Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Five or So Questions with Vincent and Meguey Baker on Apocalypse World Second Edition!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Vincent and Meguey Baker about their new release and Kickstarter, Apocalypse World Second Edition. Apocalypse World itself came out in 2010, and has been used as the baseline for a ridiculous number of hacks over the past years since then, including Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, and Urban Shadows. The game itself is super fun, and can range from explosive, brutal action to intimate and sometimes disturbing. Second Edition is, I think, an exciting update!

Tell me a little bit about Apocalypse World 2nd Edition. What about this new release excites you?

Vincent: Meg and I have been playing Apocalypse World, and watching people play it, and hearing about their games, for a bunch of years now. Seven years, going back to the first playtest! It's been fantastic, but along the way we've noticed that there are some rules in the game that rarely see play, and some other rules that tend to throw people off. We've been developing better rules to replace them for the last year or so, and figured that it was time to show them off.

The most exciting things to me in the new release are the new battle moves - they're as much fun in play as you could hope for - and the new "threat map" approach to GM prep. It streamlines the old system of fronts. Fronts were kind of abstract, conceptual, and this new system is much more concrete and punchy.

Battle moves sound exciting! What pieces of the game do they interact with most: playbooks, fronts, etc.?

Vincent: The playbooks, same as the basic moves. And the harm rules, of course!

The original optional extended battle moves didn't ever see much play. These new ones are still basically optional, but they have a lot more immediate grab and punch to them. I think that people will be eager to bring them into play.

Have there been changes to any of the playbooks? If so, I gotta ask, is there anything new and exciting with the Gunlugger (my favorite!)?

Vincent: Sure! First of all, there's been a change to the lineup: the operator's out, and the maestro d' and quarantine are now in the basic set. The most-changed playbook is the driver, who inherited some of the operator's best moves. Next most is the angel; we rewrote their whole system for medkits. After that, all of the playbooks got streamlined Hx rules and a cut of the operator's gigs. I think that the gunlugger is, with the hocus, the least changed.

Meg: Changing the lineup meant looking at all of them with cross-hairs, sorting out what we wanted to reintegrate in new ways, and looking for places to contract and expand. The new battle moves and some of the other things we're bringing in the second edition mean there's pretty much nothing left untouched. Bloody fingerprints everywhere!

Apocalypse World has hugely shaped the indie scene in a lot of ways over the past years. Has any of the design that evolved from the original AW cycled back to inspire Second Edition?

Vincent: You know, not too much, no. We thought long and hard about this when we were starting: do we stick close to the original game, or do we try to write a new game, incorporating the insights of Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, and the rest? Ultimately we decided to stick close to the original.

Meg: Looking at all the games that have used Apocalypse World as their starting point was really helpful in clarifying that choice. Some of the stuff that's been done is really inspiring and beautiful and creative, and I'm sure it will shape some of our designs going forward. There are undoubtedly some bits that have seeped in, but the biggest thing we came away with after doing a read-through of PbtA games is that we want Apocalypse World 2nd Edition to keep on being that useful, fruitful starting point.

What kind of practices did you use to playtest and reexamine new rules and tweaks to old rules?

Vincent: Reworking existing rules is pretty different for us than doing new design. The easiest were the new Hx rules. Once we had the idea to turn the process around, to have you ask for volunteers instead of deciding things for yourself, the new rules just fell into place. They were so obviously sharper and more streamlined that they needed only a quick test to confirm. The new angel kit rules were the same way.

Hardest were the new battle moves. We tried several approaches, each generally more elaborate than the originals, before these much simpler ones came to us. But even so, once we got the approach right, designing the moves themselves came easily, they were obviously an improvement, and we played with them basically just to confirm that we were right about them.

We didn't do any formal external playtesting, but I leaked all the new material to my Patreon patrons. Some of them picked them up and played with them, and their feedback was further confirmation.

Meg: When you put it to absolute practicalities though, it looks a lot like: "Hey, I have an idea for some new rules for XYZ, can you make a couple characters quick and see how it works?' or "Check out these new mechanics with me for a few minutes?" Lots of small spot-tests within the context of a game we know well, to make sure all the parts are clicking into place the way we want.

We also have a dedicated group of wonderful teens who play at our house every Friday, and when I say "here's new barter rules; give them a shot and tell us what you think" they are generally happy to help. Some of them have been playtesting stuff with me for 7 years, and so I can hand them stuff and walk away knowing I'll get decent feedback. It also is a great playtesting tool to be two rooms away and just listen for the flow of the game and the engagement level as much as for who says what and rolls how.

One last question: you have been working with Meguey on Apocalypse World in various forms for a long time! What does it take to create a vision as a team that is so coherent, and how do you think it reflects on the design in 2nd Edition?

Vincent: I'm not very good at it! It demands a lot of communication, but I struggle to communicate my ideas in sentences and explanations when what they are is game design.

When we're working together on a project, I think that we both commit fully to the project's creative success. Neither of us goes along with the other against the needs of the project, and neither of us sticks to our own ideas against the needs of the project either. We both bring our best work, patience, and attention, and let the project decide.

Meg: I think the biggest thing it takes is patience. Designing together is not always easy or simple; sometimes we disagree on a thing, or have trouble making clear to each other what we mean or why we're excited about a particular part of the design. Patience and trust that we can work it out and come to a clear place to move forward is important.

An overlapping but not identical taste in art, music, background, movies, games, books etc etc to draw from is great, so we each can bring new insights and ways of looking at any particular design challenge. When we first started designing games together 20 years ago, I was fresh out of Emergency Medical Technician training. For years our combat systems looked like "Ok, Meg, they get hit here, with this kind of weapon. What happens?" I know way more about the odd things that people save than Vincent does, and he watches way more horror movies than I do. Lately we've both been reading a lot of books about various world-shifting events in US history - the arrival of De Soto, the adoption of horses by the Comanche, the 1918 flu epidemic, the dust bowl - so we're steeped in a whole new batch of apocalyptic imagery.

The other HUGE thing we have going for us is that we are both creative artistic people in other places of our lives. So we don't get offended when the other one gets caught by something and has to get up early or stay up late or block out time on the weekend for a personal project. We get that. We also have pretty decent boundaries on what is shared game design and what is our own projects. The Sundered Land is entirely Vincent, Playing Nature's Year is entirely me, Apocalypse World is both of us. We read and playtest each other's games, sure, but on our own projects we each have our own clear direction. With joint projects, we have to be in accord on the direction in order for it to move forward.

Thanks so much to Vincent and Meguey for the interview! It was great to hear about Apocalypse World 2nd Edition and I'm really looking forward to getting it in my hands! Check out the new edition coming up on Kickstarter, where Vincent and Meguey have been providing rich material for new backers already! 

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