Final Dungeon World Session

Today was the last session of my Dungeon World game. We ended things very dramatically, with the destruction of the universe. The characters from this game are probably going to be the pantheon for the D&D game I’ll be running next, and I’m always a fan of that sort of continuity. Good endings all around, including at least one heroic death. I was most happy to reveal that Iggy the mule had been a dragon all along, largely because that explained why he had consistently been the most effective member of the group. [1]

I learned a lot over the course of running this, and there are definitely some things I’d do differently. I have a much more comfortable relationship with the system now, which includes a much stronger sense of what works for me and what I’d change. That said, there are definitely a few lessons I’ve taken away for any future games of Dungeon World I run or play in.

#1. Be Stingy With XP

In retrospect, advancement may have been my least favorite part of the game. The difference of the best bonus going from a +2 to a +3 is really huge, and the general improvement in stats meant that the awesome game-driving goodness I got out of bad rolls in early sessions kind of ran out of steam. The addition of moves was fun at times, but the most interesting ones often felt like things that should have been part of the class to begin with, so that took away some of their luster.

Barring a complete revamp of advancement (which I wouldn’t rule out) I would be more conservative with XP sometime. My default was that if the advancement questions could be answered vaguely yes, I would give the XP. If I’d been stricter, it would have at least slowed advancement down a little.

#2. Bonds Break Down

As written on the character sheets, the bonds will totally hold up for a quick game, but over the course of the campaign, they need to evolve. This is exacerbated if, as in my game, the cast of your game changes regularly.

This has play problems, but there’s a weird practical problem too – it violates the cleanliness of the character sheet. One of the great things about DW is the self-contained nature of the character sheet. Things are largely static and binary – checked or unchecked – with only a handful of values that can be changed, and those only occasionally. The character sheet is designed to hold the starting bonds, but once you’ve moved beyond those, the game has no physical place for them.

There are a couple possible solutions. I might use a bond sheet – a dedicated extra sheet that explicitly replaces the bond section in the sheet. It’d be lines and checkboxes, and when a bond pays out, you check it off, take your XP, and write a new bond.[2] Alternately, keep the bonds on index cards so they can be shuffled, dealt around and physically manipulated in play.

All that said, there is very clearly a trick to writing good bonds, as evinced by the uneven nature of bonds out there. Some are clear an obvious play drivers. Others may not push play, but can establish an interesting truth or dynamic. And others just lie there like a turd on the lawn. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any simple rule of thumb that makes for grippy bonds. That might merit more thought later.

(By extension, bond ratings get really weird over time, but that’s a simpler problem).

#3. Hit Points are currency, not description

There is a whole discussion to be had about the nature of damage in Dungeon World. it has some definite issues, especially when the dice get swingy. This is hardly unique to DW, but it’s a bit of a hurdle. I get why they moved away from the simpler wounds system – damage dice give a sense of greater granularity, and they give a chance to use other die sizes. But I feel like there needs to be a middle ground where we don’t have enemies still int he fight because the PC rolled 2 points of damage too few.

But the issue of PC damage and enemy HP are easy to fix, it’s the reverse that’s complicated. Random monster damage is a weird absolution of GM authority over pacing to the whims of the dice, and some folks might find that more fun, but it feels awkward to me. Specifically, damage feels like a one-size-fits-all solution to a pacing problem[3], and it has the problems you could expect. I found damage got a lot more interesting when there was something at the bottom of the HP pile that the player could do (like sacrifice armor or take conditions rather than go straight to taken out).

In retrospect, I actually wish I’d cheated a bit more on monster damage. Not, like, totally arbitrary cheating, but coming up with categories of damage relative to hit points to get a similar effect as optimal damage play, but with less swinginess. Min-mid-max damage did me well enough, but I didn’t fully appreciate the problem I was solving when i started using it (and will never stop).

There are some corollaries to this, the two big ones being Armor matters a lot[4] and the second that I am not 100% in sync with DW combat (still working on the latter).

In any case, I imagine I may have some more thoughts once I’ve had time to chew on things, but those three were very much top of mind today.

  1. We had a few players who couldn’t show up, so their characters were laid out on the table to be grabbed for flashbacks and hooks in.  ↩
  2. The ability to write a new bond with the same character would be a requirement for getting the payout. If the bond has not lead to a next step, then it hasn’t really been tapped.  ↩
  3. It also casts into sharp relief that combat is the one area where we discard the principle of letting a roll stand.  ↩
  4. One curiosity. In our last session, every character’s armor value was either 1 or 4. That seems weird. On some level, I wonder if Armor should be handled like weapon damage, by class rather than by gear.  ↩

Setting Architecture

For many years, my white whale was to design a good game specifically for capers. I loved the idea make it difficult, but in the end Leverage was the game I wanted it to be, so I laid that to rest. For a while I was adrift, but I have settled on my next whale – a setting as playable as Feng Shui.

Feng Shui is brilliant (this is all predicated on some familiarity with FS – without that it may not make much sense) for a lot of reasons, but the setting in particular is friggin genius for reasons having nothing to do with its badassness. Structurally it allows:

  • An infinite diversity of potential backgrounds (from one-off junctures)
  • Modern day setting which is not disrupted by extreme events in play
  • Isolates characters who are “in play” from the rest of the setting (via timeline shifts)
  • Incredible diversity of supporting characters
  • Clear objectives for action (Feng Shui sites)
  • Complicated problems which can be solved with fighting
  • Trivally addresses transportation issues
  • Setting can be changed by players non-disruptively
  • Player accomplishments have a concrete impact on the setting, but that impact does not depend on the setting details.

Note that none of these are specific to the details of the setting – you could swap out the Lotus and the Architects with Vampires and Werewolves if you wanted, and it would not change that. Those are details poured into the magnificent architecture above.

Let’s contrast that with a generic supers setting. Such a setting certainly allows a similar diversity of characters, and it probably addresses transportation and isolation issues. It might offer clear objectives for action in a limited way (stop the bad guy) but that’s not super robust. But the setting probably doesn’t help much with disruption – either players don’t really change the status quo, or they do change the status quo, and that makes for a lot of work. If the setting is well thought out (say, something like Abberant) or has a mythology that underlies its superheroics (like a unified source of powers) then it might fill in those structural gaps with specifics, but those require details and buy in. If you can solve those problems on a structural level, it’s easier to get buy in.

This is not to say you’re goign to get a better game with Feng Shui. It just means that Feng Shui’s setting makes certain parts of your game’s job easier (in much the same way that, say, the xistence of dungeons makes runnign your D&D game easier). And easier is pretty appealling.

Anyway, I’ll be noodling on this for a bit.

Natural Approaches

Off to Metatopia tomorrow, so here’s a quick one for Fae and other approach based games.

When I use approaches, I may follow the rules as written for the mechanical effect (aspects, boosts, damage etc) but for the fiction, I do something else entirely.

First, I figure out how many approaches are relevant to the roll. It’s rare that they’re all relevant, but usually there’s at least 2 or 3 in play. Like, if the player wants to break someone out of jail, they probably want to be sneaky and careful (or maybe flashy and quick.

If they get a marginal success (0 or 1) then they succeed at whatever approach they took. Each additional step of 2 (so 0–1, 2–3, 4–5 etc) means than they succeeded in one more approach. So if the character rolls sneaky to bust out their friend and rolls a +1, then they succeed and are sneaky, but not careful, so they leave some evidence behind. if they roll a +3, then they’re sneaky AND careful, but it takes a while. if they roll a +4, then they’re sneaky, careful and quick.

I don’t necessarily articulate the mechanics of this because they’re a guideline. Instead, it all comes up in the fiction.

Note that when I do this, then the choice of approach matters insofar as a non-useful approach means your initial success is not going to help much. Let’s say I try to smash and grab my friend out, so I use forceful – even if I succeed with a 0 or 1, I’m not Sneaky OR Careful OR Quick so there are going to be consequences to this approach.

Effectively, it fills a similar niche to the *world 7–9 result, just on slightly more constrained lines.

Anyway, just a trick.

Minor Warlock Tweak

Hmm. Was just looking through the Warlock in a bit more detail and realized something I’d overlooked in the Invocations. Basically, each pact has an invocation which is so awesome that there’s pretty much no reason NOT to take it (Book of Ancient Secrets, Voice of the Chain Master and Thirsting Blade). Not a design choice I’m terribly happy with – it’d be cooler if those were baked into the pacts – but now that I’m aware of it, I may need to revise the Pact of iron to add a similarly “must have” invocation. Arguably, Unyielding Armor of the Void fills that niche, but I put that in just to allow AC to be a bit better at higher levels (and still comparable with mundane equipment).

Patronal Courts

This should be the last post about Warlocks. So far it’s been largely mechanical stuff (new patrons etc) but I want to take moment to talk about something I touched upon yesterday – choosing a patron.

The PHB provides plenty of guidance on how to choose a patron type (Arch-fey, fiend, old one) and I’ve given some thoughts on expanding that (vestiges, lords of nothing) but that’s only half the question. Once you’ve chosen a type, it’s time to think about choosing a name of your patron.

Now, you can absolutely just invent one, and work out the details with your GM. This is a great way to go about it, especially because it gives you a bit of authorship over the world – by naming your patron, you are saying “This power exists in the setting, and is almost certainly doing stuff”.

If you go this path, then I recommend that the GM ask a few specific questions to help flesh out the patron. Specifically:

  • What is the patron’s name?
  • What is the patron’s agenda?
  • Who/what is the patron’s nemesis?
  • Who/what is the patron’s tenuous ally?

The agenda gives you a sense of what the patron wants to do. Maybe it’s something as grandiose as ‘destroy the world’, but that is honestly a little bit boring. “Corrupt the Innocent” is a little bitter specific, but still very broad. “Unseat Oberon as Lord of the Fae” is a good kind of specific because it suggests plots, and it introduces some very specific ideas into the setting (that Oberon is lord of the fae, for example, and that he could be unseated).

Agenda and Bond
Once a Warlock has named his patron and come up with its agenda, then the player may want to consider using the patron when he writes ups his Bond. “My patron is a Fiend and wants my help scouring the world of elves” is a pretty awesome bond

The nemesis is important because it is likely to name another patron and, by extension, create potential enemies and rivals for the Warlock (and everyone needs enemies). It also gives the player a little more authorship about the nature of his patron and what it deals with.

The tenuous ally offers a lot of the same world building benefits of the nemesis, but offsets the enemies. This also suggests the patrons for other Warlocks, but those are more likely to be rivals or even allies.

Between the agenda, nemesis and ally, you’ll have a decent sketch of what your patron is up to and how it works in the grand scheme of things.

Patronal Courts

If you want to go a step further (as a GM or a player) then you might want to describe the patronal courts of you setting, which is to say, name and (loosely) describe the available warlock patrons. You can easily follow the guidelines in the PHB (using the named arch-fiends ad fiend patrons, for example) or draw from other sources (such as dipping into Lovecraft for your Old Ones) but you are also free to deviate from expectations to really put your mark upon the world. If you’re playing Eberron, for example, perhaps the Old Ones are the Lords of Dust (patrons of the Rakshasa). Perhaps you want to take a page from 13th age and the Icons of your setting (some or all of them) enter pacts with Warlocks.

This is a HUGELY powerful world building tool, because Patronal courts and easily turn into drivers for an entire campaign, depending upon how they integrate with the world and the other powers.

Sample Court: The Lords of Nothing

Lets say the Lords of Nothing are a Patronal Court in my game. They are composed of the Grey Tyrant, The Maw, The Sleeping Queen and the Last Trumpeter.

The Grey Tyrant Seeks the destruction of the chaotic races (Slaad especially) and is allied with the Sleeping Queen against The Maw.

The Maw waits to consume the last of the universe, and has been tainted by beings who reject the orderly procession of matter. It fathers monsters of the void, and seeks to open the walls between worlds.

The Sleeping Queen will sleep through the end of the universe and wake to the birth of the next one. She hoards the greatest treasures of this universe according to no mortal understanding, to be reborn with her. The Maw’s agenda is anthetitical to her, so in her dreams, she has allied with the Grey Tyrant.

The Last Trumpeter was one of the first beings created and will the the last to pass with our universe. He is, however, less impatient than the other lords, and seeks oblivion that comes only with the end of all things. To that end, he is indifferent to the plans of the Queen and the Maw, and willing to ally with either only to speed along the end, whatever form it may take. His willingness to support chaotic destruction puts him at odds with the Grey Tyrant.


Lots of good feedback on the Grey King, but one note that came up in discussion revealed a problem with the writeup. Most of the warlock patrons are more generalized as concepts, with the (curiously unspoken) assumption that the player will provide the name and details of the arrangement. So, if a Warlock’s patron is an archfiend, there’s an expectation that the player will identify the fiend, so there’s some implicit complexity, as the warlocks of Asmodeus may not see eye to eye with the warlocks of Orcus.

The fact that this assumption goes unspoken is actually a little bit of a hassle. If you’re already steeped in D&D lore (or Lovecraft) then you’ve probably got the resources to come up with a named patron off the top of your head. But if you’re fresh to the game then you might not even realize you should name your patron, much less have any sense of who the patron should be.

So, with that context, I declare the Grey King to be one of the Lords of Nothing, beings who exist at the end of everything. There are others – The Sleeping Queen, The Maw, The Last Trumpeter – and their agendas are virtually incomprehensible, but their interest in the unended universe gives them reason to recruit agents.

Cam Banks also reminded me of one of the coolest types of warlock patrons – vestiges. Unlike other categories, these are not a unified group in any way save type. They are what is left of a god after it dies, is cast down or otherwise is knocked from its place in the heavens. It might also include beings of power striving for divinity, proto-deities who can grant power in return for the sort of services that may help them ascend.

I love this idea. It’s flexible and powerful and usable in a variety of ways in a variety of settings. Some might have one or two cast out gods, some setting may be littered with the corpses of gods.

So with that in mind:


Even gods are not forever. Some of the once mighty have fallen from their places in the heavens, but can still offer power to those who seek it out. Some are ambitious powers seeking godhood, offering power in return for service. They are the dregs and prices that surround the divine, and they are collectively known as Vestiges. Some warlocks who seek vestige pacts view themselves as priests, while others take much more cynical perspective on the whole nature of gods and their relationship with their worshippers.

Sample Vestiges

  • Elara, Fomorian Goddess of Beauty
  • Fistandantalus, Ambitious Demi-Lich
  • Antarchus the Dragon King
  • Sel, the Sleeper in the Moon

Vestige Expanded Spell List

The extended spell list for a vestige warlock depends upon the semi-divine nature of the patron. Each patron has a domain, identical to the domains of Clerics (see the PHB). The vestige warlock’s expanded spell list is identical to the domain spell list for that domain.

Bonus Proficiency

Vestige warlocks gain proficiency with Knowledge(religion).

Bonus Cantrip

Vestige Warlocks gain access to the Thaumatury Cantrip if it is not already known.

Eldritch Smite

Starting at 6th level, when the warlock hits an enemy with a melee weapon or cantrip attack, you can expend one Warlock spell slot to deal additional psychic damage based on the slot level. It starts at 1d8 at level 1 and increases by 1d8 per slot level.

Tainted Mantle

Starting at 10th level, you may wrap yourself in an aura of eldritch energy that has the trappings of the divine and provides a degree of protection. The Warlock may take an action to summon the mantle, which grants 3d6 temporary hit points.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Dead God’s Mark

Starting at 14th level, the warlock may take an action to inscribe a symbol of the patron. This has the effect of the 7th level spell of the same name, but the warlock may use only one type of symbol, selected when this ability is gained.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

The Grey Tyrant

mailed-fistI was curious what making a new Warlock patron would look like.  It ended up looking like this.

I’m also sort of feeling like there should be some system for explicit patron boons.  They ask you to do something and offer short term rewards.  Easiest way to do it is as its own form of inspiration, rather like the sorcerer’s Tides of Chaos.  If you have the patron’s boon, it can be turned in for an advantage, but then it’s gone until you earn it again.

Anyway, I’m not 100% sure about some of the balance of this stuff, but it feels like the right ballpark.

The Grey Tyrant

At the edge of the universe, where all things end, a grey king sits upon a grey throne in grey castle under a grey sky. He surveys the end of all things. Not mere death, but ending, and the final moment of stillness before all returns to the void. Fools think that only chaos can destroy, but the void is the perfect orderly end of all thing, where stasis and nothingness are one and the same, and it is his domain.

He does not move from this throne, for all things come to him in time, but he offers power for those who speed things along.

Grey Tyrant Expanded Spell List

Spell Level Spells
1st Fog Cloud, Ray of Sickness
2nd Gentle Repose, Ray of Enfeeblement
3rd Dispel Magic, Protection from Energy
4th Banishment, Stoneskin
5th Cloudkill, Wall of Force

Eyes That See All Endings

Starting at first level, the Grey Tyrant gives you the ability to see the world as he does, as a place of vulnerabilities and endings. If you take an action to look up on a target through the Grey Tyrant’s eyes, it makes a Wisdom saving throw against your warlock spell save DC. If it fails, you learn the target’s vulnerabilities.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Stroke of Ending

Starting at 6th level, your magics can turn to bring about endings. Before you roll damage for a spell that inflicts typed damage (fire, cold etc) against a target, you may use this ability to change it to any other type, so long as you know a spell that can do damage of that type.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Stasis and the Void

Starting at 10th level, you may become as unchanging as void in order to shrug off attacks. As a reaction, you may become petrified. You keep this status until your next turn.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Even Energy Ends

Starting at 14th level, the barrier between energy and matter fades for you, and you may shape magic with you very hands.

When you successfully save against a damaging spell, you take no damage. Instead, you create a weapon (or surround a weapon you are holding with a nimbus) of the spell’s energy. If created, it takes the form of any weapon you are proficient with. The next target struck with the weapon will take additional damage of an amount and type as if they’ve been hit by the spell itself, though no other effects convey.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Additional Warlock Abilities

Came up with these to supplement the Grey Tyrant, so there’s overlap there, but it’s not required.  The Pact of Iron was really because warlocks in demonic black armor just seems *right* to me.

Pact Boon: Pact of Iron

If you are not wearing armor, you can use your action to summon pact armor, a weightless suit of armor whose appearance is determined by its summoner, ranging from mundane black iron to fantastical configurations of smoke and glass. This armor disappears if you remove it, if you dismiss it (no action required), or if you die.

The pact armor grants an AC of 15 + Dex Modifier (max 2), weighs 0 lbs, and offers no disadvantage to stealth. The Warlock is considered proficient in it.

You can absorb the properties of one suit of magical armor into your pact armor by performing a special ritual while wearing it over the course of an hour, at which point the armor dissolves into nothingness (and cannot be returned) and your pact armor gains the magical effects of the absorbed armor. If you perform this ritual again, the original bonuses are lost.

Eldritch Invocations

Ender of All

Prerequisite: 12th Level

You may cast disintegrate as a level 6 arcanum

Power in Endings

You may have advantage or disadvantage on death saves, as you choose. Whenever you fail a death save, regain the use of one spell slot.

Unyielding Armor of the Void

Prerequisite: 9th Level, Pact of Iron

AC of your pact armor increases to 18

A Justifiable Venture

Numerous random discussions online combined to raise a weird question in my mind: What if adventuring was more like making a TV show?[1]

I don’t mean that it’s entertainment – there are games that cover that idea – but rather, what if it was something that had a very visible element (the show/The dungeon crawl) but also had a large “offscreen” presence in the form of the production crew. It’s not a 1:1 mapping of course (no writers) but the idea works in a general sense, especially because it’s not based on how TV shows are actually made, just the crazy impression I get from John Rogers’ stories of Portland.

Imagine for a moment the town near an ancient dungeon. Inside it are powerful monsters and, more importantly, treasure enough to profoundly destabilize the local economy. Somewhere in the Capital city, a young sage hits on some research about this dungeon and takes it to the guild and presents his findings.

They think it sounds promising, so they give it to one of their officers who is given a certain budget. The expectations is that there will be a substantial return on this invitation based off the treasure in the dungeon. Historically, this would mean walking off to a nearby tavern and telling a bunch of heavily armed nutjobs about the Dungeon. Thankfully, things have gotten more civilized since then.

Today, the officer and his staff gather the talent for a venture. This includes a crew of adventurers on the guilds approved list. Adventurers are the stars of this – they’re very well paid and well treated in the whole endeavor, and assuming their contract has been well negotiated, they’re generally due a flat fee and a percentage of the take (and some have magic item riders). They travel in style, but behind them become several wagons of crew. Quartermasters, subject matter experts, accountants, appraisers, smiths, laborers, guards and others all make up the production staff.

This caravan rolls into town. Maybe they buy out the inn or set up tents, but whatever the case, they stat doing the legwork. Local maps are updated, the route to the dungeon is surveyed, nearby dangers are mapped. This is a boon for the town – the caravan spends a lot of money on food and housing, and local talent gets recruited for scouting and mapping.

If any of the local dangers represent a hazard to the venture, the Adventurers can be brought in to deal with it. This can be the basis for some negotiation. Most adventurer contracts have language about helping access the dungeon, but interpretation of what that means can be a bit problematic if, say, a den of trolls is near enough to threaten the camp, but not actually impeding travel to the dungeon. The Officer (aka Director) gets to deal with these things, and one of the trade offs of bringing very experienced adventurers is that while they’re great at what they do, they’re a lot less likely to be arsed to help unless they must.

One everything is in place, the adventurers go into the dungeon. and much of this is familiar, but with the qualifier that they have a support staff on hand. They have substantial supplies to fall back on, expertise to draw on (remember that Sage? He’s got a producer credit and a chair on “set”, and he’s available to answer any questions). As areas are secured and mapped, crew may establish a secondary base in the dungeon itself, and there are extra hands for hauling and inventorying loot, documenting ancient runes and looking for secret doors. Experienced directors are hesitant to send crew into the actual dungeon, but an experienced crew of adventurers understands how important it is to clear things to allow for crew safety. It’s good for them, and death payments are often taken from their bonus.

If all goes well, the dungeon is cleared and inventoried. Persistent magical dangers are documented and sealed as appropriate. Everything is surveyed and measured and delivered to the local lord, with whom terms have been reached to offset the tax burden in return for securing the area. The whole thing goes back to town where payments are disbursed – most everyone gets a flat amount (adventurers get a lot, but it’s a decent payday for everyone involved. Venture work pays well, but it’s not consistent)) but key players (adventurers, the director, producers) get a percentage based on their contracts.[2]

Now, if the adventurers die, then this is a bad turn. Depending how far they got, the venture may yet turn a profit, but the whole production packs up and moves on (usually quite quickly, in case whatever killed the adventurers comes out). On paper, the director is supposed to just head back in shame, though occasionally some will attempt to salvage things with resources on hand – either using local talent or calling in favors. This is risky, since it can mean extra cost, but sometimes the payoff is worth it. Alternately, the guild may review the final report and determine it’s worth another Venture, but that’s rare. By that point, the site has probably been descended upon by independents.

And there are independents aplenty. Some are fly by night operations, just a crew of adventurers and maybe a minimal support staff. Some do it because it’s the “traditional” method, but most often these are just adventurers who couldn’t get a guild contract. A successful independent adventure can be extremely profitable, but they job is much risker, especially in the more dangerous dungeons.

A lot of successful adventurers start out as independents, working local gigs, cleaning out goblin warrens and mayoral tombs, hoping to catch a break. A particularly good turn can draw the attention of the guild, and into the world of contract venturing. And that’s the dream. (At least for a while. Adventuring is a dangerous job, and the smart ones become interested in directing ventures themselves.)

It’s good work, if you can get it, but there are only a handful of really valuable dungeons discovered each year (as well as the blacklist dungeons – those which are well known, but which have been the death of numerous production companies) and competition for them is pretty fierce. But it only takes one big dungeon haul to make for a fairly profitable year for the guild, so it continues to be willing to take some risk.

  1. This is the sort of thing that is economically preposterous unless your world genuinely has lots and lots of dungeons full of treasure. Like many do.  ↩
  2. Net is a suckers game.  ↩

Dungeon World: Identity Mistakes

bird-maskOpening Questions:

Urv: How do people from Umalon contact you when you’re afield. (Dead Drops).

Jack: How had your previous safe house gotten burned and what were you doing to arrange a new one (Someone at the poker game was a snitch. Now, Jack is negotiating with Penny, the owner of the Wrinkled Toadstool, to acquire some space Penny uses for smuggling.)

Fafnir: Who is asking you to cook dragon? (The Admiral[1])

Sanguinus: You need to see a map to cross reference something in the logbook. Who has it? (Lozon, an expatriate of the elvish fleet, who left the fleet in the possession of several of their more precious maps, and is nowadays a high end cartographer in Rzae).

Actual Play

At the outset of things, life was great for Fafnir. He was given run of the Admiral’s kitchen, got along well with the head cook, who he had temporarily displaced, and had a staff and several hundred pounds of dragon meat to prepare as he saw fit.

Jack’s negotiations with Penny had not gone well, but in digging some dirt on her, he discovered she had gotten into brewing, but had not been successful in finding buyers. Knowing she had an in at this big shindig, she offered a deal – if the Admiral would buy a substantial portion of Penny’s beer, Jack could use the space. Servants were coming and going already (because Fafnir needed a LOT of stuff) so Jack bribed on and drove their wagon in, adding a keg to the inventory.

Sanguine spoke to Lozon the cartographer(after a hate-filled exchange with the man’s dwarves butler). Lozon had a copy of Avogadro’s map, and an inkling that Sanguinus was working for the Admiral. After a negotiation where both sides made it clear violence was a bad idea, Lozon agreed that if Sanguinus could get him into the dragon gala, then Sanguinus could study the Map in question.

Meanwhile, Urv had gotten a message from one of his University colleagues, and went to investigate. He was leery of going to Umalon without a disguise, so he went looking for someone whose face he could duplicate.

Then it all went horribly, horribly wrong.

Sanguinus went to the Admiral’s villa to request an invitation. As he was waiting, Jack’s wagon came up. There was an exchange of hand signs where Sanguinus communicated to jack that he needed an invitation to the party. However, as the guards infected Jack’s wagon, and jack attempted to hand-sign “I need a distraction”, she rolled snake eyes (that’s #1) and communicated “Start a fight”. Sanguinus obliged and cold cocked a guard.

Which lead to Sanguinus fleeing, and trying to use THE WORD on his pursuers. He rolled snake eyes (#2) and succeeded too well, panicking the entire district, which started throwing the city into chaos, a state which would be exacerbated shortly.

Simultaneously, Jack fled in the other direction and, rolling with a penalty, rolled 3 ones, for super Snake Eyes, and ran over the Admiral who had been coming down to talk to Sanguinus. Jack took the opportunity to note a lack of witnesses and steal the Admiral’s mask and robe (revealing a surprisingly old man) and dump the body in the nearby canal. Her defy danger on this produced mixed results, so I informed her that of course there were no witnesses, and the Admiral was most certainly dead.

Elsewhere, Urv was looking for a friendly face to mimic so he could travel to Umalon incognito. He checked the patrons of the Muddy Yak and found Ajax[2] who was willing, but Urv would owe him a favor. Cue Snakes eyes #4. I rummaged through my notes, pulled out Ajax’s sheet, handed it to Urv’s player and took Urv’s sheet for myself, as Urv found himself in a larger, stronger, but far less magical body.

At this point, it was good that I was not particularly married to any plans I’d had. My general intent had been to draw things together at the Admiral’s dragon themed party, just to get folks to the same place, but I pretty much tossed that out the window and accepted that the table was going to be largely scattered, and we’d see how that shook out.

Jack, of course, proceeded to pass himself off as the Admiral with reasonable success. He arranged for an invitation for Sanguinus, arranged for the kitchens to buy beer from the person he needed a favor from, and then started issuing orders to deal with the chaos that Sanguinus had unleashed in the city.

Urv and Ajax dealt with a bit of a freakout which resolved in Ajax (in Urv’s body) deciding that drinking was the best possible plan. Urn left him, instructing him to stay put, and went to his rendezvous with professor Dilvish, presenting himself as someone who Urv had sent. Dilvish talked some about growing tensions. The professor who had sent Urv on the airship job had been very brutally murdered and a lot of people were asking questions, some of them about Urv. And “people” included both wizards and Alchemists. Dilvish also revealed his suspicion that Urv had access to a different world, and gave Urv a bundled staff to deliver to Urv for translation, as it was Dwarfish, but unlike anything Dilvish had seen.

As Urv was leaving, he was approached by a trio of godless cavaliers, who insisted he come with them.

Sanguinus fled the chaos and back to the Ice Witch, where Tetra was, and he brought her up to speed. A messenger came with the invitation, and Tetra was very curious about Lozon, as he was somewhat infamous among the fleet elves. However, as they set out to deliver the invitation, the observed a flying shark[3] attacking people. Tetra dealt with it, but was hurt in the process. After they patched her up as best they could, they made it back into the city, where there were more of the shark-things to be seen. More problematically, there were larger ones with squid tentacles around their heads[4]. Combined with the earlier panic, large portions of the city were in utter chaos.

Jack, as the Admiral, received reports of this chaos, and responded decisively, deploying troops, recalling ships to supplement the city forces and general addressing this. The possibility of canceling the gala was raised, but to do so would be to admit weakness and to waste the dragon meat, which was basically irreplaceable, so the party would go on! He also got his hands on some of the Admiral’s intelligence on the alchemists under the auspices of concerns that they were behind this attack.

Urv discovered that Ajax’s body knew what to do in a fight, and pretty much kicks the cavalier’s asses. He rolled for a gateway, but did not do super well, so it was accessible, but not convenient, safe, or to a known destination. The route took him through the Infinite Academy, whose wards would ignore Urv, but were set off by Ajax, and he had to fight his way past a stone guardian, but got through the door. Sadly, this came out through Lozon’s library, which caused a bit of consternation as Urv departed at speed. Stepping into the streets, he sees the chaos and the sharks and sets out to the Muddy Yak.

Sanguinus and Tetra pass him, going the other direction, and Urv opts nto to tip his hand. The pirate’s conversation with Lozon is a bit strained, as he thinks there has just been an assassination attempt on his life, and he has enough self possession to quite masterfully replace Sanguinus’s name on the invitation with his own. The pirates then set out to find the source of this Shark problem

Urv gets to the Muddy Yak and finds it in disarray, with everyone present magically asleep and no sign of Ajax. He sets out again to find him, but Sanguinus and Tetra get there first, going to the epicenter of the shark event. There they find a profoundly drunk “Urv” gleefully summoning tentacle shark things and letting them fly free. Conversation is not super coherent, and made all the more confusing by the fact that he gets out “I’m not Urv” before Tetra knocks him out (which result sin the Sharks all vanishing). Sanguinus throws “Urv” over his shoulder and heads for the Ice Witch. Urv catches up with them and offers to help a little too eagerly for the pirates’ taste.

Meanwhile, “The Admiral” promptly starts taking credit for the disappearance of the sharks, sending out criers to reassure the city that all is safe and well. This ends up being quite the coup, as the combination of decisive action, credit hogging and still holding the party earned The Admiral a crippled of political capital. As the guests start to arrive, things would be awesome, if it weren’t for that whole deception thing.

Back on the Ice Witch, Urv attempts to cover up the body swap, but Ajax is more than willing to talk, and it specifically comes up that Urv’s “friend” Kethna was happy to send sharks. It also came out that Ajax-in-Urv’s-brain had figured out how to reverse things, but had decided to get punitively drunk to make sure that Urv had god’s own hangover.

With those two making preparations, Tetra and Sanguinus set out to return to Lozon’s establishment to study the map and possibly steal back what Lozon had taken from the Elvish Fleet. This took some persuasion on Tetra’s part. As Sanguinus put it, “I’m not the kind of paladin who punches art thieves”. When they got there, Tetra went in an upstairs window while Sanguinus was ushered into the library by several burly guards.

Meanwhile, “The Admiral” was informed that someone had come to the party on Sanguinus’s invitation. She arranged a private audience and put the fear of god in Lozon, making it clear that he was to give Sanguinus anything and everything he needed. From Lozon’s perspective, this was a friendly chat with Darth Vader, he enthusiastically complied.

Meanwhile, Sanguinus and Tetra’s plan hit a snag when Tetra’s dramatic entrance put a bit too much strain on the chandelier, smiling oil and starting a fire, resulting a three-way conflict with the fight and the fire. Sanguinus caught on fire, but Tetra managed to give a passionate speech that got everyone to agree to fight the fire first. At the end of the fire, but before hostilities resumed, the messenger from Lozon arrived with new instructions for the Butler, who was not happy about it, but let the Pirates take what they desired.

Ajax slapped together a ritual that got the body issue straighten out. There was some negotiation – Ajax felt he was still owed a favor, Urv felt he had used it up summoning demon sharks. The compromise resolution was Ajax breaking Urv’s arm.

As the gala came to an end, “The Admiral” summoned “Hairy”, the poker player who had snitched and who had gotten a last minute invitation to the gala. Jack drugged him up, put The Admiral’s gear on him (mask askew) and left it so it would look like he’d gotten too enthusiastic with the Admiral’s medicine chest. And with a patsy in place, Jack slipped out with one of the departing carriages, noting at the last moment, a figure pulling itself out of the canal and heading towards the villa.

In an epilogue, after the gala was closing down, Fafnir heard an alarm go up, and being a barbarian, ran towards the screaming rather than away from it. He passed several desiccated bodies and, along with a few Crow Knights, came up short down the hall from the Admiral’s Study (where Hairy had been left). The figure coming out of the door was wet, but hale and healthy, and straightening the Plague Doctor mask, as he informed them that their help would not be necessary, before turning to return to the study.

That session was a ride. No question. I admit I kind of enjoyed the sheet swap as a gimmick, though I think the biggest win from the session is that it gave Jack a taste of power, and now she’s feeling a little ambitious. Which is excellent.

I desperately need to find a better way to handle bonds. I have a dozen players, but only 3–6 each session, and there’s no way to be sure whether your bond folks are going to show up. Also, honestly, some of the bonds they do have are kind of lame over longer term play, but constantly coming up with new ones is just a hassle. I have some ideas for addressing this, but I need to chew on it a while.

All in all, this was probably the craziest session to date, and while I regret that the group was never together in scene, the broader shape of it made it totally worth it.

  1. The Admiral is one of the senior Plague Doctors who rule Rzae. The group has met him before as he’s the one tho offered Sanguinus a pardon in return for figuring out the mysterious logbook.  ↩
  2. Ajax is a fighter who had been played by my brother for a single session when he was visiting. He has since been generally floating around as an NPC. He’s a pit fighter and a general badass.  ↩
  3. Sharks with bat wings are Urv’s go-to choice for summoned monsters, and this was clearly one of those.  ↩
  4. The players recognized this as sharing similar physical characteristics to Kethna the Devourer, an ancient god who Urv managed to release from its prison and then accidentally lead to the Sea of Mists. it likes Urv. It has promised to eat him last.  ↩

Drama, Continutity and Scene Outcomes

So, this is one of those idea that illustrates where narrative and games do a strange dance. When you create a scene in a story, there are lots of elements in play, but one of the most critical is how it’s going to end. In the crudest sense, if the scene is a fight, then it’s generally going to end with one side or the other winning. Usually the protagonist wins and we move on to the next scene.

This is a terrible example, of course, for a couple of reasons (most of which John Rogers articulates incredibly well). The most obvious is that in most cases you can be confident that the hero won’t lose because that would interrupt the story. There are fight scenes which have uncertainty, but they usually require significant framing to create that uncertainty.

To make these scenes more interesting, there is usually at least one other uncertainty in play. Let’s say, for example, we have the classic pulpy showdown with an evil henchman while an NPC is in a deathtrap that’s going to trigger soon (a candle is burning through the rope that holds up the deadly spike!). Now there are 4 possible outcome:

  • Hero Wins, NPC Rescued
  • Hero Wins, NPC not rescued
  • Hero Loses, NPC Rescued
  • Hero Loses, NPC Not Rescued

Now, if you’re creating a story, this is suddenly a little bit more interesting – you’ve got a number of different ways they scene could close[1]. This is, of course, a greatly simplified case – if you’re actually writing a story the options may be less binary, but I’ll be using this more simplified model for illustration.

When I talk about a drama in an RPG session, I am thinking in terms of those outcomes – how is the scene going to break in an interesting way. This is why, from a dramatic perspective, a 10×10 room with some goblins in it is super dull – there are only two outcomes. And if I see the problem in this way, then my instinct is to add something to the fight to increase the number of outcomes, so there is a “beat the goblins, but…” element

This is a good instinct. It generally means the fight with the goblins will be more interesting than simply dropping them in a room. But it is also only half of the picture.

Where RPGs differentiate from stories is that what may seem like a simple outcome in a story can be finely graded in an RPG. The dramatic outcomes of facing the goblins are “Win and proceed” or “lose and perish (or something). The RPG outcomes are:

  • Win handily
  • Win but we’re a little banged up
  • Win but we’re hurt badly
  • Win but we lost a party member
  • Win but we had to burn through a lot of potions
  • Win but we had to burn through a lot of spells
  • Losing, so we made an orderly retreat.
  • Lost half the party, the rest ran away.
  • Lost badly

And this list is still abbreviated because many of the options combine. It was an Orderly retreat but we burned a lot of spells. We were hurt badly and had to go through most of our potions. In short, that dramatically simple outcome is much more nuanced from a game perspective.

One practical upshot of this is that dramatic thinking can make the fight scene better (by making it more than just goblins in a room) but by itself it may not produce a satisfying outcome.

In a vacuum, the game approach seems sort of silly and full of unnecessary detail. And it kind of is. If you’ve ever played D&D where you are having a “clean” fight (One where you start at full resources and will have a chance to recover to full afterwards) that feels very different than working your way through a dungeon.[2]

The key here is one of continuity. If you are thinking dramatically, the things which transfer from one scene to the next are only the things which are dramatically interesting. If you’re hurt, then that might carry forward, but not in any kind of fine-grained sort of way. Depending upon the kind of story, it might not be carried forward at all.

Anyway, one of the interesting design challenges of RPGs of a more dramatic bent is to keep that sense of continuity while still staying relatively dramatic. Torchbearer does an amazing job with this by effectively maintaining a list of prices that are easy to spend but hard to recover. Fate uses Consequences to reflect important things carrying forwards.

But the key is that even these more abstract systems are more information that someone reading a story would want. And, honestly, for the story of the game that you tell once you’re done, they are details that largely get swept under the rug. Even in D&D, we are excited that we landed a crit at just the right time, and we describe the attack – rarely do we include the exact damage number because that’s not part of the story.

But what it is is part of the experience. The continuity of those resources can tie together the game in a meaningful way. To say that they are at odds with story is like saying that a muffin tin is at odds with muffins because it’s inedible.

Now, here’s a qualifier. There’s a lot of fun play to be had sticking to purely dramatic rules. There’s also a lot of fun to be had by discarding drama in favor of awesome rules and emergence. I don’t pretend to know the right way to go about this, and I know my own play is an unstable mix of these priorities, but that is how I like it. On some level, I don’t believe that gaming is simple enough for any one solution to fit every game, and that the pursuit of fun tends to get a little muddy.

Not that I would have it any other way.

  1. And it’s important to note the independence of the axes. The NPC in danger is not the “stakes” of the scene – if that were so, there would only be two outcomes – win and rescue the NPC or lose and the NPC perishes. At first glance, this may seem like you’ve made the simple conflict more meaningful, but you’ve actually doubled down on predictability – you have raised the stakes enough that the hero can’t lose if the story is still going to progress.  ↩

  2. This is one of the things that made 4e such an oddball. Recovery of resources between fights was not terribly onerous, so very little really carried from one fight to that next , so the fight outcomes we closer to the dramatic model (because a cost that is immediately reimbursed is not really a cost).  ↩