Apocalypse World

If Dungeons & Dragons is as an exemplar of the "traditional" pen-and-paper RPG design (despite 5E taking more than a few queues from more modern and experimental designs), one can hardly go more "indie" than Meguey and Vincent Baker's post-apocalyptic cult classic Apocalypse World (in following: AW). Originally published by their imprint lumpley games in 2007, the version we will primarily examine here is its second edition (2E), crowd-funded and self-published by the authors in 2016. In addition to AW itself, many RPGs have since reused and adapted its core game system to a large number of other settings and genres under the "Powered by the Apocalypse" label (we will examine one such game, Monsterhearts, later on).

Free resources: Playbooks, moves sheets, MC sheets.

Core Mechanic

Like D&D 5E, AW uses a dice-based core mechanic (referred simply as a "roll") to resolve player character actions, including social influence attempts. The simplified procedure for said core mechanic is as follows:

  1. The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
  2. The player and the GM negotiate which "basic move" applies in this situation (see below).
  3. The player rolls 2d6 and adds to the result of their character's primary stats, as specified by the chosen basic move description (shortened to "roll +stat", e.g. "roll +hard").
  4. A gradient of success is built directly into the core mechanic: If the total roll result is 10 or higher ("strong hit"), the PC achieves their initial objective (Yes); if it is 7, 8, or 9 ("weak hit"), they achieve the objective, but at a high cost or they are faced with a hard choice as a result (Yes-But); on a 6 or lower ("miss"), they fail to reach their objective and something bad happens to them in-fiction as a result of the attempt (No-And).
  5. The player and the GM collaborate in narrating the outcome of the action in-fiction, with the GM coming up with an adversity that befalls the PC on anything but a strong hit.

The five primary stats in AW ("cool", "hard", "hot", "sharp", and "weird") typically range from –2 to +3, while an additional stat named "Hx" (short for "history") ranges from –3 to +3 and is a form of asymmetric relationship values between PCs, so each one has a separate Hx score for every other PC, representing how well they know them. There are no secondary stats in this game.

"Moves" in AW are situational game mechanics that are invoked by certain events in-fiction. Every "playbook" (player character archetype) has a set of moves unique to them, but also to a set of "basic moves" available to all PCs (the GM has a separate set of "MC moves", which never involve them rolling dice). Persuasion and more general social situations are covered by three particular basic moves, meaning that in all three the social agent is a PC: "Go Aggro", "Seduce or Manipulate", and "Read a Person" – in D&D terms, these roughly correspond to Charisma (Intimidation), a combination of Charisma (Persuasion) and Charisma (Deception), and Wisdom (Insight) checks, respectively.

Go Aggro

Go Aggro on Someone is a basic move that covers coercive interactions. It is invoked when a PC agent makes a specific threat of violence to an NPC or a PC patient while demanding their immediate compliance. The agent player rolls +hard, and on a strong hit, the patient player has the choice of either immediately complying with their demands, or escalating the situation by forcing them to carry out the threat, at which point the agent player cannot pull the blow (if the initial threat is a bluff, the "Seduce or Manipulate" move should be used instead). On a weak hit, the patient player may instead attempt to deescalate the situation without fully complying, while on a miss, the agent typically experiences a dramatic reversal of the power dynamic.

Seduce or Manipulate

Seduce or Manipulate Someone is a basic move that covers non-coercive, mainly reward-based interactions. It is invoked whenever a PC agent attempts to secure compliance of an NPC or a PC patient with a particular leverage. As the name suggests, its primarily use is to lure the patient into an intimate liaison, hence why the agent player rolls +hot (a stat representing their erotic capital), but it is also used for every other kind of appeal and leverage.

Because, unlike "Go Aggro", this move does not involve (threats of) physical violence, its possible outcomes are markedly different for PC and NPC patients: on a strong hit, the NPC complies until the leverage is somehow invalidated, while on a weak one, they comply only if the agent strengthens their leverage (e.g. by making them an explicit promise or by showing hard evidence). Whether a PC patient complies, meanwhile, is left completely up to their player, but on a strong hit, their compliance is rewarded with XP, while non-compliance is punished with the temporary reduction of XP gains (in Apocalypse World 1E, the patient's ludic punishment for non-compliance was instead to make an additional roll that effectively forced them to comply on a miss – an oblique way of negating their player's agency, which was presumably why it was changed in 2E). On a weak hit, the agent player must choose whether to reward the patient's compliance or to punish non-compliance, but not both.

Read a Person

Read a Person is a reconnoitering basic move that allows a PC agent and their player to gain insight into the motives of a PC or an NPC patient in a "charged interaction". While it cannot bring about compliance, like the other two moves, it is designed to be used as a prelude to either of them: by rolling +sharp, the player can be entitled to truthful answers to three (on a strong hit) or just one (on a weak one) questions from the patient player. These must come from a predefined list and range from "Is your character telling the truth?" to "What leverage will secure their compliance?" The GM answers these questions for NPC patients, while the respective player does so for a PC patient. Of course, nothing prevents the patient player from invoking the same basic move, so both PCs alternate being the agent and the patient in this interaction.

Other Moves

We observe that since the core mechanic uses fixed success thresholds, the patient's stats have no impact on basic moves' effectiveness. Since NPCs don't have numeric stats in AW, this is of no consequence to the GM, but the system does provide players with a ludic option to resist other players' social influence, namely, with the basic move "Help or Interfere with Someone". If the patient interferes with the agent somehow, e.g. by talking back, their player rolls +Hx with the agent, which applies a one-time –2 (strong hit) or –1 (weak hit) penalty to the agent player's roll. In effect, the better the patient knows the agent, the less likely the latter is to exert unwanted influence upon them.

In addition to the basic moves described above, individual playbooks have some special moves that modify the basic ones. For example, one special move allows the "Battlebabe" playbook to roll +cool instead of +hard when they "Go Aggro" on NPCs and +Hx, on PCs. The "Hocus" playbook, meanwhile, may roll +weird instead of +Hx when attempting to "Help or Interfere", as long as they have the appropriate special move.