Actual Play – Iron Road (10/16/2010)

GM: Scott White
Players: Sean (Goldman), Ian (Cartack), Alan (Spice) and Eric (Kal)
System: Apocalypse World.

Have I mentioned that I like trains? I’m not like a train nut or anything I just like riding in them, seeing all the miles of train track and considering the awesome power that transportation on that scale represents. I like the powerful and unstoppable notion of the locomotive barreling down the tracks and I like the scenic images of a train weaving its way on a spindly supports through mountain ranges. Trains are cool. And it looks like trains speak to Apocalypse World MCs. My game had a broken down rail station in it as one of the locations. Why? Because I found some rusted railroad spikes and thought “I’ve got to have these in my game.” Carl, who ran AW in the afternoon (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong on this) was using his Ozarks Ghostwood setting, complete with a train fueled by ghosts. Finally, Scott ran The Iron Road. An AW setting on the edge of a growing wasteland. Civilization continued along the hub of desolation, clinging to a single hope. The Train! A broken husk of a golden age artifact that faith, grease and mad devotion would resurrect!

The setup for Scott’s game was a thing of beauty for several reasons. Our hardholding was all built around this train, a train that had never run; but the people who lived near it all believed it would someday, and when it ran, it would take them from this godforsaken place. Only it didn’t. The boiler blew and took our hardholder’s hand with it. The accident changed him, he believed the train was cursed, took his gang and abandoned the holding. Not only that but he hated that some of people (including the player characters) stayed. He hated that we hung onto hope of that evil engine. So his gangs attacked us, stole from us, did everything they could to make sure the train never ran.
This was glorious for several reasons.

  1. Scott resolved the common hardholding issue of too many NPCs. We were all that was left, a small group, trying to make it work.
  2. We had a holding with a history, and a direction we could play to (get the train running, defeat our old leader, abandon the project, etc)
  3. Our villain was beautifully human. He didn’t hate us, or want to eat us or just want our bullets. We were his own people, but he believed so fully that we were doomed. He believed it enough that Goldman was pretty sure he was right a well.
  4. As a spin off, we didn’t want to kill our enemy, we wanted to convert him. We wanted to put down the guns and bring our people back together. This made for some very “heroic” apocalypse world character. Not heroic in that they were larger than life, heroic in that they would give up their life for something worthwhile.

Our game is probably not one Scott will run again, even if he runs The Iron Road again. It’s not like we were super awesome crazy, I just think a few of the scenes, and a few of the interactions were pretty special.

A little run down of the characters.

Cartack – Ian said he doesn’t usually like to play combat monsters in campaign games, but for con one-shots they can be a lot of fun. And Cartack was. A Gunlugger through and through, he’s the first character I’ve seen introduce grenades into an Apocalypse World game. As the token violent bastard in the group he wasn’t burdened with an excess of brainpower, but he wasn’t stupid either (see Shithead from my previous post as an example of an awesome stupid violent bastard). Things were pretty simple. Erie (our old hardholder) was gone and took most of his gags with him. That left Cartack and a handful of other violent folks to protect the remaining community from scavengers. The opportunity to take power and command was there and Cartack was gunning for it (literally).

Spice – All Skinners are creepy. There, I’ve made one of those ignorant but absolute statements. They are creepier than Brainers. Brainers are supposed to mess with your minds, but Skinners just have broken minds that infect everyone around them. You can’t talk to one without being mesmerized by one, and when take a trip to a Skinner’s mind, the baggage is brutal. Spice was this messed up girl that loved too much. She loved and she fucked and she was loved; and sometimes two of those three would even collide at the same time, maybe even with the same person. Spice started the game loved by Goldman, fucking Kal and in love with Cartack. She ended the game gunning down another lover and saying (and believing) “people suck”. Life was rough for Spice, but she was awesome through and through.
Note: Spice is the first transgressing character I’ve seen, so while I reference her throughout this post as female, her biological gender was male.

Kal – Heh, I couldn’t get over two Angels in one day both named Kal, and both kind of bastards, but in different ways. This was pimp Kal. He even took the same “infirmary” move as our morning Kal (Karen) but had a whole different meaning of the word infirm. Mox and Shagusa weren’t assistants, they were his whores. When you came for treatment, it might be to stuff some meatmesh and bonesplints in that gaping hole that you used to call a rib cage, or it might be for “treatment”. Either way Kal was making money and as the most enterprising of us all felt he was the natural leader.

Goldman – Silent types are hard to play in RPGs. Because you know, most of what you do is talk. I played a “celestial” a few years back in one of Chad Lynch’s Deadlands games and, appropriate to the setting, he only spoke once at the very end of the game. What I figured out was that even though my character didn’t talk, I could still convey just about everything I wanted by describing facial expressions and body language really clearly “He gives you a reluctant shrug indicating he’ll follow you on this journey but isn’t sure any of us will make back”. Am I expressing a whole lot with simple shrug? You bet, but it was my way of staying involved with a game while playing a character that didn’t talk. In this case Goldman wasn’t nearly so mute as my Deadlands character, but he was definitely a man of few words, and I employed the same expressive body language throughout the game. In a world full of explosions and death, I felt like Goldman was the calm center of the storm, well at least until he choked Spice into unconsciousness, but that comes later.

Being near-mute is a quirk though, not a foundation for a character. Goldman was a Savvy Head and believed things should do what they were meant to do. When you don’t have the right tool for the job, you spend the time to make the right tool and do it right, you don’t just jerry rig it and hope it will hold together. That was probably also the reason he was in charge of the train restoration project and determined that given enough time and energy, the train would ride those tracks again.

He believed this through and through. Goldman respected Cartack and Spice because they did what they were supposed to do. Cartack’s role in this world was to kill those who needed killing, and Spice’s role was to love those who needed it as well. Being in love with her himself just felt natural. Even though she didn’t return it, she existed to be loved. Kal on the other hand was the major problem. Kal was supposed to be a healer, but he was a pimp instead. He was supposed to look out for the welfare of the community, but instead counted his oddments. Goldman hated Kal but killing him wasn’t his place either. And the brutal pragmatism of not having any one else to put us back together made Kal necessary. You don’t remove the necessary parts of a machine, no matter how they might cause you problems.

Love letters

We started off with love letters (which I adore) and they gave us all some options. Unlike the ones I wrote the options were a mix of advantages and plot hooks. The other three characters all rolled 10+ and took the advantageous option, giving them 3 holds on to be encountered NPCs (for the Gunlugger than he had beat them up and they were afraid of him, to the Skinner that they loved her, and to the Angel that he had patched them up). I rolled ass, which meant Scott and I got to pick together which options. My default in any choice is to start off with a spear in my gut, so I asked if I could just have both of the bad options and Scott was happy to oblige.

I view problems for your character and very personal plot hooks. It’s why I like the love letter so much, they are basically a list of problems that he characters are already invested in and it’s just a matter of the player to decide which ones he or she wants to address in the game. So when I give my character problems (especially ones that the GM is invested in) I know that they have a role in the game, they need to respond to whatever just happened. It’s like opting for a kicker, why wouldn’t you? (read: I’m an attention whore).

Kicking it off

As a result of my love letter, we started the game with Goldman being dragged out of camp by three unknown people (Pellet and two others I’m not remembering). They snuck in and cold clocked him and were taking him somewhere (later we learned back to Erie’s new holding). I picked Kal as the only PC that knew I was gone because I wanted to see what would happen. Eric, who was playing Kal, knew that Goldman couldn’t stand him, so I thought it would be revealing to see if Kal started up the search party immediately or held off on sharing the information (as it was going to come out sooner or later when nobody could find Goldman).

He spilled the beans pretty early and the cavalry came out to rescue Goldman, but not before he had a chance to talk to Pellet some and find out that Erie really wanted him to stop the project. This was my first indicator that it was more than Erie just freaking out, that something else was working against us. This is also when Goldman opened his mind and began to understood that every has a form and function, people are no different than machines, in fact just as he could repair an ancient engine, so could he heal. I picked up angels touch totally because of seeing Travis use it and watching how awesome a miss is.

Fighting on another front

We did have other problems. The train itself had a love letter of sorts which included complications. Some of our people were working on the tracks up north and scouts reported that Erie’s gang was moving in to ride them down. So after the rescue (and sending Pellet off running), we hopped on a jeep and an experimental vehicle that apparently Goldman had made. Spice rode it and affectionately called it the sex machine, complete with unnecessarily raising and lowering seats and controls. Imagine like riding on a very fast and phallic teeter totter. To carry the metaphor further, I added that it had two methods of being piloted: The standard sit on top and setter and the insertion method where the driver dives into the underbelly of the machine and lays flat parallel to the ground, ala, the high performance controls on the Batmobile of Batman Begins. Riding on this machine together, talking about what was going to happen with the train and with Erie was bonding moment for Goldman and Spice. She tried to hypnotize him, missed, and became infatuated with him instead.

At the repair sight much violence ensued. Cartack blew things to high hell with his grenade launcher. Kal shot down the unarmored opponents, Spice seduced one of her lovers (Money) through the eye slit of what was otherwise a tank (and had this beautiful Pyramus and Thisbe moment of kissing through the nook in the wall, in this case the slot in the tank). Goldman opened his mind and spoke to the M60 mounted on their jeep and asked it to start firing and not stop until it had made a mountain of shells beneath it.

As the fight was winding down, it looked like things were going well for us. We had, through violence and seduction, broken their bodies and shattered their morale. We were free and clear, until Goldman misses on a roll to keep to guys with shotguns locked inside their own tank. He couldn’t jam the door fast enough and it burst open sending him on his ass, followed by two pissed off dudes with shotguns… And then Spice broke Goldman’s heart. She took her lovely decorative pistols and in a feat of athleticism and desperation rolled under the tank, popper her head and arms out and blew one of them away. The other proceeded to put a very large hole in Goldman before he ate lead from at least three directions (Goldman, Kal and Cartack were all gunning him down).

Sex, it’s a move in this game!

From there, things got interesting. Goldman, wounded badly (10:00 I think), looked at Spice, who had arguably just saved his life, with nothing but disappointment and disdain. She had betrayed her purpose. She was meant to love, not to destroy. And to Spice, who was the victim of her own failed mesmerism, was destroyed. She wanted Goldman to forgive her, to thank her for saving his life, but all she got back was pity and disappointment.

Goldman climbed inside the tank car, like a coffin to die in. Kal wasn’t having it though. He broke out his angel kit and started putting the pieces of Goldman back together whether he liked it or not. A whole crap ton of rags, meatmesh, and narcostibs later, Goldman was stable but immobile. The stitches in him were barely keeping him together and if he moved, they would rip right open.

Outside it’s a mess, Money is confused, not sure she picked the right side, dead or dying bodies are all over and the vehicles are trashed. At this point the scene split in half. Spice climbed in the tank to make amends with Goldman, her lover outside. Inside we ended up with four moves happening all at the same time, Goldman’s special, Spice’s special, Goldman’s Angel’s touch and Spice’s hypnotism. End result, during sex, spice failed again to mesmerize Goldman, falling further for him but he read her body and mind like a broken machine to find out what was wrong and how he could fix it. Her problem was that she loved too much and had faith in people, she needed someone to show her how awful people could be. So in the middle of lovemaking, when it finally becomes apparent that she is actually a he, but that’s not a problem for anyone, Goldman begins choking her and beating her head against the metal interior walls. Like a smith, pounding steel and tempering it. He had also agreed to heal her wounds (prior to this reading) but when performing an Angel’s touch, opened both of their minds to the mechanical representation of this world, where the machines moved forward with purpose.  Spice’s beautiful guns cried tears of oil, sobbing over the violence she made them commit. The scene got, in a way, all too surreal. Over the top? Yes, but not it a gonzo fashion.

Money heard all of this going on and decided she wasn’t going to turn on his gang, earn the ire of Erie, and then listen to Spice fuck another guy. So shotgun in hand she approached tank. Kal made it clear that she wasn’t opening that door. Money made it clear that she’d sooner eat lead than suffer this kind of embarrassment, so Kal made the choice for her and blew her head off before he could open the hatch. When Kal promptly did he found the unconscious bodies of Goldman and Spice in a tangle of violent and bloody coitus.

Back at the ranch

Somehow we all made it back to the train. By this time Goldman was sure that Erie was onto something. That the psychic maelstrom was drawn to the train, like iron filings to a magnet. We made a peace offering. Goldman uses the antenna he attached to the train to make an augury, protecting the train itself from the influence of the Maelstrom, and Spice used her Lost move to summon Erie. He showed up, wary but hopful and with some earnest persuasion from Spice and Goldman agreed to try one more time. Kal knew that after the accident Erie had been a broken man, a hardholder that lost his hard. We offered to give it back, and with his one good hand that still had so much nerve damage he couldn’t hold a gun, Erie was able to muscle through releasing the brake and watching his creation come alive.


What rocked

Did you read that report? The game was made of awesome. Uniting the tribes, firing up the train, remaking what was broken. This shit is Tolkien inside Apocalypse World.

Yeah, the scenes with Spice and Goldman were crazy over the top, but they were awesome too. And most importantly they were human. They were real. Jealousy, anger, confusion, and frustration were driving all this. But there was also love, caring and curiosity. We were the Hunchback and Esmeralda.

Scott had a map on a large note pad (11 x 17 maybe). He had drawn out a great little winding track that passed through all the known areas and gave us direction throughout the game. Maps are great, or at least maps at this level are great.

As with every other AW game I’ve run or played in. At the end we all wanted to know what happens next? Will the train really go? Can everyone fit on it? What will we do with all the scavengers who want a ride? Where will it take us? What happens when it breaks down again? How will we keep the fuel supplies? Can Erie take back his old post or will a new leader rise?

My game was a riff off Hatchet city and lost a little cohesiveness because of it. It was one part my inspiration, one part leaning on Vincent. Scott’s setting and his fronts were really well thought out and all felt like part of a real whole. For instance, I ended up keeping the “waders” from Hatchet City because in a swamp, I wanted a disease vector, but that was shit, they really didn’t fit into the story. Everything fit where it was supposed to in the Iron Road.

I love bad guys that you can talk to. That would rather kidnap you, convert you, argue with you, etc than blow your head off, and vice versa. Having our old hardholder be our enemy, and an enemy that we all loved was brilliant.

Spice taking the gun of her ex-lover after violent psychic sex and saying “people suck” was awesome!

What could have improved

I think the love letters shouldn’t have a mix of good and bad options, or if they do, they should be independent. The other three players didn’t pick any complications and ended up with overall fewer stories. Goldman became central to the game because he was in the middle of all the problems (because they were on my love letter). I think I’d have three bad options, roll 10+ is keep one, 7-9 is keep 2, miss is get all three and maybe something else bad on top of that. AND if you rolled 10+ you can also have the good thing or something like that. Always have something messing with people.

I really didn’t dig the “sex machine.” I had to fight really hard not to block when Alan created it. First, it started as an experimental vehicle, which I was fine with, but when it turned into an orgasm with wheels I had to fight really hard to say “yes, and…” Eventually I bought into it and the machine became a vehicle (har har) for Goldman and Spice expressing their affection. Still, it seemed a little goofy for AW.

We had two fights, which I think was one or two too many for me. Personally, while I think the combat system in AW is cool, combat just doesn’t excite me. Trading damage doesn’t really advance the story until someone is dead or defeated. Seems like that should all be a single roll, maybe a roll or two, but most fights end up being long, and in some cases confusing. There is no attack roll in this game. Most of what you’re doing is seizing by force and going agro, which begs the question of how. And the how is cool, but if it doesn’t change from roll to roll (yep, I’m still trying to seize his life), it gets old.

Hard to say for sure though, much of the awesome came as the aftermath of a fight. Maybe they are not the action, but the primer for the action?

5 thoughts on “Actual Play – Iron Road (10/16/2010)”

  1. Training

    I’m not like a train nut or anything

    Keep telling yourself that, and we’ll play along. Someday you should take the Transcanada trip.

    Thanks for the great summary of the game you played in. The angel in my game was named Kal, too. What’s up with that?

    I did run AW in the afternoon at the Minicon, set in the Ozarks Ghostwood (set 50 years after the 1919 Flu killed off most of the world), but the Chris H’s Savvyhead’s Land Train didn’t make an appearance. Also, the Land Train runs on coal, not ghosts. The coal smoke keeps the ghosts away. Of course, then you need coal, and wood to shore up the coal mine, which comes from trees you have to be careful don’t have ghosts tangled in the branches. It’s always one thing or another, in Apocalypse World.

    1. I figured it out. Kal sounds like Mal and we all have a crush on Nathan Fillion. Maybe? I mean, I do. So does everyone in the room I’m in right now (which is 2, which more than 1).

      Ahh… then I want my railroad spike back! I kid. I wasn’t sure if the land train was part of the setting or just a creation of Hanrahan’s. And coal does sound like a better fuel (ghost are so hard to cram into a furnace).

      How did your game go? I mean the in a relative sense, compared to the standard carlawesomeness? (I didn’t miss a space there, I think “carlawesomeness” should be a new metric for games, it’s like inventing Celsius if Kelvin came first, even a 0 is pretty damn high!).

      1. The Land Train was Hanrahan’s doing, so properly the Spike of Destiny should belong to him. I’ll take care of that. Of course, the drawback to trains is that people will naturally want to rob them. And it’s hard
        to resist the temptation to steal from Buster Keaton’s immortal The General.

        My game went well, the player of the Operator wrote it up at I like the Ghostwoods setting a lot, but I should stay away from gangs in 4 hour slots, fun as they are.

        You may find fights more interesting if people try to seize things more interesting than the other side’s life (which as you note, tends to degenerate into too-long fights to the death). Fleeing in terror or surrender are also fine results. Now what will the PCs do with their prisoners?

  2. Thanks for the great writeup Sean. I appreciate it and there’s lots to think about there.

    Seriously you players made the game for me, and I pretty much agree with your assessment of what worked and what did not. Think the game would play very different given a different set of players an love letter results. The love letters shared three or four major plot points between them one of which didn’t even appear on any of the four playbooks chosen.

    My note pad was a 22×18 pad and a batch of colorful markers really made quick sketching of the scene easy and big enough to not require someone to grab it and squint at it while everyone else wonders what there is to see.

    Just glad to see Apocalypse World getting played and show it’s stuff. I love this game!

    Ghost (repellent) train sounds pretty awesome, too.

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