What to do about the NPC massacre?

Daniel Paczuski Bak 10/01/2018. 8 answers, 7.490 views
apocalypse-world powered-by-the-apocalypse

In my campaign, everything is constantly going badly. The Source has been destroyed, devastating the local region. The main hardhold was shelled with white phosphorous. Almost all of the NPCs (including NPCs that players invented for their playbooks) are dead. I've found that I am constantly having to invent new NPCs, since the players have started genocidally destroying any conflict. I think this is largely because they aren't developing relationships with NPCs. When I bring in new NPCs, only the Skinner, Chopper and Child-Thing are open to having relationships with those NPCs other than "I don't care about them" or "I want to kill them". Only the Skinner and Chopper develop meaningful relationships, the CT's relationships are all just "he brings me treats", "he finds me weird", et cetera. He has never fought to protect an NPC or worked in an NPC's interest.

Two PCs (Chopper and Skinner) have 3 or 4 NPCs they care about. But they will genocide anybody outside of their tiny group. Two of them don't care about any NPCs and generally resist any attempt I make to create NPCs that have backstories with them. One of them (the maestro D') doesn't really care about the game at all (girlfriend of one of the players) and just likes to use Just Give Me A Motive on any NPC she can. Her response is usually "I don't know" when I ask her what her relationship is with an NPC I'm inventing, what her crew does in her establishment, or whatever. I'm thinking I should recommend she switch playbooks since she doesn't really care about establishing who her crew is or what they do. She has basically just turned her maestro D' into a poison-mad loner who sits in her bar alone and drinks, and occasionally rolls to remote-control murder people for slighting her.

The move says "someone who might conceivably have ingested something you've touched" - perhaps her establishment should start developing a reputation for causing people to drop dead? I don't want to nerf her move, but I don't like that she is just murdering NPCs with no repercussions or real story motive.

The other one (the Driver) doesn't establish relationships even if I suggest them. "What's your relationship like with your dad?" "I dunno, I guess kind of detached." I can never get him to answer a backstory question with anything other than "I sell him drugs" or "I don't care about him". He doesn't save NPCs, fight for them, or really do anything proactive other than joke around and go on psychotic vision quests. I don't really know how to bring up this problem with him, or otherwise maneuver him into situations where he has relationships with characters. I think the best thing would be to use respond to "Open Your Brain" with something that commands his character to care about other people. He is very receptive to drastic character changes due to psychic experiences.

What can I do about this issue? Do I just need to keep inventing NPCs until they find some personalities they attach to? Do I just keep bringing in new threats from elsewhere whenever they annihilate the current threat with high explosives? How can I develop threats that they won't want to solve by poisoning / fighting / blowing up everybody?

8 Answers

Alex P 10/01/2018.

As a baseline for why they should care: the NPCs are their resources.

Self-sufficiency is an illusion in Apocalypse World.

Someone grows their food, someone patches their clothes, someone makes the drugs and gas and bullets that they need to do action-hero stuff all the time.

Where does the Angel keep getting supplies? How does the Gunlugger still have special armor-piercing ammo after putting 300 rounds into an armor-plated stego-bear last week? Where do the Maestro D's exotic spices and poisons come from? Where does the Chopper go to recruit fresh blood when her gang is decimate after a fight?

It doesn't need to be about backstories, it's about the here and now. Who are their friends, their clients, their servants, their playthings? Who are the people who do all the dumb, thankless tasks that they don't want to do? How many of those people are out there? 100? 200? — well, if you just firebombed the town there's 50 now, and that means half the stuff the town does for you has just stopped working.

SeaWyrm 10/01/2018.

I think these:

Do I just need to keep inventing NPCs until they find some personalities they attach to? Do I just keep bringing in new threats from elsewhere whenever they annihilate the current threat with high explosives? How can I develop threats that they won't want to solve by poisoning / fighting / blowing up everybody?

are the wrong questions. Your job is not to make sure there are NPCs that the PCs are attached to, or to invent threats that they will or will not want to solve in a particular way. It is this:

  • Make Apocalypse World seem real
  • Make the PCs' lives not boring
  • Play to find out what happens

So, first of all, my advice is to take a step back and consider the situation in terms of your agenda.

The problem is that their lives are becoming boring, right? So find ways to make their lives not boring. The book suggests looking for where the players are not in control, and pushing there. You've identified some places where they are in control. Great! You know not to push there anymore. Instead, push where they aren't in control. Maybe that's scarce resources, or psychic threats, or the harsh environment around them. Or something else entirely.

Also consider the goal of playing to find out what happens. What are you curious about? Where do you have genuine questions about what will happen? Will the Maestro'D drive herself out of business? What will their lives be like if everyone else around them abandons the area? Or, again, something else entirely. Maybe it's just, how far will they go with the poison and explosives? How much can they destroy?

So my advice is this: Your very next session, kick things off by announcing future badness that threatens them where they aren't in control, or that puts pressure on something you're curious about. Announce it to the least engaged players, maybe, depending on what's what, since that'll give them something proactive to do.

Then, find out what happens - what they do about it, or if they do anything. Continue on from there. Bring in NPCs if it seems right to do so, but don't if it doesn't. If they want to blow things up, let them blow things up, because explosions are cool. You're looking through crosshairs, not preserving status quos. Let them blow the whole world up if they want.

Or maybe even try this: Invent some stuff for them to blow up or poison or whatever. You're looking through crosshairs, right? Great, so they're your artillery! Find the messiest, most troublesome thing they could want to blow up, and give them an excuse to do it. Egg them on. Taunt them. Make it an easy target. "Oh, and the other day when you were scouting, you came across this whole cache of grenades. Just there for the taking. You took it, right?" If the players want to help you tear everything to pieces, why ever would you stop them?

Just make sure it seems real, it's not boring, and that you get to find out what happens.

Glazius 10/02/2018.

It may already be too late.

I'm not sure which version you're running, but as far as I know the Child-Thing was only around in v2, and this is what v2 says you should have been doing from the first session:

  • Ask questions all the time.
  • Look for where they're not in control.
  • Leap forward with human, named NPCs.

Taken together it means your PCs should already have an idea of what things they don't have on lock (food, shelter, new recruits, customers) and where it's coming from and, more importantly, why.

There's also the issue of how they're managing to keep up their lifestyle (1 or 2 barter at the start of every session, except for the M'd whose establishment is assumed to provide and possibly the Child-Thing) if there's no one around to pay them for doing things or sell the things they need to live.

You mention you're worried about uprooting the M'd and the Child-Thing from their bases, which would ruin their characters, but the thing is, they've already ruined their characters. An M'd can't make a business plan out of murdering everyone who walks in the door, and what exactly is the Child-Thing doing about the Wolves all on their lonesome?

The thing is, it's also your responsibility as an MC to tell them the requirements or consequences, then ask, and it doesn't really sound like your PCs understand what they've gotten themselves into. Regardless of how much plot sense it might make to have the world abandon Murder Central at this point, it should feel like a natural consequence of the PCs' choices and actions, instead of an unfair gotcha from the MC.

I suppose the fairest thing to do is, well, tell them the requirements or consequences and ask. Own up to not living up your end of it, tell them how you can't make it make sense for people to show up in Murder Central anymore, talk about options. Maybe people will be cool about picking up and moving somewhere else? Maybe they'll be cool about consolidating an openly hostile posture to the world and having things end there? Maybe they'll be cool with the past N sessions being a prophetic dream the Driver had when they got into some of the Child-Thing's kibble and getting a second chance to not screw things up in-place?

Zachiel 10/02/2018.

In a comment, you tell us that the Driver feels unattached to the plot. Explain him, out of game, that NPC triangles are what makes the game alive and that fighting for or against them is a great way to get the spotlight he wants. Basically, be where the action is.

Instead of asking who's this or that guy to [generic you], make questions that imply facts. For instance, introduce a scene where a character is approached by someone. Good questions might be "How could your brother trace you in all this mess?" or "What name will you give the child she's bearing, once it is born?". Make the NPCs relevant to your players. Make them people they want to protect. Even better, make them people some of them want to protect and some of them hate.

Errorsatz 10/01/2018.

In my campaign, everything is constantly going badly. The Source has been destroyed, devastating the local region. The main hardhold was shelled with white phosphorous. Almost all of the NPCs (including NPCs that players invented for their playbooks) are dead. I've found that I am constantly having to invent new NPCs, since the players have started genocidally destroying any conflict.

Important question - does that mean the murder-hobo behavior wasn't the case at the start of the campaign and has since become the case? Are things going badly because the PCs murder everyone, or was it already headed that way?

If so, then I think it's quite possible that's the reason for the PCs' behavior. I know that things going badly and friends dying is very much in theme for AW, but regardless, it's something that can easily burn out players from wanting to care about anybody if it's used too heavily.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's a simple fix. AW pretty much requires conflict, so just having all interactions be positive wouldn't really work. Perhaps a significant change of scenery, like needing to move out of the area, setting up somewhere new with an established population, and then - importantly - that existing population is more beneficial than they are antagonistic/a liability for the PCs. There can still be some conflict, but you need to get the players out of the "connection just brings suffering" mindset.

Eric Nolan 10/02/2018.

It seems that there are no consequences for their actions because you keep adding new NPCs for them to kill. Stop doing this. That guy that brings you treats? Dead because another player was bored. The scavengers that kept you supplied with ammo and fuel? Not around ever since their leader got poisoned on a whim.

So now you've got no supplies, nobody boosting your ego, nobody feeding you info. All the nearby communities have a kill on sight policy because you're well known as a group of psychos.

There's a good chance your players will complain about this though. They may just want you to constantly feed them fodder for their psychotic behaviour. If you don't want to do that and they only want that then just stop playing. That is often the best option in situations like this.

Rad80 10/02/2018.

This is an out-of-universe problem, and a well known one too: you are not playing the same game.

For this reason it doesn't matter what you do within the game: someone (you or some of your players) will find it is not working for them. To fix things you need to look out of the game world and look at the people involved.

Having an RPG campaign is not specific enough. What kind of story are you trying to do? If one person at the table wants to be Hannibal Lecter while another expects the party to be heroic, things are not going to work out. Both things are viable and can be fun, but not at the same time!

Agreeing on a rule system and a setting is not specific enough. Have a talk with the group and be specific about the kind of game you want and reach a compromise. Hint: "we'll do a bit of everything" rarely ever ends well.

I'll link a blog that opened my eyes on this matter. They also have a "same page tool" that is used for having a productive talk. It is quite popular and I loved it when I saw it but I never used it myself.

The Same Page Tool

In particular try to address:

  • what is expected from the GM
  • what are the relationships between party members
  • what is the genre of your narrative
  • what characters make sense for that narrative.

Keep in mind that many answers to these questions are "good" but all players need to agree on one to pick for this particular game.

Graham 10/02/2018.

Call on Maslow.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is pretty clear. Before anything else, you need food, water and shelter. Shelter isn't too bad, but food and water will tame them.

Without food for a week, they'll need to be leaving their backpack, weapons and armour behind, because they won't be able to physically carry them. Maybe -5 on strength, agility and resilience percentages per day after the first week. Soon enough, a local kid with a stick could kerb-stomp your entire merry band of murderers.

Without water for 2-3 days, they'll straight-up die. -40 on every percentage after the first day without water.

Your system may have stats already for starvation and thirst, of course. Make sure you use them.

Any NPCs are going to be hiding out somewhere with caches of supplies. There are no other supplies. No random rabbits, deer or birds. Maybe initially they can raid one or two NPC hideouts, but soon enough it'll either be cooperate or die.

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