So, let’s talk about how I was wrong about Apocalypse World.
I would’ve just made this a comment on my previous post, but it’s so late now that almost no one would’ve seen it, so I’m giving this a post of its own. Some great comments on that earlier post did a lot to change my mind—or the way my mind phrased its position—and I think it’s worth going back and looking at why I reacted to Apocalypse World the way I did.
First, how I was wrong: I was unclear both in my own opinion and in my expression of it. My opinion was muddled; I mistook my displeasure with the writing for a disapproval over what it was doing. A game is well within its rights to call for a particular type of play. The arguments that came to me with talk of voided warranties and games jail-broken like iPhones made a lot of sense to me—maybe Apocalypse World is just trying to tell me that it will be fun if played this one way and not that it won’t be fun if played some other way.
I still think, given the text, that my confusion was understandable. The text uses an irregular voice to imply its apocalyptic edge and, along the way, creates more confusion than it dispels, at least for me. Sometimes “Apocalypse World,” without italics, refers to the game and sometimes to the setting. (E.g., “Go chasing after any of those, you’ll wind up with a boring game that makes Apocalypse World seem contrived […]”) Sometimes a hyphen is a hyphen (as in “1-armor”) and sometimes it’s a minus sign (as in “-1armor” or “Hx-1”). I’ve seen this confuse someone, besides me, into thinking that “Hx-1” means “Hx=1” in actual play.
And speaking of actual play, I should say (again) that I don’t doubt that author Vincent Baker’s GM rules are good ones—the very little bit of Apocalypse World I got to play was great fun, in a fun and familiar style. This game is full of fine advice (albeit in language that I have some issues with), and I could’ve chosen to celebrate that more than I did. I got distracted by the language.
I’ll admit, the language of a rulebook is important to me. Vital, even. How you express a rule is as important as the rule itself. The line “DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around” (Apocalypse World, p. 108) lacks the nuance to distinguish between, say, prepared situations and outright rail-roading. This is an area that I think deserves a little nuance.
It’s a valid design decision to write an RPG book in voice, obviously. (I’m a Cyberpunk 2020 fan, for example.) I just feel that the edgy, coarse tone of Apocalypse World (non-italics intentional) is not a great voice for something as nuanced as shop-talk about the art of GMing. Making that talk into rules for style irks me, especially when the book isn’t just describing how to play it, but how to run a whole class of hacks and follow-ups. I’m not crazy with having “announce future badness” become the default terminology for the evocation of suspense, for implied peril, for foreshadowing danger. It’s good for Apocalypse World‘s casually erratic voice, and a fine fit for a dusty-biker-wasteland vision of the post-apocalypse, but the game isn’t just that—for some it is a manifesto on a way to GM games. But it probably isn’t fair for me to lay that on the text.
This is also a place where I had trouble with the game, and in a way that is my fault. I found some parts of Apocalypse World so familiar in their mechanics (2d6+modifier versus stepped target numbers) and their approach to play (choose from a menu of results) that I got worried and defensive for one of my own games, which features similar elements. This was small of me and ridiculous to worry about. I let the game’s long shadow distract me from the game itself. I worried too much about its rep while I was reading it.
For that, I apologize.
I expect I’ll play, and possibly run, Apocalypse World in the future. For now, though, it remains something of a vexing text to me: a troubling tome with great ideas in an irksome voice. It obviously doesn’t have to apologize for that… but neither do I have to apologize for not falling in love with it.
It’s clever and unforgettable and it made me think, all over again, about how I’ll write and design my next game, though, and for that, I thank Vincent Baker for Apocalypse World.