System Split: Apocalypse World and the Burned Over Hackbook

It’s tough being the first. Back in 2010, before Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition (and before Fourth Edition Essentials too), Vincent Baker released the first edition of Apocalypse World. While the praise was immediate, the snowball effect of the game had just started. By the time Baker released the second edition, now (and from this point forward) sharing the byline with his wife Meguey Baker, Powered by the Apocalypse had become a force in the indie game world. After another five years, the Baker family revisited Apocalypse World again, with Vincent and Meguey working with their children to produce Burned Over.

There are two things about Burned Over which caused me to overlook it initially. The first was a misunderstanding, though also a reflection of how many indie games are made these days. Burned Over is a hackbook, and having not heard this phrase before I confused it in intent with an ashcan. An ashcan is essentially the game equivalent of a minimum viable product or Early Access; it contains the rules to play and a first draft of the written game while being otherwise incomplete. Burned Over is not incomplete; though some of the initial rules were released on Vincent Baker’s Patreon (of which I am a subscriber, full disclosure) in ashcan form, the hackbook as it stands is complete, laid out, and 100% playable. What hackbook means is that Burned Over is a hack of Apocalypse World released as a book; Burned Over requires Apocalypse World to play though this belies the differences made somewhat.

The second element which caused me to overlook Burned Over at first came from the description of what it was. When the Baker family undertook Burned Over as a project, it was described as a version of Apocalypse World which toned down the sex and violence of the original. My initial reaction was that this would be a bowdlerized Apocalypse World, and I didn’t really like that. Needless to say I was wrong, but it meant that I didn’t actually read Burned Over until I had seen praise of it elsewhere. Burned Over strongly recenters many elements of Apocalypse World without changing the core mechanics of the game or its core gameplay loop; this recentering both revises and strengthens the rules as well as shifts the game’s relationship towards its own setting. While this is perhaps too informed by recent discourse, I think Burned Over shifts Apocalypse World from genre emulation of post-apocalyptic film and games to being a post-apocalyptic work in its own right with its own setting. 

Discussing the game’s relationship towards sex and violence is a great place to start when it comes to the changes it brings about from Apocalypse World itself. When Apocalypse World first came out, the ‘sex moves’ were one gameplay element which caused a bit of an uproar amidst the generally conservative TTRPG hobby. It’s not that the sex moves themselves are particularly graphic or lurid, but as conservatives are wont to do many people became outraged that sex was in a game at all. This centered these rules in discussions of the game’s mechanics, and made it very difficult to have an honest conversation about how the sex moves fit in to the rest of the rules. I completely understand how the sex moves came about; Apocalypse World is absolutely a game about relationships, and considering the pulp adjacency of works like Mad Max and Heavy Metal, ‘sex moves’ fit the theme. I’m not sure the rules were as additive to the game as they were the theme, though. Burned Over removes the sex moves entirely, making the Hx mechanic carry more of the weight of character-character relationships. It also removes the ‘Seduce or Manipulate Someone’ move, which begins to shed light on the intent of all of these changes.

While removing the ‘sex moves’ definitely shifted the game away from any focus on sexual relationships, the violence element was not reduced in the way I was imagining when reading the description of the game. If anything, there’s more violence and more rules around violence than there was before. There’s now more detailed vehicle combat rules, with three distinct types of harm modeled (normal, environ, and Ѱ). The battle mechanics are simplified but improved, and the weapon tags list has expanded. Where violence has been reduced has to do with the type of violence; anything resembling the Brainer’s Violation Glove is gone, as one example. The way sex and violence are discussed in the game has been shifted to remove mechanics of the game that could be used as direct coercive action, and that’s what I believe was the deliberate underlying choice. This is still Apocalypse World, and it’s still a game about scarcity and the characters making their way in a scarce world; that said, there’s a lot less mechanical focus on forcing others to do things for you. It’s a choice in part because coercion at the table can be messy and uncomfortable, no doubt, but it also shifts the theme of the game away from storylines of imposing your will on others. The Bakers describe the game as a move away from horror, which I think makes sense. There’s still room for post-apocalyptic horror at the gaming table, of course, but I don’t think that’s really what Apocalypse World was anyway.

If not horror, what was Apocalypse World? One of the reasons Apocalypse World was so successful was that it built itself around a strong overriding theme of all post-apocalyptic works: scarcity. The threat mechanics, which are expanded in Burned Over, kept the focus of any storyline which emerged from an Apocalypse World game on the things that people needed but didn’t have. On this skeleton, Apocalypse World built up a game that split the difference between direct homage and genre emulation (think the Driver playbook and how it relates to a work like Mad Max) and writing its own setting (think the Psychic Maelstrom). If there’s one thing Burned Over does more and better than its predecessor, it’s establishing the setting as something unique, rather than a pastiche. The Psychic Maelstrom is significantly expanded; now instead of one playbook focused on the Maelstrom there’s three (the Brainpicker, the Bloodhound, the Vigilant), and Ѱ and Ѱ-harm is now mechanized for everyone. The setting element of escaping Earth, lightly touched upon in Apocalypse World through a couple of the Extended Refbook classes (Landfall Marine and Quarantine), is now locked into the full game in the form of the X-Earther (which also plays a bit nicer with the other playbooks than the Landfall Marine did). Setting is also made more present in the mechanics, thanks to the Hard Zones. Hard Zones are each a physical setting, distinct enough that only one should really be in play for a campaign with a few exceptions. Most of them also push hard against the cliched ‘endless desert’ post-apocalyptic environment that typified Mad Max and then got copied relentlessly. A couple of my favorites are the Drowned City (an archipelago where the islands are the roofs of submerged buildings) and the Bottomless Vaults (ruins built into massive artificially constructed tunnels). These Hard Zones key into different character playbooks, so the locations which make up a Hard Zone will link into certain playbook moves and also provide flavor for the threats that will come up as part of the game.

If I had to sum up the biggest expansions in Burned Over, the word I would choose would be conflict. The threat mechanics aren’t hugely changed, but the way they’re changed is highly impactful, especially for GMs. Similarly, changes to the way Moves work aren’t on their face a big shift but the difference they make is massive. For Moves, the changes to the Moves themselves, mostly streamlining (as well as the abovementioned removal of ‘Seduce or Manipulate Someone’), aren’t nearly as big as the updates to the resolution mechanics. First, PCs interrupting each other or acting against each other has gotten significantly more clarification than existed originally in Apocalypse World; in addition to helping and interfering (now clarified as interrupting and broken into its own move), there’s a lot more guidance on what happens when PCs are acting against each other. I particularly like the simultaneous action rules; if you and another PC are going to be acting at the same time, you hold your dice in a closed fist and wait for the GM or the other PC to finish describing their action. Then, you describe what you’re doing and both sets of dice hit the table at the same time. For interruption specifically, both players roll and then the results of both dice apply. This does make for some more difficult adjudication when you get matching results, but it makes sense that PC-PC conflict would often result in stalemate. I also appreciate the rules for PC-PC violence, which make full use of the new rules for Doing Battle. Doing Battle is not completely its own Move, it rolls for both Acting Under Fire and Attacking Someone simultaneously. One thing I like is if you roll a 10+ for Doing Battle, you still only get the 10+ result for either Acting Under Fire or Attacking Someone, but not both. When using this move against another PC, you’re supposed to commit to your choices before rolling; if your choices contradict those of the other person, they cancel out. I’m always a sucker for pre-roll action calls, though I admit in this case it may be a bit confusing to script your choices for two to three possible dice results. Still, while these rules reverse the second edition changes that made Doing Battle more granular, I think they still make it more interesting.

The changes to Threats are probably my favorite change to Burned Over, maybe second to the addition of Hard Zones. The Threat mechanics in Burned Over are all-encompassing; there will be significantly more threats in play in this game than in either of the earlier editions. For one, every major NPC, holding, and group defined in character creation is a Threat. While this may have been de facto true in earlier editions from a GM’s perspective, defining them as a Threat and giving them that Threat Impulse makes the inner circle of the PCs much better defined and much more dynamic. The recasting of allies into a type of Threat (Reliables) also puts an interesting twist on how a lot of the character dynamics work; Reliables aren’t a Threat because they’re going to betray or undermine you, they’re a Threat because you’re allies, because you care about them and that makes you vulnerable. Grim, but I think this gets at what other elements of the game (like the Sex Moves) were trying to reach for in a more all-encompassing way. Once you go through casting and defining all your Threats, the remaining Threat mechanics aren’t massively overhauled. That said, because they now have more clear hooks into the characters and the setting, they work better, and are much more difficult to ignore. There’s also more guidance about Threats within Threats and how Threats change; it seems that building up the Threat map will now look much less like throwing a Threat on each of the four compass directions and hoping it’ll all make sense later.

Thanks to the big upfront changes, like the Playbook count and reintroduction of, well, outer space, it’s easier to see Burned Over as more dramatic than it is. Everything has been touched in some way, though in most cases the changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Advancement has been slowed down; stat highlighting has been replaced by marking all stats when used (though earning XP at a rate of once per four rolls). Barter is no longer something you collect, it’s a stat, defined by your choice of salvage (an acknowledgment that modes of earning barter, like Gigs, were rarely used). Below-the-line advances have been cleaned up a little, with one big change in the addition of Gamechangers. Gamechangers create a potential late-game switch-up, though in reality they serve more as an acknowledgment of the PbtA advancement cliff than a fix for it. Looking at Burned Over, this is still Apocalypse World. In a way, though, it’s more Apocalypse World than Apocalypse World, because this game has its own setting in a way that the earlier editions kind of downplayed. While it was clear as soon as we read ‘Psychic Maelstrom’ that the Bakers were thinking about their own kind of Apocalypse, this is the edition of the game where that’s really borne out, where we’re really given the tools to understand what their vision of the world is. And what makes this so cool is that in spite of all these specific tools we now have, this is still a game where you’re going to write your own version of the setting every time you play. All the flexibility of Apocalypse World is still there, and honestly I think GMs can paint with an even broader brush now that there are more elements in the palette.

While it’s hard to pull out specific examples, it does seem like Burned Over is informed by the more than decade of PbtA games that have happened since Apocalypse World was originally released. Much like Under Hollow Hills, Burned Over is assertively its own thing while also feeling more contemporary than Apocalypse World does here in the early 2020s. While Burned Over has not yet been released as a standalone game, I think doing so would benefit the PbtA design sphere immensely. Not because the game needs it; the hackbook is already perfectly playable, especially if you’ve GMed Apocalypse World before. What a standalone version of Burned Over would do, though, is give an opportunity for the Bakers to lavish the structure of the rulebook with the same care and consideration that they did the rules. Someone said to me earlier this month that “after you design a game, you still need to write a game”, and in that respect a hackbook represents a large aspect of revision that is incomplete.

If a standalone version of Apocalypse World: Burned Over was developed with the same amount of improvement in its technical writing, editing, and useability that has already been seen in its rules, it could be a PbtA gold standard for the next decade or more. For now, though, we can play with the hackbook, and I think that it’s something worth getting for any table that likes Apocalypse World, or PbtA in general.

The Apocalypse World:Burned Over hackbook is available from Payhip and DriveThruRPG.

Apocalypse World: Second Edition is available from Payhip and DriveThruRPG.

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