A bunch of notes for an essay I'll never actually finish. Seems like a good place to dump them.
Scale, Dunbar's Number, and Apocalypse World
Dunbar says we can only care about 150(ish) people at a time. This includes fictional characters.
After a bit of play and many different games (with games meaning different campaigns with unrelated settings and PCs), I've noticed that some games of AW were good and some were bad and the why of it isn't as clear to me as it is in other games. While there's always up and down, session to session, some games seemed to be broken from the outset and others seemed to be hothothot.
Part of that color of AW I want to talk about here is scale. The game is partially/mostly(ish) about relationships, both between PCs and NPCs. For those relationships to be effective and infused with any sort of caring, they must be kept to the mininium number required for the complexity of the world while still keeping everyone human AND must meet certain requirements of time scale, i.e. the frequency of play allows for more (numerically) well-developed NPCs.
Conclusion, AW needs to be centered into a fictional community of REAL people, to the degree that every NPC should be named and made human. MOREOVER, the drama should be ABOUT that community, not the factionalization wars external to the community. External threats are fine, even essential, but not primary.
Example: Friday Night Lights - The football games are... well, it's weird. The games are the central, central focus of the characters' lives, the most important thing in it. But the show, the games are almost tangential to the focus of the show. The show doesn't care about the outcome of the football games; it cares about the characters' reactions to the outcome of the games.
I think Apocalypse World works best like this as well. Ambergrease is a threat sure. Uncle worries and worries and worries about Ambergrease all day long and when he goes to sleep at night, Ambergrease is waiting for him there as well. And Uncle's player, he WANTS Uncle to win, wants it bad for Uncle.
But the story? The story worries about the build-up to some sort of conflict, centered on the PCs and their interactions among and between various NPCs, whether martial or social, and it worries about the fallout afterward. It wants to know if Dustwich can use Uncle's response to Ambergrease as leverage to take power. It wants to know if Jackson's new found relationship with his prisoner Michi will interfere with his sworn duty to protect Hatchet City. It wants to know if Hide will use his turtle shell of contacts and social resources to protect Hatchet City or just himself.
What does all this mean for elkin's question?
That episodic campaigns are fine as long as it's understood that the drama will be better if it's focused on the people travelling rather than the NPC of week we just met. The NPC of the week is still very important, but the story is the travelling group's reaction to the NPC town, not 'look at my NPC town. This one has clowns.'