Mad Max seems to be pretty popular right now and rightly so, according to all the reviews. It’s got the right haters and a ton of supporters. So you like the movie and want to play games like it? That’s cool, I get it, I have that feeling way too often and try to work out what the best system would be. After watching Episode One of Star Wars I was pumped… not because of the film but believing I could use West End Games’ system to make some stories at least that good. Playing a game of Arctic Scavengers with our own Ben Hendy I started sketching out rules for how to play that game in the Fate RPG system.
There are a few good options for an apocalyptic game, but there is one which is head and shoulders above the others.
Gamma World is a good contender, but it’s a little too gonzo. My brother played a mutant wasp in one game. The last edition had decks of cards for random mutations your characters could have. It was like Fallout if Fallout could have players as giant plants or psychic badgers. It came out during the fourth edition of D&D, so that’s pretty much me out of the equation.
Games can be ‘hacked’ into apocalyptic versions, certainly. World of Darkness could make for a good model, although a lot of that system is about internal conflict and Mad Max is a lot more external than that. Maybe Cyberpunk if you took it out of a 1980’s vision of the future. Fate can do anything, but then you need a GM or designer to put the pieces of the puzzle in just right. Fate is glorious, but it’s a kit you can use to build whatever you want with. There’s Rifts, but that’s better forgotten.
There is one game which is Mad Max incarnate…
The world ended. No one knows how and the book won’t help you. Instead, the players and the Master of Ceremonies (their term for Narrator or DM) are encouraged to find out during play. In fact a lot of the world building happens in play. The only things which are guaranteed:
- Guns (and a plentiful supply of bullets),
- A Psychic Maelstrom which makes everyone a little… weird.
One of the things an MC is told to do is, “Barf Forth Apocalyptica.” This is not a game which wants vast amounts of exposition. It’s not ‘fluff’ presented in a separate book for MCs to lovingly read and explain to players. It’s not a mechanical process, it’s a bodily function. Barf it out. The world erupts from the throat of the MC and the players, onto the page and into all of our brains. What lives in the Iron Jungle? Why don’t people travel across the river anymore? MCs can decide or they can do a great thing and let the players decide. If players build the world too, they get invested in it. This is no different. I asked my players for landmarks in their town. Examples which came out of it were a tipped over double decker bus which travellers used as temporary lodgings, a market on the way out of town, a pub called The Red Loin and a crater where the sheriff would conduct business. There was also a metal wall which kept out things from the Iron Jungle. We called them ‘jackals’, but they weren’t jackals.
Your apocalypse can be your own, of course. We used another game called The Quiet Year to build the look and feel for our settlement, but it could be in a Fallout: New Vegas style rebuilt city, it could be in a desert where there’s little other than the road and crazy people… as an example plucked out of the ether.
Each player takes a, “Skin” which is a tri-fold booklet explaining who they are and what they can do. Think of them like character classes in Dungeons & Dragons or Mass Effect or anything along those lines. The default way of picking a playbook is to print them out and throw them at your players. They read aloud the intro blurbs, see what catches the fancy of the players and whether they want to play it. The playbooks include things like:
- The Battlebabe – Think Furiosa in Mad Max Fury Road. The Battlebabe can be any gender really, but they’re someone smoking hot who causes all of the trouble. They can become a near-invincible killing machine, but tricky to safely be around.
- The Hardholder – Is the kind of person who runs a community. In this case I guess Aunty Entity, fancy your own Barter Town? They have their good and bad points. You might have a lot of people in your community, but then they’re barely controllable, or maybe they just like having you think you’re in charge.
- The Driver – Mad Max is about cars after all and one of the few solid facts about this apocalypse is that cars are around. Each playbook has a few specific rules just for them, in this case it’s rules and characteristics for your awesome car (or boat, or whatever). Max himself could easily fit into this playbook.
If you are a playbook then no one else is. You are awesome because you are a [INSERT PLAYBOOK HERE] and the world will know this.
Instead of actions and skills, characters have ‘moves’ they do when necessary. The concept put forth by Vincent Baker about role-playing is that it’s a conversation. It’s not miniatures being moved around, it’s not maths or an elaborate puzzle. I mean it can be, but first and foremost it’s a conversation between players and an MC. You advance the plot by… doing the plot. If at any point you or the MC reckon you should use a move, you roll that and resolve the action. This goes as much for combat as it does for a social encounter.
You have your stats; Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp and Weird. Each playbook has better ones than others and the best descriptor for them is that you add, “I am fucking [cool/hard/hot/sharp/weird]” and there you do, that’s why you want to be good at whichever of those you value. If you’re fucking cool you can stand down any raiders who threaten to firebomb your shack. If you’re fucking hard you can get those goons in the car park to back down. If you’re fucking hot then of course the biker gang will guard you in your travels. If you’re fucking weird… well, then you can open your brain to the collective madness which infests the world and get a little something from it.
To use a move, players roll 2d6 and add their stat (normally between -2 and +3). On a 10+ something good happens, on a 7-9 then you get a success at a cost and on a 6+ you’ve screwed up. There are basic moves anyone can use like this:
When you go aggro on someone, roll+hard.
On a 10+, they have to choose: force your hand and suck it up, or cave and do what you want.
On a 7–9, they can instead choose 1:
- get the hell out of your way
- barricade themselves securely in
- give you something they think you want
- back off calmly, hands where you can see
- tell you what you want to know (or what you want to hear)
Pack alpha: when you try to impose your will on your gang, roll+hard.
On a 10+, all 3. On a 7–9, choose 1:
- they do what you want
- they don’t fight back over it
- you don’t have to make an example of one of them
On a miss, someone in your gang makes a dedicated bid to replace you for alpha
You start with a few moves and you gain more with experience points (XP). There’s actually a good experience point economy in this game, something you won’t be used to if all you’ve seen of it is something like D&D or World of Darkness where you simply get XP at the end of each session.
Characters have History (Hx) with one another. Maybe the Brainer slept in your presence and saw things from your dreams. Maybe someone helped out the Angel when a life was on the line and they never forgot it. You have a History stat with each player which can go up and down. When it goes all the way up (or down) then you reset the score and gain an XP for your effort. Whoever has the most Hx with you can pick a stat they want to see you use in a session, as can the MC. Those ‘highlighted’ stats get you an XP when you use them. Effectively a player is saying, “I want you to be weird this session, highlight Weird,” or, “I feel there’s been too much fighting, highlight Hot.” Even if you fail the roll, you still get XP so there’s little problem in taking a low stat, although players may try and bargain with each other to highlight something positive.
Vincent Baker recommends that you have a minimum of six sessions of Apocalypse World. One-shots are doable, as is anything shorter, but you see a lot more in six or more sessions. The world unfolds as everyone defines it and explores what they’ve built. If a player creates a man called Deere who rides around the borders of the town in a jacked-up combine harvester slaughtering people, he should probably be encountered before the story is over. Yes, I am advocating Chekhov’s Psychopath in a Combine Harvester. Yes, my players did this and it was a glorious car chase.
My group’s campaign was wonderful. It started small, with a hunting trip out into the Iron Jungle. One of the group was a Hoarder and he saw an intact can of Coca Cola in a vending machine, he put everyone at risk going for that instead of dealing with the creatures they’d named Jackals. From there they tried to get a helicopter working, blew up a car park and travelled south to an old world military base which had been taken over by the Knights of the Big Eye (the London Eye). There was a heel turn from the Hoarder as it became increasingly evident he was totally the bad guy. He was selling secrets to enemy tribes, disposing of child labourers who were of no more use to him and trying to blow up the Battlebabe when they were both in a helicopter. When he limped his way from the wreck to the rest of the group, the Driver asked what he’d done now and the moment he said, “Nothing,” the Driver shot and killed him. It was only right, even the player of the Hoarder knew it was his time. The problem was, he’d already given the enemy tribes a way into their town so even after his death, they had to drive like the wind through ruined London hellscapes to get back before the attack. The Hoarder’s player took on the role of the Faceless, an executioner from the Knights of the Big Eye. He and the Battlebabe made wild, bloodstained love in what was left of a church, then they raced Deere to the town, only to find it already under attack.
They fought the enemies off, but the Driver (a 40 year old transvestite in a ballgown made from a curtain) was sucked into the psychic maelstrom, eventually landing in a barren stretch of road, looking for a new ride and a way home. I think the story lasted six or seven sessions and was glorious. There were chases, fights, diplomacy with people who thought they were knights, monsters and creepy cultists.
In a lot of role-playing games you play in a mechanical system and then combat acts like a much slower, more maths-y subsystem. There are some great ones, but the ‘conversation’ slows down. In Apocalypse World it exists in the same space as everything else. That means fights could happen at any time, death could happen at any time, but then fights can be avoided and characters not built around fights get as much time in the story as those who are all about them.
THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES
As an MC, narrator, DM… whatever, I love when our section of the rulebook is actually interesting. Far too often it’s too mechanical, dry and assumes you’re a neutral arbitrator and nothing more. As the MC, you are another player, just like the others, but you have a few extra things to do and no character. It’s great though, you get to build a world.
In Apocalypse World there are a few tools. It openly states the three Agendas to start off with:
- Make Apocalypse World seem real.
- Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring.
- Play to find out what happens
So anything you do should be encouraging those things. From there we drill down and there are things to demand when players try to do things, there are the principles of the game world (including the wonderful phrase, ‘barf forth apocalyptica’) and finally your own moves. These are things to do when players fail a roll or when they look like they need something to do. They’re all short and sweet. They’re also great for a lot of games, but flavoured specifically for the apocalypse. As the MC, you don’t roll dice at all, the player moves do all the heavy lifting for prompts about what has to happen, then you go from there.
It’s an amazingly simple system which gets in and out of the way when it fits the story to. It’s currently ten dollars for the pdf here or thirteen dollars for the ‘limited edition’ which has even more playbooks going into weirder territory like a hive mind, a person who lived in a quarantined vault until recently or a space marine mammal (a dolphin in power armour)
The only reason I would hesitate to get it is that there is a second edition in the works. Little is known about AW second edition yet, but seriously it’s like ten dollars. That’s barely anything in real money. If you saw Mad Max Fury Road and really want a post apocalyptic RPG, this is the system you really should use.
I’m leaving this until the end as it’s non-pertinent to the playing of a Mad Max type game, but it’s good to know where AW stands in the role-playing world at the moment.
You see, Apocalypse World started something. Like the d20 System (which I covered a little here) and the Fate system which I really want to do more of, it is immensely hackable into any setting. Vincent Baker made the Apocalypse World system to be taken apart, messed with and had fun with. I’ve been against generic systems like GURPS and d20 as they can be about anything but fall into the same system habits no matter what. GURPS will always be too crunchy, d20 will always lean too heavily on tactical combat scenarios. There are good uses of both, but the system taken on its own isn’t great.
Fate and Apocalypse World are easy to tinker with an use enough narrative-based rules to have the flavour and system play off each other without the rules stomping on the setting. Fate is a great toolkit, but Apocalypse World is just a little better because of the whole, “role-playing is a conversation” and, “play to see what happens” mentalities. I’ve played a couple of games which are, “Powered by the Apocalypse” and they feel like their own games, despite the foundation of moves, playbooks and agendas.
Monsterhearts by Avery McDaldno is a beautiful, horrible game. It’s about people who are at odds with their own bodies and the world around them, because they are teenagers and monsters. The rules and the MC’s section are handled here in some of the clearest, most fun ways. The playbooks are types of monsters who are of course, types of teenager. The Werewolf has rage issues, the Vampire gets off on being withholding, the Mortal is all about co-dependence. In my first game I played a ghoul who fed on chaos who fought a zombie coming out of the toilet, tried to burn all the graduation gowns and ended up burning part of the school down. My friend Steve played a ghost who died in a tragic AV club accident where he drowned, wrapped in VCR tape and had to relive his school years again and again. In my second game I played a vampire who loved using a college town as his feeding ground, but fell for an androgynous spirit who was conjured as a defencive system for the townsfolk. It was a doomed love full of angst and blood.
Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel is a matter for another day, but is quite possibly the best way of experiencing a D&D type game. It puts a modern, narrative spin on classic-style gaming. Like all these games, there’s no initiative to determine turn order, which is a bit weird to get used to in this kind of RPG, but the principles and the mechanics make the game sing.
Tremulus by Sean Preston is a take on Lovecraftian horror, so insanity and investigations are handled using these rules. I’ve yet to play it, but have seen that players and the MC pick elements of a town which then create secrets, cults and mysteries which need to be investigated. Apocalypse World treats PCs and NPCs like they’re made of paper and Monsterhearts suggests that you treat NPCs like stolen cars, so I imagine it’s a good fit.
Night Witches by Jason Morningstar is about the real life all-female WW2 bomber squad, the challenges they felt during the day on the airfield and at night having to use out of date technology to drop bombs or anything else they could gather on enemy sites. This incarnation mechanises the planes, the lasting marks soldiers get in war as death closes in on them and day/night moves for the two elements of life in the squadron.
World Wide Wrestling by Nathan Paoletta is about the creation of a wrestling show, with players acting as wrestlers taking part in storylines, shooting promos, smack talking and breaking ‘kayfabe’ (the reality of the show’s narrative) from time to time. One of the great additions is that players not involved in a fight can act as announcers for the match and affect play that way. Face & heel turns are mechanised and people can even play managers if they choose.
There are more, so many more. Crossroads is a one-off game which uses the move mechanic to tell stories of four people offered something they desperately want at a terrible cost. In production at the moment are Dead Scare (women and children in a McCarthyist zombie apocalypse), The Sword, The Crown & The Unspeakable Power (Game of Thrones style political fantasy) and Souls of Steel (science fiction military drama with a war fought using mechs or giant vehicles).
I don’t know whether this will suffer the same glut as the d20 system, but so far designers have created some amazing one-shot and serial games using Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World as a foundation. The mentality of the system gets used more than the rules themselves and I think this is why there will be more longevity of the, “* World” system. In case you couldn’t tell, I seriously think this is one of the best systems around. Check out these games, either by buying them or downloading the free playbooks most of the games have on the sites I’ve linked to so you can get an impression of how they work. Check them out and start barfing forth your own apocalyptica.