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“It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Tyler and I just gave it a name.” —Narrator, Fight Club

First things first, you should probably get your hands on Apocalypse World.

D. Vincent Baker has created something remarkable with Apocalypse World—it’s a major conversation piece and probably a landmark in the development of RPGs. The influence of this game can already be felt throughout various design circles and it’s a conversation you maybe want to be a part of.

Vincent Baker is today’s entry at “Hell Yeah, Gamemasters.” You know about that site, right?

Actual GMing methods and styles are, so often, on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Vincent Baker set out to give them names. I applaud his motive and his decision to pursue the goal. I’m not sure I care for the names he’s chosen. He’s presented his GM principles dressed up for a desert-wasteland post-apocalyptic world, but big deal, right?

Apocalypse World was my first purchase at Gen Con 2010. I set out to get it early on the first day. I knew I needed to be conversant in this game.

I came to the text of Apocalypse World ready to be dazzled, having heard about a handful of cunning hacks for the game online, which implied that this was the hot new technology in indie RPGs. I came to the text wary of its Mad Max-style names and desert-wasteland vision of the post-apocalypse (a vision I’ve spent months trying to get away from as I develop my own post-apocalyptic game, Razed). I came to the text enthusiastic to play the game.

This post started as a report on how the text of Apocalypse World and I don’t get along—as an examination of that moment between reading and play, when an RPG exists only as the possibilities promised by the text. I ended up saying a lot of what I wanted to about that in this Story Games thread (for better or worse). I don’t come across all that well in that thread, but it shows me wrestling with the text pretty honestly. If you want to see my actual review of the Apocalypse World text (as opposed to the game), you can ask for it in the comments. Maybe I’ll post it.

I came away from the text… less enthusiastic. I came away feeling hemmed in and pushed away.

I looked at the game’s GM advice, which is all proven, excellent advice for running one kind of campaign, and I could’ve been championing it. I could’ve been waving a flag in the stands, shouting, “Hell yes, that’s how you do it!” But I felt like it taken something from me instead of having shared something that we had in common.

This is the introduction to the chapter on GMing the game:

There are a million ways to GM games; Apocalypse World calls for one way in particular. This chapter is it. Follow these as rules. The whole rest of the game is built upon this. (Apocalypse World, p. 108)

That is, there can be a genuine question as to whether or not an otherwise successful GM is doing it wrong according to the rules if he approaches the game in any of the other ways out of the million.

Is conflating the craftsmanship of one’s GM style with game rules a good idea? I’m genuinely torn. If making GM guidelines into rules is empowering other GMs, then great. I think pushing me away is probably worth that.

But while I celebrate the idea of explicit, specific GM advice and tool-bestowment in a game text (I tried to do this with the Storytelling Adventure System stories for White Wolf, too), I felt like Apocalypse World was commanding me to withhold good techniques for the sake of running the game in sync with someone else’s personal taste.

Frankly, I’d rather read Vincent’s book describing how to run an engaging fiction-driven RPG session and campaign than have it be given as a few paragraphs of prescriptive game rules in the middle of a book that is so attitude driven that it drove right past my particular interests. (To be clear, I would buy the hell out of that book.)

I’m a little bit old-school. I think it’s fine for an RPG to be broad enough to allow for many different GM styles, which combine with the inherent styles of the game’s art and text to create a variety of campaigns.

One of my favorite parts of exploring a new game or a new game setting is sketching out what a campaign might cover and what it’s voice and style might be like. How can I make Tolkienesque D&D feel like Brian Wood’s Northlanders, for example, or how can I get my Vampire chronicle to play out like The Shield? What part of the game’s fertile turf do I want to explore and where do I want to setup base camp?

The game’s vision and the campaign’s vision are different things that combine, almost alchemically, to create the actual-play experience for a particular group.

Different games allow different degrees of "legal" campaign variance

Different games allow different degrees of "legal" campaign variance (click for more)

Apocalypse World, in contrast, demands a single voice and style for itself—it’s primed to create one kind of campaign. And, to be fair, it seems like a fine, powerful engine for making that kind of campaign go.

Even Apocalypse World’s chapter, “Advanced Fuckery,” detailing alternate actions for the game and for other hacks built on the game, addresses the core mechanics and not these GMing rules. The implication being that alternate dice mechanics are fun hacks of the system, and that perhaps the GMing style is the game’s real identity, since it is not up on the lift for modding in that chapter.

This chapter, though, which alludes to things like John Harper’s and Daniel Solis’s Dead Weight and to a Celtic intrigue game, implies plenty of ways that the mechanics of Apocalypse World can be altered to create things that are “Apocalypse World no longer,” but which don’t call for or encourage alternate rules for GM style or principles. But if you can change the mechanics and the tone and focus of the game and still have something that runs smooth… just how essential are these rules of GM style that “the whole rest of the game is built” on? Or, more to the point, how essential is it that they be rules?

If the “Advanced Fuckery” chapter is meant to imply that everything is open to modding and hacking, even the GMing rules, what does it mean that the “whole rest of the game” was built on that single GM style?

Apocalypse World, it seems to me, aims to educate GMs by restricting (potentially overwhelming) options and prescribing a style of play. It does this, I think, with the understanding that experienced GMs will deviate from the rules when they are ready—when they are confident and capable GMs. Take the stone from my hand, grasshopper, that sort of thing.

And that’s fine. But I read Apocalypse World‘s GM advice in the wake of hearing this quote from Vincent Baker. As a guest on this episode of the Theory from the Closet podcast, Vincent Baker said:

“There’s no such thing as a good GM. There’s GMs in alignment with their game and there’s GMs out of alignment with their game.”

I’m leaving out a whole big chunk of material in here about the order of operations that leads from the fiction to the game mechanism and then back to the fiction, because that’s probably a whole other post. Check out Vincent Baker’s post on “IIEE,” though, to get cooking on that now.

I don’t think I agree. Alignment with the game is a fruitful, useful metric, but is it the one true measure of the GM? The implication is that if I attempt to GM Apocalypse World in a manner separate from that put forth in Apocalypse World, I am either doing it wrong or I am no longer playing Apocalypse World.

Who decides the alignment for a game? In the case of something tightly focused, like Apocalypse World, where the projected campaign and the edges of the game’s turf are the same, it seems that the game designer gets all the credit for devising the alignment of the game, and the GM’s task is to stay in alignment with the designer’s vision.

Is it my duty as a GM to uphold the designer’s vision for how the game should be played? Or is an RPG something like a musical instrument, playable however it is practically playable—and let the audience decide if it’s music?

I simply prefer a game that allows its alignment to be partly the purview of the GM, too. That is, a campaign may be subtly out of alignment with a strictly aligned game and still be a valid form of play. Right?

But there’s also a personal issue here, for me. I think I’m a pretty good GM. It’s something I take pride in doing well. In light of Baker’s position, though, what am I? I’m not good, I’m merely in sync with a system. The credit for a good game session really belongs with the distant designer, and the GM simply enabled the system to do what it’s meant to and didn’t fuck it up. Is that right?

Some of this ties into tomorrow’s open-question post, so stay tuned for that.

I’ve said for years that GMing is a skill—a learnable skill—which means you can get better at it. But if all of Apocalypse World‘s GM advice isn’t there to pass on knowledge like a teacher, to help GMs hone their skills, then what is it for? Is it to get them in alignment with Vincent Baker’s vision of a good gameplay experience? Is it to cut out the creative input of the GM over the alignment of the campaign so they don’t fuck up the designer’s precision instrument?

If the mechanics of Apocalypse World run just fine in different milieus, why is only one of a million GM styles acceptable for play? Why is style a rule? Why is my say over the alignment of the campaign being suspended? Is it worth it?

That the restriction is largely illusory—that the rule is as mutable as any RPG rule—is no comfort. That the shackles are made of glass just makes them ridiculous. Why are they rules, then? Because they’re the foundation for the rest of the game, which is demonstrably mutable itself?

I’ve used techniques codified in Apocalypse World for years in things like my D&D game, even though they’re not explicitly called out as parts of D&D. Am I just lucky that such techniques are in alignment with D&D or can I enjoy some pride in having some techniques that help make games exciting, provocative, and clear? Are descriptive abilities just in alignment with all games, or are they something that a GM can learn to do well?

In my experience, part of the creative challenge of releasing an RPG is in understanding that an RPG will be used in ways that you, the designer, might not have used it. Some of those uses will be successes, even though they’re out of alignment with your vision. Inspiring people to play your way is one kind of happy outcome, to be sure, but it’s only one.

What do you think? Is alignment with a game the true measure of a GM? Should we use “game” and “campaign” interchangeably when reading Baker’s quote?