Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Wherein I Drink Kool-Aid

I just came back from a session of Apocalypse World, Vincent Baker's new game. For those who don't know, Vincent Baker is the guy who came up with the games Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age, Poison'd, and Kill Puppies for Satan, all of which have variously caused some level of controversy or other on the interclick, particularly at, and all of which are probably best put into the "aren't we hip?" story game category. I haven't played anything of Baker's before, except for Dogs...which I enjoyed but felt was rather power-trippy; his other games seemed specifically designed to court controversy, which I always find irksome, and that put me off.

But blimey if Apocalypse World isn't a fun game. I think this was the first session of a "story game" I've ever played in which it all fell into place for me and I actually realised that, yes, that thing where people at The Forge say stuff like "the mechanics support play" does sometimes make sense. There were only two players, and I think that hindered us in some respects (because interpersonal conflict/cooperation seems to be one of the keys to making the system really hum), but nevertheless the two of us were able to riff on our characters and their relationship in a genuinely intriguing and fun way, building something up that you don't normally get in a traditional game without some serious effort and time spent. And for once I felt that, as a player, having narrative control really added something: my decisions not only had the immediate effects that you might have in traditional gaming (I get more gold, I don't die, I kill the orc), they had world-building and narrative effects that seemed genuinely far-reaching. (Not that you can't do those things with old school D&D, or really any game, but it takes longer and requires a lot more effort.)

Once again I'm forced into the proposition that the "OSR" and "hip story games that cool kids play", both of which are faddish and somewhat exclusionary currents within the hobby, are attempts to achieve almost exactly the same things: basically, it boils down to giving players agency. In "old school" D&D, this comes from having a sandbox and letting the players loose in it and having them live with their decisions and their own tactical nous. In story games, it comes from creating mechanics in which the players can actually force the narrative in a certain direction through dice rolls. Both of these things are really very similar. The players generate whatever "plot" there is in an emergent fashion, from the ground up, with the GM as neutral arbiter. This puts them in direct opposition to the RPG mainstream (games such as D&D 4e, WoD, etc.) where plot comes from the top down, imposed by a GM who is at best a court jester and at worst an autocrat dick.

Ancient stick-in-the-mud fatbeards and horrible skinny kids in skinny jeans who listen to Arcade Fire should be friends, not foes. We dream the same dream, we want the same thing, people.


  1. Planning to have another session some timesoon? Sorry I couldn't make it!

  2. Hear, hear. I think I will buy some-less skinny jeans as a peace offering. Oh no wait, what time was I on?

  3. Team not time that is. Damn smartphone.

  4. Your characterization of the consonant extremes has warmed my undead heart.

  5. Welcome to the other side. Stay awhile. We've baking cookies.

  6. I have a weird outsider feeling about this. I pretty much stopped roleplaying in 1995, and at that time I thought "we should be doing more with this medium. It's time we started theorizing things a bit, analyzing what the fun bits are and why. And wouldn't it be cool to make a game where you deal with plot points, not rooms or magic items, in a gamey way?" Then 15 years went by and I became "old school" by dint of being old and inattentive, and when I looked up again there'd been this revolution I was kinda hoping for, though not quite the one I thought of, and it had made lots of people angry on both sides, in a way that just bemused me.

    So yeah, hear hear from here too, but I confess I've never had any idea what the fight was about.

  7. Well, there are reasons why I blog about both old school stuff and Forge-y stuff. There are a lot of things I like in both, often speaking to the same discourse of enabling the right kind of play.

  8. Great post! But I also wonder if it would not be possible to play in a similar style in one of those "top heavy" games like 4th Ed or WoD. In which case you come back to the premise that the game itself is less important than the individual players & GM.

    I can't speak to whether or not this is possible in 4th or WoD, having played neither. But it at least looks like you could run an improv, player oriented game in WoD with the right combination of people. 4th Ed. might be more of a challenge.

  9. Marcus,
    This style of play is possible with any rules system; it really relies on mutual goodwill between players and referee more than anything. It is, however, easier to achieve if the rules either leave a lot of leeway (as most "old school" rulesets do) or actually support such play (as many "story game" rulesets do). Rulesets like 4E don't fall into either category, so they're less useful; a group could achieve an "improv, player-oriented game" with such rules, but in the end it will probably be easier to use a ruleset that's more conducive to such goals.

  10. Yep, that's why I love both!

    Although I feel like when we've got these games humming really well, with a massive body of knowledge so any random can come in and play the games we like, someone should try to make the autocrat/archmanipulator games work too: Make games that are honestly about some guy trying to wrangle a specific story out of various people's actions.

    But there's no rush, we can do some crazy stuff in the meantime!

  11. I know that it totally is possible to run apocolypse world style interpersonal stuff in WOD, I've seen it done.

    At every turn though the game kept sticking things in people's way:

    The resources rules were completely borked, and led to a lot of real world bitching when people did manuveuring stuff only to find that they didn't have the bargaining position they thought they had, because everyone's resources are determined independently.

    Apoc world on the other hand has fundimental scarcities and a barter system built in, as well as a deals/blackmail type system, so you can actually do that stuff.

    Also some players never found out anything about various plots, finding themselves suddenly dead, whereas apoc world has knowledge-finding systems that are just powerful enough to work out someone's messing with you, so players are more likely to conflict in each others faces and just behind each other's backs. Also, it's way more awesome to set up a trap that results in "half your gang have joined my cult, including the guy who knows where you hid __'s stuff" rather than "you're dead"!

    And some little thing, in vampire, one of the classic social disciplines means that everyone avoids eye contact. This is crap for emotional stuff! Apoc world on the other hand has rules for consequences if characters have sex. I think adding risk to sex instead of eye contact is probably a better way to go!

  12. "We dream the same dream, we want the same thing, people."

    The indie kids' girlfriends?