Posts Tagged ‘Apocalypse World’

2014 is turning out to be a really, really good year for new games.  Not only is Vincent Baker actively and publicly developing the next Apocalypse World game, and so far it looks brilliant; but Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer fame) is developing and publishing a new RPG!  The latter, called Circle of Hands, Kickstartered in March and is due to be published by the end of the year.  From now until the end of the summer, Ron is running an open playtest of the working draft.  What a great opportunity, not just to get a sneak preview of a favourite designer’s latest game, but also to participate in game development with him!  I grabbed the playtest document and assembled a few friends to play it with me.

Circle of Hands is a gritty story-now RPG set in a fictional iron-age land that culturally and technologically resembles Northen Europe around 1000CE.  Not castles but walled towns.  Not kings but chieftains.  Not swords but spears.  There are no non-human races, but there are some fantastic monsters.  The combat mechanics aim to be fast, simple and brutal while bringing a measure of realism never before seen in a fantasy RPG.  And there is magic, oh is there magic.  Gone is the false choice of muscles or brains; if you want to wield magic, you’d better be strong enough.  There are no skinny bookish spellcasters in this harsh land.  Wizards mutter spells through gritted teeth, between spear thrust and shield bash.

Mitch, Peter and Christian stepped up to try out the game with me (David also volunteered, but due to interference by Real Life never actually made it to a session).  They really threw themselves into the true spirit of playtesting.  Although I offered to teach them the rules at the table, they all read the playtest doc ahead of the first session.  They gamely tried the different character options, and worked to test all the mechanics in play.  And best of all, they gave good post-game discussion and feedback.  All of our comments were enthusiastically received by Ron on the Adept Press forum, and lead to some very interesting conversations.  Our names will be in the published game.  We played three sessions in total, and it was a great experience.

What’s the game like?  As promised, fast and brutal.  A scenario is meant to be started and finished in one night, which we usually achieved without having to rush.  The game has an interesting scenario-generation mechanic for the GM, which doesn’t take long at all and results in some very charged situations.  It’s a story-now game, so the GM isn’t meant to plan out what happens.  He creates the initial conditions (location, problem, some NPCs), and then plays to find out what happens.  Game play includes a mandatory social roll for every PC/major-NPC interaction, which strongly influences how things proceed.  This is great, because it makes it impossible for the GM to plan what will happen in a scenario, and leads to some very interesting unexpected situations.

Besides the above, the game stands out for two reasons: the combat mechanics and the magic rules.

Combat mechanics

Whenever you attack OR are attacked, you enter a “clash” with your opponent.  You each roll attack and defense at once, and either one of you can injure the other.  You also get to decide how far you bias your action towards attack or defense.  And then there’s the Advantage die; one and only one character in each clash gets an extra die based on the immediate tactical situation.  There are no rounds, and what we would traditionally call the initiative order is very dynamic.  Whenever you attack or fight back, you go to the end of the initiative order.  If you get attacked a lot, you might never get to initiate any actions, but you could still be doing a lot of damage.  Any time, you can spend a point of Brawn to skip to the front of the line.  But don’t be a spendthrift: Brawn is also your damage modifier, your hit points AND your spell points!  In practice, all this meant for some very exciting combat scenes full of rapid reversals of fortune.  The mechanics are just complex enough to demand quick and strategic thinking.

Magic rules

All PCs use magic.  Wizard PCs have access to all of the spells; yes, all of them, right from the start.  Non-wizards select just a few spells for their repertoires.  There are two types of magic: White and Black.  As you might expect, White is all about healing and purity, and Black is demons and necromancy.  But don’t make the mistake of calling them Good and Evil; they’re both terrible.  White magic run amok will purify your village right out of existence, erasing it as surely as a horde of undead will.  All NPC wizards are devoted to one source of magic or the other, and the war between White and Black magic is the scourge of the setting world.  The PCs are unique in that they alone have sworn to use both kinds of magic in balance.  Spellcasting expends your Brawn attribute (as mentioned above), and using too much magic of one colour has permanent consequences.

Circle of Hands has a few other unique spins on the way we role-play.  I won’t try to get into them all now.  Overall, we really enjoyed the game, and as GM I was forced to practice some new techniques.  We and other playtesters did manage to find a couple of leaks in the rules.  Ron is currently re-writing and reformulating several parts of the game.  I look forward to playing it again soon; and to eventually receiving the finished product.


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If this Elric game goes well, maybe for my next turn in the GM’s chair I’ll run an Apocalypse World hack in the same setting.

That would be…


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Played our first session of Apocalypse World last night.  Cool!

The World Emerges Through Play

The setting, a post-apocalyptic world, is integral to the game but only vaguely defined in broad but suggestive brush strokes, just enough to inspire the players to fill in the details.  An agenda and worksheets are provided for the first session, which is a neat blend of character generation, setting creation and opening scenes of play.  The GM is instructed not to prepare anything for the first session, but begins play by “following around the PCs for a day” and asking questions.  After character creation, these were the first words of the game:

GM: (Points at me.)  It’s first thing in the morning.  Someone is pounding on your door.  Who is it?

Me: Ya, “Who is it??” I say.

GM: Okay, but who is it?  I’m asking you.

Me: Oh!  Well, it’s uhmm… It’s our hardholder, Rice.  No!  It’s this punk-ass piece of shit named uhh, named Dog.  Rice sent him, she wants to see me.

GM: Okay, cool.  “Wake up!” Dog growls, pounding on the door again.  “Rice wants you.   Now!”

Pretty cool, eh?  See how Mike opened a scene but asked me for the details?  It’s a very clever technique.  The idea is that there’s probably more to each player’s conception of his character and the setting than we have vocalized so far.  The GM sets up a suggestive scene and then begins asking questions.  While I narrated hastily getting dressed, trying to avoid Dog (who scares me) and sprinting for the boss’s office, we brainstormed as a group on what the compound and our hardholder’s quarters are like.  We decided that our hold includes an old hydro dam, and that Rice occupies the concrete trapezoidal control building right next to the reservoir.  The GM opened scenes in similar fashion with each of the other players.  And then…

Me: I burst into Rice’s office.  “You wanted to see me boss?”

GM: “Yes,” she says.  There are four other people in the room.  She looks pissed off.  Now, why did she want to see you?

And it’s on me again.  See, the GM is exploring what kinds of stories the players want to tell in this game.  He’s going to take what he learned in the first session, go home and plan out more locations, threats, NPCs, conflicts, etc. for the sessions to come.

So our first session was fast-paced and action-packed, and we were all surprised and impressed by how much cool detail we were able to create on the fly, just by riffing off each other’s ideas through the loose framework of the GM setting scenes and asking questions.  We defined another dozen NPCs, a rival hardhold, some psychic weirdness, a new danger on the horizon, there was a tragic drug overdose, some stupid shit shot off another stupid shit’s ear… it was great fun.

Conflict Rez: Lightning Fast

The system is simple and brilliant.  The GM never rolls.  When players take action, they choose a corresponding “move” from the rules sheet.  The player rolls the dice, and the move offers a few possible outcomes, often with complications.  For example, let’s say some no-good bikers have grabbed my lady friend and hunkered down in my shack.  I want them out of there, I draw my knives and attack.  We decide that the move “Seize by force” fits the bill.  I roll the dice, scoring a partial success.  The move tells me to choose two of the following options:

  • you take definite hold of it
  • you suffer little harm
  • you inflict terrible damage
  • you impress, dismay or frighten your enemy

I’ll choose two of those options, and the GM and I will narrate accordingly.  Let’s say I choose “you take definite hold of it” and “you suffer little harm.”  (I don’t achieve the other two conditions.)  The GM might narrate: “you burst into the room, there’s a quick knife fight in which you make a good account of yourself but take a deep cut on the arm (take 1 harm), then the two bikers lose their nerve and dive out the back window.  Your girlfriend is alright.  As you bar the door, the bikers are realizing you were alone.  ‘You’re fucking DEAD!’ one of them yells.  They aren’t going away.”

Or let’s say I had chosen “you suffer little harm” and “you inflict terrible damage.”  The GM might narrate: “You burst in, knives flashing.  One biker dies on your blade, and the other takes a nasty stomach wound before managing to drive you back out of the shack.  Take 1 harm.  He slams the door and you hear him drag something heavy up against it, probably the bed.  ‘I need a medic,’ he groans through the door, ‘get me a fucking medic or the girl dies!'”

See how much action and plot movement followed from one roll of the dice?  The basic rules provide eight or ten moves that can be adapted to a wide range of actions, and then each character has a few custom moves that fit their specialty.  For example, “the hardholder” character (leader of a compound) has a move for when her gang fights for her, and “the operator” character (dealer, schemer, opportunist) has a move to use his reputation to influence people.

Very Story Now, very fast-paced.  I’m really enjoying this game!  Can’t wait for session-2, when the shit will really hit the fan.  The Apocalypse World ain’t pretty.

-Johnny 0.

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