This is a tool I put together for Apocalypse World; it can help a group get to the “action” very quickly. Taking the premise that the central conceit of each playbook + PC-NPC-PC triangles basically make the game work, this gives you a small set of NPCs with actionable and interesting relationships to the PCs. The players get to define who the NPCs are and why they are important to them, which means the MC just needs to “put flesh on that skeleton” with evocative character descriptions/depictions, and then frame a couple of scenes.
Using this should allow you to get a game going in basically no time, and even more so if your players are actively looking for interesting combinations. The MC’s job, then, is simply to pick an NPC and frame them into a scene which revolves around one or two of the PCs’ connections in order to start the game.
This is intended as a play aid for setting up a game of Apocalypse World. It might be especially well-suited for a group of beginners, or anyone looking for a little help to set up the game in the first session.
When you set up your game, pick about 4-6 of your favourite NPC names, and write them in the middle of the table. (Five names makes a good default, regardless of the size of the group, or you could go with 4, if you want a more focused or shorter game.)
Each player makes their character normally, adding the following to the very end of the procedure, after Hx.
For each playbook:
Choose 1, 2, or 3 of the statements below.
For every blank, pick an NPC name from the list. (Or, ask the other PCs which of them it might be.)
You can pick the names arbitrarily, on a whim, or carefully and intentionally.
A very few blanks are for something else, instead; the parentheses after the blank indicate what might go there.
By the end, you should have at least a handful of obvious and interesting scenes to frame. You can start to play immediately!
Example NPC List
Note: the fewer PCs you have, the more “choices” you should each make. Try to make sure that several of your NPCs get at least two people naming them in the prompts below. For a particularly short game, you might even condense the NPC list further, to 2-3 names.
- ________ needs my care and attention on a regular basis.
- ________ carries an affliction, infection, or parasite I fear could spread to the locals.
- I wish ________ would agree to work under me as my assistant or apprentice.
- ________ has access to medical supplies, implements, or knowledge I could use.
- ________ is in deep [financial/emotional] debt to me for saving their life.
- Serious money is on the table for me to kill _________.
- _________ sees me as a rival, and is looking to prove (or find out) who’s the top dog between us.
- _________ is terrified or awed by me.
- _________ is my lover.
- At night, the maelstrom speaks to me in _________'s voice, [soothing/cajoling/frightening/daring] me.
- I messed up _________'s brain so bad they barely know what’s up and what’s down.
- _________ is terrified of me, and wants me gone, the sooner the better.
- _________ desperately wants my services, to [fix ________, someone they care about / get revenge on ________, someone they’re not allowed to kill].
- _________ needs my “therapy” on a regular basis.
- _________ worships me for what I can do.
- _________ was once a member of my gang, not long ago. (On what terms did they leave? Did you kick them out, or what?)
- _________ has the know-how, equipment, or facilities to maintain and repair road hogs.
- _________ is the most capable member of my gang, hands down.
- _________ desperately wishes to join the gang.
- I had to teach _________ a lesson recently, after they got in my way.
- _________ has the skills, facilities, or tools to maintain my vehicle.
- _________ has seen places beyond what I have traveled, and knows their peril.
- _________ is having trouble transporting or trading goods reliably.
- I am often needed to help _________ get where they want to go.
- _________ has a vehicle which is more __________ [adjective] than mine.
- I fear that ________ cannot fend for her/himself. I would protect them with my life.
- My trigger-finger itches to bring ________ down. (And why have you not been able to yet?)
- _________ needs me for protection, for they fear _________ [another name from the list, a new name, a PC, a faction, a group, or an affliction].
- _________ provides me with [ammunition/medical care/both].
- The maelstrom has shown me visions: I know now that _________ cannot be brought down by my bullets.
- ________ is the former hardholder. (How did you take over from them, and how do people feel about that?)
- ________ is my second-in-command. (What makes them indispensable to you? What worries you about them?)
- ________ is a thorn in my side, constantly angling for my position. (How are they dangerous?)
- I wish I had __________ by my side, as my partner, confidante, advisor, or right hand.
- _________ is the most important or indispensable person in my holding, because only they can control/understand/maintain the _________ [valuable resource, device, or location].
- _________ is on the verge of accepting the Faith, if only I could push them over the edge.
- _________ is a Believer, but comes to me in secret, and doesn’t wish it known.
- I rely on _________, for no one knows what’s happening with my followers better than them.
- _________ was once a member of the cult, before they got kicked out.
- _________ wants the cult gone, for we embody everything they stand against.
- I desperately need to turn _________ into a believer. (What will happen if you cannot?)
- _________ wants my establishment gone.
- I owe _________ for helping me build, set up, or secure it.
- _________ wants in on it.
- _________ is my best/worst regular.
- I want to own or possess _________; they would be the beating heart of my establishment.
- _________ is hoarding some technology, knowledge, or skilled labour I’d love to get my hands on.
- _________ helps supply me with water, food, and tech or energy, which keeps my workspace running.
- _________ is always in need of my expertise.
- It’s because of _________ that my workspace is secure (perhaps from tech-hungry scumbags, or other threats).
- The maelstrom has told me that _________ is the harbinger of destruction, decay, and barbarism, threatening to erase all knowledge, sophistication, and hope from this world.
- I can’t let _________ keep doing what they’re doing (or about to do).
- _________ is obsessed with me, to a frightening degree. Who knows what they might do, or what they want from me?
- I’ve got ________ wrapped around my little finger.
- _________ has something I want, very badly. (What is it?)
- I have foreseen that _________ and I will one day bear a child; the maelstrom’s whispers bring the child’s name to me on the wind everywhere I turn.
The idea is that this can be tremendously easy and quick. Of course, it can also be used in a much more thoughtful and deliberate manner, similar to a “session zero” or regular “soft start” for an Apocalypse World game. However, it should be possible to begin games easily and quickly with this tool, so this little guide is intended as a demo of that extreme: you can sit down and start playing very quickly this way.
Using This Technique
To use these rules for an effective and quick beginning to a game, I would simply write down the NPC names (perhaps have each player suggest one that they find evocative or memorable - they can choose a name from their playbook if they don’t have any ideas - or bring a list with you).
Then, have the players fill out a handful of connections from their list (above). Try to target NPCs other players also have connections to. Either deliberately choose interesting and complicated connections, or choose arbitrarily, without knowing what others have chosen (the quickest method). The lists above should have enough nuance and variety for this method to generate some good material.
There is no need to create any information about the NPCs before starting; a name and either an illustration/drawing/picture or a single unusual fact is enough. A picture or a single detail will be enough; the rest will emerge from the connections themselves and a handful of quick “provocative questions” (which the connections should pretty easily inspire).
Let’s say we have three PCs in play (picking playbooks at random from my printed stack): a Savvyhead, a Brainer, and a Hardholder.
We also have a sample NPC, whom the MC has given a name and one distinctive detail:
- Partridge, an aging collector of insects
What’s the deal with Partridge? I’ll pick three connections at random from the lists above, and we will see how each choice will flesh out this NPC further. As each player announces their choice, the MC might think of (or ask them to provide) a detail to illustrate that connection. Finally, a single provocative question to get something going beyond the basics, if desired.
Partridge helps supply me with water, food, and tech or energy, which keeps my workspace running.
- “Partridge runs a small generator, lighting up a spotlight every night, shining into the sky. The Beacon draws people to the hardhold, and attracts clouds of insects for Partridge to sort through.”
MC: Where do you think these insects come from, mostly?
Partridge needs my therapy on a regular basis.
- “Partridge is one of the oldest people in the holding, and remembers very little of his past. He asks the Brainer to trawl through his memories on a regular basis in order to ‘remember’ who he was.”
MC: Do you ever lie to Partridge about what you learn from his brain? Why?
Partridge is the former hardholder.
- “When the people revolted against Partridge, they came into his room at night, blinding him with a phosphorus grenade. His eyesight returned, but his memories did not. He is now a shadow of his former self, obsessed with bright lights and collecting insects.”
MC: What secret do you think Partridge holds, and why do you desperately need to know it, NOW?
To begin the session, simply frame a scene with each PC, showing us how they interact with Partridge on a regular basis. Spend a little time on each, and then (if necessary), introduce a threat. This could be the appearance of a former lieutenant, still loyal to Partridge, an unusual type of insect sent by the maelstrom, or a volatile and dangerous memory (potentially harmful to the Hardholder) surfacing during a “therapy” session.
Anything which sets up a PC-NPC-PC triangle (by creating an imbalance of power or information) is sufficient to get the story moving.
This is a single NPC; if you have at least two more with multiple connections, the first session should pretty much “write itself” simply by exploring the nature of these connections. Each one will provide more story material and interesting situations to play out. Frame a sequence of scenes exploring each set of relationship or unstable dynamics, and the game is off to a good start. That should be plenty for the first session.
Explore each NPC’s role in the PCs’ lives, and the first session can be spent framing the scenes necessary just to lay the groundwork for each set of connections: they will imply different details and different dynamics.
As the MC, look for ways to make these situations further unstable; throw in a wrench, a threat, or an asymmetrical opportunity for each. How can this connection create a threat to another PC? A threat to the holding? An opportunity for someone who does not have the other’s best interests at heart?
An interesting situation will result quite quickly and effortlessly.