Apocalypse World: An MC’s Review
I don’t really love Apocalypse World, likely one of 2010′s best roleplaying games, but I MCed the hell out of it. That’s me, the Master of Ceremonies, Apocalypse World’s GM. Over the course of a year and a half, I think I ran 15 or 16 sessions. To people who have been playing their Forgotten Realms-fests for years and years, that may not seem like much. Well, I’ll tell you: 16 sessions is a lot. There are a lot of games to play, and spending that much time on one of them says something.
Spending that much time on one that you don’t really love says a lot more. It says that this is a great fucking piece of game, even if I, who am not in love with it, ran two full campaigns of it (well, one full campaign: sorry to the guys I burned out and bailed on before the end of the first one).
Maybe if I played in it, and not MCed it, I would love it. I don’t know.
So I don’t love Apocalypse World. Or maybe I’m full up on it, the way you can’t think of eating another goddamn piece of pumpkin pie, because fuck pumpkin pie, it’s disgusting, when only minutes before you were so in lust with pumpkin pie that you wanted to dip your junk in it. Maybe I went too far with the
pumpkin pie Apocalypse World.
Keep in mind that I had never touched a roleplaying game before 2007, and I jumped from D&D to Dogs in the Vineyard almost immediately and without confusion. Which is to say that I don’t have a lot of “experience,” which is to say that I didn’t play D&D for weekends at a stretch for my entire youth, so conceivably 50+ hours of AW in a year and a half could be too much of one good thing for me.
But, enough: the L word doesn’t matter here. What matters is that I MCed the game hard and enjoyed myself thoroughly every minute that we were sitting there and engaging with it, and that by the time we finished our story (in that second campaign, the one that finished), it was a satisfying arc and a good end.
That’s the first time, as a GM, outside of single-session games, that I’ve ended a “campaign.” Sidenote: can we come up with a better word? We’ve moved far from our wargame roots, but I still can’t think of a better word than campaign for a campaign.
By the end, our Hocus (read: cult leader) had transformed into a wholly different kind of monstrous person, then died at the hands of our Battlebabe (read: battlebabe), who subsequently died at the hands of the creepy NPC lackey of the Hocus. The Savvyhead (read: weird techno-grower) then used the dead Hocus’s broken mask (like I said, monstrous) as a symbol to try to lead their broken community towards hope. Aaaand…GAME.
I don’t know what it was like from the perspectives of our Savvyhead, Battlebabe, and Hocus. I was playing with them, but as the Master of Ceremonies, I can’t tell you what it’s like to play a character in this game. Luckily I can tell you what it’s like to GM it.
Easy: it’s all about wanting to find out what happens and to make the player characters’ lives interesting. The book gives you some other reasons to MC it, but these pop out at me without having to look, and that’s probably for a reason. I wanted to see what our little trio was going to do with this nascent post-apocalyptic hippie-community of growers and lovers that they made. And I also wanted to fuck with them, and sometimes give them exactly what they wanted, and, most of all, give them important decisions to make.
I love Apocalypse World because it makes all of those things that I want to happen, happen. I got to put my bloody fingerprints all over everything, and give them hard decisions that mattered: you, Ms. Savvyhead-idealist-community-builder, what do you do when one of your closest crew turns out to be a slave trader? And right under your nose? And the rest of your crew are her slaves? That, my friends, is a game.
Me and Ms. Savvyhead brought our game, if you will, but we brought it to Apocalypse World and let the rules of AW shape, twist, and propel our creative game. It was fantastic. Dropping that shit on the Savvyhead not only sounds good in a pretty little write-up, but in the moment, in play, God saw that it was good and it was good. And it mattered to the game, to the story. What the Savvyhead (and the others) did with that revelation—my revelation, my creative contribution, wholly, but created and birthed only because of Apocalypse World’s situation-generating rules—shaped the rest of the game. It was one moment in a game full of such moments.
Who could have foreseen that this would’ve led to the murder of the slaver by the Battlebabe (OK, everybody)? Who could have foreseen that the Hocus would reach through the psychic-mindfuck-maelstrom with his telekawhatsis powers and accidentally resurrect said slaver? And then, once having done it accidentally, who knew that our Hocus would do it again, with someone else, on purpose? What of his little nature-loving, share-the-wealth community now?
Lest you get the wrong idea, this was no over-arching story of mine. This was no character arc for the Savvyhead, either, nothing her player crafted in his laboratory and brought to the table all on his own. This situation and story was made by all of us, each night, as we followed the beautiful and crazy rules of Apocalypse World, and brought our game to the table.
That is why I love this game. Wait, did I say earlier that I don’t love it? Huh. Guess I was wrong. I guess what I don’t love is GM prep, even when Apocalypse World is so slim on it. Though, when I think about it, I guess I don’t mind AW’s GM prep; I guess I actually like it. I suppose it’s that in between sessions I always feel like I should be doing more, and in my mind it becomes work, and then I dread it, which is clearly not the fault of Apocalypse World. Because eventually I sit down with the book for 20 minutes and I’ve drawn some lines, and connected some dots, and I’m ready to go and excited to see what the other players will do with what I’ve made. Because it’s mine, but I give it to them with my whole heart, and am not beholden to any one end.
Maybe it’s that I’m not in love with the whole post-apocalypse thing. I read The Road and loved it to black death like everybody else, but I’m not all balls-out on exploring post-apocalyptic fiction. What really tickles my brain is post-post-apocalypse, but that’s neither here nor there. What was I saying? I don’t love post-apocalyptic stuff. Or maybe I’m a little burnt out on it (e.g. pumpkin pie), because I sure as hell would love right now to play or MC whatever number of hacks-in-development of Apocalypse World that cut out the apocalyptic heart of the game and insert a new one, raw and beating. The game sings pretty goddamn easily with the right group of people, and is designed to be so hackable, that I think the game I’ll really love is buried somewhere in there, and someone is going to bring it out someday. This back-and-forth “I love it but I don’t” is evidence enough of that for me.
In the meantime, in about a year or so, I’ll probably want to play Apocalypse World again. Just, someone else MC this time.