[Apocalypse World] After the 1st session

edited February 2014 in Story Games
So I finally got to run Apocalypse World! But after years of playing D&D/Pathfinder almost exclusively, I feel the situation we have set up after the first session might a bit too straightforward, more "fight this villain" than "problems pressing in all around".

We have two brothers, Jeremy the savvyhead and Ben the driver, operating a radio station and running trade between homesteads in a hilly region blasted by cold winds and acrid, ashy rains. I thought the Mad Max-style desert was overdone, so we went for more a The Road-style landscape. Butch the gunlugger is Ben's protection from the degenerate scavengers out on the trade route, and Beatrix the battlebabe is a newcomer from the west looking to advertise for a few hard men on Jeremy's station, for her expedition to an nearby abandoned military base.

But then the hi-tech fuel cells Beatrix was planning to pay in get stolen from the Dog Head's flophouse! Ben nearly kills Dog Head's wife trying to treat her wounds, and then the PCs chase down the robbers, who turn out to be working for Clarion, some sort of scary mindfucker chick travelling down the ruined highway with a dozen or so of her cronies. The PCs return all of the stolen stuff, and make the robbers work off the damage they've done before they letting them go... together with a transmitter Jeremy had rigged up and planted in their pick-up.

End first session.

So we have Clarion, who I think needs the fuels cells to power some sort of mini-HAARP array and control the weather. Maybe she likes the rain, maybe she's thinking of a way to distill car fuel from it. But her crew doesn't really know what she's doing, if you ask too many questions, you go into the RV, and you don't want to go into the RV. The last guy came out after three days all dried up like, must have lost 20 pounds.

We have the scavengers, most of whom start as regular bandits but tend to be crushed by the hard life and the rains into crazed barbarians. There's talk of some of them running and raiding openly in the rains, but that's probably bullshit, right?

There's Dog Head, who's really pissed at Ben for nearly killing his wife.

Not mentioned yet, but we also have Pierre, whose daughter got fucked and dumped by Ben, so he might team up with Dog Head if the two of them decide they've had enough of Ben's shit. And Monk, the local religious figure who slept with Butch in the hopes of turning him to god. I don't think Butch is going to take his promise seriously, so she'll probably be pissed too.

There's also the army base the battlebabe is looking to raid, but not much more was said about that.

So I guess there's stuff, but it feels like it all boils down to storming the wizard's tower: the plan is pretty clearly to go after Clarion and kill all of her shit. I feel I might not be doing a very good job making the players feel scarcity and being set upon from many sides. I'm also not sure which of the above should be set up as fronts, and which as threats within fronts. For example, Clarion and the scavangers seem to be threats in the same front, with Clarion whipping up the rains, and the rain-immune scavengers getting bolder in the weather that's deadly to most folks, but doesn't really bother them. But Clarion pretty clearly makes me think Ambition, and the scavengers Hunger, which would suggest they're separate fronts. Additionally, if Clarion, the scavengers, and the rains are the same rainmaking front, that leaves me with a single front plus some resentment on the home front. Again, too one-sided?

I'm also having trouble setting up stakes I'm really interested in. I want to know what happens to Clarion and her crew, whether they'll get mowed down by the PCs, and which, if any, of the NPCs back home are going to have a serious run-in with the PCs, but that's about it. Maybe there aren't enough human NPCs?

Any comments about the setup or tips for going forward are welcome!


  • edited February 2014
    You'll be fine! Brainstorm with yourself for a couple of days about what will be fun for you to GM. Your goal is just to have a good time GMing these players and their characters, so daydream about what you'd like to bring into play.

    Where your sense of fun says, make more, you can make more. Where your sense of fun says you have enough, go with what you have.

    One trick I like to do is, give Clarion something else to worry about, a big threat coming from a different direction than the PCs. It's all about the triangles with me.

  • Vincent's right on, of course.

    The triangle thing is the way to go when you've got a clear-cut situation like an NPC they want to take down.

    Trying making Clarion the hub of the triangle first. Then try making the PCs - or a particular PC - the hub. If that doesn't give you anything, introduce a new NPC (or existing NPC) and create some kind of interesting relationship to Clarion as well as the PC.

    For example:

    1. Which PC or NPC depends on Clarion? Is she keeping some people safe by her very presence? What's the threat/problem which will come into play if she's simply removed from the picture?

    2. Who depends on the rain, for their food or livelihood?

    3. Is there someone else who is putting pressure on the PCs, which will cause a situation if they commit to going after Clarion?

    4. Ask some provocative questions which might complicate the PCs' relationships with Clarion: "What's the most selfless thing Clarion has ever done for you?" If the answer is something intense, like, "She saved me from the scavengers when I was eight years old, taught me everything I know," then you're ready to rock. If you don't get something like that, then fine, they just want to off her.

    5. Pick an NPC that's important to the PCs, connect him to Clarion. Who do you get your food/ammunition/water/fuel from? Oh, it's Dremmer? Well, when you show up at Clarion's, she's having lunch with him. Turns out Dremmer's her dear brother.

    That kind of thing.
  • "Lesser of two evils" syle turns are a classic apocalyptic trope. Having the heroes defeat (or be on the point of defeating) the bad guy only to discover that, for instance, the evil bastard of a drug dealer is all that's keeping away the horde of genocidal barbarians is a genre staple.
  • Second session had Ben the driver and Butch the gunlugger follow the raiders returning to Clarion with Jeremy the savvyhead navigating them from back in the station. I had Jeremy roll a sort of impromptu custom move, "roll+sharp, on a 10+ you navigate them, no problem, 7-9 you navigate them, but there's a problem, on a miss there's just problems". Is this how it's supposed to go, or are custome moves intended to be more premeditated and clearly written up in advance?

    Anyway, Ben and Butch followed the raiders to Clarion, who was camped out at Dremmer's gas station (which I only now see I lifted from Paul_T). They waited for Jeremy to join them (maybe I should've pushed there rather than letting them just hang around an enemy camp for an hour), and then started shooting stuff up. Between the insano like Drano bloodcrazed gunlugger with a silenced assault rifle, and an army Jeep with a mounted machine gun, they were pretty unstoppable. I probably didn't make Clarion's crew as named and human as they could've been, but there was one moment where a guard went out of his car to take a piss, and Butch's player said "I kill 'im... no, wait, I let him finish, I'll give him that final satisfaction" so there's that.

    They killed some of Clarion's crew, dismayed and frightened some more, managed to avoid shooting Dremmer and to convince him to stay out, and shot up the weather antenna array on top of Clarion's RV. But this caused a freak rainstorm to start gathering! So they negotiated Clarion out of her RV under the threat of machine-gunning it to bits, and strong-armed her into going with them to Jeremy's radio station, to try and stop the storm.

    She insisted on taking one of her guys, a huge gunlugger-type called Abondo. Now, Clarion's threat countdown had Abondo getting fed up with her weird shit at 11:00 and losing control of the weather, causing a raindrinker rampage at 12:00. So when Jeremy slammed his car into a ditch driving home through the rains, on the harm move I had him lose track of someone or something he was attending to: Abondo decided to brave the rains rather than get in deeper with these three badasses for Clarion's benefit.

    We ended the session with Clarion working on Jeremy's station to try and repurpose it into a weather array to take off the worst of the storm, and Butch looking out to check on the moaning and scratching sounds coming from the outside... to see dozens of ragged, greyish, semi-naked figures gathering around the station!

    Now, comments:

    Advancement seemed fast! I had players telling me to double check whether they really got experience for each roll of a highlighted stat, or just once per stat per session. Everyone got one improvement in these two four-hour sessions, and a couple of experience marks on top. The end-of-session Hx increase seemed irrelevant (in terms of experience/improvement) compared to that. What was the rate of advancement in your games? Is there an expected/normal rate?

    When Butch started sniping the guards, I wasn't sure whether to have him seize by force, or go aggro. I know it's supposed to be go aggro, but most of the 7-9 options don't really make sense for completely unaware enemies, and those that sort of do (get the hell out of your way, barricade themselves securely in) felt more like a failure for a sniper than a "yes, but". So I had him seize by force, because it seemed to offer more interesting choices: shoot to kill as many as possible (terrible harm) or to drive them off (dismay)?

    The characters felt very competent. I think a lot of people's initial impression of the hard move on a failed roll concept is "Apocalpyse World is brutal, because if you try to read someone's motives and fail, they shoot you in the face for 3 harm... or cannibals might attack", but the actual success rate made it feel much more like Mad Max 2 than The Road.

    Some more thoughts and plans for the next session coming up, have to leave the keyboard for now.
  • edited February 2014
    That sounds like fun, and I like the nice little touches you added (like Abondo getting away as a result of a harm roll - that's a great MC move right there).

    Advancement is/should be pretty quick, that's totally by the book. I'd expect an advance per session, roughly, so that's fairly typical. The only thing to watch out for is that you're not making rolls for no reason - try to really make them count. Apocalypse World shouldn't feel like there's a bunch of dicing just to set things up: you want each move to be an important "story beat".

    The custom move you've described sounds fine to me, but some people are tempted to make up a "custom move" for any time they're not sure what to do and feel like rolling dice. That's not terrible, but it could create an out-of-control advancement rate if you're rolling for all kinds of stuff all the time, just to see what the dice show. Instead, make MC moves - more on this below.

    Characters are totally badass in Apocalypse World; that's something a lot of people are surprised by. You should think of this as a good thing: it means that you, as MC, can throw them into really messed-up situations and you don't have to pull your punches on a failed move. We want to see those guys get into the worst shit and then see how they will climb out of it.

    Also, keep in mind that the most interesting problems and failures in this game are the ones that can't be easily fixed with the moves (i.e. by rolling). It's when the little orphan girl you love like a daughter becomes the Chosen One for the cult, and she decides that a ghost peed in the cellar, so no one's going to eat anymore, and sets the food supply on fire.

    Remember, you're supposed to put your bloody fingerprints on everything: so, yeah, let them slaughter their enemies if they have the equipment, the moves, and roll well. But does that magically fix everything? Nuh-uh. You might even say that a rule of the apocalypse is that violence doesn't solve things, it just makes them evolve faster.

    As for the "sniper" situation, that comes up often in Apocalypse World games, and, as you point out, there's no perfect fit.

    The basic answer in AW is this:

    You know how you're playing an RPG, and something's happening, and you feel like you should roll dice to find out how it goes?

    There's those moments where you feel the need to roll, and you instinctively reach for the dice. That's how it works in a lot of games, particularly anything D&D-derived.

    Apocalypse World doesn't work this way. (Although some people use a "Die of Fate"-type mechanic, but that's certainly not "by the book".) In AW, you roll when you're triggering a particular move.

    If no move is triggered, but everyone's looking at you, and it seems like it's your turn to do or say something... it means it's your turn to make an MC move. That's AW's version of, "Hey, let's roll for this!"

    So look at your moves and pick one. Maybe it's just "inflict harm": "The guy in your sights... his head explodes, like a red mist." Or maybe it's "separate them": "The first guy in your sights goes down, you move to reload and peg the second... but suddenly there's yelling and everyone jumps into action. The ground 50 feet in front of you or so explodes violently, throwing dust and dirt sky-high. Looks like they must have rigged some explosives - some old mines they found, maybe? - in a line between the road and their hideout. You can't see anything, can't see your buddies, you can only hear the screams and gunfire. What do you do?"

    Or it could be "offer an opportunity, with or without cost" - like you did with the guy peeing by the truck.

    Whatever you like, you've got lots of options. If you're feeling stuck, a good trick is to just *imagine* that the player rolled and got a 7-9 each time you have a situation like this. Just say, "yes, but".

    I encourage you to try that. But if you're not feeling it, here's a sniper move, should you need it:

    It's basically acting under fire, of course. But you could try rolling+sharp instead of +cool. Both make sense, I suppose.

    When you take aim and shoot at an enemy at range, roll+cool. On a 10+ you have a clear shot—deal your damage. On a 7–9, the MC will choose one:

    * You can't quite get a clear shot. You have to move to get the shot, potentially exposing your position or exposing yourself to some other danger.
    * It's only a glancing shot (-1harm), not what you hoped.
    * Your first shot misses: you'll have to take a few more to finish the job. (Depending on the weapon, this could mean depleting your ammo.)

  • Oh, and, along similar lines, one of my favourite pieces of advice from John Harper:
    "I think one of the easiest things to do, if you're trying to think up a good 7-9 results and don't have one right away, is to ask for more detail. More detail about what the characters are doing, how they feel about it, have they done this before and if so what happened, how exactly this thing they are doing works (especially if it's supernatural/weird), etc. Y'know, if you're hesitant to say something concrete, ask a question. This gives you a minute of space, as well as ideas for what could happen, based on the fiction itself. Maybe something another player says gives you an idea you can use, or maybe not, and the detail just adds to the verisimilitude.

    "Another thing, which is a bit more pre-emptive is to cultivate apocalyptica. Don't just think up threats and disaster areas, but keep considering at various points during the game how things could go wrong for characters, what sorts of moral dilemmas they would have problems with (which is stuff you can ask them questions about), what would various NPCs think about what they are doing and how could they mess things up, etc. And then when a miss or a 7-9 comes up, you have already been thinking about this stuff and you can call on it for situations."
  • That sounds like fun, and I like the nice little touches you added (like Abondo getting away as a result of a harm roll - that's a great MC move right there).
    That was one of my favourite moments, exactly what I was hoping to get out of Apocalypse World: it felt like the game surprising me with an outcome, rather than me choosing one.
    The custom move you've described sounds fine to me, but some people are tempted to make up a "custom move" for any time they're not sure what to do and feel like rolling dice. That's not terrible, but it could create an out-of-control advancement rate if you're rolling for all kinds of stuff all the time, just to see what the dice show. Instead, make MC moves - more on this below.
    Yeah, I know not everything is (or needs to be) a player move and a roll, but the tracking device seemed like an interesting enough idea that I wanted to reinforce it with a moment of tension that comes from unreliability, but didn't get around to actually writing up a move beforehand.
  • So, plans for the next session.

    Painting the raindrinkers like zombies might not have been the best move. That isn't really named and human, and the gunlugger is deadly enough in a fight that simply shooting up a horde of zombies probably isn't very exciting. Not sure how to make them more interesting at this point.

    I'm guessing Abondo survives the storm, scarred and resentful, and shows up to try and lead a witch hunt against Clarion and parley that (successful or not) into some sort of sheriff position right on the home front. I'm pretty happy about this because it seems like it could steer the game away from our usual mission-oriented style and into a more Deadwood-like direction, which is where I expect AW really shines.
  • edited February 2014
    That sounds good!

    What if the "zombies" have been infected with something, but they're still conscious... they're not trying to eat people's brains, they're desperately screaming for help!

    Or, just as simple, they're controlled by someone or by the maelstrom in a way which is clearly reversible. And they happen to be people who are important/likeable/innocent, and, ideally, people the PCs already know and care about or need for some reason.
  • Indeed, it's good story to take the players assumptions 'these are just mindless zombies we can treat like cannon fodder' and twist them a little, that this also means adding humanity to a group of NPC's that you overlooked is just a bonus. I remember a great moment in a Hunter game where the characters had assumed they were fighting reanimated corpses, as a reflex action checked for a pulse on the unresponsive victim they'd kidnapped, and found one...

  • If Abondo got lost in the rainstorm, and you are trying to make the 'raindrinkers' seem more human, that seems like a pretty clear opportunity. Just have Abondo find out something new about the raindrinkers, while he's out in the rainstorm; who they are, what they're really like, something that demonstrates their humanity. Maybe he recognizes some of them, maybe he makes friends, maybe he comes back a changed man.
  • That's cool, actually if there's a facet of the 'raindrinkers' that hasn't been seen, you've only seen the adults, you've only seen the women, then it could be that they actually have a really good reason for acting the way they are (everyone avoids the nutters) and there's something going on there that gives them that depth. It could be that they have something the players want, but getting it would mean the PC's have to be 'the bad guys' which could give some decent moral dilemmas.
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