Author Topic: Help me salvage my first session  (Read 364 times)

tortoiseandcrow

  • User
  • Posts: 8
    • View Profile
Help me salvage my first session
« on: November 25, 2017, 02:39:17 AM »
So, I've started playing Apocalypse World with a new group. I haven't played games in a while, and I haven't run a game in even longer. Being rusty and anxious led me to what feels like the RPG equivalent of writing myself into a corner. I'm pretty sure I know what I did wrong: not enough humanized NPCs, and a bout of panic that I would bore my players meant it was very much an abnormal day. I just can't for the life of me think of a way to pull apart the result of the session into a coherent set of threats.

We've got three PC's:
Suv is a Driver
Kol is a Child-Thing
Millers a Waterbearer

Here's what I've got:

The Source is a grotto dominated by invulnerable concrete tanks, fed by a catchment system of tarps. The water has healing properties, and is supplied freely to nearby hardholds. The source has a culture of individual freedom and sex. It's laws demand sacrifices of blood, labour, and precious things, that nobody go without, that all slaves who cross the threshold are free, and that you speak the truth. Its punishments are forced labour, public humiliation, disfiguration, and 2 enter 1 leave.

My bout of panic led to the Source being attacked by a section of a caravan right off the bat. I managed to introduce Roark, a former slave (and assassin, as stipulated by Millers' player), with his tongue cut out. The impression I have of him is that he seems strong and solid, but has a pretty weak core. He was spooked by the upcoming caravan, and a read a person roll revealed that he thought they should close the gates. The attackers, driving a U-Haul truck with howitzers sticking out of steel panels like some sort of land-bound galleon, responded to Millers' failed attempt to embargo them by blowing open the gates to the Source. The truck was promptly dealt with by the Suv (who simply crushed the improvised war-vehicle with her tank). The one survivor then accused Millers of cutting off the healing water supply to all the neighbouring strongholds and passed out. The rest of the caravan which, in a panic, had swarmed into the compound, were rounded up in an overly generous interpretation of the lawbringer move, and forced to fight one on one in the fighting pits. This is apparently the favourite entertainment at the Source.

Suv investigated the tank to see what could be learned (not much, because I had no idea where it had come from), and found a pus-covered bandage. The one good character moment I had was when Suv then went to go interrogate the survivor (named Balls), who was under guard by Fleece and Gnarly. Gnarly is Suv's embittered former lover, while Fleece has the serious hots for her. However, he showed a vicious side when he callously kicked Kol, the child-thing, out of disgust. Kol was there trying to eat Balls' shirt to learn more about him after a sniffing the air move had revealed he had the wolves' paw-prints on him.

The session ended after Dremmer, the resident brainer, frothed at the mouth after being asked to see why the water wasn't getting to the hardholds, with the strong implication being that it had something to do with the wolves of the maelstrom. This frustrated Miller's player immensely, because I discovered afterwards that she hadn't filled out her playbook all the way, and had been filling in NPC names in the advisor section as the session progressed! She was probably looking for insight, but since she didn't know what that rule meant, and I didn't know Dremmer was supposed to be an advisor, I made a crappy narrative decision even worse.

The child-thing mostly just wandered around and ate people's stuff.

Looking at what I now have in front of me...it's a mess. The players didn't have a bad time per se, but I'm not remotely compelled by it. I see now very clearly why the game requires that you start slowly, with named NPCs who have clear motivations. The most interesting part of the set-up to me is Fleece and Gnarly, who I just know are a little too into the fighting pits for the health of the community. With their gang of enforcers, they're definitely going to start cracking down on people for increasingly small infractions in order to get them assigned to the pits, and when that is no longer enough, they're going to move on to slaving. That's cool. That's something I can work with. A tiny cancer at the heart of an idyllic community where nobody supposedly has any wants. The community itself is definitely going to get increasingly involved in the fighting pits, with growing unrest if blood isn't spilled on a regular basis.

But I've done all this handwavy bullshit about all of the hardholds being somehow cut off from the Source. There's a clear growing resentment amongst at least one of the holds, enough for at least a small group to whip together an improvised tank and blow a hole in the side of the Source. If it's all the holds cut off (there are at least 3), how has it been kept from Millers so long, not to mention Suv, who is one of the transporters? If it's just one hold (maybe Roark's run?), why do the people living there think that everyone has been cut off? I've cornered myself into an unwieldy, over-sized conspiracy either way, with no clear human motivations to hold onto, and no direct connection to the (tiny) established NPC cast. And the wolves? I have no interest in a vague supernatural force running around doing evil, but I worry that's what I've locked myself into.

Short of calling mulligan on the whole thing, which I don't think will fly, how can I make decent threats out of this?

Paul T.

  • User
  • Posts: 648
    • View Profile
Re: Help me salvage my first session
« Reply #1 on: November 25, 2017, 05:15:30 AM »
My overall impressions and thoughts:

1. It sounds much better (at least on paper) than you're making it out to be. Definitely salvageable! Playing for the first time with a new group of people is always a bit shaky, and AW gives you lots of rope to hang yourself with in the first session. Your experience isn't uncommon, and it will almost certainly get better with every subsequent session.

I don't see any reason not to be fairly optimistic about the outcome as the game develops!

Your ideas for the breakdown of the society at the Source sound great to me - I would feel quite engaged with them, were I in the game.

2. If you feel totally lost about simply continuing from where you left off, there are lots of options available to you, including "calling mulligan":

a) If everyone feels the same way about that first session, and totally uninspired, it would be crazy NOT to call mulligan on it. If they're attached to their characters, or some other aspect of the game, you could still keep those in the "reboot".

But, why would you settle for a game that's not what you wanted, when it costs nothing to restart? That's crazy. Talk to the players, and see how much or how little they agree.

b) You can find ways to create new material without completely scrapping what you have. What about a timeskip or flashback?

"Ok, so, two months later... what does life look like now?"

This allows you to keep the elements you liked, and zoom in on them, while discarding the ones which didn't inspire.

Or:

"Here is our situation. How did things come to be this way? Let's go back to a year before these events, and see how things got to be this way."

There's your second session; if you're feeling brave, that could give you and your players a nice opportunity to talk it over and adjust the game to your liking.

3. Your problem, it seems to me, is that you don't know what the characters care about yet. If you do simply go into a second session, I would treat it like another "first session".

Feel free to brainstorm some threats based on the first one, but still take lots of time to find out what the PCs' lives are like, who they depend on, who they care for, and where they're vulnerable.

Ask them emotionally charged questions, and get them to flesh out the answers. Use the players' creativity, and you'll get instant buy-in.

Draw maps and find out more about the enclave together. Encourage them to ask questions in return: who lives here? Who do they rely on? Who maintains the water tanks? Where does food come from? Etc.

4. Your issue of the water supply seems fairly simple to solve to me. I can think of a number of ways the constraints you've placed on yourself can be resolved logically. For example, perhaps someone outside the enclave is intercepting the water somehow before it gets to where it's supposed to go, and now everyone is pissed off because they think the Waterbearer is the one rationing it.

It's leaving the Source, but it's not getting to the Destination. Who's messing with all this, and why?

This means the people who attacked the enclave - who seem like the antagonists here - are actually the victims, making a last-ditch attempt to secure their own survival.

5. Your issue with the supernatural threat (the Wolves) is not as easy to solve, however. If the player chose the Child-Thing, unless I'm misremembering, then you're both committed to exploring that supernatural threat in play. If you made it an option, you've got to buy into it, too.

So, what to do?

Either you ask the player to change playbooks (which is reasonable, given your lack of interest in this), or you keep the Child-Thing and you ask the player to flesh them out as a threat FOR YOU. What does he know? What is he scared of? Who does he suspect? What terrible things has he heard about them? And so on.

Let the player know his information isn't necessarily correct (so you have room to surprise him), but use as much of it as you can, until you have an inspiration to come up with some stuff of your own.

I hope that helps!

Borogove

  • User
  • Posts: 127
    • View Profile
Re: Help me salvage my first session
« Reply #2 on: November 25, 2017, 06:11:09 AM »
5. Your issue with the supernatural threat (the Wolves) is not as easy to solve, however. If the player chose the Child-Thing, unless I'm misremembering, then you're both committed to exploring that supernatural threat in play. If you made it an option, you've got to buy into it, too.

So, what to do?

Either you ask the player to change playbooks (which is reasonable, given your lack of interest in this), or you keep the Child-Thing and you ask the player to flesh them out as a threat FOR YOU. What does he know? What is he scared of? Who does he suspect? What terrible things has he heard about them? And so on.

The way the wolves are defined in the Child-Thing playbook is super ambiguous. The Child-Thing sees the wolves a certain way, but that doesn't mean that's what they really are. There's a range of different options:

* The wolves are literally, you know, supernatural shadows who howl, and everyone can see that once they strip off the disguises;
* The wolves are supernatural shadows who howl and the Child-Thing can see that pretty easily and anyone who opens their brain can also see that if they're looking for it;
* The wolves are just people who are hunting the Child-Thing for ordinary nasty human reasons, and the Child-Thing interprets their inherent nastiness as howling shadows;
* The wolves are just people with some interest in the Child-Thing, malign or benign, and the Child-Thing is imagining things

So figure out how far down that list you have to move before you're comfortable.

That said... the psychic maelstrom and the Weird stat are integral to AW as written. Weird may not be exactly the same as supernatural, but there's gotta be some kinda Weird in there.

arakn_e

  • User
  • Posts: 28
    • View Profile
Re: Help me salvage my first session
« Reply #3 on: November 25, 2017, 10:48:31 AM »
Quote
The way the wolves are defined in the Child-Thing playbook is super ambiguous. The Child-Thing sees the wolves a certain way, but that doesn't mean that's what they really are. There's a range of different options:

* The wolves are literally, you know, supernatural shadows who howl, and everyone can see that once they strip off the disguises;
* The wolves are supernatural shadows who howl and the Child-Thing can see that pretty easily and anyone who opens their brain can also see that if they're looking for it;
* The wolves are just people who are hunting the Child-Thing for ordinary nasty human reasons, and the Child-Thing interprets their inherent nastiness as howling shadows;
* The wolves are just people with some interest in the Child-Thing, malign or benign, and the Child-Thing is imagining things

Seems a good stuff to write in the "I wonder..." section : I wonder what are the wolves of the maelstrom.. (and let the further sessions decide)

I second Paul T about the first session: it's always "good time" but puzzling, and it gets better and better each time, because of the accumulation of input. For my first session I try to focus on NPC population and description and detailed descriptions instead of the the story behind. For example, when you lacked the inspiration about the tank: describe the painting, the scratches, some symbols. Then to counter your lack of inspiration, choose a player (here, the driver would be fine because he moves a lot) and ask him to fill your own blank: "Driver, you have seen these symbols beared somewhere else, where? Who were these people? Why do they hate you now?". You should have a story now.

That's how it worked for me. I had a "GM style" focused on creating "bang" situations in media res. AW works differently and it took me time to try something else. But finally it works pretty well: my mind is engaged in creating coherent details (the color of the sky, the odor of the river, the scratches on the metal, the sound of the flag, the local population). I don't focus too much on story, and I have a lots of moments of "blanks", that I throw on the PC themselves, as the example before. I realized that in the action of MCing, I'm better if I only focus on only one stuff to impro.

Also NPC triangle for me was the harder thing to do, but the most rewarding. I try to focus on that on beginning sessions also. After 6-7 sessions it becomes crazy and very rewarding, everything flows by itself.

To help my self, I try to create some leading questions before the session. For the waterbearer it would be interesting to know "Who did you kill to get this role? Who has power over you in the community? Who is your secret treasure in the community? What is he/she so vulnerable?" It gives you NPC you can expand and play during the sessions.

AW is not a no prep game, it's a different prep: wondering about custom moves (for instance, for "the guy who has more power over the waterbearer", call it HIM, "when you interact with HIM, you act under fire".

Also, we used the hack where when you get hx+4 or hx-3 you reveal a secret about you to that person, and also how the other PC realize this secret. It lead to amazing stuffs (such as a combat in the hardhold during a riot during which the hardholder reveal to the brainer that he's in love with another hardholder, and the brainer realize it because he sees the message of love written under the table where he was hidden during the fight, the table being some weird signboard given by the other holding)

tortoiseandcrow

  • User
  • Posts: 8
    • View Profile
Re: Help me salvage my first session
« Reply #4 on: November 25, 2017, 08:27:15 PM »
Thanks for the advice, everyone! I've yet to have a truly solid attempt at Apocalypse World, but I feel like I'm slowly inching my way towards it. Arakn_e's comment about having a GM style heavily focused on starting play with a Bang (in the Sorcerer sense) really resonated with me. It's been such a strong feature of indie RPG design for so long that it's taking a little bit of time to un-learn that particular habit.

I'm going to continue playing with the game as established. It seems that everyone was pretty happy about how things went, and after the advice I've got here and found elsewhere, I'm feeling significantly more prepared for the second "first session".

I've decided that Roark is complicit in the loss of the water shipments. He's been selling off large proportions of the water shipments to raiders (his former captors), trying to earn enough to buy his family's freedom. It's a big operation, though, and he has to buy off his crew, so it's taking a while. He's been telling the holds that the water has to be rationed, and some of them are starting to fall to disease.

As for the wolves, I'm going to keep that in "I wonder..." territory for the time being. I like the idea of there being perhaps some correspondence between the violence that people do in the world and entities in the maelstrom, but I'm going to give it some time to develop. I know for certain that the wolves want the water gone entirely.

The advise on focusing on NPCs and their environment makes a lot more sense now, particularly when I think of establishing the situation in terms of their material circumstances rather than just relationships. I now see how important is to be able to refer to a concrete set of economic or power relations already established in the fiction - without that, I can't make the world seem real, and everything just comes across as contrived. "You've never seen him look like this before" doesn't mean anything unless you know what he's looked like before. There are no status quos, but you can't know how things will break until you have established it in the fiction already. You can't put pressure on the PC's unless you have established what their actual current circumstances are, and have tied those circumstances to people you can act through.

So, I'm going to spend most of the next session just digging more into the day-to-day operations of the compound: Who comprises the transport crew, and how do they get their fuel? They don't need to worry about water, but where exactly does the food come from? How do they defend themselves against raiders? What are their arrangements with their neighbours? How is rule of law enforced, and who enforces it (beyond the say-so of Millers)? What do the sacrificial rituals look like? What about the work-crews; what does the the division between offerings of labour and forced labour (as punishment) look like?

Paul T.

  • User
  • Posts: 648
    • View Profile
Re: Help me salvage my first session
« Reply #5 on: November 26, 2017, 05:40:16 AM »
That sounds great to me.

Also, I think that Sorcerer-style Bangs are quite well-suited to AW play; it's just that trying to start with one when you don't know what's what is a bit premature. (Sorcerer, after all, has you define a lot of important things before you get to the point of coming up with Bangs.)

Once you have enough material to write up Threats or Fronts or whatever they're called now, then many of those things will naturally act as Bangs. (And you'll have spontaneous ideas along those lines, as well.)

Paul T.

  • User
  • Posts: 648
    • View Profile
Re: Help me salvage my first session
« Reply #6 on: November 29, 2017, 09:11:55 PM »
Please do post when you get a chance to play again! It will be interesting to hear how it goes. Good luck!