A world-weary medic, everyone’s Angel but not by choice. A naive young soldier, who becomes the Gunlugger to protect himself physically and emotionally. The Chopper, who’s still not sure what makes the difference between a leader and just another Rawsteak. These are just a few of the characters who came out of a short but intense game of Apocalypse World I ran between 2016 and 2017.
Although both Seamus and I have sung the praises of Apocalypse World and other Powered by the Apocalypse systems , it was not smooth going to introduce the game to our primarily online gaming group. When I first broached the topic in 2012, shortly after hearing about the system, I was given a litany of responses, which by now are all too familiar:
“I heard this is the game with sex moves. We’re not playing sex games.”
“It looks interesting, but it says the GM doesn’t have to roll dice? How railroady is this?”
“So your characters are playbooks…so you can only play these nine characters? Lame.”
Being persistent, I . . . well, I wasn’t persistent. I put the book down and decided to just run something we were familiar with. Over two years later, I played in a Dungeon World one-shot that was part of a longer D&D campaign, and the light bulb went off in my head. What was just a curiosity was now very interesting. Two years after that, I had acquired copies of Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, and devoured both of them. When our group came up with the idea to put a backup game together to cover for weeks when neither of our GMs were available, I slotted my idea right in. People were a little hesitant, but that lasted only until character creation. The use of a “Session Zero” to get the players to help the GM define the world immediately captivated everyone, and the game ran a total of eight sessions including that first one. At this point, the plot arc is very close to a resolution, with just one final session needed to wrap things up.
The game centered around a settlement in a forest wasteland called The Waystation. The Waystation subsisted off of a combination of fertile land and oil; the two founders of the settlement got a couple of old oil rigs running and eked out peace once they made a crude distillation stack. Even crappy gasoline is better than no gasoline. These two men, known to the characters as Grandfather and Leon, built the Waystation up into an oasis in the forest. Leon kept the primitive machines running while Grandfather attended to the people and led with the wisdom of someone who had come before the Collapse. Of course, like many who came from before the Collapse, Grandfather died.
The campaign started on the day of Grandfather’s funeral. The Waystation’s elders had decided to nominate Marco, Grandfather’s smart but hotheaded security chief, to be The Hardholder (the only one of the playbooks to be a permanent NPC). Marco took stock of the Waystation’s unique population, and determined there were some real characters in the mix:
Grav, the Hocus, who led a group of “graduate students” squatting in an old barracks on the periphery of the Waystation. Grandfather had accepted Grav for his and his followers’ work on botany and medicine, but Marco was suspicious…not only did the “students” use most of their medicinal plants to make psychoactive drugs, but Grav had long claimed that he studied at a university on the moon.
Hallux, the Angel, the most qualified medical professional in the Waystation. Hallux didn’t have much of a bedside manner, but that was something you could deal with when lives were being saved. Besides, there was a rumor that the way to make her smile was with scavenged romance novels.
Hooch, the Chopper, leader of the gang the “Thirty Violent Bastards” (Seamus saw the description in the sourcebook, and said ‘nope, that’s a perfect name’). The Bastards provided a much-needed boost to security around the Waystation, but were unpredictable.
Dutch, the Gunlugger, was the best shot in the whole settlement. His impeccable reflexes were tempered by his youth and lack of exposure to any violence that wasn’t seen through a scope.
Moe, the Maestro D’, ran the only tavern in the Waystation. As such, he held a lot of wisdom and interpersonal influence.
Klarssen, the Brainer, was just weird and offputting (he wore a traffic cone on his head!), but knew more about everything psychic than anyone was comfortable with.
Smith, the Battlebabe, was a veteran member of Marco’s security team who had returned from some clandestine travel after he heard about Grandfather’s death.
These seven characters each showed up in multiple sessions and played important roles in several plot arcs. Two others, Marmot the Driver and Sander the Savvyhead, played minor roles. Immediately it was clear what one of the major challenges of the campaign would be: making sure everyone’s character got enough time in the spotlight to grow and influence the plot. While I managed all right, I would not recommend playing Apocalypse World with nine players.
The story had three major arcs, taking 2-3 sessions each to resolve. In classic Apocalypse World form, each of these arcs centered around a Threat that I as GM placed on the map after the Session Zero. Some of these threats were developed in the session zero, others I added as the result of GM moves or in-game changes.
The first arc centered around The Hunters, a group of nomadic raiders wearing gas masks. While the characters had some violent encounters with The Hunters, it was eventually revealed that they had been driven off of their land, and an uneasy truce was reached. During this time, the characters also had to deal with new arrivals from a settlement that The Hunters had attacked; their presence made negotiating with the Hunters an emotionally charged affair.
The second arc centered around a settlement to the south of the Waystation simply called Scarytown. The ripe scavenging grounds near Scarytown were too irresistible for the characters, but in the end they paid for it dearly: The Waystation’s head scavver, Deathwish, was killed in an attack as a group tried to escape from the reach of the Scarytown walls. This was the first time that Dutch saw someone die in front of him, and was a turning point for his character. At the time, there was also a power struggle going on on the homefront; one of Marco’s commanders, Amos, had been passed over for a promotion when Grandfather died. Dutch and Moe both found themselves caught in the crossfire, as well as Amos’ daughter, Shiva.
The final arc centered around The Plant and The Scientists. The Plant was an abandoned nuclear plant over a day’s travel away to the east. During the entire campaign, The Scientists, owners of The Plant, were making moves to get it running. It was The Scientists who drove the Hunters off their land. The Scientists were laying electrical cable and took several key infrastructure sites near the Waystation. Finally, after some surrepetitious contact through the psychic maelstrom, The Waystation was invited to send representatives. While The Scientists seemed civil enough, and their technology was marvelous, the offer they had was basically extortion: either submit and join the new nation that The Scientists envisioned, or have your settlement destroyed and the earth salted by The Scientists’ secret weapon: a stash of high-level radioactive waste they were using to poison any settlement that disagreed with them. The game’s last session ended with the characters sitting with Marco and Preston, a defector from The Scientists. The conversation was on how they could save The Waystation.
Among all this, a more primal power struggle was brewing between Dutch and Hooch. The Gunlugger and The Chopper had very different approaches to power, honor, and codes of conduct. When they first came to blows, Hooch got the better of Dutch and the Bastards gave him a stomping. In Hooch’s eyes, all was fair and over. But to Dutch, the insult needed to be repaid. Now that the fate of the entire settlement hangs in the balance, their feud could have deadly consequences.
This game was a challenge, not only because it was my first time running a PbtA game. With nine players and a slightly different player mix every time (this was a backup game, remember), I didn’t know how the characters or the plot would develop. While it looks like Dutch and Hooch would have been main characters due to attendance, that’s not quite what happened: while Dutch’s player was one of our most reliable, Seamus, who played Hooch, only showed up for two sessions (as he was one of the GMs I was backing up for, it was rare that he’d be there and we wouldn’t be playing his game). Still, he stole the show as Hooch. Same could be said for the players of Klarssen and Moe: while they weren’t there for all the sessions, they pulled a lot of weight in the ones they were in. Dutch and Hallux were the characters present for the most sessions, and they were also the characters who developed the most for me in my mind. I know the game would have had both more even and simply more character development with a more consistent cast, but considering how it turned out I think things went very well.
As GM, there were two rules constructs I leaned on heavily in Apocalypse World. One I think I used fairly well, the other could have used some work. I enjoyed my use of the ‘moves’ structure in Apocalypse World, and spaces where the GM was expected to make a move gave me great guidance on how to time events and dramatic escalation. Even thinking on my feet events in the game seemed both natural but also frantic. What I think I could have used better were the Threats and Fronts. I am naturally a low-prep GM, but Apocalypse World shines when you do the work beforehand. If I had spent more time between sessions tracking separate Threats, the flow of the game (especially at the beginning) would have been less jerky and made a little more sense. I’d note here that the Fronts structure changed quite a bit between Apocalypse World 1e and 2e; 2e’s approach of using the Threat Map instead of Fronts makes a lot more intuitive sense to me but also helped me understand where my use of Fronts fell a bit flat compared to what it could have been.
As it stands, the game has been in hiatus. Key players have been missing from the group due to a number of commitments, and as the backup game, Apocalypse World didn’t get priority when we scheduled our sessions. While I have not been the group’s primary GM since July of 2016, my turn is coming back around again. If I can manage it, the first session I’ll run will be the last session of this campaign, settling what happens to The Waystation, The Plant, and Scarytown once and for all.
For more details on this campaign, including session logs, player-written interludes, and some reference material, check out my Obsidian Portal page for this campaign!