Actual Play – Heart of Darkness Play-test (10/11/2010)

GM: Sean Nittner
Players: Shaun, Travis and Fattig
System: Apocalypse World

So, as usual with my play-test AP reports I’m not letting too much of the cat out of the bag. Not that my game has anything resembling a plot besides “bad things happen, what do you do?” But there are some specific prompts to the game that I’m going to keep offline until the actual game.

This game is hard to run. Hard because I want to run the game the way the designer says to. I’m pretty much done second guessing game designers these days. If I don’t like the way something works, I’m going to do it anyway until either I figure out a) ahh.. yeah, it’s supposed to be like that or b) eh, this really isn’t my game. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still hack the hell out of a game, but that comes after feeling like I have sufficient mastery of how the game is supposed to work. With S7S I hacked it like crazy, but that wasn’t changing rules, it was creating pacing mechanics for myself. As elaborate and grandiose as they looked, all my Act 1 cards did was act as encounter generators and tiny, tiny egg timers.

So, on to ApocWorld. How was it? It was awesome. The game play reminds me a lot of Burning Wheel. Bad things are going to happen, they are going to threaten what you care about. As a player you’re going to be wicked awesome as you confront those things and either get your ass handed to you or come out on top, but probably with a knife in your gut for your efforts. Domino did just that.

Listed in bullet points that I took down after game (thus not fleshed out much)

What rocked

  • The hooks from my love letters came alive. The started the action and kept it meaningful and in context with the setting.
  • There were lots of options to explore.
  • Plenty of character tension. All on the same side, but definitely not having the same interests (even when Domino wanted to save Icicles life but the way he did it wasn’t what she wanted AT ALL).
  • Completing the sex special moves was easy
  • Player control over the story
  • Mechanics reinforce the flavor
  • Props – a frickin’ pile of awesome props
  • The setting – wet is good, specifics are good
  • A rocking map
  • Mood setting
  • Making hard decisions was good and encouraged
  • The NPC relationships announced future badness
  • Players loved their love letters

What could have been improved

  • As an MC I needed more fluency with the rules – when to use the proper moves
  • Love letter to the Chopper was weak
  • To gonzo at points
  • Some of my questions were too aggressive and too early
  • Pile of props unused – Spread it out
  • Need bullet shells for token
  • Description of the game makes it sound like there will be more direction (inform the players that they will have the control)
  • Start with a kicker, what just happened
  • Flipping through the book is awkward
  • More people need to be hit with a bike chain
  • Hocus as a leader didn’t work
  • Need a sheet of the NPCs in Bel
  • Not a lot of movement in the game (a map will help)
  • Picking results before narration was sometimes awkward

2 thoughts on “Actual Play – Heart of Darkness Play-test (10/11/2010)”

  1. Nice analysis

    I like all your points. I find that gonzo works against the MC’s job to make the world seem real. I’m very cautious about avoiding signaling that what’s going on is an action movie, because then players may default to genre emulation, and THEIR job is to play their characters as if they were real people. If I want gonzo post-apocalyptic I’d go with OcTane, not Apocalypse World.

    A map is definitely a good idea, it defines the boundaries of play. A map of the camp or holding is also a very good idea.

    I use tabs to mark the sections of the book I know I’m going to refer to often.

    When I ran Hatchet City (with its 4 dozen NPCs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one) I had a list of NPCs for my use and another copy (without my notes, just the names) to give the players to help keep track. That’s way too many NPCs, of course.

    It might be a good idea to use a BIG sheet of paper to draw a relationship map and add names and links as they come up. I often do that in Dogs. If you were to do such a thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if you also had a red ink stamp with a corpse outline that you could stamp over the names as they get killed and buried in the poisoned earth.

    How to properly convey Apocalypse World in a one shot continues to be very much a work in progress for me. But 2 of my players at the minicon bought a copy during or after the game, so even if one shots isn’t what it’s best at, it’s still pretty good.

    1. The proof (or at least strong indicator) for me that Apocalypse World doesn’t quite fit in a con game is that after EVERY game I’ve been in or played (total of 5 now), there has been a strong desire from several people to continue it as a campaign. In two cases this was serious enough that we started looking at calendars and talking about skype games, etc.

      Yeah, Bel (my setting) derived quite a bit from Hatchet City, and it just has too many NPCs. I’m a little torn between breaking Vincent’s rule (and creating unnamed masses) and avoiding a Hardholding altogether. I think the balance for me is introducing several (but not MANY) NPCs up front and then just bringing in others (and naming them) as they become relevant.

      I had some pretty sophisticated tabs (labeled and in different places on the page for tactile memory) but even then I find cracking a book creates a division between me and the players, similar to having a GM screen. It may be brief but it still created a break in continuity.

      Vincent suggest taking breaks, not always answering questions, and generally allowing the engagement with the system to ebb and flow. That’s still not something I feel comfortable enough with the system (or with what I expect myself to bring at a con game) to relax on. I think as I relax more my game will improve and as my game improves, I’ll relax more.

      Gonzo for me was limited to a metaphorical existence inside the psychic maelstrom where communications with other people who had their mind open was possible. That was all good and fine until I allowed a missed weird roll to trap the skinners brain inside and offer her a way out by body swapping into the body of a cannibal (facilitated by the leader who was trying to “convert” others to his reverence for flesh of man). It seemed like, yeah, this could happen, but am I sure I want it in my game?

      Scott used a very large notebook (11 x 17 maybe?) to draw maps, write name, etc. We flipped through it as needed. Sadly with my game and all the crap on the table there wouldn’t have been room for that.

      I did have a list of all the NPCs (and I toned it down from Hatchet City, but it was still over 20) and that worked pretty well. Each of them had a name and a few words about who they were in the holding. The only trick with that was establishing the gang leaders (given that one of the PCs would be one of them and would have pick over which gang to lead)

      I like the idea of the relationship map a lot, and especially the red death stamp. Heh… as if people get buried. They just ferry them out a little further it he swamp and toss them overboard for the gators.

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