While the AW rules state that the game can be run with "3 or more players, including you [the MC]" I am curious if anyone has run an AW campaign with just two players and an MC.

I ran a game with two players, with each of them running a primary character and a secondary. After two or three sessions we ended the game because we felt it wasn't possible to generate the requisite amount of emotional interaction between player characters. The two primary PCs (a Hocus and a Chopper) maintained an alliance in which the Chopper's gang provided security for the Hocus' cult in return for food and other necessities, any real conflict between the two of them would have made running the game extremely difficult.

While emotional interaction between the player characters and various NPCs brought a lot of life to the game, interactions between primary and secondary PCs seemed contrived, as if the players were running NPCs. Neither player wanted to run his primary and secondary characters as allies, because that would subtract much of the ambient mistrust that makes the game so interesting. Putting them in conflict with each other would create a bizarre faux drama.

Has anyone had success running an Apocalypse World campaign with just two players and an MC? If so, what techniques did you use to avoid the problems our group encountered?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yep. It was awesome, and we killed the Psychic Maelstrom, though we're still not sure it was the right thing to do. The problem here is you gave them each two characters. Why? \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 0:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate the first-hand experience, @SevenSidedDie. If you can expand it into an answer that would be great. I gave them each two characters because I didn't want the game to become too dependent on NPCs, which I felt would take too much narrative control away from the players. \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 1:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ First-hand MC experience running this sort of game would be most helpful. While I understand the concept of keeping the PCs in conflict, I'm still grappling with how to make it work in practice. \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 1:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll ping Adam and see if he can share his experience running that game. \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 1:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comments as well as the answers, everyone. Very helpful. \$\endgroup\$ May 29, 2013 at 15:15

3 Answers 3


I'm the MC that SevenSidedDie was referring to. In our game, we had a Hocus and a Hardholder who were, at times, allies, enemies and mistrustful participants in the advancement of the community they both needed to survive.

The way I handled it was with the PC-NPC-PC triangle. I put all the major NPCs in between the two characters. I put the characters at odds with each other via the NPCs and their pressures / desires / actions. Look at the things they both have stakes in and ask them to solve those problems. For us, it was an easy job - divide the community by Church and State. Let's say Kettle doesn't have enough food, right? She wants to eat. So she goes to the Hocus and says "Hey, Want, I need some food, man." and Want says "let me meditate on that" and then she goes to Mom and says "Mom, I didn't get my rations last week - I need food!" and Mom says "Okay baby, let me see what I can do" and then see what happens.

Find weak points in the status quo, represent them with real human problems and don't be scared to pit the PCs against each other that way. Give them lots of things to agree on, sure, but complicate them. They both want Kettle to get fed, but why does it matter who does the feeding? Want would sure look good if he could scrounge up some rations - that'd make Mom look like a pretty poor leader and paint Want as the real boss of this place.

Think of the NPCs as human beings - simple for the most part, but desperate, sad, in love, hungry, sweaty messy idiots, too. They need things and they turn to the PCs for them. they're manipulative and earnest and nothing complicates things more than people being people.

I find that the most successful games of AW aren't about mutant hordes or unexploded nuclear ordinance but the way those scary things force people together or apart. The question you ALWAYS want to be asking is "what do these people want out of life?" and then let that guide you forward.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ This is what flipped the switch for me: "I put all the major NPCs in between the two characters." You also pointed out that the PCs both need the community so they can survive, which makes it reasonable to expect that they'd put up with a lot of conflict in order to keep the community going. I felt this big chunk of obtuse matter in my brain that was getting in the way of really internalizing how the PC-PC and PC-NPC interaction should work. This answer really helps. \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 18:32

Embrace real conflict between the PCs.

During the First Session, page 125

Say it with me: there are no status quos in Apocalypse World.

What it means instead: it’s your job to create a fractured, tilting landscape of inequalities, incompatible interests, PC-NPC-PC triangles, untenable arrangements. A dynamic opening situation, not a status quo you’re going to have to put your shoulder against and somehow shift, like pushing a futon up a ladder. No: an unstable mass, already charged with potential energy and ready to split and slide, not a mass at rest.

Perturb their relationship. If it's based on safety and food, throw a wrench into that. There are no status quos.

  • Safety: Introduce a front that complicates their safety. Have the NPC second-in-command of the gang join the cult. Cults aren't under full control of the Hocus; have it antagonize the gang against the Hocus's wishes. What happens if the source of the gang's bullets vanishes?
  • Food: Introduce a front that steals the food or complicates its production or delivery. What happens when a drought or sandstorm wipes out the crop? Who eats now?

PCs are robust and hard to kill. I wouldn't worry about them killing each other. Instead, watch them respond to the fallout to the NPCs around them. Use exactly what's listed in the 1st Session chapter. Play to see what happens.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly what our MC did. My Hardholder and the Hocus had a lot of conflict where our goals conflicted or our underlings caused problems. \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 0:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Although I did introduce conflict between the player characters, I was concerned about pushing it too far. Somehow it just feels that with only two player characters the relationship dynamics would become too simplified to be rewarding. In the game @SevenSidedDie played that doesn't appear to have happened, so it looks like I need to rethink how I manage NPCs. \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 1:35

I was running almost exclusively Everything World games for the year and a half, so all that follows is based on my own experience.

MC moves are the essential part of the rules

Lots of new MCs believe that is a usual "how to be a GM" thing and, honestly, text there is quite similar to GM tutorials in other games. But difference is, here "recommendations" are formalized and inbuilt into game flow. Thats not what you can do, that is what you should do -- to have an AW game as designed by the author.
Try to stick with them for your every reaction and you'll see your game becomes very dynamic and intense. I remember it being very hard at the beginning, but these "moves" aren't codified so you can be very creative with them. I had epiphany when I understood that that's how I usually GM other games, but I have lot more junk between them.

PC-NPC-PC triangles

Were described in great detail by skinnyghost, props to him. You can find lots of examples of how they are built in the "official" Hatchet City module. Check angel's kid brother Camo for the most straightforward one.
One danger is, it may appear everyone is connected to both of your players, which can ruin the immersion. The only solution I see is to build PC-NPC-NPC-PC chains, at least for part of them.

AW tries hard to erase a line between PC and a Player

Game always says "you" to both, and insists on using PC names at the game table. Having two characters might be counterproductive, I would advise against it.

In the end, skinnyghost is absolutely right that AW is a game about human interaction in a harsh conditions, not the other way.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the answer, @ilotum. I'm seeing now that were two issues at work in the game I ran: concern about creating a situation in which the PCs (and by extension the players) are essentially competing against each other, and my difficulty in internalizing the use of MC moves. Were you running with two players? \$\endgroup\$ May 28, 2013 at 23:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ErikSchmidt I had had two one shots for the two players, other games were ranging from three to eight. For the one shots I devised the kickstart letters like the Hatchet City has, they proved to be a perfect way to start in motion -- so your players will have problems (and conflicts) to deal with from the very beginning. \$\endgroup\$
    – illotum
    May 29, 2013 at 2:31

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