Apocalypse World and The Checklist Manifesto

For those who haven’t heard about it, Apocalypse World is a new game by Vincent Baker, creator of Dogs in the Vineyard. It’s about an unspecified apocalypse, the crazy psychic maelstrom and paranormal smear it left over everything, and PCs that look like a sexified cross between the casts of Mad Max and Firefly. It’s got a unique aesthetic in a genre with broad appeal, and it’s already got the indie cognoscenti talking about using it for just about everything (except, weirdly enough, Star Wars – I’m sure that oversight is momentary).

AW is actually much more straight-ahead and traditional than some might expect a game with Baker’s name on it to be. That’s not to say that it doesn’t bring any innovation – while very simple, the dice mechanics in AW effectively prevent any implausible results and completely eliminate any uncertainty over when dice should be interacted with. That is all pretty exciting to people with a broad array of play interests, and while some folks have started bitching about how “make it an AW hack” is the most often heard suggestion on story-games.com these days, that isn’t the real controversy.

The real controversy is the “Master of Ceremonies” chapter of Apocalypse World, or more accurately, the way it starts:

That’s you, the MC, Apocalypse World’s GM.

There are a million ways to GM games; Apocalypse World calls for one way in particular. This chapter is it. Follow these as rules. The whole rest of the game is built upon this.

Emphasis mine. That bit bothers some people. A notable example is Will Hindmarch, who called out the same paragraph in his reaction to the game and took exception – not to the notion that a given other approach to GMing the game could be wrong, but that it could be “wrong according to the rules” (emphasis Will’s).

Now, I am not here to argue with Will. The viewpoint I oppose for the rest of this post is not his viewpoint. It is merely suggested by aspects of his viewpoint. And anyway his post is now old news and he may have changed his mind in important ways. I’m just here to tell you what he made me think of. And that brings us to The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, a book by bestselling author, New Yorker contributor and surgeon Atul Gawande.

Surgeons have a reputation for egoism. So do airline pilots, another profession that makes frequent appearances in Gawande’s book. Surgeons and airline pilots both struggle with complexity: there are a high number of tasks that must be done exactly right under certain highly stressful conditions or else people die. That’s part of why they’re so highly trained, but only part (much of the rest being that training provides the ground for understanding and improvisation). The truth is, though, that the levels of stuff to know, and execute perfectly, in both professions are so high that even the trained experts can simply get overwhelmed. They are so busy with detailed but well-understood tasks that they cannot possibly handle both those tasks and whatever is unique about the situation. One or the other will slip.

Enter the checklist, which pilots started implementing as early as 1935 in some situations, and which Gawande is now advocating for safer surgeries. Here’s a quote from his book:

The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine mindless automatons, heads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Did the managers sell all their shares? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise above to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we land?).

That’s from a chapter entitled “The Hero In The Age Of Checklists” (which among many other things tells how Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed that plane in the Hudson last year with the help of a checklist). If you’re pressed for time, just read that chapter. In fact, here’s another bit:

All learned occupations have a definition of professionalism, a code of conduct. It is where they spell out their ideals and duties. The codes are sometimes stated, sometimes just understood. But they all have at least three common elements.

First is an expectation of selflessness: that we who accept responsibility for others – whether we are doctors, lawyers, teachers, public authorities, soldiers, or pilots – will place the needs and concerns of those who depend on us above our own. Second is an expectation of skill: that we will aim for excellence in our knowledge and expertise. Third is an expectation of trustworthiness: that we will be responsible in our personal behavior toward our charges.

Aviators, however, add a fourth expectation, discipline: discipline in following prudent procedure and in functioning with others. This is a concept almost entirely outside the lexicon of most professions, including my own. In medicine, we hold up “autonomy” as a professional lodestar, a principle that stands in direct opposition to discipline. But in a world in which success now requires large enterprises, teams of clinicians, high-risk technologies, and knowledge that outstrips any one person’s abilities, individual autonomy hardly seems the ideal we should aim for. It has the ring more of protectionism than of excellence.

Now, Gawande’s language is tuned to much higher-stakes affairs than ours. If a GM runs Apocalypse World the same way he’d run anything else, and it takes him a couple of sessions to figure out how he needs to adjust his style so the rules fight him less, no one will die and no expensive equipment will fall out of the air; GMing doesn’t require teams of technicians or a large enterprise. But, two things: first, GMing has gotten rather closer, in the last 10 years of indie craziness, to a job that does indeed require “knowledge that outstrips any one person’s abilities;” and second, GMing has in fact been much more complex all along than most of us have been able (or willing) to see.

If the idea of a game that tells you how and how not to GM it irks you, consider – just consider – that such requirements might be best viewed as a tool to refocus us. Instead of viewing it as a threat to a principle we already have – one which is valuable, and isn’t going away – we could see it is a signpost to a new principle that will serve us better and better going forward.

Also, the list-of-names thing? Seriously, it’s not like you can’t pick a different one.


  1. For what it’s worth, I have changed my mind more than a little bit about Apocalypse World’s approach and have written elsewhere about that. This looks like a fine argument, here, for the case that I was wrong. I still have issues with some of Apocalypse World’s text and style, but whatever.

  2. That’s a great angle to approach this from, Mike. While, yes, our personal stake isn’t as high as a pilot or surgeon’s, Gawande’s insight is right on point, and something artists have of course known since forever. A solid structure internalized to the point of instinctual is the best ground for improvisation. Like, one reason I’m a shit guitarist is because I still have to THINK the fingering for each and every single chord…often while looking at the fretboard. A good guitarist doesn’t go beyoooond those stupid chords that are holding you DOWN, MAN. A good guitarist gets chords and other structures down to the point that they can simply flow from one to the next like water, without thinking. And from there they can springboard off that solid structure–the checklist–into perfect freedom.


  3. Excellent comparison, and apt enough that my disagreement with it is _crazily_ nerdy[1]. I think the underlying argument (the liberation of structure) is very aptly applied to AW, but the drawback with citing the checklist Manifesto to make this point is that while it holds it up in general, it departs from the AW approach very strongly in it’s actual methodolgy[2], so strongly that I think the comparison invites confusion.

    Like I said, it’s a crazily nerdy objection, based on being nuts for both books. 🙂 And nerdier still, I might suggest that a better comparison might be found in something akin to David Allen’s Getting Thing’s Done, which advocates structure and rules but for a much more fluid set of tasks and events (more akin to actions in RP/moves in AW) but that is probably not quite structured _enough_. So it may be there’s not a better comparison out there, and given that, maybe Checklist Manifesto really is the way.

    -Rob D.

    1 – And by disagreement, I really mean, “THIS IS AWESOME, NOW I’M GOING TO POKE IT WITH A STICK” which is one of those nerd expressions o delight we could probably do with out, but dammit, this is awesome and I want to poke it with a stick.

    2 – Ok, methodologies. Construction checklists are very different than surgery/pilot checklists.

  4. Thanks all for the kind words.

    Rob: maybe AW’s methodology is, by your description of GTD, inverted GTD: specified tasks and events, but not a lot of real structure for them!

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