How to Hack Apocalypse World with the AW Hacker All-Stars hosted by Pete Figtree

Pete Figtree facilitated a Google Hangouts on the Air round table discussion on hacking Apocalypse World. His guests were Adam Koebel, John Harper, Sage LaTorra, Gregor Vuga, and Johnathan Walton. Below are my notes from the round-table.

Take a look at Kevin Crawford’s Small Publisher Guide PDF and resources.

Sage Latorra: Every design starts as an adaptation or response to something else.

Notes -> Hack -> Complete Game

You need to provide more support as you approach more people.

Sage Latorra: Analyze the basic moves to decide what you need. Don’t assume they are the ones from your foundation.

Why does it attract so many hacks?

John Harper:

  • Vincent devotes a whole chapter to his game for hacking Apocalypse World.
  • AW gives you a skeleton, names, tags, and labels to all of the pieces. The hackers have an entology in which to share ideas. It is not exhaustive for all the possible RPGs one might write.
  • Hacking no longer becomes a long prospect.

Adam Koebel: Playing the game is hacking it. Make up custom moves.

Sage Latorra: It becomes an easy way to talk about other games.

Gregor Vuga: All gaming thoughts were in the framework of Apocalypse World. All components are laid bare.

Adam Koebel: Joe McDonald wrote Simple World, a generic core hacked for Apocalypse World.

John Harper: Monsterhearts is probably a better system for playing your first Apocalypse World game. It is a better distilation of the platonic form of Apocalypse World.

Gregor Vuga: Apocalypse World is not just 2d6, 6-, 7 to 9, 10+; Its a full framework.

Johnathan Walton: You must focus the hack on the fiction. Otherwise, you are not cooking with gas. Simple World does not have an implicit fiction.

Sage Latorra: System Reference doesn’t work for Dungeon World; You need the full tone.

John Harper: World of Dungeons is a “joke about Dungeon World and D&D”; You have to start from somewhere…Dungeon World gives you everything. World of Dungeons gives you the absolute minimum you need to build the game up.

John Harper: “Dungeon World is a great supplement for World of Dungeons.”

The original D&D had precious few rules, as a result, all of the players became game designers; Hacking on D&D.

What do you guys think is the biggest problem when some player comes from pre-conceptions from another hack and plays your hack?

Adam Koebel: Talk about it.
Sage Latorra: There is a tone setting.
Gregor Vuga: Set the expectations.

Adrian Theon: Do you think that if you have a “generic” system, that custom playsets similar to fiasco is a space worth exploring?

Johnathan Walton: It is possible, but we haven’t really seen it.
Adam Koebel: Dungeon Planet and Inverse World are hacks that expand the generic dungeon crawl.

Kyle Simons: What stories should you NOT use the AW engine to tell (can people hack it to tell any story they want?)

Undying broke the roll dice component of AW, but is clearly an AW hack.
Ghost Echo – John Harper’s game

Try to make the game you want to make. Making it a hack shouldn’t be your goal. If its fighting you…abandon it. Though there is a marketing aspect to AW. Make your game! Don’t try to end up making an AW hack.

Johnathan: AW is a body of work. There are ample hacks. You can start anywhere in the opus. If you’ve internalized the games, you may accidentally create an AW hack. Write the game you want to write.

Fiction triggers moves (i.e. triggers interaction with rules)

What steps do you take?

Johnathan: Play a lot of AW to be able to express your game. Study your medium. Study AW hacks.

What is out there:

  • tremulus
  • Monster of the Week
  • Monsterhearts
  • Saga of the Icelander
  • Muderous Ghosts
  • The Sundered Land
  • Ghostlines
  • World of Dungeons
  • The Regiment
  • Inverse World
  • Apocalyse Galactica
  • there are lots more…how is this creative captures

John: Around about session #1, I wish “something” and that will start your hack. Game designer motivation, “Nothing is better than playing a game you don’t like”

Sage Latorra: tremulus is a good AW hack, but he tweaked and made a 4 page hack for his own Cthulhu AW hack

Adam Koebel: Don’t make the playbooks first. They are the most complicated things. They are the only player facing rules. There are layers of narrative economy and interaction.

Johnathan: When writing your AW hack, don’t write custom playbooks. It is easier to get started.

Gregor: Static vision for setting. Envision your interaction with players, then think about your Agenda, Principles, and Moves.

John: As a game design principle, start way earlier. Unleash your notes early on your game group. It will help shine a light on it. Play first, design as support.

What is the bare minimum?

John Harper: Character creation is all you need. It is how the rules point the players at the desired fiction. If you can’t have characters, what do you do?

Gregor: Help the players make characters. Position them in the fiction. For the MC, tell them what their jobs are.

Sage: Rough outline of the first session. Revision is a constant.

Johnathan: Apocalypse World is an onion. The core of the game is a conversation. Above that there are two things: the GM and players have different rules. GM: Principles, moves, agenda. Players: Moves and playbooks.

Sage Latorra: AW is a framework for game design.

Gregor: Look at Murderous Ghosts and the Sundered Lands. Those are Apocalypse World hacks unlike other games.

John Harper: The last page of the Sundered Land tells you how to make an RPG.

Ben Wray: It seems a lot of hacks focus on new playbooks/basic moves, but often use many of the same GM principles/agenda. Any thoughts on hacking the GM-facing side of the system?

Group: Its really important to hack the GM side of the game.

Adam: The point of the rules is to guide play. Creating the narrative in play by the rules. Think about what kind of behavior things are behaving.

Sage: A viable hack can be made, but you are living by the same GM expectations.

Johnathan: A weakness of the design is the perception that as a GM you aren’t rolling dice and thus things are very hand wavy. Go back and read the agenda, principles, and moves. Aspire to do the things on those lists. Review them, they are your score card.

Adam: Record yourself GMing the game. Codify the decisions you are making.

John: The Sundered Land, the GM role is extremely small in scope. It is easier to deconstruct and perhaps easier to keep in memory.

How far could you push the GM facing system before it broke?

John Harper: Nightwitches, by Jason Morningstar, is about Russian pilots in WWII and is inspired by Sagas. There are numerous roles to assume. When your character’s fictional role isn’t being fulfilled, you are the GM. Someone has to do the GM jobs, because conflict is required for rich stories.

Words of Wisdom?

Pete: Is AW a good game to hack?

Adam: Any game you love enough is a good game to hack.

Sage: If you want to hack it, you probably have enough experience.

Pete: Its not particularly harder?

Gregor: It may be a bit easier, as there is a chapter on hacking.

Sage: The explicitness of the game may give a good head start.

Pete: What are your words of wisdom?

Adam: Once you have enough stuff, play it until your eyes bleed and you wish you were dead. You know last week, this is different. Put it away, then pull it out again. You’ll love it and hate it.

Sage: We needed some distance to begin our first supplement. Give it time, and things could be fun again. Be open about your game. Designers are hurt most by being protective or pushing it too hard. Just be excited, put it out there, make it free for everyone. Maybe someone else has made the game.

John: Do not have one game. Have several things kicking around. We all have made lots of discarded carcasses of things and games. The things you’ve seen is all that we’ve “barely been able to finish.” Don’t feel bad if its frustration, abandonment, and failure. Having lots going on is helpful for keeping the creative energies going.

Sage: John and Sage have discarded so many games without even writing docs. Then those that are docs rarely turn into games worth sharing.

Johnathan: Game design can be onerous. Especially AW, the exact wording of moves matters so much. AW is like writing poetry not like writing fiction. Word order matters, choices matter, which move structure matters. The moves interact directly with the fiction. Again look at Sundered Lands. Start really small. Be a part of a design community. It must be supportive and brutally honest. “Man that game was terrible. Lets go get a beer and talk about it.”

Gregor: Its like scripting. If you don’t get the order right you get a compile error. In terms of the community: its about your audience. Failure is discouraging. You must love the process.

Pete: This community is fueled by passion.

Dungeon World – Google Hangouts Session 3

We are working on naming the campaign, but this is a loose session report of our second Google Hangouts game of Dungeon World. You can find the first one here.

The session began with everyone still clunking their way around the technical interface of Google Hangouts and Tabletop Forge. Last week, we had trouble getting Travis in on the action. This week Mark was running and Travis, Jim, Marissa, Morgan, and I were playing. Fortunately, this week went off rather smoothly.

Quick recap of the cast:

  • King Nara, female human ranger, always shrowded in cold [Marissa]
  • Dunwick, male human bard, master of the stage [Morgan]
  • Bartleby, male human fighter, blacksmith apprentice [Travis]
  • Ovid, male human wizard, seeking knowledge [Jim]
  • Humble, male human thief, treasure seeking [me]

Sequence of Events (to the best of my recollection, and not much of a session report, more erratic notes):

The Meeting and Beating of Ovid

  • Nara, Dunwick, Bartleby, Humble in the underground tunnels, see Ovid and an earth elemental
  • Established communication with elementals is “Raise arms then speak then lower arms when done.”
  • “Bartleby, why are you here?”
    • I was enlisted by the town to secure the goblin frontier
  • “Ovid, why are you in the caves?”
    • “To investigate the theory that the origins of the goblins and dwarves are connected”
  • “Humble, what is the con you and Dunwick have been running?”
    • “We are museum curators, looking for more items to sell.”
  • Question to Ovid “Why is the earth elemental angry at you?” “Because I summoned him from the elemental plane of earth, where he was enjoying a nice lava bath.”
  • Ovid attempts to escape the clutches of the elemental, and squirms away with Nara’s help.
  • In helping Ovid, Nara is put in danger. She is pummeled, but her wolf takes the brunt of the attack.
  • Humble, seeing the massive scintillating gem on the elemental back, runs up its back, and plucks the gem out sending it skittering along the floor. Further enraging the elemental.
  • Bartleby charges in with fists of steel driving the earth elemental back into the stone.
  • Earth elemental erupts from the stone pummeling Nara and Bartleby
  • Humble secures the gem
  • Dunwick, Spouting Lore “- “How do you calm down an out of control earth elemental”
    • They like drum circles.
  • Ovid grabs his books and begins clapping arrhythmically (6- roll)
  • Humble, finding the uncollapsed torso of a fallen goblin successfully helps Dunwick drum a rhythm to ease the rage in the earth elemental.
  • Bartleby presses the attack, and the earth elemental is dispatched
  • As a consequence for banishing the elemental in the presence of the arriving emissaries oops, Bartleby must fight for his honor/innocence in Morholt.
  • As the elemental is dispatched back to its native plane, humble holds the gem as it seeps into primordial goo and dissipates.

Council with King Nara

  • As previously established the earth elementals return with diplomats.
  • Tero and Kulmala are emissaries of King Toyvo of the earth elementals
  • Kulmala emissary of Toyvo, Tero emissary
  • Conversation regarding arrangements to help the king
  • Earth elementals prize honesty
  • Through out the conversation Dunwick (?) Discerns Realities
    • What here is not what it appears to be? Kulmala is concerned that you won’t say yes; Tero is a diplomat
    • What here is useful and valuable to me? Kulmala and Tero work for different people
    • Who is really in control here? Kulmala
  • Dunwick hits on the earth elemental…after all their sexuality is complicated
  • Humble suggests that Tero tour the goblin troops while Kulmala remains with King Nara
  • Humble, having pushed one contingent on a military inspection, slinks away to hide from all the big nasties.
  • Kulmala says the king is a good king; Many, however, have born the cost of the battle with the darkness.
  • Kulmala says “The dwellings closest to the lava and magma are most valuable.”
  • Kulmala is an elitist a One Percenter if you will
  • Kulmala doesn’t want a silly deal with the goblins
  • Morholt, earth elemental city, has troops; Could be mobilized against the darkness, but king is sympathetic to populist movement; Kulmala is seeking a revolution.
  • Secure forces of the king, Kulmala would reward us with riches. Seek the king’s blessing to utilize the troops.
  • Do what ever it takes to get the king to leave troops with us.
  • As Bartleby, Nara, and Tero tour the goblin warrens
  • Bartleby discerns realitiesconcerning his upcoming battle.
    • What should I be on the lookout for? Reshaping the ground
    • What here is useful or valuable to me? Slow moving; stuff behind them catches them off guard
    • What here appears not to be what it is? There appears to be a central component about an earth elemental
  • During the tour, the baby dragon starts a fire in the kitchen. Nara barks some orders using the following custom move:
    When you tell the goblins what to do...On a 10+: Pick 3
    On a 7-9: Pick 1
    - They do it.
    - They don't fuck it up.
    - You don't have to hurt them.
    Roll + Str
  • She successfully commands the goblins.
  • Tero explains that there are devious and cunning factions within the city of Morholt
  • A little bit of Spout Lore from Ovid concerning the deep dark dragonLong ago in the times of myth and legend. Dark dragon Arja – formed from the dark energy summoned from the dark stones, power his black and ignoble heart. Reforging these stones in the dwarven forge to a weapon to defeat Arja.
  • The characters agree to journey, by way of the earth elemental shaping stone, to Morholt.
  • Only the earth elementals can bring the characters back.
  • Nara bestows Vizier status on the former goblin king.
  • And with that, the characters depart for Morholt.

Dungeon World, Google Hangouts, and Tabletop Forge

Earlier this week, the ever energetic Mark Diaz Truman contacted me about playing in a Dungeon World game via Google Hangouts and Tabletop Forge. He was trying to wrangle up the participants from our GenCon Dungeon World session to play.

Jareth the Goblin King

Jareth the Goblin King

We were able to get most of the players together and decided to continue with the characters we had played.

Humble the Thief, Nara the Rangress, and Dunwick the Bard.

We had tried to bring along a new adventurer, Bartleby the Fighter, but Travis was having extreme technical difficulties and had to sadly bow out.

We had a three hour window to play, and spent the first hour or so shooting the breeze, working through technical difficulties and rebuilding our characters. After that, we were off.

And Mark threw us quickly into action. We had been working our way deeper into the caverns, and had spilled into the Goblin King’s chamber – the token for the Goblin King was Jareth from the Labrynth, and someone drew a pretty red heart around the token.

Questions were flying, as Mark asked our characters how they knew certain things. Dunwick loves reading lots of trashy serials, Humble listens to Dunwick’s nighttime ramblings, and Nara recalls the traditional tales of her northern ancestors.

We were searching out a small shrine to return to the surface, and another relic that Nara would know when she saw it.

One question, in particular about the Goblin King’s shaman was fantastic – though I can’t recall if was actually a question – the “answer” however was Dunwick pointing and saying “I thought we killed you.”

Dunwick was referencing the previous session, the one at GenCon, which the heroes had dispatched a goblin shaman. Fantastic! Here was a recurring foe, now stitched together through some foul magic.

With some quick parlay and some leverage, Dunwick was able to convince the Goblin King that we were going to usurp his throne, a contraption assembled from numerous traps that required sitting in it just right.

The Goblin King agreed to abdicate…if one of us could sit in the thrown without triggering the trap. Humble determined the traps, but being Evil sought to shift blame/danger onto Nara – after all she had evidence of Humble’s crimes.

Nara succeeded in sitting on the chair and became the new Goblin King – and Jareth accepted the terms. Nara also noted that amongst the treasure was the relic – a dragon egg – which we soon learned required being surrounded by treasure to prevent it from hatching.

King Nara’s first challenge as leader was that an earth elemental envoy was demanding an audience. The conversation was interesting, as Mark spoke slowly, and at one point Nara spoke during a lull. The emissary admonished Nara for interrupting and continued.

Dunwick observed that the emissary spoke until his arms dropped, as if in a sign of completion. The conversation went on, and it was determined that the dwarves drove the elementals out of their homes and the goblins now resided in ancient dwarven tunnels.

Ultimately the elementals and King Nara struck a bargain – both forces were going to join and defeat the encroaching darkness. The elementals, however, were going to take the shrine back with them.

During the exchange, it turned out that Humble had looted the treasure, and the shaman had fled with the dragon egg.

Humble, Nara, and Dunwick gave pursuit, and chased the shaman to the sacred burial pit – a previously established fact created during play was Mark asked Dunwick how the goblins bury their dead.

The shaman descended, and Nara gave chase – Humble again sought to put another person in danger and again it was Nara in a scene eerily reminiscent of the first session.

The moves began cascading, as Nara safely descended, but overtaxed the rope, and it began to give. Dunwick and Humble held onto the rope but the shaman was now attacking Nara.

A gruesome and tense conflict occurred over what, by all appearances, was in fact a bottomless pit. Nara was biting the undead shaman; Humble had begun descending the walls but had torn open the pouch to his treasure and had to choose help or save the treasure. Dunwick was peppering the shaman with arrows.

Eventually Nara and Dunwick were able to dislodge the shaman. And as the shaman fell, a massive shadowy dragon maw, consumed the shaman and we learned of the deep dwelling dragon of darkness.



Marked wrapped up the session by saying “I like to go over Roses and Thorns. Roses are for things that went well either in the narrative or at the table. Thorns are for things that didn’t go so well.”

Most everyone agreed that the technical issues were a thorn. I recall most of the roses being related to the parlay with the King.

My personal Thorn was that I had created a very disengaging thief. I was Evil and marked XP for shifting blame. I also had a bond that basically said “Don’t pull Nara’s skin out of the fire.” So I’m thinking how I can resolve that bond and move forward.

After all a disengaged character is really a sad thing.

Questions Concerning Game Master Moves

During our initial fight with the goblins, each of our characters were narratively engaged with the enemy. Characters were making moves. And at one point Mark had the archers, who were ready to fire arrows, unleash their arrows and do damage.

This was different from how I’ve normally run my games, in that moves only come as a response to characters. So this “And now you take damage, even though you’ve been making moves” felt different from my normal GM style.

From a narrative stand point, Mark had established the archers. The characters were dealing with foot soldiers in melee, so I believe he was well within his right to make a hard move. Though I’m wondering if there should’ve been a question asked during the melee – “The archers are pulling back their arrows to let fly…what do you do?”

This is a very minor point of contention, but does raise a procedural questions concerning combats with many participants. Superior numbers should mean something, and being engaged in melee while enemy archers take aim is likely a dangerous proposition.

There is also the challenging of making sure the “active turn” passes somewhat equally amongst the characters – so following up a “Hack n’ Slash” move with the question “You hack into the goblin but see archers taking aim at you…what do you do?” could result in a weird distribution of the spotlight.

Technical Challenges and Kudos

Poor Travis, booted from the table a few times, was unable to join us.

The beta version of Tabletop Forge served us well, but there were points in which the drawings did not appear to render for everyone.

Otherwise, having voice and video, along with a shared table top, proved more than enough for a great game of Dungeon World. Does Google Hangouts beat face to face gaming? No. But it sure is great to have played with people I met at GenCon.

I don’t know how much I would like a very grid-based game via Hangouts, but certainly the loose narrative style of Dungeon World works great.

And we have another session scheduled – and it looks as though we may have another from the GenCon game.