[Watch the World Die] Rules, Mods & Alternate Approaches

edited May 2014 in Story Games
This thread is about possible rules modifications and alternate ways of playing Watch the World Die.
Online playtests/APs:
PBF @ story-games.com
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  • edited May 2014
    The first application that presents itself, perhaps obviously, is to run WTWD as a prelude to a post-apoc RPG like Apocalypse World or etc. The game was in fact designed to function as a collaborative campaign generator in that sense. It can be played solo, or with any number of players. Depending on the players' approaches, methodological preferences and in-play ideas, it can be seen as anything from a silly one-shot game to a structured brainstorming device to a collaborative system for generating entire post-apocalyptic pre-game histories.

    When played as a preface to an AW campaign, WTWD assumes the position of "Session Zero". You do it with the same people who are going to be players in the campaign. It provides an interesting mood-setter or intro/exposition piece and personally I found it is a great icebreaker for RPG newbies. But more importantly it leaves behind a physical artifact - the timeline of the fall - which exists outside of game space, but can be used as a practical tool by both players and MCs. This timeline assists in the spontaneous fabrication of character details which are a-priori faithful to the fictional world the group has collaboratively created, and it provides prompts and "common knowledge" for both players and MCs as regarding "what's possible to find out there". (The existence of casualwear body armor and survivalist caches in the game's sample apocalypse are good examples of this.)

    On an AW-hack level, WTWD is an attempt to address some ramp-up problems I've sometimes seen in first sessions, especially when dealing with newer players or players who are accustomed to more structured CharGen procedures. The timeline will jar ideas on many levels as Session 1 is beginning: What destroyed the old world? What character class do I want to play? Which playbooks wouldn't really make sense in this world? What sorts of accoutrements might I have? What part of the world do we want to set the campaign in? What do the ruins of the destroyed world look like? What type of hazards have people learned to avoid? What do the old codgers sit around talking about? What did my father teach me? What sorts of things do I know are out there, perhaps numerous, perhaps rare, but nevertheless fairly common knowledge to anyone who's spent a decade or two growing up on this planet? As always, it is up to each gaming group to decide for themselves what sort of knowledge is known by the PCs and what's strictly "behind the scenes".

    Technically some might say that this breaks the rule of "No Prep" but since the generation of broad planetary/environmental/historical details is already a collaborative experience belonging to Session 1, and since WTWD is equally collaborative and typically would involve all the same players, all it really does is (a) portion out a particular set of those questions to occur ahead of the more direct questions about character definition, and (b) provide an amusing brainstorming device to help you answer them together.
  • edited April 2014
    An alternative to this approach was suggested by @Paul_T, who pointed out that the WTWD group and the RPG group don't actually have to consist of the same people. This might make it particularly useful as part of a simulationist post-apoc approach in which the world is generated ahead of time by the GM and kept mostly secret from the players. You could play WTWD as a one-shot anywhere with anyone, and then take the generated timeline home and use it with your regular gaming group.
  • edited April 2014
    This led me to a rather loopy idea - technically challenging but fun to imagine - in which you have four tables of four players. Each table plays a simultaneous game of WTWD. Break for lunch. Come back. Each table takes the timeline from the table on their left, and now you have four groups ready to roll in four original post-apoc worlds.
  • It can also be a good prequel to a game of the Quiet Year, I'm thinking :-)
  • Awesome, thanks for starting this thread. Loving the game's theme, simplicity, implementation, etc. I'm rather new to Story Games in general and I am still coming up to speed. For some context, other games that appeal to me are: The Quiet Year, How We Came to Live Here, One Thousand Years Under the Sun, FU, Archipelago, Microscope...

    Shotgun blast of questions I have that I'm sure you've thought of:

    1)Map - was there ever any play tests where a shared map was used to record the location of events and spread of various nastinesses? Would this add to or detract from the experience?

    2)Event Lists - what would be the impact of a more "restrictive" version where all the possible events in each event list are also numbered, so after rolling for Event Type you also roll for Event. You limit the narrative control and introduce more randomness, but maybe you gain more focused creativity?

    3)The Cause - Instead of the Apocalypse Type list being chosen by consensus, what if it was numbered as well and randomly chosen when a "The Cause" result was obtained. The Events on that list strike me as "Global Events".

    4)"Winning" - I get it that the point of narrative games is the shared experience and not winning, but I could imagine an "Illumanti Hack" where players are members of a secret globalist cabal playing a high-stakes game of "push your luck" . They try to push the Pressure up to some agreed upon threshold without going over ... or better yet, exactly reach a secret target number unique to them to destroy the world. If they overshoot, they are forced to Relieve It. Any play tests with such an approach?

    5)"Mark of the Beast" - Please oh please make some slight changes to the mechanics and lists such that if I roll a 6 on one die to get "SPECIAL/ESCALATION EVENTS LIST", then roll a 6 on a second die to get "THE CAUSE", then roll a 6 on a third die.... I get "Portal to Hell/Demon Incursion". :)

  • @Dreamofppeace That is exactly what I'm doing this Saturday, with a group that's (I think) relatively new to RPGs. I might have to post what the WtWD->The Quiet Year experience was like...
  • edited April 2014
    @conklins - Very cool. I've considered some of those questions, not all. Here are some answers.

    Map - My regular group right now is using a map of Las Vegas for our hometown campaign, in which WTWD leads to a game of AW in which some of the players are playing "vault-dwellers" (think "Fallout") based on the "Apocalypse: Emergence" rules by @Paul_T. The APs of that campaign are here. A shared map of the world would have been cool (during Session Zero), but I never felt it was necessary. We did, however, get a big map of Vegas and the players have discussed the impacted areas they felt were part of their characters' personal histories.

    [ETA: You know what a live map would be good for, now that I think more about it? For keeping track of which parts of the world you haven't affected yet. A little context, where to strike, etc. Maybe a RISK board!]

    Event Lists - I considered adding numbers for die rolls to those tables - that's probably what I would have done if I had written WTWD strictly for GM's use - but two things stopped me. First, setting those numbers: I couldn't predict which events should be more or less "likely" in any given circumstance, because as the game proceeds, new events are supposed to depend on previous events. The only way to predict their likelihood to such a degree, that I could come up with, would be to "chain" them more tightly, which I felt would either be too much work for the players, creatively limiting, or cause different runs of the game to be a lot more similar to each other. (That said, another possibility is: Apply die rolls to the Events Tables but consider them suggestive brainstorming tools only, and don't necessarily be married to the rolled results.) The second thing was an important aspect for me personally: I did not want to "break" the "narrativist" approach of Apocalypse World, since my first intended application for WTWD was, in fact, a game of Apocalypse World. I wanted the players to have as much creative agency as possible.

    The Cause - For a one-shot, rolling the cause would be fun. Maybe even for a short campaign. But for prepping a major campaign I personally want more agency, and I assume that my players do too.

    Winning - The Illuminati hack sounds awesome! Here are some others...
    • WORSE VERSUS BETTER - One player (or team) always plays to MAKE IT WORSE while the other always plays to RELIEVE IT. I have no idea how this would pan out in practice, because the whole game is slanted toward eventually killing basically everyone. But there it is.
    • REGIONS - Each person chooses a different continent or region of the world to affect with their decisions. Pressure totals for each region should be tracked individually.
    • WAR - As "REGIONS" above but you cause events in OTHER players' regions while responding to pressure in your own.
    [ETA: I haven't played any of the above variants myself. But I suspect the years-end rules might need tweaking for them.]

    Mark of the Beast - Sounds like a house rule to me! I don't want to side with any particular religious interpretations. ;-)

    @szp - Looking forward to hearing how it goes!
  • @szp: please do post how it goes!
  • The WAR variant sounds especially interesting. But what to do with the "everyone dies" result? Perhaps it applies only to your own region, and whoever gets that result first loses. But, can't you prolong a game indefinitely by using Relieve It after only one or two events, thus always rolling higher?
  • @Aslf I like the Risk board idea. Actually WTWD has aspects that remind me strongly of Risk Legacy (great vimeo from the designer) . If you haven't played it, it is a twist on the traditional Risk board game where actions from one game have impact in future games; including destroying cards, permanently changing rules, and writing on/changing the game board.

    Another board game along the same lines of WTWD is Tomorrow, but I think WTWD does a way better job with much less heavy-handedness.
  • Maybe a map like a risk board that divides the world into a handful of regions (e.g. the continents) and each turn has to affect the next region in the rotation. That way the "leads to..." snowballs on the single region at hand, and new, less related events, happen across the sea on the next turn.

    So far the games I have seen have seemed pretty US-centric. This might help players to create a truly global apocalypse.

    With this approach you might want to make the spreading result more common.
  • I'd use the separate pressure totals per region for this, and make it so that when something spreads from one region to another the new region gains pressure as well.
  • edited May 2014
    can't you prolong a game indefinitely by using Relieve It after only one or two events, thus always rolling higher?
    If you spend RPs in tiny amounts and distribute them all over the world and Political Events are deliberately kept mild, it is possible to play the game forever without having the Great Dying occurring at all. Instead you would get a boring and gradual set of global reforms and well-planned aid responses to random acts of nature. However this is not likely, since events can lead to other events it's not always possible to keep the number of events per year below 3.

    That said, here is an (untested) idea for running a WAR-type game of WTWD:


    - Whole globe should be divided up, no empty Regions
    - Everyone has their own Pressure score, and starts with 0 Pressure in their Region
    - Everyone gets 2 turns per year: a Pressure Turn and a Relief Turn

    - Pressure Turns: Go around the table, everyone puts Events in other peoples' Regions, increasing their opponents' Pressure Totals
    Note: If the Great Dying is already occurring somewhere and you roll an Event Type 6 (Special), you can spread it to another Region. It can spread to any adjacent Region (shared border). If reason (or a majority vote) dictates that international airflights or overseas transports are still running, it can also spread across oceans.

    - Relief Turns: Now we go around the table again, but here are the mod rules:
    1. You MUST spend ALL your Relief Points every year
    2. Roll 2d6 and add to your Pressure to determine RP as usual BUT...
    3. If the result of that roll is lower than the NUMBER of Events you suffered this year, you don't get to choose your Societal Responses. Instead, you must spend all your RP on the highest response you can buy.

    - End of Year: Once everyone has had both their turns, everyone does an End of Year roll for their own Region. If The Great Dying begins in your Region, you will no longer be permitted any Relief Turns. However you will still perform Pressure Turns and throw Events at the other players.


    1. The last player left with a Pressure Turn is the winner. Their Region now lays claim to the ruined, diseased, devastated remains of the planet Earth. Get that person a beer.

    2. Victory is fleeting. The game ends when the last Region succumbs to The Great Dying, which follows immediately after that Region's player becomes the last one with a Pressure Turn. Players may or may not wish to celebrate for a moment. Some may gloat, but only briefly. Nobody wins. Everybody loses.

    Example of a Relief Turn:
    Abby, Bob and Carla have all played their Pressure Turns; now it's Abby's Relief Turn. Her Pressure Score is 12 and her Region has suffered 5 Events this year. She rolls 2d6 and gets 4. This means she has 16 Response Points, but because 4 is less than 5 she MUST spend them all at once on "16 - Market/Currency Collapse"
  • edited April 2014
    Another board game along the same lines of WTWD is Tomorrow
    "Tomorrow" looks like fun! If I felt like getting into semantic arguments based on a dated set of theoretical categoricals, I'd call it a great Gamist/Simulationist approach to the same topics that WTWD addresses in a more Narrativist/Simulationist style. ;->
  • @AsIf & @Dreamofpeace - Earlier today I ran a combo game of Watch the World Die and the Quiet Year. Everyone had a blast, but the actual experience was... different than what I had expected. I think the problem was that putting the two together wasn't as effortless as I first thought. Considering the subject materials, I perhaps naively thought it would just work... Instead we ended up playing two fun games.

    One thing I expected was that people will pick up a lot of what happened during the WtWD phase in the the Quiet Year phase, but that barely happened. The core premises (nuclear war, Kessler syndrome & aggressively expanding wetlands) showed up, yeah, but the juicy details that the WtWD phase was full of went disappointingly unused. Another problem was that there was a disconnect of moods between WtWD and the Quiet Year... but that may have been a problem at my table.

    If I had the capacity, I would rework the weekly events of the Quiet Year to be more relevant to the custom apocalypse of WtWD. With a stronger tie, I think the combo experience could be more fun than it is right now. That'd require some effort and cleverness, though.

    (Just to share how humanity ended itself since it was amazingly fun - it all began with parasitic ivy in China. That devolved into destruction of arable farmlands in China, which led to destabilization of the Communist Party... leading to mass immigration from the most populous country in the world to the rest. Destructive anarchy in China led to its space programs being sabotaged, with satellites deliberately crashing into each other and triggering Kessler syndrome, bringing chaos to the entire world. North Korea tried to take advantage of the situation, but the EU and the USA intervened. NK carried out a false flag nuclear attack, leading to mutual destruction of the East and the West. Of course, the parasitic ivy took over the radioactive wastelands - and our community took place amidst it.)
  • edited April 2014
    Awesome apocalypse, @szp! When I ran WTWD as Session Zero of my current AW campaign, I originally intended to get it done in 60 or 90 minutes, and then move straight into chargen for AW with the WTWD apocalypse fresh in our minds. Well, it didn't work out that way, some people arrived late, some people brought more friends than I had expected, we had a lot of yummy distracting food, and we got pretty punchy. The WTWD game was all we managed to do that night.

    At first this bothered me. I felt we could have done both Session Zero and Session One in one night, and was hoping that the freshness of the WTWD content would be directly utilized in AW chargen. But when we next got together for the real Session One of AW, I found that it was probably best that it went the way it did. Separating the sessions, I mean. Two reasons.

    First: The mood of WTWD players sitting around the table can get pretty silly, even while the subject matter is dark as hell. I think this is a normal release of tension, which is experienced directly because it's the "real" world we're talking about and we have no PC sheets to transfer our emotions onto. It's hella fun, but it's a different mood than the mood you want to go into AW chargen with. Case in point: WTWD can be played perfectly fine as a "party game" all by itself with a bunch of drunk people.

    Second (and here my experience differs from yours): When we played WTWD as Session Zero, I wrote short descriptive phrases on a big whiteboard. Between sessions I typed up our timeline, fleshing it out into well-formed sentences and fitting it onto one side of one page (using fonts that replicated the look and feel of the AW playbooks). When we got together for AW Session One (chargen), the first thing I did was hand everybody a timeline to read. This took us straight into a (mostly) serious conversation about what sort of situation we might find 50 years later, which led easily into chargen. So that actually worked quite well. The timeline was regarded quite seriously, and was actively taken into account as the characters were created. I think the two key ingredients were (a) having the physical timeline written out in full, and (b) allowing time to create some emotional distance between the two sessions.

    Of course, it all depends on your group and other factors. My group was big (eleven people) and included a lot of newbies. It's easy to imagine a smaller group of RPG veterans sitting down to play WTWD in a VERY serious way, and heading straight into chargen without any mental gear-shifting required.

    By the way: this is probably obvious but for newbies it's a good thing to mention... When you're playing WTWD in prep for a post-apoc campaign, you should remember to throw in some stuff simply based on what you want to find in the post-apoc world. That's not selfish, it's world-creating agency. So throw in some of those survivalist caches, underground vaults, and exotic high-tech weapons. Your PC will really appreciate it 50 years from now. :-)
  • Interesting stuff, folks. AsIf and I discussed some of these things earlier in PMs, and it looks like we can see both the strengths and weaknesses of this game combo coming to the fore here. Excellent, and worth exploring.
  • Another possible variant...

    For on-line play, (in this thread for example) I find myself looking up details to flesh out the nastiness I'm dishing.

    For example, when I wanted to find something realistic for "Resources: Medicine/Antidote Shortage/Outage", I looked up biomedical nanoparticles on wikipedia to come up with the idea...which caused me to look up a real rare element called Tritium. A subsequent roll of "Ecosystem:Radiation/Fallout" fit perfectly because web pages on Tritium explained it can be derived from spent fuel.... and presto, I had a plausible radiation event.

    I'm not saying every result has to have a realistic reference, but it sure does help the plausibility and spark ideas.

  • *applause*
  • I also like your continent roll from the other thread:

    Roll to see which continent was effected:
    1 - North America, 2 - South America, 3 - Europe, 4 - Africa, 5 - Asia, 6 - Australia.

    Good optional roll for those who want a little more narrative prompting, just like the Event Mode table.
  • edited June 2014
    If you spend RPs in tiny amounts and distribute them all over the world and Political Events are deliberately kept mild, it is possible to play the game forever without having the Great Dying occurring at all. Instead you would get a boring and gradual set of global reforms and well-planned aid responses to random acts of nature. However this is not likely, since events can lead to other events it's not always possible to keep the number of events per year below 3.
    I think it's fairly likely to keep playing the game indefinitely, because events only really have a ~50% chance of leading to another event, so the chain reaction can be easily broken. I did some calculations and believe that you will get 1.4375 events for every time you decide to "Make It Worse". So if you roll twice, you are likely to get 2.875 events.

    I speak this from experience as I had played a game by myself testing to see whether it is possible to have a good randomly generated history simply by having only rolling for only a few events per year. I didn't bother toning down the Political Events and spending RPs in tiny amounts though because the actual fluff/RP spending doesn't matter at all; only the number of events matter in deciding whether the "Great Dying" happens. The end result after 10 years? Two World Wars, a nuclear winter that led to a sudden decline in agricultural yields and an inevitable societal collapse into feudalism, the complete collapse of Europe and China into barbaric warlord states, the rise and fall of the Indian Feudal Empire, a parasite-inspired Anticiv Movement seizing control over the United States and running the country (straight into the ground) while survivalists laugh in their expensive Vaults, and the invention of the "psychic malestorm" by some European warlord trying to deal with the ever-classic "how to motivate people to work while they are starving to death" problem.

    And as there has still been no "Great Dying" event, this means humanity must still somehow be striving and prospering.

    Obviously, there can be rare situations where you get (un)lucky. In one turn, I got a total of seven events, when I rolled only three times (my prediction: 4.315). That was the year when Europe decided to just end up imploding. But even getting a high number of events doesn't matter if you try to roll underneath 7 to initiate the "Great Dying" and ends up rolling a 12. So...yeah. I think I may have inadvertently broken the game here.

    I'm not entirely sure I want to continue with it, as the game's mechanics is based mostly on destroying stuff, and it seemed that after 10 years of my game, I think there's nothing left to destroy. I need some mechanics to allow for the rebuilding of post-apoc society, so I can again go ahead and destroy that and pave the way to the "Great Dying". Eventually.
  • edited June 2014
    you will get 1.4375 events for every time you decide to "Make It Worse". So if you roll twice, you are likely to get 2.875 events.
    Yeah that sounds about right.

    Your timeline sounds frikkin awesome!
    I think I may have inadvertently broken the game here.
    I don't know what mods you made, but straight from my first reading, it sounds like you're alternating between "Make It Worse" and "Relieve It" every turn? Is that the mod that you think "broke" it?

    The Great Dying roll mechanic is a little weird, but it is (a) simple and (b) a compromise between being overly limiting (like if there was a "track" and it happened when you hit point X on the track every time), or overly open (like if any player could just say "okay the great dying happens now!" any time they wanted).

    But that aside... There's nothing in the rules to prevent multiple sequential players from choosing "Make It Worse" within the same year. Some players may decide to collude in causing the GD or some may collude to avoid it; it's open to go both ways, or neither. The players have a little bit of a "collective throttle" on it. So as long as they're not colluding to keep it low (which effectively I think you may have been doing), it's actually not very hard to get up above 7 or even into the double digits in one year. In one of my playtest groups, it was hard to convince anyone to stop making it worse! (Side note: The first guy who finally stepped in to Relieve It in that game was a Catholic Worker IRL.)
  • Yeah, I like the way Make It Worse and Relieve It essentially allow the players to decide the pace at which things progress or devolve. There is definitely the potential for the game to go on for longer than planned, of course, but if the players stop Relieving It, it can't last too long, right?
  • I think I may have inadvertently broken the game here.
    I don't know what mods you made, but straight from my first reading, it sounds like you're alternating between "Make It Worse" and "Relieve It" every turn? Is that the mod that you think "broke" it?
    Yeah. For the first few turns, I did two rolls of disasters before I Relieved the Pressure, but when I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere with this approach, I decided to do three rolls of disasters instead. I suppose I could just keep on doing more and more "Making It Worse" rolls per year, but the point of the timeline was to see what would happen when I only do a few events per year. Violating that principle now just seems wrong.

    Thanks for praising the timeline by the way, but as the Great Dying has not happened, it does seem like I'm stuck in a rut as to how to continue it. It would seem best for me to ignore the stated rules and assume that, even though there is no Great Dying, the world as we know it as has effectively ended, and the Apocalypse has already ended. But, of course, I always reserve the right to reverse myself and return back to it.
  • I don't think it's illogical for the decline to go on for ten years or more. Looking back at your timeline I'm still blown away by all the awesome. Two world wars and a nuclear winter definitely killed a lot of people, but I don't necessarily think 90%+ is dead yet at this point. I think you're good - the people in your world are fucking miserable, but you're fine. :-)

    Are you doing this as prep for another campaign? Or just a free-standing experiment? That might be the deciding factor on what to do next. Maybe go ahead and bring the Great Dying right now by "GM Fiat" if you feel it's in a place for that to happen, or maybe continue but start playing a different way - perhaps rolling "low/high" to determine Worse/Relieve, or something like that.
  • It's just a free-standing experiment to create a story, with no plan to create a campaign out of it. I may consider "playing a different way", maybe using the War rules, but I won't make any commitments. Real Life takes priority.

    If I do continue, I'd probably make a Actual Play thread about the timeline proper.
  • edited July 2014
    Ok, if I can get some input on this, I'd like to have it. It's about the "War" variant.

    Since the year ends each time you go around the table twice (once for pressure and once for relief), it's pretty unlikely that one player will have enough events occur in their region inside of a year to trigger the Great Dying - UNLESS multiple people "gang up" on them. This may be seen as a feature or a bug.

    It simulates a slow succession of bad but not world-destroying events over a long period of years, which suddenly (a) slides into an unforeseeable stochastic funnel (when the dice happen by chance to pile a long event chain in one region), or (b) becomes a game of shifting alliances and betrayals (when a number of regions collude to gang up on another region).

    (a) That takes too long. We're playing "War" not "Long gradual decay".
    (b) I don't like games where everybody gangs up on one person.

    If it's a bug, it wants fixin'. Here are some possibilities:
    1. Go around the table twice for pressure turns, then once for relief turns.
    2. Roll 2 dice on your turn (different colors would be best). They BOTH create Events (and possible chains). These two events (and their chains) may be directed against the same region or two different regions. NOTE: This is statistically similar to the above, but without having to remember which round of pressure you're (i.e. your first, or your second).
    3. After each round of Relief Turns, the group decides by consensus (or majority vote, depending on your group's style) whether they think the year has ended. If yes, then everyone does end-of-year rolls.
    For a more aggressive/competitive group I'd say #2.
    For a more cooperative/collaborative group I'd say #3.

    Although of course, a cooperative/collaborative group probably doesn't play "against" each other in the first place - more likely they place their events based on the logic of the fiction rather than "gamist" concerns like "winning". But anyway... I think I'm looking at different two mods for this mod, based on playstyle and social dynamics.

    What do you think?
  • I tried the War variant and detected exactly the same problem as you did, so I abandoned it after one year. Your proposed changes would likely fix that problem, though I tend to prefer 2.

    The timeline is now already done, by the way. I just need to type it up.
  • edited July 2014
    Version 1.3 of WTWD is now available on rpgnow and drivethru. It includes the variant rules and pre-campaign approaches I described above, as well as the variants suggested by Paul and Dave. For the WAR variant I decided Igor was right, this is "war" after all, so I went with #2. Thanks for your input, you guys!
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