How Tools From This Underrated TTRPG Can Help DMs Prepare

Running a campaign is hard work. Dungeon Masters are expected to juggle setting, narrative, and dozens of NPCs. What’s worse, games like Dungeons & Dragons don’t provide a lot of guidance on what DMs are supposed to do to prepare. Unlike many RPGs that came before it, Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meguey Baker has extensive guidelines on preparing for a session.

What makes Apocalypse World‘s prep system unique is that it’s completely non-linear. One of the principles of the game is “play to find out what happens,” and that applies to DMs just as much as it does to players. Apocalypse World doesn’t aim to help DMs prep a string of encounters culminating in a dungeon, but a dynamic and dangerous world to which the players will have to respond.

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The first tool Apocalypse World gives its players is the simplest and most powerful: DM principles. These are a handful of rules or reminders that the DM writes for themselves that are meant to make the world feel cohesive and tonally consistent. An example might be, “always put the players at risk” or “the world needs heroes.” It’s also okay to write more abstract statements.

Next are world building principles. These are similar to DM principles, but they apply to a smaller set of things. A DM might write out a set of principles for a town, an area of the map, or even an NPC. Three to five rules that outline how a town should feel will keep each area feeling distinct and tonally consistent. Finally, once in a blue moon, it can be fun for a DM to violate their own principles. The contradiction will draw players’ attention and can lead to a very interesting session.

Another tool Apocalypse World uses is threats. A threat should be a concrete danger players will have to reckon with in one way or another. Some threats might be people, groups, or hostile terrains — really anything that can do harm to the players. It’s important to resist the temptation to make every little thing a threat by starting out with four or five. A good litmus test for whether something is an actually a threat or simply an annoyance is to think about whether the problem would go away on its own if the players ignore it. If not, that’s a threat.

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Once a DM has all of their threats laid out, it’s time to assign each of them an impulse and stakes. An impulse describes what a threat is likely to do if left to its own devices. Impulses help DMs know what a threat is doing when it’s off-screen. Stakes are questions about the fate of that threat that the DM is genuinely curious about. Writing good stakes is a big part of playing to find out what happens.

Next, the threat map ties all of these threats together. Naturally, some threats in a campaign will be linked to each other, such as a lich queen and her undead army. Other threats will be unrelated, or even at odd with each other. Knowing not just how a threat relates to the players, but how it relates to all the other threats will make the world seem dynamic and alive. It also gives the players the opportunity to play threats off each other instead of facing them head-on.

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Finally, the most flexible tool in the arsenal of Apocalypse World are countdown clocks. Countdown clocks are usually attached to a threat, and they tick down the steps to disaster. A great way to organize a clock is to ask what will happen if this threat continues unimpeded. The answer to that question should be the final step on the clock, with everything else marking the steps in between. For particularly dangerous threats, it can be useful to delineate a point of no return.

This way of organizing prep solves a number of common problems. It demands action from the players while nonetheless presenting the world as having an independent existence. It also ensures that even when things don’t go according to play, DMs will have interesting problems to throw at their players.

DM’s can often struggle to be prepared, especially when running campaigns open-ended campaigns where it’s not clear where the session will go. These tools from Apocalypse World make it easier for DMs running any game to be ready for whatever their players might throw at them, even in sessions where they can genuinely say that they have no idea what’s going to happen.

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