Using Apocalypse World to Outline and Draft Your Own RPG
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.
Back in Part 1, I laid out Apocalypse World’s philosophy and foundation, described the fit and purpose of its systems, and talked about which features are central to its workings and which aren’t.
Here in Part 2, I’ll 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, to come, I want to talk about three of the PbtA games we’ve made since Apocalypse World — Murderous Ghosts, The Sundered Land suite, and The Wizard’s Grimoire suite — and how far afield the idea of playbooks has led us.
Reminder: The Goal is to 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.
Here’s the process I use.
1. Think of the game’s genre *
Or its mood, or feeling, or your vision for it. There’s something in your gut or behind your eyes that you want to explore, and for some reason, making a game is the way you’re going to explore it. That’s this.
* An aside on Genre: Come Out Swinging
I could get diverted for a week into talking about what genre is, does, and means, and what it isn’t, doesn’t do, and doesn’t mean. For now just this: genre gives you a backdrop of assumptions and conventions to build on and play against. It shorthands communication between you and your audience. But there’s no game in perfect adherence to genre formula. Your game’s take on its genre necessarily defies and confronts those assumptions and conventions. You might as well come out swinging!
2. Think of the game’s characters
This might mean making a 1st-draft list of playbooks, like Apocalypse World’s, but it might not. Playbooks are a useful way to organize characters when they have structural niches or substantial differences between them.
When your game’s characters are substantially similar — when they would, in effect, all have the same playbook — you don’t need to artificially create playbooks to differentiate them.
3. List the characters’ qualities
Your game’s characters’ basic qualities are the things that (a) all the characters have in common, that (b) you can use to compare them to each other.
In Apocalypse World they’re called “stats.” I say it like this: “in Apocalypse World, all the characters are cool, hard, hot, sharp, and weird, but some characters are cooler than others, some are harder than others, some are hotter…”
I don’t know how many your game needs. Probably 3–7. Possibly just 2. 1 is the same as none, which is also fine.
In Apocalypse World they’re adjectives (“both Dez and Smoky are hot, but Smoky’s way hotter”) but they can easily be nouns instead, like in D&D (“both Dezzor and Smoknar have wisdom, but Dezzor has way more wisdom”) or even adverbs, I suppose, if that’s what works for your game. Reserve verbs for the next step in the process, though.
4. List and begin drafting the basic moves
Your game’s basic moves are how the characters show their qualities. In Apocalypse World, the characters are cool, and they show this by acting under fire. They’re hard, and they show this by going aggro, by suckering people, and by going into battle.
It’s okay for the same quality to have more than one basic move. If you find a quality that has no basic moves, you might not need it, but hold onto it for now anyway. It might work perfectly with another non-move system later on.
Aside on the order of this process
Many designers who’ve used this process, including some who’ve had notable success, reverse steps 3 and 4: they list the basic moves first, and from them extrapolate the qualities that the characters must accordingly have. I do it in this order, where the characters’ qualities come first and the basic moves follow from them. Either way might work better for you!
5. Brainstorm the GM stuff
You need an agenda, rules (in Apocalypse World, “always say”), principles, and moves. When it comes time to finalize a working draft, you’ll come back and revise these, and you might find that you should then organize them differently: agenda and rules together under “job,” for instance, or rules and principles together under “duties,” or whatever arrangement makes sense for your game.
For now, for brainstorming purposes, stick with agenda, rules, principles, and moves.
6. Note and begin drafting additional systems
If you’re using playbooks or character moves to differentiate the characters, you’ll want to start listing those moves.
You probably already know some of the other additional systems you’ll need: a system for learning or character improvement, for instance, or a system for weapons and wounds, a system for spellcasting, a system for library research, a system for fighter plane dogfights, a system for the passage of generations, a GM-facing system for determining the movements of armies, or the goals and appetites of NPCs.
Every game needs its own assortment.
Once you’ve been through this process in outline, you can go back through, fill out what needs filling out, and draft up a 1st-time playable document. Bring it to the table to launch your game’s first iterative cycle.
A Working Example
1. Genre *
Let’s make a game about supernatural investigators, more like a ghost hunter type reality show than like say Ghostbusters. Working title “Oh No It’s Ghosts.”
Ghosts are real, but it’s legitimately difficult to communicate with them. They’re creatures of sorrow and anger, and might take any form or expression, might share in any other emotion or passion, that sorrow and anger can.
* Another aside on genre: It’s Futile
The only thing that can finally and fully communicate the vision inspiring you, the feeling in your gut, the thing behind your eyes, is your finished game itself. Meanwhile, when you try to talk to someone about what you’re working on — let alone collaborate! — you have to make do with incomplete, inadequate, sometimes actively misleading genre summaries. Like the one I just gave you. It’s futile but necessary, necessary but futile. Good luck to us all.
The characters in Oh No It’s Ghosts are all supernatural investigators. Let’s say that they’re historians, chaplains, sensitive souls, spiritualists, skeptics. It might be possible to create playbooks for these, but for now I think that they won’t need that kind of differentiation.
The characters in Oh No It’s Ghosts are all brave, careful, insightful, patient, and sensitive. Maybe a historian is more careful and patient, and less brave; maybe a skeptic is more careful and brave, and less sensitive; maybe a spiritualist is more brave and sensitive, and less careful.
4. Basic Moves
We see how brave a character is when they stay put, or even push on, when frightening things are happening.
We see how careful a character is when they do research, conduct an interview, or set up an investigation.
We see how insightful a character is when they reflect on what they’ve learned, compare notes with their fellow investigators, or push someone in an interview.
We see how patient a character is when, like brave, they stick with something when it’s boring, repetitive, or unrewarding, instead of frightening.
We see how sensitive a character is when they listen to what a ghost is trying to tell them.
Now that I’ve got an initial list of basic moves, I’m going to start drafting some of them up. I’ll come back to step 5, the GM stuff, once I’ve got a bit of a handle on the basic moves.
Here are four versions of listen to what a ghost is trying to tell you. Compare them carefully!
When you listen to what a ghost is trying to tell you, roll and add your sensitive. On a 10+ hit, choose 2 of the following questions to ask the GM. The GM’s job is to answer them truthfully, but not to make their answers easy to understand. On a 7–9 hit, choose 1:
- What letter does the ghost’s name start with?
- What emotion is the ghost feeling?
- What’s something the ghost saw or experienced in life, that it still carries?
- Who does the ghost wish was here with us?
- What would the ghost do to me, if it could?
On a miss, choose 1 anyway, but then after the GM answers, tell the GM that something frightening happens. Ask them what it is.
When you listen to what a ghost is trying to tell you, roll and add your sensitive. On a 10+ hit, you hear what the ghost whispers; ask the GM what it is. On a 7–9 hit, instead, choose 1 and ask the GM to tell you what happens:
- You provoke the ghost to an extreme reaction.
- You feel the emotion that the ghost still carries.
- You can’t hear the ghost, but you do see it.
- The ghost directs your attention to something.
On a miss, tell the GM that something frightening happens. Ask them what it is.
When you listen to what a ghost is trying to tell you, roll and add your sensitive. On a 10+ hit, choose 1 of the following. On a 7–9 hit, the GM chooses 1 for you:
- The ghost whispers to you a detail of its life.
- The ghost whispers to you a detail of its death.
- The ghost whispers to you a detail of its loss.
- The ghost whispers to you a detail of its hatred.
- The ghost whispers to you a detail of its bondage.
- The ghost whispers to you about your own soul, or the soul of one of your friends.
On a miss, the ghost doesn’t whisper to you, but does something frightening instead.
When you listen to what a ghost is trying to tell you, first question the ghost aloud, then roll and add your sensitive. On a 10+ hit, the ghost answers you. Ask the GM what happens. The GM’s job is to have the ghost answer truthfully from its own point of view, according to its own experience, but not to make its answer easy to understand. On a 7–9 hit, the ghost answers you, or else answers a different question that you didn’t ask. Again, ask the GM what happens. On a miss, the ghost answers you, or doesn’t; something happens, or nothing. Ask the GM what you notice, if anything. What you make of it is up to you.
Permission & Expectations
These different versions of the move create different conversations between the players and the GM.
When you draft a move, you give the players (including the GM) permission and expectations. Permission to ask questions, with the expectation perhaps that they’ll be answered, or perhaps that they’ll be answered within a certain range, or perhaps that they won’t be answered. Permission to answer questions within a range, with the expectation perhaps that your answers will stand as given, or perhaps that they’ll be challenged, or perhaps that you can open them up for discussion instead. Permission and expectations both implicit and explicit, both immediate and far-reaching.
How do you choose which version to use?
How do you choose what permission to extend, what expectations to create?
How do you choose who to give power to, move by move, and what power to give them?
How do you choose who to provoke, and what to provoke them to do?
How do you choose whose consent to negotiate, and on what terms?
How do you choose who should defer, and to whom?
How do you create moves that build momentum?
The answer is…
What are You Playing to Find Out?
In Apocalypse World, we play the game to find out what the characters make of their world. What they want to make of it, and, because Apocalypse World is a game about compromise, what they’re able to make of it in fact.
How about in Oh No It’s Ghosts? What are we playing to find out?
There are several possibilities, all good, and before I can possibly decide between different versions of the basic moves, I need to commit to one. Let’s try some on.
- We play to find out whether the characters help the ghosts find peace, and which ones they can’t or won’t help.
- We play to find out whether the characters succumb to the ghosts or defeat them, believe the ghosts’ lies or see through them.
- We play to find out whether the characters can help the people who’re haunted by the ghosts, and if so, what it takes.
- We play to find out what the characters will do about their own selves, pasts, and souls, and whether they’ll leave life in peace or become ghosts themselves.
This is the direction of momentum in the game. A move builds momentum when it contributes to finding out.
In Oh No It’s Ghosts, we play to find out: what’s the ghost’s deal, and what do the supernatural investigators do about it?
5. GM Stuff
When I’m working on a game, once I get serious and decide what we’re playing to find out, it always comes with wide-reaching clarity. Outlining the GM’s job at this point is almost as easy as listing out the characters’ qualities was. Given that we’re playing to find out this, what must the GM do?
In Oh No It’s Ghosts, your job as GM is to:
- Keep things believable.
- Make the ghosts sad and angry, and make it difficult to communicate with them.
- Discover your ghosts’ pasts as the investigators discover them.
- Don’t create solutions. Play to find out what the players’ characters are going to do.
Your rules are:
- Prep, and follow your prep.
- Give the players the full benefit of their moves and other resources.
- The players rely on you for what their characters see, hear, and experience, so in this regard at least, be reliable.
Your principles are something like:
- Make ghosts bring suffering to the living.
- Make the living helpless to control or mitigate the suffering ghosts bring them. Or, yknow, mostly helpless.
- Ground play in place, in history, and in personality.
- Ghosts want to survive, or they’d stop. Let your ghosts act for their own survival.
- Ghosts aren’t creatures of rationality. Give your gut reign, follow your own fear, and let your ghosts surprise even you.
If I were serious about this game, I’d want and need to include a principle about real trauma. I wouldn’t want to make a game about being haunted that wasn’t careful, thoughtful, and intentional about its position with regard to anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
And finally, your moves include things like:
- Have a haunted person do something desperate or misguided.
- Have a haunted person’s loved one do something desperate or misguided.
- Have a ghost reveal something about itself.
- Have a ghost reveal something about the person it’s haunting.
- Have a ghost act to tighten its grip on the person it’s haunting.
- Have a ghost make an overture to haunt someone new.
And surely others. Keep the list open and add to it as they occur to you.
6. Additional Systems
There are two big standout systems that Oh No It’s Ghosts needs:
- A system for prepping a ghost and the people it’s haunting. This system should create the haunting as a case, as it presents, as a complex of symptoms — but not nail down the ghost’s history, what’s the ghost’s deal. You discover the ghost’s history together in play.
- A system for dealing with ghosts, protecting people from them, mitigating the harm they cause, laying them to rest.
It also needs:
- A system or systems for research, interviews, and investigations, that fits well into the corresponding moves. I’m thinking about just a simple tag system, where a public library is good for different kinds of research than a local historical society or an internet chat group, for instance.
- Not much of a system for weapons, injuries, and healing, but a little bit of one. Maybe injuries should be life-threatening, serious, or not serious, so something along those lines.
- Either resources for the different characters to draw upon, like the historian’s access to research vs the spiritualist’s seance know-how vs the skeptic’s technology, or else character moves to accomplish the same.
- A system, I think, for the passage of weeks and months with no breakthroughs and no definite developments. How the haunting proceeds when nothing’s doing.
From Outline to Draft
What we have here is a solid outline.
The next step is to flesh it out into a playable draft:
- Initial versions of all the basic moves.
- A process for character creation.
- A first stab at the additional systems, especially the GM’s system for creating hauntings. That’ll take a little work.
Then it’s to the table to see how it works, and we’re in the iterative cycle!
The first time I brought Apocalypse World to the table, I had four or five draft playbooks, an early version of the basic moves, an early version of the harm rules, and a few notebook pages about how I intended to GM it. I hadn’t even hit upon agenda-rules-principles-moves yet, I just had disorganized notes. You’ll be okay.
Play early and revise often!
Next Up, in Part 3
In Part 3, I’ll dive back into Apocalypse World’s basic moves. I’ll go through them one by one to talk about how and why they work the way they do.
Here’s a preview: