Apocalypse World took the indie roleplaying scene by storm. In its sixth year, Vincent and Meguey Baker are kickstarting a second edition.
Apocalypse World has a post-apocalyptic setting, or rather; helps the players generate their own settings in the genre. It’s a violent, dirty, poisoned world, but with room for hope. The designers have decided to stick fairly closely to the original system in the new book.
Meg: The single biggest improvement is the flow of battle. The combat in AW1 was often a place where the pace slowed and people had questions about the process. When we were looking at that system and how to streamline it, it clicked into place that we already had a solid system for the flow of action in the PC and MC moves, so why not see if a series of moves would work to handle battle? And lo and behold, they work great!
A major change is doing away with fronts and using threat maps instead. Threat maps give a better sense of how all the various dangers play off each other, and support an even stronger sense of the world. There are also significant changes to the Hx system that help make it smoother and faster to navigate.
Vincent: I’m pretty excited about the new threat map system. The old system for fronts was a little, I dunno, abstruse, a little too conceptual. The new system has you place threats directly on a map, centered on the PCs, it’s more intuitive and more concrete. It really ties the threats the GM’s responsible for to the landscape of the game, both when you’re originally creating them and when you’re updating them between sessions.
I: What was the original appeal to you with the post-apocalyptic genre?
Meg: Oh my goodness, what’s the appeal?! It’s everything. I’m a big history and archaeology and anthropology fan, and pretty much as far back as we know, people have been experiencing world-altering events, living or dying through them, dealing with the aftermath and the rebuilding process,and warning everyone about the next one. The current mainstream images of the post-apocalypse are mostly dry and dusty wastelands because we are on some level deeply aware of our utter dependence on potable water, but there’s a dozen different scenarios that spring to mind from history. Top among them in my mind are the Black Plague in the 1350s, the arrival of the Spanish and smallpox in America in the late 1400s, the great fire of London in 1666, the dust bowl in the 1930s in the US, the second World War, Chernobyl, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the poison water in Flint Michigan going on right now.
The end of “life as we know it” is a really, really old idea, and one that keeps on happening,even if it’s only the end of life as you know it within a 20 mile radius of your home. To explore it and examine it, to look at scarcity and want and decide what you are going to do, where you are going to make a stand and say “I will prevail, I will remain human, I will remain humane” -those are fascinating things to look at and play with! And Apocalypse World offers players a framework to do that, to create and explore the nature of the apocalypse, whatever that looks like to them. I’ve run games with a wide wide range of apocalyptic landscapes, and heard about many more.
Vincent: I am, at most, a casual fan of the genre. Back in 2008 I was reading Gregor Hutton’s game 3:16, one of my very favorites, then new, and it came to me that I could use the post-apocalyptic genre the way he uses military sf. The old power structures and systems of control are breaking down around us; we have this marvelous opportunity to carve out space for ourselves in their ruins. I wrote Apocalypse World originally to reflect on that.
Apocalypse World provided a toolkit for other designers to create their own “hacks” of the game. There are now over two dozen published games using the core system/method from AW, many of them indie favorites in their own right, like Monsterhearts and Dungeon World. In addition there are several fan-made hacks using elements or the system in its entirety.
I: What do you think of the growth of “Powered by the Apocalypse” games and hacks? Do you have any favorites?
Meg: We love it! It’s incredibly gratifying and humbling to have something we made inspire so many other people to design, and so many of them are so good! My personal favorites are Monsterhearts, Sagas of the Icelanders, The Warren, and Epyllion. And World Wide Wrestling.
Vincent: My favorite is a relative unknown: Epidiah Ravachol’s Wolfspell. It uses the game-mechanical structure of reading a situation to take you out of your normal mindset and put you in a foreign one. It’s pretty cool.
I: The Kickstarter now has over 2500 backers. How will you use the extra money (or maybe everything is spent on printing and distribution)?
Meg: We’re printing books enough to keep in stock for a while and pay to have them stored and shipped, we’ll go to PAXEast and some other conventions (not GenCon, sorry), we’ll start work on the next book with a little cushion to cover time off from our day jobs. In my wild world of fantasy dreams, we get to take AW2e to a convention in Scandinavia over the summer, but there’s a LOT of things to do before that becomes anywhere near a thing.
Vincent: Yeah. It looks like a huge pile of money, but that’s deceptive. It’s a LOT of books.
We’ve taken the past year or two slow on conventions and game development. Like Meg says, we’re hoping that this can let us do some expanding, business-wise. Modest, practical expanding.
I: Vincent has been kind enough to share total sales figures for AW over the past few years. Last time I saw, I think you said 4000 copies sold since 2010? AW is a very high-profile game in the community, but financially it seems to be completely overshadowed by heavy-hitters like D&D5, or even a game like 7th Sea (300K on the Kickstarter in 24 hrs). Why do you think it’s so hard to reach audiences, relatively speaking?
Meg: We are not aiming to be D&D. We are not hoping to capture the 7th Seas audience. We write weird little off-beat games dealing with odd concepts, like young gunslinger preachers and superpowered people with amnesia and doomed pilgrims and whatever the Hocus is. We want to do our thing well, and if folks like it, that’s great! To use a music analogy, we’d rather have coffee shops full of folks that love what we do and follow every note than have a stadium full of folks who know that one song because they heard it a few times and don’t really know the words.
That said, I also think Apocalypse World continues to reach new audiences because of the wide appeal post-apocalyptic media in general has lately, and the way AW is structured makes it VERY accessible to people who have never played a roleplaying game before. We see this over and over at PAX, when people are excited and it’s the first time they’ve bought a tabletop roleplaying game.
Vincent: Part of it is just plain age! Apocalypse World is five years old. 7th Sea is what, 25? Let’s compare again in 20 years. I bet that Apocalypse World has the staying power.
I: On the same note; do you have any advice for self-publishing game designers? I mean, obviously you do, but like a top-three list.
Meg: Ok, top three bits of advice:
Write everything down. Get a notebook, a phone, whatever. Write in the grocery line, write in the bathroom, write while waiting anywhere for anything. Don’t think that every idea will be golden,but do make a habit of getting those random ideas down on paper so you can rearrange them and come back to them and see how they fit.
Kill your darlings. Half your ideas will be crap, or at least crap for the game you are working on. Put them on a mental shelf and maybe use them later. Editing for rules and text that actually do what you want and convey how to do that is vital.. Related to this is to leave room for the player in your game design. A good game design should feel like a few bits are missing, because that’s where the players take what you give them and make choices and tell stories. If you fill in all the holes, there’s no breathing room for your players.
Only spend what you can afford to lose. It’s tempting to see crowdfunding as a way to get around this, but seriously, don’t go into debt. If you are a first-time designer, think really hard about doing your own art, your own layout, etc instead of hiring lots of folks for your first time out. Try it. Figure out your skills. Use pdf and POD to help stretch your reach and your voice without stretching your wallet. And for heaven’s sake, have a finished or very-nearly finished product before you launch a crowdfunding campaign based on an idea and the promise of a LOT of work!
Vincent: Yep. Also, make and release many games. You learn more about making games in the weeks after you publish a game than in the months and years leading up to it.
I: What other projects are you currently working on? Meguey recently launched Playing Nature’s Year, could you tell our readers a bit about that?
Meg: Playing Nature’s Year is just about the polar opposite of Apocalypse World :) It’s a cycle of eight short seasonal games you can play with anyone. I made it with wishes, fortune-telling games, and children in mind, thinking a lot about how we connect to the seasons and to each other. Each game uses 10 six-sided dice for each player, each game is playable in full in under 30 minutes, and each game stands alone. It’s sort of my love letter to living in New England, with a big nod to all the fairytales of my childhood.
Vincent: Right now I’ve just got a bunch of leads. Mostly fantasy games, come to think of it: a Jack Vance-esque one, a Tanith Lee-esque one, a Game of Thrones-esque one, a Tolkein-esque one with a lot of jokes in it. I’m trying to be responsible and wait until I’ve finished and delivered Apocalypse World before I get serious about what next.
I: What developments in the indie/DIY communities currently excite you? What games and discussions do the two of you follow with interest?
Meg: I LOVE that all the avenues of creating things are in greater access now. Not only through pdf and POD and such, but through 3D printing and Patreon and things like Spoonflower and Etsy and Maker Faire, and on and on. I think there’s a real revelation and reveling in the ability to make things. It’s not quite a revival, because it was always happening, but it seems that now there’s a greater appreciation of whatever you might be making. I’m currently involved in Thing A Day, which is a month-long project to do anything creative for 15 minutes a day and tell people about it. It’s so refreshing and exciting to see so many people enthusiastic about being creative!
Games I follow most. Hmm. Much harder question. I’m very interested in the use of games for social change, and teaching, and I’m always fascinated by the overlap between games and storytelling. I guess right now I’m most interested in the intersection between oral history and LARP, where aspects of role-play connect with our own past. It’s very rich ground, and not at all clear what’s going to happen next or come out of thinking and talking about it.
Vincent: Well, I’m following the PbtA scene pretty darn eagerly, as you might imagine. The work that my colleagues are doing is breathtaking; every time I crack open a PbtA game, I find something new that I love.
I follow the DIY D&D scene too. Some of the game design problems that we old school Forgies consider difficult to solve are much easier when you look at them as scenario design problems instead.
I: Vincent was a guest of honor at the Danish roleplaying convention Fastaval in Denmark in 2013. How did you find the local game design scene? What interested you about the festival?
Vincent: I loved it! It was really strange!
It’s like the DIY D&D scene, actually. The Fastaval scenario form gives you an angle on some game design problems that are pretty intractable to the kind of RPG design that I do. Every game designer should play Fastaval scenarios, there’s a lot to learn from them.
The festival itself is structured in such a different way, too, compared to every other convention I’ve been to. I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about how it works and what to bring away from it.
I’d like to get back as soon as I can.