[Microscope Union] Play Report - Apocalypse Vegas

edited July 2014 in Actual Play
Since we like hybridizing stuff around here, my regular group decided to use UNION to tell the story of one of our Apocalypse World characters. If you've followed the WTWD>Emergence>AW thread, you'll know that we already knew a bunch of stuff about the gameworld prior to The Great Dying, but that left us with a gap of about 50 years where we could fill in three generations. Perfect.

We chose to tell the family history of Dez McGuffin, an Angel who holds together a small ragtag group of scavengers, wanderers and do-gooders in the remains of McCarran Airport, which has been turned into a serviceable infirmary. Quite a stunt, considering that the airport is surrounded by violent gangs and competing hardholds.

TRAITS: We determined that the most important traits Dez possessed for accomplishing this feat were (1) a Strong Will, (2) a Strong Moral Compass, and (3) being a Control Freak.

PALETTE: The only thing we ruled out was Extraterrestrials. Our YES list included Astrology, Rape, Substance Abuse, Grievous Bodily Harm, Mental Illness, Cisism (Heteronormative bigotry), and Suicide. During play we hit every one of these topics except Cisism.

MODS: Since we had 7 players, the normal rules for cycling the Lens and Focus would not scale effectively. We addressed this problem by allowing each player to decide where to put the Focus each turn but giving veto power to Dez' player, effectively sharing the Lens the whole time. We did not give the Lens a second turn, as we found it unnecessary. We addressed Legacies both proactively and intuitively.

In a three-hour game we managed to fill out all the Union Cards for Dez' parents and grandparents. Only one of her great-grandparents was determined. I will recount their stories in chronological order.


  • GENERATION 1 (the generation that directly experienced the Great Dying):

    - Irvine McGuffin was Dez' father's paternal grandfather. A butcher by trade, he became a member of a cannibal cult after the fall (which took place in 2019). Aside from having a son named Cotton, we know little else about his life. He was eventually driven insane by radiation poisoning, and died at the age of 46.

    - No other first-generation members of the family tree are known.
  • edited July 2014

    Dez' maternal grandparents were Naomi Parker and Tandem Darjeeling.

    - Naomi Parker was a pharmaceutical chemist who invented a painless method of "chemical castration". The drug was in high demand throughout the northeastern US, and her fame grew accordingly.

    - Tandem Darjeeling was a smuggler and drug runner who drove his car around the collapsed and brutal ruins of the northeast states, delivering medicinals and recreationals for powerful cartels and eccentric survivalists. His wife (whose name is no longer known) bore him a single child (named Gwynnyth), but died of Cordyceps infestation before the girl reached pubescence. Tandem became a hard drug user, his way of escaping reality.

    - Their Union: When Tandem and Naomi met, she needed a distribution partner and he needed a surrogate mother for Gwynnyth. They decided to strike a bargain, and began living together as a family.

    - Their Fate: Eventually Tandem's substance abuse problems became too much for Naomi to bear, and she decided to take the young child to New York with her, leaving Tandem behind to fend for himself. She successfully made the migration, but was killed ten years later by a gang of raiders who were after her medical supplies. Gwynnyth, then a teenager, escaped during the raid.

    SCENE: "Naomi Walks Out"
    Having issued Tandem an ultimatum - stop getting fucked up and help take care of the kid - Naomi is hopeful but not holding her breath. She walks into the crappy garage that serves as Tandem's "office" to find him sprawled out in an easy chair, empty bottles all around him, drool hanging from his lips. "Tandem," she says. No response. She looks at the child sleeping in her arms, and then back at the comatose father. Spinning on her heels, she walks out of the house carrying Gwynnyth, and she never returns.
    - Legacy: Naomi's sheer strength of will allowed her to take care of the child and maintain her business for years after leaving Tandem. This trait rubbed off on young Gwynnyth, who would later pass it on to her daughter.

    Dez' paternal grandparents were Helda Merrick and Cotton McGuffin.

    - Helda Merrick was a beautiful but frail and introverted woman with some serious emotional problems; though trained in first aid and basic medicine, she had come to spend most of her time in a nearly catatonic state, paralyzed with generalized anxiety. This made her easy prey for the cannibal cult whose butcher was none other than Irvine McGuffin.

    - Cotton McGuffin, son of Irvine, was a weak and sickly lad with a deformed leg and constant illnesses. His kindness and respect for all living things was pushed to the limit when he learned what plans the cult had in store for the pretty young woman they had locked in the basement of the compound.

    - Their Union: One night Cotton waited until the cult members were asleep. He then crept down to the basement and freed Helda from her prison. Having nowhere to go and no idea what to do, she refused to leave unless he went with her. So they ran off together, leaving the cult (and Cotton's furious father) behind. Two years after the escape Helda gave birth to their son Vance, a boy of abnormally high intelligence and great compassion. The next decade was not kind to Cotton and Helda. The young family barely managed to eke out their survival, living day by day, scrounging in the outskirts of Las Vegas for anything edible that remained. They refused, of course, to eat human flesh.

    - Their Fate: When the boy was about eight years old, starving and with precious little food remaining, Cotton made the ultimate sacrifice - suicide - for the good of his family. Several years later, Helda was captured by a group of slave traders and sold to a local gang called the Eastside Raiders. No more was ever heard from her.

    SCENE: "Cotton Bites It"
    In hiding from a surrounding band of marauders who are tearing up the remains of the local suburb, Cotton calls his young son to his side. He gestures at his gimp leg and nods toward the dwindling stack of food. "There will come times in your life, my son," he says, "when you will have to make very hard decisions. You must think of what is best for the greatest number of people, not just for yourself. You're a good boy, and you'll be a fine young man. But I can't drag you down any more. I can't make you suffer with the cost of this slow, sick body of mine. It's a waste of food, and your mother is growing weaker every day." He grips the boy's shoulders and looks straight into his eyes. "After today, Vance... I will need you to be the man of the family. When it's time for you to make those hard choices, I know you'll do the right thing." He then turns and quietly walks out the door, down the block, and into the crossfire. His body is riddled with bullets as his wife and child watch from their hiding place.
    - Legacy: Vance inherited the compassionate nature and utilitarian morality of his father, which he would pass on to his daughter later in life.
  • edited July 2014

    Dez' parents were Gwynnyth Darjeeling and Vance McGuffin.

    - Gwynnyth Darjeeling was a headstrong girl who had learned self-sufficiency, as well as general medicine and the pharma trade, from her surrogate mother Naomi. She also learned to stay away from people, and wandered westward across the continent for several years alone until she found her way to Las Vegas.

    - Vance McGuffin proved to be a genius of organic chemistry and spent much of his time gathering up all the books he could find. He eventually amassed an impressive library that ranged from chemistry to biology to physiology to plumbing, machining and electrical engineering. Following his father's advice about doing the most good for the greatest number of people, he made it his life's mission to discover a cure for the Cordyceps Parasite. While searching for a suitable base of operations - he would need a large clean space with multiple rooms that could be sectioned off from each other - he happened upon McCarran Airport's Terminal 1. The building had recently been held by a small settlement of about 40 scavs who were completely wiped out by Cordyceps parasites in the cloned "HuMeat" they'd consumed. Part of the exterior wall had collapsed and the lower floor was filled with petro-water. Vance built a simple filtration system to separate the water from the petroleum distillates. He then donned one of the Hazmat suits and filter-breathers he found in the airport's emergency storerooms, and began the difficult work of dragging out the bodies and pumping out the water. He was diligent, methodical, and slow-moving. The work would take months. During this time the surrounding denizens left him completely alone, assuming he was an insane cannibal. This suited him just fine.

    - Their Union: Upon entering Vegas proper, Gwynnyth found herself meandering toward the air traffic control towers of McCarran Airport. That evening, as the sun began going down, she watched through the rusted fence while a man in a Hazmat suit struggled to stack a bunch of dead bodies in a mound in the parking lot.

    SCENE: "Burning Bodies"
    Vance notices he's being watched and grabs his shotgun, pointing it in the direction of the shadowy figure on the other side of the fence. "Who's there?" he shouts, "I've got nothing you want - unless you want corpses and poison death - I suggest you stay the hell away from here." Gwynnyth answers that she means no harm, she's not here to raid, just passing through.

    Realizing the intruder is a young woman, and traveling alone, Vance lowers the shotgun. "Well you're not going to find anything around here - been picked clean by the Raiders. Better to head west. But avoid the Strip: there's dangerous people down there." Gwynnyth is tired, hungry, and doesn't have any idea where to go. She decides to make conversation. "What are you doing?" she asks.

    "Preparing to burn these bodies," he says, "Cordies, all of 'em." Gwynnyth, who has seen many Cordies in her young life, asks why he doesn't just leave them to rot. "Because I need this place," he answers, coming closer to the fence and lowering his voice, "I'm going to convert it into a medical facility."

    Now Gwynnyth is intrigued. "And what then?" she asks. "I don't really know," says Vance, "this is crazy. But I figure if I can get this place into a semblance of a working chemlab, maybe - just maybe - I could come up with a way to kill the parasite."

    Gwynnyth looks at him closely, trying to judge his state of mind through the plastic visor of the Hazmat suit. Finally she speaks again: "Well then, I'll help you. But you really ought to keep a few of the less-rotten corpses for DNA extraction and control samples." "Goddamn, she's right," Vance thinks to himself, "How could I have not thought of that?" There's something about this woman.

    Vance grabs another Hazmat suit and a filter-breather from the storeroom, handing them to Gwynnyth. "I'll let you stay here, you can share my food - but only if you agree to help," he says. Gwynnyth, whose body has become strong and agile in her years of wandering, proves her worth by lifting two bodies at once. "Hold on hold on," Vance cries, "There's a right way and a wrong way to do that, and you're doing it the wrong way. First you gotta probe for soft spots. You don't want the bodies bursting open." Gwynnyth sets the corpses down again. "If you're gonna help out around here," says Vance, "you're gonna have to do things my way. Can you live with that?" Gwynnyth nods.

    An hour later, Vance and Gwynnyth sit beneath an overhead walkway which connects the Terminal to the parking lot. They're exhausted from their labor, and they watch quietly as the pile of petrol-soaked corpses brightly burns. Vance glances sideways at Gwynnyth, then tentatively reaches out his hand and sets it gently atop hers. She lets it remain. From that day forward, they are never far from each other's side.
    - Their Fate: Even as a young child, Dez exhibited the sharp analytical mind and utilitarian compassion of both her parents. She excelled at her lessons and quickly soaked up everything her loving parents taught her, spending much of her time in Vance's downstairs library. Being as they were the only non-partisan Angels for a hundred miles in any direction, "Airport" began to develop a reputation as a safe place to barter for medical services - although they never did find a cure for the Cordyceps parasite. The local gangs came to see Airport as a "safe zone" where weapons were not permitted, and prying questions would not be asked. Shortly after Dez turned 16, Vance died of "natural causes" - a weakened immune system, compromised by years of exposure to noxious chemicals and pathogens. Two days later, Gwynnyth followed him in death. Although it makes no sense from a medical perspective, Dez, who sat bedside with both parents as they passed, knows that her mother died of a broken heart.

    - Legacy: With a strong will and keen moral compass instilled in her by both parents (and their stories of her grandparents), Dez was able to stand above the petty rivalries of surrounding hardholds. She also inherited her father's OCD tendencies, and is often called a "control freak" by her friends. Now in her mid-20s, Dez holds together a community of volunteers who assist her in carrying on her parents' legacy, and has earned the respect of her neighbors. She is still seeking a cure for the parasite.

    # # #
  • Hey, could you tell us more about the game itself (rather than the resulting story)? In what order were the cards filled in? How were decisions made? What worked and was awesome, and what worked less well?
  • edited July 2014
    Ok, I touched on some of that in the prologue, but here's more...

    Number of Players - Ben says two to four people, but we had seven. I've played Microscope with a similarly-sized group and although it took longer, the mechanics worked without modification. Union's mechanics are not so flexible. This has mostly to do with the number of cards (7) and the number of sections on each card (4), and secondarily with the number of times you can actually make it around the whole table in a session. So we made some modifications that worked for us.

    No Lens - We didn't use a Lens. It really didn't seem necessary (although since we were playing with the history of a person's actual PC from another game you might expect it to have made a serious difference, but in fact it did not), and it would have made the game much longer. If we used Lenses, roughly speaking the first 4 Lenses would have been focused on filling Sections, and then the final 3 Lenses would have had to concentrate on Scenes since there would be no more space left. That seemed unfair. This was definitely a function of our group size (i.e. our fault, not Ben's), but also ...

    Freedom of Focus - We're a pretty tight group and we treated the subject seriously, and therefore we simply didn't feel it was necessary to tell each other where to focus. So instead, we let each player decide which card they wanted to work with each turn, and although we gave veto power to Dez' player, in fact she never used it once.

    Intuitive Legacies - Since we didn't have tightly-regimented passing of the Lens, we also couldn't do tightly-regimented Legacy turns. This was not a problem at all. Prior to the First Pass, we had written down the three Heroic Traits and everyone knew part of their job was to tie them to the tree. So we did that, but we did it proactively rather than retroactively. We would look at the Traits when it was our turn, and then we would choose a section to detail and simply make sure that at least one Heroic Trait showed up in the character we created (if there wasn't already one Trait evident in that Union). Even still, we surprised ourselves on occasion. In play, sometimes one of the heroic traits popped up in a Union or Scene unannounced, and whenever that happened, the entire group recognized it immediately and we all went "AH-HA! YEAH that's where that came from!" at the same moment. Calling it a phase wasn't necessary. We still ended up with at least one effective Legacy from each Union.


    Ben might say we broke the intention of the game, since the Lens is supposed to tell us "THIS is the relationship you MUST fill in now" - perhaps as a mechanical assurance that things would be easier to connect later if whole cards are filled in one at a time. But in fact we had no difficulty making leaping yet meaningful connections, even from partial cards to other partial cards scattered all over the pyramid. The emergence yet emerged.

    Game Time Calculations - There are 7 cards in the layout, each with 4 sections. We had 7 players. So in theory, if we had completed the great-grandparents, every player would have had 4 chances to fill in a Section (unless they chose to do Scenes instead). We played at a fairly good pace, there wasn't a lot of head scratching or time-wasting. Still, in 3 hours we finished only 3 Union cards and played out 3 Scenes. That's 15 mins per Section and 15 mins per Scene. Since the amount of time spent on each card is not really a function of group size, I would expect a complete game of Union to take up to 7 hours, plus 15 mins for each Scene enacted.

    You also asked about card order.
    Irvine McGuffin - the only great-grandparent we established - was one of the very first Sections filled in. I'm pretty sure that player deliberately chose a card as far as possible from the hero, just to give himself the most narrative leeway he could get. But after that we began focusing mostly on the grandparents, and finally on the parents (this was not as cut-and-dry as I make it sound; for instance we knew that Gwynnyth walked from NY to LV very early in the game, prior to her parents' story being determined). The Union of Vance and Gwynnyth (Dez' parents) was the very last card to be fully completed. I think this infers a basic, normal, common and unconscious desire to move forward chronologically most of the time, with only occasional skips backward.

    We all LOVED the game, Dez' player is totally thrilled with her family tree, and now everybody wants one for their own AW character!
    If that happens, we'll be running 6 more Union games over the next 3 months!
  • edited July 2014
    Over in the Beverage Genetics thread (also a Union playtest)...
    in Microscope, you can't rely on any two periods or events being right next to each other for the whole game. This seems the exact opposite of that.
    True, because you have very little space to make those connections work. If your hero (or their world, or their location) is extremely different from that of their ancestors, it pressures you to make sure that every step in the bloodline contains at least one astoundingly driven, perhaps legendary individual, to justify them covering much territory in a single lifetime. Very little room for bakers and candlestick makers.

    [As an aside, I had a totally geekish thought about affixing the cards to particle board or corkboard, allowing us to use pins and colored thread to trace each Heroic Trait from generation to generation.]

    Lenses, Focuses, Legacies, card order, number of players... there were lots of differences between our two playtests. But really I think the single most game-changing difference between Albey's test and mine was that my group worked against a vague backdrop of a previously established world "period"). So we had much more context than the palette alone can provide. This is a lot easier than throwing darts at a blank page, and (I hypothesize, full-facedly) more likely to generate content with a higher meaning-to-randomness ratio.

    As I explained above, in our case that world was established with our initial game of Watch the World Die. But it just as easily have come from a game of Microscope. In fact I've played Kingdom exactly the same way: as a fractal zoom-in on a single Period from a Microscope game.

    YMMV, of course. But personally I think Union absolutely shines in that sense: it provides a great technique for exploring - at a much deeper human level - broad strokes originally made with a bigger brush (i.e. another game system, worldbuilding tool or sourcebook).
  • Don't discount the humor factor. I'm not sure I could sit at the table and take characters seriously if they were named after soft drinks.
  • edited July 2014
    Well, I'm saying stuff like that doesn't happen as much if there's a backdrop world/period that doesn't have a tone like that. And if the backdrop world/perioddoes have a tone like that, then play is exactly as serious as it was expected to be, no?
  • edited July 2014
    Absolutely. But there's also a chicken-egg issue: if you play a game to make the world, that process could turn out just as silly.

    Possibly a better approach is that if you have people that are unsure it's better to stick with an analog of some known setting or a world seed instead of something exotic. And it's never inappropriate to say "hey, I don't want to play a silly game" (just as it's okay to say "hey, I don't want to play an serious/grim game" or I don't want to play a violent game, or whatever).
  • edited July 2014
    True that. I like the analog/seed world idea. Or genre/tone at least. Establishing tone might be even more important than the palette, since any arising disagreements on content can be handled with the Push rules (being part of the Scene rules I assume they are still in play in Union), while disagreements in tone are more of a playstyle issue (I almost want to say "social contract issue") and should probably be gotten out of the way before they can actually arise in play.

    [N.B. In our game I preceded play by telling everyone: "Remember that we are building the ancestry of one of our friend's characters, so please, no gonzo/surreal stuff."]

    Earlier I felt a hunch to include the word "sourcebook". When you buy a sourcebook, often the further you get from the center of the map, the less detail you have on "those people out there". But you have enough to play Union. It really doesn't require much. "You say there's a barbarian tribe to the north ruled by some nondescript baddie named Gorth of Tarkmarr, and they seem to hate us for some reason? Great, let's play Union on the family of Tarkmarr to find out what's the deal there."
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