Tearing Veils Asunder

2010 Sep 8

I’ve been carefully following Will Hindmarch’s attempt to wrestle with the rules text of Apocalypse World, which has been both fascinating and really enlightening. Will, who’s done a lot of work for White Wolf, writes the thoroughly terrific blog gameplaywright and co-wrote/edited Things We Think About Games, which is equally provocative and terrific. Also, the few times I’ve met him in person — last time while he was trying out Castle Ravenloft at PAX — he seems like a top-notch dude.

I’m going to try really hard not to project Will’s perspective here, because he does a way better job of that himself, but one of the most challenging parts of Apocalypse World is the way that it rips asunder two different aspects of what roleplaying has been for many folks.

First, it completely lays bare the procedures for play. You do this; and then you do that. I find Brand’s stunned reaction to people actually picking names off the name list to be another fascinating aspect of this. There has traditionally been this understanding that game texts can’t really tell you how to play, that players have to bring a lot of that themselves, not just game content but unwritten procedures. Likewise, even when a text does try to explicitly tell you how to play — as in Poison’d — frequently people don’t take those instructions at face value (I know I didn’t). It doesn’t ACTUALLY mean we do that, certainly. But in AW, nearly all the procedures you need are explicitly laid out for you. There is no mystery and no secret techniques are required. As Fang Langford neatly says in that thread, “Will has encountered what might be THE ’system does matter’ game,” a culmination of a long series of steps aimed at explicitly codifying play procedures frequently left implicit. No surprise, many folks will find this uncomfortable, at least at first. This is a different approach to what roleplaying is or can be. Brand’s mind says, “But surely picking characters’ names can’t/shouldn’t be made into an explicit procedure” (apologies to Brand if I’m reading him wrong), but AW says, “yes, actually it can; anything can.”

Secondly and related, it makes no effort to offer flexibility to people with different tastes or desires, aside from encouraging folks to hack the game to be whatever they want and providing some suggestions on how that might be done. In this, it is a classic autuer game in the Forge tradition, offering audiences a very specific thing and asking if they’d like to participate in it, rather than handing them some general tools and telling them that they should make their own fun. It’s 100% okay if folks don’t like what AW is offering. We have definitely reached the point where there will be brilliant roleplaying games that folks, however open-minded and cultured, may not find a way to enjoy or will at least struggle for a long time before finding a way to fully appreciate something (I’m on record of having that experience with Poison’d and In a Wicked Age, for example). That’s what happens when we push the bubble a bit and make challenging games. They can be difficult, not just in the content material they deal with, but in other important ways, like what they ask from those participating in them. AW doesn’t cover itself in a veil that says, “this game is for everyone” or “everyone can enjoy playing the same game together.” It says, actually, “this game is this way; other games are whatever way they are; I hope you find a game that’s fulfilling for you; maybe this one is it, but maybe not.”

And, really, there’s a third thing that making a game this explicit does: it exposes the fact that, despite us all being in the same hobby, we’re all doing different things, sometimes fundamentally different things. Not always, sometimes we are doing very similar things, but definitely sometimes — sometimes you have a conversation or read or play a new game and realize just how big the gulf is. And, speaking personally now, not for anybody else, I find that both deeply exciting and unnerving.

One Response to “Tearing Veils Asunder”

  1. Great post, Jonathan. More and more, as I discuss this game with people, I find that my issue is less with the game’s approach and more with the game’s text. Just the text. It’s a slippery thing, sometimes, but I’ll continue to stew on it until I can engage with the thing more intelligently.

    Anyway. That point is, this post is terrific.

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