Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

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).  ↩

Random Damage in Fate

I have a hypothesis: People like rolling for damage. Not necessarily everyone, certainly, but for a certain category of player, there is something neat and appropriate that damage output is not merely varied by success, but also by means. They want the difference between a dagger and a rocket launcher that is no mere number, but rather something meaty and gamey, like a d4 vs 3d12.

I have no idea if there’s any real instinct for this, or if it’s just a behavior that’s been wired in by exposure to D&D, but for a lot of players (myself included) there is something compelling about damage with a degree of variability.

Now, it would be EASY to add this kind of damage to Fate. Multiply the stress pool times 5. Consequences ablate 10 points per tick. Damage is by weapon, tool or situation and is ranked in die tie, ascending as d1, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20[1]. The die sized rolled is based on the type of attack (bigger equaling more dangerous) and the number of dice rolled equals the margin of success.

Bam, done. Tweak the exact numbers to taste[2].

There is absolutely a kind of player who would DELIGHT in their pistol being d6, their rifle d8 and their grenade a d12. It would introduce all kinds of fun options (Stunt: Anything’s a weapon – if you hold it in your hands, your damage die can’t be smaller than a d6) and even other upgrades. Whose to say you can’t have a +1 sword which does d8+1 per margin of success. Lots you can do.

I admit, while I dig the sentiment, I’d balk at this. I think I’d hesitate to being in all the other dice. Not that I dislike them – I love them in other games – but I like the simplicity of the fate kit as it stands, and I would hate to bulk it up more than necessary.

If really pressed, I suppose I could add a d6 based damage system. Could simplify the previous damage system so it’s all d6’s, where weapons add extra dice (rather than flat modifiers). Easy peasy, but maybe a little dull.

If I were feeling fiddly, I’d do this: every weapon rolls a certain number of d6s (let’s say, 1–20). That is how many dice you roll for damage, and your margin of success is the number of dice you keep. This has a curiously limiting effect on the rocket launchers of the world – they’ll roll lots of dice, but unless it’s a solid hit, that only helps so much. Of course, from a cinematic perspective, that’s probably just about right.[3]

Of course, that still requires going outside the fate kit, if only a little.

The real temptation is to use Tally Dice. Tally dice are an idea born from the fact that fate dice are, effectively, d3s, but they’re hard to read that way unless you want to do some quick math (and slow rolling is bad rolling). It just involves looking at Fate dice a little bit differently, and if you do it, it becomes easy to read it as follows:tallydice

Some of you may have already seen the pattern, but this trick is this: don’t think of the lines as plusses and minuses, think of them as tally marks. A minus is one mark, a plus is two marks (think of it as an X), a blank is none. No math required, just a slightly different perspective.

Now, here’s the fun thing – since it’s got an average result of 1, it can be seamlessly inserted into vanilla fate if you want. Simply roll a number of tally dice (dT) equal to the margin of success. On average, the outcome will be the same, but there’s a bit more swinginess. For example, if I beat a goblin by 2, I roll 2dT and roll -+, for 3 damage!. Of course, it does not get you the other part of damage systems (reflection off weapon size), but it would not take a lot to combine this idea with the previous one and come up with swords that are more dangerous than daggers.

If that’s your thing.


  1. Yes, it’s a bad numerical jump, but this is the preposterous die. Cannonballs, falling buildings, death rays and so on.  ↩
  2. Ok, tiny bit of math. You can’t get true equivalency with this system because the lack of equivalency is the point. What you can do is decide what “average” damage looks like (probably a d6 or a d8), take the average roll of that and figure that’s about one “box” of stress. I’d also round it up a little (which I did to get 5x) because a little more durability is a better outcome than too much fragility.  ↩
  3. If you invert the model (so weapons have a fixed number of kept dice, and the number of d6’s rolled is based on the margin of success) then that gets a little bit weirder to predict. I’m not sure I’d mess with it.  ↩

Part of My Non-Screen

I’m not going to use a screen for 5e, but I still want a cheatsheet.  The catch is that there’s not a huge amount that I want to reference on the fly – the rules are largely simple enough that I can keep in mind.  I’ll probably do some damage table and such, but I realized the one thing I wanted was a quick reference for conditions, and so I made one. The initial draft went up on G+, but I’ve refined it since then.quick conditionsfixed

(The icons are from the ever magnificent game-icons.net)

Missing from the chart are Charmed (Can’t act against charmer, charmer has advantage on social checks) and Frightened (Cannot move towards subject of fear, disadvantage while subject of fear is in sight). because those are better described in a sentence or two of text.  For the rest, I offer this key, which won’t go on my cheatsheet (because I’ve internalized it) but might help parse my thinking.

conditionkey

Anyway, I share in case anyone else needs a reference.

EDIT: Updated version with more color differentiation

quick conditions

EDIT AGAIN:

quick conditions

Discerning Dungeons

Ran Dungeon World last night, dealing with a little bit of the aftermath of the last session, a fight among poison gas, and bringing one of the groups that had been in the background much more strongly to the forefront. Despite a decent fight in the middle, it was a fairly low key session. Some of that was a consequence of really fantastic dice luck all around the table. I think I handed out maybe 2 points of failure XP over the course of the night, which is unprecedentedly low for this group.

Some of that was luck, but as I review it, part of it is a consequence of a technique I tried.

I have a very rocky relationship with Discern Realities as a move. When it works, it works well, and it can be a wonderful way to kickstart a slow scene, but it’s not always a good match for the actual situation in play. This issue comes up most often when issues of misinformation, deception and knowledge are in play, and I’ve tried a few different solutions to it.

Last night I opted to trust the move more, and pretty much forgo rolls in almost all information-gathering situations or situations where the characters information might be incomplete, opting instead to just answer. There were still one or two Discern Reality rolls, but they were appropriate to the situation.

Doing this went quite smoothly, which should be an argument in its favor, but I found it was not, at least for me. It reduced the overall number of rolls which, in turn, reduced the number of times things went wrong, which is rather critical to maintaining the pace of DW from my perspective.

Now, knowing that, I could probably compensate by upping the throttle on other rolls to offset it, but I’m leery of that solution. See, it’s worth noting that the other factor in play was that there were 6 players last night, which is a little on the high side. With a smaller group, it’s not hard to narrow down the focus of play and drive things forward with the dice, but a larger group is subject to action imbalances which I try to avoid. This is a big reason why I like informational rolls for a large group – when things go wrong, it’s often a lot easier to spread the repercussions around, especially because the players will often do the work for you.

This would also be less of an issue if I was not also looking to the dice for inspiration, but part of the appeal of Dungeon World is to enter with 25% of a plan and a confidence that the dice will fill in the gaps. That depends on a certain amount of frequency of rolling (especially out of combat) so I suspect I will keep my flawed understanding of information gathering. Not because it’s the right approach, but because it aligns with my needs at the table.

Representation and Understanding

The question of “What is the absolute least game necessary?” is a really interesting one to me, since the answer is a sort of progression.

The first answer is a mechanical one, and the answer is something like Risus, where everything boils down to a simple mechanical expression of an idea. The second answer is to go “no game!”, and just tell stories, but that gets it interesting wrong. “No game” only works on top of a set of assumptions, and the only questions is whether those assumptions are spoken or unspoken.

These assumptions might affect the form of activity (no cancellation, yes and, take turns) or it might involve assumptions about the content of the story (this is a Superman story, and we both know how Superman works). Ideally, it’s a bit of both.

That latter part is fascinating to consider, but difficult to discuss. If you’re a Superman nerd, then you may have already asked yourself “but which Superman?”. And that’s a valid question – if you’re thinking Man of Steel and I’m thinking Bruce Timm, then our shared understanding is rather lacking in understanding.

Thinking about it this way has undercut my understanding of why we have mechanics. Historically, I have thought as mechanics as primarily representational, and secondarily communication. To put that in concrete terms, we give superman a Strength stat of, say, 100. 100 strength means, say, “able to lift a skyscraper”. That 100 strength represents a specific value, and I can then use that to determine other relative values – If Superman has a 100 Strength, then Aquaman has a 50 strength, and can throw a car.[1]

This representation becomes value when I think of a new character and I think to myself “he can throw a truck, so he’s stronger than Aquaman, but not as Strong as Superman, let’s say Strength 60”. But then it gets taken in a very different direction when we invert the logic, and say “ok, I have spent 60 points on strength – how strong does that make me?”

If we go in the other direction, the reason we give Superman a 100 Strength is so that you can I can have a discussion as to how strong Superman is, and by assigning a value, we (hopefully) bring our understanding in line. Now, when we tell this story about Superman, we’re on the same page. In this context, the purpose of system is to reach understanding.

Now, the facile thing to say here would be to say “System doesn’t matter, understanding matters” but that would be very short sighted. There is a lot more to game design than just the representational slice, and system does lots of other things.

But if understanding is a conscious priority, it changes the role of system. It also lays bare a lot of the technical elements at work when someone says that a good GM is less reliant on system – in this particular context, a good GM is one who has a refined understanding of her player’s perspective and direction.

All of which comes back to the question of the least amount of game necessary. If the GM is (successfully) filling in the understanding step, then you may well need no further game. But that also may make you all more enthusiastic to engage what system you use because you can see it clearly. That is, you seek the system that can improve things for your great GM. Like a great craftsman, the GM doesn’t need all the fancy tools to do the work, but given the choice, the tools she will use are the best ones (for her).

Practically, this is on my mind as I have been thinking about whether or not dice modifiers are necessary at all. Imagine a system where you roll a single df. On a + things go well, on a 0 they go ok, on a – they go poorly.[2] Let’s say we have a game with Superman and Batman. If everyone involved has a shared understanding, then we don’t need to give them Strength stats – Superman is stronger, and even if he rolls poorly, that remains true. Batman is never going to smash a mountain with his fist, no matter who well he rolls. It is only a lack of understanding that demands stats.

So the question is, of course, how else to come to understanding?


  1. Technically, I want two or three values to get that relative value. Suppose Supes has that 100 strength and a normal person has a “1”. That suggests a different scheme than if a normal person has a “10”. It’s hard to understand a progression from a single point, but that’s a little tangential.  ↩
  2. Perhaps not by coincidence, Fred and I have both been experimenting with games with our very young children that are in this general space.  ↩

Speed as Scale

One of my favorite things about playing Silver Age Sentinels (a supers game) was that mobility came cheap. It was easy and inexpensive to make a hero who could be anywhere on the battlefield, which made combat feel wonderfully dynamic and fast moving. This pops into my mind as I watch Anime like Naruto and Bleach, where big jumps and disappearing and reappearing are just part of the color of the conflict, and I think about representing that.

I was thinking along those lines when I considered ninja vs. Godzilla fights. The ninja mobility makes it possible for them to fight a much larger opponent because they can zip in and hit, and the creature needs to actively try to hit them. if they were on the ground, at normal speed, the creature would incidentally crush them, but their mobility allows them to make a fight of it.[1]

That got me thinking that maybe the trick is not to represent that kind of mobility as speed, but rather, as scale. The ninja’s speed lets it operate at the same scale as the monster, making ti a fair-ish fight[2].

All well and good, but this lead to another interesting implication – if it’s scale, then it’s more of a passive ongoing effect, and perhaps that is better represented as a zone of control rather than movement per se. That is to say, a ninja (or whatever) has a functional space which they can move freely within. No rules or checks, they can just describe it.

If we were talking in Fate terms, let’s say the smallest version of this is tactical speed – the ninjas zone of control is, effectively, his zone and any adjacent zones. He can engage any enemy in any of those zones, describe himself vanishing and reappearing, jumping and all these things. Many of his adversaries have the same advantage, so a single exchange may take place across several zones.

But importantly, excepting the reach element, he’s not moving, not in the mechanical sense. He’s still anchored to his starting space unless he moves, in which case his zone of control changes.

Notably, this trivializes almost any boundary, but that’s probably apt, given the way that ninja jump, and it moves combat into the arena of overlapping zones rather than discrete ones.

The idea can scale up. A more badass ninja might have a bigger zone of control (however you choose to define it), limited only by the genre.

This is the sort of thing which, if I allowed, I would allow for everyone, especially since this is effectively foundational for a genre.

Anyway, just a wacky idea.


  1. Though whether they can do enough damage to hurt Godzilla is a whole other question.  ↩

  2. Depending on genre, the ninja operating at that scale may get an implicit combat advantage against non-ninja.  ↩