Actual Play – Damascus Falls (4/20/2012)

Apocalypse GalacticaGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Jeff Pedersen, Paul Tevis, Josh Roby, and David Gallo
System: Apocalypse World
Hack: Apocalypse Galactica

This was the first AG game that I’ve run that I was unhappy with. So rather than talk a lot about what happened, I’m going to discuss the play, and where I saw hiccups along the way, and how I’m going to try and make it better.

Playing outside in the dark

I didn’t know what to expect out of gaming at Nerdly. I assumed that there would be some provisions for how to game while outside and in the dark. What I got was a a picnic table with holes in them middle that I just knew all my XP tokens were going to fall through (they are small), and a whole lot of dark and cold. This ended up working out okay. I had a lantern and Paul brought one as well. I also put a tablecloth on the table that made for a nice flat surface. Folks were able to read well enough by the light they had and we were all comfortable. As the game progressed though I got colder and colder. First in my feet and then all over. I don’t know if it affected my ability to MC, but it wasn’t comfortable.

Plan for next time: Tablecloth for sure. Bring a few lanterns. Wear warmer clothes. Have a warm drink (coffee, hot chocolate, etc) in a thermos.

Communicating Cause and Effect

There were several times in the game where Paul in particular, but I believe the other players as well weren’t sure of why things where happening, or what the effects of things were.  This is partially do to the way Apocalypse World handles misses. Just because you roll 6- on the roll doesn’t mean something immediately happens to you, it often may mean something else happens outside your perception. I like to announce future badness a lot. So, for instance when the commander left his XO to handle damage control and rolled a weak hit when “acting under fire”, the result was the XO did put out the fire on the Battlestar, but airlocked three engineers to do so. What I presented was the sounds of the XO yelling “I don’t care of they are still in there, shut that bulkhead before we lose the whole ship” and then told the President to mark population down by 3.

This is a legitimate AW move, and Vincent directs you to make a move but  hide what it is. Engineers dying wasn’t an immediate problem (I mean other than the loss of life in an already nearly extinct population) but it was a lead up to bigger problems (ships needing to be fixed and not having enough deck hands to do all the work). So all an all, I feel good about the move, but Paul mentioned that not only was the outcome of his action unclear, it was unclear that there was and outcome to his action.

Later, when Josh’s president was trying manipulate Paul’s commander and I said “do what he wants and you get an XP, don’t do it and you’re acting under fire.” He had to ask what that meant several times before I felt like I explained both the mechanical and in-fiction narrative effect adequately.

Plan for next time: Paul actually gave really good advice on teaching a system in a HGWT episode many moons back. Explain the options and then give examples. In the case of a board game he said, for instance “You can move your piece 1 space up, down, right, or left, but not diagonally. So, you can move it here, here, here, or here, but not here, here, here or here.”  I think I need I was lacking in the example side of things. During the manipulate roll, I should have said. “The president just told you to step down, else the fleet will rebel. She is offering you an experience point if you do it, and if you don’t that means your acting under fire. In the fiction this means that you take a tough blow but learn something about yourself, and the people you protect if you step down. If you don’t the president’s influence is going to create heat and someone inside the military is going to challenge your authority. To maintain it, you’ll have to earn their respect gain and roll+cool.”

Players separated

Jeff’s character, the Activist, didn’t have direct interaction with the other PCs until very late in the game. In fact, it wasn’t until he was dead, resurrected as a Cylon, and we saw a second copy of him on the fleet, that he actually talked to another player. And that was the second to the last scene in the game.

So the players were set up as antagonistic to each other. They all wanted different things and were all equipped to push very hard for them. Jeff’s activist, in particular was trying to topple the government. A perfect goal given that the other three characters were all part of that government. On this surface this setup seemed perfect. It reminded me of the Gift where I assumed that all of the external threats would take a back seat to PCs differences.

This worked, by degree. The activist sent his people to go do things and mess with the president and the commander. All cool, but it meant for me speaking on behalf of the activist, rather than the player doing it. This was weird. If pulled a lot of the intensity out of the situation. My general rule of thumb is that if a PC asks an NPC to do something that is really important, the NPC will do it wrong. Not necessarily failing, but somehow missing their intent. I only do this when PCs are abdicating responsibility. A PC wants to lead his troops into battle, that’s cool. Make a leadership roll and they’ll kick but. But if a PC wants to send to troops off to fight without him, and the main focus of the game is that fight, then the NPCs is going to do something the PC doesn’t want so they have to step in. It may be a cheat, but it works. In this case the NPC was a zealot. She didn’t want the change to happen in degrees, she wanted it ALL RIGHT NOW. This eventually put Jeff’s activist at odds with his own members (a perfect reason to use the “Crime Lord” move) but still didn’t bridge the gap between PCs.

Plans for next time: Do a little more discussion before hand of how the PCs are connected to make sure that frame scenes with any or all of them is possible. That way if two PCs haven’t been in a scene together, anyone (player or MC) can start a scene with them together without having to do mental gymnastics (like we did with the Cylon rebirth.

READ THE MOVES SEAN

This seems really, really dumb, but I didn’t read my own move. At one point Paul’s commander was held up at gunpoint by the president who had wrestled his gun from him. Paul wanted to look for an answer by taking a leap of faith. He did it, and rolled well. And then I flubbed.  The move reads “…describe your experience, in brief or in full about the nature of things. On a hit, the MC will seize on something you’ve said and elaborate on your insight.”

What I didn’t do was ask Paul to describe his experience, and further, I didn’t ask any follow up questions to find out what he was getting at. I just assumed he wanted a way out of the situation to keep his status in tact. And what I gave him was weak sauce. “Be friends and people will follow you.” That isn’t even horrible advice, but it could have at least been delivered with some specific leverage “The president needs this, offer it to her and you can both get what you want.”

Plans for next time: Well the obvious is to read my own move. The not as obvious is to add in “The MC will ask you a question or two”, which will leave me leeway to clarify if the description given to me doesn’t lead to any specific advice.

One dimensional struggles

A pervasive theme through the game was characters that had no empathy for each other. Many of them interacted only on a hierarchical level, trying to assert dominance and authority over each other.  This quickly became stale as the characters all wanted to be king of the hill and had no reason to relent.

Plan for next time: Make sure the Hx creates relationships that go beyond the obvious of where characters fit in a social hierarchy. Make sure the have emotional connections to each other.

Also it’s worth considering only offering either the President or the Commander, but not both. That way there aren’t two dogs wrestling over the same bone all game.

Game improvements

The players pointed out a few things the game needs:

A move to form a connection with someone. Something that happens all the time in the show and isn’t seduce or manipulate. I’m looking at the way strings work in Mosnterhearts and considering what else I should take out or change to make room for it.

The president’s moves are too abstract. They operate on the Crisis (Front) clocks and not in the immediate fiction. I’ve got to revamp that playbook to be more actionable, especially in the short term.  That also means taking the Crisis Clocks back to the MC side of the table, which I think is probably a good idea anyway, it was too much paperwork for a player.

The president needs to be operating on a scarcity of good will. I think the campaigns can offer that (any of them that is in want indicates a lack of good will) but I will need to revisit them to make sure they are tuned to do that. Also, the president should have an obligation campaign of  “health”, to emulate the cancer Laura had (if someone wants to do that).

The commander playbook works great for playing a hard as hell Saul type, but not so well for a moderate Adama character. There should be some more flexibility to create that.

More playbooks should have fewer moves automatically selected and more options. Right now a good half of the characters have moves pre-selected and only get to choose one or two. I should probably try to have no more than one move built in and give more options. Options are fun.

Not a total flop

For all that the game wasn’t a total flop. The President took the commander by gunpoint. The activist/Cylon crashed the Condor into the Battlestar Argonaut and blew the hell out of both of them. The CAG released her viper pilots to destroy the ship that had the activist (that she loved) on it. We saw Cylon red spine in the brig sex. And at the last moment, the president was killed by the XO and the commander jumped the fleet with a known threat amongst them because we found at the very last moment… he was a Cylon too!

 Thoughts on this game

While I was disappointed with it in terms of performance, I learned a lot from it. I doubt there will be another opportunity for it, but if I had a time machine I’d like to run this game again, with those thoughts in mind and see how it would go.