Apocalypse World Houston

Apocalypse World
Ain't No Ark for the Wicked
OwlCon XXXIV | Sat 8pm to 12am

Thanks to Midnight, Shade, Jack O'Connel, PowerShift (and Fred, his car), Dr. Lou and Requiem for an awesome game!

Thanks to Dagan, Eli and Brian for feedback/playtesting.

This was my first DMing experience with strangers- and I survived! The last time I ran a game was in 2009 with two Rifts one-shots. That was among friends though, which is a completely different dynamic! First, I will talk about what I learned:

  • Snap-to-grid encounters are the easiest to DM at conventions - it pulls you away from needing to be constantly making story. This makes me want to run Pathfinder or another combat-orientated RPG. 13th Age seems to be the sweetspot between roleplaying and strategy.
  • I need to practice the cadence, narration, and consequence of combat with this system. 
  • I need to bridge between major parts of the story in a more player-driven way, which I mean...
  • ...I need to let player ideas succeed more rather than stay true to character all the time. I may think that this NPC would not divulge information so easily, but that doesn't matter: I need to edit the story in real-time to keep it flowing.
  • I need to learn how to hint solutions. "You remember that Stark told you about that hidden path..." etc
  • I need to learn ways to regroup split parties.
  • I need to not outnumber them, and if I do, to throw logic down the window and remember that Stormtroopers miss a lot.
  • I told them to be badasses: I didn't allow it enough, which is because of...
  • ...I took on too many players. I need to lower maximum players to 4. 6 was too many for me to pay attention to as a DM. 4 would be ideal. 5-6 seems to encourage spiting, and I lose sight of their special abilities.

Many of these things I did due to lack of experience. I also haven't learned the proper tools of storytelling- the suspence, the pacing, the diction - thus failed to fully address their badassery and creativity. This will happen in time and with practice.


Houston, Texas, the two loops with 20m of sealevel rise + permanent floodplains. 

Houston, Texas, the two loops with 20m of sealevel rise + permanent floodplains. 

50 Years Ago

I set this story in a flooded Houston. I'm not one with alternate history experience, but I've applied my knowledge of history, politics, economics and sociology for this timeline.

The apocalypse happened 50 years ago

[70-100 years ago] 
All over the US, major storms, earthquakes, blizzards tear up major cities. The government supports major financial centers leaving many cities in a state of anarchy. It is overwhelmed.

[70 years ago]
In Houston, while NYC, LA, and Chicago are swallowed whole, the flooding begins gradually, but sped up 10 years prior to total, irreparable environmental meltdown. No one really cared about Galveston, but once the flooding got worse rather than better (pray the flood away), communities started to panic. Some fled, some banned together. Things just seemed wetter, a little more crowded, but business as usual. The Texas way.

[65 years ago]  
In fear of the feds using state surpluses, Texas succeeded unanimously, spreading more panic throughout the US. "We have it better here," a prominent congressman wrote, "we must protect our resources for the betterment of our people." You don't need education, mail, and money when it rains every goddamn day and things are falling apart, they argued. 

[55-60 years ago] 
As the flooding increased, people moved westward, slowly becoming part of the remaining, somewhat-functioning neighborhoods. Those that had something to offer or a familial/friend connection were taken in, but many were turned away. They are mostly scavengers turned mad by rejection, hunger, and disease. Some turned into fishermen, which allowed them some dignity and role in society.

[50 years ago]  
Total government breakdown. Even Texas can't keep itself afloat. It's a full-on energy crisis. Due to the constant rain and flooding, the grid in constant disrepair, only small and highly laborious oil rigs are operational. Some warlords have “invented” (by invented, I mean stole then fucked with even more) corn-based gasoline, but whatever the hell they added to it makes it highly flammable. There's many bombed cars around the city from this fuckery. Have a bike? Here's a generator. Have fun.

Main food sources depend by tribe, but fish is common, rice is common and so is any water-loving vegetable. Wealthier communities have gerry-rigged generators for indoor harvesting. These are kept secret in fear of gangs. Fields are guarded by snipers and/or militia.

People are out for themselves. Sometimes, someone exceptional comes along to stir things up- whether in brute force, in shaman-like qualities, in unparalleled brainsmarts, or charismatic-as-shit leadership. Until then, business as usual in H-town.

NOTE: Since I am planning to run this game again in the future, and therefore perfect it, the above timeline and background may change!

A zoom of the play area. Lakewood church is on the right.

A zoom of the play area. Lakewood church is on the right.


Ain't No Ark for the Wicked

AN EXCERPT
 

[Temperance X escorts you to the meeting room. It is a tent in the center of the watertower made up of lush and rich fabrics. A large and low ebony table lies in the center, with four censers lit making the room smell like a forest in rain. You see symbols of fertility around- some ancient, some modern. Multiple medical drawings of women's bodies hang up like sacred tapestries. Slightly wilted flowers hang below these.]

CLARITY

My name is Clarity. Would you like clean water? Coffee? Tea? Whiskey? What do you wish?

I asked Rashmi for the best. I probably didn't need to ask him, he knows what I need. Loyal that man, but snakey. You have to repeat yourself from time to time. Memory is like sand, melting like rubber, hissing like rain…[mumbles]

Anyway. You know what we do right?.. The cult?

[ PLAYER KNOWLEDGE: From what you've experienced, you know that women no longer get pregnant. Children have not really been on your mind lately, but you know the function of the Cult. We need them. All the women that can conceive have gathered together into a cohesive unit for protection and power and offer fecundity for resources. This is how tribes replace their dying. Only if they wish and can afford it, of course. ]

CLARITY

And as if the apocalypse didn’t curse us enough, our chemistry’s changed. We’re the same, only a little more damaged.

[motions to her left] This is Elend, Maria, and Leadhead Dusk.

GM

A man and woman nod. It looks like they are clutching to each other, though their bodies are not intertwined. They might as well be scared little mice. Leadhead Dusk is a rather older man, a browned face with pronounced features, a little hunched. He wears a pistol on his belt.

CLARITY

Leadhead Dusk made the most gracious offering to Our Divine Fertility a few weeks ago. We accepted graciously. Kara, one of our firsts, was to carry out her duty. … Perhaps you don't know how we work here. Ritual keeps the body level. It's how we remind ourselves of our Gift. We usually send our women to the tribes. To walk among them. To make sure they are ready for such a Gift. After some time, our woman then selects a couple. The criteria is hers to execute. Kara chose Elend and Maria. It was to be their child. [pause] On the night of the implantation, however, she was captured. Kidnapped. Stolen. Someone dared to disrupt this sacred order. We found out through the eyes and ears of loyal subjects of this vile enemy. It's them, the religious hoarders, the damned righteous recluses of this flooded waste.

I was told they saw the garments they wear. The clean whites, pastels, and khaki. They took her, how dare they take my blood! [angry]

The Lakewood Compoud is highly guarded. I thought they weren't supposed to be outside, with us,the so-called tainted. I thought they were rumors. But perhaps these are true. They are starting to leave their nest. Just to mess with MINE. [she looks at Elend and Maria] With OUR nest. [she hysterically laughs] Do they want to start a war? The Fruitful aren't taken. WE take... to GIVE. The fate of the human world resonates in our bodies. Slowly, less and less of us can conceive. We refuse to perish. Until this curse of humanity is lifted, we MUST protect the fruits of our womb.

You must get them.

[She eyes you all fiercely. Nails gnarled into the table. Elend and Maria nod and look at you for a response.]


Urbanist Implications

Houston urbanism before and shortly after the flood would remain relatively the same, especially with anti-density, pro-parking, environmental deniers in political power. Due to no zoning, developers are trigger-happy, building megablocks of parking, retail and apartments. I would imagine this developer-centered growth is what will keep happening in the city, especially with its projected growth. In my fiction I imagined two scenerios: one where the church of density pushes a Cerda-esque top-down operation. It's not unheard of for large swaths of land to be cleared for better, newer, and bigger things. Say Houston decides it's time for a change, clears out some strip malls and opts for a Barcelona courtyard block, as in the image on the left.

Barcelona

Barcelona

Sao Paolo

Sao Paolo

This was before the apocalypse of course. Houstonians living in more "urban" settings with their highway not so far away. Oh, and of course, everything has underground parking. Once the flood starts, from Galveston up towards Houston, the West moves East. Flash floods are a Houstonian past-time, only this one won't go away. Many joked it was Alison's evil twin sister. Where would you go?

The majority of empty spaces in Houston, TX are parking lots: large surface lots covering a whole city block, or ringing around strip malls, monoliths of stacked parking, parallel parking, unpaved dirt lots behind that club. Would people camp in their cars in these lots, then slowly evolve into a favela-like mass? It's not like the economy works anymore once half a city is underwater- at least, not the formal economy. 

I added this urban fabric to the map, as well as a megastructure coming up from SE of River Oaks. This megastructure has no fiction attached to it yet.


Womb Power: Feminism & Fiction

In my very casual playtest, my friend Dagan brought to my attention of the the once-again, damned-sexist damsel trope: my major conflict revolved around a kidnapping. It doesn't make it better than I, a woman, wrote this. But it is a product of the setting I've created: women can no longer conceive save a few special women. And it's exactly this specialness that makes them commodities, or, the possibility of being thought as such. And we have been commoditized throughout history. Constantly. Female slaves had more worth, because they can make more slaves. A fertile woman makes more workers. Keep a ring on it and they'll produce all your heirs. Here's some playthings for your pleasure. Let me sell- I mean, marry- my daughter out to a man that can pay.

I wanted to turn this on its head. Especially in Texas.

Texas has a problem with women where a fetus has more rights than the body which creates it. The New York Times posted a dismal map of all the abortion clinics in the state: as early this year, more than half of them have closed in the second largest state. With the new law, which requires abortion clinics to be licensed as ambulatory surgery centers, only 7 clinics will be open total. The closest one to Brownsville, my hometown, the southernmost tip of Texas, would be in San Antonio, 277 miles away. The border is a few steps away- walking distance even. And if there's anything we do know and can depend on is that people make economic choices not necessarily rational or safe choices- especially in dire and desperate situations- and this is already happening in the Rio Grande Valley. Misoprostol use is on the rise in areas with recently closed abortion centers, which disproportionately affect the poor and mostly Hispanic population. These are also areas with not only sub-par education in the entire country, but have little to no sexual education. With high religiosity and social conservatism comes sexual taboos and these are hard to break when public schools do not teach children and teenagers about safe sex.

In this fiction, I wanted to tap into this context, to give power back to women in a land where gender roles continue to keep many "in their place" (removing reproductive choice is part of this dynamic- a political move enacted by men). And how precious and powerful is a fruitful womb in the face of human extinction, especially when women hold the choice of reproduction, the choice of keeping humanity alive. Men are not seizing. Men do not control all aspects of reality. Women defend their bodies. Women reign their bodies. Women also have control. 

Together, Dagan, Eli and Brian helped me capture these ideas into a better story- one which does contain the damsel trope as conflict, but reverses it wonderfully in the end. All parties retain power. This I will write about later as I refine the story for the next time I run it.

In fictions, one can explore the ugly side of humanity safely. The more real and human a story it is, however, the more intense its affect. We know how people act. We know what feels "real" and what is mere fantasy. What is out of character, what is in. Apocalypse World demands grit- it wants the grimy truth of human the animal: nothing is black and white, everything comes with a price. Due to my inexperience GMing games, I couldn't add this weight, this desperation, this uncertainty, these tensions, but with practice, this story will be more vivid. I'm excited to continue this little project. Stay tuned!