Monster of the Week

I’m not sure if I first heard about Monster of the Week from Fred Hicks’s posts about his game, or from someone at GenCon. I do know that Fred tweeted about his game, and that’s what really brought it into my active thinking. I ordered a copy of the game from the author1, and soon had a group who wanted to try it out.

It was about that time that Evil Hat started looking for someone to playtest the scenario in a new edition of the game that they were going to be publishing. Specifically, they wanted someone who had never run the game before to try out the new GM advice and the intro scenario, and I happily volunteered for that. I had also fleshed out a couple of other scenarios myself, and was interested in seeing what a published scenario for the game might look like2.

So, what’s the game like?

First off, it uses the Apocalypse World engine, and it hews closer to the original than some other games based on AW. That’s neither good nor bad; the AW engine works great as a rules-light system, but some of the innovations of other hacks of it3 are very good, and I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. That said, the Investigate a Mystery move, which is kind of the centrepoint of the game, is quite neat.

The variety of playbooks for this game is awesome. There’s enough in the book and available free online to run pretty much any type of monster-hunting group you like. There’s some value in following the book’s advice and deciding what kind of group you’re playing before deciding on playbooks – that way, you can make sure that you’ve got the mandatory hunter types covered, and no one’s too far out of line on the concept. That said, it’s not a terrible thing to have everyone pick a playbook and see what kind of group that makes, determining your group concept from the player choices.

From the playbooks I had, it would have been easy to run a game based on any of the following sources:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Angel
  • X-Files
  • Fringe
  • Warehouse 13
  • Hellboy
  • Supernatural
  • Night Stalker
  • Hellblazer
  • Doom Patrol
  • Stargate: SG1
  • The Dresden Files

A little tweaking could expand that list vastly.

Most of the moves presented in the game are pretty typical for AW games. The two really interesting ones are Investigate a Mystery and Use Magic. Both of these are basic moves, meaning any character can try them, and both feed directly into the feel of the game.

Investigate a Mystery is how you gather information about the current puzzle you’re facing. Like most other perceptive moves in AW games, a successful roll gives you a choice of questions from a list to ask the GM. This is, as might be apparent, your go-to move in trying to figure out what kind of monster you’re facing, how to hurt it, what it wants, and where it is. But to be able to ask the questions you want, you have to do something in the game to justify being able to answer that question. So, if you want to ask the question, “Where did it go?” you have to describe you character looking for tracks, or scanning for energy signatures, or whatever. Asking, “What can hurt it?” means you’re doing some research in a lab or library, or are examining the physical evidence at the site of an incident.

This adds a lot of colour to the game, allowing different characters to participate in the investigation without requiring them all to do the same thing. Each character can focus on his or her own style of investigation, and all can contribute to finding the solution.

Use Magic, strangely enough, lets the character use magic4. It’s a pretty simple system, letting the character pick from a list of effects, make the roll, and then possibly have to deal with some GM-chosen glitches. For example, in one game I ran, the characters used magic to interview a dog. They rolled a 7-9, so I decided that they could only speak dog for the next hour or so. The GM can tack on other requirements, too – weird ingredients, bizarre rituals, inconvenient lengths of time, etc.

There’s an option for big magic, as well. Big magic is basically plot device magic – it can do pretty much anything you want, but the GM decides what you need to do it, how it works, what sorts of complications you face, and what happens when you screw it up. It’s fun and nasty.

Now, I got two chances to run MotW. The first time, I deliberately ran the intro scenario. The second time, I gave the players a choice on what scenario I’d run5, and they chose the intro scenario. So, I got to run it twice.

It’s a surprisingly complex little mystery. Not in that it’s tangled6 or difficult7, but in that there’s a number of threads leading in and out of the main story, a number of side stories that are more or less important depending on what the players latch onto, and some interesting motivations for various NPCs in play. There’s a real depth to the information provided – more than I needed in either of the games, but each game needed different bits of the info, so it was nice to have it there.

Each play-through of the scenario went surprisingly differently. There were some commonalities, as there would have to be, but the freedom of the system and the amount of background information provided by the adventure made it easy for the characters to go in whatever direction seemed most interesting to them and still solve the central mystery.

Final verdict? We all had a tremendous amount of fun with the game. It was a blast to run, and generated some neat stories. I hope we play again.

After all, I’ve got four more mysteries8 all typed up and ready to run. It would be a waste not to use them.

 

  1. A very nice guy, who shipped it to me from New Zealand. []
  2. While the original rules had two different mysteries sort-of fleshed out as examples, they were each spread through several pages of the book, and weren’t presented as complete scenarios. []
  3. Like the Defy Danger move in Dungeon World []
  4. Subtle and confusing name, I’m sure you’ll agree. []
  5. After eliminating a couple that didn’t fit the characters or group concept. []
  6. Most of them are at least somewhat tangled. []
  7. Though there is that, too. []
  8. Including one based on a Manly Wade Wellman story. []

Apocalypse World: Final Apocalypse

We wrapped up our Apocalypse World campaign a couple of weeks ago. I had slated it for a 12-session campaign but, as mentioned previously, I told the characters that, if an opportunity for a satisfying end came up during play, I was going to take it, even if it meant ending the campaign early.

That opportunity came up in session 11, and I took it.

We started up with our heroes within Snow’s stasis facility, with Sgt. Snow giving his report to the Colonel1. Snow reported everything pretty faithfully, and immediately started making plans to turn of the quantum computer that he had latched onto as the cause for the end of the world they had experienced2.

This led to an interesting discussion between Snow and the rest of the group, as everyone3 was really getting tired of Snow badmouthing things and talking about how much better the old world was than anything these days. The idea that flipping a switch might cause everything they knew – including themselves – to suddenly change4 was not something that really appealed to anyone but Snow and the Colonel, but Snow couldn’t believe that anyone actually wanted to live this way.

What came next was kind of frustrating for me, simply because it showed how miserably I had failed to communicate some of my basic assumptions and ideas about the psychic maelstrom5.

I had intended to make the psychic maelstrom mysterious and dangerous. I wanted it to be the source of gnomic wisdom and obscure intelligence that the players would think twice about delving into. I also wanted to make it very subjective, so that it was different and challenging each time the characters encountered it. The last thing I wanted was for it to become the most reliable way of dealing with things.

Unfortunately, I used it as a way to help the characters get out of a really tight spot back near the beginning of the campaign. That set a precedent for using the maelstrom which completely undermined part of my goal. My own fault, of course, but I still sighed every time someone decided to open his or her mind, and then tried to manipulate what they found there to essentially work magic. But, of course, I’m the one who had taught them that they could do that, so they6 assumed that’s the way it worked.

And then I unleashed the story about the quantum computers. Fine, on the surface, but then, the next time Magpie opened herself to the maelstrom, I used the idea of the quantum computer to shape my description of the maelstrom. See, she rolled a miss, so I wanted something strange and alien to Magpie’s magical thinking to threaten her with, so I went with the idea of a vast computer program7 absorbing and deconstructing her.

That was bad enough, but when Nils went in to rescue her, I used the same computer imagery. Yeah. Having used it twice in a row, so shortly after the quantum computer explanation was first floated cemented the idea in the minds of the players. Now, the maelstrom was just the mental interface with the computer that was running the world.

I want to stress here that, despite what it sounds like, I am not complaining about my players or their perceptions of things. What I’m trying to do is a post-mortem to help me sort out why things went differently than I had planned. Considering all the stuff above, it’s pretty obvious to me that I kept giving the players information and reinforcing behaviour counter to what I had internally planned. So, what it comes down to is that I have no one but myself to blame for what happened next.

And what happened next? First of all, Snow wanted to turn off the quantum computer that he assumed was at the base. Now, this was all within the first half hour of play, so I didn’t want to make it that easy8. So, that meant that there was no quantum computer at the stasis facility.

Faced with that, and with the dissent within the group about what the next step should be, Nils decided to try to open his mind to the maelstrom to see if he could… y’know, I’m not sure I remember. It might have been to figure out if the quantum computer was nearby, or if there was a quantum computer at all, or to try and turn off the computer. Anyway, he lay down on the mess hall floor and opened his mind.

I threw him an image of a vast, multidimensional snowflake, stolen directly from the multiversal projection used in the Planetary comic books. We had some fun him trying to figure out what he was seeing, and how to maneuver9 his perception through n-dimensional space. When he finally made his way back to the group, they seemed content to discuss and dither for a while longer.

That’s boring, though, so I made a hard, direct move. I killed the power to the facility.

So, now they know bad stuff is happening, and they’re panicking, and stumbling around in the dark, and all of a sudden things are not-boring10. Snow was struggling to get the folks free of the now-disabled stasis pods, Nils and JB were trying to get power to, well, anything, and Magpie was gathering supplies from one of the armouries11.

There was a lot of jumping back and forth here, and I’ll be honest – the exact sequence is fuzzy in my mind. But some important things happened:

  • The New Dawning folk managed to pry the big outer doors open now that the defensive countermeasures were offline.
  • JB and Snow set up a killing ground in the entry area.
  • Magpie drew on the power of her hoard12 to destroy the Yellowhammer cultists that were keeping the power off.
  • Nils went back to the snowflake, and started shrinking it by thinking math at it.
  • Snow marshaled the recently-thawed soldiers, and got them ready for the New Dawning assault.
  • JB got Magpie to release her hold on the dragon power by threatening to blow up her SAM.

When the power came back, the automated defenses made short work of the New Dawning besiegers. They found some strange things, though – no one (except Nils) remembered the Canadians. Or that Snow had had a family. Or that this base had once held hundreds of people in stasis, instead of the single squad that remained. Nils figured out that he had pared down the world by shrinking the snowflake, and decided not to tell anyone else13.

So, they exited the facility with the idea of heading over to Ogden with the squad of highly-trained soldiers and truckloads of advanced weapons. They figured that Roosevelt was out, what with being occupied by New Dawning and about to be attacked by Calico and her followers14, so better make a clean start. Once established, I believe the plan is to try and find more of the stasis facilities and build a peaceful, prosperous civilization15.

And we faded to black.

It was a really fun game for me to run. The change of perspective offered by Apocalypse World16 really gave me a chance to examine what I do as a GM, and think about better ways to do it. The freedom of not knowing where the adventure is going to go17 is terrifying at first, but quickly becomes exhilarating.

I want to thank my players for letting me try this experiment, and sticking with me through the rough patches. I am immensely grateful to:

  • Chris, who played Nils, the cranky Savvyhead and moral centre of the group.
  • Elliot, who played JB, the androgynous Gunlugger with the massive hate for slavers.
  • Sandy, who played Magpie, the slightly deranged Hoarder and part-time dragon.
  • Michael, who played Sgt. Snow, the straight-arrow Quarantine who doesn’t even know how much he’s lost.

You guys made the game great.

 

 

  1. Previously and somewhat disastrously reawakened by Magpie, giving him a small stroke. []
  2. To be fair, it was the only real explanation that I had provided for what happened, so saying he “latched onto it” may be a little more judgmental than it needs to be. But, also to be fair, they only had the word of the Canadians that this was the case. Really, it was the fact that this was an explanation rooted in science and tech that Snow was far more comfortable with than a lot of the other possibilities, and it made the psychic maelstrom a little more understandable to him. []
  3. Especially Nils and JB. []
  4. Or even vanish utterly. []
  5. I had also very successfully communicated some stuff that was directly contradictory to what I had intended. []
  6. Very properly. []
  7. The seed of the image planted by the Canadians’ description, of course. []
  8. Although, to be honest, I had a closing scene in mind where they did turn off the quantum computer. They would flip the switch and I’d just say, “The end.” Fade to black. No explanation, no follow-up. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t get a chance to use it. It’s a little too cute, really. []
  9. For want of a better word. []
  10. Funny how that works, huh? []
  11. “Okay. I gather up a bunch of rifles and ammo. But that SAM set-up? I write a note that says MINE and I stick it on top. I’m taking that one home.” []
  12. Okay. This is another example of me acting counter to the way I wanted the psychic maelstrom to work. But it was looking like this was the last session, and it was a cool idea, so what the hell. Magpie and her hoard became one, and she turned into a dragon. []
  13. Not sure why. Could be guilt over erasing Snow’s family, or fear of someone else trying it, or existential angst over the realization that this might mean that his reality was just a computer simulation. Maybe all three! []
  14. Though Nils and Magpie want to stop back there and pick up their stuff. []
  15. By using really good guns. []
  16. And the other games based on it. []
  17. Or even where it starts, to be fair. []

Apocalypse World: Homecoming

We sat down to play episode 10 of our 12-episode Apocalypse World campaign about a week ago. It had been some time since our last game1, but everyone was pretty quick to get back into the storyline, so we were able to jump right in after a short recap.

I did take a little time before the game started to talk a little bit about the whole 12-episode thing. I explained to my players that, while I was aiming for 12 episodes, I would end the campaign early if we got to a good, climactic ending point earlier2. I’ve run games past their proper end-point before3, and they tend to fizzle and collapse in a most unsatisfying manner, so I wanted to avoid that. And, given the reduced narrative control4 that the MC has, I can’t count on the best ending point to end up when and where I wanted it to.

My players understood my concerns, and accepted the my terms, so we got to playing.

Our heroes were out in the plains north and west of Roosevelt, heading to the west, where the beacons they had uncovered over the past little while told them that Snow’s stasis facility was. There was some discussion about the information they’d got last session, relating to the potential quantum overlap of the Canadians’ base and the question of whether or not this was the “real” world5. They also spent some time debating what, if anything they should6 do about the current situation, if turning off the quantum computer(s) would fix things.

They finally got on the trail towards the stasis facility, but had to duck and hide when they spotted lights coming up behind them. It turned out to be a fairly large group of New Dawning soldiers, apparently sweeping the area for them. The Roosevelt gang remained hunkered down until the New Dawning folks passed them by, and then for a little while longer to make sure that they could continue on their way unobserved.

They cut a kilometre or two off the main trail to avoid running into any trailing New Dawning soldiers, and came at the facility co-ordinates from another angle.

They camped for the night along the way, and were wakened in the night by something moving in the grass around them. JB was on watch, and roused the others, but no one could get a good luck at whatever was stalking them. Eventually, JB chased them off with some well-placed gunfire.

Somewhere in there, Magpie decided that she should open her mind to the maelstrom and see what she could find out about the things in the grass. The maelstrom this time seemed to be a self-aware computer program who viewed Magpie as a subroutine that had been created for data interpretation and analysis, and tried to reabsorb her into the body of the main program7. So, when he noticed that her body was seizing, Nils wired himself into her mind to retrieve her. He managed to8 reassemble her consciousness.

In the morning, they got back on their way. Making their way up into the hills, going for the hidden valley where the entry was, they were ambushed and surrounded by New Dawning soldiers.

I was a little surprised that I got away with this so easily. I mean, they knew that the New Dawning folk were ahead of them, and there was a trail for them to follow9, so it seemed obvious to me that they would have set up a camp at the entry, and sentries on the approaches. But our heroes made no attempt at stealth, or scouting, or anything like that. I was worried that I hadn’t described things clearly enough to make this move reasonable10, and that I would need to do some tap-dancing to sell the whole thing.

Turns out I didn’t need to. The players accepted the development quite readily, and I was able to run the kind of scene you get a lot in fiction, but not so often in RPGs: the heroes held captive, disarmed and helpless11, threatened and interrogated by the enemy. I was thinking about this after the fact, and I think it speaks well to the high level of trust that AW12 engenders between players and MC. The contract between the players and MC in AW specifically gives license to the MC to take aggressive, even vindictive, action against the characters, but only when the characters open the door to it by making a bad roll. That conditions the players to accept negative developments with great aplomb, where in other games, the same players, might call foul. It’s an interesting dynamic that is very different from more traditional games.

Anyway.

Snow refused to give them the access code for the entry, because his family is still inside on ice. Seeing that there was no way she could convince Snow to help her get inside, the commander turned to Nils, threatening to shoot the others one by one until he agreed to use his Savvyhead skills to crack the lock on the facility entrance. The plan was, obviously, to start with shooting Snow so he couldn’t pull any tricks with what he knew about the facility defences, then JB, who looked like the next most dangerous threat, and finally Magpie, who never looks that threatening at all13.

We had a little drama as Nils agreed to help before anyone got shot, and Snow threatened to kill him, and in the middle of this, Magpie14 jumped back into the maelstrom to see if she could use it to alert the folks inside the stasis facility about the threat outside.

She was expecting the computer program again, but this time, she saw the stasis facility as a castle, with a sleeping dragon coiled inside. When she tried to wake the dragon, it asked her a question, “Offensive or defensive arrays?” She chose defensive.

When Nils was escorted down to the door of the facility, he saw the screen displaying the ENTER CODE message. When he reached out to touch it, all the hair on his arms stood up. He used the effect to figure out that the door was very highly charged with electricity, and decided to use that to take out some of the soldiers surrounding him. He jumped up and threw himself backwards against the door, keeping his feet clear of the ground, and tried to channel the electricity out over the crowd.

We cut back at that point to the tent with the other characters being held at gunpoint. When the zapping and gunfire down near the facility started, they took advantage of the distraction to overpower their guards and escape. They wound up down near a badly injured Nils15, with everyone shooting the hell out of them.

Snow tried the code to open the facility, but with the defensive arrays online, the computers were not accepting any input from outside the facility. And, of course, there was no one awake inside the facility to turn the defensive arrays off. So, because it worked so well last time, Magpie tried to use the maelstrom to wake someone up inside.

She managed to wake the CO of the facility16 who, after a bit of a wait as he got out of the cryotube and verified with Snow that there were friendlies under fire, turned off the defensive arrays and opened the doors. Everyone but Magpie was pretty much on their last legs as they stumbled inside, and went straight to the infirmary and the medbeds there.

This left Magpie and the Colonel alone together in the facility. After finding Magpie prying open the personal lockers of some of the facility personnel, the Colonel gave her the option of turning over her crowbar17 or spend the next little while locked in the brig. Magpie chose the brig.

So, a few days later, when everyone was out of the infirmary, the whole gang gathered around the table in the mess, and the Colonel asked for Snow’s report.

And that’s where we left it.

We’ve got two more sessions left in the campaign. There’s been some discussion among the players about what to do about the situation in Roosevelt, about the Yellowhammers, and about the quantum computers, but I don’t know that anyone has figured out what the desired end-state of their characters – or the world – is.

I’m curious to see what happens.

  1. Almost three months. []
  2. Or, of course, if everyone died. But that was pretty much a given right from the start. []
  3. Notably, my Unknown Armies campaign. []
  4. Okay, it’s not really reduced narrative control, but reduced narrative planning. []
  5. I also started giving information to Snow in response to his start-of-session questions that implied that his world was not our real world. Just to sow some uncertainty. []
  6. Or could. []
  7. Magpie rolled a miss on her move to open her mind to the maelstrom. []
  8. Mostly. []
  9. From the Canadians’ vehicles. []
  10. I mean, it was obvious that I hadn’t described things clearly enough for the players to anticipate this kind of problem – that’s all on me as MC. []
  11. For certain values of “helpless” – they are the heroes, after all. []
  12. And other *World games. []
  13. Right up until she kills someone. Or begins leading razor weasels on their little crusades. []
  14. Who succeeds with her ridiculous plans just often enough to convince her that they are good ideas. []
  15. I gave the player the option of deciding how much damage Nils would take, telling him that the more he took, the more he could inflict. He took four points, and took out about twelve of the surrounding soldiers. []
  16. Though she kept shouting into his brain, which I decided caused him to have a small stroke. Enough to be a problem, but not enough to incapacitate him. []
  17. Nobody takes my stuff!” Magpie doesn’t even see the irony in that statement. []

Apocalypse World: Quantum Canadians

We’re in the end-game, now, folks. Last session of Apocalypse World was number 9 of 12, so I’m starting to reveal1 a number of secrets about the world. This particular session has shown the shape of what is probably going to be the rest of the campaign.

One of the things that got revealed was the nature of the apocalypse. Now, I’m guessing that this is not something that comes up in every game, but one of the players is playing the Quarantine. And, the Quarantine – Snow -  has a special start-of-session move that lets him ask or answer some questions about the apocalypse, when he was placed in stasis. This means that, over the course of a few sessions, a rough outline of what the apocalypse was like2 will emerge. Combining that with Snow’s desire to find his way back to the stasis facility3, and it became… well, not exactly necessary, but logical that the nature of the apocalypse would emerge.

I’d had a feeling that it was going to come out by the end of the campaign, so part of my prep for each session was looking over my notes about the answers I had given to Snow about the apocalypse, and coming up with some ideas that would fit them. I’d try to keep the answers rich in detail while still being applicable to a few different causes, but as they stacked up, some possibilities became unlikely, and some became more probable. So, this session, I had about four possibilities4, figuring I’d pick the one that made sense if it came up, just like the last couple of sessions.

This session, though, I actually needed it.

Our heroes decided to head out of Roosevelt again in search of the second beacon, which would – according to Snow – lead them to Snow’s stasis facility. Also, they were kind of uncomfortable with the changes that had come to town since Dawning came to “stabilize” things. They had a rough location for the beacon, north of town, along the road to Dawning, but on the far side of the river from the road. They managed to get their hands on a zodiac boat, and took the Dawning road as far as they could.

Along the way, they passed by a large encampment of Dawning soldiers about two hours north of Roosevelt. The soldiers didn’t do anything threatening, but the group still got nervous, and set a guard that night. In the middle of the night, they heard one of their tripwire alarms go off, and went to investigate. At first, they could see no sign of what might have tripped the alarm5, but then discovered some hastily-piled underbrush concealing the corpses of two Dawning soldiers. They had each been shot in the head with a high-calibre bullet.

The group figured that meant the Canadians6 were nearby and, rather than shooting at them, were shooting at the folks sneaking up on them. The way the bodies had been concealed so quickly made JB think that there were at least three, probably four, Canadians nearby: a sniper, maybe a spotter, and two forward men to hide the bodies when the sniper took them down.

Also, they obviously had some sort of night vision apparatus.

Not comfortable with that idea, our heroes decided to chance a night crossing of the river, and trying to lose the Canadians on the other side. This they proceeded to do, heading away from the beacon for most of the day, and finally approaching it at night. It kinda worked: they lost their tails, but the Canadians had found the beacon and set up an ambush there.

There was an abortive attempt at a parley at gunpoint, but that went to hell pretty quick. The resulting fire fight was pretty brutal, leaving JB badly injured, but with the Canadians dead, chased off, or captured. During the battle, Magpie had opened herself up to the maelstrom, and seen that the Canadians were just blank holes in the world, but that the beacon seemed to have several alternate images of itself superimposed on its position.

This bit started to make sense when they interrogated one of the Canadians. After some negotiation – involving the release of all the prisoners but the one agreeing to talk – I got to reveal the cause of the apocalypse.

The seeds of the idea grew out of the latest iteration of Gamma World, Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parralax, random stuff I’ve read about quantum physics, Warren Ellis’s amazing comic Planetary, and a neat video I saw about quantum computers. Now, I want to stress that, if I were to say that I don’t really understand quantum physics or quantum computers, I’d be claiming waaaaaay more knowledge of the subject than I actually have. So, everything I’m using here is based on the cool bits of quantum physics that I’ve picked up from books and movies. Do not use anything I say here to try and resolve a waveform’s superposition. It’ll just get messy.

The apocalypse started because of the invention and use of quantum computers, which use essentially use alternate reality versions of themselves for almost infinite parallel processing power, enabling them to perform massive calculations very quickly. These alternate realities started bleeding together as the computers became more powerful and more prevalent. This accelerated, until the realities became inextricably smeared together, destroying most of the social and cultural and physical infrastructure of the various worlds.

The Canadians are from a different reality than the Roosevelt folks. They created a facility on their reality that shares the position of Snow’s facility on this7 reality. They’ve been trying to eliminate the beacons that point to their location, and anyone who might have knowledge of them.

One thing the prisoner told them that gave everyone some pause was that some of the scientists at his base have said that the math suggests that the quantum computers create the alternate realities so that they have a place to do the quantum processing. This means that shutting them off might wipe out all the realities except the prime one, and no one is sure which one that is.

That’s about where we left things. Snow now has the location of his stasis facility, but is even more unsure of what they’ll find there.

Of course, I don’t know, either. That’s one of the great things about AW. We both get to be surprised.

  1. And, because of the nature of AW, when I say “reveal,” you can pretty much freely substitute the phrase “make up on the spot.” []
  2. Not necessarily what it was. Just what it was like. []
  3. A number of the Quarantine’s advancements have to do with the stasis facility. []
  4. No, players in my campaign, I’m not going to tell you what the other possibilities were. I may need to use them for something before we’re done. []
  5. They had a range of possibilities, including Dawning soldiers, Canadians, Yellowhammers, and razor weasels. Oh, and one of the freaky bears that they saw the razor weasels kill. []
  6. Just a reminder, here, that the group that the characters call “Canadians” are probably not from Canada. But they were very polite and apologetic the first time they met, when they got the drop on Nils and Magpie. Less polite when they were trying to blow up Snow with the drone, last session. []
  7. Or is Snow from a different reality, too? []

Apocalypse World: Changes

It’s been far too long between sessions for my Apocalypse World game1. Scheduling over the summer is always problematic, thanks to various vacations and travel plans2, but things have settled down for bit before the Christmas season messes with scheduling. We’re in the home stretch on the twelve-session run of the game – this is session eight – so we should be wrapping things up early in the new year.

Anyway, we got together last night for the latest session. The first part of the evening was spent filling in the map3, recapping the game up to this point, and doing a little socializing. Then we got down to things.

Nils had repaired the beacon control circuits as best he could, but in order for it to work, he needed to reinstall the circuits in the beacon. No one liked that idea, because they had run into a number of scary things at the building where they found the beacon, including some nasty things in the basement and sightings of ghillie-suited soldiers on nearby buildings. But the trail to Snow’s stasis facility required that the beacon be reactivated.

The players were rolling pretty hot, which is good for them, but in a game like Apocalypse World, it makes for a rather uninteresting evening. Luckily, you can always count on the luck to change, and when it did, it changed big time. Suddenly, there was a booby-trapped door, snipers, an armed drone aircraft, and horrific mutant beasts4 in the ceiling and elevator shaft. There was some running back and forth, as Snow left Nils on the roof to repair the beacon while he ran downstairs to help JB and Magpie with the monsters they were fighting, and then had to run back to the roof when Nils came back down without having got the location readout from the beacon.

In the end, they made a heroic dash to Nils’s van under fire while being pursued by the mutants5, and took off through the city. They stopped after they were sure they had lost any pursuit, and did a sweep of the van, turning up what seemed to be a combination locator device and bomb.

Back in the hidden base, Nils used his new tech developments6 to help patch up Snow and Magpie, both of whom had taken some big hits. They data they got from the beacon pointed them to the second beacon, some distance north of the Ruins, on the way to Dawning. This second beacon should have, they believe, the co-ordinates of the stasis facility. They decided to head back to Roosevelt to resupply before heading off after the second beacon.

They made good time heading back to Roosevelt, but I was looking at my fronts, and decided to advance a couple of them, so they arrived to find the gates of the town closed and manned by soldiers in Dawning uniforms. They dropped Magpie off7, and decided they’d best set up somewhere safe, like the caves that Sway was using out in the quarries.

Magpie got in to the city after getting someone inside to vouch for her, and found her (heavily booby-trapped) hoard untouched. She also got the story of what happened: Calico had apparently killed Boss T and her household and taken control of the city, but being crazy, she couldn’t maintain control, and some folks from the marketplace sent a message to Dawning, asking for their help. Dawning came in, Calico ran8, and Dawning has taken up peace-keeping duties until things calm down and get sorted out with an election, etc.

Meanwhile, at the caves, the rest of our little group ran into Calico’s resistance. There, they got a slightly different story, where Calico blamed assassins for Boss T’s death, and talked about how Dawning forces showed up out of nowhere to take over and chase her off. Nils traded his ATV for the three of them not getting co-opted into Calico’s little guerrilla army. They headed back to Roosevelt, where Wilson, the Dawning trade rep, was waiting to interview them in the mayor’s house.

Wilson satisfied herself that JB and Snow weren’t there to stir up trouble, and let them keep their weapons and go about their business. When they had gone, however, she had some harder questions for Nils. She told him that she was pretty sure he had deliberately killed Sparerib and Lark, but was willing to ignore that in the interests of peace in Roosevelt. She also told him that, when she took over, she had searched his workshop and took the suitcase that he had recovered from Sparerib and Lark and, if they were going to get along, he had to accept that. Seeing as, as far as I could tell, everyone had forgotten about that suitcase and they’d never managed to get it open, I was pretty sure that would be okay, and it was.

The gang took some time to seek out Wei, the medic that they knew in town, to get a more balanced account of what happened. According to him, Calico had announced that Boss T was dead, and had been killed by assassins. She instituted martial law, and seemed to get very paranoid about the Yellowhammers, with their heavy, shrouding, identity-obscuring robes and close-mouthed unity. She tired to strip search some of them, and they turned on her, many revealing that they had weapons – both mundane and weird tech – hidden on their persons, and a big fight broke out.

That was when the Dawning folks showed up, apparently out of the blue, and got between the two forces.  Calico took to the hills with her people, and the Yellowhammers backed down. Now, there are patrols of Dawning forces on the streets of Roosevelt, a lot of Yellowhammers have gathered in the town, and everyone is just praying that the violence is over.

All three of our heroes gathered back at Magpie’s place with beer and a bottle of whisky from her hoard to share information and commiserate. That’s where we left things for the evening.

We’ve got another game scheduled in three weeks, and that’s the last one on the books for this year. We may get one more in, which would leave the last two session to the new year. I’ve got the players thinking about what their goals are for the game, and am looking forward to seeing how it wraps up.

I’m also starting to think about what to run next.

  1. The last post about the campaign was three months ago, and it that post was written long enough after the game that I didn’t remember it clearly, so we’re talking about probably four months. []
  2. We were hit by GenCon, Burning Man, a wedding, and a honeymoon. []
  3. The map had gone missing for a while, but I found it, and we were able to chart in some stuff, like the food caravan ambush site, Sway’s caves, the beacon building, etc. []
  4. “They’re Morlocks!” cried my players. Not quite, but pretty close. []
  5. They almost managed to haul JB off to their basement lair, but Magpie managed to chase them off long enough for Snow to come to the rescue and Nils to get the van started and moving. []
  6. Nils bought the Angel move Healing Touch as an advancement, and described it as funnelling his connection to the psychic maelstrom through circuit boards applied to the wounds. []
  7. She was anxious to go and see what was going on with her hoard. []
  8. Along with a significant number of her guards. []

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’ve been thinking about character arcs in fiction and in roleplaying games. While I contend that RPGs don’t necessarily generate stories, characters still have a lot of the same qualities and requirements for us to enjoy them. In both fiction and RPGs, the basic formula for story is that the characters face obstacles and try to overcome them. And this is where one of the biggest differences between the two forms appears, because in fiction, characters can fail, but in RPGs, they can’t.

Now, I’m not saying that it is mechanically impossible for the characters in RPGs to fail. But, in the long history of RPGs-as-written,1, the basic assumption is that, if they fail, they die. This is because so many of the obstacles a character faces in an RPG are combats, and the general expectation is that the combat will be balanced to allow the heroes to overcome their foes, so it is only bad dice luck2 that kills PCs.

That mindset translates into other tasks in the games. Fail picking the lock? Well, try again. And again. And again, until either you open the lock or a trap kills you. Is that a disintegrate spell? Save or die. Tasks either can be repeated over and over3, or have immediate, irrevocable negative consequences4. Combat encounters that turn out to be too difficult are viewed as mistakes in balance on the part of the GM, or as the result of bad dice luck.

What this leaves out of the mix is a staple of fiction: heroes suffering a setback.

Setbacks are what happen when you don’t succeed at what you were trying to do, but don’t die. They are complications – new obstacles that show up because of your failure. They make things harder, or may close off an avenue of approach to your goal, but don’t completely prevent you from achieving the goal.

Classic RPGs, like D&D or RuneQuest, don’t handle setbacks very well. Fail and you either die, or can just try again. More modern games, like 13th Age and Fate, talk about using setbacks and the concept of failing forward, and provide some mechanical support for the ideas5. And there are a few games, like Drama System or the *World games or Fiasco, that live for the setback. The setback is the key to their success.

So, let’s talk about how different games handle setbacks.

13th Age

13th Age is described by its authors as a love letter to D&D. It has a bit of an old-school feel, coupled with some more modern elements of narrative games. It deals with setbacks in two different ways: negative icon relationships and the “fail forward” concept.

Negative icon relationships are sources for setbacks. By default, the GM rolls some dice at the start of a game to see which icons6 are important in this session and, if it comes up with an icon that one of the characters has a negative relationship with, that’s going to cause problems. It doesn’t quite fit the definition of a setback that I proposed above, but it does introduce new obstacles to the game based on player choices. If the characters are already in the middle of an adventure when a negative icon relationship rears its ugly head7, the new complication feels very much like the setbacks I’m talking about. So, all of a sudden, in the middle of a quest to recover an ancient sword for the Crusader, a character’s negative relationship with the Archmage comes up, and our heroes discover another group digging through the same ruins for the same sword, but they want to give it to the Archmage instead of the Crusader.

The “fail forward” idea is not exclusive to 13th Age8. It’s an idea and a viewpoint more than a mechanic, so it’s a little slippery sometimes to implement. On the other hand, because it doesn’t really have a mechanical component to it, it’s super portable to other game systems. The basic concept is that no failure on the part of the characters should dead-end an adventure. Failure should just complicate things. So, if you fail to pick the lock on the back door to the guildhall, instead of just not being able to go in that way, maybe you get the door open, but a guard spots you. Or you can’t work the lock, but a guard opens the door from the inside to see what all the noise is9. The adventure still goes forward, but now there’s a new complication to deal with – pretty much the definition of a setback.

Leverage RPG

What I’m going to talk about here is broadly applicable to all the Cortex Plus games. The Leverage RPG, though, gives the best and clearest example of setbacks in play. This is because pretty much the whole game is based on the assumption of competency on the characters’ part and the mechanic of the complication.

The basic assumption of the Leverage RPG is that your characters are not just good at what they do, they are among the best in the world. This is an important mindset for the game, because it makes it clear that a failed roll does not necessarily mean the character screwed up. It means something unexpected interrupted what would otherwise be the perfect plan. Trying to con someone out of the painting you need for the job? A fail doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t buy the pitch – it means that the painting is out for restoration work, or has been sold to someone else, or something like that10.

A lot of the time, failed rolls generate complications. In fact, you can run a whole Leverage RPG session by building the story and the opposition out of complications that play generates11. Complications can be added any time a player rolls a one on one or more of the dice in a roll. You take that die, give the player a plot point, and either add a new complication, or step up a current one. So, as the game goes along, more complications – Mob Interest d6, Heightened Security d10, Broken Toe d8 – arise and make the job more, well, complicated. And interesting. It builds the twists and turns you expect from a heist game12.

Fate Core

Fate has always worked on the idea that something interesting should happen on a failed roll, otherwise why bother rolling13? The latest iteration, Fate Core14, standardizes that idea, and gives some more mechanical guidelines, starting with the idea of the four outcomes.

The four outcomes are Fail, Tie, Succeed, and Succeed with Style, but the idea of setbacks only really comes in on the first two outcomes. If you fail, you might still get what you want, but at a serious cost. Serious costs make the current situation worse – it brings in new opposition, or grants a benefit to the current opposition, or maybe puts a consequence on the player. If you tie, you get what you want, but at a minor cost – adding a detail to the story that is problematic for the PC, or possibly giving the opposition a minor benefit. These are perfect examples of setbacks.

The ultimate setback in Fate Core, though, is the concession. At any point during a conflict15, a character can concede. This means that he or she loses the conflict, but gets to have some input on what losing means16, and earns some fate points in the bargain. So, to steal the example from the book, if you’re in a fight, and you’ve taken a couple of consequences already, and the bad guy is still big and strong and unhurt, you might want to concede. You get to say, “Okay, he doesn’t kill me or take me captive,” and the GM says, “Okay, he knocks you out, spits on you, takes your sword as a trophy, and leaves you for dead.” And then you get three fate points.

Drama System

Robin D. Laws’s new game system, Drama System, powers his Hillfolk game, and it has an interesting take on setbacks. The core of the game is dramatic interaction, where your character is alternately petitioning17 and being petitioned. The petition is one character seeking some sort of emotional concession from another character – I want him to respect me, I want her to love me, I want them to be proud of me, whatever. The other character can decide to grant or withhold that emotional concession, as they desire18.

What keeps this from getting bogged down in the standard I-will-not-lose, dig-in-the-heels argument stalemate that is so common in RPGs is that there is a drama point at stake, and you really want drama points in the game. They are a plot currency that gives you certain power over the narrative, and are incredibly useful and fun.

And you only get drama points if you don’t get what you want in the scene.

So, if you are the petitioner, you only get a drama point if the granter doesn’t give you that emotional concession. And, if you are the granter, you only get the drama point if you DO give the petitioner that emotional concession. The idea is that you will get what you want about half the time, and the other half, you get a setback and a drama point.

Apocalypse World

As with Leverage RPG, above, I’m using Apocalypse World as a single example of the entire family of *World games19. Setbacks are really the core of the system, and they are what drives the narrative and even forms the structure of the story. Whenever the PCs fail at a roll, the MC makes a move against them20, and then asks, “What do you do?”

“Well, you fire at old Scrub, but the bullet goes wide, and everyone hears the shot. Scrub dives for cover, and suddenly, Sheriff is on the scene, and she’s yelling at you to come out with your hands up. What do you do?”

“You can’t get the old door in the rock to open. The random codes you punched on the keypad didn’t make the light go from red to green, like it was supposed to. Something happens, though: sparks start to crackle all over the surface of the door, with little arcs of lighting grounding themselves in the surrounding cave wall. What do you do?”

It’s the “What do you do?” that you always end your moves with that make this setbacks. You’ve made things harder, added more obstacles, and generally defeated the characters, but the fact that you have to leave things open for the “What do you do?” means that you cannot dead-end the game. There must be a way forward – all the players21 have to do is decide what it is.

But good as the hard moves on a miss are, the really perfect example of the setback happens with a roll of 7-9. With that roll, the characters succeed at what they’re attempting,  but at a cost. Giving the characters a mixed success is good, but even better is making the characters choose between getting what they want and losing something else. This hard bargain creates some of the best setbacks in the game.

“Okay, you dive for cover, and roll up behind a burned-out car. As you fly through the air, you feel a tug at your clothing and, when you land and get your breath back, you see that a bullet went right through one of the ties on your pack. Half the contents, including your flashlight and the handkerchief full of bullets, are strewn on the ground out there, where the bullets are falling like rain. You’re safe where you are, but your gear is exposed and won’t last long under this fire. What do you do?”

Those are some fun setbacks.

Fiasco

Fiasco is another game built around setbacks. With the black and white dice mechanic, half the scenes22 end in an unfavourable outcome – as setback – for the character.  And it’s the rest of the group who gets to decide that. Oh, the player can influence what kind of ending he or she is getting through roleplaying, but really, if there’s no more white dice, it doesn’t matter how good the play or the argument, things will end bad.

Of course, bad endings are part of the fun of Fiasco. The first two pieces of advice I always give to new Fiasco players – especially if they’re experienced roleplayers – are:

  1. Don’t get too attached to your character. Bad things are gonna happen to him or her.
  2. Don’t try to “win.” Instead, embrace failure and self-destruction, and revel in them.

Fiasco players, like Drama System players, are incentivized to accept setbacks, because they are such a core part of the game. And they’re a core part of the game because they’re a core part of the inspiring media. Remember that Coen Brothers movie where everything went smooth for the characters and it all worked out great? Yeah, me neither.

So, Why Setbacks?

Okay, so we know what setbacks are, and how different games handle them. Why should we care?

  • Setbacks give the opportunity for character development, showing how characters deal with frustration, loss, and things other than success. That gives us more insight into the characters, the world, and the story.
  • Setbacks also vary the pacing and shape of the narrative. If events are just a single string of successes leading to a climax, we tend to get bored. Periodic failures keep us interested by building in suspense – if we know the character can’t fail, we can zone out, but if it’s in question, then we focus in. It’s just more interesting to us.
  • We know that, in life, nothing is ever perfectly smooth. There’s always a few hiccups along the way, and sometimes we need to take a step back before we can take a step forward. And, if our games have the same sorts of things, we can more closely identify with the characters we’re playing. It feels more real to us.
  • It gives us the opportunity to do fun things in a game. Have the heroes captured by pirates, or chased away from the rich treasure by a fearsome beast, or get caught in the stolen car with the twelve sticks of dynamite and open bottle of bourbon. You can throw in the weird and unexpected, the frustrating and the fun23.
  • Setbacks provide a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the adventure. Characters had more obstacles to overcome to reach the end, and had to work harder for their reward. It makes the eventual victory24 that much sweeter.

And that’s why you should care about setbacks in your game.

For the Players

Okay, gang, I’ve just spent close to 3000 words telling GMs that they should screw their players over25. Now I’m going to claim that I did it all for you.

As a player, I suggest you embrace any setbacks that come your way. They are another chance to show off how awesome your character is, in victory and in defeat. James Bond gets captured by the villain all the time, just so he can show off how cool he is when he escapes. Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite so that he can have his emotional moments with Leia and so that the rest of the gang can come and rescue him. The Fellowship of the Ring has to turn back from the mountain pass, and they get to confront horrible26 evils from the dawn of time in the Mines of Moria.

Setbacks are just another way to let your character be cool. It’s an opportunity to add a twist to the story, and to reveal something interesting about the characters, and to earn a sweeter victory at the end. Of course, this depends on both the GM and the players accepting this idea, and then implementing it in game. The chance to add further problems to the characters’ lives is probably incentive enough to get GMs on board with this, but it requires players to jump in just as eagerly, and to reward the GMs with good play and good moments when encountering a setback.

If both GMs and players are enthusiastic about the way setbacks can enrich a game, then setbacks will happen and will be awesome, even if you’re using an old-style game like RuneQuest or D&D.

 

  1. I’m going to be focusing on D&D in these examples, because it is the most universal touchstone that gamers have, and also really illustrates my point. []
  2. And sometimes poor tactics. []
  3. “I do exactly the same thing that didn’t work last time, but harder!” []
  4. “Natural one, huh? Well, I guess that medusa has a new fighter statue for her garden. What do you want to play next?” []
  5. Especially Fate Core and it’s derived games, and certain iterations of Cortex Plus. []
  6. For those unfamiliar with 13th Age, icons are the powerful NPCs and their factions that control the setting, like the Dragon Emperor, the Diabolist, the Elf Queen, and the Archmage. They all have their own agendas, and PCs frequently get involved in those agendas, for better or worse. []
  7. Or heads, as the case may be. []
  8. I’m pretty sure the phrase originated elsewhere – I want to say in Sorcerer, but that’s just because a lot of new language that we use to discuss games originated there. []
  9. Or, if you’ve got the right kind of group who will accept a heavy narrative hand from the GM, “Everything goes black. You wake up in a cell, chained to the wall. There’s just enough play in the manacles that your fingers can reach the big bump on the back of your head. You never even heard your assailant sneaking up behind you, you were so focused on the lock.” []
  10. Again, the idea of failing forward – adding a new obstacle, but not dead-ending the game. []
  11. I know this because I’ve done it. All you need is a basic idea of the job – the mark, the client, the basic situation. Stat out the mark with a couple of dice, as described in the rulebook, and you’re ready to run. Just make sure you have plenty of index cards or sticky notes to track the complications as they arise. []
  12. And from the TV show. []
  13. This is similar to Vincent D. Baker’s idea of “Say yes, or roll the dice.” []
  14. Which is available on a pay-what-you-like model in .pdf here. []
  15. Usually when things are going badly and defeat looks imminent. []
  16. Usually not dying. []
  17. Not in the formal sense, you understand. And often not directly. []
  18. And the game builds in reasons for the granter to not want to give that concession. []
  19. Including Dungeon World, Monster Hearts, Dungeon Planet, tremulus, and others that I probably haven’t heard of. []
  20. As hard and direct a move as the MC wants. Not as hard and direct a move as the MC can. This is a vital distinction in keeping the game flowing. And the characters alive. []
  21. Yes, the players. They choose their next moves, and, if they roll well, whatever they choose is the way forward. []
  22. Well, possibly a little more or a little less, if you use the default rule that the last die is wild. []
  23. Caveat: if you’re going to throw in the frustrating, you better throw in enough fun to compensate. Otherwise, you’re a jerk. []
  24. Assuming there is one, of course. But that’s a topic for another day. []
  25. Well, no I didn’t, but that could be one interpretation. []
  26. But very cool. []

Dungeon World: Starting Three Times

Okay, so I’ve been talking a lot about Apocalypse World lately, because I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. Last year at GenCon  ((The gamer geek version of “One time at band camp…” )), I got a chance to try out both AW and Dungeon World, and came away very fond of AW, less so of DW. A large part of that is simply my experience at the table – Trevis, who ran AW, was awesome, the group was small, and I was playing with my buddy, Clint. With the DW game, the group was twice as large, the GM was obviously tired, and the whole thing was a more scattered, confused experience.

I don’t want to run down the GM – whose name I didn’t get – he was doing a great job with a large group of people that, not to put too fine a point on it, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to play with. I don’t want to run down those players, either – they were having fun, and if their fun is not the kind of fun that I enjoy, well, it’s still fun for them. I was the odd man out.

Really, though the point I’m trying to make is that I was not as impressed with DW as I was with AW.

And then I played it.

I put together a kit for running Dungeon World some time ago, simply because it’s one of those great pick-up games that I want to have ready to run with little-to-no preparation. And a few weeks back, the opportunity came up to try the game out with a couple of friends.

I had a few days lead time, so I got the players to pick out characters and answer a couple of provocative questions via e-mail leading up to the session. We rolled out with a Barbarian and a Ranger, standing outside a jungle ziggurat, and then they started rolling dice.

That’s when the game took off.

See, the guys started rolling badly. Really, really badly. Like, stunningly, appallingly badly. And so the vines attacked them, and stole the Barbarian’s sword, and bashed them up, and then they started hearing things in the jungle, and finally they just dropped through the collapsing side of the pyramid into a cave.

I was tap-dancing desperately, working to come up with interesting ideas for the moves I could make against them when they missed a roll, and it took me a little while to realize that I was enjoying this game even more than AW. When I did notice this, I started to wonder why, but then had to stop wondering about it because there were more bad rolls coming my way.

Our heroes took a little breather down in the cave, then crawled out, fire-bombed the vines, found an ossuary inside the pyramid, had their fingers bit off by ghouls, and woke something dark and dangerous down in the pits before fleeing to safety. It was the most fun I’ve had running a dungeon crawl in a long, long time.

And, after the game, I got to figure out why I enjoyed DW more than AW: I’m simply more familiar and practised with the tropes. I’ve been running fantasy games for about thirty years, and read a lot of fantasy, seen a lot of fantasy, and created a lot of fantasy. It’s easier for me, steeped in the fantasy tradition that I am, to come up with ideas that fit a fantasy game than for a post-apocalyptic game.

As far as post-apocalyptic stuff goes, well, I’ve run some Gamma World, watched Jeremiah and Jericho and the Mad Max movies and… nope. That’s about it. It’s not a genre1 that I’m as familiar with. That means that running AW is more work and therefor not as much free-wheeling fun for me. It’ still an awesome game, but requires more effort on my part.

We had enough fun with the game that I ran it again a week or so later, adding a Bard and a Fighter2 to the group. I didn’t handle the addition very well – I brought the new characters3 back at the little jungle village close to the pyramid temple.

In the intervening time, I had written up adventure fronts for the temple and for the jungle4, as well as the beginnings of a campaign front, and I figured I’d give the new players a little time to dig around on their own rather than just throw everyone together. I gave them some minimal prompting, and had them arrive at the village, so they could poke around, get used to their characters and the system, and stuff like that.

This was an error.

What I should have done is thrown them into something a little more high-pressure and dangerous to get them making moves and building that ever-important feedback loop. As it was, they could wander around and ask questions and generally take it easy and feel safe, which didn’t help advance things5. It would have been far more fun to have them attacked by bandits, or jungle cats, or whatever, to make for a more exciting start.

I mean, this way worked, but it wasn’t as cool.

That said, we got the party together, and they had some fun talking to the locals, and learning about the Brotherhood of the Heights6 and the corpse spiders7 and wound up fighting some jungle cats and swarms of savage apes.

And then the Akon, the Ape God8 showed up and everyone retreated. The Ranger managed to shoot out Akon’s eye, and that drove him off, but not before he smeared a big, bloody, ape-god handprint on the village palisade9.

At that point, I was completely sold on this game. I was in love with it. It became my go-to fantasy game. And then I had a third opportunity to run it.

I had a small group – only three players – show up for the Storm Point game. Normally, that would still be enough to run with, but the three who showed up were not keen on playing the characters of the folks who couldn’t make it, which is our default system. They opted instead to try Dungeon World.

Now, the three who showed up are really just casual gamers. This is not to imply anything wrong with them; they just don’t get into the rules mastery as much as the other players. I was interested to see how they would react to DW – I figured they would either love it or hate it.

I had learned from the previous session, and started our heroes – a Templar10, a Wizard, and a Thief – in the middle of a rock bridge over a deep chasm far below the ground, with a mob of skeletons approaching from one direction, and ominous flickering lights showing in the other. So, they had to act quick.

That led us to skeleton battles, death-defying leaps into the chasm, desperate swimming attempts, scaling sheer walls, magical traps, hungry goblins, and finally an ogre. We only played for a couple of hours, but more happened in that session than in the previous three sessions of the Storm Point game.

They loved it. They were excited, engaged, and active, laughing and talking and debating things and just generally enjoying the hell out of the game. The fact that I could pull this rather… distractible group of players together and get characters made and that whole adventure run in the short time we played is a real testament to the power of the Dungeon World.

So, in short, DW delivers everything I want right now from a dungeon-crawling game, and does it in a manner that makes running the game a breeze. It is, in my opinion, the king of fantasy RPGs.

You should definitely try it.

  1. Or sub-genre, if you prefer. []
  2. Played by a couple of players who hadn’t been able to make the previous game. []
  3. Who had links to the old characters and to the major NPC in the rudimentary backstory we came up with. []
  4. Including the village. []
  5. That’s not entirely true. It helped build the feeling of the world being alive, and provided a little more background information, but it didn’t move this along, story-wise or pacing-wise. []
  6. Bandits who live in the rainforest canopy. []
  7. Okay. The corpse spiders aren’t my fault. I let the group name the jungle, and one of them named it Corpse Spider jungle. So that meant there had to be corpse spiders. Totally not my fault. []
  8. One of the dangers of not reading your work aloud: I hadn’t realized how much Akon (ah-kon) sounds like King Kong until I said it at the game. Sound test your names, GMs! []
  9. I don’t know what that means, but the Bard spouted some lore, and it didn’t look too good. []
  10. From this collection of alternate classes. []

Apocalypse World: The Beacon

Man, I am waaaaaaay behind on my blogging. The reasons why are numerous, but I’m hoping to get back on track with a couple of posts leading up to GenCon, and then my usual GenCon daily report. So, thanks for bearing with me.

This first catch-up post is pretty sparse – enough time has passed that my memory of the game session is worse than usual. It’s just going to be the skeleton of the session, and I’m hoping that the players1 will jump in on the comments to add any important bits that I’ve missed.

When we got together for the last session, I decided to jump time forward again, just a few weeks. In contrast to the last time I jumped things forward, I took stuff away from the players2. This time, I gave them stuff – a point or two of barter each. Then I gave a couple of them a chance to exchange the barter I gave them for a different benefit – refilling an angel kit, getting an ATV, stuff like that.3

In the interim between the last two games, I had the players start thinking about what they wanted for their characters in the game. The campaign is limited to twelve episodes, and this session is number seven, so I wanted them to start thinking about the endgame for the campaign. A couple of the characters had nicely intersecting goals that we picked up this session, and it kept us busy for the session – and probably for at least one more session.

This is one of the things I like most about the *World games: the game is driven by and shaped by player/character desires and actions in a wonderful, strongly reinforced feedback loop. Even the way the default Apocalypse World campaign starts – just following the characters around on a normal day – lets the players set the agenda, and their actions4 shape the story in an action-reaction loop.

Anyway.

The intersecting goals were Snow wanting to find his way back to the cryofacility he woke up in some months before, Magpie wanting to get her hands on Snow’s tech for her hoard, and Nils and JB mainly wanting to figure out where Snow had come from, and what they could get out of that information.5 In a previous excursion into the Ruins, Snow had spotted one of the marker beacons that should lead him to the facility – his memory of its exact location is somewhat fuzzy, thanks to his first encounter with the Maelstrom and some time wandering through the maze of the Ruins.

And so, back into the Ruins, scouting for the beacon. They had some trouble finding the beacon, allowing me to make some moves from my various fronts to fill in the time and make the world seem dynamic and alive. Our heroes found hints of the very polite, ghillie-suited  soldiers that they’ve taken to calling Canadians, and carefully avoided an interesting event that they might have witnessed, but instead wound up happening off-screen.6

In the end, the team found the beacon and reactivated it, though they had some difficulty with the elevators in the abandoned building. There was some scrambling, some climbing, some jumping, some falling, some shooting, and in the end, they made it back to the safehouse that Nils had set up in the Ruins, where they could start using the beacon to backtrack to the cryofacility.

That’s where we wrapped things. The next session was supposed to be this past Friday night, but I wound up sick as a dog, and had to cancel. So, I’m really looking forward to the next one, in about three weeks.

  1. I know Elliott will be all over this, because, well, Elliott. 😉 []
  2. The Take Their Stuff move. []
  3. For those keeping score at home, this is the Make Them Buy move. []
  4. Especially their failed rolls – this is a topic big enough and interesting enough that it’s coming in its own post in a couple of days. []
  5. I’m ascribing motivations to Nils and JB that never came up in play, so it’s just my impression of the way they acted and responded to the suggestions to go find the cryofacility. []
  6. It still happened, though, because the world keeps moving even when the characters aren’t there to see it. []

Second Apocalypse: On the Road to Paradise

It was pretty short notice, but another part of my extended gaming group decided they wanted to game last Saturday, and I volunteered to run something, since Clint – the other GM1 in that part of the group – wasn’t getting to play that much. I sent out a list on Monday, I think it was, with a list of games that I’d be willing to run as a one-shot, put it to a vote, and Apocalypse World was the narrow victor2.

One of the beautiful thing about Apocalypse World is that you can be ready to run a game in almost no time. I sent out the available playbooks so that everyone could choose their character before the game, the idea being to cut down character creation time3, so everyone had their character type picked out by the time we got together on Saturday.

Things were a little delayed because of some transit issues in getting everyone together, and then by ordering pizza, but we finally got everyone settled and we got down to business.

The first question I asked was whether people wanted the option of revisiting the game, or if they wanted it to be a true one-shot. That was an important question to start the session off, because the answer to it would shape everything else I did as MC – how hard I would work to force things to conflict, how much energy we would devote to building the world, the amount of freedom I was going to give to backstory, all that sort of stuff.

See, my first experience in playing Apocalypse World happened last year at GenCon, where our fantastic MC, Trevis, ran the thing like a Fiasco game, pushing things into conflict and disaster. I figured I could run something like that if people only wanted a one-shot, or I could invest a little more of everyone’s time and energy to build something bigger if people were interested in the possibility of the games continuing beyond the single session.

Folks opted for the potential for continuation, so we devoted a little time4 to building the world. I’m not going to go through all the rigamarole of questions, answers, discussions, and drawings that we went through, but we wound up with the following characters5:

  • Rain is a Touchstone. She’s an older woman, and has a legend in her family6 of a place beyond the wastelands where people can live in peace and plenty. She’s gathered a small group – around forty or so, when the evening begins7 – to seek this paradise. So, the game is set in a traveling camp of refugees, something right out of Exodus.
  • Crille is a Gunlugger. He’s a scarred, stringy survivor of the wastelands, a mercenary who has joined up with Rain’s group for the barter. He’s not a believer, he’s not even much of a follower. He’s just a hired gun, trying to keep everyone safe for as long as they’re paying him.
  • Sundown is a Brainer8. She ran into Rain’s group just a few months ago, and decided that they were fun to play with, so she’s attached herself to the group. Rain lets her stay because she’s come in handy a few times, rooting out information from the brains of people who didn’t want to share it.
  • Doc Tersey is an Angel. She’s been with Rain’s group for a long time, and doesn’t know if she believes in the paradise Rain promises. She hopes it exists, though, and dedicates herself to keeping the people in the group healthy.
  • Rack is Faceless. He’s a big, hulking, seven-foot mountain of scarred muscle wearing a Japanese demon mask. He’s been with Rain pretty much forever, and has always been a loyal and devoted follower, though his attitude has changed a little in the past several months.

With that settled, we started play. We’d built a map as we were fleshing out the world, with a ruined city, a tangled jungle, a desert wasteland, a volcanic rift, a range of impassable mountains, and a fortified city called The Redoubt. Rain was sure that Paradise was on the other side of the mountain range, and that’s why they were moving into the area.

We opened with Rain getting a rundown on the area from two scouts she had sent ahead, Nero and Littlebit. After hearing the lay of the land, she gathered her inner council9 and they talked about where they wanted to head.

After some discussion, they decided to head into the ruined city – called Willow Lake – to see if they could scrounge some good stuff to use for trade at The Redoubt. They figured they’d need supplies and any information they could get about getting through the mountains.

In Willow Lake, things started getting interesting. One by one, people – including the PCs – started vanishing10. Eventually, I got them all.

Then, of course, I had to figure out what the hell was going on.

So, I had the characters wake up, one by one, trapped in a weblike mesh made of what looked and felt like human flesh and skin. Hilarity ensued as they got free, tried to rescue the other captives, and escape. Eventually, they managed it, though Sundown got used as a brain puppet while I talked horta-talk through her11, and I had the opportunity to lay a little pipe12 that may or may not be useful in later sessions.

So, they escaped, having lost just about a quarter of Rain’s followers, and we wrapped up for the evening. Everyone said they had had fun and wanted to play another session. Maybe more than one. The set-up they’ve given me is nice in that it has a built-in end-point13, when the group crosses the mountains14 and reaches Paradise, whatever it may turn out to be.

One thing that this session highlighted for me15 is the fact that this game is really driven by the failed rolls of the characters. Yes, the MC gets to make moves at other times, and gets to steer things a little through the information given when someone successfully Reads a Charged Situation and such, but the most interesting moments come through the hard moves made when someone misses a roll. That, and the ugly choices offered when someone gets a 7-9 result.

Why did this session make this obvious? I think it’s because, for the first session of an Apocalypse World game, you go in cold as the MC. You don’t have any fronts, yet, and so everything comes from spur-of-the-moment, seat-of-the-pants improvisation, and you need to mentally run as fast as you can to keep your feet under you. I’d been through one first session before, but at that time, I was still trying to figure out all the moving parts of the game, so concentrated more on that than on the structure that was emerging. This time, I was more confident with the system and mechanics, so I was able to pay more attention to the effects they were having on the play experience.

It’s just one of the things that makes Apocalypse World a fascinating system to run.

  1. Although Fera is starting to think about trying to run something. Clint and I are being as encouraging as we can, because getting someone else into the fun of GMing is a great way to grow the hobby. Also, GMing is awesome fun. []
  2. Ashen Stars was the runner up, only a single vote behind. []
  3. Which doesn’t take all that much time, really, but the more time we have to actually play, the better. []
  4. Well, actually it turned out to be more than a little. Factoring in character creation and world creation, it was close to two hours before we actually started playing. []
  5. There are a few secrets that the characters have that aren’t reflected in the list below. Deal with it. []
  6. Possibly with a vision she’s had herself. []
  7. Less when the evening ends, sadly. []
  8. And is there any Brainer out there that doesn’t take the violation glove? []
  9. That is, the player characters. []
  10. Well, they were wondering why the city was abandoned and left to the ruins and a new city built less then fifty miles away. Guess they found out. []
  11. I didn’t quite resort to NO KILL I, but it was close. []
  12. Yes, that’s a euphemism, but not a sexual one. []
  13. Winner of the most hyphenated words in one sentence for this blog post! []
  14. They’re called the Devil’s Teeth, by the way. []
  15. Highlighted? Really, it threw it into stark relief. []

Apocalypse World: Sway’s War

Finally getting my feet back under me at the day job after my vacation and subsequent overwhelming amount of work. This post is a little late – like, two weeks late – but I’m finally getting to it. The upshot of this is that my memory of stuff may be a little worse than usual1. So, I’m gonna try and keep this brief .

Bear with me.

We picked up the game with the characters meeting up with Calico and the posse coming out from Roosevelt. Our heroes had captured sixteen of Sway’s Boys, and had them all chained to the captured trucks. The plan was to interrogate them, find out where the rest of Sway’s Boys were holed up, and go rescue the stolen food2.

I was, frankly, a little surprised at how quick JB, Snow, and Nils3  jumped right into hardcore torture. We had some cultural clash, here, mechanics-wise. See, in Apocalypse World, there’s an expectation that you make a move and that resolves the outcome of the situation of the moment. In other games4, there’s an expectation that a check resolves one attempt to overcome a challenge and, if the challenge is static, you can try again if you fail. What happened here was that the players kept wanting to escalate the torture if the first roll didn’t produce the results they wanted, and I kept trying to explain that, no, the Going Aggro roll they just made covers the entire interrogation attempt.

There were also a number of attempts to create situational bonuses5, which just doesn’t work in the same way as in other games. If you’re trying to help someone do something, you use the Aid move, and describe it however you want. In this way, it’s kind of like a Cortex or Fate game – you need to do something active to create a bonus. Nothing gives you an automatic bonus, the way some things in, say, D&D do.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not talking about this to show off my players’ errors – there were no errors, just a lack of familiarity with the very different game paradigm of Apocalypse World.  And that’s what I want to highlight: the game paradigm, the basic assumptions of play, the mechanics, and the play experience are all different from more traditional6 games. There is a learning curve here, both for players and MC. Both have to come to terms with using the dice more as seasoning for the game fiction, rather than the base. At the same time, the dice provide the pivot points of the narrative7, meaning you have to walk a bit of a fine line as MC, trying to get enough dice rolling to keep a story building itself with unexpected twists and setbacks, but not so much that it overshadows player agency or taxes MC invention8.

Anyway, our heroes eventually got information on where Sway and the rest of his gang were holed up – some caves in the old quarries south of Roosevelt. Someone9 tapped into the maelstrom and got a vision of a secret back way into the caves, so Calico decided that the group should split, with our heroes and one of her men sneaking up to the top of the quarry walls and down through the secret entrance while Calico and the rest of the Roosevelt forces attacked from the front.

The night trek across the open fields to the quarry and the assault on the quarry were a lot of tense fun for us. The upshot was that our gang was victorious, wiped out Sway’s Boys, freed most of the slaves, recovered most of the food, and salvaged a bunch of weapons and vehicles from the now-defunct slaver gang.

Everyone was beat up to some degree, so they went back to Roosevelt, and that’s where we wrapped up the game. Have to think about where/when we’re going to start the next game, now. It’s coming up this Friday.

  1. And, as Elliott will attest, my memory is not great at the best of time. []
  2. Also free the captured slaves from New Ogden, but those were a secondary objective in Calico’s eyes. []
  3. As I recall, Magpie participated, but not as… enthusiastically. []
  4. Like, but not exclusive to, D&D. []
  5. “I loom threateningly.” “I shoot his buddy.” Stuff like that. []
  6. Whatever that really means. []
  7. A bit of an aside – I ran the first session of a new AW game last night with a new group, and it reminded me once again that the narrative, direction, and challenges are really shaped a driven by the misses on the players’ moves. I’ve said it before here, but it was thrown into stark relief with the first session, when I had no fronts, no prep, and had to fill a game session based on what happened at the table. It’s challenging, but kind of exhilarating. []
  8. Yeah, if people are rolling more, they will be missing more, and that means the MC has to improvise more. Too much is too short a span and you’ll run out of good ideas, then out of bad ideas, then out of any ideas. []
  9. I think Magpie? But I’m not sure. Elliott? Do you remember? []