Released in 2010, Vincent Baker’s RPG, Apocalypse World has been individually very successful and, more widely, incredibly influential. In terms of individual success, the game won a number of awards, including the 2010 Indie RPG Award for Most Innovative Game. In the wider sense, the game has also spawned a lot of spin-off and fan titles using the engine and labeled as ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’. Some of these have or are being professionally published.
Today, we’re taking a look at a few of these games, covering a number of different genres. The best starting point is probably the original:
now in the second edition, Apocalypse World takes place, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a post-apocalyptic world. What I really like about this game is the attitude it is infused with. The author encourages you to avoid planning a prescriptive story and instead spend the first session(s) following the characters around their day to day existence use them as a springboard. It flies somewhat in the face of conventional wisdom, but I love it!
Character creation is done through character ‘playbooks’, each containing all of the information required to run a specific type of character. It has all of your abilities, or ‘Moves’, and guides you through not only creating your character but also through the process of improving your character along a progression path. These workbooks keep things really simple, which I like, and along with a basic moves sheet, means that the players do not each need a copy of the core rulebook to get by in the game. This is a big plus in bringing in new players, and this is a game that I think is great for new players.
Everything runs off 2D6 and there won’t be many occasions, beyond any tables, that the GM (MC) will roll dice. They get to make moves when players roll low, putting much of the game into the hands of the players. The whole approach to running this kind of game will be a big adjustment to anyone used to traditional GMing, but that’s ok. It will just take a bit of getting used to and there’s good advice in the book.
If I were to run a game of Apocalypse World I would definitely base it on the Borderlands series of video games. I just love that series and, tone-wise, it matches up really well with what Apocalypse World does.
Since the release of Apocalypse World, there have been lots of adaptations and reskins of the system. The first and likely most famous of these is Dungeon World:
Dungeon World was a big success on Kickstarter a good few years back, and it remains popular today. I picked up the book a few months back and it read very well. Like Apocalypse World, it is presented simply and is easy to understand, though this book does not share the irreverent attitude of Baker’s original book.
Like Apocalypse World, this game uses Playbooks to present playable classes in their entirety. The available classes in the core book are the Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Thief, and Wizard. There are also lots of fan-created playbooks out there. I really like that playbook system encourages the creation of little modular additions to the game in the form of new character classes.
Another thing I really like is the power of the players in the creation of the game world – something that is often GM-led in many other systems. In Dungeon World, as with Apocalypse World, the GM is encouraged to do minimal prep and flesh out the world around the background, actions, and wishes of the group.
This is a really solid example of taking an existing system and giving it a complete makeover. Presentation-wise, you’d never know that this was not an original system created for this game. It just works that well.
Both Apocalypse World and Dungeon World are quite cheap books. They are smaller-form books with classic, old-school black and white artwork. Some Powered by the Apocalypse games are given a somewhat glossier treatment. Legacy: Life Among the Ruins is one such game:
Being a game from Modiphius, the production values present in Legacy are fantastic. The artwork is beautiful and evocative. It’s all very colourful and even the handout sheets, the playbooks, are things of beauty. I think the fact that they put out an accompanying artbook is a testament to this.
The game itself is another implementation of this same system. It’s still, at the core, Apocalypse World. The GM is still reactive in his role and the playbooks are still the driving documents of the player character. In this case, it’s even quite close to Apocalypse World in theme, but with a very different attitude. It’s not irreverent, nor as madcap.
This is a more positive game that Apocalypse World, lighter and happier. That said, this tone is not consistent. 16 pages into the core book, it is suggested that tone needs to be discussed and establishes early on with players. There are also a number of world books, which represent a very diverse selection of different settings. Some, like Primal Pathways or Worldfall, seem quite whimsical, whilst others, like Godsend or Rhapsody of Blood, seem more confrontation or intense. I really like the look of Generation Ship in particular. I think that’s the world I would run, if I were to run a game of Legacy.
Another genre of game that I’ve long been interested in but have yet to try is that of Cyberpunk. There is, of course, a couple of different options for cyberpunk RPGs that are Powered by the Apocalypse. One such game is The Sprawl:
We’re back to black and white art with this book, but my biggest criticism of it is the lack of art, generally. It’s just a bit sparse. But then, the game itself is still the Apocalypse system that we’ve been discussing for some time, now.
As you might expect, there are still playbooks. These are still central to the game, and these are still the fantastic tools that they always are. The classes are, of course, rejigged to fit the new setting. These include the Driver, Fixer, Hacker, Hunter, Infiltrator, Killer, Pusher, Reporter, Soldier, and Tech.
There are a load of new rules to fit the setting and some good background information to help you establish a tone and develop a story. I mean, beyond this, it’s another reskin. it’s cool, and it’s different to the original Apocalypse World in a few ways, but we’ve spoken at length about these reskins. You get the point, I’m sure.
To end with something a little different, I’d like to turn my attention to Monsterhearts:
So, immediately, the cover is quite different from the previous ones. There’s little there to establish a setting, as such, but instead puts the focus on a character. This is important. Despite how it might look, this isn’t The Vampire Diaries or Twilight in game form, but there is some overlap. It’s also not really a game for children, as it deals with quite mature issues in places.
The game treats the titular monsters as metaphors for real-world problems. The player characters are all teenagers with monstrous sides to them that represent their own, individual problems. The playbooks each describe one of these monstrous aspects, or ‘skins’. Like Apocalypse World, there are ‘sex moves’ in each playbook which have particular effects when your character has sex. To be honest, I would largely downplay these in Apocalypse World, but when it comes to Monsterhearts they are pretty central to proceedings. You see, Monsterhearts is about teens, some of whom will have sex. The game treats this with gravity, not eschewing the emotional connotations and consequences.
The rest of the game uses, as usual, the core of the Apocalypse system. Players have a lot of control of the world. The GM is largely reactive. I know, you get it. There is one pretty major difference, though. In Monsterhearts, players can exercise control over one-another using ‘Strings’. These strings can come from character creation and pre-existing relationships between characters, or they can be acquired in the course of play. They allow you to get one over on someone else, encouraging them to do things for you or alter the mood of another character by ‘turning them on’. We’re back to those sexual themes on that one.
So, yeah, the game is quite different from others that use the Apocalypse system, with an intense focus on interpersonal relationships between characters. I don’t think this is a game that I’d like to play, but I appreciate that it exists, if that makes sense? I like that this sort of game is available and I find it really interesting. I just don’t know if it’s for me, as a player.
Apocalypse World is a very interesting and influential game. By itself, it’s really cool. As an engine, it powers a number of really fantastic games. I hope you’ll check out at least one of these titles and see if it they’re a good fit for your own groups!