Hacking the Apocalypse

For three past three or so years, roleplaying games based on Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World have reached heights of popularity rare for most indie creations. With Baker’s blessing, the system was adapted into numerous amatur and professional titles, using a template that became known as the Apocalypse World Engine (with the awesome acronym, AWE). While there is no official basic rules set for this roleplaying engine, a set of common conventions is often used for those adaptations (also called hacks).

AWE’s ability to easily translate the flavor of other media creations into a roleplaying game is one of the reasons it gained so much traction, similar to what the D20 system went through in the first decade of this century. While there are many systems that can be easily adapted to emulate different games, I believe AWE is one of few that does so easily, and on the narrative level.

With that in mind, I wanted to walk through part of the process of creating an AWE adaptation and explain how its elements are used to achieve a specific game feel. For an example, I’m using a game of mine called Battlesuit Wizards, which tries to capture the feel of mecha anime and manga, with the players taking the role of ace pilots operating powerful robotic combat suits.

What Do You Do?

The foundation for every AWE game is the basic moves. They often answer the simple question of “what are the most common actions the players do in this game?” Take Dungeon World for example, with Hack & Slash being the first move most people will read, which is the common way for characters to engage in close combat – even its name speaks to the very essence of the genre. Other DW basic moves are all derived from the character’s attributes, which emulate the classic D&D ones, and deal with the moment to moment action of a hack and slash (see?) adventuring campaign.

Similarly, basic moves in other AWE games such as Worlds in Peril– a comic book, superheroes game- also deal with the immediate, hands-on actions a character of that genre will want to do in a game session. They will be used many times during a game session, often in close succession, as demanded by the game’s narrative. Moves do not need to be all about combat – on the contrary. In games such as City of Mist– a supernatural noir detective game- the very first basic move is Investigate, since you expect that a lot of the time, that’s what the characters are going to do.

In our example, characters in Battlesuit Wizards represent both the human pilot and their battlesuit. We’ll have basic moves that come into play both while the pilot is inside the suit, and while he’s without one. The most straightforward move is going to be combat oriented, when you attack using your suit’s weapons. Next we’ll have a move for piloting the suit under pressure, dodging enemy attacks or trying to stay under the radar.

For the times during which the pilot is away from their suit, we’ll also need a physical move that represents the pilot’s own abilities, as well as a move for social engagement. Lastly, since this game is based on military drama, we’ll have a move for the pilot’s intellectual attribute. To round it up, we’ll probably include a move that deals with Bonds, since they’re an important focus in most AWE games.

How Do You Do It?

The second element that helps convey a game’s feel are the stats. Not all AWE games use them the same way or at all, and they have an overall small impact on the game – but have a substantial impact on its flavor. Dungeon World’s use of the same names for its abilities as D&D; Apocalypse World uses simple verbs that compliment and contrast with each other (cool and hot, hard and sharp) and can be seen as a jargon of the post-apocalyptic world the game is set in. While the stats are just tags with associated flavor, they do a lot to confer this flavor to the rest of the game, especially the moves based on them.

For our game, we know we need some stats that say something the suit, some for the pilot, and maybe something in between. Since we have our basic moves already, we know the kind of action the characters will take. Attacking with your battlesuit will require Firepower; Piloting the suit under pressure require Maneuver; when the pilot is making physical actions by themselves, they’re using Body; when they act in a social situation, they use Charm; and finally, when planning your actions and outsmarting your opponents, use Tactics.

Wrapping it Up

The final issue we’ll discuss here, is the  special moves. While most of what was said about the basic moves still applies, special moves have the luxury of stepping outside of that box and dealing with edge cases. AWE games tend to do two things with special moves – define the core game cycle, and deal with rare actions that are still important to the core of the game.

We can take Dungeon World as a good example. The special moves tell a story about your adventuring party: when they go on a quest, they undertake a perilous journey. They reach their destination, and maybe make camp, while taking watch to ward off dangers. They complete their quest, head back to the steading where they carouse with their new riches, get supplies for the next adventure  and maybe hire hirelings. This cycle ga specific flavor to the game. In a game like Worlds in Peril, special  moves separate which actions are done as a “hero”, and which are done as a normal civilian, thus highlighting the tension inherent to comic book stories between the character’s identities.

The other type of special moves are those that are used as edge cases and rarely needed core gameplay elements. Those include moves such as the Last Breath move in Dungeon World, used when a character is near death, or the  Level Up move – an almost purely mechanical move that is still important to the core of the game feel.

Battlesuit Wizards will probably have special move based on the contrast between the times the characters act as a pilot inside their battlesuit and the times they set out by themselves as normal people. It’ll maybe include rules for repairing suits that got damaged in battle – there may be a basic move that spend the suit’s resources like fuel or just its hardiness, and the special move will be used to recharge it. We could maybe have moves for situations such as when the suit is lost, and how to get it back, and so on. I suspect that those edge cases are among the elements that require the most playtesting, to determine exactly which occur often enough to warrant a move of their own.

A Final Word About Playbooks

While playbook are important to most AWE games, I think they’re more the icing on the cake, or a cover to a book. Even without unique character playbooks, most AWE games can achieve the flavor they aimed for with the stats, basic and special moves. Playbooks are about options – giving playing a variety of tools to chose from for completing mostly the same actions. Some games, such as Worlds in Peril, take a completely different approach to playbook and don’t use them to seperate character classes at all. But most AWE games do use them as archetypes for player characters, since they do a great deal to help the players get into the game.

For Battlesuit Wizards, I’d probably use the archetypes presented in series such as Gundam Wing and Gundam 00, which feature a cast of 4-5 protagonists, all using specialized mecha – you have the stealth suit, the long ranged one, the suit armed with the heavy weapons, a suit specialized in melee, and so on. Sometimes those types overlap, giving us a place to use multi class moves, like in Dungeon World.

All in all, playbook are used to extend the foundation you already created before, and really let your game’s feel shine.

That’s about it. Obviously I haven’t covered every aspect of creating an Apocalypse World hack, but hopefully you got enough to get your gears grinding and getting to work.

Have fun.

(yes, the title is a Pacific Rim reference.)

BONUS: in 2012 I ran a Battlesuit Wizards game using the Marvel Heroic Roleplay game. You can read the character sheets here.

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