Gamemaster Toolkits: Apocalypse World and Fate

This will be a little contrast-and-compare exercise to look at two recent roleplaying games that have been very popular in the story game community (also known as hippie games, indie games, etc.) The games are Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010) and Fate Core System/Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions, 2013). I will note the very few places where the two builds of Fate differ as far as this analysis goes.

The two feel very different in action, whether you are player or gamemaster. But I’d like to start by telling you what they share.


Even physically, the books have similarities: they are both small format books of 300 pages each which present self-contained games; everything you need to play is in the books, you need not plan on buying any supplements.

Both have strong roots in the gaming community, the two publishers having had the good fortune, taste, or sense to involve in development and playtest of their games an impressive number of people who are super-connectors in the story/indie/hippie game community.  Looking at the list, there were so many people I’ve played with and many more I regularly exchange with online.  That alone goes a long way to explain the interest the games have received.

Both provide best play experience with groups of 2 to 5 players and a GM in multi-episode story arcs, although both can also be used for one-shot games.

Both put story forward, with the objective to provide the players and their characters with exciting adventures; both get this process started with cooperative world and character creation, characters that are created by “filling in the blanks”, and encouraging GMs to say “yes” to the players’ and build on them. Players are also encouraged to build on their own actions and on one another’s, through the use of “take +X forward” in Apocalypse World and through the “Create an Advantage” action in Fate.

Both roleplaying games put a lot of work into make the GM’s life easier. If you do your homework, learn how the systems work and use the players as a source of ideas, you can keep your game preparation time astonishingly short after the first episode. In addition, both systems are “hackable” and gamers are encouraged to share their own “hacks” for different settings. Both provide a wealth of useful advice for the gamemaster.

Both are fractal in the mathematical sense, with complexity arising from simple, open systems with scalable rules. In practical terms, it means you can change the scale of play, of adversaries, of the world, etc. by treating them in the same manner at every level, for example, using Aspects, stress boxes, and skills or approaches in Fate, and using countdown clocks, stats, and moves in Apocalypse World. It also means the resolution mechanics for all types of challenges and conflicts, be they physical, social, mental, etc., are essentially the same.

There are other roleplaying systems that use a fractal approach; for example, one could make a case for the Mouse Guard RPG, but AW and FC are the only two I can think of right now that have intentionally built this as a universal GM tool and hackable feature.


OK, let’s contrast these two a bit.

Apocalypse World


Fate Core System

Goal: Tell stories that seem real, make the characters’ lives not boring, find out what happens. Goal: Tell stories about people who are proactive, competent and dramatic.
Characters are customized: by picking from a menu of options. Characters are customized: by giving them unique and descriptive Aspects.
Resolution mechanic: Roll two six-sided dice and add one of five stats with a typical value of -1 to +3. Result below 7 is a miss, 7-9 is a weak hit, 10+ is a strong hit. Produces a normal curve with shifted average with constant variance. Resolution mechanic: Roll four fate dice with possible values of -1, 0 and +1, and add an applicable Skill (Approach for FAE) with a typical value of +0 to +4. Results includes fail, tie, succeed, and succeed with style. Produces a normal curve with shifted average and constant but narrower variance than AW.
Action adjudication: Each character gets a choice of “moves” with specific mechanical benefits for success, picked by the player if the move is a hit. Action adjudication: Rules contain ample examples of skill adjudication based on success level.
Players can improve a roll by: Helping one another at the cost of an action and the risk of suffering failure together; adding a forward modifier (usually +1 or +2) earned in a previous action. Players can improve a roll by: Helping one another at the cost of an action and the risk of suffering failure together; spending a fate point to call on an applicable Aspect; adding a free use of a temporary Aspect earned in a previous action.
It’s fun for players because: of the Chinese menu approach; you know exactly what you should get when you make a move; the system is quick and simple to learn; the system provides tactical options. It’s fun for players because: The use of temporary Aspects gives your imagination unrestricted possibilities; the system is quick and simple to learn; the system almost disappears from view in play; the system provides tactical options.
It’s disappointing for players when: you don’t “get” or don’t like the flavour of the setting; you can’t fold what you want to do into one of the moves available to you; the template or move you picked doesn’t do what you thought it would; you feel limited by the menu options. It’s disappointing for players when: you get hypnotized by whether you have a certain skill or not rather than focusing on creating advantages; you’re having an off night and don’t feel creative enough to take advantage of Aspects.
It’s fun for GMs because: It limits game preparation to an opening situation for the players and lets you build on their reactions; it makes it easy to create new critters, characters, gear, moves, and episodes; you never have to roll dice. It’s fun for GMs because: it makes game preparation easy; it allows you to stat or convert anything on the fly; it allows you to treat the adventure or plot as a character, making you feel more like you’re on the same level as the players; it makes it easy to handle surprises from players.
It’s disappointing for GMs when: you have trouble chaining the moves together to make the action flow; you have trouble finding information in the book during play; you want to hack the system for a new setting but have a lot of work to do in order to convert the moves and create templates. It’s disappointing for GMs when: you’re not comfortable improvising using Aspects; your players come from a more “traditional” RPG mind set and don’t “get” the use of Aspects.

Tomorrow Three weeks later I add some comments about my experience in play, how the two games “feel” to me. In the mean time, I welcome your observations on the two games!

6 thoughts on “Gamemaster Toolkits: Apocalypse World and Fate

  1. Thanks for this review. For now, Fate Accelerated seems to be my “to go” RPG system as a gamemaster, but Apocalypse Wolrd could be fun to play to.

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