How not to run Apocalypse World

I tried out Apocalypse World a few days ago, and I was absolutely sold. It’s a fantastic game, and it feels incredibly different that Dungeon World. The extreme difference in base moves between *World games does that to the experience.

Tim Franzke ran a wonderful one-shot, and while I always thought sex was kind of stupid in RPG’s, for the first time I experienced how it can be used as an effective drive for conflict. And if nothing else, Apocalypse World looooooves them conflicts.

One of the biggest differences between Apocalypse World and Dungeon World is that the former is very much about interaction between the players, while the latter is more about interaction between the party and the environment.

The base moves reflect this! For example, the seduce or manipulate move gives you a way to make the player want to do, what you want him to do, by letting you offer him XP to accept your deal. You can also have him act under fire not to do as you want, which is kind of like defying danger. He can of course interfere with your roll, but if you still succeed, you can highly incentivize (but not exactly force) specific actions for other players.

Another thing is that the playbooks for Apocalypse are pretty damn powerful. You can play a Hardholder that fucking owns an entire community, with around 150 inhabitants! They even have a gang they can use as enforcers! Or what about the Chopper, a leader of a biker gang? Or the Brainer that can invade peoples minds? Every single one of the playbooks is a mover-and-shaker in the game. That is something that can really push conflicts!

Tim sold me on it so damn well that I decided to re-read the PDF in three days and run it on the fourth! And that’s when it didn’t go too well.

I could write a very long list of regrets, but I decide not to. You won’t have the time to read through it (yes, I think I did a pretty bad job), but I’ll give you a snippet. I basically made all the mistakes I made when I ran Dungeon World for the first time:

  • I didn’t ask enough questions
  • I didn’t make enough moves
  • nearly all my “hard” moves were actually soft moves

OK, it is not like we didn’t have fun, but it just felt very bland and uninspiring. We had a little talk afterwards, because frankly, I craved the feedback. The rest of the article is a summary of my newly gained insights, based on the feedback.

I didn’t ask enough questions

Yeah, this one pretty much led to most of my other mistakes. I asked so few questions about the characters that they felt hollow and two-dimensional. We didn’t know much about them, so that was just how it felt.

We also didn’t know much about the place they lived, because I didn’t ask enough questions. This meant a lot, because that also meant I had to improvise everything on the spot, all the time, without player input. Needless to say, this wasn’t easy.

What I could have done was to ask the most obvious questions to the individual player. Where do you live, and how many people live with you? What do you usually do for a living around here? What kind of food do you like? What is it like where you live?

After these very general questions, I could have asked a lot of leading questions. What did Bramlock do that makes you owe him one? Why do you hate Chrome? Why are you so protective of Amy? What did you do that made Dog Head so fucking angry at you?

Not to mention all the question I could ask about the answers to these questions. No, instead my mouth just jammed shut. I just couldn’t think of anything at the moment, yet now, I could improvise all these questions in just one or two minutes time!

To be honest, I was really nervous, when we started the session, and that might have played a hand in all of this. Still, I feel pretty crappy about it. Not asking enough questions is my biggest gripe about the session, because I feel that is why it sort of failed.

I didn’t make enough moves…

… which meant that I didn’t push enough conflict. Literally, if I open my mouth, I should either answer a question posed by a player (which is very likely a move), I should make a move, or I should close it before I waste air.

I didn’t do that, and that meant that I couldn’t properly snowball my moves. When the players missed a roll, I didn’t actually have a “perfect opportunity” to do anything, because I hadn’t established “future badness”. It meant that I had to improvise “sudden badness” all the time, and I just couldn’t. The players flunked a lot of rolls, which didn’t exactly help either. I think I spent five to ten minutes making a hard move at some point, and it was just really lousy.

Which brings me to the next point…

My hard moves were soft moves

A lot of my “hard” moves were inconsequential. They didn’t irrevocably change the situation, and there were no “price tag” on the move. I let the players of so cheap.

I have that problem, even in Dungeon World. I’m a “nice” GM. I don’t like “punishing” the players, but the game explicitly says that I can do whatever the hell I want on a miss, as long as I adhere to the Principles and push my Agenda. And in a game where a move can be “3 weeks passes, and the settlement suffers from an epidemic”, breaking an arm isn’t actually that bad. That’ll heal in around six weeks, and will be usable a lot earlier. Especially if someone plays an Angel, a “healer” type playbook.

My current plan

My main focus next time I GM will be this; to make a helluva lot of moves, ask questions all the time, and be almost cruel on a miss.

I think the games will be better off for it.

3 responses to “How not to run Apocalypse World”

  1. Mithun Balraj says :

    Hey! I know this was AGES ago, but thanks a ton!

    I ran a session for a few months (my first MCing at Apoc, and any tabletop game!) and after reading this I’m now seeing a TON of things that explain why it felt so… bland.

    I’ve gotten a couple of people interested in AW, and am looking to run a one-shot with them. Out of all the recommendations, suggestions and tips I’ve read, I think this post has helped me the most!

  2. iamdanny says :

    I found this valuable, thanks random blog guy; also sweet SEO Juice, Right at the top fo google when i searched for how to run apocolypse world

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