Monthly Archives: June 2014

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.  ↩

You Really Should Know This Already

Today’s XKCD is brilliant, possibly surpassing even the famed “Someone is wrong on the Internet” strip. It skewers that most persistent of poisons (one XKCD itself falls victim to at times), the idea that everyone else is stupid.

Unfortunately, some people read that and think “Ha ha, that’s funny.  But really. People are stupid.” and I feel like there’s something essential missing in their education.


See. the thing is, “smart” is a pretty bullshit metric all by itself. Individuals are alternately smart and stupid on an array of topics according to their priorities (and, of course, most often judge intelligence by the ones they excel at).  As such, any given person maps out like a crazy zigzag.


We are ultimately going to judge people by what we prioritize. So if I’m a developer who like comics and Doctor Who? Then this guy is an idiot


And this guy is clearly brilliant.



This is neither complicated nor contentious. It only becomes so if you cannot recognize that it’s something that you do (where “you” includes me and everyone else).  If you can’t see that, there’s a good chance that:



EDIT: i realized I left that on a snarky note, so let me add something important. This is awesome.  You are surrounded by people who know more than you about more things than you can count. Things that you don’t even know enough about to know how ignorant you are.  That means the world is full of fantastic opportunities and really interesting people once you can step outside the comfort of what you’re already smart about. Delight in it!



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.  ↩

A Little Discernment

magnifying-glassYesterday’s framing of the issues surrounding Volley cast some light on the somewhat larger issue I’ve ben sidling up to: the Discern Reality move.

I have encountered two difficulties with this move, either one of which would be a potential problem.

The first is that I am really unclear as to what the fiction of it is. At first glance, it seems like it serves the role of a perception check, but that’s not really how it’s structured. It’s framing, and the answers it provides, are general and not situational. If anything, it is more akin to fortune telling.[1]

The second is an extrapolation from the first – it’s effect is a weird mismatch that doesn’t always align with player intent. This is an interesting problem because it is, by its nature, inconsistent. How well the move works depends on how well the questions fit the situation. Sometimes they’re a good fit, sometimes they’re a terrible fit. Sometimes they’re and unexpectedly good fit – they’re not the questions you would have asked, but they are unexpectedly interesting. That last outcome is really, really compelling. It’s one of those situations where the constraints (limited questions) create unexpected benefits. This is an important upside – even if I have problems when the questions are a mismatch, and I think they outweigh this benefit, it’s not a benefit to casually discard.

So, there’s a problem. But it’s not hugely clear cut, because there are benefits to the current approach, they’re just balanced. The fiction issue is a real sticking point, but it can be clarified, so we can see if maybe we can find illumination as we work on the other side.

The thing that I find really interesting with Discern Reality is that I think the rub is in how it’s used. Setting aside the fiction (amusingly enough) the biggest structural use of discern reality is a kind of fishing attempt. The question it really answers is “What can I do in this scene?” and that’s a really important question. The absolute best use of Discern Reality is when the GM has failed to give the scene a push to keep things moving (usually through a failure to communicate). The use of the move is a flag.[2]

And with that in mind, the solution is definitely not to discard discern reality, but rather to double down on what makes it work. That means stepping away from the “perception” angle and taking as hard look at what is, on some level, a meta-move (that is, a move that is supposed to be initiated by the player, for the benefit of the player).

One idea I’d been toying with was to give each class an extra question on the Discern Reality move (so the fighters could ask “Who’s the biggest threat?”, thieves could ask “What’s the most valuable thing here?” and so on) but as I think about moving this to a meta level, I wonder if that should be more implicit in the question. So what if we also decouple the move from Wisdom, and instead allow the player to pick any stat, but the stat flavors the answer.

  • Strength – Military/fighting focus
  • Dexterity – Subterfuge and hidden things
  • Constitution – Integrity and defense
  • Intelligence – Details and knowledge
  • Wisdom – Secrets and insight
  • Charisma – Motivations and Personality

Yes, it’s a bit abstract, but if the move itself is in the abstract, that is not necessarily a bad thing. And with that tweak, I am pretty happy leaving it in the toolkit.

Now, that still leaves the question of how to handle more mundane perception issues, and that deserves more than just an afterthought. It’s important to consider that Dungeon World is a post-Gumshoe game – it does not hide details behind dice rolls purely for the sake of hiding them. If players ask a question about the situation, then they deserve as much of an answer as the GM can reasonably give them. Any perception move needs to be predicated on that assumption.

That probably raises the question of whether a perception move is needed at all – after all, you can just answer whatever question is raised. And for certain tables and styles, that is almost certainly appropriate. However, that’s probably not much of a Dungeon World specific solution, so we’ll assume that there will be times and places when a roll for perception is in order.

So the question becomes how to structure the move, and the answer is, I think, in the question. it makes a lot of sense of questions to be at the center of any perception move, especially because we explicitly do not want the trigger for the move to be “I look for something”. As noted above, if that’s what the player says, then you tell them what they see. The move should only be necessary when that answer is not enough. And so:


When the players asks a question about what their character perceives and the answer is unclear, Roll +WIS

  • On a 10+ they get a clear and informative answer
  • on a 7–9 they get an incomplete or obscured answer
  • On a 6 or less, they get an answer which is outright false or deceptive

(The 6- is tricky, because it depends how comfortable the players are with being outright lied to. That is probably a topic that could merit its own post, but the short form is that if you’re not comfortable embracing in-character misinformation, I’m not sure you’re playing the right game.)

Obviously, I need to try it out, but I have a game tomorrow, so we’ll see if it works.

  1. It works fantastically for the Tarot Mage that I’m working on.  ↩
  2. it can also be used as a framing move, outside of the context of a scene, but that’s tricky.  ↩

Shooting at Volley

high-shotSomething was bugging me about Volley. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, partly because we don’t have many archers in our game, but it niggled at me until we finally had one arrow-heavy session. I realized what it was. the 7–9 outcome (Do less damage, place yourself in danger or expend ammo) always felt clunky, which is odd, because it’s an seemed like a by the book hard choice.

At first, I suspected my concern was structural, as the choice was made by the player not the character.

Now, yes, the character is a proxy for the player, we all get that, but I hope the distinction is clear. The choice in volley is presented outside of the fiction, made outside the fiction then brought back into the fiction. Consider, in contrast, a defy danger result where, say, you can save an orphan, but you have to go through fire (and take damage) to do it. That choice is presented in the fiction, made inside the fiction (albeit by the player) and resolved inside the fiction.

So I break Volley down a bit. The problem I’m seeing is that there’s no continuity to the fiction of it – I describe my action (I pop up over the edge of the balcony and fire an arrow at the goblin leader!”) and if I get a 10+, the fiction proceeds naturally, with my arrow hitting the dude. If I blow the roll, the fiction proceeds naturally too. But on a 7–9, what’s the fiction?

I can answer that in terms of effect. Either

  • I land a crappy shot (reduced damage).
  • I take a bunch of shots to hit (spend ammo).
  • I need to move to someplace dangerous to get the shot (move).

Now here’s the challenge: pose that choice to a player without citing the rules. Specifically, be aware of who knows what, when.[1] The likeliest result is to effectively make the 7–9 result its own action beat, which is functional, but a bit of a problem if action beats are something you’re keeping an eye on.

So that was definitely a disconnect for my style, but it didn’t feel like I really captured the heart of it. But thinking about the fiction of it made me look at the way the choices are structured, and I saw another thing that bugged me a little. Look at the third option: “You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger of the GM’s choice”.

I’m not 100% comfortable with the way the GM choice is framed here. There are two ways to read this. The first is “A danger to be determined after you’ve decided”, which is a fiddly proposition. The second is that the GM communicates the details of the danger in the fiction so that the player can make a real choice.

And that’s where it crystalized.

That second interpretation doesn’t seem like it would be a problem. Hard choices are awesome, after all. But it reveals that this is really a soft choice. because the player can always opt not to make it (by just choosing to do less damage). The move has a built in escape valve for tension.

And there it was. The half-assed hits really mess with things. They are the hardest thing to account for in the fiction and they soften the choice. That’s a double problem.

Consider if the Volley 7–9 was “You do damage, but you either use one ammo, or expose yourself to danger[2]” That feels more like the right kind of tradeoff. I could see going to “You don’t have the shot. To do damage, you either need to use one ammo or expose yourself to danger” which at least puts a little bit more cost on taking the wimp out choice, but it softens the tradeoff.

It still doesn’t move the choice entirely into the fiction, but it simplifies the intrusion, and that’s not nothing. I’ll probably have to come back to it when I really start thinking about all fiction, all the time[3] but for now I think I’m going to have to try the hard choice version of Volley at my table. There will almost certainly be some mechanical repercussions. I’ll have to keep an eye on ammo scores, but since that hasn’t even come close to being an issue yet, I am not going to tweak ammo values yet.

Now, to deal with all these damn rapiers…

  1. If this seems super-obvious-easy to you, then perhaps you are right. But it is also possible that you are taking something for granted.  ↩
  2. yes, there are still some complexities in communicating that, but it’s workable.  ↩
  3. I’ve got you in my sights, Discern Reality.  ↩

The Bloody Shrike

Latest Dungeon World game presented an interesting challenge because the two characters were the two least connected in the entire game. Shrike, the elven revolutionary ranger and Sanguinus the Bloody had never overlapped before, and their specific concepts are at opposite sides of the campaign.

So of course it was going to begin with them locked in a cell together. Though it also helped that both players were total pros, and absolutely game for this.

It actually began at opposite ends of things. Shrike had discovered an Umulon faction of alchemists, lead by Lydia Moreau, had been testing on human subjects, but no one was missing. Investigations led him to a fort. At the same time, Sanguinus was pursuing a slaver ship that disappeared into the mists, and broke off pursuit as it came into sight of an unfamiliar fort. The Ice Witch stayed in the fog, and Sanguinus snuck to shore to investigate.

I framed this as the sequence during the credits, splicing between the two heroes making sneaky approaches, then the title placard comes up, and the scene is framed with them both captured and chained to the wall. [1] The break out went awkwardly, as Sanguinus tried to use the voice of authority on the person bringing them food, who fled, and called the guards. The fight that followed was a lot of fun, since Sanguinus had gotten one arm free but the keys had gotten knocked out of reach. Shrive demonstrated that a high dex/ low strength character can do awesome things with his feet, but should probably not be trying to just up and punch people.

They got out, escaped a chimera in the basement (mostly by running a lot) and eventually discovered that the alchemists (or assumed to be the alchemists – everyone encountered went masked, which helped the guys sneak around a bit) were using the captives to test out a large, bizarre device. When they “fired” it at a captive, there was a strange feeling of vibration (liek thunder without noise) but it did not seem to do anything else. The guys took out the sentries and the ballistae, signaled for the Ice Witch, and prepared to bombard the courtyard with the alchemical devices they’d found. And that’s where the dice turned.

The guys had actually been doing really well up til that point, but a string of sixes meant, among other things, that they were staggeringly unlucky in their attempts to detonate the alchemical devices, and the compass that the leader of the alchemist’s had been using to pick victims swiveled and pointed at the guys. So, things went bad, and got worse when Sanguinus got caught in some sort of field near the device. Thankfully, Shrike had done a little better, and had managed to open a gate behind the prisoners and usher them into the armory, so things could have gone either way when the true hero arrived.

As described to Sanguinus “You would never have imagined that the wrath of god could take the form of a mule, but that looks very much like what you are seeing.” Iggy, responding to Shrike’s whistle, came in through the gate, bowled over much of the opposition, buying the guys time to fight free and lead the captives to the gate and – finally – blow up the damn place as they left. Sangunus’s divine navigation skills got them back to Rzae, and things wrapped there.

As often seems to be the case, getting a full session in with two players was simply much shorter than a larger group. We technically had over an hour left in our time block when we wrapped, and I could have pushed on, but we all agreed it felt like a natural break point, so we shot the breeze about RPGs for a while after.

One thing that ended up working out very well, mechanically, was that I switched over to doing Min-Mid-Max for damage. This is an old dice technique I learned from Fudge, and it works like this:

  • Roll 3d6
  • MIN is the lowest die
  • MID is the middle die
  • MAX is the highest die

With that in mind, you can actually produce seven combinations for damage:

  • MIN (average 2)
  • MID (average 3.5)
  • MAX (Average 5)
  • MIN + MID (Average 5.5)
  • MIN + MAX (Average 7)
  • MID + MAX (Average 8.5)
  • MIN + MID + MAX (Average 10.5)

It (very) roughly maps to doing a d4/d6/d8/d10/d12 progression, and while the extra steps might seem like a feature, for me the real advantage is that it smooths out the damage distribution without totally losing the randomness. I’d gotten frustrated with the swinginess of the damage outcomes when I was rolling (lots of 1’s) and MMM worked much better for matching my thoughts of “I want to do about this much damage”.[2]

Now, I would absolutely not propose this for everyone. It works for me because years of dealign with bonus and penalty dice mean I don’t need to think about reading a MMM roll – it is as fast and easy as rolling a single die for me. But there is no reason that would be true for everyone. I’d absolutely encourage you to try it, but if it feels weird or slows you down (or you don’t feel the problem it solves is a problem in the first place) then don’t sweat it. (EDITED TO ADD: This was only being used by the GM, me, the players were rolling damage normally.  I would be very loathe to make players use something like these. It might be mechanically potent, but I dread the tradeoffs).

It was a fun session, but it also managed to shine some light on a few things that have been niggling at me. Weirdly, a concern with Volley cracked open my concerns with Discern Realities, and that’s probably going to be its own post at some point.

It also highlighted something about difficulties in DW that I sum up as follows:

  • Can a ranger or paladin sneak?
  • Does the answer change depending on whether or not there’s a thief at the table?
  • What if there is only sometimes a thief at the table?
  • Same question, but what about picking a pocket?

I’m still pondering the right answer to those.

  1. At this point I also put 4 chips down in front of each player and said “you are welcome to introduce facts into the part we skipped over as flashbacks. When you do, take one of those chips, and it turns into an XP”. This worked well, but it was also a reminder: I have played for so long with the idea of players spending currency for a moment of narrative authority that I sometimes forget just how well it works. The lack of Fate Points or similar in Dungeon World cleansed my palette a little bit, so I got to see it with fresher eyes, and it was a delight.  ↩
  2. This also helps me with the fiction a lot. If I say something a little rough is a d4 and something very dangerous is a d10, it feels really weird if a roll a 4 and a 1. The dice have not supported the fiction. And while I can easily address that in any specific situation, that eats up capacity over time. Since the MMM results also produce tighter bands (so, for example, a MAX roll will only very rarely be a 1 or 2), the results feel more inline with the threat of the fiction.  ↩

Dungeon World, Difficulty and Finding Waldo

waldoOne of the most interesting things about the -World engine is that it seems to be an argument that difficulty isn’t relevant. This is a pretty bold position – a lot of games have wrestled with how to handle the idea of difficulty, and that has lead to ideas like automatic success, taking 10 and failing forward, but the -World solution is, in effect, to forgo difficulty entirely. When your their comes upon a lock, it doesn’t matter if it’s a mid-grade padlock or a quadruple locked mithril puzzle lock built by ancient gnomes. The Tricks of the Trade roll is going to have the same odds no matter what.

On the face of it, this seems disruptive as hell. It upends a huge number of assumptions about how a game should work, and basically says that the distribution of success and failure (and compromised success) should be spread out along a certain curve, irrespective of what’s going on. This has some specific benefits – because there’s not increase in difficulty, there is no need for an increase in capability to represent progress. This is why Dungeon World characters generally get broader (in the range of what they can do) rather than better (absolute bonuses don’t increase a lot).

It is, however, all a little bit more complicated than that. a different way to look at it is that -World system exist within a specific sweet spot, mathematically, and the point of a specific design is to align that sweet spot with an ideal vision of play. That may seem like a weird concept, but consider for a moment the idea of high level D&D play, real Paladin in Hell stuff. Dungeon world, as presented, doesn’t really do that, even though it emulates D&D. Instead, it emulates a particular band of the D&D experience that maps pretty well through levels 1–9ish, depending on edition.

But Dungeon World could do Paladin in hell. You absolutely could have epic, world-shaping playbooks without changing the rules and numbers.[1] The fiction of the movies would be more sweeping and dramatic but the underlying system would not need to change. But you cannot practically mix those two levels of play.

That seems like an obvious thing to say, but if you play Dungeon World, you might think about it and think “why not? He may be an archmage and I may be a peon, but we both face a hard choice on a 7–9, and since we’re not actually rolling against each other, doesn’t that just mean that we actually can mix power levels successfully in accordance with cinematic logic?”

And it’s a good question. But no, or at least mostly no, for two reasons that both come back to difficulty.

See, -World may look like it forgoes difficulty, but it can’t quite pull it off, so instead it moves it off someplace discrete.

The first place is damage. In any roll where damage is a result, it is the stand in for the margin of success. Damage output is a critical part of a playbook’s design and of the game as a whole. This is the first real barrier to mixing “tiers” of play. it is totally cool if an ogre has 19 hit points in Dungeon World and a Balor has 19 hp in Paladin in HellWorld because they are comparable challenges. But the fiction becomes hard to maintain when the shatterer of worlds is only as tough as an ogre (or vice versa).[2]

The second, and more subtle barrier, is the question of when you roll the dice. To go back to the question of the two locks at the outset, the reality is that in play, the GM would probably say “The ancient door is too complicated for you to open with your lockpicks, you’ll need to [DO SOMETHING AWESOME] first.”[3]. And that’s not a bad thing, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. Rolls occur in a fairly narrow band in -World, and while that’s true in every game, it’s a bit more of a hard boundary. In games with difficulty, the GM can lean on the dice in grey areas, and allow rolls with a slim chance of success rather than rule one way or another.

And that reveals a fascinating bit of sleight of hand. Often, when a GM calls for a roll with a very high difficulty, she is counting on failure. This is a bad habit, but a common one, because inevitably there will be an unplanned success, and if the GM is not ready for that, then things can go badly. The -World system does not allow the luxury of that mistake[4]. If the dice are on the table, then so is success[5].

This is the real barrier to mixing tiers – the different fiction means radically different rules for when you get to roll and when you don’t. The archmage will largely be able to solve all the peon’s problems without ever rolling the dice, which feels kind of crappy for the Peon. This is made worse when the Peon doesn’t even get to roll against the Archmage’s problem.[6]

This is, I should add, not a criticism of the -World system, and it should only be taken as one if you think any one system must do and be all things. -World made some specific tradeoffs that allow it to excel within its intended space rather than to be all encompassing.

I think of it a little bit like one of those Where’s Waldo pictures. Most games are like the whole picture – interesting, dynamic, but maybe a bit overwhelming. -World takes a piece of paper, cuts a hole in it, then covers up most of the image so you can really pay attention to the part it reveals. Don’t like that chunk of the picture? Hack it to move the hole somewhere else. You’re giving up the broader picture, but at the same time you’re increasing your engagement with it. And depending upon how you look at things, you might be more likely to find Waldo that way.

And to bring it all back to difficulty, it teaches an interesting lesson that’s been on my mind when I look at things like 4e, Final Fantasy or Exalted through a -World lens.  When you come upon a design problem where the traditional solution is to change the difficulty, in the -World mode, the right solution might be to change the game.

That’s kind of cool.

  1. I mean, you might change the numbers cosmetically to make it look more awesome, but if you multiply everything by 10, then you’re pretty much changing nothing.  ↩
  2. There are ways to hack this, but this require embracing that the tiers are different. And it’s a very, very old problem in RPGs, best summed up in 2 words: Mega Damage.  ↩
  3. Which is, by the way, why the second most important move in the entire game is, to my mind, the Wizard’s ritual move. If I only had one move, it would be defy danger. If I had two, it would be ritual. It works just as well for planning heists and winning wars as it does mastering arcane powers.  ↩
  4. This is one of those great examples of how the -World system solves problems – if you’re a GM who is not ready for success and failure on every roll, or who does not really think about these things before rolling the dice, then it will cure you of that habit. Of course, if you don’t have that problem, then you might find it restrictive.  ↩
  5. And failure. Everything I’m saying about high difficulty applies equally to low difficulty and the decision of what you don’t need to roll for. I’m just not qualifying it as I speak because it feels awkward to qualify it every time.  ↩
  6. And, of course, if you “solve” the damage problem, then you probably just perpetuate this problem into the arenas where they do get to roll. The Peon gets to roll against the Pit Fiend, but does such trivial damage that he might as well have done nothing.  ↩

The Isle of Dread(ish)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agent’s Patron

Got some wonderful feedback on the Swoosh move, and I think Jesse really cracked it open with a much better trigger. Will have an updated version of that later.

For today, I was thinking about Patrons. Originally, my thinking had been that you would choose from a list and the bonus moves would be part of the choice (so, if you picked an arcane order, you’d get cantrips and +1 to spouting lore about arcane secrets) but as I started writing them I realized I like the Paladin model a lot more, where the player can mix and match their benefits according to whatever logic they like. That freed me up a bit, so the Patron move looks like:

Patron – You work for a secret organization. First, choose one of the following, and select the name of your contact.

  • A Mystical Order (The Lady of Shadows, Myrminster, The Whisperer, Irstingler the Ever Magnificent)
  • A Political Boss (Robin Spacey, Boss Thneed, Colonel Abersmythe, Longshadow)
  • Secret council of priests (Domina Antonia, Cardinal Francis, Sister Talia, Bother Silence)
  • Intelligence Service (B,O,C,Y)
  • Law Enforcement (Captain Vanes, Officer Talbot, Inspector Tukulsky, Auditor Vor)
  • A Military Cabal (General Grieves, Admiral Stetson, Sir Lyanis, Lady Whawai)
  • The Underground (The Crimson, Rattlebone Annie, Tall Zeke, Laces)

Second, select their agenda

  • To Sustain (The current order, the throne, the church, the flow of money)
  • To Usurp (The current order, the throne, the church, the flow of money)
  • To Destroy (The current order, the throne, the church, the flow of money)
  • To Discover (Ancient secrets, mystical secrets, technological secrets, dark secrets)
  • To Advance (An ideology, an ideal, a faith, a technology, a people, themselves)
  • To Resist (An ideology, an ideal, a faith, a technology, a people, a rival organization)

Third, choose what type of secrets you know:

  • Arcane Secrets
  • Religious Secrets
  • Political Secrets
  • Military Secrets
  • Criminal Secrets

You gain a +1 when you spout lore about this type of secret.

Last, pick two things you have gained from the training or resources provided by the organization:

  • Arcane Training – Cast Cantrips
  • Divine Initiation – Cast Rotes
  • Reinforcements – When you make a Recruit move, you may takes a +2 bonus to the roll to call on assets of the organization. Any recruits hired in this way are ultimately loyal to your patron.
  • Connections – +1 to Carouse and Outstanding Warrant Rolls
  • Gadgets – Once per session, you can produce some strange widget provided by your patron which can grant a +1 to any single roll that it might help with
  • Deep Insight – “Who’s really in control here” does not count against your allowed questions when you Discern Realities

Finally, name your patron, and write them in the appropriate Bond entry.[1]

Ok, that’s long, but it’s a good start. And looking at the agent bullet list, that accounts for most of the stuff. The only thing I want now is a resources move.

Structurally this is pretty simple, more or less like a Supply roll – 10+ get what you need, 7–9 get it with strings. I think the catch is that there should always be SOME strings, since it comes from the organization, so we go with another choice. Something like:

Tap Resources When you approach your patron for help, roll +bond with the patron.

  • On a 10+, Pick 1
    • They give you what they think you need
    • But you need to do something first
    • It has unexpected complications
  • On a 7–9, Pick 2

I think that covers the basic moves decently well. Need to come back to races and bonds next time, then on to advanced moves.

  1. Yeah, that’s going to be a bond to an NPC, which doesn’t make sense in its own right, but I had a weird idea of letting the Agent use the bond rating to her patron for some moves. I just realized that it effectively mirrors +faction from Urban Shadows, which is not a bad thing, but funny.  ↩