[AW] What's all this prep for?

So I'm MCing Apocalypse World (2) for the first time and we had a first session and now I'm feeling overwhelmed by all the prep I'm supposed to be doing. I've got like … twelve different threats here and I'm doing countdown clocks and stakes and descriptions and linked threats and impulses and all sorts of things. And then the threat map, which is I guess a paper for keeping track of all these other papers. It's been a long time since I played a really crunchy game like this (first session we spent some time looking up rules in the rulebook, despite almost everyone having played lots of AW before, including me) and it's been even longer since I GM:ed a game where I'm doing prep that's not just "thinking a bit about the game in the shower".

And I'm getting this feeling that all of this work is supposed to help me but it isn't, or that it's meant for people who don't like to improvise. Like, I've got a gazillion ideas for cool stuff all the time and then I'm doing this work to give me more ideas? I'm feeling like an experienced driver with a driving instructor beside me yelling "Slowly release the clutch and at the same time press the gas pedal, looking around you to make sure there are no cars in the blind spot and keep your hands on ten and two".

I'm guessing that once you get used to it, you start thinking in terms of threats and clocks and brutes and afflictions, but I'm not used to it, and it's a lot of stuff to keep in my head (and oh my god so much paper!). I feel like I'm losing sight of the characters and the story, blocking my view of the forest with a bunch of trees.

So how's this supposed to work? Give me some tips? Any other improv-loving GM who've tried running this game?


  • Most RPGs I've GMed, I didn't quite like the prep. Even when I actually liked it in principle, it felt like a lot of work, most of which went unused. AW (1e, I still haven't played 2e) was the exception - I really, really enjoyed prepping, and it never felt like wasted time.
    I believe the point of all that prep is to organize the sort of thinking I'd do in the shower anyway, so that [1] it can be referenced in play and [2] I have to commit to it, instead of being wishy-washy.
    Those two things combined point to an higher purpose: making me better at improvising. Not "better" in the absolute sense, mind you, just a better AW MC. Specifically, giving me better things to say than if I were just going with the most obvious one in the moment.
    Some games, going with the first and most obvious thing occurring to you is recommended. Not really so in AW, in that the MC role in AW is imbalanced: you've got to make up much more stuff than any of the other players. With no prep (and I know from not actually having prepped at all sometimes) there's the risk of falling back to lazy instincts only. Now, your lazy GM instincts aren't likely the same as my lazy GM instincts - mine are to create exceedingly convoluted setting stuff which easily breeds glaring plot holes, and to rely on faceless crowds instead of making everybody human - but that's beyond the point. The point is, for every MC, there's something they might need some help with in the heat of the moment, perhaps just a gentle reminder at the right time. What you've prepped in advance is that help - you're helping yourself. With those notes in front of you, with your ideas committed to, you're actually able to say the most obvious thing - as defined and restricted by prep - all the time and do a great job as MC.
    You prep in-between sessions because, ideally, there's no big time pressure. That really good idea you get while showering, or driving to the office, or having afternoon tea, you write it down as soon as possible, so that you both commit to it and you'll be reminded of it later, when you really need it.
    Sure, "no (big) time pressure" is ideal, utopian even. I almost never manage to write down everything I believe I should have, I always get to a session with huge blanks in my notes - but still, better than not having any notes. My half-hastily-scripted and half-vaguely-remembered ideas from the past week are better than my lazy GM instincts anyway
    If you're feeling overwhelmed by prep, then, I just recommend you adopt a "better than nothing" attitude. Prep something, prep it as instructed to, and don't worry whether it's enough. That sure beats no prep at all.
  • Thanks for the thoughts. I've written done a lot of this stuff now; I'll see if I find it useful in play. I guess I'm just not sure on how I'll use it? I guess I can look at one of those clocks whenever I get a miss on a move and want to forecast some future badness, but other than that?

    Dunno, I guess the prep organizes my thoughts and forces me to think about the different threats, but I do that anyway. I'll see how it feels in play tomorrow. I might find this useful!

    I'm still boggled by the threat map, though. Is it to remember that the nazi cult is in the west, so I don't yap about it in the east? Or what's the purpose?
  • edited September 2018

    I share a lot of your feelings and thoughts on the AW prep process. My best guess is that Vincent was looking to be extra thorough, and to present enough tools for the reader/MC to get something useful out of it.

    I recently started a game of AW, and decided, as an experiment, to try to prep for it "by the book" (in the past, I'd always failed). I found it frustrating but also fruitful in places; unfortunately, the game fell apart before I got a chance to really put it through its paces.

    My sense of the "threat map" is that it's a facsimile of what Vincent might sketch out during a first session, as people talk ("Oh, there are slavers around? Are they to the West of your holding? Ok... hmmm... I'll write that over here..."). The 1st Edition threat map, reminding you to connect with themes of Scarcity, Fear, Ambition, etc, seemed more inspiring to me.

    However, I've heard many people say that the prep methods fit very naturally with them and make complete, intuitive sense, and they love it.

    There are some videos of Adam Koebel doing prep for AW in real time (he talks through it) for an actual ongoing game which are pretty interesting. He follows the steps but also does it very intuitively, quickly, and with little detail. It's fun to see him doing it, and he seems to get a lot out of it. (However, his prep is also fairly barebones, compared to the impression I get from the book, which really does have a mind-boggling number of steps - I think, in particular, of creating *every vehicle* as its own separate threat, combined with the directions to give, say, a hardholder a small fleet of vehicles...)

    Here's an example:

    What's nice about Adam's approach is he tends to prep "questions" more than answers, which is a great technique. It's definitely described in the AW book, but Adam leans on it more heavily than I would have assumed from the text.
  • I haven't played AW myself, but I have some experience with similar games, and one suggestion I have is that an experienced GM might want to consider the GM prep procedures as structural patterns rather than scribbling on paper.

    What I mean is that the important thing that these procedures try to impart is not the bit where you write stuff on paper; rather, the procedures try to teach you to construe your prep in an useful structural way. Instead of simply having "ideas" that you draw on to improvise during play, you have a pattern of deconstructed ideas that you understand on a structural level: why this idea is relevant to this game, how it harmonizes with these other ideas, and so on.

    It's the difference between deciding on a dragon because "dragons are cool" and deciding on a dragon because it resonates with certain medieval spiritual themes in the work, plus it provides the appropriate sort of physical danger and resistance to a given protagonist, plus this is the place in the story where adversity fits. Prep structures like AW has try to hoist the GM's thinking up to a level of conscious dramatic design that might be best characterized as structuralist literary theory, as far as terminology of conventional dramatic arts is concerned.

    If one accepts this overall characterization, then the answer to whether the AW processes are useful is pretty simple: the better you are at doing what the GM does in the game, the less you need those processes, but also the more instinctual they are to you, so there's less effort. The by-the-book description is pretty elaborate, but that's because it attempts to be accessible to a GM who might have no sense whatsoever for operating on this level. A more experienced GM will compose this stuff in their head, and come up with the deconstructions so quickly and intuitively that the amount of necessary pre-planning is much less than what the book describes.

    For an interesting comparison, consider the advice for Bang development in Sorcerer: it's the exact same sort of thing, except less procedurally elaborate. Just like in AW, the point and purpose of the Bang-type prep process is to deconstruct your instinctual ideas into something with concrete dramaturgical justification. Instead of just having the idea of "a sexy succubus", you have the deconstructed dramaturgical notion that "introducing a sexy succubus at some point is a good idea because character A has issues with intimacy, as depicted by their relationship to NPC B, and the succubus will provide us with an opportunity to showcase and develop that theme."
  • Eero makes some good points about the focusing/organizational formula involved in telling someone how to prep. (I'm not sold on the specifics of AW's prep, in this sense, but I could be convinced otherwise by someone with some good examples.)

    However, AW's prep also serves as a series of lists and creative prompts, which is more-or-less the opposite of an organizational structure for your mental model.

    For instance, it tells you to include at least on Affliction, and then gives you a list of possible Affliction. Once that's done, you're instructed to choose an Impulse and a common move.

    This kind of process makes you brainstorm possibilities: "Well, is there something wrong in the population? The prep checklist says there must be. So now I must come up with something... the list includes "custom" as a possible Affliction, so I could make up something along those lines..."

    Similarly, having to write up your local hardholder as one of a category of threats limits you to specific creative constraints - e.g. "Is she a cannibal, a slaver, or a hive queen?"

    As another example, I didn't find assigning threat moves to threats terribly useful on its own, but I would then add a step of thinking *how* each move might manifest, and that generates a list of semi-useable Bangs for the game.

    Again, the only source I know of which really lays this bare in practice is those Adam Koebel videos (and, if you have the patience to watch them alongside the actual game, reveals how the prep is used in play, too, which is another important dimension).
  • Prep the way that works best for you. Me, I love prepping. I have NOTEBOOKS for this! You -- you don't have to do that.

    Heck, for Monsterhearts, I didn't use a notebook. I just scribbled on a sheet or two of paper -- like, my notes for the entire year long campaign were the town map, the homeroom map, and maybe, by the end, five pages with scrawls.

    I don't usually work that way, but the whole point of AW is to keep it feral -- to ask, not to answer, to plan a bit, sure, but not to plot. So, I'd jot down questions and idea that the last session put into my head.

    Like, so, what did the PCs do last time that NPCs might react to? How might they react -- or, more specifically, what might they do in reaction that will be in the PCs' faces -- and interesting to the players to deal with? That's... pretty much all you need to know.
  • Lisa,

    That's excellent advice for playing the game. (And that's pretty much how I prep for such games myself.)

    However, it seems to me that the issue being discussed here is that the prep, as described in the book, is nothing like the process you describe at all. For instance, at no point is the MC supposed to consider "...what did the PCs do last time that NPCs might react to?" That's a very fruitful question/concern, in my experience, but that's not what the AW book tells you do. If anything, it seems to me that it this very question that we are facing in this thread.

    I hope we will hear from someone who loves to do the prep "as written", and that they will take some time to share their experience in more detail.
  • Last time I ran AW i tried to follow the rules but I guess my MC roll got a 7-9, so it was more of a fail forward. Of the prep I made after the first session I used, or rather misused, most of it to varying degrees or subverted to make it fit the story better further on.

    I wrote quite a bit on it in this thread: story-games.com/forums/discussion/20843/mangrocalypse-1st-ed-aw

    But my takeaway is what Rafu writes: I believe the point of all that prep is to organize the sort of thinking I'd do in the shower anyway, so that [1] it can be referenced in play and [2] I have to commit to it, instead of being wishy-washy."

    The prep helps you organize your future improvisations, making it easier to play to find out without getting a disjointed feeling that you are trying to trick yourself as an MC and at the same time not putting your MC fingers on anything on the fly, i.e. making things up on the spot and steering the story however unconsciously.

    I found it a novel feeling when the characters actually went missing in the swamp and thereby ticking the clock for disaster further ahead. Something I most probably would not have thought of in the spur of the moment.

    I also liked to have an inkling of the different NPC's and factions' probable reactions, and not having to make them up on the spot.

    Having them written down also helped. I didn't know that anybody would go to the eastern neighbours, but when they did I'd just get my notes instead of keeping it all in my head.

    But like Lisa says, different strokes for different folks. Also, I don't know how 2nd ed differs from 1st ed which is the one I've played.
  • When I prepped AW according the the RAW, I usually worked way more than I usually do. Its a bit frustrating and sometimes bears too much fruit. At the end I've got way too much stuff for my game, but some of those ideas were great and non intuitive.

    I hate games where there is only one, very mediocre, very boring thing going on, but more than 3 parallel storyline is hard to run and give the player analysis paralysis.

    What worked great was writing down some of the fronts, but not all that emerged from the session. Try to leave your confortable zone but there is no reason to go too far from it.
  • So we games last night and I did it sorta the Rafu way with "I haven't done all the prep it says I'm supposed to, but at least I've done some". Here are my takeaways (very personal, of course):

    * I don't need to write this stuff down. I wrote down lots of threats on lots of papers and all of it stayed on the floor for the entire game.
    * Pretty much the same thing with the threat map. I don't really find that of any use at all, and will probably skip it.
    * Placing people and things in the threat categories and looking at the summary paper to see some moves that I can do it pretty cool. I like looking at that paper for ideas of things I can do. That paper stays.
    * I found when I got to the table that the prep had made me think a lot about the different people and factions and landscapes and afflictions and lots of stuff, and hardly made me think about the characters, their themes, their relationships or the players' spotlight time. I came to the table overprepared with stuff out there in the world, and underprepared with things that will aid me in making sure interesting stuff happens to all the characters. I feel that AW prep is world-centric, whereas I'm used to thinking character-centric. There might be some stuff I can learn from the way AW works, but at the table I felt like I still needed to do a lot of improvisation and invent stuff on the fly in order to make fun happen.

    I don't want to diss the AW prep and structure and just run things "the way I always do", but I'm having getting a bit of the same feeling I get from the setup in fiasco: "Ok, so I've got all of this stuff, but what am I supposed to do with it?"

    The good stuff in the session came partly from me having thought a bit about some of the themes and metaphors in the game, and partly from GM instincts. And one thing that I did get from AW, but not from the book, that's really good, is using a deck of faces and every time an NPC is presented, finding a portrait (or asking a player to find a portrait) and putting it on the table. That goes a long way for keeping track on all the people. Usually we do relationship maps, but this method works almost as well for keeping track of relationships (I write on the back of the cards and color-code the front with one color for each PC), and it works wonders for building investment and getting a feel for NPCs and differentiating them. I got that from an AW game I played, but it's not from the book per se.
  • * I found when I got to the table that the prep had made me think a lot about the different people and factions and landscapes and afflictions and lots of stuff, and hardly made me think about the characters, their themes, their relationships or the players' spotlight time. I came to the table overprepared with stuff out there in the world, and underprepared with things that will aid me in making sure interesting stuff happens to all the characters. I feel that AW prep is world-centric, whereas I'm used to thinking character-centric. There might be some stuff I can learn from the way AW works, but at the table I felt like I still needed to do a lot of improvisation and invent stuff on the fly in order to make fun happen.
    Hey, that resonates with me!

    I've found that by-the-book AW expects a certain attitude of the non-MC players, that I could sum up as: "Go poke around for trouble! Don't just wait for stuff to happen to you! It's your responsibility to make stuff happen!"
    I'm not sure whether it's a cultural (American vs European) of sub-cultural (the Bakers' own people vs mine) thing, but the vast majority of people I've been playing with are proactive, yeah, but not that proactive - as MC I've almost always had to do some bridgework that isn't explicitly in the book. Roughly the same experience as yours?

    It's true that some of the playbooks (most? definitely not all of them, though - it says right there on the tin) come with their own trouble sources attached, warranted-to-become-disloyal NPCs and warranted-to-mess-up important things, that could in most games breed into kickers. Besides that, all you get from by-the-book instructions in the way of bridgework is: involve PCs in the threat clocks and mercilessly advance those until something happens on screen. That's one of the few proactive, rather than reactive, MC tools you get, and that's probably because the Bakers expect the MC to be cornered and put in a spot most of the time by extremely proactive PC-players, I guess.

    @lumpley do I have it right?

    BTW, good stuff with the deck of faces. That's similar to how I use a list of names, but I should definitely consider portraits next time I end up MCing. I just don't get what you color-code for? Anyway, I've found it's good to use props and prep to remind myself the post-apoc community is small, and to keep using the same small cast over and over - makes it harder to forget to make everyone human.
  • I'll mull that over! Might be the case. Regarding the color coding, I basically gave each player a colored pen and asked them to add some color on any NPC they have a significant relationship with. This makes for example finding NPCs with relationships with two PCs (the famous triangles) easy to find, and it gives me a quick overview as to who has a lot of relationships and who has few.
  • Yes, this is exactly why I overprepare. Sometimes, my players will take control and say, "No, we're going this way, not that way." In that case, my prep makes it easier to improvise. But often, in the Monsterhearts game, there was less pro-activeness, and in that case, the prep is what gives me things to toss their way.

    World prep as a whole isn't unuseful, but yes, the focus should be "What does this mean for the players / PCs? What can they DO with this?"

    If I've an idea about a front, a conspiracy, a gang, whatever, it may or may not come into play. It's likely to be useful at some point, maybe five sessions down the line, maybe next week. But, unless and until it comes into play, I need to be prepared to scrap it entirely.

    All of this, including the magical six sessions, is pretty much true of any game. Once a game has built up a certain weight, you look at what's gone before to figure out what you might set up for the next session. The main difference with AW and other PbtA games is that you don't focus on the long term. What's likely to happen NOW?

    Sure, I'll jot down ideas that may come later. But, I won't focus on this.

    In Kerberos Fate, I planned out plot arcs. They got rethought as necessary, but I was shaping long term things, and did the thing I always do, which is tangle everyone and everything up into one giant, branching family tree that can't be drawn on a single page.

    In Dracula Dossier, I plan and replan, and I try to focus on keeping things consistent in this multi-game campaign that has so far run from 1894-1977 game time.

    In Monsterhearts? No. I don't do that. I may jot down "Oh -- Crow's parents must be demon worshippers!" That might come up next week. Or next month. Or never -- it's subject to change. And because I'm not getting that detailed about it, it's easier to let go. More important would be, "Because Battler (the Witch) hexed his father to be unable to lie, he's going to have a heart attack as he tries to tell his wife nothing's going on, and she's going to assume he's having an affair."

    Only after that one's played out did I move on to "She's going to spend the next few days with Crow's parents, and will want to take Battler with her." I didn't write that down until I was thinking about "and then?" because I wasn't thinking about "and then?" until after I saw where the pieces landed.

    (Crow's parents weren't even demon worshippers at that point -- that came later.)

  • Having mulled it over, I don't think it's about proactiveness. Like, there's a rule that when the players look at you like you should do something, you do a move, right? And then things snowball and if there's another lull you make another move. And I find the list of moves super useful, including the moves for different kinds of threats. I'm just not sure what all this paperwork is good for. I dunno, maybe it's just meant for another type of player.

    Like, if a player is going up against a group of people and they should do a move, I can totally look at the page and think "Hey, they're totally Sybarites. And they should demand consideration or indulgence." And that's fine for me. Having a paper describing them and writing down stakes and related threats and countdown clocks … I just don't feel like it adds anything but work. I'd rather spend that time thinking about the characters.

    I feel like what I need to think about is things like "Hey, Key didn't get much spotlight last session. He's working with that disease, but I feel like he needs to get involved a bit more with the other characters. He's a bit isolated. Perhaps I can find a way to get him involved with the Venetian cult, so he can go there with Marlon?". But that's not the kind of things the prep is making me think. The prep is all "Hm, the Venetian cult is obviously a Cult. They're tied to Mirakel, the leader, who's a Visionary Warlord. Now, what could they do that would up the pressure?"

    The pressure gets upped with moves snowballing. I don't need prep to help me with that.
  • Yep, you've got this.
  • I'm similar – I found it difficult to draw out all the lines and maps and stakes, because it seemed like a lot of work that I found hard to actually incorporate into a session. Focusing on nailing down what I could do in session with the NPCs and world really helped me MC better.
  • Guys, thanks for letting me know I'm not totally missing something important. I feel like I can ease up on the prep without feeling bad now.
  • For me, the most useful prep has always been like what you (Simon, Lisa, others) are describing here: thinking about characters and NPCs and about some things which might be interesting (often things like Bangs, or motivations for characters so I know how to play them later).

    I've struggled with the prep "by-the-book" and never been able to fully follow it. I'd still like to try it sometime (like I said, I was in the middle of doing so earlier this year, until my ongoing AW game fell through).

    There are also things I don't understand at all, like the need to indicate things as "inside" or "outside" on the threat map.

    In contrast, I still find the thematic "threat map" in first edition (with things like Envy, Ambition, and so on) tremendously useful and thought-provoking.
  • Just chiming in to say that I played a fair amount of AW and ran a LOT of it and I could never reeeeaaaally get countdown clocks to work.
  • My biggest issue with fronts and overall prep is the handouts. I don't find them easy to check during the session, there's too much information there to get what you need out of them while playing.
    I usually followed the prep guidelines in the book, but unless I also kept in a different sheet most important things, fronts would be left unused.
    They worked for me, though, as between-sessions prep. I'd usually advance the clocks then, update the fronts, and start every session with a clear idea of which threats to present.
    I found the prep structure in Blades in the dark a bit more intuitive and easy to reference during play.
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