Initial situation in Apocalypse World

I just started MCing an Apocalypse World series for the first time and I’m sort of surprised by how the main action/premise of our game is coming together. But I guess it would be helpful to explain what my expectations were first. I had heard Apocalypse World was a “blood opera” where there is some loaded initial situation involving a character map and conflicting desires created by the relationships in that map. We’d all collaboratively create this map during character creation. Then play would start with the PCs pursuing whatever goals made sense to them and I would play the NPCs reacting to their actions while being sure to introduce new complications when they miss their moves.

I was correct that there is a relationship map, but mostly wrong about how loaded things would be to begin with. This partly depends on what hx questions the players decide to answer. For example: “One of them once let you down in a pinch and left you holding the bill” is going to create a spicier situation off the bat than “One of them once faced down dedicated violence to get you out of a fix”. But the context here is basically still just flavor, it’s either “oh I’m bitter about this” or “I like you because you did that”. It might help a player decide how to react to something that the other character does, but it doesn’t create any kind of stakes or motivation on its own (at least that’s what I’m seeing).

There’s also a bunch of NPCs that get created at this point, mostly as part of player’s playbooks (gangs, followers, crew) or by asking questions like “where do you get your bullets and food from”. As the MC I create all these characters as Threats which gives me a helpful list of things they might do to drive the action… But that’s not exactly what I was hoping to do as the MC.

I really should have known all this from reading the book, I’ve read it like three times at this point. The threat map is literally a circle with “The PCs and their resources” inside it and threats pointed at it from all sides. I mean that’s pretty clear… and wait in the section titled During the First Session it says “it’s your job to create a fractured, tilting landscape of inequalities, incompatible interests, PC-NPC-PC triangles, untenable arrangements” which is then followed by some famously good advice on how to do just that. So basically I need to work on my reading comprehension or something!

I honestly can’t say where I got this impression of how creating the initial situation for play was going to work, but it doesn’t really matter. I really am enjoying our Apocalypse World game at this point, so I’m not asking for advice on how to fix it or anything.

The only games that seem to really make scenario creation everyone’s job are Follow and Fiasco which are GMless of course. And maybe Sorcerer but I haven’t played it, and while kickers are a cool concept the book doesn’t give you many tools for them.

Basically I have a bunch of questions. Has anyone played Apocalypse World in the way I was expecting it to be played? I saw that Paul (sorry not sure how to mention someone here) posted what is basically a Fiasco playkit for Monsterhearts which I think would lead to basically what I am describing. Does that work? Am I wrong to want this? Is it better to start slow and poke the PCs until they develop motivations of their own, does that lead to better games? I do see the joy in allowing the stakes to emerge at the table, but I worry it will be mostly me pushing those things into place.

The thing is that I’m totally happy to play a cast of characters most of whom are antagonists, I just want to be able to start with a situation (that I did not author myself!) where the other players in the game are already excited about all the stuff they’re going to do rather than waiting for me to poke them with my NPCs. In a Wicked Age seems pretty cool, and I think does what I’m describing, but are there any other cool examples? Any and all thoughts would be appreciated :slight_smile:

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Hi! This is my first post here on The Gauntlet, so I extra super hope this is helpful.
In my experience with Apocalypse World, both as player and GM, is that the stuff you’re talking about, ebear, is entirely player dependent. If you have players who are very proactive, then yeah, they may just evolve the initial situation in an organic way (though the GM will still need to have Fronts moving forward as well, no matter what). More reactive or hesitant players will probably need a little more prodding, especially if they chose options during chargen that didn’t really point the PCs into immediate conflict with each other.

As for the blood opera aspects of inter-PC conflict, that can also come later. Sometimes all these external threats pointed at the PCs do indeed cause them to band together and act more like a “regular RPG party,” and that’s fine. Eventually, if everyone including the GM is following all the rules, there will be points of tension and conflict.

Sounds like your game is really cool overall.

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Hello, at session 0 you have all the laces in hand and see where they go. Just how tight you pull is up for your table to decide.
I don’t know, you probably don’t need this, but here I go : if you think about that world where survivors are one on 10^4 (?), where scarcities are what define your life… “oh I’m bitter about this” or “I like you because you did that” to me sound like from another game, where the apocalypse is cosmetic and a hand wave to society intact.

*edit to add *
Hey @Deliverator ! Welcome.
@Paul_T may want to answer about “It all ends in tears”.

Also, I made a folktale character picking game that looks like Tales of entropy by Petteri Hannila : first player picks a character, second player picks its opponent, third player picks its opponent, etc. Goal orthogonality at its wildest.

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Thanks for drawing my attention to this, @DeReel! I definitely do have things to add, indeed.

And welcome, @Deliverator! This is a cool place (and fabulous software), and it’s especially nice to see you here.

Apocalypse World, as written, is definitely not intended as a “blood opera” (a game where the plot centers on the protagonists resolving conflicts with each other, like In a Wicked Age…). The assumption is that the PCs know each other and are - usually - friendly, although exceptions do exist. You observed quite correctly that the Hx questions aren’t strong enough to get you there on their own.

I think that playing “by the book” is quite effective, but can feel surprisingly “free-floating” from a GM’s perspective, unless, as Deliverator says, the players are really proactive. (Although playbook choice really matters here: if you have a Hardholder and a Hocus and a Maestro’d and a Quarantine, your game might “run itself”, whereas a Gunlugger, a Battlebabe, and a Brainer might leave you awash in uncertainty for quite some time.)

You’ve correctly identified the basis for play: the nature of Apocalypse World (the setting) is such that humanity is rare and everything is under threat. There is some kind of community in action (all the places and people that you brainstorm during the First Session), and your job as the MC is simply to put pressure on it. The place is dangerous and unpredictable: look for points of weakness and have some NPCs jump on them. That’s the nature of Apocalypse World - nothing is safe. But, until the second or third session, depending on how proactive and creative your players are, it might feel like you’re fumbling around a bit, compared to a more “focused” game. That’s OK! It will come together.

Having said that, I do find that it can leave a group feeling a bit untethered. As DeReel mentioned, I wrote a Fiasco-style playset for Monsterhearts, and I usually use it when I play. It helps get a game going (especially since I tend to play Monsterhearts with non-gamers, and the setting of Monsterhearts doesn’t provide the same obvious directions for drama and conflict as Apocalypse World). You can see it here, if you’re curious:

I think - but have never tried! - that you could do the same thing with Apocalypse World. My working experimental idea is that you can sit down with the Fiasco “Boomtown” playset, and use it for character generation. Then just reimagine any of the Details of the playset in post-apocalyptic Colour (the local Sheriff might be a Chopper, the gas station becomes Gas Town, and so on), choose playbooks, and you’re ready to go. That’s something I still want to try someday.

However, I’ve also made a “play aid” specifically for this purpose. I think it’s a great orienting tool for groups playing AW for the first time (and maybe even every time!). It uses the PC-NPC-PC triangle concept as the most economical framing device for AW play. Here, take a look (and there’s no reason you couldn’t draw from it even if your game has already started - you could just use the names of existing NPCs for your “list” and have the players choose):

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Thanks a bunch for tagging @Paul_T, I’m not sure why I wasn’t able to figure it out in the original post. That folktale game of yours is definitely the kind of thing I’m curious about, it sounds explosive! I’ll have to take a look at Tales of Entropy and see what I can learn from it.

Also you’re right, characterizing that prompt as “oh I’m bitter about this” is definitely a straw-man type example. The question definitely adds tension to the situation even if you just left it at that, and as MC you could ask some follow questions that would push it toward being immediately actionable for the player.

It was more to point out that coming into the first session the players didn’t seem to have anything on their to do list. If there were some sort of prompt for the Angel for instance that was like “Your pain drugs are missing, name a PC or NPC and explain why you think they took them”, we can frame a scene around that right away. That’s not how the game is set up, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

I’m speaking from a place of inexperience here, and I’m just curious what would happen to the game if someone ran it that way. Does it make the series shorter? Does picking some sort of conflict right away make things feel too workshopped? Are there any (GMed) games where defining this stuff ahead of time really sings?

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Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m pretty new here too, so it’s really nice to be getting all these responses.

I honestly think it’s a cool feature of the game that the players can contribute at whatever level they’re comfortable with. I think some folks are in a more reactive frame of mind just because we’re all a bit tired, and I’m glad the game procedures aren’t asking more of the players than they want to give.

I can also see that you’re right, there’s definitely some inter PC conflict ahead even without explicitly setting it up. Our brainer just accidentally fried the brain of the Angel’s favorite assistant at the end of last session, so that will be interesting!

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Yeah, you’re right on the money here. Some of the playbooks have this covered (especially with start-of-session moves), but most do not.

The game expects you to settle on something like “your pain drugs are missing, name a PC or NPC and explain why you think they took them” in open conversation, during the First Session. It’s supposed to come up as you describe the world and the characters, in other words. Perhaps you ask “does any of your stuff ever go missing?”, and the player replies, “Aw, man, sometimes people wanna take my pain drugs”, and you ask, “Have any gone missing recently?”, and the player says, “Yeah, the new batch, in the syringes!”, and you say, “Who do you think took them, and why?” Etc.

However, some people need more “help”, which is why I’ve been workshopping various tools (as you can see from my “NPC Starter”).

John Harper used to write about this. He said, basically, to keep asking questions until you get something. He used the example of a Gunlugger (one of the hardest playbooks to generate story material for, since it doesn’t come with any built-in “hooks”), played by someone who just refuses to give you anything interesting. Well, what does a Gunlugger need? One thing is for sure: they need ammo. So you start there.

GM: “So, tell me, do you ever run out of ammo, and, if so, what do you do?”
Gunlugger: “Nah. I don’t run out.”
GM: “Hmmm… ok. Well, who do you get your ammo from?”
Gunlugger: “I don’t get it from anyone.”
GM: “Oh. Ok… So, do you have a giant stash, or…?”
Gunlugger: “I dunno. I guess I know where to find it.”
GM: “Oh, so [looks at map] - do you scavenge for it?”
Gunlugger: “Yeah, sure.”
GM: “Where? Here, in the bunker out East, or in the scrapyard?”
Gunlugger: “Sure, in the scrapyard, maybe I find some lying around there.”
GM: “Ah, ok… who else knows about it?”
Gunlugger: “No one. I keep it a secret, and go there at night.”

Now you have at least something to jump on: pick another PC or NPC and frame them there, perhaps, with the Gunlugger spotting them. This source of ammunition is now a resource. What will they do when someone else finds it? And so forth.

Basically, yes. :slight_smile:

There are some fine games that use this kind of front-loaded conflict, like Fiasco, In a Wicked Age…, Tales of Entropy, or Dust Devils.

It’s much more “on the nose”, and it gets you to the juicy stuff faster. So, yes, the games could be shorter. When people do shorter games of AW, they often do something like this: point the PCs at each other.

You can also pick a dramatic structure from a favourite book or TV show and go with that. Are the PCs traveling through a dangerous place together? Planning a heist? Escaping from somewhere? Was someone thought dead, and has suddenly and surprisingly reappeared “in town”? You have to get everyone on board and pick playbooks appropriately if you do that, though. (Some won’t “play nice” with such concepts.)

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Thanks for giving such an in depth response, and that John Harper example is really illustrative. Trying to pick a dramatic structure at the beginning is a cool idea that I’d not considered or tried before!

I like your play aid a lot, if I get a chance to play AW again I’d definitely bring it as a resource. I think even if folks didn’t use it directly, they’d get a lot of inspiration from it to help answer the MC’s questions.

In reading all this over I think what I was really asking for from AW was the needs section from Fiasco playbooks. I had a bunch of ways to threaten the players but I wasn’t sure what they actually wanted. I find threatening PCs in games isn’t so hard, but baiting a line for them (or more importantly the player) is trickier. You can waste quite a bit of time dangling things that they really aren’t interested in, so I’d rather the players sort of bait their own hooks.

What I wasn’t really thinking about is that if we look at those needs in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the pyramid thing, and I’m getting a little pretentious here) we’re really just looking at the bottom two because this is the apocalypse. I guess I’m used to thinking of character needs in terms of the top three instead. It’s kind of hard to differentiate a threat from a need with those bottom two layers actually. The big “need” of the apocalypse is to not be threatened it seems.

That actually might be why Monsterhearts made a bit more sense to me when I read it. The implied need for that setting is stuff more like “I feel like a monster, but I want to be accepted and for people to think I’m cool. I want someone to love me and take away my pain.” And I’m like oh yeah that makes sense to me, I’d do all kinds of chaotic stuff to make that happen for myself.

It makes me think that you were right on the money @DeReel, if I feel like the game is slow or there’s nothing for the characters to do I just need to let the status quo slide and allow whatever society is left crumble a bit more. It’s not really the kind of setting where players want to pick their goals because it’s all tied up in the adversity they’re facing.

Anyway I guess I’m just thinking aloud here at this point. Thank you all so much for the thoughts, I feel like I’m learning a lot!

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I think you’re right on the money. Apocalypse World is an interesting game, at least to me, insofar as it juxtaposes the psychic, depraved, anarchist barbarity of the post-apocalypse with real humanity. If the MC and the players don’t take the Principle to “treat the characters as if they were real people”, the game loses most of its depth (and, I would argue, is hardly worth playing).

As written, the MC is supposed to “fish” for the PCs’ interests and priorities, both by asking provocative questions (aimed at the player) and with difficult or dangerous post-apocalyptic situations. The MC asks, “Who do you feel closest to, in this desolate place? Why?” Or, perhaps, “Of the places you know or have heard of, what do you think would be the best place to raise a child?”

The MC also frames a scene where a bunch of slave traders come to attack a small hamlet of defenseless people (children, their caretakers, the elderly), and sees how the PCs react, then learns from that to provide more dramatically pointed material later. (Did they choose to defend the helpless? Try to join the slavers? Steal resources from either? Hide and wait, letting it happen? All are revealing choices.) The basic instability of Apocalypse World makes this easy: nothing is safe, so feel free to overthrow and burn down anything and everything until the PCs feel like they need to get involved.

One handy trick you have in your toolbox is the psychic maelstrom. Ask the players about their relations to it, and use the psychic mindfuckery to play “twisted psychiatrist”. When they interact with the maelstrom, explore the PCs’ dreams, past loves, hopes for the future, nightmares, etc. Have the maelstrom “learn” something about the PCs each time it comes into play. It provides you with a handy excuse to dig under the surface and learn the underlying psychology of each PC.

Digging into each PC’s hopes and fears is a pretty safe bet, and a good tool, as the fastest way to get there. What gives you hope for the future? What do you fear is lost, from the past? What do you fear may yet be lost, today or tomorrow?

Talking about myths or rumours of the past (the Golden Age) is also a good trick to get at these details. What do the characters believe? What have they heard? How do they feel about it?

Ultimately, the game asks the players to decide what of humanity is worth preserving or rebuilding, and how hard they’re willing to fight for that. That’s when the game gets interesting.

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