Hidden goblins of the Apocalypse World

This is the 5th post in a series about the hidden work of the GM in tabletop role-playing games. This time we’re zooming in on a game called Apocalypse World. The illustration above is by Jeff Easley, from the 1983 D&D Basic Rules. Not all goblins are hidden!

Some hot gossip on Apocalypse World

The first edition of Apocalypse World was released in 2010, credited solely to D. Vincent Baker; the 2016 second edition gave equal billing to Meguey Baker. The game is a brutal, vital invocation of character-driven drama in a post-apocalyptic world. It is also wildly innovative and has been hugely influential. The game and its descendants, most of which fall under the banner “Powered by the Apocalypse”, have become a thriving corner of the tabletop RPG scene.

Essentially what Apocalypse World does is throw out the expectations and assumptions of tabletop RPG play and rebuild the whole experience from scratch. It assembles a framework that sits around all the things GMs and players normally do, which in turn makes sense of those actions and reveals new ways of approaching them. This approach allows the game to speak very clearly about aspects of play that every other game to this point has overlooked or taken completely for granted. Finally, it looks outward to every other game and challenges them to look at themselves with the insights AW presents.

In my view, Apocalypse World changed everything.

Hidden play and the Apocalypse Engine

Dungeons & Dragons, and almost every game that followed, spend most of their time telling the GM about the things they are supposed to do in the game. Apocalypse World comes in with a different perspective: a focus on what GMs are trying to achieve. The GM chapter in the book leads off with a clear description of the GM’s agenda, and then moves down into the details from there. GMing from the top down, instead of from the bottom up.

But even that summary misses something crucial: Apocalypse World acknowledges that the craft of GMing (or MCing, in AW parlance) has near-infinite possible variations, and those variations matter.

There are a million ways to GM games; Apocalypse World calls for one way in particular. This chapter is it. Follow these as rules. The whole rest of the game is built upon this. (AW2E, p80)

This opening line lays the context for everything that follows by reminding every reader that their own version of GMing is just a set of techniques with which they are comfortable, and that other ways are possible – and in this case, required. And note the writing style, also – the whole book is this friendly voice chatting to you, in a real and down-to-earth way, about running a game. It feels very different to the godlike passive voice that was common in early RPG texts, and reminds you that the game is really just as down-to-earth: a set of thoughts you think, choices you make, and things you say.

Apocalypse World promises to shake up expectations and guide a GM to the specific techniques they should use to make play work. Does this extend to techniques to handle hidden goblins?

Reader, it surely does.

Moves and misdirects

Start with the idea of moves. In Apocalypse World, as players describe their character’s actions, they will inevitably do things covered by the rules as a moves. “When you act under fire,” begins one move; whenever the character acts under fire (or similar intense pressure) the move is triggered and they roll the dice and find out what happens.

GMs make moves too. However, whereas player moves are all down at the level of the character in the fiction, GM moves exist in a higher level: “Capture someone.” “Take away their stuff.” “Inflict harm.” These moves act on the fiction, but they are made from outside of it, by the GM following their agenda and principles of play.

This is important: these moves need to make sense in the fiction, even though they come from the GM’s decision-making power rather than from fictional logic. The GM is instructed to “misdirect”, which means find an in-fiction explanation and rationale for whatever move they choose to make. Misdirection makes it seem to the players that the events are driven by the fiction and not by the GM’s agenda-following choice.

So far so good. Let’s get to the goblin.

Thinking off screen

Think off screen too. When it’s time for you to make a move, imagine what your many various NPCs must have been doing meanwhile. Have any of them done something off screen that now becomes evident? Are any of them doing things off screen that, while invisible to the players’ characters, deserve your quiet notice? This is part of making Apocalypse World seem real—and if you pay attention to your threats, it’s part of making the characters’ lives not boring too. (p86)

The GM gets told several things here, and clearly:

First, when to act: when it’s time for you to make a move (i.e. say one of the things a GM should say)

Second, what to do: imagine what that hidden goblin has been up to

Third, why you should do it: to make the world seem real, and fill the game with interesting events.

It doesn’t call it out specifically in this paragraph, but from the rules in context it’s clear the GM isn’t being told to think through those hidden goblins every single time they speak. One of the other rules is “moves snowball”, i.e. they flow into each other. This is when the current run of moves have played themselves out, and the GM has an opportunity to consider the bigger picture again. It’s not as structured and formal as the scene-by-scene format of Primetime Adventures – instead it ties its pacing to the rhythm of the game. If a particular situation is unfolding and the GM still finds the space to think offscreen, that’s more than fine.

And all of this is right there on the page! In the rules! “Imagine what your many various NPCs must have been doing”, it says. I’ve not found another paragraph like this anywhere else in the history of RPG gaming, and yet with the tiniest bit of rewriting it could have appeared in the very first edition of D&D in 1974 and not been out of place. (Although it probably would have appeared in the aerial combat section or somewhere equally random, the organisation of those books was not perfect.)

This text is so simple, and yet so important. Because it seems so perfectly common-sense, people wonder why the rules are full of pieces like this. The truth, of course, is that it isn’t common-sense. It’s a specific technique, one of the million alluded to earlier in the chapter. There are other ways of playing. There are other ways of handling a hidden goblin!

All those other ways are fine, for their own sorts of games, Apocalypse World says. But here, for this game? This is how you do it. When that goblin runs away, you forget about him until you need to make a move. Then it’s the time for you to think about him and see what cool stuff you can imagine as a consequence of his running away.

Logic and fairness

There’s more relevant stuff scattered throughout the game.

For example, the billiard ball logic discussed in our second post, where you track the logic of fictional elements even when they go off-screen, is called out as important to escape pre-scripted story:

Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s action’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside. (p80)

And all that fretting in the Ravenloft post about being “fair” and trying to use Strahd responsibly is specifically addressed:

“Make as hard and direct a move as you like” means just that. As hard and direct as you like. It doesn’t mean “make the worst move you can think of.” Apocalypse World is already out to get the players’ characters. So are the game’s rules. If you, the MC, are out to get them too, they’re plain fucked. (p86)

The issue of fairness has come up several times as a strong reason to maintain hidden play. Again, AW is ready, this time with a toolkit you can use to deal with this concern by taking it out of your hands:

Whenever something comes up that you’d prefer not to decide by personal whim and will, don’t. The game gives you four key tools you can use to disclaim responsibility: you can put it in your NPCs’ hands, you can put it in the players’ hands, you can create a countdown, or you can make it a stakes question. (p86-87)

Clocks & Threats

Also related to the Strahd story was how as GM you must decide which pieces of the fiction you should care about off-screen. A random goblin, maybe not; the powerful vampire lord of the castle, probably yes. Apocalypse World has you covered:

During play, you leapt forward with named and motivated NPCs, you barfed forth landscapes and details of society. Now, between sessions, it’s time to go back through your notes and create those people, places, and conditions as threats.
Creating them as threats means making decisions about their backstory and motivations. Real decisions, binding ones, that call for creativity, attention and care. You do it outside of play, between sessions, so that you have the time and space to think. (p106)

Again look at what happens in here: the GM is told when to do this thinking, and why they should do it. Note also a crucial run of four words: “Real decisions, binding ones”. The GM isn’t supposed to leave these things vague or undefined so they can pull it out of the air in later play – they make a call about the hidden fiction now, and they stick to it.

The threat rules themselves account for a variety of dangers in the world – specific individuals can be threats, but also vehicles and landscapes. Many threats are treated as groups, which is significant, because it means the GM has a tool to roll up the complexity of numbers into a useful chunk. Strahd would be written up as a Grotesque threat, whereas that hidden goblin would exist as an expression of a Brutes group threat. The GM knows not to worry about tracking a particular hidden goblin, because the goblin just disappears back into the bigger threat.

Most of the rules for threats are, of course, focused on when they appear on screen, where the player characters can see them. The hidden goblin problem is about what happens (if anything) when they are off-screen. And, of course, AW has an answer for that too: threat countdown clocks.

A countdown clock is a reminder to you as MC that your threats have impulse, direction, plans, intentions, the will to sustain action and to respond coherently to others’.

When you create a threat, if you have a vision of its future, give it a countdown clock… Around the clock, note some things that’ll happen…. As you play, advance the clocks, each at their own pace, by marking their segments.
Countdown clocks are both descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive: when something you’ve listed happens, advance the clock to that point. Prescriptive: when you advance the clock otherwise, it causes the things you’ve listed.
For the most part, list things that are beyond the players’ characters’ control: NPCs’ decisions and actions, conditions in a population or a landscape, off-screen relations between rival compounds, the instability of a window into the world’s psychic maelstrom. (p117-118)

So the hidden work of the GM is neatly encapsulated in a visual track, moving closer and closer to trouble. It’s a great system, simple and useful.

The grand solution

Game night. You’re the MC, and the players have put down your gang of dead-church rippers to the torch – all except one. You mentioned that one scrawny hardcase, peeking in from a far doorway. In the mayhem since, this detail has slipped from player attention. The gunlugger’s picking ammo off the corpses and the brainer and chopper are flirting again. The last ripper is forgotten.

That ripper just watched these bloodthirsty maniacs casually incinerate his crew with enormous flaming murder bombs. No way is he going to stick around! But what does that mean? What happens next in the game? What do you, master of the game, actually do next?

You tell the players “hey, remember that little guy I said was peeking in at you? No sign of him now. But his best friends are all lying dead at your feet and he’ll be halfway to the dead cathedral by now. The blood cardinal is not gonna like this news.” That’s a move: announce off-screen badness.

Or: You tell the players “hey, wasn’t there someone else watching you? If there was, he’s gone now. But you would have made an impression.” Then at the end of the session you write the ripper up as a new threat, a grotesque, half-crazed from what he witnessed.

Or: You tell the players “you missed one of them. Sloppy work. That might bite you in the ass.” Then you advance the countdown clock towards the ripper gang going on a rampage.

Or: You make some other unrelated moves. There’s plenty of other stuff going on worth talking about. Go where the heat is!

Or any number of other choices that sit within the rules. They all count. They are all correct. They are all clearly available. it’s up to you – and the game makes it easy.

All the pieces matter

When playing Apocalypse World, the GM structures the imagined world into threats and countdown clocks.

During play, when they are ready to make a move, they can think about their NPC threats – what have they been doing? How might that be expressed in the game, i.e. as a move?

GMs can also think in the other direction – what do they want to do in the fiction? What would follow the agenda of making the characters’ lives not boring? They can make an appropriate move and misdirect, wrapping it in fiction so it seems the logical consequence.

Either way works. The GM can perform the hidden goblin work, billiard-balling through to a move – or they can jump to a move and work backwards to its reasoning.

Also during play, the GM tracks the progress of hidden threats towards their consequences using countdown clocks. This is a hidden game the GM plays themselves (although you can show the players the clock of course) – but one with a clear structure, a start and end point, and an appropriate level of abstraction.

Finally, all of this GM work is not burdensome thanks to the absence of any complicated representation of the fiction. The GM never needs to figure out hit dice or influence factors or follower loyalty scores.

And with all of these pieces working together, we have a game system that provides a solution to the hidden goblin problem.

So are we done yet?

When I started this series of posts, this was as far ahead as I had thought, but it turns out I’m not quite done. After all, Apocalypse World only provides a solution – just one of many possible ways to resolve the issues around hidden fiction in games.

I don’t think I’m going to come up with a grand theory that answers every possible concern, but I do think there’s some useful insights to be gained from poking around the space a bit further, and thinking about how we might approach the hidden goblin problem as game designers.

So next time, we’ll get into that, with a look at something I used to blog about a whole bunch: the GM Imagined Space.

But before we wrap this one up, one little bonus extra…

The Gygaxian Move

The innovative GM structure I discuss above, where the GM makes a move, then wraps it in fiction? It’s been there since the beginning. Not just implicitly as one of the big variety of game techniques out in the world, but as part of the explicit instructions handed down to GMs from Gary Gygax himself. I’m talking about an Apocalypse World-style GM move that Gygax referred to multiple times in his D&D writing.

Here’s the move:

  • Keep them on the map

An example, from B2 The Keep On The Borderlands (1979):

“If the party attempts to move off the map, have a sign, a wandering stranger, a friendly talking magpie, or some other “helper” tell them that they are moving in the wrong direction.”

Sounds like “Make the move, then misdirect” to me.

So there you go: Gygaxian D&D, powered by the Apocalypse since at least 1979.

(To be continued.)

2 thoughts on “Hidden goblins of the Apocalypse World

  1. Rob Alexander says:

    Great article — I agree with pretty much all of it. The only part I’m not sure about is this line:

    “Essentially what Apocalypse World does is throw out the expectations and assumptions of tabletop RPG play and rebuild the whole experience from scratch”

    I don’t have direct experience of AW; I’ve played and run DW. But based on my experience with DW, and with what others have said about AW, I’d replace “RPG play” with “RPG rulesets”. I don’t think AW does provide a unique experience, especially from the player side. It even less provides a unique form of narrative — many GMs in other games steer play in the same way. What it does do is codify GMing such that if you follow the rules you will GM in a particular style. It doesn’t do much new, but it narrows the space of what you can do and still be within the rules.

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