[Actual Play] Apocalypse World, Session One

In Actual Play, I write a bit about a game recently played. These posts are part reflection on the session, part system commentary, and part recounting of the events that happened ‘in-game.’

Apocalypse World is a clever game by Indie game designer D. Vincent Baker. Since this is an actual play post, I’m mostly going to lean away from various commentary on the system and its merits or disadvantages. Suffice to say, it’s smart, nontraditional, highly narrative, collaborative, and begged to be played. Not to mention that as someone who appreciates a nice turn of phrase and clever use of tone, Vincent Baker can carry both off with admirable aplomb.

Apocalypse World has a very specific set of interestingly collaborative rules based around the first session. So, with a bit of fiddling about and very little preparation (per the book’s instruction), I set off and gathered players for the game. Probably not the ideal players, in fact. I got some of my oldest friends, guys who usually stick to straightforward, non-narrative games. Because A) You go to war with the army you have, and B) I want to know if anyone who has played an RPG can pick up this type of system, run with it, and have fun.

There’s a very specific list of things the MC (That’s the Master of Ceremonies, Apocalypse World’s GM) is supposed to accomplish once the players have collaboratively made their characters, which we did do. I’m going to structure the article based on how well I think I did those things, talking about the categories one at a time. But first, a short aside about the character creation.

Character Creation

The players, as they showed up, each got to choose a playbook. The playbooks are those tri-fold pamphlets lined up there in front, those first two rows. They’re the character sheets, and also double as all the information you need to play that archetype of character in Apocalypse World. They’re guys like the Hoarder, who has a psychic connection to his collection of stuff, or the Angel, the last real worthwhile doctor out there. I’ve become less and less of a fan of ‘Class Systems’ over the years, but in a game with such a specific Genre and Setting in mind for the players, I don’t think I mind. In fact, the game may have convinced me to love it. The players all chose one, worked out a personality and background (not necessarily in that order, as I urged them), and built their relationships to the world and each other through the game’s Hx (History) mechanic. This is who we ended up with:

  • Eagle: A Gunlugger. He’s a mercenary with bigger guns than everyone else, and a nasty sense of justice. He “always gets the job done” but seems to have a very literal sense of what the job is. He’s got a nasty machete scar on his face that Lars gave him once, and finds Oliver to be very interesting.
  • Lars: A Chopper. The alpha of a gang of bikers, Lars is a lot older than most of the other characters, and actually remembers a bit of when the world first fell apart. He’s impulsive, violent, and doesn’t trust the other characters as far as he can throw them. Especially Unity.
  • Oliver: A Savvyhead. Oliver has an almost psychic ability to repair machines. He’s a semi-agoraphobic shut in who works out of an abandoned movie theater north of Purpose. He has an elaborate controlled grow operation inside, specifically set up to grow various drugs. However, the drugs are a front for his secret operation: growing fresh food, fruits, corn, etc. His den is a warren of booby traps, and he has an elaborate radio array that allows him to send and receive any information he needs to know.
  • Sledge: A Touchstone. Sledge is a living symbol of human progress and purpose, and an all-around hero type. He drives the wastes in a souped-up semi cab complete with mounted machine guns. He rights wrongs and protects the otherwise innocent for a small fee. He has connections among the Kree farmers to the west of Purpose.
  • Unity: A Hardholder. Unity is the founder-leader of the Hardhold Purpose, and leader of the largest army around. He has a utopian vision for the world, where everyone chooses a greater purpose for themselves, receives a new name, and goes out to fulfill that purpose. Unity’s is to unite humanity. A lot of the time, it seems like the brotherhood of purpose comes off more like a Cult than a gang of protectors for the town, but hey, this is Apocalypse World. Purpose is built like a castle in the ruins of an old Prison, with a small hold of cabins and crude farms around it. Unity doesn’t trust Lars, who once stiffed him half his take on a job. Unity had a life before his current crusade as Lang, who worked alongside Eagle some. Eagle doesn’t know that the hooded, shaved Unity was once the long haired Lang. Unity trades with Oliver regularly in the name of Purpose.

That’s how I see them, at least, after the first session. I’ve got some questions about the characters so far. I’m going to write them here because I don’t solve problems without articulating them. I’m stating my problems as positive questions because that’s just the productive way to do things. I want to know: Where will Eagle grow and break from the stereotype of ‘Principaled Amoral Mercenary’ who ‘always gets the job done’? Where is Eagle getting his emotional fulfillment from, who are his ‘family,’ and how will he have meaningful social interaction given his characterization so far? Why isn’t Lars a more important man than he seems to be, given his age and disposition? Who are the members of Lars’ outer social circle, other than his gang? His network of contacts or informants? Why is it that Oliver hasn’t been totally crushed by a large organized group yet? What would Oliver do when his protection comes crumbling down? Why hasn’t Oliver gone bat-crazy all alone nuts yet? How is Oliver’s player going to involve someone that’s practically an agoraphobe in this game at all? What’s stopping Sledge from being another faceless yawn-boring paladin? Who is going to keep sledge from leaving the area/what connection is the player going to introduce to make that happen? Is Sledge OR Unity going to have a much more interesting purpose in the world than righter-of-wrongs? If the answer is no, that’s going to preclude any of the good social drama we’re at the table to see happen. Why has Unity been so successful so far with establishing a community of good guys? How does Unity intend to deal with other communities that are much less idealistic and much more pragmatic than his own? How does Unity OR Sledge intend to have a meaningful relationship with any character other than their own? And, finally, how will any of the characters react to a shattering of what they think is the status quo?

That’s about all I’ve got as far as character creation goes. I intend to revisit these questions in later posts to see how the characters are doing.

Oh, we also ended up with this little map of the surrounding world.

The Game World So Far

That’s, moving clockwise from the bottom left: Slaver Hold, Salt Flats, Kree, Centennial, Boilin, Downtown, Purpose (the little rook), Cabins, Freeway, Burn Flats, Factory District, Caryard, Burbs. I added Burn Flats myself after the first session was over. I’ve added, since, a river running past/through downtown called The Noose.

MC Goals for Session 1

So, then, we’re left with the goals of the MC for the first session. I’ve addressed them singly, and in twos or threes:

MC the game. Bring it. & Describe. Barf forth apocalyptica. Done and Done. I’m pretty satisfied with my ability to weave what the players were giving me into a coherent first session story the climaxed with Eagle pointing a grenade launcher at Lars’ gang while Oliver looked on in horror. I think I also managed to describe a lot of apocalyptica, and we filled out a healthy map of the surrounding areas. All of this came off of the History descriptions, which went well with the goal of Springboard off character creation. I definitely also was able to Leave yourself things to wonder about and look for where they’re not in control. I can’t really share all that here (Spoilers!) but I will share my list of questions to myself later in the post.

I don’t think I did as well of asking questions like crazy, though I did ask alot, I wished I had set up more scenarios and then asked the players to explain. I wish I had asked the PCs for more antagonists, but I really wish I had asked them for more allies and friends. I’m going to have to run the second session a little more calmly to get these. I had trouble giving every character good screen time with other characters. Simply put, I had several characters who didn’t involve themselves as heavily as I’d have liked, and became too involved in the ‘ongoing’ action to make up my own side plot for them. I was relying on them to do that and they didn’t precisely deliver until too late in the session. I’ve got several untried character combinations to go through for session two. Finally, I wish I had nudged the players to have their characters make moves more than I did. Showing the players where to make moves and how will be really key. I want a lot more rolling next time, so I’ll have to figure that out.

There are a few others, like naming NPCs and “Hell, Have a Fight” which we did do, and did well, but commenting on them isn’t that productive.

The Session Proper

A Quick Recap: Lars and gang were hunting up a stolen still from out of a bar called Waystation near Purpose. Eagle, unknowingly, had been contracted to see that same Still safely out of the town. The bandits (Riggs, Omie Wise, a few others), having gotten wise to Lars’ hunting them because of some sloppy maneuvering on Lars’ Gang’s part, decided to dump the still on Oliver. Oliver decided to buy it (Hey, look, tech!) only to have Lars confront the boys as they’re moving the goods just outside Cinema (Oliver’s workshop). Eagle then happens along when the bandits have retreated inside Cinema and bails them out with a standoff against Lars. Having gotten paid, Eagle lets the Bandits bolt away, as does Lars. With Eaglel safely out of sight, Lars and Co ride down the bandits on their bikes and beat the snot out of their Riggs, who gets shot and dies. Meanwhile, Unity and Sledge have several revelations to the fact that Purpose is desperately in need of a better food supply. In the end, they defuse a potentially violent situation and are able to convince some Kree farmers that they’ll protect a Kree trade route if the Kree bring in their food to trade at lower rates.

So…

As MC, I’ve got a really full 1st session worksheet now. It’s got lots of good details of outside threats, but really lacks details on the community where the players’ characters live. I’ll leave this post with a list of questions about the game world I have. I wrote all these down during the first session, and hope to answer them in play. A few aren’t included, because they’re spoilerific about characters’ motivations regarding other characters. In essence, I wonder… Who claims downtown? How do the Kree really get by without central organization? What’s south of the Burn Flats? When does Purpose skirmish with Caryard, and who is Caryard’s leader? Who will Sledge make into his new family? Who are the different factions of Smokestackers? Why is Centennial so dangerous a hunting ground? Where does their gasoline come from?

I guess we’ll see in session two.

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