A calmer apocalypse?

  • 21 Replies
A calmer apocalypse?
« on: April 15, 2016, 05:20:55 AM »
It's been a while since I actually played AW, and I think I've figured out why. While the explosive chaos that the game breeds is fun, I started missing something... calmer, for lack of a better word.

I mean a sense of a more living world, a more functioning society, more stable relations. It can still be full of scarcity and conflict, of course, and apocalyptica, but I long for playing in a world that has some basic stability, which can then be ruptured and brought into crisis, if that's where the game takes us. I just want a change from the gasoline stinking, chainsaw whipping, free-for-all that the game always seems to pull towards.

(Yes, I know there are other games, and I've revisited Solar System for a while, but then I started to miss AW's rules even more! :) )

I can't really see anything in the hard rules that means the world has to burn by the third session, or that your old lieutenants must try to cut your heart out with a chainsaw by the second, but somehow that's what always seems to happen.

One thing I just read, that got me thinking, was a comment about the PCs' gangs and stuff as threats. I've always read that as very real threats against the PCs, and that made playing a leader much less fun for me (turning the hardholder's lieutenants against them is like taking away the driver's cars; fun at some point, but not immediately and constantly, is my feeling). But this comment pointed out that the gang might be a threat against the PCs' enemies, which, strangely, was a new way of thinking to me. But of course, just because they are dangerous and have an agenda doesn't mean that agenda needs to be opposed to the PC's!

Soooo, I wonder if anyone has any more tips on how to think, or thoughts on what makes a game of AW more explosive versus more stable (while still being interesting, but that goes without saying)?




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Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2016, 05:25:53 AM »
Why does being a threat have to mean that they are turning against the PC? The worst threat is the loyal lieutenant who gets himself gut shot out in the field and looks to the OC for help, or the friend who comes to the PC for a favor, or the little kid who's hungry.
James R.

    "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which can not fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance-that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #2 on: April 15, 2016, 06:14:27 AM »
Yeah, that's the question I'm grappling with at the moment! I'm surprised I haven't thought about it like this in the ten years since AW came out.

Then again, it's not that strange that PCs' gangs tend to become more of a problem than a resource pretty quickly. I mean, a player misses a basic move and the MC looks for a hard move to make and there it is, a big, juicy Threat on the home front, right next to the PC. So, the PC looks weak, and the hunting pack pounces on them. Some scarcity in the holding gets worse, and the sybarite gang starts plundering the population they are tasked with protecting. Another PC is an oddball, and the enforcer gang victimizes them. And so on.

It obviously doesn't have to get that way, that fast, but in my personal experience, it has been quite hard not to.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #3 on: April 15, 2016, 08:02:13 AM »
Hmm.. I'm honestly not quite sure where I fall as an MC. I don't usually consciously play the gangs as threats. They just are what they are.

So the time I had a chopper, most of the gang was behind the boss, but there were these two guys who just weren't satisfied with his way of leading the gang. So when he failed his Pack Alpha, they'd act up. Not physically attack him, but complain soft moves to turn the others against him. He could have killed them, easily, but that just never ended up happening.

For hardholders, the gangs generally seem to be even more on his side. It is just that they are also acting according to their nature (which he basically chose when building his hold). So savage gangs will abuse the civilian population, and a disciplined gang will rigidly enforce the discipline and the law, and those can cause problems, even if they think they are just doing what their hardholder expects of them. And don't get me started on the trouble Hocus followers usually get into (due to the choices the Hocus made when creating them).

But even with the trouble, the leader types usually manage to maintain something approaching status quo. They just need to put the effort in.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #4 on: April 15, 2016, 10:23:15 AM »
Rubberduck, that sounds like a nice level of fuckery. Thanks for pitching in!

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #5 on: April 15, 2016, 02:33:01 PM »
The first AW game I MC'd, one of my failings was in keeping the players' home base too stable. There were big external threats, and some internal problems, but the internal problems weren't big enough to threaten the status quo (which was a NPC hardholder without much ambition, running a fairly safe little town in the middle of nowhere).

Things happened, and the players had fun, but the home front was just a little too quiet for my taste.

If that's what you want, it's easy to get. If your home-front NPCs are basically satisfied with the status quo, and the walls are strong enough that the first incursions from external threats can't blow them down like the Big Bad Wolf, so the players have a chance to respond, then things will only go to shit in two ways: one, if the players don't respond to the external threat, two, the players become the internal threat. Either way, it's pretty much on them, right?

So just don't give the home front NPCs big ambitions. NPC hardholder would like the PCs to find out who chucked a satchel charge over the wall and blew up the fuel depot last night, and beyond that, leave her alone to run the distillery. One of her lieutenants has a grudge against the PC Hocus, but honestly nobody really likes the guy and no one's gonna weep when a flare gun goes off in his mouth. PC Gunlugger's stepson doesn't like him, but he's a good kid and isn't going to, like, go full Oedipus on him. Little stuff inside the walls. Bigger stuff outside.

Me, on the other hand, I learned I need to turn the home-front fuckery dial way, way up. I had it at like "3" before and I'm hoping to hit about "7" this time.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #6 on: April 15, 2016, 05:14:12 PM »
One good way to feel this out is to ask the players what their characters are scared of and worried about. Their answers will automatically set the "scope" of the trouble which is going on.

"I'm worried about that fucking hyena cult which is coming to kill us all in their armoured trucks!"

is a very different answer from:

"Oh, man, that little girl Newt's gotten herself involved with those kids again. I worry they're going to put bad ideas in her head; I need to watch over her."

I tend to lean to a calmer Apocalypse World, in general. I'd like my games to be more character drama and less Mad Max.

I even have more of a "survival"-based AW hack/version:


Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #7 on: April 16, 2016, 03:17:37 AM »
Borogove, Paul, thanks!



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Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #8 on: April 16, 2016, 09:55:01 PM »
I've seen the tempo of an AW game go a both ways, from a very calm drama to the typical hellfire and bullets. I find the reason that these stories tended to differ was in large part the expectations of the players and the MC about the game world and its parts. If everyone around the table assumes the world it a cutthroat wasteland, then it pretty much is going to be just that. However if those around the table are more interested in intrigue and drama, then the game can very easy fall into that zone. There are some design choices you can make concerning the game to help it preform better in the latter drama;

The biggest point I've found is cultivating the players expectations, and then supporting those expectations with experience rewards. The longer it takes to level up, and restrictions on how fast things can be obtained help to drastically calm the tempo of the game down. If experience is gained through other interactions, those interactions happen more frequently. It's just a matter of course that much of AW is about blasting holes in things, but things that push it in that direction are a relatively light weight number of rules. When you need to make a hard move, don't push it into violence, make violence even MORE deadly and expensive even for the toughest gang or badass out there. Give the violent people things they have to protect, things that cant survive without them. You'll find that when NPCs and Players have more to lose all around, they're less likely to throw their life away.

In one of my most violent games I actually turned the harm clock off completely and used some seriously brutal wound and recovery rules. A person got shot, and had to deal with the bullet wound for almost the rest of the campaign. Gangs members that died didn't get replenished, things that went wrong had few ways to recover. Everyone -- even the opposing forces within the same area had an undeniably greater sense of respect for life and thus the push and pull of power rarely reached up to those levels, and when it did, it was universally a character defining moment. Take this with a grain of salt however, because it is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. Make sure the pace of the world you wanna play in is shared by your players, and just come up amongst each other some ground rules about how to handle the escalation of conflict, experience, levels, or whatever rewards are out there.

AW is a fast paced game, so you get and lose things quickly too. Slowing experience is pretty much saying from the start, this is a longer game then normal, we'll play it more, and the things you'll gain through playing are less about the cool guns or bigger gangs on the sheets, and more about whatever elements of the story you collectively decide to pursue.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #9 on: April 17, 2016, 01:12:13 AM »
Good observations, Ebok.

Advancement and harm are both important "side effects" which must be considered in the scope of events of Apocalypse World. How you handle harm helps set the "negative" end of the spectrum: how cautious are characters being, and is reckless violence generally rewarded, or does it tend to have long-term consequences?

I had my own take on this in my rules for "visceral, descriptive harm":


In play, they very much had this feature: making the players take a little more time with everything and consider their moves carefully. Learn more about their opponents before striking, look for peaceful solutions: all things which lend themselves to fleshing out the world and its character.

Advancement is even more important; no matter how down-to-earth and slow-paced a game of AW is, advancement throws the PCs into escalating situations and escalating stakes, overcoming smaller Fronts and dealing with larger-scale problems. If you have an improvement coming every session, that puts an upper limit on the length and scope of your campaign.

I haven't seen any effective hacks/mods for slowing down advancement, but I suppose simply increasing the number of xp necessary for an advance may be all that's needed. I would try it with the rules as written first, however.

(Here's an idea, though: instead of marking xp every time you roll a highlighted move, you just get to mark xp if you rolled that stat in the session. Also places a higher onus on increasing/tracking Hx, which may be conducive to a more "introspective" apocalypse, as well.)

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #10 on: April 17, 2016, 10:28:32 AM »
(Here's an idea, though: instead of marking xp every time you roll a highlighted move, you just get to mark xp if you rolled that stat in the session.)

In between that and the rules-as-written, there's the Monsterhearts rule: maximum one XP per highlighted stat per scene, so the Hards can't just Aggro a bunch of mooks one after the other to advance.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #11 on: April 18, 2016, 05:57:49 PM »
I like to bring up my long-standing beef with how gonzo the maelstrom often turns out. I solved it the last two times by describing hat usually happens, saying that I don't like it or at least would like to try something more grounded, and checking the groups reactions. They seemed to agree, or at least not having much stake in the whole thing so accepting that we play a more grounded maelstrom. And then we did.

I think the same thing is possible here. Start out the first session, before even picking playbooks, by describing as you did in the OP what it is you are growing tired of. Chances are your group will be able to work with you to keep things grounded; to play their characters as realer people (or rather, as people who are closer to real modern-day sensible people, rather then real 50-years-after-the-apocalypse people in that they respond to anything with violence); to keep their maelstrom conspiracies slow-cooking.

I didn't read the thread very carefully but I saw people were talking about slowing down the rate of XP. If that's something you think help, then I can personally attest for the "if you've shown your [highlighted stat side] this session, mark xp" approach. It works like a charm for us, and a highlight becomes an incentive more to generally "try approaching things with this in mind", rather than "find a scene where you can roll this stat as many times as possible". We mark twice for each highlight fulfilled at the end of session, but you could bring it down to only once if you really wanted a slow-burning game.

As an MC, allow yourself to sometimes respond with... I don't want to say a boring move, but something that brings more of a feeling of slow creeping dread and hopelessness, rather than in-your-face "that's gotta hurt" or panic. Moves snowball, sure, but sometimes the urge to keep moves snowballing means escalating up to violence every time, and suddenly your holding is in flames even though it's just the third session. Eschew the "when in doubt, ninjas attack", don't escalate the situation. Have a failed roll sometimes mean they spend the entire day wasting their efforts on a dead end approach, and they return to the holding late at night after they've run out of food and water. Cut to the next day. That's not really a snowball, but it can be very effective at conveying that sometimes, life just moves on, except you're in a slightly worse position than you were yesterday, you can't keep this up forever, what do you do today? Obviously, only sometimes. You'd pretty quick get into making the characters' lives boring if every failed roll was met with hopelessness and attrition.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #12 on: April 19, 2016, 05:29:45 AM »
Very helpful thoughts, everybody, thanks a lot!

Jonatan, those pieces of advice especially are spot on for me, thanks!



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Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #13 on: April 19, 2016, 07:13:55 AM »
When a sitch gets difficult and the dice come out, think about what's at stake here. If it's not life and death, then pick another one. You can think back to less violent movies if you like, or build up the approaching harm like a suspense film. However, depending on your player's preferred styles, maybe the stakes are a relationship. Maybe they dictate something about tomorrow. If a move doesn't have stakes it wont be worth rolling, and if the players don't care, then it's also not worth rolling. The potential success should have some sort of balance with the potential loss. I'd give more examples, but these sorts of situations really do come down the players and the individual story, as subtle things are far more important. I'd suggest ramping up tensions between personalities, and let missed movies decide alliances even if temporary. Then again in my games, when this happens, the players always start to pick different sides to join and then the tensions sort of happen naturally. They dont wanna just blow each other away, but threats abound.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #14 on: April 20, 2016, 06:58:40 AM »
Jonatan- out of curiousity, what has happened the last two times with your more-grounded maelstrom?  I'd be interested to see what solutions came up for people seeking a more grounded experience.