Monthly Archives: May 2014

Con prep

There is already a lot of great advice out there as we go into con season. Hopefully you’ve internalized a lot of it already, especially the necessity of eating, bathing and sleeping.[1] But there are other things that can help you out, especially if you don’t travel a lot. I know that for me, conventions were my first real reason to start using hotels rather than crashing with friends. I’m not much of a business traveller, but I’ve picked up a few things out of necessity, and I figured I’d share.

belkinFirst, pack a power strip. This is one of those things which is absolutely common sense once you start doing it, but if you haven’t done it, and you have tried to figure out how to charge your various devices in a hotel room, then you understand the need. I use one of these because it also has USB ports, which reduces the number of adapters I need to carry. One warning: if you have an iPad or similarly large device, make sure the USB ports are 2.1 amp, otherwise it will pretty much never charge.


Second, get a travel tray. This is a category of item that I didn’t even realize existed, but I am so glad I found it. It is, basically, a crap bucket – a place to put all the stuff rom your pockets at the end of the day without it all wandering around the room. Most of them pack flat, and just fold up into tray form when you need them, though some (like the Tom Bihn version) double as storage, which is kind of cool.

packingThe value of the travel tray is probably obvious, but the next thing may not be: Packing Cubes[2]. It used to be these were a rare item that only business travelers knew about, but they’ve gotten a bit more mainstream. If you haven’t used them, they seem counterintuitive – pack your stuff into containers, then pack it into a bag? MADNESS!

But if you talk with anyone who uses them (like me) you will discover that they help you pack more efficiently, make unpacking and living out of a suitcase much easier, and just generally improve the travel experience. If you’re skeptical (and I was) check out this video for a sense of how to use them.

This last thing is a little crude, but please bear with me. If you go to a convention, odds are good you are sharing a room with other people. This, combined with convention food and other issues means that the bathroom of your hotel room may be something of a danger zone. For years, I’ve tried to take steps to minimize this – I always pack gas-x and a small bottle of lysol or equivalent – but this year I have a secret weapon: Poo-pourri.

Yes, that stuff. With the video.[3]

Amazon carries it in a variety of scents in case Lavender is insufficiently manly for you, and I will swear – this stuff works. It works remarkably well. I am pretty confident my roommate will thank me for it.

So, those are a few of my tricks to make the trip a little bit more sane. Anyone out there have any con travel tips they want to add.

  1. And, of course, bringing a good con bag.  ↩
  2. This is actually a shorthand for pouches, cubes and other sorts of subcompartment.  ↩
  3. If you haven’t watched the video it’s kind of hilarious, but if you have, then you know what I mean.  ↩

Mappers 2

So, Mappers session 2 went well, if in a somewhat unexpected fashion.

As planned, we had a cast change. Urv generally can’t make Fridays, and Dogan had a commitment, so the only character coming forward was Jack, the Thief. The new character added to the mix was Shrike, the chaotic human ranger, with his savage mule, Iggy[1]. I had a handout with the key information, and I had Shrike’s player add a new location to each city, so I’ve updated that.[2] It was determined that Shrike came from Umulon, and he had a big streak of fighting the man and striking back at the oppressive (yet still vaguely defined) rulership of that city. Shrike had never played Dungeon World before, so this was also a learning game, but he picked it up quickly.


Once that was done, I copied down Jack & Shrike’s alignment moves and their bonds to each other[3] and basically asked myself how I could hit the maximum number of these. Alignments were the most useful, since they were action-oriented – they clearly needed to sneak in somewhere and rescue someone – and the bonds informed on that. Technique-wise, this is very similar to what I do with aspects when pulling something together for Fate. For this purpose, the bonds were a little bit less toothy than I’d hoped, but they were still useful.

With that, I had a frame: a swank party of Umulon’s upper crust, and a prisoner somewhere in the building. I decided it was in The Finger, because we hadn’t really gotten into it yet, but that was the extent of the details before the two questions.

To Jack: How did you manage to arrange for you two to be at this party?

To Shrike: Who is in the basement that you need to rescue?

Predictably, the details flowed in from there. The party was a fundraiser for “orphans” that was really a political fundraiser that was part of the ramp up to Umulon’s forthcoming elections. Jack had helped an Um moneylender named Kostis Samaras cover up is affair with Mrs. Lusk, another moneylender’s wife, and in return for the favor had scored tickets. Shrike had talked Jack into this[4] on the idea that it would be rich pickings but his real purpose was to rescue Gregor Bomamici, younger brother of the Minister of Roads, Anne Bonamici. Anne was a tolerably honest politician, and Danzen Mulkey, the gent running the party, was using her brother to black mail her into announcing that she would not be seeking re-election, and the announcement was to be part of the evening’s festivities.[5]

So, that’s where things started, and from there they went…very, very badly. It is my expectation that Dungeon World will largely be propelled forward by the complications on 7–9 results, but this session proved to be an exception as there were startlingly few 7–9 results and LOTS of failures, and when they did not fail, they tended to roll spectacularly.

It all started well enough. Jack got made by Mrs. Lusk, but beat a hasty retreat out one of the main hall. He managed to put some Goldenroot (“trust me” poison) in a punch bowl and attempted to knock out a servant to get a uniform. This went badly, resulting in Jack fleeing from the oncoming rush of guards. The good news was that this gave Shrike the opportunity to slip off through a different exit, one that lead downstairs and was now unguarded.

Jack eluded the guards by going higher in the tower, out of the common areas and into the places where the traps start showing up. I thought this would be a nice opportunity for Jack to show off, but the dice had other ideas. So we cut back to Shrike, who had found where Gregor was being held, but could not get through the locked door, and so he set off to find Jack.[6] And he did, with the small complication that Jack was standing on a stairwell completely encased in ice.

So, Shrike pushed him down the stairs. I was totally ready for the hard choice to be between “Jack gets hurt” and “it makes a lot of noise” and the dice decided it would be both. So, a couple of guards show up and a fight followed where Shrike’s dramatic dive down the stairs ended with a head injury. They managed to overcome the guards and get away ahead of reinforcements, and followed Shrike’s route back to the cellar.

They got there just ahead of the guards, but Jack absolutely nailed the Tricks of the Trade roll, so they got the door open fast, dumped a bunch of casks of wine (and stole 3 nice bottles) to block the guards and fled into the tower again. After a series of further screw ups (Jack should never try to knock anyone out, ever) Jack got a servants uniform and managed to smuggle Gregor onto the floor while Shrike got up into one of the overlooking balcony.

They did manage a great exit – because of the poisoned punch bowl, one of the high stakes poker tables had a huge pile of cash on it (since no one was calling), which Jack grabbed (tablecloth and all) while Shrike swung down on a rope, grabbed Jack and continued up and out through a window which should have come out on the stable roof, but in fact resulted in a somewhat longer drop. Iggy was not amused.

It kind of went downhill from there, fleeing with the Godless Cavaliers (who had been summoned) in hot pursuit. Losing their horses fleeing into a park, getting entangled in thorns, encountering the mistress of those thorns who then killed one of the pursuing cavaliers to ritually gather his heartsblood before departing along with any evidence that it had been anyone but Jack and Shrike responsible for the death. That lead to more fleeing, finally succeeding in finding a way that dumped them in the graveyard that surrounds the Forgotten Cathedral and the things in the fog. More fleeing, a reasonably tactful exchange with some grave robbers, fleeing again, getting to a wall, finding a weak spot for Iggy to kick down, fleeing into the street and because the dice demanded it, faced an attempted mugging which they survived solely because Iggy was far and away the most capable of the three.

At the end, they had pretty much lost all the money they stole (it had fallen away in dribs, drabs and choices as they went) save for the three bottles of wine, and that’s where we wrapped.

In case it’s not clear how many failures got rolled, both characters had double digit XP by the end of the session. Jack actually leveled twice (since she had a bit left from the first session).

All in all, it went well. The first half was stronger than the second half, which suffered from being a bit too much of a string of odd events rather than anything coherent. In retrospect, I should have done a full regroup to another pair of questions, so I’ll bear that in mind for the future.

Takeaways and lessons:

  • I need to have a name file on hand to speed up the naming of new faces
  • Difference in fights with Dogan absent is very pronounced, though the terrible dice luck (and the fact that Shrike was largely forced into melee) also played a part in that.
  • This really drove home for me what makes a bond interesting to me – I needs an implicit “therefor…”, even if it’s not clear what that is. It is easy for action to flow from “Jack owes me a favor”, it is harder for it to flow from “Shrike sees how awesome I am”. Yes, technically, the bonds provide play cues, not action drivers, but I like action drivers better.
  • I am not sure there is any way to prepare for the dice turning quite that badly, but good to see it didn’t completely break things. That said, I admit that it did leave me wishing for a player-controlled dial (like Fate Points) to smooth it out a little.
  • Having a Ranger in the group gives me somewhat stronger incentive to look at things like camping and traveling and come up with some similar moves for a city game, if only so I know how much I’ve hosed the ranger. For now, the liberal read on Track & Find will probably balance it out, but it’s definitely something to work on.
  • Similarly, I need to choose a way to handle wealth, whether it’s concrete or abstract.
  • Jack’s interest in poisons also means I need to put some thought into how they fit in the city, and if I want to offer any crossworld alchemy moves.
  • Still no Cleric or Paladin. Intriguing.

  1. Short for Ignatius, named for Ignatius Fiddlebottom, of the Crowntop Fiddlebottoms, Captain of the Godless Cavaliers.  ↩
  2. I updated it a lot. The nature of this adventure added a lot of names to the list.  ↩
  3. Based on the rotating cast thing, I’m going to be allowing a lot more bonds than usual, with the limiter being a max on the number of bonds you can have at the table on any given night. That’s going to require a large list of generic bond mad libs, so I’ll have to see if that exists. As a stopgap, I handed Jack the Charismatic Hero and the Bard and told her to use two bonds from those sheets for Shrike.  ↩
  4. This one came from the bonds – Jack owed Shrike a favor.  ↩
  5. I also asked Shrike for the name of a real bomb-throwing extremist, figuring I’d just keep it in my pocket for a late-game escalation of tensions. I got one – Taz Mofeld – but I never got to use him thanks to the players’ magnificent dice.  ↩
  6. This was the point where I remembered that capers without a means of communication are kind of problematic. I ended up covering for a multitude of sins with a very liberal interpretation of Shrike Track & Find move, which made it easy for the team to get back together.  ↩

Sliding Success

Success at a cost is one of my favorite mechanics. The -World games are the poster child for it at the moment, it’s something I first encountered in John Harper’s[1] Talislanta design, which includes partial success in its outcome ladder. The idea is older than that, of course, but like all such things, there’s an evolution to it.

In many ways, the evolution becomes more obvious when you think about things in terms of cost. A lot of games have (implicitly or explicitly) the idea of there being a cost associated with success, even if that cost is as mundane as an expenditure of resources. This is true on an action level, but also on a more abstract level – consider that this is ultimately the metagame surrounding the average dungeon crawl – ablation of resources over the course of an adventure can be viewed as an extensive cost-benefit analysis equation.

Yes, that’s kind of bloodless, but that’s usually because it’s fairly bloodless costs. The reason that we think of -World partial successes as something different is because they are explicitly interesting costs (rather than costs based on utility). And that difference points to some fun design space – cost is often an engine to convert between utility and fun (hopefully in the direction of fun).

Fate has a fun hook in for this in the form of consequences. There are a few hacks out there which allow for the pre-emptive spending of consequences for bonuses, and it’s an idea I enjoy a lot, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg. As is, Fate runs into a bit of weirdness with success with consequences.

Note, this is not a flaw. Fate embraces the idea of “Failing Forward”, so by and large it folds the idea of success with consequence into the definition of failure, rather than making it an interim step between failure and success. That solves a very different problem than partial success do, but they’re complimentary technologies. Fate’s approach is all about teaching fruitful failure, the -World approach is all about interesting success. If you can get your hands around both these ideas, then the mechanics become almost irrelevant – you can make a coin flip fun.

But until you get to that point, it’s still a fun mechanical space to play around with, and I’ve been pondering something that looks like this:


I was struck by the idea of different tiers of costs paired with a bit of -world thinking. That is to say, imagine that a success costs 0 points for an outcome outside of your control (critical failure), 1 point for expected failure, 2 points for success, 4 points for critical success. You generate some number of points with your roll (whatever system that is) and you can increase those points at a small (1 point), medium (2 points) or great (4 points) cost. Don’t get too hung up on the exact costs – it’s the idea that matters.

The key here is that you can insert costs into either success or failure. That part is definitely best of both world, but the trade off is that it’s a bit clunky. I’m not sure whit would work as a mechanic so much as a conceptual tool, to identify how a given roll could actually produce a variety of outcomes.

No specific outcome of these thoughts yet, just something to kick around.

  1. Because John Harper is the “Simpson’s Did It First” of RPG design. Which is why it’s worth noting that Harper has started a Patreon for his designs, and that’s pretty awesome.  ↩

The Business! It Burns!

Fred just laid down some serious business stuff over at the main evil hat blog, and as ever, it’s a great illustration of transparency.  Speaking as someone on the inside of these conversations, what you are seeing in that post is the same stuff we’re seeing when we talk, just without the threading.

Gist of this news is that we won’t be doing business with Diamond distributing.  This is really only a big deal insofar as Diamond is a (arguably the) comic distributor,  and it would have potentially meant getting the Atomic Robo RPG into comic book shops which is, as they say in the business, a lovely synergy.   Fred lays it out in great detail, but I kind of summarize it as follows – if a company can’t get it together to tell me how much money I owe them, how good a job do I think they’re going to do if they owe me money?

I don’t enjoy this part of the business of publishing, and I am lucky that Fred excels at it (along with Chris, Carrie and Sean) so that I get to putter about and just think about this stuff and try to learn how game development (as opposed to design) works.

But I still think about it.  I especially think about it when I go surfing about the  RPG kickstarters.

Some of them are rock solid.  John Wick’s Wield has already funded – some of that is name recognition, some of it is a clever pitch, and some of it is that he has a reliable product model.  A John wick game will (with few exceptions) run you 5 bucks as a pdf, 15 bucks in print, and scale up from that.  Those are tested and tried numbers, and they hold up really well for him.

Others are…not as solid.  Specifically, i will sometimes see an RPG price its core book at some crazy high number ($100-$150) because other kickstarters have successfully done so.  What they tend to overlook is that many of those kickstarters are for legacy products offering deluxe editions as a means to show love with money, not as a means to buy a product.  The Exalted 3 Kickstarter was egregiously overpriced for an RPG, but priced just right for something special.

Admittedly, not ever $100 RPG is a deluxe edition.  But the exceptions fall into one of three categories:

  • Novelty
  • Value
  • Brand

And the problem is, it’s unlikely your game falls into one of these categories.

I am not sure any product has succeeded on novelty since the first World’s Largest Dungeon.  The possibility of others exists, but bear in mind that novelty is not about it being good or interesting, it’s about it being something new and unexpected.

Value is a hard one to hit, but for games like WHRPG 3e, where the box has a LOT of stuff in it, it’s not unreasonable to hit the $100 price point.  But making something like that is not easy.

Brand is where you get things like name recognition (*cough*montecook*cough*) and licenses that people are willing (and excited) to pay for.

If your game has one of those things, then you might be able to get away with a crazy high price tag.  But if it doesn’t, then please please, do not use those games as a yardstick to judge yours by.


Randomizing Questions

I read Tremulous last night. It’s very good – it’s basically Cthulhu using a version of the Apocalypse World engine – but it also did a really good job of illustrating to me the significance of some of the decisions that Dungeon World made. That’s not a criticism of Tremulous, mind you, just a general observation.

Anyway, one of the very cool bits of Tremulous is its scenario creation material. It does a great job of zooming in and out on the structure of an adventure,creating and tying together threads and so on. This cross pollenated with some thoughts I was having about my love of random tables[1] and some considerations on my mind regarding bonds. See, I love the mad libs structure of bonds in DW, and I like generating stuff that way, but normally I design these things in a GM-facing fashion, which is a poor match for Dungeon World.

So that got me thinking about using Mad Libs style generation to create questions, and I realized I had most of the tools right on hand. See, it starts with a table:

1 Slim Jimmy The Plague Doctors The Raft
2 Professor Delvish The Godless Cavaliers The Infinite Academy
3 Chancellor Antika The Academy Scholars The Burial Pit

And so on. I currently have more “wheres” than anything else, but it will fill in over time. It’s ok if the columns are mismatched because the real goal is to just be able to roll up an element at a moment’s notice (and I’ll just use whatever die size works at the moment). The Where elements are points on the map, the Who are named NPCs, and the What are everything else. Obviously, there’s a lot of interplay between the elements on this table and fronts, but I won’t delve into that right this second for purposes of simplicity.

With that table, I just need to come up with a few templates, like:


This needs a separate want table, but that pretty easy:

  1. wants to question
  2. wants to recover an item from
  3. wants to collect a debt from
  4. wants to pay a debt to
  5. wants to deliver a message to
  6. wants to get revenge on

Expand as you see fit – if I was feeling ambitious, I’d steal a bunch from the DW appendix, but this highlights the idea.

(Note, I could expand it to end with “about [WHAT]”, but that feels a it too constrained. I might do that if I drop the WHERE[2]. 2 elements and one want seems enough.)

That’s how I would structure it as a GM, but for dungeon world, I’d tweak it a little, so that it becomes:

“Why does [WHO] in the [WHERE][WANT] you?”

And now that I’ve got the idea, I can start rolling out other templates:

“Why does [WHO][WANT] [WHO]?”
“Why is [WHO] poking around [WHERE]?”
“What is [WHO]’s interest in [WHAT]?”
“Why has [WHAT] been active in [WHERE]?”
“How did you piss off [WHAT]?”[3]

I’m going to fiddle around with this some, but I think this (and the “why are you broke” roll) may start being the icebreaker for a session.

  1. Including the MOST AWESOME table, created by one of my players, which we will be using for every Dungeon World session – the “WHY ARE YOU BROKE NOW?” table  ↩

  2. I may also need to fiddle with the numbering so the WHO and WHERE are from the same city, but that’s trivial.  ↩

  3. As a bonus, if I feel the WHO or WHAT lists are short, then you can turn any of those questions into a fill in the blank to create a new one.  ↩

Excitement is only a Piece

Monte Cook wrote a nice piece on smart play and boring fights in classic dungeon crawling. It’s a good piece, and its an accurate accounting of a kind of play (myself included) really enjoy.

However, it leaves out one critical piece, one which was probably not relevant to the story being told. See, I imagine Monte is at least a good GM as he is a game designer, and his players had every reason to believe that he was playing fair. What’s more, I’m confident that he set up the flow of information in a way to keep it engaging and on point.

And that’s awesome, but it’s hard.

I’m going to largely set aside the issue of trust for this by virtue of it being such an obvious deal-breaker. If you do not trust that the GM is playing fair, then “smart” play is “paranoid, unfun” play, because that’s the only way to prepare for what you know is going to happen. I can’t imagine that it requires more explanation than that.

Somewhat trickier is the GET BOWL component. As noted in the story, the characters had just the right scroll on hand for the problem they had to face. That’s a pretty common piece of classic D&D adventure design – the scrolls you find are often an indication of the trouble that you’re going to find further ahead. In theory, this unfolds very organically, but in practice, it’s all pretty meta.

I refer to this as the GET BOWL problem because this is the classic structure of old text adventures, where you navigated an entire dungeon with a combination of VERB NOUN. Resolving these games was largely about getting the right NOUN and performing the right VERB with it in the right place or with the right stuff. D&D was very influenced by these games (and vice versa) and they tend to be the template for the “smart” adventure.

The problem is that how well the model works depends a lot on context, and there’s a paradox to it. See, the more open minded and open ended your play is, the more likely it is that your players will find some solution other than PUT BOWL ON ALTAR. That’s awesome! But in that same game, the players are more likely to sell the bowl of in a complicated art con, which is also awesome! Unless there is a point where the bowl is really required.

This is a case where the old brown books probably helps things. I imagine the simplicity of things limits certain options. Specifically, it limits the desperate scramble for resources and spells which defines so much of my 1e experience. Perhaps this is uncommon, but I know that it has been a rare adventure where we get to use a magic user spell because the value of using it is far less than the value of eventually being able to put it in the magic user’s spellbook. [1]

But it illustrates the danger of including solutions within the adventure. it’s not bad in and of itself, but it can promote laziness on the creator’s part. If you’ve provided a solution somewhere else, then why worry about making the situation engageable in some other way?[2] To go back to Cook’s story, the second challenge – dealign with the trap – sounds FAR more engaging than the fight with the cockatrices, which should be fine, save that the cockatrices were far more rewarding in-game.

A recurring term in Cook’s piece kind of shines a light on the heart of what’s going on – a desire to not cheapen the experience for the players. Note that this is not an intellectual argument about the nature of fiction and illusionism[3] but simply a practical argument about player satisfaction. Cook chooses not to alter the game to be more exciting because it’s currently very satisfying.

That’s an important distinction. There are many emotional rewards in play (often with fancy latin names) and you can’t hit them all at the same time. In this case, Cook was providing satisfaction to his players, and while it’s possible that providing excitement would have improved things, it probably would have made things worse. Is this because Cook can’t deliver excitement? No, it’s because he’s cognizant of the context he’s playing in. Old D&D has fewer tools for excitement – it’s not going to support a flashy, cinematic fight scene thrown in for temp reasons. Try to do that, and you probably just end up killing everyone. What’s more, his player expectations are clearly more towards the rewards of thinking and planning than those of bold flash.

Given another system or another set of players, there would almost certainly have been a better approach. But here’s the important caveat – even with those factors, the fact that he didn’t need to tilt play in a given direction, doesn’t mean it would never be the right call. And, in fact, he probably did it without even considering it, because it was in line with the experience.

How do I mean? Consider the resolution to the trap – it sounds like they went totally MacGuyver/Rube Goldberg on that, which is awesome, but it requires a judgement call on the GM’s part – is this really going to work? Now, I don’t pretend to know the specifics of the situation, but let’s assume there was some uncertainty to it, and it depended on a GM call. In this case, you make the call that improves satisfaction – that is, that they can do it. This is no different than tilting a fight for more excitement, upping a challenge for greater Fiero[4], bringing in important elements for greater drama or one of many other things a GM can do.

So if the lesson you take away from the story is just that “more excitement” is not always the way to go, then you’re taking away a small part of a larger lesson. As a GM, you have lots of knobs you can turn, and part of being a good GM involves realizing what Knobs your players and your game need more of, and which you might want to leave alone.

Anyway, none of this is a criticism of problem-solving oriented play. It’s super fun, and it often has some of the most delightful setting exploration because you really sink your teeth into the world around you in order to play effectively. Rather, I just want to call out that – like any good play – there’s a lot more going on than maybe immediately apparent.

  1. That is, perhaps, a little specific, but I’ve seen it often enough that it sticks.  ↩

  2. And this is where the smart-play enthusiast points out that introducing challenges that can simply be overcome with dice rolls is also laziness. And they are right.  ↩

  3. That is, if the encounter says that there are 4 orcs in the room, but the players have been beat to crap, is it cheating to edit that to 3 orcs before the players get there? I do not suggest there is a right answer so much as call it out as a contentious question.  ↩

  4. What we feel when we triumph over adversity.  ↩

The Risks of Generic Adventures

The thing about a D&D module is that it’s written with no understanding of who the characters coming to deal with the dungeon are. That’s a really serious challenge for a writer, and even with the narrowing of scope provided by a level range, it still seems like the range of possible characters should be impossible to plan for.

Thankfully, the structure of D&D provides a lot of help for this. Some of it is obvious – characters of a certain level will not have access to spells of a certain level – but much of it is a bit fuzzier. The range of things a D&D character can do (with any mechanical support) is actually pretty constrained. There are oddball spells and items that can expand that range, but even that tends to be fairly tightly limited. And, in fact, those exceptions are viewed as an expression of creativity, so even if they introduce problems, they are largely welcome.

The thing is, these limitation are things that we often speak of as weaknesses of D&D, especially older editions. The lack of any kind of diversity of skills or abilities is held up as a problem. And it totally can be. But it also makes it MUCH easier to design an adventure that can work for a wider range of groups. Yes, you can still have the occasional mismatch, but it’s rarer.

This is an important lesson for any would-be adventure designer. The more free-form and diverse your game is, the harder it is to write an adventure for strangers.

We’ve seen the fruits of this in lots of places. White Wolf got a reputation for railroady adventures, which seems harsh, but consider the context. The range of capabilities of the average Vampire group was much broader than a D&D group, so they needed some way to address that. Railroads and sock puppets may not be great techniques for play, but they’re very solid techniques for publishing.

At the other end, I’ll point to things like the Fate adventure Patreon. There’s a reason that a lot of these are more like minigames than classic adventures. Fate is just too open ended otherwise.

There is, I think, a somewhat romantic notion of an adventure not needing to be tied to a particular system. If the fictional setup is interesting and the required action is clear,  it really shouldn’t matter what system you drop it into, right? That feels like it should be the case – after all, the bulk of fiction has no “system”, right?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold up well in practice. See, system does not only tell us how a problem will be solved, it provides us a lot of answers about why these characters are the ones to solve it. Even if that answer is somewhat generic (it’s an adventure, and they’re adventurers!) it’s still a hook, something that a generic adventure won’t have.

The trick is that adventures for a specific system give me a ballpark for where I expect the hooks to be. In D&D, it will probably be a dungeon that I can drop into my world, even if I need to tweak some details. In Vampire, it will probably involve clans and power structures I’m familiar with. In a generic adventure, I have no such starting point.

Not to say it’s impossible to write generic adventures[1], but if you’re looking to write for strangers, then it’s a lot harder than targeting them.

  1. Or, more often, pseudo-generic. A lot of “generic” adventures are D&D or other popular games with the serial numbers filed off.  ↩

Dungeon World: Mappers part 2

Ok, so as we left off, our heroes had found a safe place to plan. Urk laid out the details and between some riffing and Spouting Lore, we identified some details. The Godless Cavaliers were swashbucklers, and high class defenders of the Chapel of No Gods[1], which was in the Crowntop neighborhood of Umalon – atop one of the biggest towers. They oversaw duels and nominally acted as the watch in Crowntop, but very few peopel are dumb enough to start trouble in Crowntop, as it’s one of the richest neighborhoods in the city. They usually patrol in pairs, and if the crew could get into Crowntop, then they could jump one.

Part of the planning here lead to a brief sidebar as the players noticed that the role of the gods in the setting was a strange one, since our two touch points were the Chapel of No Gods in Umalon and the Forgotten Cathedral in Rzae. The story turned out that the Um (it sounds better than Umalonian) were religiously anti-religious – it’s really the chapel of “No Gods”. In Zae, there had been priests, but they failed to save the city from the plague, and they were purged when the Plague Doctors took over with their wacky ideas of “Hygiene” and “Germ Theory”. We all concluded that it was a shame we had no Cleric of Paladin in the group, and that we look forward to that changing.

This lead to the question of how to get to Crowntop, and for that we looked to the map. Since the Burial Pits were next to the Chapel card, we decided it was through there, and that the Burial Pits could be gotten to through the Infinite Academy. All well and good, but no plan survives contact with the dice, and it turned out the connection from the Academy to the Pits did not come out where expected, and the group had to cross the pit.

The Burial Pit is where the plague Doctors drop bodies. It’s on an island that holds an old arena, and all but one bridge to it has been destroyed, with the remaining access controlled by the Plague Doctors. This is nominally to keep people out, but evidence suggest things may be reversed.

So, as the players are crossing the field of bodies there are, of course, sounds of movement and indications of unpleasantness that culminate in the players spotting 4 Draugr before they closed with the party and, of course, a fight. Fiction-wise it went fine – Dogan was a monster, and the biggest question was who he was helping at any given moment, since his bonds pulled him in both directions. Jack had a rough time at first, losing her weapon at one point, but (as seems to be jack’s pattern) finished with style and panache.[2] Urv got to bust out some magic missile and otherwise try not to get his face eaten.

Mechanically it was a lot more involved, though not in a bad way, since it was our first time trying out a number of things. I took a little bit too long picking the opposition, in part because I don’t yet have much of an instinct for how to “balance” an encounter, and there were definitely options that feel like they would have just wiped the party out. I think it turned out right, but some of that was luck. I definitely need more practice.

This fight definitely revealed the potency of Dogan’s weapon being Huge and Flexible (We determined at this point that its extra range category was reach, reflecting his ability to slam the hammer for shockwave attacks). He was not doing any real extra damage, but he was more or less controlling where the fight took place. Because he could engage the Draugr with reach, and because he could knock them the hell back, he effectively kept at least one enemy out of the fight at any given time. Extra damage or armor piercing would have been cool and useful too, but they would not have been better.

It also revealed that I don’t yet have a handle on what exactly an “attack” means on the GM side, nor any kind of clear rubric for when I would call for a defy danger roll versus when I would just inflict some damage. This isn’t a huge problem. The lack of clarity allows me to use it as a throttle for pacing, and I welcome that. And, honestly, the fiction often makes the most reasonable path clear. But it’s still got rough edges under my fingertips, so I need to get a hang of that.

Anyway, the guys won the fight, but with two different “Draw attention to yourselves” complications, so things ended with a hell-bent-for-leather run for the what they hoped was the door and, well.

The good new is, it was an exit!

The better news is, it was an exit to Crowntop!

The less good news was that it exited through a stained glass window into a lovely meeting happening in the Chapel of No Gods, crashing down onto the Buffet table, panicking the guests, and alerting the cavaliers.

The fight that followed was delightful. Dogen rained death while trying to scoop up as many sandwiches as he could from the buffet. Jack got in a lovely backstab and got himself a mud-bronze rapier and maine gauche off the body. Urv…well, Urv was more concerned with not being recognized, and very nearly accidentally cast a charm spell on the Chancellor of the academy before pretending to be one of the crowd and getting ushered out while Dogan and Jack got their violence on.

(Mechanically, I definitely understatted the Cavalier, something I will rectify next time)

Net result was that Jack had a bundle of weapons from the fallen cavaliers, Dogan had a bag full of sandwiches, but everyone managed to get away and meet up back at the Muddy Yak. The only real complication that followed was needing to give Slim Jimmy an extra weapon set to buy off the aggrieved raft holder who was upset about the thief and the hole in his raft. At that point it was late enough that the sale of the steins to Professor Delvish went off without a hitch (for now) and we wrapped everything up with a big carouse roll, which ended in Slim Jimmy becoming a more permanent ally and with a hook for the next session. Oh, and with Dogan making a Defy Danger roll for his unwillingness to let the sandwiches go to waste, despite the lack of refrigeration for the tiny shrimp.


So, all in all it went very well. I think everyone had fun. No one got quite enough XP to level, but it was close, which was probably just right. I definitely feel more comfortable throwing Dungeon World onto the stack of comfortable pickup games, with my sole hesitation being that I am not quite comfortable scaling opposition yet. That said, I need to figure out a few things:

  • I am definitely going to need to come up with one or two mapper moves. Probably one for finding a nearby passage and another for navigation between the cities. The map was a nice gimmick, and it can inform a roll, but it really needs a move.
  • I am slightly worried what happens next session when the cast changes. I’m not worried about the players or the group – my players aren’t going to waste time ‘getting the group together’ but rather about things like Bonds. I’m going to have to get some more Bond Mad Libs and let people add more bonds for more people, but keep their “active” bonds (ones involving characters in play today) limited according to their class. More generally, I also worry that after several sessions, the rotating cast may introduce new problems.
  • Thinking about a misdirection move. I totally get that I can use defy danger for it, and I will in a pinch, but its something I’ll keep an eye on how often I use.
  • At some point I will need to give more than passing thought to cash, but it won’t really be an issue until we reach a point where it is not expected that “broke” is the default starting status for a session.
  • Probably going to start with a front in each city, with a focus on them investigating and trying to seize control of the passageways. That seems a good starting point, with room for unexpected dangers to come in form other vectors as we play.
  • Will probably let each new player add something to the geography. Because why wouldn’t I?

  1. In some part of my head, they are now Bioshock Swashbucklers. and I’m good with that. They will almost certainly be part of a front too, after the events of today’s session.  ↩
  2. The fight also lead to a brief but somewhat existential discussion of the rules. We mentioned the “when in doubt, defy danger” idea, and I noted that my instincts are such that the game could easily be nothing but defy dangers (which is, I think, how World of Dungeons handles it), but the reasons not to is that the extra mechanical bits in some of the moves (the 10+ Hack & Slash being the example of the moment) make them more interesting  ↩

Dungeon World: Mappers part 1

So, we’ve started a new experiment in gaming. A lot of us are parents of young kids or have time consuming jobs, so scheduling has been a bear. The solution we’re trying is to stake out specific, consistent time slots (like the 2nd and 4th Friday every month) with the simple rule that there will be gaming during that slot, and we’ll play with whoever shows up.

That creates certain demands in how the games get structured[1]. The rules need to be on the light and fast side, and the setting needs to support a rotating cast. There are a number of ways to approach both of these needs, but in this particular case, I opted for an urban game (with some twists) played with Dungeon World.

My ongoing struggle with Dungeon World is something I’ve written about before, but this time I shifted up my approach, and tried to treat it as a diceless game that happens to have dice, and that worked out pretty well, though I’m still getting the hang of it.

So, the game itself started with the idea of two different cities in two different places getting pushed together, producing a weird and impossible geography that had transformed both cities and still needed to be discovered. We discussed it a bit, with the big question being whether this merging was overt or secret, and we opted for secret. In conversation it refined a bit and the net result is that the two cities connect in strange places (roads, alleys, doors) which most people can’t see, but some people can, and these people have realized that there’s a lot of potential in mapping this out, and are also discovering that there are other places that have been pushed into the equation (providing for little pocket worlds and dungeons within the context of the two cities). With about that much background, we launched into chargen.

We had 3 players with varying degrees of experience. One had played and run DW, one had played it and one was only vaguely familiar with it (though all 3 were experienced gamers). Based on twitter feedback, we limited chargen to the base classes plus the Barbarian, and the players went for Fighter, Wizard and Thief.

Dogan, the Neutral Human Fighter was all hard eyes and shaved head – scary as hell but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. His signature weapon was a huge, versatile hammer which we later determined had a head made of elderglass, which made it ring like a bell when it hit, giving him the moniker “The Bell Ringer” and proving a source of numerous puns.

Huge ended up being very interesting – it adds the keywords “Messy” and “Forceful”, neither of which have mechanical benefits but which add a lot of color to outcomes, which was in turn pretty potent.

Jack, the Neutral Human Thief, was pretty much what you expect from a thief. The thief’s chargen decisions are a lot less visibly interesting than other classes, which is curious in its own right.

Urvudor the Neutral Elf Wizard hit the point of making some decisions about his character (armor or books) that needed some clarity, so we shifted gears to game background for a bit.

At this point, we knew there were two cities, so I put out two index cards, one for each city, and asked each player (including me) to name one city element. After that I hit people up for vowels and consonants, and we named the cities. In the end the two cities were:
Rzae (Pronounced “Zay”)

  • Canals
  • Huge Central Square
  • Plague Doctors
  • Built atop ancient graves of indigenous folk


  • Sky Towers
  • Shadows and Fogs
  • No Dwarves
  • Elderglass

After that, I handed out two cards apiece (including myself) and asked everyone to write down one thing from each city. For ease of tracking, we did Rzae in green and Umalon in blue, and produced this spread:


Rzae (one extra because the Plaza rolled forward from the last round):

  • The Grand Plaza
  • The Raft (floating Market)
  • The Burial Pit
  • The Laughing Market
  • The Forgotten Cathedral


  • Gardens of the Hanged
  • Chapel of No Gods
  • The Finger
  • The Infinite Academy

I also asked for an Adjective and Animal and got The Muddy Yak, the bar that is in a space to true overlap between the two cities (we decided that weird places where things are more mushed together are called “knots”). It used to be a bakery in Umalon and a bar in Rzae, and now it’s got beer and scones (as well as rooms for a very rarified clientele, since only mappers can even find their way into the place).

With this information, Urv decided that he’d come from the Infinite Academy, so he was more of a book wizard. It was also at this point that we determined that bell ringer was elderglass, even though Dogan was from Rzae, where there is nominally no elderglass, which ended up being the first of a few curiosities about the history of both cities and the story of the dwarves.

Some discussion of the group’s backstory also revealed that the law enforcement in Rzae were the Crow Knights (or Crows), dressed in black iron plague masks and armor. Conversation made it pretty clear they were going to be a big part of a front.

We started the session from the traditional position of “you’re broke, now what?”. Urv’s stipend from the academy had run out, something he noted as he commented that the meal they were all eating was the last of his funds. This lead to some wonderful RP around food-possessiveness which became something of a theme as we went forward. The good news is that Urv knew the professor of Dwarven Studies at the Academy (Dwarves had once existed there) who would pay handsomely for real Dwarven artifacts. They figured they could buy some knicknacks in Rzae(after some discussion deciding to get some Dwarven Fighting Steins) and sell them in Umalon. The problem was, they needed to get together the scratch to get the items,

Enter Slim Jimmy’s Rare and Delightful Items of Great Harm. It came out that Slim Jimmy, a dwarf. sold weapons in the Raft. He was largely legit, and a lot of his business revolved around giving fancy looking weapons fictional long histories when buyers had deep purposes. He also had a standing (and steadily increasing) offer to buy Dogan’s hammer. Slim Jimmy, it turned out, had some excellent Dwarven fighting steins, but he also needed something. He showed the team a Maine Gauche in a material and style he did not recognize, and said he would happily trade the steins for the matching sword.

Urv, of course, recognizes the weapon as one carried by one do the Godless Cavaliers, the guardians of the Chapel of No Gods. So he suggested they take the gig, and the group set off to plan in private.

And this is where things took an interesting turn. Up to this point, there had been a few rolls (mostly spouting lore) but we’d been feeling out the characters and setting up the situation, but only light pressure. This changed when the system raised it’s head – they wanted to grab a boat to converse in private, which required some trivial amount of coins (this was on the Raft, after all, a jumble of floating markets) so the thief went to pick a pocket and the dice came up snake eyes.

So, it was on.

So the big, burly dude grab’s Jack’s arm and starts yelling “Thief, thief!” and his buddies start descending. Dogan manages to rush in and “Accidentally” knock the big dude into the drink, allowing Jack to make a break for it. Urv attempts to offer some misdirection (“He went Thataway!”[2]) and failed impressively, but resolved the matter with a judicious application of Charm Person.[3] Dogan’s next attempt to help smashed a hole through the raft they were on, which he fell through and began drowning. I adjudicated it as a defy danger with +con and -Armor, but in retrospect, It should have been just con, with “Lose your armor” as a 7–9 outcome. Learning! Eventually there was glowing rope, a small mix up, and a rescue. Oh, and Jack? Rolled a 12 on her getaway, came out literally smelling like a rose with money in her pocket and her Alignment XP award. Bastard.

Anyway, a great scene that really just flowed from the dice, which was good to see, because it made me a little bit more comfortable trusting the dice, and a little more willing to push for rolls.

And damn, 1500 words so far. Let me wrap up there for now and pick up the rest tomorrow.

  1. Curiously, these are the same concerns that lead to the original design of Spirit of the Century.  ↩
  2. This actually was the first moment of mechanical hesitancy. I made it a Parley roll, but as written, that didn’t really feel right. Need to give misdirection a little thought.  ↩
  3. This lead to a brief sidebar about the spellcasting rules wherein we realized that the three options for mixed result on spellcasting (Draw bad attention to yourself, forget the spell or have bad cosmic resonance) are, effectively, Dresden Files, D&D and Mage respectively.  ↩