roleplaying games

After-action report: Apocalypse World, February 12th

I’m still running this game in the background, moreso now that one of our GMs is moving and the other is buying a house. At 7 sessions in, I’m seeing where the current arc ends…and I’m not sure I’m interested in pushing further. This game has built up a lot of material around a relatively small area, and the big Fronts that came to the fore are about to get interesting…in game terms, the clocks are running out. As a result, this past session was a unique and dramatic one. That said, I’m getting to the point where new threats have to be introduced, and I’m a) not sure how to do that given the current state of the setting and b) not sure I want to start a new chapter of this campaign.

As I’m thinking about what the game would look like going forward, I realize part of the problem with continuing past the initial conflicts is that, as a low-quorum game, buy-in is heavily stratified. I have a couple players who have been really engaged with the story so far, and that’s been great. That said, while I can look at both their characters and the rules and come up with interesting continuation stories, I feel like most of the others would just be dragged along. That’s a problem.

There’s also the issue of game progression, specifically pertaining to Apocalypse World itself. The character arcs are only so long…once you start getting into the advanced…erm…advances, you’re heading towards a point where characters leaving the fold becomes not just a possibility, but eventually an inevitability. If you want someone to retire a character and then make a new one, you need some continuity in place to make that an appealing choice.

As I’ve been preparing to run The Sprawl, I’ve thought a lot about game length. In case it wasn’t obvious, I’ve had a strong desire to run a long, epic campaign for some time now, and I haven’t quite made my peace with the fact that The Sprawl, and most PbtA systems for that matter, aren’t designed for it. The Sprawl is better than most…once you get out to the big advances, you have to start fighting for them, especially when you consider that rewinding a corporate clock is expensive, and retiring even more so. That said, even if the endgame can be prolonged, you end up having the same issues…if you choose to have a character retire, why continue?

The Sprawl gives a few mechanics that make this a little easier. While the system has Threats like Apocalypse World, the core antagonists in the world are the corporations, who canonically don’t go away. A story with massive power imbalance is one that is easier to continue, because the dynamic will continue to exist…on the other hand, the current Apocalypse World game is having its local power struggles resolved. Also, in Apocalypse World, where the world is based on scarcity and survival, the minute the core questions start drifting from “how do we keep going” to anything higher up on the hierarchy of needs, the storyline is close to wrapping up. We’re running into that issue as well.

I have some ideas to give The Sprawl more legs, but like a lot of worldbuilding in a PbtA framework it’s going to depend on player buy-in. If the group becomes a cohesive unit in-game, it’s easier to keep the story going with a slightly rotating cast. A slightly rotating cast also keeps the novelty factor there for the players. The main difference I need to embrace is that the nature of this group has to, in at least some form, be defined by the players. My older Cyberpunk campaign, the Iron City Samurai, is a template, but with a different setting entirely, who knows what this one will end up looking like.

I’m also feeling that cohesion will be encouraged with a little pressure. My thinking here was simple at first: it’s easier for a character to retire if they aren’t the first to leave…and in RPG terms this boils down to character death. The casting dynamics for a longer term Sprawl game become much more effective after a few characters die and the game goes on. This is a very different dynamic than most of my games, where character death had been studiously avoided. We’ll see how my players react…I’ve definitely offed characters before, but it’s actually been quite a long time. The balance here, of course is to get people invested first, but also make the deaths seem both fair and worthwhile. It’s very easy to kill characters. It’s not easy to do it in a way that makes the story better.

Beyond all of my brainstorming to give The Sprawl legs, there’s also the more pragmatic issue that if The Sprawl does only last 10-15 sessions, I don’t think I’ll be ready to give up the GM’s chair. Whether or not I have to depends on who else wants to run at that point, but generally speaking fair is fair and it’ll be someone else’s turn. At the end of the day, I kind of have to get over it. Hopefully, with so many other ideas and some which are quite ambitious, I’ll have some leeway to keep running something. And who knows, maybe I’ll finally burn out on GMing. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

I’m glad I’ve gotten the opportunity to run Apocalypse World with this group, and it’s not quite over yet. That said, it’s also been a learning experience, and in seeing why I’m having difficulty in continuing the game beyond the first set of fronts I also see how I can improve next time. Hopefully next time is soon…I have so many ideas.

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