The last session of ourÂ 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 theÂ 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.
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, IÂ 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 reallyÂ 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 (()). 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 actuallyÂ 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 whatÂ 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…