Apocalypse World: The Season of Self Determination
There’s a pretty big appeal to the Post-Apocalyptic genre.
Yeah, I know. Statement of the century. This is well trod ground – this isn’t a first on this topic, even for me – but I promised y’all an article, so I suppose you’re getting it whether its decent or not.
I’ve thought quite a lot about the appeal of stories following a civilization annihilating catastrophe, and its one that persists across every medium I can call to mind; it is especially prolific in gaming, but lets just say that George Miller didn’t find all of those Oscars under the couch.
On pondering what it is that draws us to these kinds of stories, I’ve heard a few threads echoing back around. Some theories, particularly those that follow the zombie subgenre, gather that we gain a kind of catharsis from watching otherwise good people crack under the pressures of scarcity and violence. A theme that seems to surface in a lot of roleplaying games, from Dungeons and Dragons to Numenara, is the appeal of a return to an age of exploration, and the chance to grow rich picking over the bones of a dead civilization. Some works use the breakdown of law as an excuse for gratuitous hyper-violence, but others use it to examine the formation of culture and faith in times of flux. Fury Road even found a way to do both.
I’ve never felt particularly satisfied with any of these assumptions. Desperation isn’t something you need to destroy civilization to find, as Shakespeare was so happy showing us, and the exploratory angle is one that overlaps heavily with your fantasy and western genres. So I look for a different point of appeal.
I believe, and this is something that Apocalypse World really hammers home, is that it has to do with agency.
I’ve frequently joked that libertarians are anarchists without the spine to accept their own decisions, and Apocalypse World throws us right into the anarchy of a world where rule limited by the far range of your eyesight and weaponry. The bonds of civilization have been shattered, and this allows our central players, against a chorus of devourers, demagogues and desperate lost souls, to do something that civilization could never allow them by its own nature.
It allows them to reshape the world in their own image.
This has been, I believe, a huge part of the recent appeal of Apocalypse World, and has kept wind in the sails for its second edition. Your players set out into a world that they create, with the only assumptions being that civilization is long gone and that the world has been enveloped by a miasma of telepathic resonance, the Psychic Maelstrom. The depopulated world, and the character’s relative power within it, allow them to come into this setting and live out their own destiny, unhindered by those more powerful than they are, whether that destiny is as conqueror, saint or destroyer.
For those of you who have been following the podcast, you’ll know that the destiny crafted by an impulsive artist, a mutant prairie dog and a deluded, theatrically inclined murderer is going to be pretty weird.
Ultimately, I think one of Apocalypse World’s most appealing features is almost a surrender of agency from the GM (or MC in this case) to their players; not complete, but more in the manner of giving them enough rope to hang themselves, a sentiment that has rather pervaded my MCing career. Baker has encoded into his rules an idea that has always worked well for me, and that is that roleplayers will make their own trouble. my players have always wanted to make their stories interesting as much as their MC does.
Apocalypse World has the advantage of letting a character choose when they die.
Some hang on despite the horrifying costs, and some let it go. We’ll have our share of both as Frozen City runs to its grim, exultant finale.
Hope you’re all enjoying the ride.