Oxymoron in the Penumbra: Apocalypse World 2E One-Shot

So I finally got to play Apocalypse World (AW)! I’ve been itching to try it for years. I ran a 2E one-shot last week and it was wild. MCing this game for the first time felt a bit like riding a mechanical bull powered by improvisation. I definitely found it a bit easier to run than Blades, but I think both are certainly easier to run than D&D 5E. Of course, both present fruitful and fun challenges to players, but I think they flex different muscles. AW has lower preparation, but much more pressure to improvise and create dramatic tension. Here’s how it went.

Setup

To prepare for this game I skimmed the 2nd Edition to refresh myself on the rules and figure out how 2nd Edition was different from 1st, which I had read for fun a few years ago after hearing about it on Adam Koebel’s Office Hours GM advice show. I have never played AW or any Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games before, but I’ve listened to some actual plays.

There are a lot of opinions out there about how to run an AW one-shot. I read several discussions and can summarize the approaches:

I ended up running a combination of the first and last of these options. I basically ran the first session as per the rules, but really emphasized setting up connections between the PCs and uneven power dynamics with the NPCs. We had a player interested in playing a Maestro D’, so that gave us a specific place and business to orient the game around.

Collaborative World-building

We discussed inspiration and tone for a bit before diving into character creation. We wanted to lay some groundwork, but leave plenty of room to discover things through play. First we discussed what kind of apocalypse we wanted to create. I established some of the basic facts as they exist in the setting (unsurprisingly, cribbed from the book and Adam Koebel again):

After establishing these basic facts, I opened the floor and asked provocative questions to establish what our particular apocalypse looked like. One player said they liked the idea of a “Studio Ghibli apocalypse”: cute and deadly. Many Ghibli films take place in a post-apocalypse (or pre-apocalypse) created by despoiling nature, like in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) (settle down nerds, I know it’s not technically a Ghibli film, but it’s still Miyazaki) or Princess Mononoke (1997). Some of the themes that we drew out of that included animism, the corruption of nature by civilization and industry, cults and nature-worshipers, lush overgrown environments, and living among the ruins of forgotten civilizations. For the environment we liked the idea of oases of lush vegetation and growth surrounded by inhospitable and barren land.

Another player suggested The Blood of Heroes (1989) as inspiration, so we incorporated the idea that competing holds abstract their conflicts over resources and status into blood-sport. They choose and send champions to fight for their hold and the victor receives the spoils for their community.

We thought the psychic maelstrom was particularly focused on others’ emotions: opening your brain to it exposed you to the cacophony of others’ feelings and thoughts. One player made a cool suggestion that the eruption of the maelstrom made society cease to function properly, since now nobody could hide their true feelings and deepest, darkest desires. Since the Fall a social taboo has arisen against opening your brain, as this is seen as dangerous and immoral. This detail made it very easy to justify why the Brainer is an outcast and weirdo, a fact established in the book. I also love that one player suggested maybe the apocalypse was caused by an outbreak of emotional vulnerability triggered by a popular TED talk on the subject going viral. It really would be ironic if too much empathy ended up being what ends our short run on the planet.

Character Creation

Next we created characters. We ended up with:

The Maestro D’s playbook provided great fodder for setting up the situation. Pam runs the Penumbra, a bar that also has illegal gambling (bets on who will be the champion) and drugs. Pam’s player chose to make the bar hidden and secret, so we put it behind a waterfall in the lush hold of Oasis. We decided Oasis has a surplus of food and dank weed growing in its micro-climate, but it doesn’t have access to technology and isn’t very well defended.

Pam also came with a list of regulars at the bar, so we decided that the other PCs were also regulars or employees of the bar. We created some unstable dynamics by making CAMF a dependent on Pam (she took him in after years of dangerous wandering and an escape from Ciso’s Children to the west) and making Eight a secret agent of Dremmer, leader of Oasis. He was in charge of keeping tabs on the illegal gambling and drugs to make sure nothing got out of hand. He might also be involved in fixing the bets or seeding opinions to make sure Dremmer’s chosen champions find popular support.

By the end of world-building and character creation, I was pretty satisfied with the relationships we created. It took us about an hour and a half, including a break to eat some pizza. The PCs had pretty clear roles in the community and relationships with each other. We had a few points of friction: they weren’t in charge (Dremmer was), Pam had some trouble (Rolfball wanted the bar for himself, Bean wanted a cut, and Lamprey is a bad customer), and Eight threatened to mold things to his will as a secret agent of Dremmer. We had also established that Dog Head’s gang out on the Burn Flats to the south were roving marauders that had threatened the hold before.

Throughout, I tried to follow the advice in the book and ask provocative questions that named specific NPCs to help establish the situation. I added outside threats to the map, with Oasis in the center and a threat in each direction of the compass. In a full campaign of AW, I’d take these early threats and build them out as part of my prep.

The threat map by the end of session 1
The threat map by the end of session 1

The Situation

So, we had lots of points of contact for a starting situation. I wasn’t exactly sure how to kick it off. In hindsight I should have separated them and applied pressure to a single PC, but I took it a bit easier and started with some social scenes in the bar with talk of Rolfball coming to cause trouble and Bean cutting in on the action by offering his own odds against the house. The Bean situation started off the snowball that led to the rest of the session.

The Action

CAMF saw Bean acting shady. He suspected Bean had grown tired of Pam brushing off his attempts to get involved with the business and so he took matters into his own hands, offering bets on champions against the house odds. So he sidled up with his violation glove and checked out what was going on in Bean’s brain. I loved the questions CAMF’s player got to ask me about Bean with his partial success. The answers quickly established Bean’s backstory and threat. The main issue was that Bean had been captured by Dog Head out on the Burn Flats and gave him some intel on how to get into Oasis via the back door. Because it was a partial success, Bean got creeped out by CAMF and tried to split.

Eight saw Bean freaking out and decided he was a threat, so he grabbed him and brought him to Dremmer to let him know what he was up to. Bean immediately threw Eight under the bus, groveling at Dremmer’s minivan couch throne in the old water tower. Eight could care less and left Dremmer to sort him out.

This was an interesting moment where Eight’s decision not to push the conflict left me a bit unsure how to proceed. I could have let the characters continue to act (there were a few internal conflicts and sources of tension I could have pushed at), but given it was a one-shot and I wanted some action before the session ended, I decided to make a move to show some future badness on the horizon. As Eight left the water tower he heard the far-off rumble of Dog Head’s motorcycle gang. Back in the Penumbra the din of the betting drowned out the sound. Eight decided to go let his friends know what was up.

Once he got back I really appreciate that Eight’s player made an effort to try out AW’s “special moves” which are triggered by characters having sex. A bit odd for sure, but it’s an interesting mechanic. With a possible big fight against the not-super-well-defended Oasis coming up, Pam and Eight decided to knock boots. Unfortunately it was an unsatisfying rendezvous, as the Battlebabe’s special move is a bit odd in that it just cancels out the effect of the other person’s special move. Didn’t give us much to go on, but I guess it’s ironically funny that the hot Battlebabe is a dud in the sack.

Once Eight told them what was coming, Pam got the gang together, arming her best customer Toyota and grabbing a kitchen knife for herself. As the gang was leaving she saw her shitty customer Lamprey making moves for the cash-box, but decided dealing with Dog Head was more of a priority and left him.

CAMF ran out ahead and tried to convince the innocents of Oasis to take cover. It sort of works in that he scared the shit out of them and they ran for cover. He had a partial success, so he took a hard bargain to expose himself in the process. Dog Head blew open the main door to Oasis with an RPG and the gang game streaming in on their Mad Max hogs. CAMF was out in front and right in the line of fire, so he took decisive action and threw down his pain projector in front of him, creating a shield of horrifying psychic energy that forced the motorcycle brigade to stream around him, taking some harm in the process as blood streamed out their ears.

Eight had climbed up on top of the waterfall that conceals the Penumbra and was taking overwatch, a new move for 2.0 He managed to take out a third of Dog Head’s gang with his custom sniper rifle. Pam sics her gang on Dog Head’s crew and they exchange harm; unfortunately that meant that all the Penumbra NPCs died and she took significant harm, but was still kicking and dove for cover behind a wall. I came up with the stats for Dog Head’s gang on the fly, but it worked out pretty well. It’s not surprising that a bunch of under-resourced drunks had trouble against wasteland marauders.

Pam had a heroic moment where she distracted Dog Head long enough for CAMF to sneak up and scalpel his brains out in a melee, taking a few AK bullets to the leg in the process. As he did that Eight managed to finish off most of the rest of the gang and seeing their leader de-brained, the rest pissed off.

We ended the one-shot with a slow pan over the wreckage of Dog Head’s attack, seeing the dead gang members and Penumbra regulars. Pam and CAMF began to nurse their wounds as the proverbial camera flew back into the Penumbra to see the bets continue to fly despite the carnage outside. In hindsight, I would have loved to have the odds on Eight and CAMF go through the roof as they show their prowess in battle. The last shot was seeing that fucking scumbag Lamprey scampering out the back door of Penumbra with the cash-box. He hops on the back of a hog with one of Dog Head’s crew and they ride off into the sunset over the Burn Flats. Turns out Dog Head did use Bean’s advice about the back door, just not in the way everyone anticipated.

Reflection

I found AW pretty easy to run as MC. The character creation process is great. By the end you have some real fleshed-out characters who have real relationships. Their motivations were a bit less clear - that is largely left up to the players. I thought it was interesting that the rules say to have characters introduce their “name, look, and outlook” (25); two of these three things are actually made during character creation. Outlook is not. So I guess players are expected to provide their own motivation, as suggested in some of the playbook summaries. But I did find characters had at least a modicum of motivation that was implicit from their playbook choices.

I had to repeat the “To do it, do it,” and “If you do it, do it,” mantras a few times throughout play, but we got the hang of that fiction-first approach pretty fast. If anything the main issue was keeping track of all the moves - we mostly just used the basic moves, but there are quite a few to remember. We also ran into a few times where we knew a move was being triggered, but had to debate which one. But it didn’t slow down play and if anything created a productive discussion over the stakes and situation. I found the “which move is this?” debate a bit easier and faster than the Blades “what is the action, position, and effect?”” debate. But again, I really liked Blades, I just think the Blades system takes a bit more getting used to. It essentially adds a few more layers of rules on top of the PbtA approach.

All in all a great session. We’re planning on running an AW campaign in September. I’m still game to run a Blades game, but I think that will come later.

Header image: Tower Falls - Harry Fenn