Using Apocalypse World to Outline and Draft Your Own RPG
Here in Part 1, I’ll lay out Apocalypse World’s philosophy and foundation, describe the fit and purpose of its systems, and talk about which features are central to its workings and which aren’t.
This article was made possible by the generous support of my patrons. Please consider joining them by supporting me on Patreon.
This is adapted from a presentation I gave at Metatopia 2016. Pardon the PowerPointiness!
Apocalypse World offers a powerful, flexible framework you can use to outline, draft, and potentially finish your own roleplaying games. Dozens of creators, both experienced designers and first-timers, have used it with great success, and you can too. It’s not a game system as such, it’s an approach to game system design. It’s easy, and it’s a reliable way to get your creative vision quickly into a playable form.
1. Goal: Create a Playable Outline
When I take it into my head to design a game, my first goal – my first, crucial, overriding goal – is to get something I can try. The process of game design for me is intensely iterative: a first stab, then play & revise, play & revise, play & revise.
Eventually, after one or ten or a hundred iterative cycles, depending on the game, I can make a full draft. Then comes a whole new process of play and revision, as I take the game public, and only once those cycles are done do I go on to finish the game for release.
So this article is about only that first goal: to make something you can try. The rest of the process, the vast bulk of the process, we’ll have to take up another time.
And I want to emphasize up-front: maybe, at the end of the iterative process, you have a PbtA game, and maybe you don’t anymore. That’s FANTASTIC. I know several games that started out as PbtA first drafts and wound up abandoning the framework completely somewhere along the way, and I consider them to be just as successful as applications of Apocalypse World to design as any PbtA game you could name.
My goal is to get you into the iterative cycle. Whatever comes out of it, is up to you.
2. “An Approach to System Design”?
What do I mean when I say that PbtA isn’t a game system, it’s an approach to system design?
First we have the D&D approach to system design: races, classes, levels, hit points, you know the one.
Next we have the GURPS approach, which I guess was actually spearheaded by Champions: skill-based, point-buy, with an expansive description of your character’s competencies in any number of situations, and a limited set of mechanisms for testing them for success and failure.
Not pictured is the Forge approach, which appears in several of my games pre-Apocalypse World: a more-or-less specified situation of conflict, freeform character traits, and a universal conflict resolution system.
PbtA represents an approach to RPG design as broad as any of these. Choose two given PbtA games, and you shouldn’t expect them to be any more similar than two point-buy games or two Forge games.
PbtA isn’t a system you can adapt to different genres, like GURPS, d20, Fate, One-Roll Engine. It’s an approach, a framework, a vocabulary for designing new systems that work how you want them to work.
3. Apocalypse World’s Philosophy
I love this little picture.
Here we have a playgroup having a conversation. They’re talking about fictional things – that’s the roller coaster – and they’re talking about real things – that’s the ground and structure beneath it.
Fictional things, in Apocalypse World’s case, like Dremmer and whether he’s throwing your character off a building, two characters and whether they’re making out, the hardhold’s population with its unpleasant cough and its water cult, and so on.
Real things, like the dice, the stat modifiers in your playbook, the number you’ve just rolled, the text of the moves.
Apocalypse World’s philosophy is: use the real things, the dice and stats and so on, to give momentum to the fictional things. The design is a roller coaster, with ascents, moments of suspense, dizzying drops, sudden curves, moments of terror, moments of exhilaration.
The game’s real components do a lot of different things in a lot of different ways, but they’re all in place to serve the excitement and momentum of the fictional action.
4. Apocalypse World’s Structure
Apocalypse World is designed in concentric layers, like an onion.
- The innermost core is the structured conversation: you say what your characters do. The MC, following their agenda and principles, says what happens, and asks you what your characters do next.
- The next layer out builds on the conversation by adding core systems: stats, dice, basic moves, harm, improvement, MC moves, maybe some setting elements like the world’s psychic maelstrom.
- The next layer elaborates on the core systems by adding playbooks, with all their character moves, gear, and additional systems; and threats, with their types, impulses, moves, fronts, and maps.
- The outermost layer is even optional: it’s for your custom moves, your non-core playbooks, your MC experiments, stuff that doesn’t even appear in the book.
A crucial feature of Apocalypse World’s design is that these layers are designed to collapse gracefully inward:
- Forget the peripheral harm moves? That’s cool. You’re missing out, but the rules for harm have got you covered.
- Forget the rules for harm? that’s cool. You’re missing out, but the basic moves have got you covered. Just describe the splattering blood and let the moves handle the rest.
- Forget the basic moves? That’s cool. You’re missing out, but just remember that 10+ = hooray, 7-9 = mixed, and 6- = something worse happens.
- Don’t even feel like rolling the dice? Fair enough. You’re missing out, but the conversational structure still works.
- Don’t want to make custom moves and countdowns for your threats all the time? That’s cool. You’re missing out, but the threat types, impulses, and threat moves have got you covered.
- Don’t want to even write up your fronts and threats? That’s cool. You’re missing out, but your MC moves have got you covered.
- Forget your MC moves? That’s cool. You’re missing out, but as long as you remember your agenda and most of your principles and what to always say, you’ll be okay.
The whole game is built so that if you mess up a rule in play, you mostly just naturally fall back on the level below it, and you’re missing out a little but it works fine.
On Deep Hacks: “Deep hacks” is a term we sometimes use for PbtA games that don’t follow Apocalypse World’s template here. I’ll offer a couple of Meg’s and my own games as examples: in Murderous Ghosts, and in Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands and its own offshoots, the conversations are structured so differently at the core that they require a whole different structure of elaboration and collapse.
For our purposes here, of getting a new game into a first-time playable outline, we’ll use Apocalypse World’s template: the same underlying conversation, elaborated into basic moves and other core systems, then further elaborated into characters and details as required.
5. Apocalypse World’s Systems
Let’s say that Apocalypse World has six core systems. Maybe it’s true! It depends how you slice ’em. But let’s say:
- Harm & Healing
- Gear & Crap
Each of these contains oh who knows how many elements, subsystems, sub-subsystems. The point isn’t to make sure we can correctly list them, the point is to make sure we can see the relationships between them.
1. They don’t cycle in a circle like a windmill. They don’t cycle in a series like bicycle gears and their chain. They cycle erratically. This move leads to another move, but this other move leads to harm & healing, but this third move lets somebody mark improvement. When you take harm the Angel can spend gear & crap and make moves to bring you back from death and make changes to your playbook. Picture the moment of play bouncing like a pinball, ricocheting from system to system in a chaos of interacting forces, touching them all without ever settling into a repeating course.
2. They work over different timeframes. Which systems and subsystems act in the moment to moment of play? Which play out over the course of a single session? Which play out over many sessions, maybe even only over the whole course of the game?
3. They work by a pretty strict principle. The principle is: fictional causes have real-world effects. Real-world causes have fictional effects. Dremmer (fictional) goes to throw your character off a building (fictional). You (real) roll to act under fire, and come up with an 8 (real). What’s the fictional effect?
At the end of the session (real), which other character knows your character better (fictional)? That player (real) changes a number in their playbook (real).
Remember the roller coaster? The purpose of the real-world stuff is to keep the fictional stuff in motion. When a real cause has a fictional effect, that’s what holds the roller coaster up. When a fictional cause has a real effect, that’s what keeps the roller coaster from disconnecting, spinning off into insolidity.
4. As they cycle, they hand off to each other in a variety of ways. Sometimes a system puts the action on hold and consults another system for guidance on how to proceed, like the harm system calling on the harm move. Sometimes one system backs up another, like the experience system backing up the seduce or manipulate move. Sometimes a system disclaims control, like the MC move to tell you the possible consequences and ask what you do. Sometimes a system draws play in, like how reading a person lets you ask another player interesting questions.
5. They’re consequential. They can change the scope and scale of the characters’ actions and concerns, like how getting a gang lets a gunlugger take on enemies even more dangerous and numerous than they could before. They can limit the characters, like how your options collapse as you take harm past 6:00, or like how Dremmer can’t hold his gang together if he’s not there screaming at them to fight. They can better characters’ effectiveness at different timescales, like +1 forward vs +1 to a stat vs gaining a new move. Or worsen them instead. They can open and close whole doors, whole potential futures, like when you first chose your playbook or when you choose to change to a new one.
The point is that every system changes whatever it touches. You can’t bring any system into play and expect play to continue unchanged.
6. In sum, the game’s rules, subsystems, and sub-subsystems work together to create a system of permissions and expectations. As a player, as the MC, here is what you’re permitted to do, and here is what we expect you to do.
Knowing what you’re allowed to do, and what you’re expected to do, lets you act with your feet under you.
6. “Accidents” of the System
These are all features of Apocalypse World, but it’s only that historical accident that makes them prominent in PbtA. When we created Apocalypse World, we made a million design decision that were specific to Apocalypse World, that served Apocalypse World’s very particular cinematic-post-apocalyptic-narrativist needs. None of these are important to PbtA at large. When you’re working on your own PbtA game, you can and should reconsider each one of them, and only keep the ones – if any! – that serve your game.
I’ll highlight a few in particular:
- Playbooks. Playbooks are pretty cool, and I knew they’d catch on. What I didn’t expect was for them to become one of the dominant PbtA conventions. I figured that by now we’d have example after example of PbtA games without playbooks, with the more conventional setup of one character sheet / one character creation process for all the characters.
You know the rule in Apocalypse World that everyone has to choose a different playbook? You might be interested to know, as a point of trivia, that the reason for this isn’t niche protection or whatever, it’s just so the MC doesn’t have to show up to the first session with multiple copies of every playbook.
- 2d6+Stat and GM Never Rolls. Before we made Apocalypse World, we were working on a fantasy game called Storming the Wizard’s Tower. A lot of Apocalypse World’s design comes directly from that game, including several of the basic moves and some of the other subsystems. Storming the Wizard’s Tower used opposed d6 pools: roll a handful of dice, count the hits (4-6), and compare with the hits the GM or other player rolled.
Apocalypse World doesn’t use opposed die pools for two main reasons. The first is the straight-up commonality and familiarity of 2d6. The second is that we kept working on Storming the Wizard’s Tower for a while after we started work on Apocalypse World, and I wanted to keep them separate in my head.
- Stat Highlights and Marking XP. Dungeon World was one of the first three PbtA games after Apocalypse World, and we were thrilled that it didn’t use stat highlights. The question of when to mark XP is wide open, and every possible answer is a good possible answer. It’s good that stat highlights haven’t stuck as a strong convention.
Of course, the question of whether to mark XP at all is ALSO wide open. We’d love to see more games posing more answers to it, too.
So the upshot is, the conventions of PbtA design are just that, conventions. As a designer, you choose which conventions to follow, which to ignore, and which to defy. Trust your game! It knows.
7. The End of Part I
Recall that the point of all of this is to create something you can get to the table to try, so that you can begin the iterative process of developing and finishing your game.
In Part 2, I’ll walk you through the process of starting with a game idea and using Apocalypse World’s approach to draft it into a playable outline.
Thanks for reading!
- In Part 2, I walk through the beginnings of taking Apocalypse World’s parts and using them as the basis for a whole new game.
- In Part 3, I dive back into Apocalypse World’s basic moves. I go through them one by one to talk about how and why they work the way they do.
- In Part 4, I talk about playbooks, by request. What are they, do you want them in your game, and what are the alternatives?
- In Part 5, I take a quick aside to talk about some different ways that moves can fit into the conversation of play.
- In Part 6, I use an Ursula K. LeGuin quote — you probably already know the one — as an outline for alternative models to Apocalypse World’s model of conflict.
- Part 7’s a good old-fashioned Q&A, in rounds: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3 (the lightning round!), & Q&A Round 4 (the Final Round!)
- In Part 8, I share my six best, most reliable tricks for drafting interesting moves.
- In Part 9, I lay some groundwork for the idea of underlying models by pointing out a crucial feature of Apocalypse World.