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. []

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. []

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? []

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 shape1 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 tendency2 when the characters are hurt as badly as they were is to go to mattresses until healed3. 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 said4, 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 approved5, 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 mechanics6 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 fiction7.

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 random8 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 Calico9, 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 off10, 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.

Yodel11 – 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 graves12, 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 thing13 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 shape14 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 weasels15, 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 shotgun16, 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?”

Yes.

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 well17, and thus the plan worked, without any catches at all.

It was a psi grenade18 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 slavers19 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.

  1. Two or three of the four characters were at 9 o’clock or so on their harm clocks. []
  2. At least, for a lot of my players. []
  3. Which is neither heroic nor interesting. It’s boooooooring! []
  4. And my players should take note here. []
  5. Hell, I enthusiastically approved, because ties to NPCs are always good. []
  6. You don’t have a gig move, I have an MC move called Make them buy, stuff like that. []
  7. This is the secret of Make a move, but never speak its name. I get that, now. []
  8. 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. []
  9. “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.” []
  10. And Calico had been sent back to her office by Boss T so that the crazy yelling would stop. []
  11. 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. []
  12. See, the survivors had the strength to bury the first few who died on the road, then resorted to cairns, and… You get it. []
  13. Think of the sensor thingy they used in the Alien movies. []
  14. As opposed to the rabbit-sized shapes that were plentiful. []
  15. In my notes, I called them knife weasels, but the players called them razor weasels, and that’s really a better name. []
  16. I figured Going Aggro was the best way to represent that. []
  17. 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. []
  18. Another fun toy from Magpie’s hoard. []
  19. “We can take a couple with us. After all, they’ve brought their own manacles.” []

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 characters1 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 desirable2 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 they3 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 water4. 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. JB5 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 naked6 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 them7, 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 shoulder8. 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 out9, 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 JB10 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 boxes11. 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 it12, 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 system13 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 do14 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.

  1. The hard-scrabble, desperate, morally ambiguous nature of the game world makes me hesitate calling them heroes. []
  2. Well, desirable for her hoard, anyway. []
  3. Lark and Sparerib, that is. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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? []
  6. 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. []
  7. 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. []
  8. Mechanically, Snow missed his Seize by Force roll, and I responded by applying harm. []
  9. With their mysterious metal box, of course. []
  10. I think? Maybe it was Magpie. Or both. Can’t remember. []
  11. Just to be clear, this is the type of box I’m talking about. []
  12. 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.” []
  13. Deja vu, huh, Nils? []
  14. That is, the kinds of things the players will let me get away with, because that’s the way the game works. []

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 characters1 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 ago2 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 flow3.

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 Wilson4, 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 lurk5, 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, polite6 soldiers that I made up on the spur of the moment7. 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 World8 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…

  1. 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. []
  2. Yeah, I studied theatre in university. It was not a good fit. []
  3. 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. []
  4. The head of the Dawning trade delegation. []
  5. Cannibal savages that the players came up with during game creation. []
  6. “Omigod! They’re Canadian!” []
  7. Spoiler
    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.
    []
  8. And, hopefully, by extension, all the other games based on it. []

Apocalypse World: Ruins

Saturday night1 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 time2. 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 ruins3. 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 me4, 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 rulebook5, 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 raiders6. Finally, with Nils recovering in Wei’s clinic7, 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’ guns8.

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 town9, 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 worms10, and Magpie ran into some other looters who wanted to take the leather vest she found11. And then they got a little lost on the way out of the Ruins. Still, it was a successful expedition12, 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 prepared13. Fortunately, the fronts are incredibly useful tools for figuring out what to do next, but you need to take a breath and look them over14. 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 guns15 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.

  1. Actually, a couple of Saturdays ago, now. I’m behind on this post. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. They’ve played in my games before, you see. []
  5. To be fair, Snow and Nils did it mostly themselves. []
  6. 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. []
  7. And all the jokes about Nils’s scorched groin were making the rounds of Roosevelt, of course. []
  8. 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. []
  9. 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. []
  10. Little things like silverfish, but with something like a crab claw at the head. And now Roosevelt has a scissor worm problem. []
  11. That turned kind of dark – Magpie isn’t much of a fighter but, as a hoarder, when her stuff is threatened, she gets ruthless. []
  12. Perhaps a little too successful. []
  13. 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. []
  14. The AW rulebook tells you to take breaks whenever you feel the need, and that’s some good advice. []
  15. That’d be JB and Snow. []