Mr. White, a little mood music if you would?
Now, where were we? Oh yes. APOCALYPSE WORLD.
I've written before about the provocative nature of Vincent Baker's great roleplaying game, which recently ran a successful Kickstarter to fund a second edition and return to print. It's the kind of game that was designed to shake people up, change the way they do and think about things inside the parochial little world of roleplaying. As a long time GM, the way the game framed the role of the "MC" initially scared the living shit out of me. Or, more accurately, made me deny its usefulness, then angry, then depressed (because it felt like an attack on GMs), then eventually a cautious return to grapple with its ideas and eventually accept them. The five stages of APOCALYPSE WORLD.
AW was the game that launched a thousand imitators, because Vincent very generously let others play with his "powered by the Apocalypse" rules. Some of the game have been very interesting, such as SAGAS OF THE ICELANDERS, URBAN SHADOWS, WORLD WIDE WRESTLING, and especially Avery McDaldno's MONSTERHEARTS. A lot of games tread over pretty familiar territories in familiar ways (such as DUNGEON WORLD or TREMULUS), but with such diverse subject matter as gender/societal roles in Icelandic history and the "kayfabe" world of wrestling in and out of the ring, it's astonishing to me that very few of those games use the most interesting single piece of gaming technology that AW contributed to the hobby.
The "Special" move. Also known as the "Sex move".
Now this is some provocative shit, a little landmine waiting for the average roleplayer as they're coming to grips with AW for the first time. Most roleplaying games avoid the thorny issue of sexuality altogether, possibly for fear of handling it badly or immaturely, and play things as safe as possible by not including any discussion of the matter. Even in the world of indie/story games or LARPs, where subject matter tends to be more adult and daring, sex is often something that is hidden behind "Lines and Veils" (as coined by Ron Edwards), a subject that either happens offscreen or not at all (by mutual agreement).
AW makes it explicitly part of play, by providing you with rules for how sexual interactions affect each of the playbooks in the game. That's right, not only was there an implicit call for sex to be a part of the game narrative, there were mechanical effects for it too.
Predictably, a lot of gamers lost their fucking minds.
"Not in my games!" they shouted, stalking away with a mittful of polyhedral dice. "That's not what a good old fashioned post-apocalyptic game is about!" Even for those of us with an interest in dramatic games where relationships -- even including sexual relationships -- were important, having rules seemed a little weird. Did you really want to encourage players to have their characters hook up for a mechanical bonus?
It took the genius of Avery McDaldno's MONSTERHEARTS to prove that yes, this was something that you definitely wanted in your games, and she did an astonishing job at making sex central to play, something that makes a lot of sense in the "supernatural romance" genre and the high school setting. Teenagers are all about sex, all the time, and MH makes everything flow from that central tension. When teenage characters aren't actually hooking up, they're getting uptight about it, and wondering how they feel about it, and getting confused by the whole thing. It's a work of beauty that not only perfectly frames its subject matter, it may actually do a better job of explaining and justifying the "special move" than AW itself. (Avery explains things astonishingly well, and when she can't illuminate things more clearly than Vincent himself, she quotes AW directly. That is classy and terrific.)
So what is the purpose of the "special move" in AW? I'm inferring, but I think it has to do with AW being a game that is about intimacy. The characters in this game live in a world of violence and scarcity, and they're fragile as all hell. This ain't your daddy's world of forgiving Armor Classes and escalating Hit Points, AW measures your lifespan with a countdown clock. When the hands reach midnight, that's all for you. Characters are in constant danger, and the mechanics of the game are meant to complicate and confound the characters' lives even when they think they've got everything neatly in hand. Stuff tends to get out of control, and suddenly your well-laid plans are circling the drain.
Characters need each other, and there are other mechanics (such as History, or Hx) that make it so. So the question becomes, who do you trust? When your back's up against the wall, who has your back? Who you gonna let in when the night gets cold? Special moves make a lot of sense when you start thinking about desperate people clinging together, one bad roll away from disaster.
Of course, this being AW, the sex moves also tend to complicate the characters' lives more. The rhythm of play often tends to follow the rhythm of player characters being drawn together and then thrown apart. That's the way AW works. That's the genius of the game. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and anarchy is set loose. Beautiful.
So what does it say about those other "powered by the Apocalypse" games, and about the hobby in general, that players are so damn timid about embracing such a game-changing, potent piece of gaming technology?