Apocalypse World

A narrativist game by lumpley games.

It’s half past the apocalypse, and things are looking all sorts of directions – down, up, and sideways. Resources are scarce and worth protecting, but this also results in tight-knit communities that want to protect their access to these resources. Earth is barren and ravaged, but this also means that places that aren’t completely devoid of life are that much valuable. And, well, since this is America, two things were left in plenty – guns and oil. And god help anyone trying to stand against the might of the two.

Apocalypse World is one of the first narrativist games that really made it big. It differs from your traditional RPG in the sense that you rarely have a normal adventuring party. Instead, each character is a person with its own place in the post-apocalyptic world, and the MC – Master of Ceremonies – essentially plays out scenes involving one or more players until it’s time to end the session or the entire game. All of the players being at one single spot in time is rare, and usually occurs when shit is going down. Naturally, this means that whoever is the MC has to have a really good feeling for pacing and dividing the spotlight equally among the players.

The setting is very vaguely defined, and the rulebook heavily suggests building everything (settlements, gangs, locations and such) around the player characters and the relationships they establish. The only real foundations are that this is post-apocalyptic America (hence the relative ubiquity of guns and fuel), that the apocalypse happened so long ago nobody really remembers it, and that the world is permeated with the “psychic maelstrom” that is somehow connected to the apocalypse and is the cause of weird, supernatural phenomena. Since the maelstrom is not clearly defined, though, you don’t have to play with constant supernatural events and tropes.

The mechanics designed for this game have been adopted by numerous other narrativist RPGs and gave birth to a system named Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA).



There are five stats – hard (physical strength, intimidation), sharp (intelligence, perception, insight), hot (charisma), cool (stealth, keeping your shit together) and weird (related to the psychic maelstrom). They go from -1 to +3. History is an additional stat, which represents the familiarity (but not necessarily friendliness) between two player characters. It is used for rolling assist / interfere moves.

The only rolling mechanic in Apocalypse World is the players using moves, rolling 2d6 and adding appropriate modifiers depending on what sort of moves they’re using. Basic moves are available to all characters regardless of their playbook, but every playbook has its own special moves. Basic moves cover general player actions – attacking, surveying a situation or a person and such. Playbook moves are more specialised, in line with the role of specific playbooks. They can also be passive bonuses (+1 to a stat), changing what stat you use for a roll, or give you things like gangs and cars.

The MC doesn’t roll, but doles out bad stuff in line with players’ actions and roll failures. Each move has three degrees of success – 10+ on a roll is a full success, 7-9 is a partial success, and 6 or below is a failure. Success means you accomplish the full scope of your move, partial success means you accomplish a limited scope of a move, while a failure not only means you accomplish nothing, but that the MC makes a move against you. Since this is gritty post-apocalypse, it usually means very bad stuff.

There’s a rudimentary HP system in form of harm. Player characters die upon reaching 6 harm – the first three points of harm represent damage that heals on its own, while the final 3 get worse without proper treatment. NPCs generally die upon reaching 3 harm, at MC’s discretion. Armor absorbs harm done, but only if it makes sense – a 2-armor vest won’t do anything against a 3-harm sniper rifle aiming for the head, for instance. Experience is obtained mostly by rolling marked stats (each character has two marked stats, one chosen by another player and one chosen by the MC) and by increasing history with another character to +4 (upon which it’s reset back to +1). You gain history by inflicting harm on player characters, by doing certain moves, and as part of end-of-session process.

Upon obtaining 5 experience points, you go back to zero and gain an improvement. These are playbook specific and are either bonuses to stats, new playbook moves, moves from other playbooks or things like garages. After sixth improvement, you get advanced improvements – a new character (you’re playing two now), retire your current one to safety (which is a rare thing to happen in apocalypse world), change a playbook and such.

Each playbook has a special move that occurs when they have sex with another character. These can range from “gain history” to “scan their brain” or even “you now feel like you have to keep this person happy”. The rulebook goes out of its way to tell you you don't have to use these.


Playbooks are well-defined archetypes of post-apocalyptic fiction. There is a number of them, each fillings its own place.

  • Angel – Guys with scalpels, morphine and the knowledge to use them. Can channel the psychic maelstrom for healing purposes, with possibly unexpected results. Think field medic, but proper gear is really hard to come by.
  • Battlebabe – Chick with guns. Huge guns. Literally has a move called “dangerous and sexy”. Starts with custom weapons, which are bigger and badder than what you’re normally able to find in post-apocalypse. Does not actually have to be a girl.
  • Brainer – Your run-of-the-mill psyker. Can scan people’s brains and control them.
  • Chopper – Leader of a biker gang. Yes, you actually get a gang, but as you might imagine, it’s unruly and you have to keep on your toes to remain in charge.
  • Driver – You’re a cool motherfucker who gets to drive and own cars. Cars have their own stats, which you add to your roll when you do stuff from out of a car.
  • Gunlugger – Like Battlebabe, but replace “sexy” with “Rambo”. Unless that’s what you’re into.
  • Hardholder – Leader of a settlement. Yes, an actual leader, with all the responsibilities and benefits that come with that. If this is one of the players, the action will probably be centered around something related to the settlement.
  • Hocus – A cross between Hardholder, Brainer and Chopper – you’re a person in charge of a small cult of people.
  • Operator – No, not that kind of an operator. It’s more of a venture capitalist – a guy who is invested into various gigs around the place, and is expected to ensure they all run smoothly.
  • Savvyhead – Essentially a techpriest. Fixes stuff, but sometimes does that with some sort of an extrasensory affinity for the machinery, not just pure mechanical knowledge. Can talk to machines.
  • Skinner – A beautiful, graceful, hypnotically breathtaking person in the apocalypse. Has sort of a succubus vibe to it.

There are a couple of extra playbooks, added after the game was released. They generally come with more specific moves and define the setting a bit more concretely than the basic ones.

  • Faceless – A clinically insane person who constantly wears a mask and communicates with it, remaining helpless should they remove it. Fucks shit up.
  • Hoarder – Exactly what it says on the tin. A scavenger with a pile of hoarded goods, who usually has just the right thing in it.
  • Macaluso – Not a single character, but a multitude of them, connected through the psychic maelstrom. Since they’re all run by the same player, the implication is that they’re unconsciously working toward some common goal. Expect clusterfuck.
  • Maestro D’ – Like hardholder, but you own an establishment, along with the appropriate staff. That could be a bar, a restaurant, an arcade, or something like that.
  • Marmot – You’re a marmot detective, sleuthing out crime and criminals. Created as a joke.
  • Solace – A source of peace and calm in the howling apocalypse. They can grant characters XP if they don’t do any harm for the entire session, and urge other characters and NPCs toward nonviolence. If they’re in the game, the psychic maelstrom manifests as “wolves” (not necessarily actual wolves, more like some sort of eldritch horrors called perversions of birth) that try to hunt The Solace and its companions down.
  • Quarantine – A person from the military who was in stasis when the Apocalypse happened, awoke from it and lost most of their memories. The stasis facility is still there, ready to be explored, and they get to define something about the apocalypse at the beginning of every session.
  • Touchstone – A person with a vision of a better future. Or simply a future – something beyond just surviving day to day. Their moves are focused on ensuring that what they foresaw actually occurs.

Additionally, the new playbooks from the second edition include

  • The Waterbearer – The sole owner (or an owner of an organization that owns) of something important, valuable or necessary to the people of the apocalypse. In exchange for access to the thing, other people have to obey specific rules they set.
  • The Child-Thing – Human, but not quite. A feral child born of the apocalypse, invoking many horror tropes. Not necessarily evil or destructive, but always disturbing.
  • The News – It’s Three-Dog! No, but seriously – you’re a person of some integrity with an allegiance to The Truth, which you spread using a derelict radio station you’ve somehow managed to put in working order. Of course, the fact that you’re committed to spreading the truth means you’re going to get on the hit-list of people with authority.
  • The Show – A one-man Dethklok, complete with causing the audience to go into frenzy and the ability to make earth to split and sunder by putting on an amazing show. The catch is, someone always holds your leash, and has to, or you’re like a fish out of water. Not for every session, or for every playgroup, even.
  • The Landfall Marine – Somehow, the chain of command got into space before the apocalypse happened. And you’re part of a crew that’s about to retake the Earth, with advanced technology and superior organization. Just hope that the people down there cooperate.

For playbooks that establish specific things about the universe (Landfall Marine comes to mind), it should be noted that if they aren’t in use, the assumptions that they make aren’t necessarily true.

Should I play this?Edit

Give it a try. Everything you need to play is available for free online, the rulebook is only necessary for in-depth preparation, explanations of certain design choices and guidelines on how to be good at improvising as you go along (in short, the MC should probably at least skim it over).

A word of warning - the MC will need to be good at improvising and making compelling events up as the game progresses, because the way moves and MC influence on the game work, it’s impossible – and feels restraining on the player abilities – to prepare a defined plot in advance.

As a player, you’re probably not going to enjoy this game if you expect to “win”, because it’s a narrativist game. The goal of the system is to allow the players and the MC to cooperatively establish an interesting and compelling story of the players and supporting characters, not necessarily to the characters’ best interests or beneficial outcomes.

Powered by the ApocalypseEdit

Powered by the Apocalypse is the term used to identify games that use the Apocalypse World game engine. In an open letter, the creators of Apocalypse World allowed anyone in the world access to make a game using their mechanics. With that came a deluge of games, not all of them good. For every game like Monsterhearts and Masks which do something unique with the system you get spinoffs that someone put together in five minutes. Since the system is open to anyone there is no quality control. The rules are simple enough that a game designer could crank out several playbooks for specific setting within a few days, because narrative based rpg systems don't really require a lot of balancing and playtesting.

What does this mean? Well you should be able to find or create any setting you want with the Apocalypse World Engine, but you are going to have to be careful that the playbooks you buy are worth the money.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

  • The website, with all resources you need to play available for free.
  • nerdwerds, even more playbook options.
The roleplaying games by lumpley games
Apocalypse World - Dogs in the Vineyard - In a Wicked Age
kill puppies for satan - Poison'd - Storming the Wizard's Tower