Tag Archives: DW

Final Dungeon World Session

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

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

#1. Be Stingy With XP

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

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

#2. Bonds Break Down

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

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

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

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

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

#3. Hit Points are currency, not description

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  ↩

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.

Dungeon World on the Isle of Spires (Spiders)

Another 8 person session of Dungeon World. Those are definitely, definitely hard, and this was no different. I made a conscious effort to make it something other than a non-stop action sequence, and the pacing suffered for it. The simple reality is that exploration with 8 people is hard. It did not help that the group had a surprise attack of competence, and the usual cascade of failures and near misses that drive our sessions was largely absent.

We had one new player, who picked up The Alchemist which gave the party a little more healing, which is nice given our general cleric deficit. I offered him a number of oddball classes[1] (Since Druid & Cleric are the only two core books left unchosen), and the Alchemist could throw bombs, so that was kind of the win. Class worked out solidly in play – the font is a bit too small on the character sheet, so it took a bit to sort out some details, but my only real complaint is that the move that lets you use potions on other people seems like it should be core rather than an advance move[2]. I can sort of see the thinking for why this is not so – there’s a lot of interesting mess-with-yourself stuff in the class, but the advanced move seemed like a must have. Thankfully, since I let him start at level 2, it was self-correcting.

Play started with a sea monster attack on the Sea Witch. On board we had Sanguinus, the Pirate Paladin, Tetra, the Dashing Hero, Dogan, The Fighter, Fafnir, The Barbarian, Lily, The Bard, Urv, The Wizard, “Doc”, The Alchemist and Jack, the Thief. There were giant tentacles, Doc ended up hanging from a boom over the ocean, a Shark with Bat Wings was summoned, and the monster was driven off after Jack and Doc combined skills to build an injector out of a barrel of chemicals, a large funnel and a length of pipe, and poisoned the creature (at least enough to drive it off).

The ship had been badly damaged, and limped to the nearest safe harbor Sanguinus could find. He rolled ok, so they got to a harbor on the Isle of Spires (their destination), but not the civilized harbor. They had to beach the Ice Witch to make repairs. Thankfully, the supplies were still intact, so the expedition launched inland while the crew worked to make the necessary repairs.

The isle of spires gets its name from the numerous spires on its surface. they’re huge, tall, covered in moss and vines, and immediately reminded Urv of Umulon. The goal of the expedition was the nearest spire. Problematically, there were also giant spider webs between some of the spires (which were half a mile apart at the closest).

The trip inland encountered a trio of gigantic (body about 25 feet long) spiders which resulted in violence. They rolled like fiends and especially between Jack & Dogan’s damage output, tore the damn things apart (Fafnir was less lucky, as his “Catapult me with a palm tree” plan worked out less well than hoped). Jack saw other similarly sized spiders in the distance, but after the death cry of the third, they returned to the mountain that was their lair. The mountain was in approximately the direction they were going, but they steered clear of it.

At the spire, they cleared away the moss and vines to discover a smooth surface that might be elderglass (the same material that the towers in Umulon, as well as Dogan & Lily’s weapons, are made of.) Urv wanted to test a theory, and had Dogan hit it with Bellringer.

This caused some problems, as the entire tower rang out with such force that it knocked several of the characters onto their asses. More importantly, it upset the spider web attached to the spire, and the mountain revealed itself to be a truly gargantuan spider, which climbed up to the center of the web, and unleashed the army of “baby” spiders on its back. Doc blew up the nearest threat to buy some time (as the spiders re-routed) and Urv managed to find a way into the spire, which the group managed to enter just ahead of the wave of spiders, who were too large to fit. Lily also used her bardic skills and Songblade to bring Dogan out of the fugue he’d been in since he rang the tower.

The interior of the tower offered a single staircase up or down. Lily managed to earn a hard choice, so I told her that the story that had lead her hear suggested that riches were up, knowledge was down. She opted nto to share this, and directed the group down. Some weirdness with the physics of the place followed, and at the bottom of the stair, by a single door, they encountered an odd looking individual, seemingly of a type with the one they’d encountered at the underground meeting (the one who no one saw enter). He was perfectly civil, answered a few questions about the place, and warned them to be careful about the door. He implied that the door could be used to come out in Umulon, but the group was unwilling to leave the Ice Witch behind.

Given that, he offered to show them how to get to a different spire, but at the cost of a future favor. They agreed, and he directed them through the door. Once they went through, I took each player aside individually, and the (name unrevealed) and had a small private negotiation with the guy. This resulted in some private arrangements and a certain amount of treasure handout, something I largely had no done to date, so we’ll see how that plays out.

As the one random aside, I feel this is the game that cemented Advantage/disadvantage as the right way to handle +/–1. With this many people, it still worked very smoothly, and it encourages Aiding quite nicely.

  1. Including the Immolator and a few of the Inverse World playbooks which were a bit more setting-portable.  ↩

  2. The alchemist uses similar rules to wizards and clerics, but with extracts in lieu of spells (so on a 7–9, you draw attention, take –1 forward or use it up). If you take the advanced move “Infusion”, other people can use your extracts, but doing so uses them up. My inclination is to make Infusion a core move, then make the advance move that you roll normally.  ↩

Dungeon World: The Tale of Old Dogan

I forgot to pack my story cubes or plot twist deck for Friday’s game, so I was doing things entirely by ear. We had an interesting crew: Dogan the fighter, Sanguinus the Pirate Paladin, Tetra the dashing hero and Urv the wizard.

Things started in medias res with me asking Sanguinus why he was in a knife fight, naked. Turned out that the assassin chasing him had threatened nearby innocents, forcing him to strip, but he’d grabbed a knife when they were distracted, and they’d taken the fight outside. Meanwhile, Tetra spotted an assassin at a party, a bunch of guys had jumped Dogan and Urv was chasing someone who had stolen his spellbook.

Tetra’s assassin, I should note, was up in the trapeze under a big top tent, which lead to some immediately climbing, rope cutting, and fighting up in the air. Urv’s thief ducked into the same tent and ended up using one of the falling assailants to take down his thief. His sleep spell also managed to stop the assassin, but caught Tetra as well, leading to an awkward knife fight in the net under the trapeze, which we described as a knife fight in a giant hammock. Urv stabbed a guy from underneath, Tetra got free from her attackers, but that’s when Urv’s thief hit them both with a color spray, grabbed the book and took off again. Urv and Tetra pursued, with Tetra staying to the rooftops to keep the guy in sight as he made his way to the laughing gate.

Meanwhile, Sanguinus had managed to drive off his attacker (who proved entertaining enough to merit a face card) but came back to the tavern to discover his pants (and other gear) had been stolen. He procured an apron from the barkeep and headed towards the Laughing Market, the nearest place one might fence those kinds of goods at this hour of the night.

Dogan had finished off his attackers, and took off in pursuit of the figure who had seemed to be directing them. Fearing he could not catch up with the guy on foot, he tried for a shortcut through Umulon, but he blew the roll badly enough for an “I’ll get back to you.”

Now, the timing of this worked out interestingly, because Dogan’s player was pulled away from the table for a while, long enough that this ended up going from an inconvenience to a central point.

The pursuit of the thief passed through the Laughing Gate in time for them to pass a bare-ass Sangunius, who joined in the chase, allowing them all to catch the crook. Interrogation followed where curiosity was peaked by the young man (who was having difficulty speaking) revealed that he had stolen the book to save “the bellringer”.

Meanwhile, Dogan found himself someplace dark and dank, and ended up rescuing some human slaves from fungal-infected overseers (with an assist from a stone throwing 10 year old boy), but in doing so raised an alarm, and found himself facing a fungusaur.

Urv’s conversation with the kid revealed that he had been a slave to the “big hats” in another place, and that about 10 years ago, the Bellringer had arrived, taught them how to fight and had cast out their overlords, but was still trapped there with the people. It also revealed the young man was a tremendous natural talent with magic, having more or less taught himself what he knew.

While this was going on, Sanguinus and Tetra tried to recover Sangunius’s gear. and were largely successful, recovering his pants, weapon, armor and magical compass. However, they did not recover his holy symbol, so that’s now floating around out there somewhere.

Meticulous study of the Boy’s notes allowed them to make contact with “Old Dogan”, who had clearly tapped some additional power in Bellringer. Communication was difficulty, but he shared a map that looked like gibberish to Urv, but was clearly a battle plan to Sanguinus. It seemed that was Old Dogan was proposing was to take this plan to current-Dogan and win his war early.

The kid and Old Dogan had an enigmatic exchange, ending with the kid saluting and agreeing to something. He helped Urv re-open the way to the Black Crypt, but revealed that his blood was a key – he cut his hand deeply, set it on the marks, and urged them to hurry, since it would only last as long as he was bleeding.

The group entered this new way just in time to find Dogan defeating the Fungusaur. They shared the battle plan with him, and went into action.

Much fighting followed. Basically, the whole underground was a giant fungal growth, but Old Dogan’s plan called out exactly where the center of it was and what its weak spots were. In charging it, they saw many half-grown Fungusaur and not-yet-active mushroom soldiers, and they managed to burn down the central tower (at some cost of self-inflicted injury) before these things could be fully activated. Explosions happened, and the various human slave camps were hurried out the one known exit as the fire spread. Urv lead them out, while Dogan, Tetra and Sanguinus followed them out. The stone throwing kid came with Dogan at the very end, and as he did, the spellbook thief simply vanished (to no ones surprise – they’d done that math).

Urv permanently sealed the way (opting to do so safely rather than harvest its power) and the characters took the refugees up to the Antesian hillfolk (since they were near that gate) to get them somewhere safe and to give a chance to heal some unpleasant wounds and lay low while there were assassins (who tried one more time at then end) looking for them. Some ended up as crew on the Ice Witch, and the boy is now somewhere between the new cabin boy and Urv’s apprentice.


  • Advantage/Disadvantage has fully replaced +1/-1 to excellent effect. In this session, we had a number of debilities in play (the fungal attacks inflicted them like mad) and the disadvantage rule made them feel really toothy.
  • I’ve pretty much concluded that the Dashing Hero isn’t quite all there. Almost all of the class’s cool is front loaded, which has made advancement an ongoing pain for the player, since the only really fun options have been multiclassing. Combined with occasional weirdness in interpreting her key moves, it’s a source of frustration. We’ll stick with it, but I flag it for my own future reference.
  • Speaking of multiclassing, we may switch the multiclass spell casting rules from “current level -1” to “Half your current level”. The current model makes spellcasting an overwhelmingly potent multiclass move (if you take it early) and greatly disincentivizes waiting to pick it up. It also kind of flips the bird to those actual classes, since spellcasting is such an essential move.
  • More broadly, there’s a temptation to entirely return multiclassing by just giving each class a “multiclass move” which is what the multiclass moves learn. The best argument against it has been the coolness of Dogan picking up the Druid’s “Balance” move, so I’m still undecided.
  • I want to write up a set of moves, one per player, that can be used once per session to represent the influence of absent characters. So “Jack knows a guy” may allow the current game to hook up with a useful NPC when Jack isn’t at the table. I doubt this is something that many games need, but for my rotating cast, I think it’ll be a nice way to keep it feeling like everyone is in circulation.
  • We’ve only got one level 6 character so far, but we have several at level 5, so we’re solidly moving into second tier play. As we get closer to 10, I think we’re going to need more Compendium Class options to handle “higher level” play (since the current level 10 rules don’t appeal to the group much). It may not be too much of a big deal, since it may also be a sign that it’s time to go into endgame.
  • One advantage of throwing a lot of things and seeing what sticks is that unresolved threads (like the assassins) provide excellent fodder for future sessions.
  • There remain plenty of moments where I regret the inability to offer players’ Fate Points for particular twists and opportunities.  It’s not a huge problem, but I definitely feel the absence of that tool from time to time.

Deep Dive into DW GMing

Really fantastic Dungeon World session last night. 3 players (Dogan the Fighter, Sanguinus the Pirate Paladin and Lily the Bard) ended up as a pretty good number. The session went in pretty unexpected directions more than once, in very fruitful ways, and the final shape of the game was completely different than expectations going in.

We did not have the wizard, so I did not get a chance to try any magic hacks, so the jury is still out on that. What we did do is replace +1/–1 forward with a variant on the Advantage/Disadvantage rule from 5e. +1 forward became an advantage, and with advantage, the player rolled 3 dice rather than 2, and counted the two higher ones. –1 forward became a disadvantage, where the player rolls 3 dice and keeps the two lowest.

So, for example, when Sanguinus charged, it gave Dogan a +1 forward on his subsequent Hack and Slash roll (because of a Paladin ability). Normally that would mean he’d roll 2d6 + 4 (he has an 18 Strength), but in this case he rolled 3d6 and got a 2, 4 and 5. Taking the best 2 (4 and 5) he rolled a 9, plus 3 for a 12, a most palpable hit.

For the curious, the math is that an advantage or disadvantage equates to approximately +/- 1.5, so it’s a little more robust, but still in bounds. Importantly, it still keeps the result within the curve, so you get some interesting results. If you haven’t used bonus or penalty dice before this may seem weird, but for us, the experience felt really smooth. More, it made the +/–1’s simply feel a little more engaging. I’d be hard pressed to say exactly why (perhaps just the tactile component, perhaps the die making the bonus or penalty feel a little more concrete). Also, “advantage” is just nicer language than “+1 forward).We’ll absolutely be using it in the future.

I’m going to do a recap of the session, but not in the normal fashion. The plot was fine, but I’m going to use this as an opportunity to run through the details of my GM process, since I’ve been experimenting with using props to drive my play. This is going to be some serious inside baseball, so be warned.

I had no plan when we started. This is common, and is one of the reasons I chose Dungeon World. I lack the time and energy for more serious prep, so I chose DW because of how easily I can wing it. What I did know was the following:

  • Dogan and Lily had just had an adventure together where they found hints of interesting things about their weapons. I could probably spin out that thread.
  • The last couple adventures had all been in the city, it was time to go back out to sea. The presence of Sanguinus reinforced that.
  • Lily had leveled up, and took the fighter move to make the Songblade she’d found into a signature weapon. One of the options she took was “Glows in the presence of…” . She went with “invisible enemies” but the amused observation around the table is that the real purpose of that choice is to guarantee that they show up in the game, so I had that now.
  • This trio has the easiest alignment moves to engage, since they are basically fight, fight, don’t fight. That’s great once we get going, but not terribly informative for planning. And, unfortunately, the bonds between these three are similarly applicable, so they did not provide much inspiration.
  • Lily’s bardic specialty is ancient heroes, so that’s an easy place to put a hook.
  • The most active front at the moment is the Alchemists. And, unfortunately, most of the other fronts have been focused on the city, which is a mistake on my part. The only two naval fronts I have on hand are the Elven Fleet (who are more of a proto-front – they’ve been mentioned, but not seen) and The Citadel (Those guys are jerks). I had no obvious ins for any of those, so they’re just back of mind.
    • I have my map of the Sea of Mists as a random reference.

So, at that point I turn to the randomizers. I bust out the Rory’s Story Cubes voyages set[1]. I have my son roll a spread (he wanted to help) and also draw three cards from my Paizo Plot Twist Deck and I get the spread below:


The plots twists I set aside for now. Those are more likely to come up in play, so I focus on the dice.

Right off the bat, this looks promising. The TREASURE MAP seems like an absolute gimme for something piratical. The GEAR has previously shown up with the alchemists (who have some brasspunk stuff), so that’s good. The CAVE, DESCENDING STAIRS and MOUNTAINS could all be locations. Not sure what yet. Not yet sure what to do with the AXE or the SUNRISE/SET – generally they could mean weapon and time sensitivity, but I don’t have a hook for that yet. The CAMERA means observation to me. Someone is watching them. Probably the alchemists, but we’ll see.

The clincher is that collection of TOWERS. In the last game, that ended up being the fingers neighborhood in Umulon, but in this one, it reminds me on something on the map, the Isle of Spires (aka The Isle of Spiders). This seems like an excellent place to go adventuring for some treasure, and that in turn is enough for me to turn to the players.

To Lily I ask “How have your studies of the Stormsinger pointed you to the Isle of Spires?” (It’s where he found the songblade)

To Sanguinus, I ask “Why did you need to get out of Rzae so quickly?” (Alchemists were sniffing around after him. Mentally, I flag that GEARS.)

To Dogan, I ask “How did you get swept up in this?” (Because he can get free meals on the Ice Witch, and he was belowdeck raiding the larder when the set sail. Food is very important to Dogan.)

Ok, easy enough. We have a direction and an interest. Easiest thing to do would be to skip right to the Isle of Spires, but that feels a little bit too blithe. It feels like there should be some sort of barrier to overcome. The TREASURE MAP seems the obvious hook there – they need to get some information on where the heck one goes to safely get onto the Isle. It’s a dangerous place that doesn’t see a lot of traffic, so but it does get the occasional explorer. academic or treasure hunter, so the best place to check is the pirate port of Nouveau Rochefort. Sanguinus blew a defy danger with Wisdom on the way over and did not spot the other ship, but I made no immediate move on that, instead considering it a use of the HAVE A NICE TRIP card.

This was the first time we’d been to Nouveau Rochefort, so excepting the few things we’d established (pirate haven, many of the buildings are wrecked ships) this was largely spun from whole cloth, spouted lore, and Lily’s “What’s changed?” ability. Things we established:

  • There are two pseudo governments that run things. The first is an informal hierarchy of ship captains. Nominally, every captain in port has a vote when a matter comes up, but in reality, it’s the 7 great captains whose voices really matter, and who must be present to vote on anything really important. Sanguinus is one of these, having killed one (possibly two) previous officeholders, so he’s a big deal.
  • The second is a constant roil of gangs. Rather than names, they simple have colors, corresponding to their sports team. So when Lily checked, the Blues and the Greens seemed most dominant, with the Reds having fallen behind. The Blues are usually in power (they have a lock on prostitution, but don’t reach far beyond it) and the Greens had obviously ascended on the backs of the Reds.
  • The Reds were largely dwarven and specialized in legbreaking and accounting. Their leader was a dwarf named Rockgut[2] We didn’t get into what the Greens do, but their leader is a woman named Anabeth who has a reputation for face-stabbing.
  • The Driftwood Arms is an inn in the looses sense of the word. Composed largely of dead ships, it’s the largest singe lodging in the city, spanning several city blocks. Sanguinus got one of the nice rooms.
  • “The Game”, which is the major sport of the island, is a bit of a mess. Start with Quidditch, but remove the brooms and add a hard wooden ball. Then add in two guys on each teams (“Brawlers”) whose job is to largely beat the crap out of the other team and you have the general sense of it.

The players decided to approach the Reds, figuring they’d be most inclined to make a deal. Lily and Dogan met with Rockgut at a Red/Green Game, while Sanguinus watched from the better seats with one of the other 7 captains, Natalya[3]. Rockgut seemed open to negotiations, but the real centerpiece was the game, and the simple reality was that everyone at that table wanted to see Dogan enter the fray.

Who am I to say no? An injury called for a substitution, and Dogan was offered the chance to brawl, which he leapt at, leaving weapons and armor with Lily and enthusiastically entering the fray.

And this, right here, is where it went off the rails. Because I’m watching this and thinking “Lily is now alone holding a priceless dwarven artifact, surrounded by Pirate Dwarves.” In retrospect, I might have also taken a cue from the AXE, but really, I just flagged it as the BAD DECISION.. The Reds plied Lily with drugged wine and, when she passed out, scurried off with Bellringer while Dogan was alternately eliciting cheers and getting dogpiled.

Sanguinus spotted this, leapt from his seat in pursuit, thoroughly intimidated those foolish enough to get in his way and…totally lost the fleeing dwarves as the dice profoundly betrayed him. Really, it should not have been hard – they were not very fast and not very stealthy. But sometimes the dice just have strong opinions.

I admit, I had expected Sanguinus to catch them, so it was time to think fast. Thankfully, I had a little time to do so. Sanguinus had to come back and wake up Lily and get Dogan out of the game (which went poorly for the Red Team). Lily knew where the Red headquarters were, but those did not seem like the likeliest destination.

So they approached Anabeth, the head of the Greens, who was happy to talk to Sanguinus. There was a bit of oblique discussion before they got to the proposal – Anabeth would tell them where Rockgut’s private lab was located, and in return, the Ice Witch would run a blockade for her. Sanguinus did check to make sure that the cargo was not outside of the bounds of his ethics, and was reassured that it was merely dangerous. That wouldn’t be a problem, would it?

All parties agreed, her assistant, Remy (Who does not yet have a face card, but is on the cusp of earning one) lead them into the Red neighborhood and Rockgut’s lab. Four dwarves were watching the door. A very well done discern realities roll ushed me to add somethign else to the scene, so in a nod to the CAMERA, it revealed a human watching from a nearby bar. Lily arranged a distraction, allowing Dogan to cold cock the human, and Sanguinus to take out the two semi hidden dwarves. The two remaining guards were no real challenge.

Dogan and Sanguinus entered the lab, while Lily searched the human (who had a few pointers to being an alchemist, including a bronze whistle), then hid and waited for him to wake up, so she could follow him. Dogan and Sanguinus’s entrance should have been dramatic and scary as hell, but a blow help roll resulted in them stepping on each other’s cues and in each others way. In the lab were Rockgut and a human (who the previous game would recognize as the alchemist who lost his pistol), but the entrance bought the human enough time to drop some smoke and go out Rockgut’s secret escape route (much to Rockgut’s chagrin). Bellringer was on the table, along with the alchemist’s tools (including another whistle).

Rockgut pretty much crumpled at this point. He claimed he hadn’t known Dogan was in Sanguinus’s crew, that it was all the other guy’s plan, that he had been a patsy and so on. No doubt, substantial parts of it were fiction, but it put a name on the Alchemist (Niko) and since they had Rockgut over a barrel, they got some cash out of him, and everything he knew about the Isle of Spires.

Lily followed her target to the docks, where he went up the gangplank of a ship from Rzae (one that she recognized as likely hired). He was met on the gangplank by Niko. There was an angry exchange that culminated in Niko doing a total villain thing – grabbing the dude by the jaw, pouring something small down his throat, then shoving him away back onto the docks.

Niko went back up the gangplank and his ship cast off. Meanwhile, the other guy started staggering around and giving off smoke. Lily did some math and shoved him into the water before he exploded on the dock, but she was not fast enough to be completely clear. Dogan and Sanguinus (as is their wont) headed towards the explosion, and Sanguinus had to wake the unconscious Lily(again).

Back at the Ice Witch, Remy was waiting with the Greens’ cargo and instructions. The guys were faced with a dilemma – they could pursue Niko’s ship, but it would be a tail chase, so even though the Witch was almost certainly faster, it would take time. However, the Green’s destination was in the other direction. Ultimately, the deciding factor was that Sanguinus had given his word, so they set out to run the blockade, after using the money they’d gotten off Red to put up a bounty for Nico and the ship he’s on.

This was, structurally, a pretty clear break point, but I was hesitant to take it. We’d started a little late, and this would be a short session if it stopped here. Also, it was a rough break point for continuity – if I don’t tie off a session, then it can make for a little bit of weirdness when I pick up the next one. So I took a breath and considered that I need to answer:

  • Where they were going
  • What blockade they were running
  • How the hell to adjudicate a blockade run
  • What they were carrying
  • For who

I’d considered the Citadel(those guys are jerks) previously, and they seemed like exactly the kind of guys to have a blockade in need of running. The AXE suggested that maybe the cargo was weapons. I still had an unused SANITY CHECK plot twist card, so it seemed time to introduce an eldritch horror. That suggested a fishing village. So it was an arms smuggle to a village within the Citadel’s sphere. I still wasn’t sure WHY they needed the weapons yet, but I figured that would reveal itself.

The actual blockade run itself was pretty straightforward. Some discussion of Citadel naval procedures, a slightly longer route and a defy danger roll in the night were all enough to get them into dock in the wee hours of the night, and get their illicit cargo handed off to the Harbormaster.

That created the opportunity for Lily to bust out the “What has changed since the last time I was here?” move. Note, it would have been totally reasonable to say “no, this is a little fishing town, of course you’ve never been here” but what would be the fun in that. The answer was the construction of a watchtower on the edge of town, protecting the route from further inland. I visually modeled it after a tower in Colonial Williamsburg, because I’ve seen it a few times. I actually was originally thinking of the MOUNTAIN and CAVE dice result, thinking of the tower as a hint that there were dangers inland.

However, a little thought realized that was kind of flat. Short of doing a handoff quest(or something similarly ham-fisted), the characters had no interest in going inland and no investment in what was going on. So I realized that whatever was up needed to be in town, and the tower seemed like a good focus. Weapons would be useful for storming the tower, so why would the villagers want to do that?

The obvious reason would be that the soldiers were Citadel, and the Citadel are, as has been noted, a bunch of jerks. So I could run with that, but it was a bit smooth – it needed something, especially since that’s not really enough of a motive for armed rebellion. So I went for an inversion – what if the villagers were the bad guys?

Paired with the SANITY CHECK card, this kind of wrote itself (and was influenced by, of all things, the direct-to-dvd sequel to Disney’s Rise of Atlantis, which I had just watched). The village elder was actually something monstrous, and the Citadel Soldiers had captured it, and were holding it, waiting for reinforcements to help them deal with it. The villagers intended to bust him out. But so far as they were concerned, they were just going to bust out “Grandfather”, so it was not overtly creepy, and they weren’t going out of their way to draw attention to it. Basically, the Ice Witch had arrived in the night, and it would leave on the next tide (the next day) and everyone was happy with that arrangement.

But the party did pick up on the oddities, most notably the lack of street patrols (all remaining soldiers were holed up in the tower) and Lily got some information by being open and honest with the Barkeep, but in the process, let slip that Dogan had been in a Citadel prison[4]. Lily and Sanguinus also investigated a bit and discovered that there were weapons in the crates being distributed to villagers with the intent of attacking the tower.

The clincher came in the morning when the barkeep approached Dogan as someone who may have a grudge against the Citadel, and who might have the kind of military experience that a group of armed villagers might need. Dogan was entirely in favor of this.

At this point, the players had a sense that something was wrong, but had nothing explicit to hang it off of. So I threw them a bone in the form of some information about the last time the tower had sent out a patrol. When they investigated, they found the soldier’s bodies laid out on a clearly ritualistic pattern, something the villagers clearly did not think was any kind of real issue.

Knowing the attack would come after SUNSET, they approached the tower early, with Dogan entirely ready to smash down the door, but held off when a soldier opened the view slot, very clearly very tired and probably hungry, but keeping it together enough to tell them to piss off. They made some attempts to get him to let them in (including Dogan trying to “turn himself in”, which he refused, but in doing so revealed that there was a monstrosity in here with them, they were holding out for reinforcements, and they would burn down the whole tower rather than let it get out.

Sanguinus switched tactics and congratulated the man on proving he was not corrupted, and attempted to present himself as an inquisitor. He rolled really well, and given that the guy was sleep deprived, terrified and desperately wanted this to be someone else’s problem, they bought it. The guys were hurried inside.[5]

The soldiers very quick to start calling Sanguinus “Sir” and were clearly relieved at his presence. The tower had lots of oil barrels around, and it’s clear the soldiers were serious about the threat to burn the place. Expecting the villagers to attack at any moment, they asked to be shown to the captive. They were lead to the basement (because DESCENDING STAIRCASE) and the storeroom with the door blocked in every possible way, with something that looked like a pool of oil in it.

After some discussion, Sanguinus charged in in the name of the Inquisition, which got him covered when the oil slick sort of foamed much larger, but rather than bubbles, the foam was made of tiny eyes that bit. For all that his other rolls were crap, Sanguinus’ streak of defying danger with CON when the moment called for it kept up. He got bit and hurt, but not dissolved or anything, allowing Dogan and Lily to engage the rest of it’s “body”.

Now, obviously, I had not had a lot of time to stat this thing up, so it was a little fast and loose. the basics were that it had 20 hit points, ignored mundane damage, took half damage from interesting sources (notably fire and elderglass weapons), did Max damage at range or Mid+Max[6] damage when enveloping, and call for some defying danger with con to not be rendered helpless. After a successful envelop, it would try to force its way down the victims throat to possess the body. If reduced to 0 HP, it was vulnerable to exorcism or similar, and needed a host to function, so it would focus on that. Seemed about nasty enough.

Sanguinus used the I Am The Law move as he felt it pushing towards his nose and mouth, and basically blasted it off himself, opening it up to Dogan and Lily. Dogan wanted to hurt it, but also wanted to keep it pushed into the room. Fiction-wise, that was reasonable for Bellringer, but it seemed to demand a price, so I docked him a damage die (he was rolling d10 + 2d4 initially), which worked out ok. We’ve considered a fighter CC based around that idea of giving up damage dice for effects, so Dogan’s player pretty much just rolled with it.

The actual fight that followed was pretty stand up. Lily took advantage of her ability to fight at Reach, and occasionally switched over to Bardic songs for healing and boosting. and while Sanguinus took a pretty serious beating, they got it down to 0 and, in a nicely timed synergy, Lily laid down some Bardic magic right before the exorcism attempt, and I let her give the +1d4 damage the the effect of Sanguinus’s next I am the Law move (“Begone!”).

Bearing in mind that Sanguinus’s god is the Voice, we had another round of harmonic magic, with the command resonating with Bellringer and Songblade, creating a sound that drove away the creature.

Wrap up had two major points. First, the villagers had started attacking during the fight, but had fallen into confusion when the thing had died. However, they had lit the fuse on the explosives that had come in the crate. Lily smelt it, Dogan got the door open quickly, and she managed to grab it and throw it, knocking herself unconscious in the process. Again.

The players also pretty much could decide how things were going to play out from there. The soldiers were fried and trigger happy, and the villagers were confused but worked up. It could have come to blows (or, if left alone, could end badly later when the reinforcements did arrive), but with two Charisma monsters in the party, I pretty much let them decide how it went. There was a temptation to kill all the Citadel witnesses, but the fact that these guys had actually been doing the right, arguably heroic, thing made it difficulty to dispatch them, so the result was peace.

We wrapped there. I hadn’t used all the dice (including some I’d been sure I would) but they had definitely helped. I had a few outstanding questions, like whether this “Grandfather” was a one off, or if it’s a part of something bigger. If the latter, did the Greens know what they were getting into, or was this just a job? I’m genuinely not sure yet – it’s not enough to craft a new front yet, but it floats in my notes as a proto-front. I’ve also added Eldmere (the town) to the Map of the Sea of Mists, just in case it ever comes up again. I had a few more faces added to the pile, and the final spread of used stuff looked like:


Clockwise from the left, that Niko, Rockgut, Anabeth and Nat.

For the curious, that’s basically my methodology – 1 sheet of paper, where I capture notes, and the dice and cards on hand, set aside as they’re uses.

  1. I’ve tried to use other Rory’s sets for RPGs, and they’ve never really worked for me. The Voyagers set is the first one general enough that I don’t feel like I’m fighting it.  ↩
  2. He got a face card, as did most of the NPCs named from this point forward.  ↩
  3. We saw less of her than I’d have liked, but the name and face are now secured for future use.  ↩
  4. I directed the open and honest move a little bit more than the text suggests, explicitly asking “Tell me something about X” rather than leaving it totally open. This helps me by keeping things relevant and interesting and keeps the players from decision paralysis.  ↩
  5. I dropped the ball a little here. I had described that a crowd of villagers had gathered, just outside the green that surrounded the tower, and were watching the group approach the door with confusion which was slowly turning into upset. When they went in, Dogan declared that he turned and did a bellringer sonic wave to disperse the crowd to keep them from rushing in. I told him the crowd was too far away for that to be any real danger. That was true, so far as the fiction I’d presented, but in retrospect, I should have just given him the moment.  ↩
  6. max== roll 3d6,count highest. mid + max== roll 3d6,drop lowest. more details here  ↩

Dungeon World Double Dose

Ok, after the sidetrack into 5e, time to catch up on Dungeon World before the next session. Actually have two sessions to catch up on.

In the first, Lily and Dogan tried to sell some silks and got tangled up in some Antesian[1] internal politics of succession which turned into fights with shadow demons, a trip into an ancient crypt, the burial of a chieftan and the discovery of an ancient songblade.


  • Because of Dogan, I made the shadow demons pretty badass, and he still tore them up. Fighters are scary.
  • Lily finally got to really take Bardic Magic for a spin, and damn, it’s awesome.
  • Got to use Lily’s bardic focus on ancient heroes to tie into the crypt where things finally went down, and used it as the hook for her receiving the songblade of an ancient warrior-bard (“Stormsinger”, in the vernacular of the Antesians)
  • Best failure of the night was Dogan charging into the crypt and falling down the stairs. With Bellringer. It was musical.
  • Music actually permeated the session, and the final fight ended up being a sonic crescendo of Lily helping Bellringer and the dead king’s Songblade to all sing in harmony, producing one great note of Ass kicking.
  • Lily now has a songblade. it’s physical characteristics are similar to Bellringer, and it has the harmonic keyword, which means she uses +CHA instead of +STR to hack and slash. Because that’s how I roll.

Next session ended up being simultaneous with Dogan and Lily’s trip out of town. Jack was hired by the king of beggars to provide security for a clandestine meeting. He brought in Urv and Tetra, and because Dogan was out of town, he also brought in Ajax, a former gladiator driven underground when the Plague Doctors closed the arena.

Things took an interesting turn when it turned out the meeting was in a knot (an overlapping space, like the Muddy Yak) which Urv and Jack could perceive, but Ajax and Tetra could not. This made for some fun because there were exits that Ajax and Tetra couldn’t see (and thus couldn’t watch).

Things took a deeper turn as the atendees started arriving, 6 in all. 2 came from Rzae, which was fine. 3 of them were very puzzling to Ajax and Tetra who could not see them enter (though Urv and Jack saw them enter from Umulon). Most disturbing was the 6th guest, who never opened his eyes, and who no one saw enter.

Naturally, he cellar came under attack by the same alchemical forces that have been plaguing the PCs. Much violnce followed, including poison gas, acid puddled, alchemical pistols and brass razorballs modeled after Phantasm. The group managed to fend them off and, when things got too hairy, managed to get everyone out through the Umulon side (in the process, opening Ajax and Tetra’s eyes to the other world). They found out a little bit more about the attackers, and we wrapped up there so we could get in a game of Sentinels of the Multiverse.[2]


  • We had a guest from out of town playing Ajax, and it was interesting to see what a different fighter than Dogan looked like. The answer? Still terrifying.
  • I made use of some tools in this session. I used the most recent set of Rory’s Story Cubes (Journeys) and the Paizo Plot Twist Deck to prime the pump. basically, I just cast a handful of the dice and drew three of the cards and just kept them in front of me. When it came time to make a move (or just come up with something) I looked them over to see if there was anything I could pull out. It worked out pretty well.
  • What worked even better was the Paizo Face Cards. I had cards for the King of Beggars, the unnamed meeting attendees as well as the two known alchemists. Super handy for reference when the characters don’t know names – I can just hold up the card for reference rather than re-describe.
  • A lot of damage got dished out, especially by the phantasm balls, but Ajax hit like a truck, which kind of balanced that.
  • Tetra finally got to use parry and disarm!
  • Jack may now have the nickname “boots”, but it’s up to her to tell you why. It involves a pool of acid and two blown defy danger rolls.

  1. The Antesians are the hillfolk who might be indigenous to the area where Rzae was built. They don’t come into the city much, and largely trade through The Laughing Market , the market outside the city walls where a lot of the poor and disenfranchised trade.  ↩
  2. The Sentinels, Tempest, Argent Adept, The Naturalist and Setback versus Apostate in the Ruins of Atlantis. We owned him.  ↩

Making the Transition

I love the idea of scenes as having mechanical meaning (for establishing duration, recharge and so on), but I am constantly frustrated by attempts to systemize scene framing. Don’t get me wrong, aggressive scene framing is a great technique, and one I love to use, but I consider it something highly organic, driven by the shape and speed of the table. Attempts to mechanize it produce something which, to me, feels incredibly inorganic and often disrespectful of players and fiction. Doubly so if there are some rules about types of scenes and when they must occur.

I find I am much, much happier with inversions of the solution, with mechanical rules for the spaces which aren’t scenes. I love rules for long actions and pauses that roll things up into an easily handled abstraction. in fact, one of my favorite ideas in 4e was the long and short rests. From a purely practical perspective, they are easy to communicate, easy to hang mechanics off of and super easy to integrate into the fiction.

What’s more, they provide easy knobs to turn to reflect tension. If we are being chased, then we can’t take a short rest. If we’re someplace dangerous, we can’t take a long rest. if those have mechanical meanings, then the fiction gets teeth in a nice, indirect way.

Now, yes, these ideas become a problem when you start getting anal retentive about them and counting minutes. If you define a short rest as 5 minutes, then you should just say 5 minutes (ditto long rest and some number of hours of sleep). But as a concept, a short rest is “you have enough time to catch your breath, check your gear, make sure everyone’s ok, watch, wallet, spectacles, testicles and move on.” That’s not just a function of time, but also of situation.

Obviously, I’m utterly happy bringing this terminology into Dungeon World, but that’s neither here nor there.

But the key here is that once you invert your thinking about scenes and start thinking about mechanizing the space between scenes (rather than the scenes themselves) then a lot of other things fall into this pattern. Dangerous journey’s, certainly, but also many rolls (like stealth and research) which implicitly contain multiple actions. Really, any roll which could be reflected as a montage might be viewed as a non-scene (or connective) action.

This becomes interesting in the context of moves, because if you embrace this idea, then you can embrace the logic in the move. While some moves are all about what you do in a scene, you can now write moves that are all about transitions. Consider something simple like a Breaking and Entering move:

When you break into a guarded place to steal something, roll +dex

  • On a 10+, the scene starts with your quarry in reach
  • on a 7–9, the next scene starts with one major obstacle between you and your quarry

It’s a bit ham fisted. but it conveys the idea – you’ll never make this move in the middle of a scene, where there’s any other interaction, but rather, you’d make it in the downtime between scenes, when planing and discussion are afoot.

Mind you, I’m nto yet sure what I’m going to do with it, but I feel like there’s a lot of mojo in more explicitly putting some framing in transition moves.

Nouns and Verbs

Got the TouchI occasionally remark, with no real explanation, that Fate is a game of nouns and Dungeon World is a game of verbs. This is probably a little flip of me, so I figured I’d take a minute to explain it a little more fully.

To understand this, understand that I see that the big sentiment that Fate and Dungeon World share is a spirit of emulation. That is, they strive to capture a certain sort of fictional ideal, not by simply reproducing it, but by reproducing the structures that enable it. That structure raises the very interesting question of what fiction is made of, and this is where the difference emerges.

Fate is predicated on the idea that the smallest practical element of fiction is descriptive of character or situation. The brave knight. The locked room. The haunted duchess. The action and interaction of these make for fiction. Notably, Fate is not terribly unique in this, and games like Heroquest and Risus use similar units of fiction.

Dungeon World is predicated on the idea that key elements are the actions that define things. The clash of blades. The race over rough terrain. The duel of wits. It is these actions which reveal and transform the other elements of the fiction. This is, I think, a focus which is fairly unique to the *World games.

Importantly, they’re both right, and they offer no contradiction. Rather, they’re simultaneously distinct, rather like the whole light being a wave and a particle thing. And equally importantly, this is not a pure thing- Fate has plenty of support for actions and DW has plenty of support for people and things. But that difference in approach informs many of the difference between the systems.[1]

I like this comparison because I feel it gives me greater insight into the way moves do and should work. At their most ideal, moves are the things which – if you were watching this movie – you would know that character was going to do. The ranger is going to track a dude. The Fighter is going to wield her badass weapon. In short, you can design for *World by imagining the ideal outcome, and designing back from there. That’s powerful[2].

But it has also highlighted a faultline for me. The discussion of Discern Realities touched on the edges of this, but I think I’ve got a better grasp on it now. See, in the ideal, a move in a *Worldgame is a moment. It’s that thing, and it’s going down. The game is built to deliver that moment, and the move is an expression of that.

But not every moment is a moment. There’s a lot of interstitial stuff along the way, and a lot of stuff that the character does is interesting and play driving, but is not definitive. Not in the same way. And that creates a bit of a disconnect. it is the difference between fighting a few thugs in the alley and the bloodied last stand against the evil warlord. The situation plays into it, but at it’s heart, it’s that moment when a little voice chimes up “Now’s my time to shine!”, your theme music starts playing, and it’s on.

But, mechanically, there is no difference between that moment (move) and any other. Which is a shame.

The hilarious thing (to me) is that Fate has the same problem. Aspects are always true, but sometimes you want them to be big T True, a huge, defining element of the character, something to which all other things bend. You can play it that way, of course, but the mechanics don’t differentiate.

Mind you, I’m not here to offer a solution. I’ve been wrestling with this one in Fate for as long as the game has existed[3] so it’s somewhat comforting to be coming at it from a different angle. Perhaps I can even find something in between. I use the word casually, but I think perhaps there may be something in the idea of a moment. In the abstract, it is a fiction beat which reveals essential character (noun) through action (verb), so perhaps the solution exists when both are brought to bear at once.

Something I’ll be thinking about, certainly.

  1. Another core difference is that there is no true “vanilla” *World game. Even Apocalypse World is emulating a very specific vision. Fate is designed with that backplane, which is expressed through specific builds. it might be theoretically possible to articulate the “Generic” *World system, but I doubt it would be practically worth it.  ↩
  2. It is also why both games are such genre chameleons. Just as Fate’s aspect allow you to make the characters that should exist in a given genre, Moves allow you to design for the actions and activities which define the genre. If you do a highlander game, then you build from the essential action of chopping off a dude’s head.  ↩
  3. Literally. The iconic example of this was Finndo’s “Duty” aspect in the very first Fate game. It was big T True and then some.  ↩

Another Big DW game

So, this past weekend’s Dungeon World game was another huge one. Eight players this time, which left me feeling like one of the bad guys at the end of Raiders (in a mostly good way). I believe Fred summed it up best:

Roll +Bond for the # of players. On 6-, go for it. On 7–9, if you are Rob, run the game but expose yourself to danger. On 10+, get a 2nd GM.

Session was basically non-stop action, as the guys who Sanguinus and Shrike pissed off last session decided to invade Rzae with Mud Bronze Automatons and Alchemical weapons. Lots of things went terribly wrong (as they’re wont to do) but the invading ship was destroyed (with many explosions) and the summoning ritual was disrupted by virtue of adding all the alchemical components (and the body of the fellow carrying them) at the same time to rather toxic effect.

It all went well, but it was educational on a number of fronts.

First, juggling this many players is always insane. There is a reason that this session was mostly non-stop action. When the game is this big then I need to impose a constraint to keep it moving. In the last big session is was geographic isolation, in this one it was a ticking clock. And even with that, it still demands a shallower experience – I have to seize upon the easiest hooks and most immediately compelling action to keep things going, and that has a cost over time. While Dungeon World is never going to have the full on Netrunner problem, the reality is that it’s always easier to engage the fighter than it is to engage a character with more nuanced courses of action.

I don’t think it’s a huge problem – broad play is still fun. But I want to drill in a bit too.

We also started the discussion about Compendium Classes this week. Some of the characters are 5th level at this point, and if the failures keep up at the rate they have, we’ll be hitting 6th and 7th soon. Level 10 is a bit of a wall, looming up on us.

At the same time, there is general agreement that people want Compendium Classes, but the classes I have found so far are a bit thin. The Agent actually has a move that explicitly encourages taking a CC, so I really had to dig through the pile to find one for her and we found the Bearer, which means she’s carrying around a maliciously intelligent magic sword, so that was a win[1]. But for everyone else (even Sanguinus, for whom the Dread Pirate CC might be a good match) the opportunity cost of CCs is a problem.

So, we’re going to try to kill two birds with one stone, and make CC’s a parallel XP track. The idea is that the cost of a CC move is some flat amount of XP that is less than leveling (say, 3 + number of CC moves), so that as players get up in levels, there is some incentive to branch out. Even if they hit level 10, we’ll still have some avenue for character growth (even if stats are capped).

However, this is only going to work if I can get a decent and appealing set of Compendium Classes, which is going to take its own research effort. The ones I’ve found so far are a strongly mixed bag. The good news is that if there really is a shortage of good ones, they’re easier to create than full bore classes.

Anyway, that’s the plan for now. We’ll see how it holds up.

  1. Doubly so, since the bearer was Fred’s requested CC in the Compendium, so it was fun for him to see it at the table. it was doubly fun for him to see it go to the one player likely to take it to darker places than he might.  ↩