Last Friday night we came back to Apocalypse World. I’d decided to jump the calendar forward a couple of months between sessions, mainly because most of the characters were in pretty rough shape ((Two or three of the four characters were at 9 o’clock or so on their harm clocks.)) after the expedition into the Ruins the last couple of sessions.
I thought long and hard about this. One of the principles of MCing Apocalypse World is to look at everything through cross-hairs. I didn’t want the characters to get off too easy, but I also didn’t want to put the players in the position of choosing between safe and interesting. They’re starting to get into the characters, and getting a handle on setting their own agendas, and the tendency ((At least, for a lot of my players.)) when the characters are hurt as badly as they were is to go to mattresses until healed ((Which is neither heroic nor interesting. It’s boooooooring!)). Now, the way things are constructed in AW, interesting things will find you even if you don’t go looking for them, but I much prefer active characters over passive ones.
That said ((And my players should take note here.)), I’m not always going to do things this way. At some point, I’m going to make sure that at least some of the characters have to make a hard choice to take action when they’re badly injured. That’s heroism, right? Doing the hard thing with your life at risk? But we’re only at the fifth session, and I plan to run a total of twelve sessions, so I didn’t want to push this too hard just now.
Besides, the game may throw that kind of nasty choice at the characters whether I’ve planned it or not.
Anyway. I started off talking about how spring had finally arrived after a long, hungry winter. Food and other supplies had been very tight the past few weeks, and everyone was living on boiled grass and old boots, essentially. I also hit everyone up for one barter to reflect their upkeep over the downtime.
I ran into a bit of resistance with this plan, though. Nils, the Savvyhead, started asking how much barter he’d made in the downtime with his job of helping out Boss T and Calico with repairs and other tech work. I said none, because although he’d made that bit of backstory up and I approved ((Hell, I enthusiastically approved, because ties to NPCs are always good.)), he didn’t have one of the gig moves, like a Fixer or a Hardholder. Needless to say, the player wasn’t all that happy about that, because I had neglected to explain that sort of thing at the start of play. Fair enough – he’s right. I should have explained it, but I didn’t think of it. And thus he had an expectation of that bit of his character’s story that I didn’t.
I waffled around with explanations, talking mechanics ((You don’t have a gig move, I have an MC move called Make them buy, stuff like that.)) and such, which didn’t really satisfy either of us – him because he wasn’t getting what he wanted, me because the answers all seemed metagamish.Â In retrospect, I realize that I was taking the wrong approach to explaining. What I should have done is tie it in to the game fiction rather than the game mechanics. It’s a little late now, but here’s the explanation I should have given when the question came up.
Yeah, you’ve been doing the work, and getting the barter, but things haveÂ been pretty tight. The stuff you’ve been getting from Boss T and Calico has been getting slimmer and slimmer as they run short of resources, and you’ve been spending more and more as the cost of food and other supplies keeps going up. You’ve spent most most of what you’ve earned on keeping fed, and the rest – plus your savings – on keeping your Savvyhead shop stocked so you can keep eating.
I think that explanation would have gone over better, because it’s tied to the game fiction. It makes sense in the story, and therefor doesn’t seem quite as arbitrary. It could still have come across as a bit of a dick move, but no more so than the rest of the badness that the game inflicts on the characters. By resorting to the mechanical explanations, I highlighted the fact that I was using a game mechanism to do something mean to the characters, rather than it being a product of the game world. This is something I need to keep in mind for next time something like this comes up – focus on the fiction ((This is the secret of Make a move, but never speak its name. I get that, now.)).
We got past that little hiccup in far less time than it took me to write about it, though, and I picked a character pretty much at random ((I was going to pick either JB or Snow for this, because their characters have had less chance to be proactive the past session or two, and Snow’s player was in the kitchen grabbing a drink when I looked up to pick someone.)) and asked JB, “So. What are you doing? Have you mended fences with Calico, and back on watch, or are you doing something else?” And just like that, we were back in the middle of things.
JB had made peace with Calico ((“Have you made up with Calico?” “Who can tell? She hasn’t shot me, and is letting me take a watch at the gate and eat in the mess, so I’ll take that.”)), and was back in the watchtower overlooking the gate with a trusty sniper rifle. And so, when the first food shipment of the season from New Ogden came down the trail, JB was first to spot it, and first to recognize that it was too small and too slow. As the caravan got closer, it became obvious that it had been attacked – there were only two trucks, both of them limping along, with a few scrawny and shot-up oxen trailing behind, and ragged men and women limping along beside it.
After the initial shock wore off ((And Calico had been sent back to her office by Boss T so that the crazy yelling would stop.)), the story that came out was that the caravan had been attacked in the middle of the night by a heavily armed force of slavers. The slavers had hit the caravan with total surprise, captured most of the people, hauled off most of the goods, and vanished, leaving only the injured people and animals and four shot-up trucks behind. The survivors managed to get two of the trucks working well enough to make it Roosevelt, though they were in pretty bad shape. About the only real valuable information they were able to provide was that the slavers were wearing the markings of Sway’s Boys, one of the bigger slaver gangs that Roosevelt has heard rumblings about.
Yodel ((Or maybe it was Yoho. I’ve got two NPCs in the game, one named Yodel and one named Yoho, and I can’t keep them straight without looking it up.)) – Calico’s second – told JB that, probably in the next day or so, Calico would be putting together a posse to go hunt down the slavers. The main goals are, of course, to get the supplies back, but freeing the New Ogden citizens would be good, too. And, of course, it’s not a good thing to let a band of organized, well-supplied slavers wander around in your neighbourhood. Of course, JB hates slavers with a passion, and volunteered to assemble some friends to go see if they can locate the slavers ahead of the posse – the bully boys in Calico’s guard aren’t renowned for their scouting/stalking/stealth.
And so our heroes took to the road riding bicycles. The followed the caravan route, passing a couple of bodies, then a low cairn, then a larger cairn, and then a few new graves ((See, the survivors had the strength to bury the first few who died on the road, then resorted to cairns, and… You get it.)), before finally reaching the site of the attack. There, they found some more graves for the caravan folks and a pile of burned bodies – presumably the slavers. JB and Snow surveyed the area, and quickly determined that the attack had to be very well-coordinated and overwhelming, and that the slavers had headed off to the southeast, towards the quarries.
Off they went, overland, trying to track the slavers. Nils had repaired an old motion/heat sensor thing ((Think of the sensor thingy they used in the Alien movies.)) that Magpie had got from her hoard, and they used that to see if there was anything moving in their immediate area. Using that, they spotted a larger shape ((As opposed to the rabbit-sized shapes that were plentiful.)) moving off in one quadrant. They dropped the bikes, and crept through the tall, brown grass to where they could spot a bear lumbering through the field.
There was some debate at that point about whether they should ignore the bear (which had patchy fur and some scaly patches, and really nasty-looking teeth) or kill it before it spotted them and became a problem. At which point, the bear started swatting at something in the grass. And roaring. And flailing, with smaller furry things crawling over it.
That’s when JB, who had stayed to keep watch on the bikes, spotted a small, weasel-like head pop up nearby. In a few seconds, everyone was running from the razor weasels ((In my notes, I called them knife weasels, but the players called them razor weasels, and that’s really a better name.)), and the bear was forgotten.
They all made it to a copse of trees nearby, and up into the trees, but the razor weasels were clustered around the base in large numbers. Finally, Nils managed to chase them away with his shotgun ((I figured Going Aggro was the best way to represent that.)), but the shots meant that, as they dawdled near the trees looking at the freakish weasels with the bone blades sprouting out of them, they heard the heavy trucks approaching.
The battle with Sway’s Boys was nasty, with JB using his grenades on their trucks, Snow creeping around to deal with the slaver scouts and snipers, and Nils holding off the razor weasels. And what about Magpie, you ask? Well, I’m going to answer that with a couple quotes from the game that I tweeted at the time:
#ApocalypseWorld quote: “We should either take cover, or run for it. But we got Magpie running around waving a weasel on a stick, soâ€¦”
#ApocalypseWorld quote: “So you’re going to try and Pied Piper the razor weasels to make them follow you swarming over the sniper?” “â€¦yeah?”
In the midst of the firefight, Magpie became the Weasel Queen, sticking a dead weasel on a pointed stick, riling up the live weasels, and making them chase her over the slaver snipers. I figured, why not let her try it? If she blew any of her rolls, well, it would only be fair that the razor weasels swarmed over her, tearing her to ribbons. But she rolled well ((Really, she rolled scary well, considering that it was Sandy holding the dice. Though they may have actually been Michael’s dice. But Sandy rolled them.)), and thus the plan worked, without any catches at all.
It was a psi grenade ((Another fun toy from Magpie’s hoard.)) that finally did for the slavers and chased the razor weasels away. Two of the slavers’ four trucks had survived, and several of the slavers did, as well. Until the gang went to work cutting throats. There was some talk of mutilating the corpses as a warning, but I think in the end they settled on collecting the heads. Then they got in the trucks and headed back towards Roosevelt, meeting the posse on the road. They’ve got one or two living slavers ((“We can take a couple with us. After all, they’ve brought their own manacles.”)) for interrogation, and a much fresher trail to follow to the main camp of Sway’s Boys. I figured that was a good place to stop for the night, so we did.
This is the last session of Apocalypse World for a while. May is a pretty busy month for my players, and then I fly to Ireland until the middle of June, so it’s going to be seven weeks at least until our next game. But I think I’ve got folks looking forward to it.
I’m very curious to see what happens.