM controls the world and the NPCs in it. Crucially, GM Fiat is not absolute: instead of being the sole source of truth about the plot and the setting, the GM facilitates dramatic conflicts and struggles for the PCs to resolve (plays "the Fifth Business", in Edwards' terms), while the creative freedom and responsibility to shape the story and the game world is shared equally among all players.

Moves

The cornerstone of the system are "moves". A move is basically any in-game event that interrupts the conversation mentioned above and makes the rules kick in. While it is easy to think of the moves as ability tests that require rolling dice (and they often are), they are more abstract than that. A character owning a particularly Cool Car is a move, for example, as is them being a Living Lie Detector, maxing out their primary stat, etc. The moves are categorized into player moves and GM moves, with the former further subdivided into basic and playbook moves:

  • Basic moves are available to all player characters and always require rolling for one of the stats. They cover the most common in-game actions, such as applying violence, bargaining for help, and just keeping it cool in a tight spot.
  • Playbook moves are unique and restricted to a particular playbook (see below), and may or may not require rolling dice (or even waive having to roll dice for a specific basic move).
  • GM moves are restricted to the GM and never require to roll dice (in fact, the GM never does in this system). Furthermore, the GMs are explicitly instructed to obfuscate which moves they are using.

Dice-rolling is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, so there is only one kind of rolls: 2d6 + Stat (abbreviated to "roll +Stat"), meaning that you roll two six-sided dice, sum the results, and add the value of your character's specified stat to it. If the end result is 6 or lower, it's a miss: something bad happens; on a 7 to 9, it's a weak hit: you still succeed, but either just barely, at a heavy price, or must face a Sadistic Choice; on a 10+, you succeed and everything is peachy. Finally, on a 12+, something exceptionally good happens, but only if you're using a basic move that you have "advanced" earlier (see below). The probability distribution curve of 2d6 rolls makes even small modifiers significant, while the fact that every result changes the situation for better or worse prevents the narration from bogging down.

Two key rules pertaining to all moves are to do it, do it and if you do it, you do it. The former means that if you want to use a move, you have to describe what your character does in-game to trigger it—in other words, you can't just say "I roll for persuasion". The latter means that if you do something in-game that should trigger a move, you have either to roll for it or to backpedal on it if that's not what you were going for. Ideally, moves flow into each other naturally, creating a fluid back-and-forth narrative between the players, punctuated by quick dice rolls. In combat, for instance, there are no turns or Action Initiative: the narration instead chains together individual combatants' moves, with the GM making sure that every PC gets equal spotlight opportunities.

Playbooks

The main appeal of any game powered by the Apocalypse are the playbooks: a type of short Splats that define not so much classes or races, as Character Archetypes prevalent in the genre of the particular game. The system enforces a form of Cast Speciation where no two copies of the same playbook may be in play at the same time, although it is possible to switch to a different playbook later in the game (with strings attached). A playbook typically fits on a couple of pages and consists of:

  • A snappy archetype name
  • A short Flavor Text introducing the core concept of the archetype and how it generally fits into the story
  • Appropriate appearance options (gender, build, face and/or eyes, clothing); you pick one from each category.
  • Starting stat combinations. The system doesn't support Point Buy by default, so you instead pick whatever stat profile fits your character concept best. Some playbooks always start off with a particular stat maxed-out, while others may be all over the place.
  • Playbook-specific moves, whose descriptions usually make up most of the playbook's contents; you get a few at character creation and can unlock a couple more later.
  • Starting gear, such as tools, weapons, vehicles, facilities, etc.
  • Improvement options (see below)

Stats

The system does not nail down which Stats exactly the PCs should have, but most hacks follow the simplified AW model of Combat/Social/Mental/Magic/Generic, with the last one (usually dubbed "Cool") used as a catch-all for any moves not covered by the rest. Stat values typically range from −1 (poor) to +3 (phenomenal), and each stat is involved in at least one basic move.

An additional stat used by Apocalypse World but dropped from many hacks is a form of Relationship Values named "Hx" (short for "history"). Every player character has an Hx score for every other player's character, representing how well they know them, and rolls for it when helping or hindering that character's actions.

Fun fact: Unlike in many game systems, basic moves generally allow to roll for the Social stat to influence another PC, even though no player can ever dictate what another player's character does. This is resolved by offering the target PC bonuses and even experience points if they comply with a request backed by a successful roll.

Forward, Ongoing, and Hold

There are only three types of generic modifiers in the system that model in-game conditions that are advantageous or disadvantageous to a Player Character (and only to PCs):

  • "Forward" is a ±1 modifier that applies to a character's next roll only.
  • "Ongoing" is a ±1 modifier that applies to all or some of a character's rolls until the conditions are no longer relevant.
  • "Hold" is any abstract resource that the player can obtain and spend at any time as long as it's relevant, e.g. a number of questions about a particular thing that the GM must answer truthfully.

Combat and Harm

A common feature in games powered by the Apocalypse is the aversion of the Critical Existence Failure. While all characters have Hit Points in form of "harm tracks", they start feeling the negative effects long before the latter fill up, as every time a character takes any (even zero!) harm, the GM is entitled to use one of the so-called "harm moves" against them. Add to this the fact that most PCs can only soak 6-7 harm, that most weapons deal 1-3 harm, and that unless you attack from ambush, both sides inflict harm on each other simultaneously, and you get very quick and brutal fights that wise players generally try to avoid if they can.

Armor in the game works by Damage Reduction, with 1 or 2 points of harm subtracted from any attack that isn't tagged (see below) as "ignores-armor". Healing harm is usually a very slow process, taking weeks of in-game time.

Gear and Stuff

Given the system's focus on characters, the rules for their possessions are deliberately open-ended, avoiding the need for catalog-style sourcebooks. Gameplay-relevant items simply have "tags", i.e. short descriptors of their functions, restrictions, and appearances. For instance, a weapon typically has tags for how much harm it does, its effective range, and how loud or messy it is: a revolver may be tagged as "2-harm close loud", meaning that it can inflict 2 points of harm at close range, but everyone will hear you fire. Note how it doesn't say anything about the model, caliber, or bling of the revolver—those details are left for the player to fill in.

Experience and Improvement

In the course of the game, player characters gain Experience Points, which mostly come in the form of Non-Combat EXP. A player generally marks experience whenever a move (not necessarily their own) tells them to, or when one of two things occur, depending on the particular game implementation:

  • They roll for a highlighted stat. "Highlighting" is the original AW way of handing out XP: at the start of every session, each player is told by another player and the GM to "highlight" two of their basic stats to incentivize them using moves associated with those stats.
  • They miss on a roll. This approach was pioneered by Dungeon World, and rewards players for leaving their high-stat comfort zone, as well as offering consolation when the Random Number God screws them over.

A character's Experience Meter resets upon filling up, and the player can select a option from a list of improvements, ranging from increasing a basic stat by +1, through learning a new move (from their own or another playbook), to gaining a playbook-specific improvement. After a certain number of basic improvements are obtained, the player can additionally pick from "advanced" improvements, which range from advancing some of their basic moves (see above), to retiring that character (effectively turning them into an NPC protected by Plot Armor), switching to another playbook, or even creating a new character to play alongside their old one.

Fronts and Threats

This part of the game system is not visible to the players but is nonetheless essential to any game powered by the Apocalypse. Rather than planning out fixed and random encounters, the Game Master instead prepares a laundry list of "threats"—all the things in the campaign that will become a problem if the PCs encounter them, be it malevolent or haplessly benevolent NPCs, dangerous places, monsters, etc. In-play, the GM then throws these threats at the PCs whenever appropriate or whenever the story seems to bog down.

Mechanically, each threat belongs to a genre-appropriate category (e.g. the original AW has Warlords, Brutes, Afflictions, etc.), which defines its generic moves, and a subcategory, which defines its motivation—a single line describing its role in the story. Individual threats, particularly overarching ones, can have their own custom moves, while similar ones can be grouped into Fronts for easier track-keeping. After every session, the GM updates the threats list in accordance with the most recent story developments.

Notable Hacks

Vincent Baker maintains a notably liberal attitude towards AW hacks: basically, it's OK to publish and even to sell them, as long as you credit him as the original creator of AW, don't copy entire passages from his book verbatim (paraphrasing is OK, though), and don't infringe upon other people's intellectual property.

Popular hacks include:

Popularity of the AW engine led Shannon Appelcline, author of Designers & Dragons, to proclaim it one of the "two great 'generic' RPG systems" produced by the indie RPG movement, the other being Fate. Blades in the Dark, while not a straight-up Apocalypse World hack, demonstrates and acknowledges being massively influenced by it, as well.
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