Second Apocalypse: On the Road to Paradise

It was pretty short notice, but another part of my extended gaming group decided they wanted to game last Saturday, and I volunteered to run something, since Clint – the other GM ((Although Fera is starting to think about trying to run something. Clint and I are being as encouraging as we can, because getting someone else into the fun of GMing is a great way to grow the hobby. Also, GMing is awesome fun.)) in that part of the group – wasn’t getting to play that much. I sent out a list on Monday, I think it was, with a list of games that I’d be willing to run as a one-shot, put it to a vote, and Apocalypse World was the narrow victor ((Ashen Stars was the runner up, only a single vote behind.)).

One of the beautiful thing about Apocalypse World is that you can be ready to run a game in almost no time. I sent out the available playbooks so that everyone could choose their character before the game, the idea being to cut down character creation time ((Which doesn’t take all that much time, really, but the more time we have to actually play, the better.)), so everyone had their character type picked out by the time we got together on Saturday.

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

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

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

Folks opted for the potential for continuation, so we devoted a little time ((Well, actually it turned out to be more than a little. Factoring in character creation and world creation, it was close to two hours before we actually started playing.)) to building the world. I’m not going to go through all the rigamarole of questions, answers, discussions, and drawings that we went through, but we wound up with the following characters ((There are a few secrets that the characters have that aren’t reflected in the list below. Deal with it.)):

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

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

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

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

In Willow Lake, things started getting interesting. One by one, people – including the PCs – started vanishing ((Well, they were wondering why the city was abandoned and left to the ruins and a new city built less then fifty miles away. Guess they found out.)). Eventually, I got them all.

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

So, I had the characters wake up, one by one, trapped in a weblike mesh made of what looked and felt like human flesh and skin. Hilarity ensued as they got free, tried to rescue the other captives, and escape. Eventually, they managed it, though Sundown got used as a brain puppet while I talked horta-talk through her ((I didn’t quite resort to NO KILL I, but it was close.)), and I had the opportunity to lay a little pipe ((Yes, that’s a euphemism, but not a sexual one.)) that may or may not be useful in later sessions.

So, they escaped, having lost just about a quarter of Rain’s followers, and we wrapped up for the evening. Everyone said they had had fun and wanted to play another session. Maybe more than one. The set-up they’ve given me is nice in that it has a built-in end-point ((Winner of the most hyphenated words in one sentence for this blog post!)), when the group crosses the mountains ((They’re called the Devil’s Teeth, by the way.)) and reaches Paradise, whatever it may turn out to be.

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

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

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