Two Apocalypse World games: character relationship to setting

Started by DWeird, January 29, 2012, 10:05:23 AM

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So I've been having thoughts about setting/character relationships for a game I'm kinda sorta thinking about making that is essentially about exploring and building upon a preestablished setting via characters who are both grounded in and transforming said setting. When I started out, I figured this was some great big problem that needs to be tackled, as in, a relationship between character and setting is something that needs to be *made* fun by lots and lots of design effort.

It turns out this may not be the case! I now believe that a strong setting/character relationship is not a problem that needs to be solved, but actually a possible solution that solves some "why aren't we having fun? problems. Why do I think this?

Well, I very recently ran two games of Apocalypse World. My approach as MC was pretty much the same in both cases - say yes as much as I can, take player input and reincorporate it right back into the game, be a fan and be interested in what the PCs are doing.

In one case, all of those three things were hard for me to do, and neither me nor any of my players, save one, really had any fun. In the other, those same three things were easy and the game rocked for everyone. And the only difference between the games is how I approached chargen.

In the first game, lets call it Jungle, my players were all mostly AW veterans. I've played with them before and we had a rocking time. Though, this time, they had characters they had made and played for other games and they were already heavily invested in their success. So, essentially, the had characters ready before they heard one thing about setting, which didn't seem like *too* big of a problem at the time. The setting was that of a jungle slowly but surely swallowing up anything man-made in the world. It was fun, I was excited! But then the game started and it all fell flat. All of the characters, save one, were really difficult for me as MC to engage in because I kept having to *translate* their actions into something that was setting-appropriate. The Gunlugger, though cool and hardy, described in an off-hand remark how he had been living in the jungle alone, gear and all, for months and didn't mention fatique, or hunger, or sweat, or even the way the jungle would keep messing with his stuff. The Brainer came up with a blank when I asked her what she making a local hardholder's men look for in the jungle. And the Battlebabe who was an off-world alien but who's player didn't want the alienness to be the focus of the game at all reacted to having explain an explosive attack on the compound by a "the jojos are attacking again", which was pretty much a fuck-off to the MC for putting the player on the spot, creative input-wise.

All of those characters kind of existed independently of the world they were in, interacting from time to time, but independant. I might have soldiered on through and we would have eventually established some sort of tenous link between the characters and the situation at hand, and would eventually come around to having fun in a session or two, but there was one character that made me think that there may be more at play here.

It was an Operator who had all of his gear made from jungle-materials, and who lived on the hardhold compound but frequently went out alone into the jungle to gather poisons and herbs and other such things to sell later. I'll tell you, running for that character was fun and easy and thinking of stuff to throw at him wasn't work of reconciling setting and character at every turn, it was the fun of seeing how the setting opens up through the character and the character through the setting. Anything that character ever did, just by existing, was *about* the big question the setting, and indeed any post-apocalyptic setting, of "how does this person survive and thrive with the world gone to hell?". And that was cool! I loved that, it made it so easy for me to care about that character, say yes to things when he suggested opportunities, and reusing the stuff that came up as part of the character's daily experiences.

Since I was getting that much fun from running Jungle for one character and so little for the others, I decided to talk to my players about it and we eventually decided to stop that whole thing altogether. Since I still felt like running AW, I gathered a different bunch of players, including one complete newcomer, as well as the person I loved running for before. The only difference this time was that I instituted a rule that you had to make a character for this exact game that we're playing right now (that's not *only* difference, but it's half of the only difference).

So we started making characters, and since I was keen on selling the game to the new guy, I naturally focused on him most - he eventually picked a mechanic-type savvyhead and we went through chargen bit by bit. At some point, some other player asked me about the setting. At that point, wanting to make the game "more awesome" to my new player (and having played a pretty flat game with a savvyhead of my own before) I pretty much said that I'd pick an apocalypse that would matter to the Savvyhead's gear options... And then, the next moment, I just said "How about roboapocalypse?" and everyone just kind of nodded their heads in agreement, and the Savvyhead's player got this huge grin on his face.

The other players quickly made a malfunctioning killer robot Gunlugger that the Savvyhead has kinda-sorta-almost-reprogrammed and a Quarantine with Archives and an aim to rebuild the fucked-up world. Meaning, any player I turn to, they are like a synnechdoche for the big questions of the setting. Anything they do, any time they do it, answers questions of what the Apocalypse is. Will the Savvyhead manage to reprogram the rampaging killer robots? Will the Gunlugger return to factory built specifics of kill all humans or will learn to live in a human society instead? Will the Quarantine manage to rebuild society as it was? Those are questions that are a step above of AW's regular fare of "so, where do you get your water"? My game is still about fairly wretched human-like creatures doing their best to survive, but even then, I can *tell*, right from the beggining of the game, that play will be answering some seriously interesting questions. And that's hot.

We played that game and it was the most fun any of us had for a long time. We stayed up well into the night and everyone was gushing when it ended, and all of us definitelly want to play another session of this.

Now, the only two things I did that made this happen was: i) make sure the characters are pointed at the setting ("make one for this game we're playing right now or there's no game at all!"); and ii) make sure the setting is pointed at the characters ("Savvyhead, how about a roboapocalypse?").

Those two things don't seem hard to do at all, once you know you have to do them. I mean, I'd still need AW's system to actually carry that momentum to make things happen in an actual game, but that setup, the spark, I think I could build without it.

adam m

Wow. I can't imagine creating a character for an Apocalypse World game without knowing the setting, nor can I imagine taking a character from one AW game and playing it in another. Okay, fine, I can imagine it, but it sounds like a recipe for no fun.

What did they do about Hx? What about character-central NPCs (Chopper gang, Hocus cult, etc)?


We did do Hx, but that only established relationships between non-setting grounded PCs. We had a Gunlugger, Brainer, Battlebabe as the problem characters, so no extras.

I never did imagine creating AW characters without also making a setting along with it either, but there was nothing *wrong* with what my players were doing - their sheets were filled in right and I put forward a setting right, so how could have the combination sucked?

Doing so let me catch the thing I was doing only subconsciously and make it explicit. There are two halves to it, actually!

The players need to be invested in the setting, their characters need to reflect it ("my clothes are made from leaves and wines and that flexible bark from the jungle").

The setting needs to be something that the the player character's can change with the abilities that are unique to them ("my mechanic savvyhead tries to rewire one of these killer robots").

For example, there's a possibility I see popping up for some MCs from time to time that wasn't as pronounced as mine but is still difficult to shake - the PCs gang up and make short work of any short-term problems the MC throws at them, and it gets boring and repetetive.

Now, I'm not saying it's the only right way to do it (I had great fun in AW play that did not address "setting problems" at all), but if you direct your setting at them, that is, make it so that situations they solve pushes them towards solving what's wrong with the world (an Operator who takes things from the jungle learns more things about how to survive in it daily and does this; a Savvyhead who rewires killer robots to be human-friendly also does this), whether they solve the problem or fail at it, you will have yourself wicked cool answers to the central questions of the setting, which will also (is my guess) will make for an awesome game.

For example, if your game was a community with water troubles and your player is a Gunlugger, neither the MC nor the player will have as much fun as if the community had troubles with bad men having the power of violence.

This whole thing is basically an addendum to Vincent's old dictum that you need capable and willing characters to have a good game - the addition is that character capabilities (maaaybe even willingness) don't belong to the characters' alone. Actual character capability is a fit between character ability and the problems that need to be solved, that is to say, setting*.

* At least under a reading of "setting is that one thing that defines the types of problems that the characters will face."