Apocalypse World

Maelstrom Thoughts: Paul Holds Court 3/3

Aight, last of my nonsense. First part is here, second part is here.

Okay so this mini-campaign I took a different tack than before. A lot of this comes directly from some killer best-practice advice about Sagas of the Icelanders I got from Mikael Andersson​ back in the day, regarding that game’s bond economy and some clever interpretation of the moves set. The executive summary from that game (hear me out) is that when someone Tempts Fate and the GM (whose meta-character is “The Fates”) earns a bond on that character from a 7-9 roll, the GM gets to use that bond in exactly the same way as the players: specifically, a move called “look into someone’s heart.” I’m sure you can see the similarity to Open Your Brain.

This campaign, I didn’t have a strong sense of “who” the Maelstrom was, but I knew it’d have a personality and an agenda. I took the players’ lead on that the first time someone opened their brain: what even is the Maelstrom, how does your character interact with it, what does it look like to them? Based on those early answers I formed up the Maelstrom’s personality.

In Sagas, the neat little psych trick is when you look in someone’s heart, you get straight answers but the questions are constrained. Stuff like “how could I get your character to do X?” Then, later, when the GM puts those things into motion, was that the Fates? Was it magic? It’s even better when the Seidkona playbook, who is ostensibly “magical,” gains 3 bonds on you, asks her own questions, and the Fates (the GM) collaborates on the answers. It kind of … seems like magic is happening.

In Apocalypse World I go for the same thing. I’m asking questions for a couple reasons: to get them talking and thinking about stuff, and checking to see where the players’ interests lie. The talking and thinking sets the hook if their interests are aligned with the questions.

When I ask Maelstrom questions, I just ask Paul-to-player. I don’t talk with a weird voice or anything. I feel like I’m asking on behalf of this fictitious monster, though! Like I’ll sit there a moment and imagine what this evil fucker wants. And then I’ll ask about that in the nicest possible way. That might look like ummm:

Dang, not to get back into the Battlebabe story but it’s a fresh and relevant example. What the Maelstrom really wants to know is, how I can I get the Battlebabe to hurt Mice the worst? How can I manipulate him into that moment? Concession prize: how can I hurt the Battlebabe the worst via his relationship with Mice? It is totally a shit-stirring, dysfunctional, mean-girl kind of attitude. How can I inflict misery? Because, when I first asked about what the Maelstrom “is,” the answer I got was “the psychic static of the world’s misery that reached a tipping point.”

Okay, so I hear the Maelstrom tell me this. Then I have to rely on my grasp of human nature to make that work. So I ask questions about BB’s investment in Mice. Nudge him toward investing in the idea of their relationship more. Nudge my play of her into something sincere. This is me doing the Maelstrom’s bidding. You can armchair-psychologist this all you want. 🙂

Later, I remember testing the waters, to see if the hooks had gotten set. That’s when I asked about whether he thought she’d let him go if she was alive. Followed with, “so I guess that means you have to kill her, yeah?” And just letting that sit with the player a bit.

Then, when my 7-9 came along and I could finally cash in my chips, I know he felt partially responsible. It was my proudest, brightest moment in the game when he sits there, puts down his character sheet, throws his hands in the air and says “I don’t know what to feel!”

Then he had his character run off and nearly die chopping the shooter’s head off with a sword.

I guess I’m not sure how else to describe this other than to hone your headgame skills. If this doesn’t come naturally, maybe it’s not a technique you can internalize and put to good use.

I will say this: I also use the Maelstrom to get a sense of how to deliver meaningful achievement as well. Sometimes 10+ results can be just as magical: everything is on the line, it could all end in catastrophe, there’s genuine tension, and that is when they get everything they wanted and more.

23 thoughts on “Apocalypse World”

  1. That’s interesting that you perceive it as Paul-to-player. Like, definitely it’s Paul-to-someone, but I always end up pitching my questions to the character. So like, your example, would be me saying “Do you really think you can leave her without killing her?” to the character not the player, which lets the player really exaggeratedly lean on “Of COUUURRRSEEEE I can” if they wish

  2. First of all: ❤

    Second of all, I think you can totally think of the psychic maelstrom in a meta way. It’s the cloud hanging above the table, the chaos of our words and thoughts all clashing together and hanging over the characters like some terrible fate, knowing their most intimate thoughts. The psychic maelstrom is us, as the authors, primed by the game to inject badness into the fiction.

  3. Yeah, totally…I think conceptualizing the maelstrom as “all the chaos we are willing to inflict upon the game” works; if you ever, for example, solve the maelstrom, the game is, unequivocally, over.

  4. I love the advanced version of the ‘open your brain’ move too. If a player can hit that 12+ and reach through the maelstrom to find out what lies beyond to the envy of the MC? Gold.

  5. Great post. On the subject of whether it’s the player or what, I think the beauty of the psychic maelstrom in AW is that it allows us to break the fourth wall. It’s really, really ambiguous in this game whether the maelstrom conversations are “in the fiction” or happening at a higher level.

    When the maelstrom is asking questions, it’s pretty hard to say exactly, whether it’s actually gleaning information from the character in the fiction, or whether it’s me (Paul) asking you (whatever your name is) what your character thinks or feels, and whether you care about that. That blurring of the lines is delightful, in a way, because we can go either way and it still works.


    So, you ask the questions “out of character”. Even if you address the character and not the player, you’re asking just as you would as the MC.

    How do you introduce/explain this to the players? Do you just use the opportunity of an “open your brain” to have a conversation (after all, the MC can ask questions at any time – as can anyone else), or do you explain or misdirect in some way, like to say that “you feel the maelstrom reaching inside your brain and learning from you” or any other kind of “framing” of this transfer of information that’s happening?

    For instance, if it’s the first “open your brain” roll in a game with a new player, what would you say to them, how would you frame it?

  6. Matters of intent and feelings and motivation are only introduced into “the conversation” via open your brain. I mean that’s why there are rules at all, yeah?

    I don’t explain a damned thing. It doesn’t “look” like anything in the fiction in my game. But the tone most definitely changes, practically speaking, because the maelstrom’s interests are different than my interests (hence the thesis of this whole post).

    It’s a ritual. Rituals have power.

  7. I… think that makes sense. You’re saying “rituals have power”, and I’m digging for more info on what that ritual looks like, in practical terms. What’s the script, if there was one?

  8. There isn’t a script. I’m sorry, I’m not really sure what you’re looking for and it’s tiring me out. I’m not being jerky! I think I wasn’t ready to dig this deep into the fine details of my craft and how I got there.

  9. Paul Beakley I think I understand and echo what Paul Taliesin is asking, so lemme try my variation:

    I think we want to see it in action, hold in in our hands, and sniff it. An actual play recording or transcript of your session would do wonders, but I know you don’t have that.

  10. Sure. Nothing better than seeing it in action. Sit at my table sometime.

    Wait…do either of you think there’s an actual literal ritual involved? There is not. Don’t misread me! I mean that the transaction around 7-9 is a ritual. Just like a miss has a ritual. It’s nothing so formal! It’s more like…

    The Miss Ritual

    Them: Oh! A miss. Typical. (Internal dialogue: Oh god, I rolled a five. Well shit, guess I failed. Good thing I didn’t roll snake eyes! I’d have been really screwed! Etc etc. (ignoring the procedural inaccuracies of this line of thought, it’s still a ritual involving probably all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief).)

    Me: Okay, so let me make my move then. Nah it won’t be that bad! Remember, and I’m saying this for myself as much as for you: misses are not per se failures. Oh hey, you see Mice clambering up out of the river bed. She looks pretty beat up but you could get to her. Just have to get across the open field where the firefight is going down. (The move I’m actually making: Offer an opportunity, with or without a cost.)

    The 7-9 Ritual

    Them: hey a … 9. Shit. Okay. Um?

    Me: Gimme a second. (I don’t need a second. I just let it sit there for a bit.) Let me look at that move again…a worse position, hesitate, an ugly choice…hm. (I don’t need to look at the move again.) Ah. Well obviously as you get there, safe and sound, three shots pop-pop-pop from behind you and Mice falls to the ground, dead.


    I mean this is all just the theatrics of facilitating a game, yeah? These aren’t rooolz. This is just tempo and delivery and messing with players’ heads.

    I could write out examples all day long, I guess, but that’s all I’m talking about.

  11. Aaaand I just realized I wrote this in the Maelstrom thread and not the 7-9 thread, where there’s also some confusion. Let me respond to this thread now.

    Again, no formal ritual. But there’s a ritualistic quality.

    Them: Okay! I open my brain about where Balls might be. (Rolls dice, gets an 11). Hey an 11, sweet.

    Me: Let me look at the move again for a second. (I don’t need to, I’m just buying time and drawing out the moment.) New and interesting! I can do that. But first I have some questions for you.

    Them: Okay, shoot.

    Me: (I look at the relationship map, touch things I’m thinking about, which makes them think about it. Find the thing I want to push on and I’ll tap it a couple times for emphasis.) Okay, Big Mike. Why do you dream about the sea?

    Them: (They sit there a bit and come up with a good answer. I wait super patiently.) Beeeecause that was the last time I was with my dad. We were at the sea.

    Me: (ask a couple followups, setting emotional hooks for later.) Okay, cool, thanks. So you were asking about Balls….

    I mean there’s nothing formal about the process at all, but there’s some theatricality to the whole thing. I refer to my OP on the topic, about how I treat the Maelstrom as a separate character and me, the fourth-wall-breaking facilitator, as its friendly face.

    The r-map is a huge part of my GMing theater. It dominates the table. It demands everyone’s attention. I’ve talked at length about this stuff before. Anyway! When it’s time for the Maelstrom to go fucking around with the characters, there’s lots of very deliberate blurring of me and the maelstrom, and the players and their characters. I’ll confuse the names sometimes — Okay Spencer I MEAN BIG MIKE — or whatever.

    It’s such a completely natural and normal thing it feels weird to write this out in such detail. The only thing I can say that might not be “natural and normal” is a heightened awareness I have, going into the Maelstrom stuff, that there’s a ritualism to it all. We’re not jumping from scene to scene. I’m not maintaining spotlight equity around the table. I’m not making moves. It’s a very specific and special moment between me and them, and it’s not one I just do because the rules of Apocalypse World are explicit about when these conversational topics may take place.

  12. Paul Beakley, fantastic! That’s exactly what I was hoping for – just the sequence of events when you do this: the move is rolled, the outcome decided, but before you tell them what happens, you ask some questions. That’s a very clear illustration.

    The cue of tapping the rmap/smap is a nice touch! I look forward to your post on that.

  13. Yeah that’s great. Thanks for the mock transcript. I have a comment and then a follow up.

    I just checked the move and honestly think I have sort of glossed over the emphasized part here: “On a hit, the MC tells you something new and interesting about the current situation, and might ask you a question or two; answer them.” It’s not an option to answer them – if the MC asks, you gotta. I think that’s interesting.

    So the question: do you make any attempt to connect the questions to theirs or make them coherent in the moment? The example seems like a tangent (“where’s bob?” / “what’s up with your dreams?”) – I’m curious if there’s any attempt to connect the dots, or if you let them do that?

  14. I think there’s a charm to the “utterly incoherent, but guided by the MC’s curiosity and the twisted interests of the maelstrom” approach to this.

    If you had to, though, you could think of it as an intruding thought or concern on the part of the character. Like when you’re trying to do your work but you keep thinking about that time you saw your neighbour throw out a bag of stuff, and it’s bugging you now that you don’t know what was in there.

  15. I was watching an Apocalypse World AP video today, and I saw a nice example of this. If anyone wants a “real play” example of this technique, check out the brief conversation which takes place here (links goes to the relevant moment):

    youtube.com – Apoc World Crossroads 03

    It’s a missed “Things Speak” roll, but it could just as well have been a successful “open your brain” move.

  16. (In this example, it’s fully justified within the fiction, however, as a vision or instant transfer of information. There’s fairly little gloss put on that, though – it’s just basically decreed to happen and then we get into the details.)

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