The Isle of Dread(ish)

dreadSo, I kind of screwed up the scheduling for this game, and ended up mushing together both games of Dungeon World in one big session. We had 7 players and 6 characters going, and while I think it worked well enough, it wasn’t easy, and I would definitely not have wanted to push any further. As is, it was hard to keep the spotlight moving fast enough to keep up the level of engagement I like.

This is, I think, an intrinsic element of the game. In other games, you can keep the spotlight moving in a big scene with rapid, light engagement. In DW, that is much more difficulty, since engagement with the GM is either very light or, if the dice are engaged, run the risk of getting very heavy. This is not a flaw, but it’s a consequence of the potency of the moves[1].

Anyway, the game involved characters from both groups, as well as a new player, the one I have been creating the Agent for. As you might have noticed, the agent was not actually done, because I thought I had another week, so it resulted in a very hastily created half-playbook[2]. This lead to the the creation of Job, aka “The Knife” Chaotic Human Agent of a Mystical Order. Job is the Ice Witch’s Cartographer.

We opened with questions which fueled a montage of discovered, stolen and re-stolen maps which got the ball rolling on the adventure and provided various backstory excuses for characters from the two groups to know each other (and add a few bonds). Basically, a treasure map for an island in the Sea of Mists had been found by Urv in Umulon, and he recognized it for what it was. The body of the adventure was built around going and finding it.

Behind the scenes, I had done a little prep, since I knew I had a lot of folks coming. I’d considered actually using a classic D&D module to run things, but I lacked the patience to internalize one fully in the time available, so instead I opted to model things largely off what I remembered of X1: The Isle of Dread. That may sound haphazard, but it actually worked better than digging up the actual module would have, because it was all strong enough in my mind. I also did a run through the DM’s Design Kit (always amazing) and while I didn’t use what it generated, it gave me some ideas for one or two threads to add to the game.[3]

Anyway, they got to the Island and Sanguinus found safe harbor at the village protected from the Island by a giant wall. There was some negotiation and a feast, and the introduction of a missionary (of Sanguinus’s very vaguely defined god) who was suspicious of them. There also was clearly some evil afoot, which was eventually discovered to be a pair of villagers who attempted to send a spirit to warn the cultists on the main island that another group was coming. The party semi-accidentally intercepted this, though it resulted in a wrestling match with the spirit possessing Dogan’s hammer. It also (somewhat less accidentally) resulted in the murder of one of the evil villagers. Thankfully, the group’s defense that he was evil and possessed (a lie) was given validity when the other guy got huge and inky and killed the missionary after Sanguinus blew his “I Am The Law” roll.

The expedition onto the island proceeded with a dangerous journey roll which was composed of an eleven and two sixes, which meant they got in a lot of trouble, but they saw it coming. Short explanation: Dinosaur stampede that also dragged off most of their rations. The dice, however, were not satisfied to stop there. The T Rex that had scared the dinosaurs followed them, and discovered Jack hiding up in the tree. Violence followed, with Job finding a “totally safe” place to hide which ended up having a giant constrictor snake in it, while Sanguinus chased down the stampede, rode it like a cowboy, and recovered some rations.

The crazy thing was they obliterated the T Rex. They rolled fantastic damage and I (as I did for much for much of the game) rolled for crap. But the constrictor, which was just not that tough, very nearly killed two of them (and also swallowed Dogan’s hammer) because no one cold roll higher than a 6 against it.

But they got through, set up camp, and headed up the slope of the Volcano the next morning. . They had a decent map, but also knew that each approach was trapped, so they picked one and sent Jack and Job up to check it out. Dice failures followed, ending in Jack and Job, badly injured, running back into camp with a giant boulder rolling after them.

The party concluded they would take that path, since Jack & Job had already triggered most of the traps. So instead they got to fight the cultists who had come to investigate. Fight went well enough (though my damage luck remained abysmal[4]) but notably Sanguinus put the fear of god in one of the, quite literally, and so we met Grady the Acolyte, who informed them of the defenses remaining and ended up back at the village, taking up where the missionary left off.

Time was running short, so we sped to endgame with a big brawl against Cultists, a Warlock and a pair of (unexpected) giant spiders. Once again, Tetra’s ability to grab and move something proved super potent, and the real problem was the Spiders pinning people down with webs. But the team won, and among the loot, Urv was delighted to identify a place of power. Yes, sure, it was a dark and terrible one dedicated to dark and terrible things, but if he really wanted to do an evil ritual, he had found the place!

Fun and productive session, with plenty of XP all around. Also some education.

  • Keeping this big a fight moving is tricky. Partly for the spotlight reason I mentioned above, but partly because the need to move to the next player and the need to make an appropriate hard move can come into conflict if the situation is wild enough.
  • I’d never explicitly noticed it before, but there is no GM move that lets you lie to the players (even if OOC everyone knows you are lying). So, for example, when Job blew a Discern Realities roll, I told him there was a PERFECTLY SAFE place to hide over there. You could hear the caps. And it worked fine in play, but I am pretty sure I was technically breaking the rules there[5].
  • Half our group has rapiers, because Dex. That’s funny, but I think it’s also symptomatic of a problem. And not a problem that is solved by taking away their Rapiers.
  • Larger fight also made Dogan a bit less overwhelming. With a lot of people, positioning was less essential, so Dogan’s ability to push people around was less of a defining element. His damage output, however, remained more than sufficient.
  • Bloody Aegis is awesome
  • Bonds as written absolutely break down for this mode of play (large, rotating cast) so the need to rewrite them is becoming a priority.
  • We finally figured out where Elves come from on Rzae – they’re actually seafaring, with a huge fleet of gorgeous ships that just sort of moves around. The ones off the fleet, like in the cities, are a bit more “street” than the Umulon elves, who are all high towers and ancient magics.
  • Dangerous Journey at sea is a little awkward. I’m sure someone has written a different version of it, so I’ll have to hunt that up. It’s less of a big deal than it could be since the game is primarily urban and non-sequential anyway, so we’re not pushing the rations economy very hard, but I’d like to figure out how to make it feel cool for the Ice Witch.
  • The nature of rolls in DW makes group rolls feel weird (such as when the group is sneaking or scouting or the like). Theoretically, it could be “Everyone roll help except for the acting character” but that’s pretty obviously clunky and invites disaster. By the same token, calling for everyone to roll is non-starter. So, on one or two occasions, I called for a representative roll (and on the one occasion where the failure brought pain on EVERYONE, I gave everyone the XP). Need to think about that some more.

  1. it is also why one of my favorite techniques, testing the breeze, doesn’t work with Dungeon World.  ↩
  2. If you must see it, it’s here but it’s pretty bad. Full of typos. It’s missing equipment and advanced moves as well as any race but human. It’s also hugely overloaded and needs a trim down. And the font was just the wrong choice. I’ll crank out a real version at some point, but this is not it.  ↩
  3. I was also, of course, entirely prepared for things to go in some other direction. This never worries me because when that happens, it is usually very clear where play wants to go, so you can just ride the wave.  ↩
  4. Seriously, it got so bad that I stopped increasing damage die sizes and rather started rolling more D6s for most damage, and keeping the highest. I had no particular methodology for it, but I am thinking about ways to standardize it a bit. Specifically, I could adapt the old Fudge Min-Mid-Max model and always roll 3d6 for damage, but just decide if I take the lowest, highest or middle one (and for more dangerous things, steps include Min + Mid, Min + Max, Mid + Max and Min + Mid + Max). I’ll need to think about the math, but admit I find the idea of always rolling 3d6 for damage to have a certain appeal.  ↩
  5. That is, I think, the tip of a much larger iceberg regarding perception in general and Discern Realities in specific.  ↩

10 thoughts on “The Isle of Dread(ish)

      1. Ben

        I have never before been tempted by a pre-3E D&D product. Vexing.

        I’m looking forward to when you write more about devising custom moves! It is my least-developed *World game skill.

        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          If you want to be more tempted, look at the author.

          It is largely systemless, and a wonderful resource.

          1. Rob Donoghue Post author

            It is not, which is annoying, since the PDF was available back when paizo was the one selling them.

  1. Nick Pilon

    the real problem was the Spiders pinning people down with webs

    How did you handle this? Defy Danger (Dex/Int) to get out of the way of the initial soft move threat, then Defy Danger (Str/Con/Wis?) while entangled to escape by various means? Or did you write a custom move?

    partly because the need to move to the next player and the need to make an appropriate hard move can come into conflict if the situation is wild enough.

    I recall seeing – but can’t find it now – an example of play with the GM using 6-s to switch spotlight focus, using one character’s failure to cut over to someone else. Did that wind up being unsatisfying?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      The spiderwebs ended up being a response move to player failures, or hard choices (as i would you like to get bitten or entangled?) – I barely needed to push it at all.

      Failure was one of my cues to switch, and that worked out ok, but the problem was that the consequences of the failure usually had an immediate effect which other characters actions would want to flow from. So in a 3-4 player group, that works fine, but in this case, I would need to actively set down the engaging situation to make sure a player whose character was engaged elsewhere wasn’t starting to read their phone.

    2. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Oh, and the webs ended up being an unexpected element – Originally there were going to be lizards, but a spectacular player failure set up too perfect an opportunity for Spiders. For getting out, I put forward no particular option, but supported ideas. The fighter used bend Bars & Lift gates (and, as soon as he did, I decided I wouldn’t allow defying danger with strength, because niche protection) and the Agent got out by using her gadget for the session (Wrist blades!). The thief was released by fellow party members.


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