I’ve run a few games without any prep already, and that was fairly easy. But those times at least I knew in advance that I would be running something, and so came mentally prepared. This weekend I ran two games with zero prep and zero notice. This is how I ran my first Apocalypse.
Jonna came up with an Nature’s Revenge Apocalypse: nature had risen up and would cause people to kill themselves, especially if they gathered into groups. This idea was GOLD (and stolen from a movie that was apparently crap, so begging to be re-purposed). It meant that at each point you’d have to chose between being isolated and vulnerable or risk killing yourself. That’s a tough choice if I ever saw one!
Our stronghold was a cave system filled with about 120 people. It was fairly primitive hardhold, they were cramped, they had too little experts, their main medics were two prostitutes with a first aid kit. Their only asset was food: they lived off of fungi growing in the caves (that could only be farmed by one person at a time). Kristina played a coldly rational Brainer, right hand girl to the settlements hardholder, an older preacher named Harridan (who had a distinct voice, as Rich Rogers taught us hardholders should always have cool voices). Stan played an older Savvyhead who was overseeing the fungi farms. Jonna played a Battlebabe, one of the town’s mercenaries.
Hell and back
Apocalypse World is all about the slow burn and tension, and I had often wondered how you would play that game in a one-off. My answer was not to play that game and put everything on the line as soon as possible. The entire settlement was starving, rioting and about to go down in a flame of hellfire and mutiny. People were gathering in mobs, creating suicide victims, and resorting to cannibalism. It was bleak.
Our characters were almost bleaker. Everyone was reveling in playing their characters hard and mean. The Savvyhead shrugged off the mobs and threw the dead on compost heaps. The Brainer was a cold rationalist who distributed food to the useful and starved out the sick and crippled. The Battlebabe was perhaps the most human but prone to battlerages that almost cost them everything.
The first half of the game went towards establishing how badly the settlement was doing and how it would end if no one intervened. The second part saw the Battlebabe send out her gang due east and head west with her lover and the Savvyhead in a desperate attempt to find new resources. Meanwhile the Brainer was left trying to save a settlement that hated and distrusted her.
The trip featured a few nature threats and a Savvyhead suicide attempt by screwdriver. The Battlebabe dealt with it by saying “This is going to hurt” and yanking it out of his wrist without warning. That’s true camaraderie!
After this, they found their resource mine (a former mall) taken over by another group armed with machine guns. The Battlebabe shot one of their guys in the back. The other guy got reinforcements from a guy in mechanic’s overalls and one wearing a doctor’s outfit. The battlebabe was about to shoot the doctor in the head when she suddenly realized she found a resource that could help them: skilled people! It took a lot of fast talking and negotiating to make a deal with them after the initial violence.
Meanwhile, the Brainer had instituted martial law and taken all of the Savvyheads private fungi plants (his only solace) to bribe the rioters for a precious night of peace. When the other expedition came back with news of a new and much larger abandoned mine a few clicks out east, she took matters into her own hands and forced the hardholder to hand the settlement over to her. He almost died from resisting her puppet strings, but when she boldly lied about taking ‘care of the meek’, he gave in, bleeding from the ears on the paper she made him sign.
The reunion was the first scene with all of them together. Quite fittingly, it was the only scene that had warmth to it. The Battlebabe had brought back a mirror from the mall for the Brainer, the only possession she ever cared about (and the first to be destroyed by the mobs). The Brainer in her turn confessed to the Savvyhead that she had taken his private fungi plants and that she knew why they were so important to them (I’d been playing fast and lose with the Brainer moves so I could get some psychic maelstrom in even between characters in different places). She failed to empathize, or even say the right worlds to make it all okay (very well roleplayed!), but it was the first time we saw her even try.
I cut the game there. There were new people with skills, there was a new possible settlement. There was hope. That’s as good as it was going to get in this world.
I felt fairly confident I would be fine running this game: I have run Monsterhearts a lot, and played a fair bit of Apocalypse World.
I was unpleasantly surprised.
It was a totally different beast to run. You have to come down on people SO hard and push everything to the edge SO much… I was sweating bullets something fierce.
Monsterhearts tropes come easy to me, but our AW setting was so bleak I really had to dig into some weird places to barf forth Apocalyptica. During the halftime break Jonna said “You’re doing great!” and I thought “Yeah, but you don’t know how it feels to get there!”.
In the second half of the game I had internalized so much of the hate and despair of the world that I was getting some major bleed from our entire setting. I was feeling really angry, spiteful and nihilistic. This never happened to me before, I didn’t even know GM’s could bleed!
My players really seemed to enjoy playing this hard. I’ve seen Stan play a cool uncaring guy a few times before (though that works a lot better in this game than in any other). Jonna enjoyed being an extreme badass, and far more morally questionable than she normally plays. Kristina… had made a few sadistic characters on paper before, but would always turn into a sympathetic character as soon as play started. This was the first time she was horrid through and through, and freaked out everyone else!
Of course, the brilliant mechanics of AW will find chinks in any armor and what started as cartoony badasses ended up being real people scarred by bad situations. Everyone got dealt some questions that ruined their cool, and added on to them beautifully.
It was awesome. And now that I’ve written it down, perhaps I can sleep at night again :)