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The GM’s Agenda and Principles

Apocalypse World [1]

I’m in a position I’m sure anyone who has run a game has been in before: my group is probably going to move on from the Deadlands Fate game that I’ve been working on. And honestly? I’m fine with that. Since I started that Deadlands game, I’ve found that I have a strong preference for games that intrinsically support player agency in the world and setting building. It’s not that you can’t have that kind of setup with Deadlands, but I didn’t approach it that way.

So what’s next? Well, if you know anything about games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, the title of this post might have tipped you off. We’re going to give Apocalypse World a try next, and there’s a part of me that’s heaving a huge sigh of relief. In Apocalypse World, I don’t have a whole raft of setting information to remember and be responsible for.

All I have is an Agenda and the Principles to play it out.

Powered by the What, Now?

If you’re not familiar, Apocalypse World came out about five years ago, and it changed the way a lot of people looked at how to run a game. The book is written in a very particular style, and the game is to be run in a particular way to be Apocalypse World. The author, Vincent Baker, even says that if you decide to run Apocalypse World differently, to not follow the rules for how to run the game, then you’re not playing Apocalypse World. Not to say you won’t have a good time, but Apocalypse World is a particular thing.

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Apocalypse World, but I’m going to focus on the Agenda and Principles of the MC (that’s Master of Ceremonies, the GM title for this game).


The Agenda rides over everything. You need to follow those three things or that game’s just flat not going to work. These things are the foundation, the bedrock of running a successful Apocalypse World game. And, to be honest, I don’t think it’d be a bad thing if these were adapted to apply to any game anyone ran.

Make Apocalypse World seem real
It’s in the details. It’s how you describe things, tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and touches. It’s making sure that, within the framework of the setting, there’s verisimilitude, that everything holds together and rings true. With this kind of game, you want players to go home thinking about it, to have the game have had an impact on them. They need to feel it.

Make the player characters’ lives not boring
If their lives are boring, why not do something else with your time? This is interactive fiction. When we go to a type of fiction for an escape or enjoyment, we don’t usually want to see boring, dull things happen to our characters. We want to see them in situations they might not be able to handle, being challenged, confronted, and pushed. Do that here.

Play to find out what happens
This is the big one, for me. This is what this game is all about. This is the thing that I want to see surge into other games where the GM is traditionally encouraged to prep a ton of material beforehand, to tell their story, rather than the story of the characters. If you’re doing this correctly, you’re going to end up with questions about things. What happens if Cutter doesn’t give Bolt-Head what she wants? Who will fill the power vacuum left after Sadie killed Dog Head? This is a space where this game demands you don’t answer that question away from the table. You come to the session with the question in mind and the play at the table determines the answer. It’s different for a lot of people, and it’s very satisfying.


This list of Principles? This I’m going to let sit here and speak for itself for a while. It’s provocative. Some of the items don’t make sense without context. Some speak for themselves, but might make you uncomfortable if you’ve never run or been part of a game like this. Some of them might make you upset. That’s good, and that’s fine.

What I’d encourage you to do is to let that upset feeling, that discomfort sit with you for a little while. Roll it around, question why you feel the way you do. This isn’t me saying that the way Apocalypse World asks a person to run games is the best way. I dig it, a lot, but it’s only one of millions of approaches.

For me, this system clicked. It made me feel exactly the way I wanted to feel when I came to running games. What I forget to do, what I need to remember to do, is to take that Agenda, to take those Principles, and come up with a set of them for every game I run (if the system doesn’t include them already). I have a tendency to get off-track, to forget what I’m supposed to be doing aside from throwing one challenge after another at my players. That can be fine, but games can be deeper than that, can accomplish more than that.

When I write my next post, I want to address the Principles in greater detail, breaking them down so I can refresh myself on how to use them for my game. If you’re not familiar with Apocalypse World, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. I want to know if anything on those two lists twists at you, inspires you, encourages you, or makes you question things. If you know the game already, tell me why, let me know what lights you up.

Until next time.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "The GM’s Agenda and Principles"

#1 Comment By Solomon Foster On June 24, 2016 @ 8:20 am

I’ve never played Apocalypse World, but I’d definitely consider “Play to find out what happens” a snappy phrasing of why/how I GM; it’s key. “Make the player characters’ lives not boring” is just a “well, duh.” “Make [game] seem real” is something I probably should do better at.

The principles, though? “Ask provocative questions and build on the answers” and “Be a fan of the players’ characters” are both things I strongly believe in. The rest of them I’m either neutral, hostile, or baffled by.

#2 Comment By Tracy Barnett On June 24, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

I think a lot of people have had those kinds of reactions to the Principles since Apocalypse World was first published. One of the great things about them is that they work for *Apocalypse World* and if you try to apply all of them to another game, you’ll find they don’t work. I’m looking forward to going into detail on them in the next post, within the context of AW.

#3 Comment By Fraser Simons On June 24, 2016 @ 8:58 am

Hey Tracy! We talk on Twitter sometimes – so you probably already know I’m a huge from of AW and PbTA games. For me, it also really clicked! The main reason is because it feels like “our” fiction and not the GMs. What the framework actually is, is a different way of telling a story. One that’s collaborative and one that causes everyone at the table to contribute and have agency, which makes people buy into the fiction. A lot of the MC structure was, for me, a revelation as well. The genius of it is that it tells you what to do and says if you don’t do it, all bets are off. You literally have something in front of you, reminding you what you need to be doing to make a good story and incorporate everyone into the game. I find I can’t get into other systems unlike it now.

#4 Comment By Tracy Barnett On June 24, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

That’s one of the things I hope to show with these posts about this AW game is that a GM can make an Agenda and Principles for any game they run. In fact, I think most games and campaigns would be better off with that kind of thinking applied to them. But those are deeper topics for future posts.

#5 Comment By Angela Murray On June 24, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

The agenda is one of those things that’s changed the way I GM. Well, maybe not changed but at least codified. It’s something I apply to almost every game I run.

#6 Comment By Tracy Barnett On June 24, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

I think you’re going to like some of the upcoming posts I write, then. =)

#7 Comment By Dreamtide On October 24, 2016 @ 2:46 pm