Apocalypse World for kids - The Bureau - An AW hack with different die types

edited January 2013 in Story Games
Our recent conversations about dealing with different difficulty levels in Apocalypse World led me to thinking about using different dice. I did a bunch of math and really liked what I found. You can get great results in Apocalypse World by changing the die types used instead of using adding or subtracting points. (Additional dice are great for turning misses into partial hits.)

This allows you to use Dogs in the Vineyard-type Traits with Apocalypse World mechanics.

So, here's a proof of concept game using this principle:

The Bureau

The Bureau is an Apocalypse World hack (really more of a World of Dungeons hack, as it has no playbooks) suitable for kids. You play secret Agents protecting humanity from supernatural threats: it's basically Men in Black meets Ghostbusters.

While I'd love to hear your thoughts on the game, I'd really like to see where this concept might go next. I think it opens up the door to new ways of hacking Apocalypse World and new ways of structuring moves (which my simple game doesn't have).

EDIT: Updated link above with new version, Jan 7, 2013.


  • DUDE. I love this. The helping mechanic is sweet! SO MUCH MARTYRDOM.
  • Thanks! I just updated it a touch (last two pages). I also think the "Helping" mechanic works for interfering (the "interfering die" cancels out one die of your choice lower than its value), but I left it out of the rules for now).
  • edited December 2012
    Some great ideas here! Really love that you have created something wholly new by mashing together from two different Baker games, with what feels like a bit of Deadlands (attribute + skill dice pools with varying dice types) and Lady Blackbird (Character Traits are like Keys).
  • Thanks, Colinaut. What bit feels like Deadlands? (I'm not familiar with the game at all.)
  • edited December 2012
    Looks awesome Paul! I believe Colinaut was referring to some similarities with Deadlans in that your game uses various types of dice to roll together. I did something similar with a success trichotomy and multiple dice types here.
  • edited December 2012
    Mostly what feels like Deadlands is that you are using an attribute + skill dice pool mechanic with varying dice types. For instance, in Deadlands character with Strength (1d8) and Fighting (1d6) would roll a 1d6 and a 1d8 to swing a punch. Though that's about as far as the connection goes since Deadlands dice system resolution is far different from yours. It's a more complicated pick highest die and match against success number, exploding dice, rises, blah blah blah.

    Anyways, it's interesting that you have done away with playbooks in favor of a more build your own character approach by adding skills (verbs) and additional bonuses (nouns). The Apocalypse World system discarded the traditional attribute + skill system in favor of special moves for each playbook, which it gets away with as the playbooks are so well done and the special moves are evocative of the character archetype they are striving for. It's a thematic choice really where in AW everyone is playing a very unique badass character — "While there may be other gun luggers, you are The Gun Lugger." Almost all of the theme of AW comes directly from these playbooks where many of the special moves go beyond just skills and become special abilities that change how the characters interact with the world and solve problems (The Gun Lugger solves problems with bullets, the Hardholder with politics). In a way these very strongly distinct characters leads towards a more cinematic approach — somewhat tellingly, Baker has stated that he modeled most of the playbooks off of characters from Firefly.

    By doing away with the playbooks and introducing a more flexible build your own character attr + skill + bonus system, it puts the characters a bit more on equal footing as they can specialize in similar things if they want to. This works actually with your game world in that you are all Bureau agents that are part of a team so it is assumed that there will be some similarly in skills and how they interact with the world and solve problems. Obviously there will likely be differences in the characters as players will build them differently and try to specialize; however, not quite on the level of everyone is unique snowflake that AW does. Again, it's a thematic choice rather than a one way is better than the other thing.

    On a side note, you should totally check out Monster of the Week if you haven't already as it is an AW-hack that is all about fighting things that go bump in the night like "The Bureau" however keeps the everyone is a unique snowflake playbooks thing.
  • P.S. I do like your advancement mechanics a bit better than AW. It's smoother which is more in line with most attr+skill systems. And mainly I like it as AW has a bit of a flaw that characters can become too powerful where they make every roll. At some point with AW it's just time to end the campaign or restart with a different character, which is fine but again a thematic choice. Your system allows for more of a flexible gradient in advancement.
  • Colinaut, agreed on all counts.

    Zachary_Wolf, very cool! The design sure is prettier than mine (which is non-existent). What font are you using?

    For some reason it never occurred to me to set a different "target number" for partial and full hits. Interesting! I wonder if that would be confusing or totally natural.

    My little hack is just a thought I had, really, not a developed game. Maybe playbooks would be better? I just don't have the patience for them at the moment, and I imagine playing this game with kids who prefer to use their imagination and a blank slate to start with.

    One thing I do wonder about, though, is the lack of basic moves (which I basically took from World of Dungeons). I don't feel like I would miss basic moves all too much... but I might miss the information-gathering moves ("read a...").

    You could port them pretty easily, of course.

    Counting "hits" on each die that turns up 4+ also gives pretty good odds with this system, though. Each "hit" gives a piece of information or an answer to a question.

    For "+1 forward" results, if you have them, you can hand out an extra d4.

    What do you think? Is there a better way to integrate "reading" moves?

  • You've seen Simple World? The super streamlined generic hack of Apocalypse World. It's an interesting exercise in bare bones look at AW.

    Not having played RPGs with kids I don't have much of an informed opinion what work best with them. My gut says that what you have feels a bit too complicated at the moment and that kids actually enjoy playing predefined roles like a costume to try on (as long as they have some flex). The reason D&D hits home so well is the classes are so well defined and easy to grok (like playbooks) — "I want to be a fighter!" "I want to be a wizard!" But I guess it depends on the ages of the kids.
  • edited December 2012
    That looks great, Paul! There are some very good ideas.
    (Funnily, I'm working on a similar hack/game with varying dice types atm. Your work will give me some more inspiration on how to shape my game.)

    I'm not sure if the varying dice types will screw with the AW's target numbers.

    I don't think that you need playbooks and moves. Imho this should work on its own.

    I need to playtest John Fiore's 9Qs system for solo play in the next few days, I think I'll play it with your game.
  • edited December 2012
    Thank you for the link to Simple World! I'm familiar with it, but hadn't reread it for a while. That said, Simple World seems complicated to me. In my hack (for example), the kids don't have to do math in their head: you always just add two numbers. You never add two dice, a modifier from your sheet, AND other modifiers (like moves or +1forward-type bonuses). It's easier and faster.

    What kind of playbooks/roles would you recommend for Bureau Agents? I could see stereotypes being based on age/seniority, but I'm not sure how helpful it actually would be to kids playing the game.

    That said, it reminds me of something I left out: the harm rules. I'll post them later today.

    I'm not sure if the varying dice types will screw with the AW's target numbers.
    Well, this is the only part of the game that's really something new or worthwhile. I calculated probabilities for most possible dice combinations, and I like them a great deal. That's the real innovation in this game: everything else is just slapped-together mechanics from other games (kind of like Lady Blackbird's design).

    If you're ever rolling dice bigger than d6+d8+d8 (or d6+d6+d10 - these are pretty close to rolling a +3 stat in AW), then the odds start to break: it's almost a guaranteed success. But that's fine: these Agents will do really well when they're using Action Dice or using their best Terms together.

    But, for example, d8+d6+d4 (as in the example in the text) gives very nice odds (approximately):

    10+ 36%
    7-9 42%
    6- 20%

  • Physical Harm

    In a violent or dangerous situation like a fight, you can use these rules if you need a guideline:

    * The first time someone does something dangerous or hurtful to an Agent, just describe the effects. Maybe they're knocked off the bridge into the water, for example, but they can get right back up again if they want, no problem.
    * The second time, describe the effects and add some bad news. Tell them they're stunned: they'll need to roll the dice just to get back on their feet. Or tell them something bad has happened (for example, maybe their enemy has accomplished something they were trying to stop them from doing).
    * The third time, they are defeated, out of the action. Maybe knocked out, captured, or just lying on the ground wheezing, in great pain. They won't get to have much of a say in what happens next until someone helps them get back on their feet, or, if they're alone, until the MC offers them an opportunity to do that themselves.

    Once they have a chance to catch their breath, this resets. The next time they're in a fight or kerfuffle, you'll start all over: there is no such thing as real lasting harm.

    Enemies of the agents are usually defeated by any single successful action. Unusually tough enemies could require two or more successful actions or rolls, however.
  • Upon further reading, I LOVE the way the characters can "grow out of traits" almost like buying off a key. Very, very cool. The helping mechanic is neat too. Overall, I really want to play this game.

    Personally, I like the lack of playbooks for simplicity and brevity, but for a game for kids, I think playbooks are a great way to engage them. Premade characters are even better for young fledgling gamers, something like what James Stowe did here.

    The font I'm using in the NYC2123 layout is Webletterer BB. I haven't had a chance to playtest my mechanics, but lonely testing says it should work pretty well.
  • The simple three level harm you wrote up there is great!
  • Yeah, I dig that too.
  • This is cool.

    I think it's worth saying something about further moves (read, manipulate) since (unlike World of Dungeons into Dungeon World) you aren't positioned to "grow into" a full-fledged game from this one. "Act under fire" is a good core move, but it's less obvious to improvise something like read a person or manipulate without a model to hang it on.
  • Agreed, John.

    I'm thinking of bringing in "reading" moves one way or another. Manipulate doesn't seem like as much of a stretch: the "difficult choice" part of act under fire makes for interesting bargains, at least potentially. Worth thinking about, though!
  • Okay, I've added optional reading moves, the physical harm rule, and fixed a couple of little things. New version in the link above!
  • edited December 2012
    If anyone plays this, please post in this thread!

    Here's a rule I might throw in when I do so:

    "When you take action that follows through on the result of a great roll (10+, whether your own or another Agent's), roll an extra d4."

  • I'm not sure if the varying dice types will screw with the AW's target numbers.
    Well, this is the only part of the game that's really something new or worthwhile. I calculated probabilities for most possible dice combinations, and I like them a great deal. That's the real innovation in this game: everything else is just slapped-together mechanics from other games (kind of like Lady Blackbird's design).

    If you're ever rolling dice bigger than d6+d8+d8 (or d6+d6+d10 - these are pretty close to rolling a +3 stat in AW), then the odds start to break: it's almost a guaranteed success. But that's fine: these Agents will do really well when they're using Action Dice or using their best Terms together.

    But, for example, d8+d6+d4 (as in the example in the text) gives very nice odds (approximately):

    10+ 36%
    7-9 42%
    6- 20%

    Oh, I'm not sure if I made myself clear. I absolutely LOVE your varying dice types. I had the impression you thought that I was critizicing them! I was only a bit concerned that task resolution would be too easy but it seems like you really thought it through.
    I think I can live with the idea that if the players roll their best dice they will succeed. I mean, that's cool in its own way: they are competent people so it's totally ok if they succeed, isn't it?

    I'm really excited by your game, Paul!
    What I like about it:
    - char generation: a bit more "freeform" - you can say what you can do well and what gear you have - I love character traits because they are an incentive to make the game more interesting!
    - helping rules
    - char advancement
  • edited December 2012
    Quite right. If a character is designed so they can roll a d10 and a d8 together, that's something they will almost always succeed in (like a +3 stat in AW, except with a higher miss percentage). But it makes them very limited in other contexts, which is why I recommend people to use those big dice for Terms they won't generally use together in the text.

    The very common 7-9 results are enough to keep the game interesting, though, no matter what happens. They'll be the most common with these rules.

    Most typical rolls will be something like d6+d6+d4 or d6+d8, which are pretty close to rolling with a +1 in Apocalypse World (and the sweet spot in terms of mostly rolling 7-9 results with occasional failures and full successes).
  • Yeah, the math here is really good. Nice sweet spots!
  • Thanks! That's the really the only neat thing here, in my opinion. The actual "game" itself isn't terribly innovative, but I hope people will take it to create some other cool things.
  • I'm making an update:

    Replacing the "Promotion" rules with "Experience": you collect experience tokens whenever you roll a miss (6 or less), which you can then cash in to take an option from the current Promotion list.

    I like the idea of giving a bennie each time you miss a roll, it's very appropriate for a kids' game.
  • So, life happend and I couldn't fully playtest your game. But my attempt so far was fun. Dice mechanics work fine, character creation was fun. I personally had problems as a GM with coming up with complications but I guess I would have the same problems with World of Dungeons.
    Perhaps more examples would help?
  • Cool, glad to hear!

    Complications (7-9 results) are a bit of a challenge in any Apocalypse World-engine games. They way I do it in this hack, you choose one of these:

    1. There's something threatening the character, which puts pressure on them to do what they're doing quickly or with extra care.

    For instance, if you're hanging off the side of a flying car and trying to shoot at something, the danger is obviously that you fall.

    For a complication, you get what you wanted, but the danger also comes true. Now you have a new problem to deal with.

    So, on a 7-9, you hit whatever you were trying to hit, but you also go flying!

    2. If what the player is trying to achieve can be broken down into two bits, do that and let them choose between the two.

    For instance, you're trying to talk your way into some place you shouldn't be. So it sounds like you need a) the guard(s) to agree to let you in, but you also want to make that, b) they're not suspicious about you (e.g. they don't report you to their superiors, or take your fingerprints so they can identify you, or whatever).

    So here you would say, "OK, they'll let you in, but they want to fingerprint you first." Or maybe, "They let you in, but as soon as you pass by you hear them on their walkie-talkies, describing you to the boss."

    Those are the two options I put into this game.

    Does that help?

    I also have an updated version of this, I'll try to upload it soon.
  • Yeah, thanks, Paul, that helps!
    After playing 2 sessions of Dungeon World I'm also a bit more experienced with the mechanic.
  • You're welcome.

    I should probably also upload the revised version of the text... I'll try to get to that sometime in the near future!
  • Maybe Traits could be used more like aspects/beliefs/instincts?

    Instead of/in addition to used for instant action dice, whenever a trait is in play to generate something interesting at the table, one could hand out ... um ... awesome points for it which can be traded for action dice at any time, or even maybe for influencing your FATE. That way you could burn some drama to challenge their traits, charging their reserves for the "endboss".
  • I'm not sure I follow, semiomant. That sounds like what I have already. Can you explain it a little more?
  • whoops. as I was reading it earlier it seemed to me that one could only take action dice when the trait applied in the situation. I guess my reading undervalued the word "collect", while I was too focused on the long elaboration of using these things in Mouse Guard and FATE. If one looks more closely, that can be taken as implied.

  • No problem!
  • edited January 2013
    OK, here's the latest version. (Still unplayed, sadly, but with improved text, examples, a skills list, etc.)

    The Bureau

    Also includes a fantasy hack on the last page!
  • This looks great, and very similar to a game I have been developing.

    The major differences are that I was using a Best Of system rather than Best Two, and I was using opposed rolls rather than target numbers.

    I am going to try your system out and see how they compare.

    Be well,
  • Great, Phil. Please come back and post to let me know how it goes!
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