The first real playtest of ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD went extremely well. It certainly exceeded my expectations. A non-zero portion of that is that I was running it for guys that I have gamed with off and on (more off than on after my move to Raleigh) for well over twenty years, but it’s equally true that a non-zero portion of it is just that rough spots I was concerned with weren’t that big a deal.
This is pretty long (about 3500 words) but I want to make sure the first actual play report touches everything important in a little more detail than maybe I otherwise would. Even then, there are still spots which could use MORE detail, so ask questions about rules and where things are going.
The players were John, Peter, and Scott. It was decided at the outset that Peter would get to be the Lead in whatever movie was chosen as it was his birthday shindig that this was all taking place at. Right now, it’s pretty nebulous how Lead is determined; that’s something to firm up, for sure, but it was easy enough for the first test.
Peter opted to play The Yeller, a Reb Brown, screams all the time, beefy sort of actor. John went with The Pugilist and decided to go a little slapsticky with his martial artist a la Jackie Chan. Scott went with The Gunfighter, a Chow Yun-Fat gun-fu type.
The actor names were as follows:
Peter: Chet Bradford (Yeller)
John: Jack Sprat (Pugilist)
Scott: Chip Kaiser (Gunfighter)
Once the playbooks and actor names were picked, the group chose their moves. Chet picked “Just Yell”, which allowed him to roll +Muscles instead of +Drama for certain scenes, and “Move, Move, Move”, a move which allows him to egg his companions on when speed is needed. Jack decided on “Go for the gut. He’s soft there”, a straight +1 Agility, and “Sting Like a Bee”, letting him roll +Agility instead of +Muscles in close combat. Finally, Chip decided to go for “Gun Ballet”, granting –area to any ranged weapon he uses, and “This Is My Gun”, giving him a +1 to all Stunt rolls while a ranged weapon is in his hand.
These are the actors. You can think of the actors as brands and these moves as calling cards of each particular actor. Using Chet as an example, we see an actor who delivers heavy emotional scenes by screaming his lines and who tends to rely on screaming at his costars to hurry up. So, quite a bit like Reb Brown, actually.
With the actor playbooks chosen, it was time to pick a genre of movie and see what we could come up with. Right now, I only have the Cop Movie and Barbarian Movie Scripts (movie playbooks) ready. I’ve got plenty in the pipeline, but if I set a bar of “all the Scripts are done” as a minimum for testing, then this thing is never going to get tested because, ho boy, it’s practically limitless.
The guys decided to go with the Cop Movie. I was pretty happy with this, since I’d done a one on one with the Barbarian Movie once before.
The first thing you do is sort out what sorts of relationships the characters have with one another. Starting with the Lead and going to his or her left, you roll on or pick from a chart (or make something up entirely) to see what the relationship is. It’s deliberately reminiscent of Fiasco; one of my favorite bits of Fiasco is the way that it forces you to think about what the relationships between the characters mean.
We determined that Chet’s character and Jack’s character had a cop-informant relationship. We knew that Chet was going to be the Lead in this film, so it was pretty easy to sort out which was which: Chet was the cop, Jack was the informant. Jack was next to roll and he ended up with a relationship of precinct buddies with Chip. Problem: we already established that Jack was going to be playing an informant in this film. Easy solution: Jack was an ex-cop, disgraced but still of use to the force as an informant from his new vantage point from the docks. Finally, Chip rolled to see his relationship with Chet and got a 12. They had both seen something terrible.
We paused here. We had a slowly coming into view picture of what the movie looked like. We knew it was a cop movie (duh), that Chet and Chip were cops who had witnessed something terrible, and that Dusty was an ex-cop (and ex-partner) of Chip’s who had fallen on hard times. Nice. Time to drill down more.
Before we went any further, I wanted names of the film characters the actors were playing. This isn’t the same as the actor’s names; actor’s names won’t change, while film character names will change each movie (yo, this is meta: you are a real person playing an actor playing a character). Chet decided to play Sgt. Lance Anger. Chip, his current partner, played Rob Collier. And Jack played poor Dusty, a man who left his last name and badge behind him.
With names done, we returned to the setting. What was this terrible thing that Lance and Rob had seen? After some discussion, it was decided that they saw a terribly mangled body with its fingers snipped neatly off at the site of a diamond heist. Some sort of message, but what did it mean? Going further, the precinct (it was also decided that it was set in Los Angeles) was in a tizzy about the ghastly crime. Dusty, our informant, was a drunk fisherman with his ear to the ground in the dockyards. He’d been implicated in a prior, years ago jewel heist, so some suspicion was coming his way.
Next up were the Script moves. Each player picks a move from the chosen Script, exactly the same as with their Actor playbooks. Script moves only last for the duration of the current movie, however; they’re tightly tied to the genre being portrayed, while Actor moves tend to be more general, pan-genre action moves (experience expenditures can make Script moves permanent, though). Lance went with “Supercop” (+1 all stunts), Dusty with “Corrupt Is As Corrupt Does” (can spend holds to get access to illicit goods), and Rob with “High Speed Chase” (a demon behind the wheel).
The characters picked their gear (Lance Anger loved his nightstick, Dusty still had a stash of teargas grenades, and Rob Collier had his assault rifle) and then it was time for the final step: picking a villain. In this stage, the Director (me) gets to pick, though the players have veto power. Each Script comes with a list which you can pick from. The entries all have associated impulses, familiar to anyone who’s made a Front for Apocalypse World. I’d heard Dusty talking about drugs with his Script move, so I floated a drug kingpin; the group wasn’t too keen on that and floated the police chief being the big bad guy. I thought that sounded cool, so I named him (Brent McGillicutty) and off we went.
We opened in the precinct office. Chief McGillicutty had a hot tip that Dusty had some information regarding the diamond heist and mutilation; he asked Lance and Rob to head down there, since Rob had a relationship with Dusty dating back a decade. Lance had to go, too; he was Rob’s partner and the best cop on the force. (Peter really played the yelling aspect of things to the hilt; he would yell borderline incoherently at random times and kept it up for around three hours) The partners grabbed their squad car and headed down to the docks.
There was an obvious break in the action so it was time to jump cut over to Dusty. He had an old fishing boat which he lived on now. His cousin, Nick, was fixing the motor for him and was wrapping the job up as we cut over. Nick and Dusty exchanged some pleasantries, with Nick expressing concern for his well-being, when Lance and Rob pulled up. Nick and Dusty greeted the two cops and Nick excused himself, stating that he had his kids for the weekend.
The scene shifted to a bit of heavy pathos, with Rob assuring Dusty that he was a good cop caught in a bad situation, while Dusty, reticent to help, insisted he wasn’t. Lance decided he wasn’t interested in this and decided to convince Dusty to help by making an emotional connection. This is a +Drama roll and varies from the more direct manipulation roll in approach. The emotional connection move is about delivering a stirring speech of some sort and trying to elicit an emotion or memory.
Lance rolled and ended up with a 12; obviously a rousing success. At this point, we ran into a small rules snag. Lance was going to punch Dusty in the stomach to snap him out of it before delivering a speech about how he was still a cop at heart; Dusty decided that he wasn’t going to go along with that and wanted to resist. Lance’s narration was totally valid only as long as the target didn’t resist. He could’ve narrated it differently, with maybe just a speech and no physical contact. The second physical contact was initiated, Dusty had the option to resist and cause a fight to break out. This isn’t currently adjudicated in the rules and was just a judgment call on my part; I’m inclined to keep it that way, as this particular situation strikes me as somewhat rare.
I gave Lance a chance to change the move. He definitely wanted to, as his in-character intention was to snap Dusty out of it, not start a fight. Rob jumped in here and suggested that he stop the punch from behind before it was thrown; Lance thought that was a really good idea and agreed. So Rob stopped the punch, shouting that this wasn’t the way. Lance huffed and relented.
“You’re still on the force to me, Dusty! You’re still on the right team!”
Dusty relented and agreed to help. I asked Dusty what he knew, putting the decision in player hands. Dusty knew that the Pier One Gang (yes, that Pier One) was rumored to be involved in some heavy stuff. He used his “Corrupt Is As Corrupt Does” move from the Cop Movie Script to do this. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but it was something. Before the group could pull off, though, a cop car pulled up and out stepped officers Jane Lillard and Bob Thomas with a search warrant for the boat. Stand up cops and acquaintances of all three of the heroes. They presented the search warrant and said that Lance and Rob could certainly contribute.
Things took a weird turn here. For whatever reason, Lance and Rob decided to knock out the two searching cops. Dusty, for his part, wisely stayed out of it. We turned to some combat rolls, with punches thrown and pistol whippings galore. Dusty opted for a stunt move to get the hell out of there, tumbling over the side and into the water. Bob took a tumble down into the ship’s cabin, while Jane landed in the water. Dusty ended up dragging the unconscious Officer Lillard onto the deck; Rob searched her and found a crumpled note with the address for the Pier One scribbled on it. Lance, for his part, went to go question Bob down below. Bob was coming to when, out of the corner of his eye, Lance caught sight of an open briefcase of crisp, unmarked bills sitting on a table.
A series of accusations broke out between Lance, Rob, Dusty, and the still groggy Bob. A couple of read a person moves established that Bob wasn’t behind planting the money there. Only one person made sense: Dusty’s cousin, Nick the mechanic. Lance and Rob tried to talk Bob down from radioing in what, from their perspective, was a massive misunderstanding. That was obviously the persuade move and it was flubbed, badly. No dice: Bob was getting the still comatose Jane and radioing in backup. With no choice, the two beaten up cops were gently left on dock and the boat roared to life, course set for Pier One.
Rob decided to roll High Speed Chase, netting an 8; he opted to take a shortcut, but either he or the vehicle would take some damage. He narrated ducking between tugboats and eking every bit of speed out of the old boat, while I described the fishing gear getting knocked loose during a clip with one of the tugs. Not particularly crunchy, but it made for a cool narrative moment and was actually one of the most visually striking scenes when placed in my mind’s eye.
The heroes (I use the term loosely after the search warrant fiasco, but it’s also not entirely outside the source material) killed the motor as night fell and headed up to the Pier One warehouse. There’s no real stealth move, or acting under fire, so sneaking around unseen defaulted to a +Agility based stunt move. This brought up an interesting flow of play question: do I want AMW to be the sort of game in which a roll is needed by everyone to make what amounts to a group move or do I just defer to the most competent one? It felt more in keeping with the conversational tone to just ask for the one roll; that may be something I revisit, but it felt right last night.
Everyone climbed up to the top of the warehouse unseen, to a glass skylight. Peering down, they saw members of the Pier One gang unloading military grade weaponry from crates which had just arrived. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, land mines… the whole nine. And who did they see with Teeth (leader of the Pier One gang)? If you guessed Cousin Nick, you were right.
The climax was coming. Dusty decided this would be a good time to go for a Camaraderie move, a sort of abstracted move meant to revel in the friendship that most action movies have as a theme. You actually have a communal Camaraderie score, which goes up and down throughout the course of a movie. Before he did this, though, he decided to go for a killer one-liner move; one of the outcomes of a successful one-liner is a +1 to your Camaraderie score.
Dusty stated that it was “time to get a drop on these guys” as he prepped to toss out hi-fives before diving through the glass to kick some ass. Unfortunately, he missed his one-liner move. In this case, a miss taps into the meta, just a movie portion of AMW. The line elicited laughs mixed with groans at the table. In the movie, Dusty’s buddies were into it. But a miss on a one-liner meant the imaginary audience wasn’t into it; it fell flat. It was lame. It gave Dusty a -1 to his next move which was, of course, a Camaraderie move.
Dusty gave his hi-fives and everyone prepared to go in. He rolled the groups +Camaraderie (which was a 0; that’s where it starts in every film and it hadn’t been bumped up or down) with his -1 from the lame one-liner and missed. The consequences for a failed Camaraderie roll can be pretty dire. In this case, Dusty chose to have the Director make an immediate and very hard move against one of his compatriots (not him; important note).
Teeth glanced up and saw Rob at the edge of the skylight. The gangster whipped a grenade launcher out of his trench coat (the movie was set in 1992 so of course it was a trench coat) and took a blast at Rob. Rob’s body was shattered, near death. He coughed up blood as Lance grabbed him, swearing to return for him, asking him to hang on.
Lance and Dusty, tears in their eyes, jumped through the skylight. Dusty chucked tear gas down into the crowd via a successful stunt roll, opting to give the +1 forward the success granted to Lance. Lance put it to good use, diving right onto Teeth while Dusty handled Nick; Dusty nailed a combat move and opted to hit a whole ton of people in addition to disabling Nick.
The heroes handcuffed their quarry to the boat’s railing before running to the roof to check on Rob. Rob was definitely dying. When a supporting cast member dies, the actor gets two experience, while the surviving PCs gain the option to demand Vengeance; Vengeance is a hold which can be spent to gain a 10+ automatically on a move.
The death scene was great. Rob asked Lance to make sure his family was okay before reaching into his pocket with his last breath; he handed Lance adoption papers for a puppy he was going to get for his wife for their anniversary, along with a photo of said puppy. Then he was gone. Lance and Dusty swore vengeance before returning to the boat.
Once back on the boat, a few more emotional connection and manipulation moves had Teeth admitting that Chief McGillicutty had been behind the operation and that most of the police force was corrupt, while Nick repented and, for family ties, agreed to help out where he could. Sirens were heard.
One of the current holes is what to do with players of dead characters. I opted to try my current first option, which is to assign control of an NPC (starting with the main villain) to such players. Scott (Rob’s player) took over for Chief McGillicutty. I still set the scene as I would for most other NPC centered situations, but I granted Scott a lot of leeway in terms of how McGillicutty acted and spoke.
While McGillicutty and the cops were on their way for a final showdown, we cooked up a quick montage of the heroes and Nick setting a trap. Nick, being a mechanic, wired what was basically a gigantic powder with explosives (action movie logic, don’t ask). Dusty hid in his boat with a rocket launcher. Lance hid out at the door of the warehouse.
I loosely set the scene for Scott so he knew, generally, how to proceed with Chief McGillicutty. I narrated an army of cops pulling up, with him at the lead. He rolled with it, describing the chief getting out of the car with his bullhorn and doing a classic “give yourselves up” line. Lance shouted that he wanted to talk to McGillicutty, one on one, inside the warehouse. McGillicutty shouted back that he agreed, but remained by his car, motioning for the police to surround the warehouse.
Dusty figured this was his chance and he shot his shiny new rocket launcher at the now separated McGillicutty. An intersection of two rules occurred with this. One, the main villain has plot immunity from everyone but the Lead; only the Lead can kill him. Two, Dusty failed the roll. Badly. I sort of cheated here and shouldn’t have (though this did lead to an interesting potential rules change). McGillicutty caught a glimpse of Dusty in the boat and pulled his pistol, shooting poor Dusty between the eyes.
Lance lost it at this point and invoked his Vengeance move. The warehouse blew as Lance jumped out of the blast radius, propelled forward in a mega-tackle of McGillicutty (10+ on his stunt move from Vengeance). Lance bellowed that he was taking the chief in legally. It was time to fist fight. McGillicutty squirmed free after clocking Lance with an elbow to the temple. I gave Scott the option of how to react; McGillicutty ran like hell. Lance took this opportunity to hop in a squad car and run the erstwhile smuggling mastermind down.
The movie closed with credits rolling and wailing guitars. Lance was on the boat, heading out to sea. “I’ve seen enough of the city. It gets to you,” he said. “Time to try my luck out there. On the bay.” The sun was setting and a red sheen on the water paved the way for Lance Anger’s next adventures.