Reading Apocalypse World

Apocalypse World provides some of the best statements I know of regarding several aspects of play that I find particularly rewarding. However, Apocalypse World also has a reputation, especially around the dives I frequent, of prioritizing dramatic development and focusing on shared narrative authority rather than facilitating fictional challenges. While some of these assumptions have a grain of truth, the bulk of the text is, in my opinion, tremendously useful for OSR games, or at least the kinds of games I run, whatever you want to call them. So I plan to write a handful of posts highlighting some of the acumen I see in Apocalypse World.

Though Apocalypse World the text is for the referee (the subtitle is The Master of Ceremonies, which is the game’s term for referee), the order of chapters seems focused on players, perhaps in an attempt to build interest by sketching an evocative setting, barfing forth apocalyptica in the game’s own lingo. This ordering does the text no favors, because it buries the bulk of insight regarding running games under reams of character class descriptions and powers, the playbooks. So I will be reading the text here in my preferred order, beginning with the Master of Ceremonies chapter.

My interest in running a game where I do everything Apocalypse World directs and nothing else is relatively low. As with all game paraphernalia, I am looking for what I can use rather than a complete, perfect edifice. I treat all game products as tools rather than gospel.

Note on editions

Apocalypse World has two editions: 1st (2010) and 2nd (2016). For my purposes, the differences between the editions are minor, though the second edition’s physical book is nicer. The most notable difference is that 2E replaces fronts with threat maps, which serve a similar purpose but take a slightly different approach. I will be reading the second edition.

Additional resources

If you are curious, I would also read Vincent’s post about concentric game design, by which he means that Apocalypse World is designed to degrade gracefully as you progressively ignore the rules that are less fundamental. Finally, I want to provide a shoutout to Jason D’Angelo’s long series of posts on Google Plus, The Daily Apocalypse, in which he undertakes a close read of Apocalypse World. This volume of commentary would probably be overwhelming for someone with only casual interest, but I find it useful so there you go.

9 thoughts on “Reading Apocalypse World

  1. Lukas Sjöström

    I think that this article explains quite a bit about how to treat the shared narrative authority:

    Basically, the stuff the players invent should be the things that their characters would already know, details of the world and their personal backgrounds. “You have someone you’re trying to avoid in this settlement, who is it?” The kind of stuff that people might write in their character backgrounds in traditional games.

    1. Aaron Griffin

      Exactly! Somewhere the idea of overt collaboration crept too far into the public awareness, but that’s not part of the game as written. Asking questions and using the answers is not different than traditional adventure games.

      1. Brendan Post author


        I do think it is a relatively small part of the game as written, mostly limited to the ask provocative questions and build on the answers principle. I agree with you, though, that the text does seem to mostly restrict contributions to what would be the direct experience of the player characters and then only indirectly work out implications for the wider fictional world. I will probably discuss this a bit more once I get to the principles.

    2. Brendan Post author


      I think this is a reasonable way to apply narrative collaboration in more traditional games and I use that approach myself sometimes, like when I ask a player what they think the totem of their character’s tribe might be, or something like that. I think this sort of play would also be within the parameters sketched out in Apocalypse World. However, many of the examples in the AW text seem to go further. Here’s an example from 2E p. 101:

      Make a pairing or tripling that you like, then ask the players to justify it. “Marie, Bran, you two are trapped outside of the holding, you’re hunkered down inside an old gutted RV. Outside, six of Dremmer’s gang are setting up camp, looks like they’re settling in. They don’t know you’re there, they just blundered in on top of you. What are you two doing out here, anyway?”

      This sort of thing is not core to what I will be focusing on, but it is definitely a part of Apocalypse World.

      1. Aaron Griffin

        @Brendan that seems to be normal GM scene framing though. It’s negligably different from “ok Throughor and Jolina are in the magic shop when …”

        The major difference in this example and a typical shop visit is one of permission – an AW MC has permission to put you places, while a D&D DM usually asks.

      2. Ben L.

        I do stuff like this too in a traditional OSR game, and part of my interest in hearing AP of PbtA games is the way that the GM incorporates things this. Like you I tend to restrict it to things having to do with the character so that it won’t mess with the challenge oriented style of play common to OSR type games. (Example 1: A character was recently scarred by acid and wanted to purchase a mask from merchants from the dreamlands. I said, tell me what the mask looks like before the next session. Example 2: Characters who read a certain poem artifact in my game become geniuses in an art of their choosing. They narrate a lot of the stuff having to do with that, including what their creations are and what effect they (are meant to) have on people.)

  2. Brendan Post author


    Oh, also: this and any following posts are partly inspired by the conversation you started here:

    What PbtA game do you think has the “best” set of GM Principles/Moves?

    I put “best” in quotes because I’d also like you to define what it means? Does best mean most on-brand for the genre, most generic, most well-explained?

    And my initial response was:

    Apocalypse World itself.

    Best for me means most useful in thinking about running and playing D&D.


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