Actual Play – Heart of Darkness (10/16/2010)

GM: Sean Nittner
Players: Scott (Frog), Karen (Kal), Mike (Colonel), and Travis (Shithead)
System: Apocalypse World

My Apocalypse World game came to fruition.

This was a labor of love. I knew from the time I had run it and the game I played in with Carl that I really needed a specific setting (and some specific situations) to get my head in the game. If I was going to barf forth the apocalyptica, I needed to scarf down so much I’d really need to puke.

My scenario was based very strongly on Hatchet City, including many of the gangs and some of the problems. In some cases I just filed the serial numbers off and called it mine.

The setting though leaned toward the apocryphal. Bel was the hardhold, a sinking freighter on an endless swamp filled with poisoned water. The world suffered from a flood that would never ebb and in the north Monk and his cannibal’s prophesied a plague. Bel itself was all the name that was left visible of “Belle” on the ship’s hull and the imagery that influenced me was right out of Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness.

Travis described my game as a pressure cooker, with Monk and his cannibals serving as the lid, and all the messed up problems inside the hardhold bubbling underneath it. I like that description.

Lots of things went into making this happen…

First, let’s start with the props.

I like using tokens to signify advancement and currency. Fate chips, Artha, etc. In this case, here’s what we used for advancements.

The table itself was important. I covered it with “ghoul flesh” cheese cloth, then with a host of pictures depicting the setting and then a layer of clear vinyl. The surface we played on was pictures of rusting ships, sinking ATVs, thick marsh bogs, ramshackle houses raised on stilts, animals in oil spills, and ruined cities.

On top of that table we needed rusty busted bits to make it hope. A coil, a pipe, rail road spikes, bike chains, broken cement and other oddments to finish off the look

We all want to see the remnants of people lost in the bog, so I brought in a skull, equipped with a gas mask of course

I made a custom notebook for the game as well.

Inside was a map of the holding and the surrounding areas

The final prop is sadly one I didn’t get a picture of (it anyone took one please let me know) picture was provided by Karen (thanks Ms. Twelves).  We asked all the tables on our side of the floor to take any trash or recycling they might have had and just dump it our on table.  The pile by the end of the game was epic!

Drifting a little from props to play aids, I tagged up my book some with bookmarks for each section that might be needed (hard to see the labes but it’s sections like character creation, basic moves, NPC attacks, gang damage, and a special marker for “principles” and MC moves.

I also had several other bits not worth taking pictures of. Lists of NPCs in Bel, and of course love letters to each PC (more details on those below).

Finally, the finishing touch was me personally, dressed for the occasion

I think the props were evocative. They got us all ready to start barfing.

Love letters.

There’s nothing novel here. I took the example letters from Hatchet city and riffed of those. Bel’s threats were more diverse though. Instead of focusing on the war with Monk above my threats were divided between internal strife, quality of life, and fallout from brains that had opened up to the psychic maelstrom.

Here’s one for example that was picked in both the game and the play test. It was a favorite of mine as well:

“Monk has taken over Dremmer’s Dock, a place the Psychic Maelstrom is known to open. Since then, the gators have gone nuts and keep attacking people in the open. Everyone’s gotta travel in groups.”

These two, however were picked as well and they really focused this game on tension between the gangs. From the Chopper and the Hardholder respectively:

“You’ve been fucking Brimful’s trophy wife Snug. He just found out and he’s gunning for you.””Prim, who used to listen to you, is totally out of control. Her gang keeps disappearing and coming back with treasures (oil, bullets, tools that aren’t rusted to shit). She’s been giving them to your people when they are in need. It’s obvious she’s making a move on you.”

Game play

We started off with a macabre scene. Frog the brainer had decided she was going to kill Grome, a self-proclaimed prophet who preached at a tree called the Partridge Aviary. Shithead found Grome, with his leg mangled by a gator he barely fended off. My plan was to get the characters in a scene and see if Kal would care if Frog killed her patient. But Shithead, he’s just such a shit head. He mangled Grome so much carrying him to the infirmary that by the time they walk up out of the swamp onto Bel Frog (who had been watching this from on deck) noticed Grome was already dead. Shithead just hadn’t noticed. Look at NPCs through crosshairs.

Meanwhile on deck Prim was busy being defiant to Colonel. He hit her to prove a point but missed completely going agro. He back handed her in the face all right, but she slapped him back with a shiv in her hand, making up some bullshit excuse that she was so overwhelmed with all her work she forgot she was holding it. After that, Prim and Colonel pretended to play nice but the war was on.

The characters in short:

Frog was everything you’d expect from a brainer and then some. Creepy, tiny and mysterious. She wore this ridiculous arctic fur coat complete with hood that completely dwarfed her. Frog had been torturing one of Prim’s men and new Prim had made deals with the cannibals, but rather than giving that information to Colonel kept using it a blackmail to manipulate members of her gang.

Frog somewhat came into her own when one of Shithead’s crew went to help her carry a body and decided having sex with her (consensual or not was a better idea). Her perfectly pale and clean cheeks were stained by giant greasy handprints but that’s as far as Spazzo ever got.

Shithead was a simple guy. He was pretty undiscerning about his actions (and those of his men). He functioned a little like a frog. If it’s smaller than you eat it (or kill it). If it’s bigger than you, run away, if it’s the same size, mate. Only not much registered as bigger to Shithead, which just meant he needed a bigger gang. When Prim was off being taken care of by Kal, he got the genius idea that if she was on the boat she wasn’t with her gang. Since he was a hit-and-run smash-and-grab kind of chopper himself, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to go make her gang into his!

In a surprising act of hot (and after much violence) he convinced brimful to help him take down Prim’s gang with the promise that Brimful would take over after they had control. Ha ha. Like Brimful would live that long, but whatever.

Kal was brutal. She was hooked on her own narcostibs made by Church Head and was the kind of person who knew better than to become attached… at all. When treating Brimful’s wife Tip she knew he’d never lover her again with that broken face, so Kal fixed the problem. He’d never have a chance to reject her corpse. She also had a bad relationship with his brother Camo. She had nearly killed the kid to stop him from stealing supplies and still didn’t trust him.

Kal was having a rough day. Prim made her a better offer than Colonel could, Mox (her assistant) was cutting herself and at least a few patients had died under her care just that day. She decided to use her secret signal to get Church Head to open up his shop (the “Pipes”) and let her inside. It turned out his brother was dead (or almost dead) and Church Head was trying to bring him back with a mixture of electricity, prayer and a conduit to the maelstrom. Turns out he could be brought back and Kal did it. But not without a price. The maelstrom was mad. Mad that it couldn’t claim another soul. Mad enough that afterward when Kal was shooting up and opened her brain, it didn’t want to let go.

Some bad rolls left her with a couple options, both shitty. Protect herself from the psychic maelstrom by joining monk and eating the vitality of man or offer it up a brother for the one she saved. In the end either Church Head or Kal was going to lose a brother. More bad rolls and poetic justice arrived with Church Head blowing Camo’s brains out as payment to Kal, only to be shot by one of Prim’s gang in the middle of the gang fight. Frankenstein savagery ensued.

Colonel took a lot of hard breaks. Early on Prim showed him just how little control he really had, and that just couldn’t get out. From then on he was fighting an uphill battle to keep control over the hardholding. He was backing Shithead most of the game, trying to bring in some reinforcements but over and over the dice hated him. End of the day, his holding was smaller, quite a few died, some deserted, but those that stayed weren’t going to cross him again.

Bits too big for LJ

I’ve got 10 love letters if there is interest I can email them, but I think putting the content in a post would be excessive. One good advice I got from Carl Rigney was to include some of the bits about playing a real person and being on the same side in the opening of the letter, so that went in all of them.

Also, I had a total of 72 pictures under the vinyl. All photshoped to add grunge mask, bloody fingerprints and/or blood smears. I could send the individual pics but I know some of them are copyrighted and again, including that much in an LJ post is crazy sauce.

What rocked

The props paid off. A ton of work but well worth it.

Little innocent Frog, who blew people’s brains out was awesome. Riding on the Chopper’s swamp boat and sticking out like a sore thumb but always comfortable in her/its place.

Greasy hand prints on Frog’s face.

Kal was broken, broken good. She was burly and didn’t take people’s shit, but the best was her time with Church Head, using his narcostibs made from prayer and resurrecting his almost dead brother. Finding the cannibal within is always awesome. In fact Kal inadvertently made Colonel that much more awesome by letting Monk into his brain instead.

“You hear that Grime, the boss told everyone to be quiet, so stop making so much noise when I drown you” – Shithead, the line that established that once Shithead started killing someone, everyone else just got out of the way.

The characters were empathetic, maybe not 100% real but I felt like even Shithead, who’s goals were violent and relatively amoral was someone I could relate to. Maybe a bully, but a bully I believed in. Kal and Colonel were straight up troubled souls, they had exactly the same kind of workplace problems we all do. Frog was perhaps the most distant, but she’s a brainer, that kind of comes with the territory.

We had a lot of hard hits. When they rolled 10+ I gave them some pretty awesome leeway (yeah, sure, you just pop Brimful in the head, that’s 1 less gang leader and now his crew is yours) but on misses I turned right back around and rained some hell. “Make as hard a move as you want” gave me license to inflict some brutality as well as a lot of hard choices.

Using the shotgun shells as advancement tokens gave me a really easy visual cue of who was getting experience and when I needed to shift focus to a player who hadn’t been getting enough action (see below though)

What could have improved

Throughout the game I was having some trouble ensuring equal player involvement. Shithead had a simple but a good plan that was going to result in a gang war. I spent a good part of the game trying to get the other characters more involved either in the war itself or in their own affairs. By the end everyone had some meaty scenes but it took some massaging of the pacing to ensure they all got spotlight. It worked but wasn’t as smooth as I’d like.

I felt SO bad for Colonel. His very first roll to make Prim (the uppity lieutenant) was a miss and the entire game things just went downhill for him from there. In the end he maintained his post but not without a lot of blood on his hands and many people deserting in fear. When joining up with Monk’s cannibals seems like a good alternative, you know your Hardholder is a hard ass.

Too many NPCs. Way too many. Even trimming down the numbers from Hatchet City and providing a list for the players I felt overwhelmed. Many of them got used though, so it was good to have the names ready. It’s a tough balance. I don’t want to have nameless characters but at the same time don’t want players (or myself) getting lost in a sea of NPCs. I think next time I’ll try either creating a relationship map (so the names have more context) and/or starting with a smaller setting and gradually introducing more characters.

Another aid for dealing with a host of NPCs would be nameplates in stands like this one (courtesy Scott White):

I meant for Monk to be someone that could be reasoned with. He had a particular perspective (that eating man would give you strength to withstand a coming plague, proof in that his people were healthy and Bel’s were growing sicker and sicker every day), that I would have liked to put on the table, but as is nobody really wanted to talk cuisine with the cannibal. Eh, it was probably too extreme to try and introduce as a nuanced or complicated desire in a four hour con game.