A calmer apocalypse?

  • 21 Replies
Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #15 on: April 21, 2016, 09:37:05 AM »
I'm actually starting to question what I meant by "the last two times". I have three games that might apply, but one of them was Dream Askew, and one was AW:Fallen Empires.

Last time I played AW, I did exactly what I describe. It was a group where one of the players had played with me several times before, two were new to AW, and one new to roleplaying in general. I talked a bit about the maelstrom: what it's defined to be, what it can possibly turn out to be, highlighting the high variance both in terms of behaviour (does it only ever allow people to gain information, or does it take over people's actions, manifest physically etc) and possible explanations (can it be explained as a "collective unconscious", a field generated by alien psychic satellites, is it practically magic). I stressed that we need not ever decide on a plausible explanation during the game, and if we do we need not reveal it, but I brought up the point that in different games, the maelstrom varies along that axis of explicability.

I also said that despite what I said about my preferences, I would obviously be a fan of any Brainer or Hocus, and allow them the full results of using the maelstrom to further their agenda; I wouldn't want to cripple them in the interest of grounding the maelstrom.

At least one player was still eyeing the Brainer for a long time, but in the end they chose the Maestro D', Angel, Battlebabe and Savvyhead.

Some of them opened their brains at various times – I don't remember very well now. I did the usual thing of asking what it was like for them, and it sort of coalesced into visions and sounds. I did remind them that different people are allowed to experience the maelstrom differently, that's why I ask every character the first time they do it – but they ended up using pretty similar descriptions. This might have been a consequence of wanting to keep it grounded; I guess it feels more gonzo to claim that it's the same thing but it's perceived completely different for different people.

Now, I did decide after about a session what I wanted the maelstrom to be, and kept it in the background until I had sort of given the players a few chances to provide input that might disrupt it. When they didn't, I started treating it as my prep, in the sense that I say what my prep demands. The idea was one that had been kicking about in my mind for a while, namely on wireless computer-to-brain interfaces. I imagined that in the Golden Age, the technology that today only allows a human with electrodes on their head to controla computer, eventually grew wireless, and then bridged the gap in the other direction, so a computer could induce sensory stimuli in the human brain. When this technology had become ubiquitous (a mind-router in every home), some sort of virus or cyber-attack catalysed the end of the world (details unknown).

The Savvyhead found one of these mind-routers, without knowing what it was, and most of her workspacing ended up centering around that. She took Augury pretty quickly. An old woman showed up, drawn to the signals. She was addicted to the higher level of being she had had as a cyborg, so she felt crippled trapped in her human-baseline senses. Long story short, the town distrusted the mind-machine and rallied in a lynch mob to take it from the Savvyhead and destroy it. This was sort of the "Savvyhead's subplot", while the other three were more involved in the snow scooter raiders threatening the town. After the raiders had been taken care of, we spent the last session wrapping up the mind-machine plot.

The mind-machine had every potential for making the Savvyhead Charles Xavier, and turning the game into X-Men. By discussing our preferences beforehand, we all pulled in the same direction, which was that the maelstrom should be mystical, weird, but on the purely physical plain I guess non-impressive. If the correct reaction to the maelstrom had been "oh my god this changes everything we know about the world, and if I can harness this I will rule the wasteland", well, then the game pretty quickly turns into that. I like the maelstrom, but I don't want the premise of every AW game to be "the world's gone to shit, but there's this maelstrom that has the potential to change everything – who will control it?" That's a cool game, but sometimes I want "the world's gone to shit, you're playing the coolest people around, can you make something that will last?" In the same way that we can have a Chopper with really cool bikes without having the entire game revolve around who gets the bikes, I want the maelstrom to be part of the setting without being the most important resource in the world.

It was an important element to our game and narrative, don't get me wrong. The story of the old woman who wanted her old computer-augmented life back, and the Savvyhead eager to help and curious to understand, was a quite gripping tale, pushing the same buttons for me as e.g. Ghost in the Shell.

I don't know how well my solution generalises. The end result, the exact maelstrom we got, was pretty much the product of my own mind; it was apocalyptica that I dreamed up but waited a few sessions before inflicting on the game.

What actually happens when you do "the talk" beforehand like I did, I think, is that you limit the players' view of their choices. Without it, someone might open their brain, experience it as an alternative dimension, fine. Then next time, they ask "can I bring someone else into that dimension?" The next time, "I open my brain and try to find person X". The next time, "I want to open my brain, and when I'm in the maelstrom, I want to focus my entire being on hurting person X". And so on. And before you know it, superpowers. It can be cool, but what I don't like is that the game sort of naturally gravitates towards it – mostly since it can never move in the other direction; you can never de-power the maelstrom during the game. It's a genie-bottle situation.

As I said, we had a Dream Askew game that was pretty similar, maelstrom-wise. I don't care to recall details, this post is long enough. We also played Fallen Empires, and we had a Mystic (Savvyhead) who talked to spirits. That maelstrom pretty quickly became a spirit phone – "sure, we'll just commune with spirit X!" but it was kept limited to that kind of communication, and more importantly, it was only available to the Mystic. In fact, it was the first time I felt that I really manages to make the Savvyhead cool – since "can I do X with magic" "sure! You just need X, Y and Z" is easier for me to use to encourage doing cool stuff, than the corresponding "can I do X with weird tech". I think I'm just not very good at thinking in terms of weird tech (I might be too grounded). But yeah, non-Mystic characters opening their brains kept it to passively listening to the spirits in their vicinity, sort of.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #16 on: April 21, 2016, 02:21:11 PM »
If you're forming your image of the maelstrom largely by interrogating the players, don't forget that you can ask leading questions, too.

-"I want to reach out to someone through the maelstrom!"


-"Ok. Why is that dangerous?"
-"What weird thing does a person have to do to make themselves available to such 'reaching out'?"
-"Why is it that no one in your holding has tried to reach out to anyone in almost 30 years?"
-"You've heard that it's possible to reach out to people through maelstrom, a long time ago. Who was the weirdo who told you that, and when was the last time anyone saw him?"



  • 417
Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #17 on: April 21, 2016, 02:30:11 PM »
The last couple of games I've run have had vastly different takes on the maelstrom. In the most recent the players decided jointly beforehand that it would be consistent (i.e. basically the same to everybody) and further decided that it was "I see dead people." That's right, in this apocalypse, the ghosts of the departed (usually people you knew when they were alive) turn up occasionally, giving you insight and (sometimes) abuse. The Angel keeps flubbing the rolls every time she opens her brain, and as a result it has been established that the shade of her departed mentor (whom she was unable to save) consistently gives her crap for being his worst student. We've interpreted her awful rolls to mean that mostly he just shows up at inopportune times and provides distracting criticism.

This interpretation of the maelstrom provides for some great RP interactions, but in no way is it anything like the maelstrom is taking over or a massive source of power or "changes everything" or whatever. It just is what it is and everyone just sort of copes with the ramifications of not being able to get away from dead people.

In the first campaign I ran, the maelstrom ended up having something to do with space/time. When the first couple of players opened their brains, they both described it as "seeing where I am, only in 'the time before,'" or "a brief flash into the future," or some variant thereof. As the game went on, this aspect became a more central part of the game. And when the Hoarder totally blew a roll and ended up skipping three days forward in time (he kept waiting for his "flash into the future" to end, and that kept not happening), things got really fun. Or when the Battlebabe saw something from "the time before" that was a winter scene, and immediately afterwards noticed that there was melting snow on her boots.

It also produced the perfectly pertinent quip by an NPC in conversation of which I am most proud:

PC: "So tell me about your theories on temporal distortion."
NPC: "I already have."
PC: "...."

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #18 on: April 22, 2016, 02:03:01 AM »
What actually happens when you do "the talk" beforehand like I did, I think, is that you limit the players' view of their choices.

This is true to my experience as well. I find it much more effective as the MC -- or even as a player, if my character has strong Maelstrom-feelings -- to simply bring the things I want to the table, and bounce them off the players. Like, you're the MC, the players can talk about doing insane shit in the Maelstrom all they want, but that's not actually remotely under their authority -- the Open Your Brain move is pretty explicit about the results on a hit, and none of them include blowing someone up with your hatred or whatever. It's an informational move that is like 95% colour. The colour part is incredibly great and important, but there are other moves for psychically doing harm, and if someone wants to do truly crazy Maelstrom shit that's what Augury is for, generally speaking.

I do think that there is a useful version of 'the talk', though --  but the trick is to have the talk ABOUT the colour, not really about what the Maelstrom does or is. You need to have the talk in the same kind of language that you use to MC someone Opening Your Brain. For example, I have found it quite effective, for initial AW setting building in general, to use word maps and free association among players -- have players put forward single words or concepts or impressions or images that they imagine being part of the Maelstrom, and maybe do a bit of building on some of them (or save that for the game, if they are vibrant enough on their own.) Things like 'empty' or 'a railroad track extending endlessly into the horizon' or 'like a Dali painting' or 'cold' or 'friendly' or whatever are, in my experience, massively more constructive -- and far less likely to produce this limiting effect -- than trying to pin down 'can the Maelstrom give you information' or 'is the Maelstrom an alternate dimension' or whatever. Getting some player input on the _feel_ of the Maelstrom will inevitably also constrain what the Maelstrom turns out to practically be -- but it won't lock down any of that right off the bat, it will just provide a narrower set of starting points for the players.

Another approach, slightly more likely to end up focused towards the 'what is it/what can it do', would be to borrow a tool from Microscope and make a list of things the Maelstrom definitely WON'T include. So if a player is bored of the Maelstrom always turning out to be another dimension they can just put 'no 'going into' the Maelstrom' or 'not an alternate dimension' or whatever on the list -- or 'no mind control' or 'not technological' or whatever. Obviously this is likely to be more effective for groups that have played the game before, but even a slightly miss-aimed veto is still going to tell you something about the player's preference.

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #19 on: April 22, 2016, 02:07:18 PM »
the players can talk about doing insane shit in the Maelstrom all they want, but that's not actually remotely under their authority

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I was starting to roll my eyes at some of the circle jerking going on. Apocalypse World is very explicitly specific on the roles of players and MC.
« Last Edit: April 22, 2016, 06:50:52 PM by Irminsul »

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #20 on: April 22, 2016, 02:53:40 PM »
Those last couple of posts are fantastic! Agreed in full.

(Also, treating the maelstrom more strictly will probably play nicely into the topic: "a calmer apocalypse"...)

Re: A calmer apocalypse?
« Reply #21 on: April 26, 2016, 06:12:46 PM »
Those last couple of posts are fantastic! Agreed in full.

(Also, treating the maelstrom more strictly will probably play nicely into the topic: "a calmer apocalypse"...)

Oh yes, I agree completely! (About both points!)