Playbook Technique: Playing Against Type

Are you about to play a *World game, and feeling restricted by the list of playbooks? Are you looking for a way to freshen up your next game, whether personally, or as a group?

Before you get to hacking (or before you get to writing up new playbooks), try this custom character creation move:

When you pick up a playbook , whether familiar, beloved, or overlooked, ask the group - or ask yourself - what is most archetypal about this playbook?

“What is the one thing that, to us, makes a person The Hardholder ?”

Now, create the character, inverting that assumption:

When you invert an assumption , choose one of the following:

  • The character plays entirely opposite to type, in terms of their personality, philosophy, outlook, or goals.
  • The character occupies a station or role in society entirely opposite to expectations.
  • The character is perceived by others (by society) as being someone totally different from what you would expect for that playbook.

As you look through the moves, gear, and Hx choices, justify each one. Some will be immediately obvious; others will be head-scratchers. Dig in and find the nugget around which you will form this new character.

If you are the MC, use that idea to form a landscape - physical, social, and psychic - which reflects that character’s position and values.

Apocalypse World

Assumption : The Angel is a healer; someone who cares about helping people, and wishes to eradicate disease and suffering.

Inversion : In your game, the Angel is a sadist, who invents - or creates! -
medical problems, wounds, and imaginary “plagues” in order to scare others into submission and garner power.

Justification : This Angel believes that only those whose insides she has seen can truly be trusted. She cuts and slices the world so she can find some semblance of security for herself.

Assumption : The Skinner is a gorgeous, nubile, desirable creature.

Inversion : In your game, the Skinner is an aging soldier with a limp.

Justification : There is something so magnetic about their stories, the twinkle in their eye, that everyone admires them, respects them, and wishes to be close to them. Their words soothe the hurt and excite the young, sowing the seeds for dreams of grandeur; their tales of a lost past are dangerously seductive.

Let yourself listen too long and you’ll find yourself in their bed.

Assumption : The Brainer is the weirdest wacko around, the most twisted and creepy individual.

Inversion : In your game, the Brainer is the only level-headed, sane person left. In the aftermath of the apocalypse, everyone else has lost their mind, and she is the last even-keeled survivor, clutching desperately onto reason and sensibility.

Justification : Your Brainer’s desperation has attracted the attention of the maelstrom, which has bestowed upon her powerful psychic gifts. Will she use her whisper projection, violation glove, and in-puppet strings to try to restore sense and sanity to those around her? Does she see her newfound weirdness as a problem to solve (the final erosion of everything she has been clinging to), or a tool to embrace?


Assumption : The Ghost is a nobody; a social outcast, overlooked, ignored, and easily forgotten.

Inversion : In your game, the Ghost is the most popular kid in school. He is the quarterback of the football team and Homecoming King.

Justification : His popularity has reached such a peak that other students have started to see him as above them or beyond them. Suddenly he realizes that no one really cares; no one sees his vulnerability or his pains. There is no one he can confide in, for no one would ever believe that he , the Homecoming King, could ever have any real problems in life! At the peak of his popularity… he’s never felt more alone.

And so on, of course.

Pick a different assumption each time.

Try it. Have fun.

4 Appreciations

I often play playbooks against type, doing a process like this more or less instinctively. I never really thought about it or why I do it. I don’t know how I feel about mechanizing something that feels instinctively to me should come from raw creative impulse. But it’s definitely an interesting exercise.

Right now, I’m playing a gunlugger in my AW game, who’s essentially the spitting image of a gun-toting american libertarian prepper with a Gadsden flag on his pickup truck and a deep paranoia of government, except that all of this fears came true. After the apocalypse, he’s a well respected trader and raider, interacting with the community of the Hardholder.

This would be fun and all, but still playing with type. However, I got inspired by watching Episode 3 of The Last of Us—I ended up not liking the rest of it, but I did this episode—and I’ve been enjoying playing him informed by the idea that most of his rugged callousness is hiding a deep fear of intimacy with people, which itself is caused by some deep trauma that I haven’t really started digging up. So, his internal world ends up being completely against type.

I guess it’s not exactly like your structured build, but this feels more like a natural and organic way of doing it. I’m playing both with and against type in the same character. The inspirations for the various parts of him are complex enough that I can’t easily track them down, but there’s definitely some of myself in there, mixed with projections of people I know, mixed with characters from stories that I watched. In the end, he feels like a real person and not a cardboard cutout.

It’s also fun to advocate for a character like this, because this type of deeply wounded inner world gives a lot of excuses for strong reactions and plenty of going aggro on people.

3 Appreciations

I really like the sound of that character, Claudio. A memorable one!

  • I wrote this post in a very “procedural” way, mostly to showcase some techniques or ways of thinking. I think that, in actual practice, we all tend to follow our instincts more, rather than rigid steps. That’s fine! It’s the idea that counts.

  • I’m curious about the fear of intimacy in your character, actually. That kind of inner psychology can be really challenging to bring out at the table. Is it an internal understanding of the character, which drives your portrayal of him? Or do you make efforts to “signal” it to the group through the way you play him, once you’ve decided this is the way he is? Or, perhaps, an above-board conversation at the table (outside of the context of the fiction)? How does this/has this played out for you?

1 Appreciation

3 posts were merged into an existing topic: Advocating for characters’ internal thoughts

Great post, @Paul_T! I love your examples and they make me want to finally play AW. :slight_smile:

(I’ve played the occasional gnome barbarian or cowardly knight, but haven’t given it much thought.)

I’m also happy to be the straight man, though. But given the interesting / frutiful contradictions in your examples, they may not even need a foil.

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Nice to see you here, Johann!

I don’t think this is ever necessary for anyone or even beneficial to the game… but I think that it can happen sometimes in a PbtA game that people get bored by/tired of the playbook selection. They’re strongly archetypal, and there are only so many of them. I thought of this as a good way to freshen up a game and our approach to it! Keep it new and fresh with this technique.

(The funniest part is that, years after writing this, I ran a game of Monsterhearts. And one of the players made a character who was a Ghost and also the captain of the football team! About a year or so after the campaign finished up, he happened to be looking through some internet archives and found this post of mine. He was quite shocked and surprised! Like I had “predicted” his character. That was very funny!)

2 Appreciations