Before GenCon, one of the requests that I got, was to review the new Vincent Baker game Apocalypse World. We at the Stew love to please our readers, so I took some time at GenCon, and got a chance to play a small demo of Apocalypse World (AW) with it’s creator, Vincent Baker, as well as picking up a copy of the book.
My intention was to do a straight up review of the game, but as it turns out, my good friend the ChattyDM was hard at work right after Gen Con and posted a review of the game. I was going to post my own when I discovered something hidden under the surface of the rules, and something that was in line with Gnome Stew’s commitment to the best GMing advice.
Now I need to to be honest here. I am a fan of Vincent Baker’s well known Dogs In The Vineyard RPG. That game had a profound effect on how I GM. So when I heard that Vincent had a new game, deep inside, I hoped that somewhere in the reading or running of Apocalypse World there would be another section, page, or even a paragraph that would have that same profound effect on me as Dogs In The Vineyard. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed.
The Master of Ceremonies
106 pages into reading Apocalypse World is the Master of Ceremony’s chapter; the MC is the name for the GM. Different designers place a differing value on this chapter, which to me is ironic, since it is the designers chance to help the GM make their game playable. In the case of Apocalypse World, the MC chapter does a great job laying out a great blueprint for how to run the game. It is broken up into four sections which build one upon the other:
- The Agenda– is only a few paragraphs, but outlines the three guiding principles of the game. One of the principles is: Play to find out what happens. In terms of AW, this means do not pre-plan a storyline, let the actions of the characters drive the story. This is similar to Baker’s advice for GMing Dogs In the Vineyard.
- Always Say– This section gives guidance on what the MC should be saying while they are running the game. It advises the MC to be generous with the truth and play with integrity; not to screw the players by tinkering with the flow of information, and the use of the rules.
- The Principles– There are 11 principles for the MC to follow. Where the previous two sections set the tone and the objective of the MC, the Principles give real techniques for the MC. The first Principle and the one that has been the most quoted on the Internet: Barf Forth Apocalyptica, which advises the MC to infuse all of her descriptions with imagery of a post apocalyptic world.
- Your Moves– These are the mechanical actions that the MC takes within the game. They are used in response to one of the player’s actions. There are 15 moves provided, and descriptions and examples of each. The move: Tell them the possible consequences and ask: takes a request from the PC, attaches a consequence to it, and then asks the player if they wish to carry through with the action.
It is not that any of the concepts here are totally unique, or have not been covered as GMing advice for any number of games, in blog articles, seminars, etc. What is different is that Baker has created a high-level theme for the role of the MC and then armed him with specific tools to adhere to that theme. In addition, the game gives direct support to the MC for the way the game is designed to be run. Most games do an ok job of defining the theme of the GM in the role of the game, but often under-equip them to get the job done.
The Deeper Message
Halfway through the MC chapter, I began to see the concepts (especially the Principles) were not specific to Apocalypse World, and that wiping away the radioactive ash from each of the Principles revealed a set of general guidelines for a specific type of GM, the Master of Ceremonies.
The MC is a GM who empowers his players by allowing the players to be the driving force of the game; no NPC, Quest, or Dragon is more important (Looks through crosshairs). The MC never takes away from the players the things that make their characters great, but instead attaches consequences to their actions (Be a fan of the player’s characters). The MC puts the outcome of some decisions in their hands (Sometimes, disclaim decision making).
I was curious to find out if my “revelation” was a design consideration, or a lucky coincidence, so I emailed Vincent about my “discovery” and learned:
“MCing” is a way to GM that I didn’t invent, I’m just explaining it and providing some good tools for it. I expect lots of people, encountering the game, to say “but this is just how you GM any game.” I hope to win them over with the quality of the tools it provides, but still some people won’t be impressed. That’s fine too. They don’t need it.
As ways to GM go, it’s probably about as old as roleplaying itself, and quite widespread. It’s a strong and coherent body of solutions to the problems that roleplaying poses, so lots of groups have already happened upon it. Further, lots and LOTS of groups have guessed at its existence and have been groping toward it without ever quite fixing upon it, sometimes nailing it and getting great play, sometimes missing it and getting eh. I especially hope to reach these latter.
The MC is not a GM that is specific to Apocalypse World, but rather is a more universal type of GM who’s player-centric focus would be at home in nearly any game system and in front of any group. The MC is a great model for an improv GM. With it’s focus on player actions, and with a list of Principles and Moves, it provides the improv GM with a framework to play within.
With the list of Principles, a GM can easily see what things they are doing well, and what things they can improve upon, making the list a personal self-assessment. In addition, while some of the Moves are more specific to AW, more than the majority are techniques any GM could put into play to make their game more interesting.
My Inner MC
For me the MC is the type of GM that I have always aspired to be, I just didn’t have a name for it. The chapter did not reveal any arcane secrets, as much as it put into a neat list, “these are the things you should do”. For me it was an ah-ha moment.
I had to see how universal these ideas were, so before my recent Blood & Honor game, I jotted the list of concepts on an index card and stood it next to my laptop. During the evening, I glanced over and pulled in several of the concepts:
- Name Everyone– I have a bad habit of not bothering to name unimportant NPC’s; referring to them as SG (some guy). To improve upon that, I started using the Deck O’ Names– Japanese so that I could name everyone.
- Ask Provocative Questions and Build On The Answers– at one point in the game, one player lied to another player about knowing an NPC (his mistress, in fact). I then turned to a third player who was a bystander and asked, “Do you think Shinobu looks uncomfortable, right now?” This lead to a Cunning Risk to see if the bystander did notice the deception.
I used a few more before the evening was done, and the end result was that the Principles did work for other games. I am keeping that index card with me for now on. Having the Principles where I can glance at them during play, was a great aid.
Discover The MC
To go back to Apocalypse World for a moment. AW is a well designed game that runs on a simple mechanic, inside a codified framework of interactions between the players and the MC. It is a game where the MC reacts to the players far more than she writes. If you are looking for Mutant Chickens or people who can shoot lasers from their eyes, stick with any of the 100 versions of Gama World, or the great After The Bomb. AW is the more gritty, dirty, and less fantastic post-apocalyptic world.
As for the MC, even if you don’t want to play Apocalypse World, you should still get a copy (or PDF) and read the MC chapter. Every GM would benefit taking in some or all the Principles of the MC, and would no doubt find uses for most of the Moves as well. If you identify with the MC type of GM, then do not hesitate to get this game and learn all the Principles, and have a chance to hone them through playing of the game.
That does sound like a style I often default to, but inconsistently. It sound like the advice is useful– and easy to boil down for an important reminder to look at just before responding.
I particularly liked your example of asking a provocative question and roping in an idle player– it’s a great way to keep the other players involved. It also helps establish a table consensus– do we aim for realism, for player victory at all costs, etc.
I’m fairly new to the world of DMing. I often seek as much input and opinions from others as I can. I love this site for that. I get the impression from most that they all have close to similar ideals, but execute them in wildly different ways. I see in this post the same ideals as well.
Here’s why I’m disheartened. How, based on these simple guidelines, do you run a game? What did you bring to the session? It couldn’t have been much in terms of a preconceived plan. What do you bring aside from a lot of tools to fill in blanks, and a fluid feel for the rules and world? How do you, on the spur of the moment take most player’s reaction of, “I’m going to kill it and loot it,” and turn that into a fun and different game when, “it,” isn’t even defined yet?
Thanks for giving me a thunder-chubby, Phil.
This sounds awesome!
@recursive.faults – Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book. However, I suspect the trick is that the GM has read the same 106 pages prior to this as the players– the cool stuff that includes the rules for resolution, character generation, setting description and the like.
If the whole table is jazzed by the post apocalyptic setting described, then you can put things in motion with a scene including a few of the interesting elements and the key references list. (So, if you really like the struggle against the wilderness and cannibals, you could start your game with the PCs low on supplies stumbling across a cannibal camp, and describe the sweet smell of long pork on the fire…)
@recursive.faults – Having read the book, let me explain how in AW the game is set up, and how it runs. There is a whole chapter that is dedicated to the First Session. In the first session, after the characters are made, the players and the MC define what are called Fronts.
A Front is some threat, be it a rival warlord, or a plague. The Fronts are defined by the group, but later fleshed out by the MC between sessions.
With the characters and the fronts in place, the MC has a pool of potential plots, hooks, and motivation to work within. Using the principles and the moves the GM can start off a session by pulling some NPC’s and Front into play, and then presenting it to the players.
Once the players engage the story, and take actions, the MC begins to play off of them. This is where the moves come into play. If the MC is unsure of what to do after the players make a move, they can consult the list of moves and come up with one that fits best.
So AW not only supplies the MC with moves and principles, it guides you through creating a pool of potential plots through the use of Fronts, which then forms all the raw materials for the campaign.
Hope that explains it a bit more in terms of AW. To abstract that to other games, one could easily adapt the Fronts mechanics to describe anything from a Dragon in the Mountains, to a runaway comet heading for a space station.
Thanks for unpacking this, Phil. I’m guessing that there’s quite a bit of “you have to see it in action to get it” going on here.
For some GMs, it sounds like the book is worth buying simply for the tools that support this GMing style. I’ll be picking it up.
For others (perhaps those with a bit more controlling style), this may just be an exercise in frustration.
@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – AW is not a game for a GM that has a more controlled style or is into the creation of complex and detailed stories, to present to players.
This is a game that requires a GM who is going to be, or curious about playing off the players.
That said, there is nothing in AW that forces you not to be a bit more structured, but I spirit of the game, an the tools provided are in support of that more improv, play off the players type of GM.