Wednesday, 22 June 2011

[Apocalypse World] Honeytown and the Space Wasps

So, despite having run and designed a bunch of Apocalypse World hacks up to this point, I'd never actually busted out the original eleven herbs and spices up to today, when my friends and I ventured into the psychic maelstrom for the first time.

Taking a leaf out of Fabricated Realities' book, I made sure the play space was as apocalyptic as possible, scattering images of the apocalypse all over the table and the walls and keeping light to a minimum, with a message of despair scrawled across the whiteboard. This is the first time we'd really done anything like this, and I think it helped build a better play experience, creating a discontinuity between the game play and the outside world.

We settled on an island-based Apocalypse World; I printed out a Russian-language map of the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal to serve as the baseline map. Foreign-language maps work great for creating distance between the location and the players. The one piece of knowledge about the apocalypse that we established early in play was that all the bees - all insects in fact - were dead, and Honeytown was (as a result of the Savvyhead's work) the only place known to grow fruit rather than scavenge tinned fruit from the remains of the Golden Age.

The players arrived slowly and snapped up playbooks somewhat haphazardly; one player (Colonel) arrived about twenty minutes into character creation. We had:

Truth the Hocus was a Greek-style philosopher-teacher who preached an almost Nietzchean dogma of extreme self-reliance. From his traditional pulpit in the town square of Honeytown, he declaimed that the apocalypse had been a liberating event, freeing the Human Will to Power from the shackles of societal strength.

Josie the Quarantine washed up on the shipwreck beaches east of Honeytown a few weeks ago in a strange lifepod, where she was rescued by Truth. She had sort of settled into his little entourage for the time being, despite her strong dislike of his philosophy; it reminded her of the Nietzchean philosophies of her superiors.

Whitmont the Savvyhead had been a child when the apocalypse had struck, fascinated with insects. He remembered fleeing devastation on a plane with his mother, but little about the contents of the apocalypse - the psychic maelstrom had evidently erected a strong barrier around people's memories from the Before. His childhood fascination with insects would become Honeytown's salvation when he used his weird technical skills and a shipload of dead Africanised bees to create a hive of cyber-zombie bees that pollinated the orchards around Honeytown.

Colonel the Hardholder was a soldier from the Before who remembered Josie's face from a youth spent in uniform. Using his military equipment and knowledge, he ruled Honeytown with a gentle fist, turning it into the market centre for the island chain. He held to some extent with Truth's philosophy, though in an apparent paradox, also supported an infirmary for those who suffered the cancerous wrath of the angry sun.

The 1st Session

We start the game with the lights going out all over Honeytown.

Okay, we actually start the game with the start-of-session moves; Colonel misses his wealth roll and thus Honeytown is set on the verge of starvation; the last fruit harvest failed with disease running rampant amongst the fruit-pickers and his gang gorging themselves on the remaining supplies in the Tiki Bar.

Then we see the lights go out, from the Ferris wheel look-out to Whitmont's apiary-lab, and it's not a good sign. The power's supplied by overland cable from Vasiligrad on the other side of the island, where an old Soviet nuclear submarine is beached in a bay. Cannibal tribes that run the interior jungle tend not to fuck with it since Colonel and Captain Vasili joined forces to burn out their villages last time they did. If they're fucking with the cable, it's a sign they're losing respect for the strength of Honeytown.

The sudden power cut freaks out the loiterers in the Tiki Bar, which lounges beneath the Ferris wheel in the old fairground that serves as Honeytown's market. The loiterers include Truth and Josie, who are watching idly by as Colonel's number-two, Parson, has the shit kicked out of him by another gang member over a woman. Colonel comes out of his hut and isn't having any of this shit; he threatens Pierre, the gang member, with dismemberment if he doesn't let the fuck go of Parson (go aggro, 7-9). Pierre backs off slowly, hands in the open, and drags the woman, Chazza, away with him. Parson, who's completely wasted, blearily turns to Colonel and then collapses to puke his guts up.

Whitmont's working in his lab, trying to get to the bottom of this bee shit, when the power cuts out. He swears, and kicks the backup generator into gear. It splutters and halts - out of fuel. He swears again. Trying to work out what's going on, he taps into the psychic maelstrom (augury, 7-9) using his psychic antenna - his zombie bee hives. Reaching out to look at the power cable, he sees it's been severed deep in the jungle, in a place surrounded by anger, engines, and trees.

Driving into town in his customised Humvee, he relays this information to Colonel, who tries to scare up his gang; they are, however, too busy listening to Truth, who's speaking the truth (7-9) about how the cable represents reliance, and how the cannibal gangs have struck a blow in a war against Honeytown, and how they must be destroyed. After the mob disperses off to seek vengeance (orgy of violence), Truth and Josie decide to join Colonel and Whitmont on their drive into the deep jungles of the island.

Cue generate badness, and the gang runs into an old bridge over a ravine, covered in corpses. As Whitmont and Colonel move in to investigate, they recognise the facial tattoos of some of the more intact corpses - they're from the cannibal tribes of the interior. It's at this point they start to realise there's more to this situation than just a couple of savages severing the cable. Colonel steps out onto the bridge to test its strength and see if it will hold the Humvee. It won't - as soon as he gets to the centre of the bridge, it explodes, showering everyone nearby in pieces of concrete and fleshy chunks of Colonel.

(Colonel's player, at this point, had to leave to another appointment. We didn't necessarily know whether he'd be able to join us for another session, so he suggested that Colonel die explosively. Why not?)

A small gang of quad bikes come roaring out of the jungle at this point, accompanied by the chatter of gunfire. We have no idea who these pasty tattooed fuckers in brown jumpsuits are, so Truth reads the situation (10+), identifying the leader of the bikers as being a small guy driving a giant ATV with a mounted .50cal. He goes aggro (7-9) with a hunting rifle, trying to get the leader to scatter or flee; they choose instead to bunker down behind cover.

Whitmont, his ears ringing from the explosion, leaps back behind the wheel of the Humvee and throws it in reverse as Josie provides covering fire with her assault rifle from the top hatch. Unfortunately, he reverses at high speed into a tree, tearing off the side of the Humvee, throwing Truth to the ground, and knocking himself out on the steering wheel. Thinking fast, Josie grabs the wheel, hits the gas, and speeds out of the ambush towards Honeytown, leaving Truth behind for dead.

Driving through the jungle near Honeytown, Josie can't help but notice that it's on fire. Truth's followers have seemingly run riot (in an orgy of violence), setting fire to the nearby jungle, Honeytown's precious orchards, and the old resort building. It's evident some kind of pitched battle is taking place near the Ferris wheel; someone is firing a sniper rifle from the top perch. Josie flashes back to the Before; remembering a rioting crowd in Hong Kong surging against the barricades her unit was guarding, the whole city on fire. She chooses to bypass Honeytown's emerging unrest, and speeds straight to Whitmont's lab to apply some emergency first aid.

Remembering her training, she realises that the bruising to Whitmont's head probably indicates some sort of swelling in the brain. She'll have to drill a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure, and there's no time to waste. Acting under pressure (10+), she coolly and smoothly uses Whitmont's power drill to stabilise Whitmont. We decide this counts as opening your brain, and further more, suffering psi-harm. Whitmont nails the roll to open your brain; the ghosts of dead bees show him a vision of wasps descending from space to ransack the islands, destroying everything he has built. On the other hand, he also hits psi-harm with a 10+, meaning I seize control of his character and have him unleash the swarm of cyber-bees on Honeytown.

Meanwhile, Truth wakes up in a clean, white chamber with a medical-looking type babbling at him in Ukrainian. He's strapped to a surgical table, with his wounds stitched up. Realising that Truth doesn't speak a word of Ukrainian, the doctor calls over the short old guy who lead the ATV bikers, Orlaf. He reveals that his men have captured Vasiligrad and besieged K-19, the nuclear submarine that powers most of the island. For some reason, he keeps referring to the islands as "weak humans", despite his apparent appearance as 100% human. Orlaf demands that Truth help them capture K-19 intact; in exchange, he will grant Truth a quick and painless death as opposed to a long and torturous existence.

Truth manipulates (7-9) Orlaf into agreeing instead to set him free if he can help them take out K-19. To provide concrete assurance, he calls up Captain Vasili on the radio and gets agreement that he will be let on board, and then allows Orlaf to fit him with a remote explosives vest. He discovers that the Ukrainians are aboard some sort of huge plane that has landed on the west side of the island, and that they're all dressed in brown space suits with red flag patches on the side. They lead him to the beach between their lines and K-19, and he walks out, hands in the air.

That's where we end the first session, with a nuclear-armed submarine on the verge of launching its cargo, Ukrainians from space on a rampaging warpath, and Honeytown tearing itself apart.

Post-game wrap

What worked well:

Basically, the session was great, and all the players enjoyed it immensely. The playbooks and character generation phase worked brilliantly to generate an initial situation, full of weirdness and apocalyptica. At all times, the rules helped drive play forward, giving PCs something to do at all times. Go aggro and act under fire worked really well to create an exciting action scene with the Motherfucking Space Ukrainians; we didn't use seize by force throughout the whole session.

The players, especially, were great, leaping forward with named NPCs and setting details, barfing forth apocalyptica as good as they got. Every time I asked a question, I got a useful answer that helped make apocalypse world seem real. Truth's player brought an apocalypse playlist filled with moody, dark, and pounding music that matched the mood to a T. Whitmont's player really helped set the tone of the apocalypse by defining various facets of the psychic maelstrom, and by having his crazy swarm of cyber-zombie bees. Josie's player contributed a whole lot of kicking ass, and brought to light some interesting aspects of the Before. Colonel's player, during his brief appearance, really ran the session, taking charge, kicking his gang into gear, and pushing the other players forwards; I can't imagine Honeytown will do too well without Colonel's gentle fist guiding it.

What could have been better:

I can't fault anything about Apocalypse World, or any of the players, and the game overall was a success. Still, I do feel like my MCing wasn't necessarily up to scratch; I feel like missed a couple of notes that would have turned the game from a success into a dramatic success:

  • Look at NPCs through crosshairs: Reviewing the session, it seems more like I was looking at NPCs through a bombsight rather than crosshairs. They were blown away like there's no tomorrow, leaving only a few established NPCs alive at the end of the session.
  • Leaping forward with named, human NPCs: I'm not sure I brought forth enough named, human NPCs this session; the sheet only has a couple of names on it, and half of them or more were dead by the end of the session.
  • Make Apocalypse World seem real: Mainly this happened, but I think I fell short of the ideal. For example, on the read a situation moves, where I just delivered the information straight to the player rather than filtering it through the character's senses - "Your best escape route is the ravine." vs. "They've got you and Josie surrounded from the north, but the ravine lies open and gaping like a gash in the earth. If you jumped down there, you could follow the flow of the river back to Honeytown faster than they can get there on the ATVs."
  • Springboard off character creation: The main threat that arose in the course of the session - the motherfucking space Ukrainians - basically came out of nowhere, when I was pushed to come up with a reason for why they were under attack. The threats from Truth's followers, Colonel's holding, Whitmont's lab, Josie's superiors back in Stasis - all of these became secondary to the space wasps. I feel it could have been a more powerful game if I'd spent more time building more localised threats that arose more from the world as established at the start of the game.
  • Going too big, too early: At the end of the first session, the player's home holding is in ruins, crazy tattooed spacemen are invading, and the islands are on the verge of vanishing in atomic fire. At this point, it's impossible to follow Vincent's advice for crafting your first front on a small, human scale; the threats that face the PCs are nothing less than the total destruction of their entire local universe. I imagine it's going to be more difficult to bring things back to that smaller scale in the future.

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