Apocalypse World: Troubles Abound

The last session of our Apocalypse World game happened after a bit of a delay: due to scheduling difficulties, it was six weeks between sessions instead of the normal three. This gave me some time to think about some of the difficulties I ran into the previous session, to finish up the preparations I didn’t get to last time, and to come up with some plans and ideas to make the next session better.

Among the things I did was rewrite the Loot the Ruins move I had developed to make it a little looser, a little less mechanistic, and more in keeping with the spirit of the game. Here’s what I came up with:

Loot the Ruins

Choose one category from the list below that you are looking for. You can decide not to pick, if you want – this gives you a +1 on the roll, but the MC determines what you find.

  1. Barter
  2. Tech
  3. Weapon
  4. Armour
  5. Treasure
  6. Place

Spend a day in the Ruins and roll + Sharp. On a 10+, you find something from the category that you’re looking for with no strings attached. On a 7-9, you find something, but there’s a catch: the MC can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice.

I think this move worked out better than the previous version, but that could just be because of the way the game went.

I also completed a third Front for the game, filled with the weirder stuff that we had touched on in creating the game world. And I reviewed the other Fronts, coming up with – not adventures or scenarios and storylines, but hints and implications of badness off-screen or in the future, so that I’d have some ready ideas of what to throw at the characters ((In the end, I didn’t wind up using any of the things I came up with, except in the broadest terms, but the exercise was very useful for getting into the correct mindset for running the game.)) when it was my turn to make a move.

With all of this, I felt better prepared for this session than for the previous session. This may seem like a bit of a strange idea, given the heavily improvisational nature of the game, but one of the few things I’ve taken to heart from my acting courses 0h-so-many years ago ((Yeah, I studied theatre in university. It was not a good fit.)) is that your improv is stronger and richer and deeper if you’ve done your homework. If nothing else, felling prepared gives you the confidence you need to relax and go with the flow ((At least, for me. I have known a GM or two that have become rigid and inflexible with too much preparation, and then panic when things go south. Fortunately, I don’t play with any of them any more.)).

We’d ended the last session with the characters preparing to head into the Ruins, escorting Lark and Sparerib, two members of the Dawning trade party negotiating with Roosevelt for treaties that included some of the tech and artifacts that Roosevelt citizens had scavenged from the Ruins. According to Wilson ((The head of the Dawning trade delegation.)), the idea is for them to get a real sense of how difficult such scavenging is, so they can properly value it in the negotiations.

And Calico, the head of Roosevelt’s guard and defence force, has told Nils to make sure that Lark and Sparerib don’t make it out of the Ruins alive.

I started the game by asking each of the characters some leading questions about the Ruins: what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen in the Ruins, what scares you most about the Ruins, have you ever been right through the Ruins, stuff like that. And from their answers, I asked some more leading questions, until we had a shared understanding of the Ruins as mysterious and dangerous, with great treasures and deep secrets hidden in its depths. This provided me with some solid material for improvisation during the game session.

The gang decided to head south along the river to the ford to cross into the Ruins farther from Roosevelt, going in where things hadn’t been picked over yet. Of course, this is closer to the forest where the Flayers lurk ((Cannibal savages that the players came up with during game creation.)), so more of a risk. They crept along through the snow in Nils’s van, with Snow and JB keeping a lookout for danger.

This is where, from a mechanical point of view, things got really interesting to me. One of the instructions to MCs in the rulebook is “Play to find out what happens.” I didn’t really understand this – oh, I thought I did, but it was more a vague idea of not having any predetermined outcome or plot than a true understanding. This is the session where I suddenly really got the idea, and saw it in action.

The game world unfolded organically, according to the successes, failures, and partial successes of the characters. JB read a situation and asked where his enemies were, so I told him, despite the fact that I hadn’t decided there were any enemies around before that. Nils blew a roll to read a situation, and got him and Magpie surrounded by mysterious, well-armed, polite ((“Omigod! They’re Canadian!”)) soldiers that I made up on the spur of the moment ((

I have no idea who these guys are, what they want, or why they just asked some questions at gunpoint and then just vanished. But it was a good moment in the game.
)). Snow missed on a roll to loot the Ruins, and wound up being chased by unknown enemies through the twisting, ruined streets.

The expedition ran into all sorts of problems, from strange creatures hidden in an old pawn shop to streets collapsing under the tires of the van. And every single one of the problems rose from the interaction between the narrative fiction of the game and the mechanics of the moves. The fiction prompted the characters to make a move, and the move resulted in a change in the fiction. This is all spelled out in the rulebook, but every time I read it, it seemed like I was missing something, that the simple reading of the directions was too easy, too shallow. Seeing it in play, clicking in and working the way it did, was a revelation. It actually is that simple, but it’s not shallow at all. The rulebook says it requires a particular discipline, and that’s very true, but when it starts clicking in a good game, the discipline becomes easy and natural.

This is the game session where I finally understood what Apocalypse World ((And, hopefully, by extension, all the other games based on it.)) is all about. It’s about the way the world and game both grow and progress based on character action and choice.

The final confirmation for me that I’m finally getting it came after the game. Over the next week or so, pretty much every one of the players told me how much they had enjoyed the game, and how much fun they had. This was nice, of course, but the real kicker was that they all said, in one way or another, “Boy, the Ruins are really nasty! I hadn’t expected that.” I tried to explain that the nastiness of the Ruins really came about because of their missed moves, how I was as surprised as they were about how the things had turned out, but I don’t think I explained it very well. It’s something you have to experience in action from the MC chair, I think.

Anyway, the evening ended with the group making camp in the Ruins, only about halfway to their destination. Lark and Sparerib are still alive, and have recovered a metal crate from the Ruins. Magpie’s picked up a nice guitar for her hoard, JB’s killed a whole lot of folks, and Snow has found a beacon he was looking for to lead him to his stasis chamber. And Nils has managed to get his van dropped into the tunnels beneath the city and get it out again.

Of course, he used explosives to open a way out, and it seems to have woken something deep in the Ruins…

Apocalypse World: Ruins

Saturday night ((Actually, a couple of Saturdays ago, now. I’m behind on this post.)) was the second installment of my new Apocalypse World campaign. Because of scheduling issues, I had to move it up a week which, as it turned out, meant that I hadn’t got all the prep work that I had planned done in time ((Let me be clear: I could have got more done, but I chose to do some other things, pretty much right up to the last minute.)). Because I’m new to the game, this was a bigger deal than it might otherwise be – mainly, what it meant was that I didn’t feel as confident in running the game as I like.

Prep for Apocalypse World, like most of the rest of the game, is a little different from most other games I’ve run. Instead of creating story lines and adventures, what you do is create what the game calls fronts. These are collections of threats, arranged into similar groupings, with some notes about how things escalate. It sounds like splitting hairs, but the difference in perspective is important. I created one front to reflect the unsettled political situation and threats in Roosevelt, and one to reflect the external threats of raiders, cannibals, the ruins, and the twisted creatures of the wastelands.

As part of this second front, I created a custom move for exploring the ruins – the players had established in the first session that much of Roosevelt’s wealth and influence came from looting the ruins ((I think that I may have been a little overly generous with the move, but we’ll see how it plays out over a couple more sessions before I change it.)). For those who are interested, this is the move:

Loot the Ruins: Spend the day searching the Ruins for salvage and roll + Sharp. On a 10+, pick two items off the list below. On 7-9, you pick one and the MC picks one. On a miss, the MC picks 2.

  • Find oddments worth 1-Barter
  • Find a common firearm
  • Find a common melee weapon
  • Find a common outfit that grants 1-Armour
  • Find an attachment that lets you add a new tag to an existing item
  • Find equipment that lets you add an improvement to a workspace
  • Suffer a mishap and take 1-Harm AP
  • Break a weapon or piece of equipment in an accident
  • Encounter hostile forces (human)
  • Encounter hostile forces (animal)
  • Get lost in the twisting by-ways

I wanted to finish one more front before play, relating to the weirdness in the world – the psychic maelstrom, Yellohammer’s cult, stuff like that. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I didn’t get that far, so I’m working on it for next session.

When we got together for the game, I gave the players the option of picking up right where we left off, with them our at the ram stead with too few snowmobiles to get them all back and one member unconscious, or starting a day or two later, back in Roosevelt, with me dictating how the return went. Three-quarters of the players didn’t trust me ((They’ve played in my games before, you see.)), so they wanted to pick things up out in the wild. After some futzing around, they decided that Snow would take Nils back to Roosevelt on the one working, non-booby-trapped snowmobile, while JB and Magpie would wait out at the raided farmstead for them to return.

Back in town, I got to set up a PC-NPC-PC triangle, as suggested in the rulebook ((To be fair, Snow and Nils did it mostly themselves.)), having Calico and Snow almost come to blows while Nils did his best to keep things calm. It was fascinating to watch it play out, and I see the value of the construction very clearly now – it generated a lot of drama in the game, and made the world that much more interesting and real. Out at the farm, JB and Magpie had to deal with cold, boredom, and the threat of more raiders ((There weren’t going to be any more raiders right now; another fight out in the cold was all that interesting to me. But the imminent threat of more raiders was something the characters had to be worried about.)). Finally, with Nils recovering in Wei’s clinic ((And all the jokes about Nils’s scorched groin were making the rounds of Roosevelt, of course.)), Snow took Nils’s van out through the night to pick up JB and Magpie – also, the wrecked snowmobiles, the booby trapped snowmobile, and the raiders’ guns ((The one surviving raider that they had captured died slowly during the night. He’d suffered 2-Harm, and the game advises looking at NPCs through the crosshairs.)).

Once everyone was back in Roosevelt, I moved time forward a week or so, giving everyone time to recover a segment of Harm and get back on their feet, then asked them what the wanted to do. After checking on how things were going in town ((Someone was back working Inch’s beer stall, for example, though he or she was wearing the heavy, obscuring robes of Yellowhammer’s cult, so no one knew for sure if it was Inch or not. But at least the beer was flowing again.)), they decided to head out into the Ruins for some salvage – they were pretty much all low on funds, what with Calico being pissed at JB and Snow and not giving them any work.

This is where I began to question the custom move I made, seeing everyone grabbing some really good loot. I did manage to stick them with  few little problems – Nils’s van broke down, Snow’s box of AP ammo was infested by scissor worms ((Little things like silverfish, but with something like a crab claw at the head. And now Roosevelt has a scissor worm problem.)), and Magpie ran into some other looters who wanted to take the leather vest she found ((That turned kind of dark – Magpie isn’t much of a fighter but, as a hoarder, when her stuff is threatened, she gets ruthless.)). And then they got a little lost on the way out of the Ruins. Still, it was a successful expedition ((Perhaps a little too successful.)), and everyone was happy with it.

I felt is was a little slow and awkward, though. The way things hinged on the new move, the balance between letting the group get stuff vs. causing them problems, all of it was a little off and artificial. I think I need to rewrite the move to let the players pick only one thing off the list, and bring in the concept of hard choices, strings, hard moves, etc. I’ll think about that for the next session.

Anyway, they made it home, and I floundered a bit, trying to figure out what to do next. I mentioned in the last post that we got a lot more done in a single session than I had anticipated, and that trend carried over. I underestimated how much more we get done with Apocalypse World, and hadn’t finished the other piece of prep I had intended to do before the game: writing up some one-line hints of things to use to hint at future badness related to the fronts I had prepared ((I was going to do this after I had finished the three fronts I had planned so, when I didn’t finish the third front, obviously I didn’t get to this, either.)). Fortunately, the fronts are incredibly useful tools for figuring out what to do next, but you need to take a breath and look them over ((The AW rulebook tells you to take breaks whenever you feel the need, and that’s some good advice.)). Once I did that, I had an idea of what to do.

So I had Wilson, the trade representative from Dawning, the city to the north, come to talk Magpie into leading some 0f her people deep into the Ruins. Nils overheard this proposal, and stuck his oar in, so Wilson included him in the discussion. They dickered for a while before settling on a price, and the requirements of the trip, and the hiring of a couple of extra guns ((That’d be JB and Snow.)) for escort. When asked the reason for the trip, Wilson said that she was in negotiation with Boss T, much of which was based on the ability  of Roosevelters to recover interesting salvage from the Ruins, and Wilson needed to understand exactly how difficult this salvage was so as to value it appropriately.

Of course, Nils and Magpie are pretty sure that’s bullshit.

And then Calico called Nils in to talk to her, and said that it would be a good idea if Wilson’s people didn’t survive the trip.

That’s where we left things.

Before the next session, I’ve got to finish my third front, rework the Loot the Ruins move, and make some hints at future badness for spur of the moment use. It’s taking a little time, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of the game, and figure out how to make it work.

And everyone seems to be having fun so far. So, it’s a win.

Apocalypse World: Welcome to Roosevelt

Last night, I got the gang ((And by gang, I mean the four people who decided to play in this campaign.)) together to start up our new Apocalypse World campaign. I’ve been excited about starting this game, but also a little apprehensive – the paradigm ((Yeah, I said paradigm. But at least I’m using it correctly.)) for the game is substantially different from a lot of games, putting a great deal of emphasis on the MC ((What a GM is called in this game.)) improvising, and on the players for instigating action. So, yeah, some conflicted feelings going in.

The players had all pretty much selected their playbooks ((Essentially the classes in the system, but covering all aspects of the character.)) before they showed up to play, but I gave them all a chance to change their minds if they wanted once we got together. None of them did. We wound up with the following characters:

  • JB – Gunlugger
  • Magpie – Hoarder
  • Nils – Savvyhead
  • Sgt. Orville Snow – Quarantine

We walked through the character creation process up to the point of doing introductions and Hx ((History -  the relationships between the various characters.)), then started doing some setting creation. Now, the game doesn’t deal with this specifically; it advocates that you jump right in to the first day of following the characters around. I chose not to do that for a few reasons.

First, as I had found in the one-shot I played at GenCon last summer, there are a lot of very interesting kinds of setting for the post-apocalypse, and the standard Mad Max desert isn’t the only option. So, I didn’t want to assume that setting at the expense of forgoing player input, which can give me options I hadn’t even thought of.

Secondly, I wanted more details established by the group for me to riff on in my improvised MCing. I also wanted to have enough detail built into the setting that the players could come up with aims and goals for their characters that fit with the shared fiction of the world. Just a little bit of detail goes a long way with helping the players feel confident understanding how the world works.

Third, collaborative setting creation does more than anything else I’ve seen for getting players emotionally invested in a game. It’s a trick I learned from DFRPG, and I like it so much I try to use it in just about every game I run. The details give the players confidence, as I mentioned above, and the collaboration gives them a reason to care. If they’re the ones who came up with the idea of the guy who runs the beer stall in the marketplace, they feel some attachment to him.

So, we wound up spending a little more time doing the setting building. It wasn’t as structured as the DFPRG version, just me asking provocative questions, as per the Apocalypse World recommendations, as we filled out the world. We started with, “Do you guys have a home base, or are you nomadic?” and we went from there. And thus was the town of Roosevelt born.

Roosevelt is a walled community of about three hundred. It’s actually a small section of a larger, ruined city that’s been fenced off and fortified to make it defensible. The larger city, just called the Ruins, sits on either side of a river twisting through a rugged valley – the terrain is something like southwestern Montana ((Though I’ve been clear that the actual area of play may or may not actually be in Montana. Why? Because there’s no need to commit myself to that sort of answer, and leaving it unresolved gives me more options. The important bits that impact play are what the terrain is like, not where it actually is.)) ((Why this terrain? Well, I think that three of us have been watching Longmire and two of the players drove through that area recently may have something to do with it.)) – with some sheltered plains to the south and east, forests to the southwest, and high canyon walls with quarries to the south. Down one branch of the river is New Ogden, the bread basket for the area, which trades food with Roosevelt. North beyond the Ruins is Dawning, a larger, more powerful settlement that has set up manufacturing. They trade with New Ogden for food and raw materials, and with Roosevelt for scavenged tech. Trading representatives and military advisers from Dawning are working to gain more influence in Roosevelt.

Inside the walls of Roosevelt, things are run by Boss T, a savvy trader and organizer, who does her best to keep the town working and independent. Her right hand is Calico, who runs the gang that provides security and defense for the town. Calico has a patchy birthmark over one eye and is known to be kinda crazy ((Players: “She’s not really crazy. She’s just kind of harsh and unpredictable.” Me: “I know you guys are trying to set up a stable environment for your characters. That’s not gonna happen. Every time you try and make things safer, I will insert some instability. That’s what makes this game work. Calico is crazy.”)). Add to the mix a strange cult – small for now – of heavily robed figures, known as Yellowhammer’s cult. No one knows which of the members is Yellowhammer, or what they want. So far, they haven’t been causing trouble, but you know that’s not gonna last.

And just for fun, we threw in some cannibals – the Flayers – in the woods to the southwest; bands of slave-taking raiders that come through from time to time; dangerous wild animals, like wolves, bears, mountain lions, and more exotic things from zoos, that roam the woods, plains, and Ruins; and rumours of other animals that have been changed in some way to make them more dangerous.

With that finished ((And a nice map drawn.)), we went ahead with the introductions and the Hx phase of the things. Everyone, including me, agreed that the Hx phase was the most complex and confusing part of character creation, but we only have to do it once. We got through it, and everything else having to deal with Hx is pretty straightforward, so that’s not too bad.

And then we jumped into the “follow the characters around for a day” section of the first session recipe ((Apocalypse World has a definite outline for running the first session. It spells out what to do and how to use what happens to prepare for subsequent sessions.)). I started by throwing some minor complications at folks – Nils’s van wouldn’t start after the cold night ((Someone suggested we start play in the winter, and I thought that was a great idea. You don’t see a lot of post-apocalypse stuff dealing with the seasons. Everything’s deserts or southern US or coastal or summertime.)); Magpie’s friend, Inch, wasn’t at his beer stall in the market first thing in the morning, leading to some disgruntled prospective customers; JB spotted some smoke out on the southern plain while on sentry duty.

Nils and Magpie did some looking for Inch, checking out his place. No sign of him there, no sign of a struggle, no sign of him leaving. The only weird thing they found was a symbol painted on one wall that looked like a blue, backwards question mark with no dot underneath. They didn’t really know what to do next ((I was just as glad, because I wasn’t sure where I was going with this. It was all Announcing future badness, in the terms of the rules.)), so when JB and Snow came to see if they wanted to go check out the smoke on the plain, they agreed. JB had arranged to get three snowmobiles from Calico for the job, along with Kickstart, one of Calico’s men.

Out at the smoke, they found a small farm complex: two houses facing each other, with a storm fence enclosing the yard between them, and the outer windows covered over, with a barn off to one side. The storm fence had been torn down in one spot, and there was a pile of debris and (possibly) corpses burning in the middle of the yard. As they were scouting, someone in one of the houses took a shot at them, and they dove for cover.

The fight that followed was, in retrospect, a bit too ambitious for my first session. On the one hand, it had a nice, chaotic, dramatic feel to it – people running through the snow, crashing snowmobiles, stalking each other with sniper rifles, and triggering booby traps, everyone scattered around the area. It created the out-of-control feeling I like in my modern combats ((And was so key to the feel of my all-time favourite games, Unknown Armies.)), which was good.

On the other hand, I was tapdancing as fast as I could go, coming up with good answers and responses ((Or, at least, plausible answers and responses.)) to the the characters’ moves. I didn’t want to get into the advanced combat moves, but I had to borrow some of them to handle some of the characters’ actions. I also didn’t handle the pacing as well as I could have, but that’s something that will come with time and practice. In general, it went okay, but a simpler combat would have been better.

At the end of the fight, five of the seven bad guys were dead, one was unconscious, and the last had fled. Two of the three snowmobiles the gang had come out on were disabled. Kickstart was dead, three out of the four PCs were injured, including an unconscious Nils ((He tried to start one of the bad guys’ suped-up racing snowmobiles, and it blew up under him. He hadn’t checked for booby traps, and I figured that was a pretty obvious Mad Max trope, so I didn’t feel bad about doing it.)). That’s where we left it for the evening.

We did the end-of-session stuff, and closed things down. Everyone seemed to have had a good time ((In fact, I just got e-mail from one of the players telling me that she had really enjoyed the game.)), so I take it as a win.

One of the interesting things I found about running the game is how much you can get done in a session. Actual play started about an hour and a half before we wrapped up for the evening, and we got in two different lines of investigation, a fair bit of interaction, reconnaissance, and a fairly sprawling combat encounter. In D&D 4E, I’m lucky if the group gets in that much in a five-hour session. I’m really starting to like the lean, fast RPGs. You can focus on story and interaction rather than the mechanical, simulationist aspects. Not that I’m against simulation, but you see what I’m saying.

Now, over the next couple of weeks, I’ve got to re-read the Fronts section of the game and do up some fronts for the game. That’ll give me a more solid foundation and more options for improvising next session.

A session I’m really looking forward to.


Looking Forward to the Coming Apocalypse

After I wrapped up my Armitage Files game and my Feints & Gambits game, I took about a month off from running games and rethought the way I wanted to do things. I decided that I wanted to run smaller, shorter games – things that wrap up in a few months rather than a few years. I figure I can run two games at a given time ((Plus the Storm Point game.)) without burning out on them, so once I got the Civil War game up and running properly, I started looking for the next game I was going to run.

I’d been intrigued by Apocalypse World ever since I read it a couple of years ago. But I was also pretty intimidated by it – the constraints it places on the MC ((Apocalypse World  speak for the GM.)) are real game-changers ((Ha! See what I did there?)), and run pretty much counter to the way I learned to run games. There are two specific things that are very different:

  • MCs do not roll dice. All the rolls are done by the players, and the MC just reacts to the rolls. This is such a strange idea to me that it feels like cheating – a player flubs a roll, and I just get to inflict damage on the character? I don’t need to make a to-hit roll? Man, it feels like I’m getting away with something.
  • MCs are not supposed to create adventure storylines. Stories are supposed to emerge from the interplay of the characters and the environment ((Much of which is created on the fly.)) in an organic manner. Now, the MC can create threats and issues for the the characters to interact with – called fronts in the game – but should not be pushing for a specific type of interaction or outcome. It’s seems like a recipe for boredom, but the advocates of the system say not ((Of course, I’ve done a fair bit of this kind of thing with the Armitage Files game, but I was far more familiar with the Cthulhoid stuff, so it was easier for me to riff on themes that I already had in my brain. I’m not as up on the post-apocalyptic stuff, especially considering I don’t know what the world’s gonna look like. I want the players to determine that during the first session.)).

A lot of my worry was relieved this year at GenCon, when I was able to try out the game at Games on Demand. Trevis ran us through character creation and a short game that really opened my eyes to the way the system works and all the possibilities it opens up.

And it was fun.

So I decided to run Apocalypse World  as my next game. I put together an invitation, sent it out to my gaming group ((I’ve got about sixteen or so people in my extended gaming group. No one game can accommodate everyone.)), putting the cap on the group at five, with a minimum of two players. Within twenty-four hours, I had five players, but lost one due to scheduling conflicts. I opened up the recruitment for one more day, but no one else jumped in, so we’re set to begin play with four players.

I sent each of them a set of the available playbooks to pick from, but warned them not to go too far with character creation, which we will be doing at the first session. Still, they’ve made some choices about what they’d like to play:

  • Michael is looking at playing either the Touchstone or the Quarantine.
  • Sandy is considering the Hoarder.
  • Elliot has fixed on the Gunlugger.
  • Chris has chosen the Savvyhead.

And my brain is whirling with half-formed potential ideas for the game, but I can’t do anything with them, because we don’t have any details of the world worked out, and we won’t until the game starts and the players start helping with that bit. Y’know, the whole bit about asking provocative questions and stuff.

So, I’m finding it a little frustrating not being able to do any of my usual prep for the game. I’m reading and re-reading the Apocalypse World rules, and looking at the various playsheets, but I can’t start creating NPCs or describing the environment or plotting  big threats or anything like that, because that’s not how the game works.

I must be content to wait. The first session is scheduled for Friday, January 4. Despite my trepidations with the structure of the game, I’m really looking forward to it.