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My party in Apocalypse World takes a lot of advantage of the "Psychic Maelstrom". My version of the Maelstrom is an endless fountain of knowledge, but also of insanity; many of my more deranged NPCs wound up in their current miserable state after losing themselves in the depths of the Maelstrom for a tick too long.

I want the PCs to experience the full debilitating joy of the Maelstrom, with symptoms of overuse starting at frequent nightmares and weird (but mainly harmless) urges but progressing toward drug addictions, uncontrollable panic bouts and full-blown insanity fits with continued exposure.

However, I don't want to steal the characters away from my players. How should I play with this to make the idea of progressing insanity the most exciting without robbing the players of their characters' control? I've got these three ideas in my head but any other suggestions are welcome too.

  • Give the players a vague idea of what sort of insanity they're experiencing and leave the role-playing to the players: "You experience a weird, unexplained sensation of gut-wrenching terror, what do you do?" The downside, as I see it, is that it reduces the perceived impact of progressing insanity because its effects are mostly up to the player themselves.
  • Introduce a sanity meter system with mechanical constraints, which I'm also not too fond of because I prefer lighter mechanics. It could also make the initial stages of insanity less threatening ("I've got 4 sanity points left, nothing to worry about!")
  • Simply seize the characters for a while, having the character act their condition by GM rule for a while. This is what I want to avoid, or at least make feel less arbitrary.
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This is tricky territory. Assuming you're staying completely within the Agenda and Principles, you're not permitted to lie to the players about what's happening. You're also not permitted to have secret plans that aren't yet part of the actual play. This limits your ability to have unrevealed secrets that you know are true. The nature and fact of a PC's insanity, as you're describing it, breaks the MC's rules.

However, it's awesome and is totally the kind of thing that should come out of a cheesed-off Psychic Maelstrom, so the question is not whether, but how to do it.

What you need is an insanity where you can:

  1. Reveal the experience of insanity directly to their senses
  2. Not predetermine that it actually is an unknown insanity, so the truth of the experiences in (1) can be explored during play
  3. Be honest at all times

This pretty much eliminates any "what is going on???" experience you want the players to have around an insanity that they don't know their PC has.

So let's see how you can do this, by going through those items backwards.

Radical honesty

The solution is to not hide the insanity from the player. Instead, make them complicit with you in creating the behavioural effects of the insanity. To do this, you can't just say they're insane and expect the player to run their PC that way, because doing what you tell them is categorically not the player's job in Apocalypse World.

To get complicity, bribe them mechanically while being brutally honest. Describe the sensory experience, honestly say that it's clearly not real, and then offer them XP if they act as if it is and ask "What do you do?" They don't have to take the situation at face value then, and retain their player-agency. Also, if they're intrigued (and what are you doing, offering situations that don't intrigue the players), then they'll be very tempted by the chance to mark XP and may just dive right in.

And if they don't dive right in, that's fine. They still have to answer "What do you do?" and their actions will snowball like normal. Maybe they try to focus and see what's "really" going on (sounds like acting under fire, yeah?); maybe they flee the scene and go try to get their head together; maybe they try to ignore them and make a guess at what's really happening. Either way, you can build on that, and they retain control of their PC's choices — the bedrock of an Apocalypse World campaign.

Don't assume you know it's insanity

So the Brainer, Iris, has been messing with some weird Maelstrom mojo and you figure this has exposed them to insanity, but you're not straight-up saying "so you're going kinda insane, how do you feel about that", instead you're dropping these weird events and visions on them and seeing how they react.

You might be wrong. They might not be insane. The rules dictate that you cannot decide what these events actually are, because you have to play to find out. Maybe Iris goes to Fanny Malone and flops down into the ambulance's gurney, demanding for Fanny to figure out what's going on with her head. Fanny goes to work like a Savvyhead on Iris and woah, the scene(s) that result reveal that Princey's planted a chip in Iris' head.

So you play to find out what happens, because that will be way cooler that whatever pre-planned stuff you were cooking. Unlike soup, more cooks improve the game instead of ruining it, so you gotta let go your plans and assumptions and follow the game where it leads you, just like you do when you're a player with a PC.

So go with the insanity thing, yeah. Have it in your back pocket for inspiration of things to tell your PCs they see, hear, whatever. But as soon as play pulls you away from that being the answer to what's going on? Put your idea that it is an insanity in the crosshairs and pull that trigger, like a good Master of Ceremonies. Your players will thank you, because damn but does railroading suck the fun out of this game.

Tell them truly what they experience

Get real vivid and barfing-apocalypse-y with your descriptions. It sounds like you've got some weird, evocative imagery up your sleeve — use that. I know I said don't plan anything, but planning visuals is cool, that works, because visuals can always have their truth explained later, and in real play you always adjust, toss, and repurpose planned visuals anyway. You don't get stuck on them, the way you get stuck on secrets and plans, so they're not verboten and dangerous to MCs.

So barf that apocalyptica, and see where your players take it, and make no commitments about what it truly is until you're honestly revealing what it truly is.

Bribes! Really really: Bribes!

I'm repeating this, because I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Players love XP as a bribe. They will do the damnedest things in the heat of a scene with an XP riding on their choice. And if they don't take it, hooboy, have they ever made a strong statement about their character then!

Offering XP for choosing obviously-bad courses of action is pure gold. Try it a couple times if you're not convinced, and you'll see how nail-bitingly charged those moments become, and how big the snowballs can get.

And as a benefit to you, it takes all the responsibility off you: they are entirely in control of their destiny at that moment, working with good information, and any road to hell they are about to set their feet upon, they will never give you grief for because they chose it with eyes wide open. That makes MCing so much less of a weight. Share the load — bribe your players!

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What's nice is that you don't necessarily need to give hard rules for insanity - you can simply turn up the usual problems of the Apocalypse's weirdness and basic rules for Acting Under Fire, Fronts, etc.

"Act Under Fire?"

"You wake up, covered in sweat. That last trip into the brainmess that is the Maelstrom leaves you feeling quesy and off. You reach to grab your gear, and you realize the bandolier, for the briefest of moments, feels like it's writhing under your hands... almost like the snakes in the vision...guh, it passes." (Foreshadow future badness)

"You reach for your gun, and that's when you swear the whole damn holster strap is slithering over you. Act Under Fire to not drop your gun and freak out into peeling it off."

Take normal things that start triggering rolls. Maelstrom gives you information...but that information will cost you.

"Oh you wish that was a hallucination"

"You do a double take, you swear you saw one of the Strange Ones, from the Maelstrom, in the doorway. When you step out to look, Bugface is gone, too. One of his shoes is on the ground. Whatever you saw was real enough."

The Maelstrom is only psychic...for now. Just keep poking at it. Give it the conduit it needs. A chance to be real. Then you'll see what the Apocalypse is really like.

Throw a clock on it. Let them keep going until they're sorry.

"Welcome to your new Special Move"

If you totally want to make a lasting problem, this would be the way to go.

"Everything is...fuzzy." When you need to communicate with others after recently opening your brain:

On a 10+ you act normally enough, though at some point the MC asks a disturbing question that comes across your mind ("You're having a memory of eating a pinky finger. Tell me about it. You may or may not have actually done this. You might not be sure, either...")

On a 7+ you're acting a little weirder than normal. The MC gets to either make you forget to do something or act in a way that scares or irritates one of the NPCs.

On a miss, at some point, the Psychic Maelstrom opens to you, whether you want it to or not, at a time that is deeply inconvenient or dangerous. The MC makes a hard move against you.

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Create a custom move

The Apocalpyse World Advanced [Snip]ery chapter shows some ways to change the action by including some custom moves.

I suggest something like:

The physic maelstrom [snip]s your brain. If you open your brain to the physic maelstorm Roll+Weird. The MC tells you something interesting and new about the situation. He may ask one or two questions, answer them honestly. Advance your insanity Countdown clock by one segments. On a 10+ choose two, on 7-9 choose one.

  • The MC gives good details.

  • You take one less segment on your insanity countdown clock.

Also work out a special brain damage/insanity countdown clock to track insanity and ways to reduce insanity like harm with your players. Now sometimes your players will choose to take insanity just to get better results for their open brain move and if they fail the move they risk taking insanity too. This custom move is still honest and gives the players control but does not increase the XP mechanism that much.

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Ψ-harm.

So, while it may or may not have been mentioned at the time of the question (can't remember when the Quarantine was launched) the mechanics for it were moved into the core rulebook for second edition.

Ψ-harm has plot consequences for NPCs, but when the PCs face it it's treated a lot like the regular kind of harm. You know, when you suffer harm, roll +harm taken, and you want to roll low? It resolves a lot like the regular harm move, too, except that the available fallout on a 10+ trades "you take one more damage" for "you black out and wake up somewhere else, what did you do?", and on a 7-9 adds "the MC tells you to do one thing, and you do it".

Usually you only take Ψ-harm one at a time? But in this case where you want a more dangerous maelstrom, you can have areas of it dealing 2 and 3 at a time, probably in and around the places where you learn the really, really important things. You could also add a secondary Ψ-harm clock.

I think this pretty much addresses your concern about "I still have 4 segments of Ψ-harm left" scenarios? Harm is never completely safe to suffer, because of the knock-on effects of the harm move. Similarly with Ψ-harm.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can confirm this work: I had a pretty good experience modeling a psychic maelstrom inhabited by a malignant, predatory creature of the id using Ψ-harm and "love letter" style custom moves to push the PCs. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Jun 29 '18 at 15:49
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I heard about a video game (I can't remember the title) that simulated madness by displaying this message after the player saved his game: "save file successfully deleted". This was totally fake, the save file was OK, but just imagine the psychological impact after tens of hours of game…

My point is, you could use the same kind of trick, showing the PCs a mix of true and false informations, about allies, villains, resources, and so on.

You could describe them a "bad feeling" about this beloved one, or a bunch of enemies attacking their headquarter while they are away. They will probably react and take actions, or at least feel concerned, only to find that everything is perfectly fine (the beloved one may even give them a "poor things, they are going nuts" look). Obviously, some of the time, the information should be true.

Given the nature of the Maelstrom (a LOT of brains connected), this is totally possible.

After one or two tricks of this kind, they should learn to fear the Maelstrom, given the fact that using it could do more harm than good.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Re your second-last paragraph: the nature of the Maelstrom is actually not defined by the game, on purpose, as figuring it out per-campaign and per-group is one of the major objectives of play. So, it's not necessarily a lot of brains connected. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 6 '15 at 17:19
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Consider this: because the knowledge granted by the Maelstrom is so great, the character can't take it all at once. Instead, little visions come by as the player needs them. If it is a font of magic knowledge, then the player wakes up one morning knowing this handy new spell, or sees a vision of the Cheshire Cat or their dead grandmother teaching it to them.

But some of these visions are the knowledge of the Maelstrom peeking through the veil, and others are just figments of the player's imagination. When they go to cast that new spell in the heat of the moment, who knows if it will work? When you pass a note to the player saying that he has a hunch that the Orc King is terrified of fire, who knows what will happen if they light a torch?

Basically, never let the player know what is real and what is fake. Keep them guessing. Not only will the character act insane, but the player will get a feel for the insanity as well.

A warning on this: this can be intense for the player. If the player really gets into character, and/or they are a bit neurotic in the first place, this could be highly disturbing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Magic knowledge", "spell", "Orc King", and other hints tell me that this is not written with any knowledge of the game. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 5 '15 at 17:52

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