Looking over the basic playbook for Apocalypse World, some of the rules seem like they would allow two (or more) cooperating players to quickly and trivially gain as much experience as they want. For example, the 'Angel' character has the following special ability/note/feature (emphasis mine):

If you and another character have sex, your Hx with them on your sheet goes immediately to +3, and they immediately get +1 to their Hx with you on their sheet. If that brings their Hx with you to +4, they reset it to +1 instead, as usual, and so mark experience.

The rules for inflicting (and healing) harm seem similarly open to exploitation by cooperating players:

When you inflict harm on another player’s character, the other character gets +1Hx with you (on their sheet) for every segment of harm you inflict. If this brings them to Hx+4, they reset to Hx+1 as usual, and therefore mark experience.

Is there anything in the rules themselves that would prevent say, a nymphomaniac 'Angel' from leveling up their entire party at-will?

Or two players from picking up some small 1-harm knives and repeatedly stabbing and healing each other for the Hx bonuses?

I guess the question is, do the rules have anything "built-in" to prevent this kind of thing or is it just the expectation that 1) players won't try to do this and 2) if they do the MC will intervene (or else decide that it's fine)?

Note that this question is similar, but seems more focused on whether or not this kind of thing can work once. Since it sounds like it can, what (if anything) prevents the tactic from being spammed repeatedly for quick and easy experience?


I'd like to challenge the word "trivially" in your original assumption.

Inflicting harm is definitely not going to be quick or trivial, because even taking a single point of Harm takes days to heal. The Angel has a dedicated move (and they're the dedicated medic) and that still requires you to be "blissed out on chillstabs" for 4 days. At that rate, leveling up even once is going to deplete the Angel's Kit twice over and take about two months (3 +hx * 5XP), which means you need a ton of jingle and a very safe place to pull it off. Apocalypse World gives you neither.

Having tons of sex with the Angel works slightly better, but still takes a huge amount of time. Even if the MC lets every single act count, you still need to have sex 3(hx) * 5(xp) * 10(levels) = 150 times with every party member. That's likely going to take a few months at the least. And again; in all that time you have to be in a safe place, undisturbed, and catered for. At basically no cost, because you wouldn't be able to afford it.

Giving you the circumstances to do either of these things would violate the MCs agenda of "Barf forth apocalyptica", which would not tolerate such a place to exist easily. Also, while you're taking a multiple month long lavish vacation, whatever fronts are active will be rolling on, un-opposed. So even if the MC allows you to do this without breaking up your little party a few hours in (say, with some angry local dudes demanding their turn) you probably wouldn't even recognize the world you came out to when you finally left your hole; in Apocalypse World, things crumble quickly if not handled carefully and quickly.

So summing it up; there's no "hard" rule that says you can't do it, but all the other rules of MCing will quickly start forcing the MC to handle it, and it will be handled in a very natural fashion by the very nature of Apocalypse World.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "even taking a single point of Harm takes days to heal" - Is the Angel's 'healing touch' move a possible way to subvert this with a high enough +weird? It seems like that would give them a fairly reliable/low-risk way of immediately removing 1 harm. Might lead to a (narratively interesting) sequence like 'Angel has sex with Bob, Angel stabs (or whips, or spanks, or bites) Bob for 1 harm, Angel touches Bob and heals 1 harm'. Which nets Bob +2 Hx and the Angel +4 Hx (and experience)? \$\endgroup\$ – aroth Dec 26 '17 at 11:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aroth you'd need a very high Weird to do that reliable so many times. You can ask a separate question to see if it's possible to get a very high Weird score, but I don't know of any way to do it. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 26 '17 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aroth The last time our Angel used healing touch and missed, the Maelstrom nearly killed them both. Admittedly those were extreme circumstances, but it remains that rolls on Weird aren't to be trifled with. :) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 26 '17 at 14:54

There's some subtleties about how the rules interact but let's just sorta focus on the big picture…

Congrats on your new pain cult!

You're sitting at the table narrating, "We sit around cutting each other in pursuit of some kind of self-knowledge." Then you add,

  • "We spend a few days zonked out on drugs and repeat the process."
  • or "We walk around in constant pain, I guess."
  • or "We plumb the depths of the psychic maelstrom and then just cut each other some more."

Congratulations, you've formed a weird pain cult, complete with an affliction driving it. That's a thing. It's a very, very big thing, for the MC to react to.

The MC's goal isn't to shut you down, but to "ask provocative questions," "barf forth," "make the world seem real," &c. What happens to the world around you while you're "blissed out on chillstabs?" Where do you find the meds to just keep doing this constantly — and, uh, is it addictive? What do you find in the psychic maelstrom while constantly using it to reweave your body? How does your lover Rolfball feel about all these nasty-looking scars you're collecting? That's what the "play to find happens" philosophy is all about.

Now, if players try to dodge that by establishing "we have no responsibilities or attachments and pursue our love of cutting each other with knives in perfect isolation and safety," it falls on the MC to:

  1. Make sure we're on the same page about the point of this game, so they're not wasting time trying to treat the rules as a source of mechanical challenges like it's D&D.
  2. Demonstrate, in the fiction, all the ways their little bubble is fragile, as all things are.

At that point, if they really want to establish some kind of foothold of stability in order to pursue their love of cutting each other with knives in perfect isolation and safety, they know how to work for it, and now you have a goal to drive your game.

Telescoping scenes

The other thing to address here is that moves are about fiction, not simulation.

Yes, "if you do it, you do it" — for example, if you describe a moment of sexual intimacy between characters, then, yeah, your special moves apply without question.

But the intent of the moves isn't to represent the logistics of every moment of your lives "off-screen." They follow the logic of scenes and narrative consequences, not the simmy logic of counting every minute that goes by and every bullet spent. (If you want to play out resource stress, check out "Afflictions" and "Countdown Clocks," pp. 110 and 117 in 2nd Edition, respectively.)

Like, if the Skinner shacks up with the Hardholder, and then we skip ahead six months to explore what happens once a bunch of long-term projects we've set up in play bear fruit, I'm not going to sit there and say, "How many times have you had sex?" and then tell the Skinner they now have 100-barter worth of stuff. Maybe fire the move once or twice to represent the totality of their relationship's development, give them some stuff that matches the hardholder's wealth established by the fiction, and keep going.

(Likewise, if you've got a captive and you say, "I'm going to torture them for information," it's legit for the group to decide that's go aggro but we'll put all the details "off screen.")

So, uh, I don't think I'd ever sit there and actually work through the numbers on "we spend months just cutting ourselves and/or having sex, exactly how much XP is that." That's just not what the moves are for.

For ideas of how to make moves that work with time-skips and telescoping action, I recommend looking at the "Love Letters" section (pg. 275 in 2nd Edition).

Don't stress about XP

It's really easy to sit down to your first game of Apocalypse World and figure, "my character's gonna be amazing once I level up a bunch!"

In my experience, how it actually works is that really you're a total badass right out the gate, the first 2-3 advances will pretty much put you at the top of your ability, and the rest after that mostly just represent further fictional development.

It's not wrong to aggressively chase XP, but it's not necessary, either. Nothing particularly bad will happen if you get too much or too little. (That said, I do think the game flows a bit smoother with a variant XP rule that no longer counts individual highlighted rolls, see post #6 here.)

It's okay for players to "feed" each other a bit of XP. It leads to more interaction, more give-and-take, more violence, and more sex between the protagonists. Play moves forward as a result.

Note also that it's okay to put stuff on a character sheet for reasons other than advances earned with XP. It'd descriptive, too. Follow the fiction. (See p. 258 in 2nd Edition.)

Also, just speaking from personal experience, the world won't end if you just say, "Hey, the situation has changed a lot, so everyone feel free to take an advance to represent all the stuff that you did for three months." Even if they didn't spend three months having orgiastic sex, taking hardcore narcotics, or carving little holes in their bodies and then pouring the broken world's inhuman, howling id into those little holes.

But if they want to say they did any of those things? Especially the third one? Embrace it. Make it awesome. Put your "bloody fingerprints" all over it.

To be honest, I've just been handing out entire moves on occasion — not just de-facto fractions of an XP — to characters who are willing to drown themselves in the psychic maelstrom and, uh, it has worked fine so far.

In summary,

  1. Make sure everyone understands the point and feel of the game, and what they're getting into.
  2. Because what they're getting into is some serious stuff rife with apocalyptic weirdness and dramatic potential, and it's your duty to bring that out in play.
  3. Rules-wise, if you're in a situation where it feels like you'll have to play accountant to figure out what's going on, read up on custom moves and "love letters" instead.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Bravo! I love answers about AW that paint something of the rich experience of playing and MCing this game. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 26 '17 at 20:48

Apocalypse World is a narrative first system ...

If the narrative is missing the mechanics don’t get engaged.

“[Y]ou and another character hav[ing] sex” has to be a meaningful interaction within the narrative - if the only sensible answer to the question “why are you having sex?” Is “to gain XP” then you’re not playing Apocalypse World.

Similarly, you can’t take harm when you’re not in danger.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It doesn't say anywhere that the sex has to be meaningful, though. The triggering condition seems to be met with casual sex as well. Same with harm; if someone stabs you in the gut, you take harm (and are in danger of bleeding to death, probably.) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 26 '17 at 9:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik meaningful to the characters: no, meaningful to the narrative: yes. Narrative led - no narrative, no mechanics. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Dec 26 '17 at 10:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's no mechanism to say "that doesn't happen because your answer to 'why?' isn't good enough" or "… it's just not narratively meaningful". That would be the MC violating the MC rules, actually. Rather, anything undertaken for merely mechanical reasons is necessarily made narratively meaningful by the narrative consequences. (Doing something just for mechanics is a lovely gift to the MC.) So I have to -1 this for missing the fundamental flow of the game and how it nurtures player agency. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 26 '17 at 15:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie On the other hand, it IS true that in order to do it, you have to do it. If the players say "We have sex", I think the MC can and should ask "Okay, what do you do?" before any moves get processed. From that perspective, it's totally the case that if the narrative is missing, the mechanics don't get engaged. But I agree that "Why are you having sex?" isn't the right question, and "to gain XP" would be a fair answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SeaWyrm Jan 4 '18 at 22:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeaWyrm Yes, and that's even a rule. The answer gets that part right. Where it diverges from the game's rules — and fundamental operating structure — is where it claims the MC can demand “why” an action is being undertaken and then veto the action if the answer doesn't satisfy the MC. (Aside, the answer also gets it wrong when it claims that AW is a narrative-first system; it's explicitly a two-way system, via its “prescriptive and descriptive changes” rule.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 4 '18 at 22:05

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