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 -Â 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.