On our RPG House Con I had billed this one shot as friendly for beginners, and indeed I had ended up with three players either rusty in roleplaying or new to the Apocalypse World system. The one experienced player happily picked The Professional, while the others picked The Flake, The Exile and the Mad Scientist. We ended up with a slightly gonzo comic book adventure.
I had only ran my first game of MotW two weeks ago, and Jan ran a game of it last week. Those two games lead me to one frightening conclusion about MotW one offs: unless your players make characters in advance, the game should be improvised completely.
There’s just too many interesting story shaping aspects in these playbooks. It’s a crying shame to see a player get excited about playing, say, a Chosen, a Summoned, a Wronged and then not putting their story hooks front and center. If you’re lucky, your prepared mystery might allow you to work in ties to their background but
1° it’s no guarantee and
2° I find it hard to improvise freely if I’ve already made a mystery I am partial to. And I’m probably not the only one!
So I decided to run this game no prep, which made me nervous for days. I instantly felt vindicated during character creation, though, when our Mad Scientist had to pick his area of expertise:
Mad scientist player: “Chances of any of these coming up in this one off are probably small, right? I’ll just roll a d8 to pick one at random.”
Me: “Not at all. Whatever you pick will be a big part of story, so pick something you really like!”
Mad scientist play: “Oh! In that case I pick cybernetic augmentation!”
That moment was extremely satisfying, and we hadn’t even started playing!
- The Mad Scientist, Pr. Dr. Von Schliefenbaum who had a black claw for a hand, a formally evil doctor who had “turned good” (and who got referred by everyone as Dr. Claw – which set the start for the deeply comic book tone for this game) – played by Seb
- The Professional, John Smith, who worked for a rather dark and very secretive organisation that seemed to specialise in assassination. He was barely keeping the rest of his team off of the watch & kill list – played by Ville
- The Flake, a whizkid hippy and John Smith’s little niece – played by Marisa
- The Exile, Jean, a musketeer who was just chasing down a criminal alchemist by the name of Melchior – played by Linus
I silently brainstormed for ideas while the players filled in their character sheets and worked on their shared history. The big bad would have to be another Mad Scientist for Cybernetic Augmentation to really come into play. What if the alchemist nemesis from the Exile’s past had been a very fast learner? What would he be using his cybernetic super guys for?
To do heists? Heists are cool and give them locations to investigate, and people to get in the way of their investigation: two things essential for an investigative romp. I had made a ‘list of cool locations” and scanned it for cool place to steal from. Museum. Check. University Campus. Check. Dot Com Company? Interesting. Power Plant. Even better. (that list of locations was really handy! Good job, nervous me.) What would they steal from a museum? Something the Big Bad could use to make even more science things. What kind of magicy sciency thing would be in a museum. Aha, the Baghdad battery!
I quickly googled wikipedia to read up on the battery, and decided it would make an awesome power source for his new evil super project. What could he steal from the university? Perhaps some kind of cool material? In keeping with the comic book theme: Unobtanium! He would steal an AI from the Dot Com and then combine all of these things into his own creation in a Power Plant. Unless the players got in the way. I definitely wanted a dead cyborg to fall into the scientists hands so he could use his cool lab.
And we were off! They did a ton of investigation at the Museum and I was able to give out a lot of clues about the invisible cyborg that had done the heist and the batteries themselves. Being able to dish out a lot of information and seeing the players many investigative moves turned out to be a lot of fun!
They also had to deal with skeptical receptionists, scared directors, and realistic museum restorers. The other resource I had prepped was a list of NPCs made by this NPC generator that has a lot of the details you’d need. This turned out to be really useful. It also helped me to remember to not make all the high up people (museum director, professor, etc.) male.
A lot detail to the story was added by the players. Sometimes because they were just trying to anticipate the situation they would go into. I followed the improv adagium of saying yes to everything that sounded cool:
Player: Was there another battery vase? Maybe still being restored?
Player: Is the power plant a nuclear power decommissioned plant?
Me: (looks down at notes that just say “Power Plant”, underlined) Yes, awesome! You know the place just outside of town. They decommissioned a decade ago because of “structural problems”. No one has been there since.
Player: Oh, I failed that roll, I probably trigger the fire alarm, don’t I?
Me: Oh yes you do!
You get the idea. But they also felt free to add details either for fun or as solutions to problems. The Exile found out his wife had remarried, the Mad Scientist thought up some former coworkers at the university he could hit up for information. They established that the evil alchemist had been zigzagging through time for centuries to become this powerful, and that a calibrated EMP device would target the weakness of the alchemist and his potential creation.
In the end, the evil alchemist only managed to get his hands on the batteries. At the Campus, the investigators barged into the research facility while a cyborg was stealing the Unobtanium! A cool fight ensued in which they had to defeat the cyborg *and* stop the heist while the Exile confronted the Evil Alchemist (who looked suspiciously like Dr. Octopus) The professional appropriated the material for the company, and the Mad Scientist appropriated this new technology. By this time we had about an hour left so I skipped the Dot Com localization to skip to the showdown at the Power Plant.
There, there were some funny first plan attempts (“Why don’t we just shoot the nuclear power plant with our cannon?”, “Is there another way that we can sneak our tank inside?”) and the Exile tried to deflect a rocket launcher with his magical rapier.
After that, they made clever use of their advances to get extra allies to provide distractions and occupy the mooks while they took on the main problems: Melchior the evil alchemist, his newly awakened gigantic metallic spider, *and* the reactivated and terribly unstable nuclear power plant.
This gave everyone something to do. I made sure the Exile got to face off against his arch nemesis in nearly single combat. It always annoying if someone kills your arch nemesis for you, I think. Melchior the Alchemist revealed that he was the one who married the Exile’s wife after the Exile was thrust into the future! (remember, the players established he could zap back and forth into time). The exile yelled ‘I will haunt you to the end of time!’ and (eventually) stuck his rapier through Melchior’s throat. I ruled they both flickered and disappeared – only to turn up later or earlier in time, or not!
In the mean time, the Flake had performed an emergency shutdown of the power plant, the Professional had ensured that the gigantic spider was cut off from its power source and the Mad Scientist had made it vulnerable with a localised EMP blast. The spider kept going for a while (fight would have been boring otherwise) and it bothered the players that it seemed to still have juice in it. Until one of them said “The Baghdad batteries! Are they powering the spider?” Oh yeah, I had forgotten all about those! Yes, of course they were powering the spider!! I narrated that they were firmly but visibly lodged in the belly of the spider and one well aimed rocket launcher destroyed both the monster and a timeless priceless artifact.