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 Snowâ€™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 â€“ including themselves â€“ to suddenly change4 was not something that really appealed to anyone but Snow and the Colonel, but Snow couldnâ€™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, Iâ€™m the one who had taught them that they could do that, so they6 assumed thatâ€™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 Magpieâ€™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 Iâ€™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, itâ€™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 didnâ€™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 couldâ€¦ yâ€™know, Iâ€™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.
- Previously and somewhat disastrously reawakened by Magpie, giving him a small stroke.
- To be fair, it was the only real explanation that I had provided for what happened, so saying he â€œlatched onto itâ€ 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.
- Especially Nils and JB.
- Or even vanish utterly.
- I had also very successfully communicated some stuff that was directly contradictory to what I had intended.
- Very properly.
- The seed of the image planted by the Canadiansâ€™ description, of course.
- 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 Iâ€™d just say, â€œThe end.â€ Fade to black. No explanation, no follow-up. In retrospect, Iâ€™m glad I didnâ€™t get a chance to use it. Itâ€™s a little too cute, really.
- For want of a better word.
- Funny how that works, huh?
- “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.”
- 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.
- 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!
- Though Nils and Magpie want to stop back there and pick up their stuff.
- By using really good guns.
- And the other games based on it.
- Or even where it starts, to be fair.