The first time I played D. Vincent Baker’s tabletop RPG, Apocalypse World, I chose to play as the Operator, a class typified by information brokerage, odd-jobbing, and sexy lone-wolf self-reliance. I distributed stat points, chose skills, and leaned back in my chair, smugly satisfied that I had invented someone slick and self-possessed. I knew this dude. I was confident that I could be this dude. I was in control.
Which is when one of the other players looked at me and said, “So, uh, you’re in love with me.”
I was at once profoundly shocked and weirdly elated. I hadn’t incorporated same-sex attraction into my understanding of this character, and yet, here it was. Not only that, but “in love” implied a long history between these two characters, one that insinuated itself into my character’s backstory without my agency and demanded further exploration. Apocalypse World had asked me to trade in my autonomy, sure, but it had rewarded me with something far more dynamic and exciting.
Apocalypse World is set in a Mad Max-ian post-catastrophic wasteland. Nobody’s sure what happened to turn the world’s metropolises into tent-villages, but nobody’s got much time to think about it when they’re trying to avoid being shot for their rations or sacrificed by the local death cult. In Apocalypse World, you inhabit the role not of a hero but of a survivor. Nobody’s trying to save the world. We’re all just looking to wake up tomorrow morning. And no matter how much we’d like to be, we’re never totally in control of anything.
When I was a kid, tabletop games represented a beyond-the-looking-glass world of self-determination and empowerment. I was chubby, socially paralyzed, quick to cry. I didn’t get to flip through a catalogue of attractive qualities, choosing those I most wanted to embody and discarding those in which I had no interest. So the prospect of being able to build an avatar for myself not possessed of my flaws and neuroses was attractive. Around dining-room tables and in musty basements, I was always cool. My dudes occupied the kinds of fantasy archetypes that lean backward in their chairs at corner tables in candle-lit taverns, a fan of playing cards in one hand and a poisoned dagger in the other. Beautiful, charismatic, dangerous, fearless anti-heroes perpetually ready with a quip or a flirtation. As a kid, I needed those masks. I needed to build them from scratch and strap them on and feel—for however long my weirdo compatriots and I played—like I was in charge.
But no matter how immersive those experiences were, they were inescapably artificial. We don’t get to make every determination about who we are and what we become. As an adult, I seek out escapism in games less desperately than I did as a kid. More often, I’m searching for reflection, for some trace of the confusing world I know presented in a new context. Which is exactly what I found when my buddy announced that such a vital part of my character’s identity was out of my control.
Stuff like that is not at all uncommon in Apocalypse World. This is in part a function of the Hx, or history, stat, which represents how well the player characters know each other and provides bonuses or penalties to social rolls. In the above example, my pal was playing the Skinner class, a group of characters known primarily for getting by on sex appeal and charisma—think of them as charismatic sex-ninjas. During his Hx turn, the Skinner can choose a character to be his friend (thereby granting him Hx+2), another to be his lover (Hx+1), and, yes, he can announce that one of the characters is in love with him (Hx-1, meaning that I was at a decided disadvantage when it came to interactions between the two of us).
The impact of the Hx stat is more than just mechanical. The choices made during the Hx round of chargen ripple outward, affecting the very fabric of the characters and the narrative. The player has to think fast here, reapproaching her character from a new perspective, finding a way to contextualize and assimilate this new information into what she’s already invented. And despite how counterintuitive it sounds, the process of removing player choice from certain aspects of play ends up liberating the players and the story they’re collectively telling.
The idea that constraint liberates play should be of no surprise to anyone familiar with chess. Chess master Alexander Kotov observed that when players find themselves confronted with too many complex choices, they often experience a sort of analysis paralysis that slows down the match and commonly ends in disastrous moves. Artists and writers are likewise familiar with the creative benefits of constraint. One (possibly apocryphal) story has it that Ernest Hemingway, when dared to write a complete story in six words, produced: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” But Apocalypse World isn’t just reducing the number of complex options available to its players, and isn’t just passively limiting creative avenues to encourage narrative innovation. By actively affording control over character creation to the other players, Apocalypse World encourages players to explore levels of experience outside of their usual frame of reference and to approach the narrative from a position of collaborative improvisation.
This is not dissimilar to the way we actually develop as people. We are each of us a synthesis of the stimuli to which we’re exposed, and nobody becomes who they are without somebody looking at them from across a table one day and saying, in some manner or another, “You’re in love with me.” That’s the real genius of Apocalypse World. It manages to show you how much of yourself depends upon the influence of those around you, and it manages to make the absence of control seem like a profoundly important component of creating something beautiful.
Post Apocalypse header from micadew. Cropped.