Following my earlier post comparing Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games) and Fate (Evil Hat Productions): expanded observations on how the two games feel at the game table, both as player and as gamemaster.
The Apocalypse Tastes Funny
The biggest difference between the two is that Apocalypse World comes with a default setting. I suspect that it would be very difficult to grasp the game’s value if it had started as a pure system, because you need to experience it to see how the parts come together. So yeah, it was a good choice to release it attached to a setting.
But I don’t like the flavour of this setting. That’s a strange thing to say, I know, because most of it gets created in play, and also because I absolutely love some very similar settings in other games, most obviously Jared Sorensen’s octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks). But the seeds of setting contained in AW, in the character playbooks and in what the rules reward, produce a world that is unpleasant to me and more importantly, characters I don’t want to play.
It’s a subtle effect, and I can’t very well describe it except as “the wrong flavour,” like some people love Coke but hate Pepsi, love regular coffee but hate chicory coffee. The flavour is obviously pleasing to some people, and equally obviously unpleasant to me.
I believe this dislike is largely due to the feeling that the characters are invited, mechanically-speaking, to exploit, manipulate, dominate, and generally use others (PCs or NPCs). That’s not what I like to play. And yes, you can play someone who doesn’t do that, but there is no built-in reward for it — on the contrary; that means you will pass up on opportunities not only for success in play, and not only for advancement, but also for getting involved in the action.
- For example, characters gain experience for seducing or manipulating others (pp. 87, 179, 186, 197).
- Several moves involve using others or bending them to your will: pack alpha, seduce or manipulate, most sex moves, most brainer moves, etc.
I guess my disconnect starts with the play agendas (pp. 96 and 108). I appreciate that the agendas are clearly expressed; the players’ agenda is listed as:
- Play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves—cool, competent, dangerous people, but real.
The gamemaster’s agendas are:
- Make Apocalypse World seem real.
- Make the player characters’ lives not boring.
- Play to find out what happens.
But those are not my objectives. They don’t work for me, or at least they don’t suffice. I take “real” here to mean vivid and believable, which is nice, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of my gaming either as player or as gamemaster. “Not boring” is also uninspiring; we all have “not boring” hectic or frustrating days that still don’t provide any drama or entertainment, so I hold my gaming to a higher standard. And finding out what happens only matters if something in the game captured my heart.
Finally, a pet peeve: each session one player and the GM each highlight one stat on your character sheet, and these are the ones for which you’ll mark advancement or experience this session, each time you use these stats. Thus, each player’s path to reward for a given character is shaped entirely by two other people’s choices every episode. I prefer to choose for myself in which direction I want my character to evolve.
So my play experience with AW, even with sterling GMs and players, was not bad, but it didn’t tell me why people were in love with this game. From the player’s side, the mechanics work fine and have the advantage of offering a known mechanical result for every move and die roll, greatly limiting the GM’s power to be arbitrary; but I didn’t care because I’m used to high-trust games and great GMs.
To make things more of an uphill battle for me, the two most popular published hacks of the system are Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions) and Monsterhearts (Buried Without Ceremony)—and I like neither dungeon-crawling nor teenage angst stories, despite my interest for the innovations that both bring to the system.
It’s only when I played in Jeremy Tidwell’s own Companions hack that I finally started appreciating the AW system. Jeremy did a lovely job of using the AW tools to match the flavour of the better Doctor Who moments. In his hack, you play the former Companions of the Doctor after his death. The TARDIS has started acting on its own, and mysteriously fulfilling his agenda, forcing the companions back into their old lives as its agents.
Companions replaced the exploitive and manipulating elements of the original setting and their mechanical implementation with beautiful, simple little rules bits that instead promote self-sacrifice, suspense, and sometimes giving up a confrontation when the stakes are wrong (“Run!”) It provided excellent Whovian flavour to every game.
I had a great time playing Companions and the action did start getting greater than the sum of the parts; I eventually decided I needed to try running it myself to get a different perspective. And indeed I started to understand the attraction of the AW system: it’s a book for GMs. It’s essentially a system of recipes to make the GM’s life easier in prepping for and running games, a codified book of GMing advice, most of which I agree with (with the exceptions above).
The big AW challenges for me as GM were linked to proper use of the moves:
- Getting used to thinking in terms of moves felt constricting, although I think with practice they just become building blocks. If you constantly lack the right moves for a setting, maybe you need to re-examine the list, see if any have been misunderstood, poorly expressed, or need tailoring.
- Fairness and disclosure are necessary of course, but also mean giving all the necessary information at the right time for players to pick their moves. In other words, sometimes you need to sacrifice part of a “big reveal” or suspense moment in order to paint a very clear picture for the players before they can act.
- Moves funnel the action, so it’s possible to get into a sort of domino effect where because move A was used then the next most logical choice will be B, then C… A skilled GM could probably use this like a quasi-rail for a plot, an unskilled one could paint herself in a corner. If no moves readily presents itself, you’re essentially in a video game cut scene, waiting for the game to load to the next decision point. The GM needs to immediately present something that will generate move options.
A down-to-earth problem: Getting around in the AW book, finding the info you need when you’re on the spot, can be a bother. It’s perfectly well organized as reading material or while you’re prepping, but it’s not as smooth when you’re looking for a specific reference in the middle of the game because each element is discussed in several different places in the book.
Chewing Bits of Fate
My original experience with Fate, like a lot of gamers’, was with Spirit of the Century, which in turn was based on an earlier version of the system. The structure reminded me of Theatrix (Backstage Press), a game I had dearly loved, though the resolution mechanics were of course different. I liked Spirit of the Century well enough, but my experience was not more “pulpy” than it had been with Adventure! (White Wolf), Hollow Earth Expedition (Exile Game Studio), or Feng Shui (Atlas Games). I tried playing, I tried running, and it still was just “nice.”
I felt that there were too many character aspects to use them all, let alone want to try creating temporary aspects in play. I kept feeling I never had the right skill or it never was high enough. I described the game at the time as “The most complicated simple system I’d ever played.” A few years later came The Dresden Files RPG, and we played that too because both my husband and I kept thinking we were missing something with these two games, we weren’t “doing it right.”
And we weren’t.
Everything changed with Fate Accelerated! I’ve described in a previous post what the changes were in Fate Core and Fate Accelerated, so I don’t want to repeat it here; suffice it to say that my concern regarding the number of aspects and the clarity of why you’d want to create temporary aspects in play were completely addressed. The new system’s choice of four clearly explained actions types with a gradation of success, and FAE’s approaches instead of a list of skills, made all the difference.
As soon as we tried to play it, the light bulb came on. The very first time I used the action “create an advantage”, everything became clear. And newcomers to role-playing picked this up effortlessly! Those who are still struggling with Fate, especially Fate Core, are almost always long-time gamers like me. We have gamer cobwebs in our brains, we keep thinking in terms of having the right skill for the specific test, but that’s not how Fate works. Fate is powered by what we imagine and provides the scaffolding and tools to build it.
Then I went back to play Fate Core with its longer list of skills and finer dials, and now it really works! I was doing it wrong all along. Armed with the experience I gained with Fate Accelerated, I now feel comfortable with the level of detail in Core and it no longer bogs me down.
In the particular game where I realized this, we had only two players, a smart and really nice young woman and myself; we picked from a collection of pre-generated characters (it was at a convention) and we deliberately picked two characters that in many ways were alike—thus making sure that certain skills were not, in fact, covered by the party. Instead of worrying about whether we had a certain skill, we used or created circumstances to our advantage, we made use of our strengths and worked around our weaknesses. It was a flawless game. It was the kind of evening when you think, “The authors of this game wrote it just for this.”
- Very often, one needs a little practice with a new system before its qualities really shine; this is why I no longer write game reviews based only on reading the system, but only “actual play” reviews.
- Sometimes the system only comes into its own once you’ve tried it from the GM’s perspective; a lot of its virtues may be hidden to the players.
- You also need a setting, characters, and plot you’re interested in, plus half-way decent GM and players, if you’re going to appreciate a game.
- It’s possible to play a game for years without really “getting” it.
- However, while some gamers who feel they do “get” it are quick to yell “You’re doing it wrong!”, sometimes there are barriers to play right there in the book.
- Sometimes these barriers can be removed by trial and error, by playing with different people, by a rules revision, etc.
- And by the way, sometimes, a game is just not going to be for you no matter how much other people like it. That’s OK, it means neither that it’s a bad game nor that your a bad player, just that it’s not a good fit. Maybe some day someone will make a hack that changes everything, but until then, you have your choice of other great games.