So we’re playing our final session of Apocalypse World. At least we think it’ll be the last. We’ve all agreed that we’ll either end the game tonight or next session, depending on how things go. And I’m feeling the pressure.
See, I’ve become intensely invested in Burdick’s future. Burdick is my character, a Savvyhead with a greenhouse trying to get the earth to yield a bounty like she used to, rather than the weak, halfhearted crops she produces now. Burdick’s had her hurdles, including clashes with her Hocus brother, Always, who leads his people in a fire and brimstone, will of the gods manner, with ecstatic visions and draconian pronouncements.
Now Always is gone, disillusioned with his leadership and living alone in the woods somewhere. Burdick’s got the Battlebabe Kickskirt at her side, and a gaggle of scared people looking to her for fresh leadership. And the warlord Barbecue has moved in, threatening our territory and our way of life.
Throughout the 8-session game, I’ve been thinking hard about Burdick’s direction, about the possibilities. The Moves that a character can acquire are so evocative, paint such a strong picture of character in motion, that I’ve collected a huge list of candidates, more than it’s actually possible for her to acquire. Each represents a possible future, a host of events and actions that I can half see with my mind’s eye, and choosing from among them is agonizing. When Jim, Always’ player, takes one of them before me, I get grumpy about it, before remembering I’ve got my eye on over a half dozen others.
I’ve become very concerned for Burdick. It’s important to me that she has a decent shot at her dreams. I’m fine with failure just so long as I’ve had my chance, but I’ve become frightened of the idea that her goals may be just plain impossible, or rendered moot. So plotting the Moves and so on that I spend her Advances on becomes a vital strategy for putting her in a position to achieve those goals.
And what goals they are! She wants peace and plenty for the people. She wants to move humanity past the concepts of possession and ownership, and work the land for the benefit of all. She’s seen through the psychic maelstrom, to witness the ties of love and pain both, that bind us all, and she wants to disentangle those so folk can thrive without the constant pull of things falling into ruin. She wants to heal the land, and those who live on it. So, like, modest ambitions. So yes, I’m intensely invested.
But here’s the thing: I’ve started thinking so much, and so intensely, about the mechanical options and all the branching narrative paths they could lead to, that I’ll losing the track of the actual fiction. The real, living, breathing thing that is the story is withering on the vine while I stand in a corner mixing its chemical fertilizers.
The story doesn’t want to be laboratory-grown. It wants to be loved.
But meanwhile I’m absorbed in my story-test tubes and narrative Bunsen burner. I’ve given Burdick Things speak and Bonefeel and Oftener right and Spooky intense from the Savvyhead book, as well as Healing Touch and Visions of Death from other playbooks. She’s got gigs (horticulture for hire and spiritual counseling) and a gang (the people, desperately gathered to her for protection, and hastily trained). All these create a composite collage of the Burdick I see when I close my eyes, the Burdick I hear on a good night when my voice gets out of the way and she speaks through me.
But I’m intensely concerned for her fate and so I’m carefully mixing vials, adjusting the flame, concerned that all this wonderful game-mechanical filligree won’t make it out into play, and concerned that I won’t have the right moves at the right time to do what Burdick needs to do.
For instance, if she had Augury, she could disentangle the threads of love and futility, by isolating a fragment of the Maelstrom and containing it. But I spent the last advance that could’ve given her Augury on something else! That avenue is closed off to me. But it feels so right! I feel trapped. I feel like the game is telling me that Burdick can’t even attempt to do what she knows, what we both know, deep in our hearts, she needs to do.
I’m planning, scheming, wheedling, and the story is speaking to me, a weak and anemic voice I can barely hear, but I’m no longer following where the story leads; I’m planning where the story will go. I’m compiling Moves that will allow me to advance the plot in the desired direction.
Just typing that sentence feels like a travesty. The story pulses a faint, protesting plea.
FLASHBACK: I’m playing D&D 3.5 with a long-term group. We play several different campaigns with a couple different Gamemasters. I’ve got three characters I’m fond of: Jaden the half-elf Rogue, sort of a con-man Indiana Jones. Telar the escaped slave Warmage, sort of a fireball-hurling Spartacus out to liberate his people. And Drochan Vox, Hexblade, a cursed child grown into a bitter, demon-hunting warrior.
And with each of these characters, taking them where they need to go in the story means strategizing their Feats, spells and magic items as they level up. It means strategy sessions with the GM to work out custom abilities to reflect narrative growth. And the pulsing vine of story starts to wither as we mix narrative in our laboratory.
And now playing Apocalypse World is starting to feel that way.
It’s the final session now, time to lay planning aside and play. I’ve made “heal the land” a project for my workspace, and Hans, the MC, has laid the stipulation that I’ll have to expose my people to serious danger, and take apart the community to do it.
So we play. Burdick and Kickskirt decide to lead the people in a peaceful show of strength to the warlord Barbecue. Always returns as Sorrow the Faceless, preaching that mankind was cursed by the earth, and must end their suffering in an orgy of bloodshed! He kills Barbecue, sending the warlord’s people into a frenzy. Burdick’s march of solidarity becomes a bloodbath when Sorrow incites a kid to attack!
Burdick confronts her brother as the battle rages, but can’t stop him or the slaughter. Seeing the battle ended, Sorrow turns to go, but is felled by the gravely wounded Kickskirt’s final rifle shot. Kickskirt tells Burdick “you can’t be the one who kills people,” and dies in her arms.
Burdick smashes Sorrow’s bone mask before the assembly. Brokenhearted, she opens her brain in the night, and through fevered dreams she knows the symbol the people need. They find her on the battlefield at dawn, painting the broken mask with a bright yellow sun.
And you know what? The story returns, singing its song loudly in my ear, pulsing its pulse through my heart. Somehow I’m able to lay aside the test tubes and love it, feel its living presence. It’s not that I abandon the game’s tools, but I’m once again letting the story lead the Moves and not the other way around. I was starting to feel the mechanical stipulations of Moves as limiters preventing the growth of story: if you don’t have Augury, you can’t manipulate the spiritual fabric of the world, and that’s that. No matter how much you might want to, no matter how fitting it might be that a spiritual shift would be the natural outgrowth of your character’s actions. But now, I’m experiencing Moves as a springboard into further story, and guided themselves by story; if you do a thing, then the results of that thing happen. Story flows freely, Move flows to Move, and a thing marked on a character sheet becomes relevant in spontaneous and surprising ways, when the time is right.
I almost lost Burdick, in my zeal to find her. Ignoring the whisper of story, I very nearly squeezed the life out of her, turned her into a dead thing. But I found Burdick again in that whisper, and in listening to that voice coaxed her back to life. I hope I can always remember that story is a living thing, and that in nourishing and loving that life I bring myself to life as well.