Apocalypse World: Hunting

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.  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 have  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, so…”

#ApocalypseWorld quote: “So you’re going to try and Pied Piper the razor weasels to make them follow you swarming over the sniper?” “…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.

Apocalypse World: The Way Out

We picked up the latest session of our Apocalypse World game pretty much right where we had left things last game, with the characters ((The hard-scrabble, desperate, morally ambiguous nature of the game world makes me hesitate calling them heroes.)) braving the night in the Ruins, along with Lark and Sparerib from Dawning. They holed up in a convenient warehouse, though Magpie and Snow went to see if they could find the hardware store that Magpie had seen a very desirable ((Well, desirable for her hoard, anyway.)) boom box. She didn’t find it, and got a little lost, and by the time they made it back to the van, it was dark and disturbing outside.

Magpie was kind of pouty about that, and convinced Nils to join her in searching the warehouse from top to bottom while everyone else was resting or on watch. She made a terrible roll, so I told the other folks that after quite some time, Nils and Magpie hadn’t returned yet. Snow tried to get Sparerib and Lark to accompany him and JB on a search for their missing compatriots, but Lark basically told him to go screw himself – they were paying for an escort, and if the escort couldn’t handle its own business, then maybe they had paid too much.

This didn’t sit all that well with Snow, but he let it go for now, and he and JB left Lark and Sparerib watching over the mysterious box they ((Lark and Sparerib, that is.)) had recovered. Their search led them down into the mechanical tunnels underneath the warehouse, and from there through a hole into the sewers. Some investigation revealed that the hole had been concealed, and there were signs of nets and dragging, leading JB and Snow to figure that their compatriots had been captured by someone who likes traps. So they proceeded carefully down the tunnel, keeping watch for traps.

And Snow blew his roll, and dropped down out of sight beneath the water ((Yeah, I was making liberal use of the Separate them move, though of course I didn’t call it that. I was frankly surprised at how easy it was to get away with that – no bluster or whining from the players, the way there often is in other games when you so obviously bone the characters using GM fiat. Obviously, they’ve come to understand the way the game works, too, and know that, if they blow a roll, I get to hurt them if I want.)). JB tried to pry up the lid of the pit that had swallowed Snow, but couldn’t find any purchase on it, and so kept going. With one character left, I decided it was time to show some of the enemy, and so JB saw some gleaming red eyes ahead, and more behind. JB ((Okay. JB’s player has chosen ambiguous gender for JB, and goes to some lengths during play to kept the question of gender open as a roleplaying thing. To respect that, I’m doing my best to avoid gendered pronouns when writing about JB, but it makes for some awkward sentences. Bear with me, okay?)) opened up and shredded the ones in front – the muzzle flashes showed wizened humans with weird metal helmets covering the front part of their heads – and stormed through them, but dropped into another pit trap.

They all woke up naked ((Take their stuff move. And if you’re wondering how JB kept the gender thing secret – don’t ask. The discussion took a sharp left into the inappropriate at that point.)) in a cold, cement room. The door had a flange wheel that turned, but they couldn’t push the door open. They sat around there for a while, talking, and seeing if they could plan something. Their captors didn’t respond to shouts or pounding, so they got frustrated. Eventually, JB decided to open up to the psychic maelstrom and try to find some answers there.

JB pictured the psychic maelstrom as a battlefield, and attracted the attention of a large, malevolent thing stalking the edges of the armies, luring it in. It tore through the enemies surrounding JB, and he managed to send it away before it got too close. The others heard and felt a rising, ultrasonic scream that almost incapacitated them, and then the door blew out of the doorframe. JB woke up then, and the gang decided that he had called in some strange, sonic-attack-using creature that scared off the things that had captured them ((This wasn’t what had happened in my head, but it’s a reasonable assessment of available information, so I’m not messing with it. If it does come up again, I’ll have to decide then whether or not their answer is the real one, or if I’m going to stick with my original idea.)), because there was no sign of their captors. They managed to recover most of their gear, and made it back to the van.

Snow had been stewing the whole time about Lark, so the first thing he did when he walked through the door back by the van was try to blow Lark away. Sparerib must have seen something in his face, though, because they were diving for cover while Snow was still bringing his gun up, and threw a nasty throwing knife into Snow’s shoulder ((Mechanically, Snow missed his Seize by Force roll, and I responded by applying harm.)). This led to a stand-off, with Nils’s van caught in the middle of things. Nils managed to get things calmed down, and negotiated a ceasefire while Lark and Sparerib cleared out ((With their mysterious metal box, of course.)), even getting the knife that Magpie wanted so badly. He gave the two directions, and they lit out.

Next day, the gang spent a little time looting the Ruins, and I was pleased at how smoothly and organically my revised Loot the Ruins move worked compared to the previous version. I think it’s a keeper. Among some other things, they discovered some sort of spider/mouse hybrid and an abandoned parking garage that was secure enough that Nils started outfitting it as a safe house in the Ruins. They stayed there one more night, and JB ((I think? Maybe it was Magpie. Or both. Can’t remember.)) went up high to keep watch. I used the opportunity to show some other little enclaves in the Ruins, including one that seemed to be made up of folks dressed like Yellowhammer’s cult back in Roosevelt.

Finally the next morning, they headed back to Roosevelt from the Ruins side. And they just happened to spot Lark and Sparerib down an alley, now with two of the large metal boxes ((Just to be clear, this is the type of box I’m talking about.)). There followed some debate about whether the group should go back to kill them – Nils had been told by Calico to make sure they didn’t return, and Magpie knew that, while Snow was still pissed and wanted them dead. Eventually, they decided that they should do it ((Basically, they let Nils make the final call, and Chris, Nils’s player, has commented on that fact. “Rick,” he said, “If Nils is the moral compass of this group, we are so boned.”)), especially as it would then mean they could find out what was in those cases. So, they swung the van around, opened the rear doors, and unloaded on the two Dawning men, killing them quickly and easily.

They made it back to Roosevelt, and Calico let them through the gate. She seemed pretty pleased that the group was two members light. And Nils went to explain the loss to Wilson, the trade rep from Dawning. She took the news well, but coldly.

So there was nothing left to do but open the metal boxes. Turns out there was a security system ((Deja vu, huh, Nils?)) that fried the contents of the box, leaving just some ruined circuit boards. He decided to take some time before opening the other one.

That’s where we called it a night.

We’re four episodes into this game, which is set to run a total of twelve sessions. I’m starting to see why Vincent Baker says that he doesn’t consider an Apocalypse World game to really be working until about six sessions in – the world has really filled in in the last couple of sessions, giving more connections and motivations to the characters as well as adding depth to the environment. I’m starting to relax a little more into the MC role, and am really enjoying the kinds of things you can do ((That is, the kinds of things the players will let me get away with, because that’s the way the game works.)) in this system. And the players seem to be enjoying the freedom and responsiveness of the system, and are getting into the world.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that I’m really hitting the Acting Under Fire move pretty hard. This is not unexpected; it is, after all, the default move for doing something risky. But I’m finding myself calling for it so very often. I think I need to fall back on some advice from the folks at Evil Hat, as spelled out in The Spirit of the Century: Imagine success, and imagine failure. If failure is not as interesting as success, then don’t have it as an option.

In AW, though, it’s the failures that generate the interesting expansion of the world, creating the hooks and turning points that get the characters involved, so I can’t just abandon the idea of rolling the dice. But sometimes I’m really stuck for a good move to make when they miss, which slows the game down as I think of something.

What I’m going to try for next session is, when the characters are doing something that might require an Acting Under Fire roll, I’ll think about what a good move might be for this circumstance before I ask for a roll. If I can’t come up with something fairly quickly that seems like an interesting idea, the character will just succeed without needing to make a roll. That will, I hope, improve the pacing and keep things from devolving into endless Acting Under Fire rolls.

I’ll try that next session, which is in about a week and a half. I’m excited to play and find out what happens next.

Apocalypse World: Troubles Abound

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

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

Loot the Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apocalypse World: Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where we left things.

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

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

Apocalypse World: Welcome to Roosevelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A session I’m really looking forward to.


Looking Forward to the Coming Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

And it was fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

GenCon 2012: Day One

Day one of GenCon 2012 is over. Busy day.

Things started pretty wild when they opened the dealer room doors. There’s always a pretty intimidating rush of people, but it seemed like a larger crowd this year. I was grateful to be in the booth, avoiding a trampling.


I managed to sneak out to grab my preorders for Night’s Black Agents and The Zalozhniy Quartet from Pelgrane Press, where I met Paula and Steve Dempsey, which was a treat. Then I headed over to Margaret Weis Productions to snag my preorder copy of the Marvel Civil War Event Book. I got to say a quick hello to Cam Banks and meet Amanda Valentine – a most excellent editor – and also Jen from the Jennisodes podcast. She gave me a Ninja Panda Taco button, which was nice because I’m looking forward to that game coming out.

I managed to get some generic tickets and found the Games On Demand room, where I ran into Matthew Gandy, another excellent editor. He filled me in on how the room worked, and Clint and I came back for the 8:00 slot to play some Apocalypse World.


The game, though of necessity short, was a lot of fun, and gave me some much-needed insight into how it works mechanically. Many thanks to Trevis for running it, and to the other players for making it fun.

And now to bed.