So, I wrote a few posts about Dungeon World in the recent past and then I ran a game, last Monday!
How did it go? It went well. I had six players, a bit of a language split – three native English speakers and three native German speakers and two of them sometimes had trouble understanding some of the stuff on the character sheets. That was unfortunate. On of the players had been a backer and had both soft-cover and hard-cover books with him where as I just has some print-outs and the sheets by Maezar. I also offered my players to use the Freebooters of the Frontier sheets instead, but since nobody had a strong opinion about that and the backer didn’t know about Freebooters, I dropped it. I guess I still used some moves from Perilous Wild behind the screen and it was good.
What about prep? Prep was OK. I had a map, I had some ideas, I had some dangers and discoveries listed, two fronts, dooms, stuff was going to happen but for a 3h One Shot including character generation, I’d say I was slightly over-prepared in terms of map and settlements and slightly under-prepared when it came to dangers and discoveries. I should have had longer lists of cool stuff. I also started the game with the party in a swamp on the way to a barrow, the ranger posited that he had been following tracks, soon it was determined that there were smaller tracks following the larger tracks (announcing future badness) and soon we had a fight with six player characters vs. ten froglings. I think that fight could have been a shorter. Using ten enemies was a bit much.
What about feedback? The players said they liked it. At first, the lack of a turn structure might have been strange but I guess it worked. The two mostly German speaking players weren’t as active as they might have been, perhaps. But I know one of them from another campaign where he’s also not one to take center stage – and sadly, one prone to looking at his phone a lot, during the game. I didn’t feel too bad about him getting less spot light.
What about my own feelings regarding player agency? Tricky. Comparing it to my old school sandbox games, I’d say many things were similar or the procedures resulted in a similar experience for players.
Some pictures to illustrate my points.
Traditional point crawl dungeon:
My Dungeon World prep:
Also note the terrible mix of German and English in my notes.
It all started with me reading the answer to How to ask nicely in Dungeon World on StackExchange. The answer says: There’s also no GM move called “have a freeform social interaction.” If the GM is following the rules, this kind of stall should not happen. […] Since the “everyone looks to you to find out what happens” trigger matches, it’s now the GM’s turn to make an appropriate move, instead of falling into “time for unstructured social exchange improvisation!” habits that they have brought with them from some other game. The rest of the answer picks all the GM moves in the book and provides an explanation of how it might have gone.
When talking about my classic D&D games with others, we sometimes talked about procedures (or the lack thereof). When I tried to explain how great classic D&D was to Lior oh so long ago, he said that he would love to see some practical instructions on how to make a game interesting. Classic D&D seemed to be steeped in oral culture transmitted outside the written rules. You learned how to do it from friends, or through years of experience, or by reading and talking about it online (which is how I finally got it). As we gave Apocalypse World a try, it seemed to us that there was something here about telling us how to run a game but we just couldn’t nail it. I don’t remember whether we were just too blind to see, or too distracted by all the new jargon, or too fascinated by the moves in play books. I think that now, I’m slowly starting to get it.
There are still reasons not to like the game. The game no longer promises ever changing game play via mechanics (spells changing the adventures you can run, hit-points being replaced by saving-throws, and so on). And I still don’t quite see how the game can surprise me – how will I avoid making decisions that I feel the rules should make for me? The advice for running a dungeon basically suggest improvising a dungeon based on moves, i.e. whenever the players are at a loss, or when they fail their rolls, the dungeon grows, the monsters move, dead ends appear, signs of trouble ahead show up, and so on. “Dungeon Moves are a special subset that are used to make or alter a dungeon on the fly. Use these if your players are exploring a hostile area that you don’t already have planned completely.”
Even if I use The Perilous Wilds as my rules, these thing are still true. Except now there are more tools to work with, more specific instructions: countdowns for themes, a predetermined size, and so on. It seems to me that DW and friends are very interested in “play to see what happens” and one of the consequences is that the world is being generated as you go, based on your moves and the improvisations of the DM. That, in turn, is perhaps why my suspension of disbelief might not work as well. Or perhaps that’s simply a problem for an old school D&D player. If we’re exploring an existing place with an existing map, and existing dangers and treasures, it feels more “real” than generating things as we go. If the consequences of failure are generated by random rolls on a table, if the danger of monsters depends on the severity of my moves, then the rules can say fiction first as long as they want, I read it as DM fiat. But: This could be my D&D bias. Perhaps DW does not shirk from DM fiat as long as it follows from the fiction. Perhaps it works at the table even if everybody knows that the DM is improvising. After all, D&D also requires improvising but generally DMs will try to hide the fact that they’re doing it. The impression of impartiality is generated by dice rolling. Staying true to the fiction is presumed.
Then again, when I look at some of my recent “dungeons”, I find that I mostly think of them as interesting areas, connect one way or another, it doesn’t really matter. Plus monsters and treasure, and traps, rarely. Perhaps that’s not very far away from what Dungeon World and friends are suggesting. After all, the improvisation and dice rolling at the table is only for “a hostile area that you don’t already have planned completely.” I’m suspecting that – at the table! – my current method and the Dungeon World method with a little planning are not very different, after all.
Curious and willing to learn, in any case.
This is what a recent dungeon map for classic D&D looked like, in my campaign:
Reading the Dungeon World chapter on fronts makes me want to rewrite the list of open plots and the todo lists for a quest or two, and the list of random upcoming campaign changes as fronts. Perhaps that would make all these things clearer to me. Now that I think about it, my campaign threats are a confusing mess of half baked ideas. They work – I think – but perhaps they’d work better if written up as fronts.
See the picture on the right for what I have for my campaign fronts. I probably have one or two more which I don’t consider to be a urgent. One thing I noticed is that the old structure of my notes was this: if you want to resurrect Arden, you need to do the following… and what followed was a list of quests, each of which I felt would make a nice adventure, should the players decide to follow up on it. The write-up as front changes the setup: if players don’t resurrect Arden, his insanity will spread, somebody else will take the throne of light and so on. I’m not sure I like this shift from “this is a sandbox and whatever you want to achieve will be full of adventure” to “the world will go from bad to worse if you don’t take matters into your own hands”. I suddenly feel like might be preparing two or three campaign arcs or adventure paths… a kind of campaign setup I tried to avoid because players end up feeling like they have less choice. Everything is falling to pieces and there is pressure everywhere and time is running out and go, go, go!
This seems to be the biggest difference in terms of how fronts work compared to my traditional preparations. In my sandbox, players get interested in things, they learn more about it, they formulate goals and then they discover all the difficulties that need to be overcome. The world is essentially static.
Sure, we like to talk about “living” sandboxes and all that but my campaign events are random intrusions where I think to myself, “an invasion of mind-flayers sounds great” and then the setting starts to change.
This process is less structured than the fronts of Dungeon World. Fronts are also tied into moves, so a failed roll by a player can advance a front.
No such thing happened in my sandboxes. People felt free to calmly consider the missions they care about and do some horse trading: “You’ll help me bring down Susrael and I’ll help you bring back the fire giant’s wife, OK?” Fronts put pressure on players and I don’t think they’ll feel as free to pick and choose because there will be consequences, always.
Anyway, I recently bought Freebooters on the Frontier, A Book of Beasts, Perilous Almanacs, The Perilous Wilds and The Perilous Wilds Survival Kit by Jason Lutes as well as Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel.
Comments here or on G+.
Ryuutama is one of the unplayed games on my disk which I really need to take a longer look at. The first thing I like about it is the positive background. The art, the colors, the premise (traveling and exploring) – I want to know more.
Zak S. wrote an excellent post on his blog regarding the role of violence in role-playing games. Violence in games is important because violence is important outside of games. It’s all around us. There’s systemic violence, there’s physical violence, there’s psychological violence, there’s fear of violence. Role-playing games give us agency in the face of violence, and that’s important.
Natalie also wrote an excellent post about death. Not many things have value if you die, even if some people would like to tell you that there are in fact values worth laying down your life for. I’m not so sure and I sure as hell am happy that I’ve never been asked to do it.
Anyway, Zak Smith. Violence. Natalie. Death. Important things.
At the same time, the Burning Wheel family of games or the Apocalypse World family of games have us roll dice for things other than combat. A duel of wits, a play book with other moves, all of these things make me wonder whether we can make non-violent things interesting and tense moments at the table. So, Ryuutama: can travel and exploration be tense and interesting without dungeons and dragons?
And what prompted all of this:
We had another one-shot. Playbooks used: grandmother, shield maid, seiđkona, and child. I looked at fronts and decided to have the influence of Hel color the session. A grey winter day, visions of blood seeping up from the ground, dead friends calling you from beyond the fence, ghosts trying to lure people out into the snow storm… Sadly, the session wasn’t very good.
The player of the child felt he had ended up with a playbook unsuited to the situation. What use was there to hiding and sneaking? I guess it might have played like Newt in Aliens: Bonding, and spending those bonds to grant benefits to those braving the storm.
Also, the tension between violence being always available to solve problems but being basically the wrong tool because people will get hurt and die – the tension between men and women, where women goad men into action, where men are mute and violent – all of that was missing because of our all-female cast.
Today we played Sagas of the Icelanders. I spent about half an hour skimming the book, having read various playbooks and some stuff online, some months ago.
I had three players playing the Skaldmey, the Seiðkona and the Huscarl. I noticed that the fighters picked moves such as Belligerent, No Mercy and Freya’s Light. That seemed to indicate armed conflict. The witch picked Bonecaster. That seemed to indicate some searching. I decided to make this about a whale. If somebody managed to harpoon a whale, there was a 50% chance that it would wash ashore in the following days, dead. In this case, half the whale belonged to the owner of the land and the other half belonged to the owner of the harpoon.
We quickly introduced relatives. Picking a last name automatically determined the names of parents. The relationships at the beginning determined additional background: The Huscarl belonged to the family because his father had been killed in Norway and the father’s friend had taken the boy back to Iceland. The Seiðkona had maybe killed and buried her husband and made sure to set the Skaldmey on her path of rebellion.
The player characters venture out to find the whale. Some bone casting follows. They arrange to bring along an ally from a neighboring homestead, a young man thirteen years of age, defend their honor against malicious comments from the elder brother, find other neighbors having also heard about the whale, pick a fight, kill one of them, both parties call for reinforcements, a standoff ensues and finally the whale is divide 50:50, partly to avoid a feud about land ownership because this is a bay where oath breakers are drowned and therefore it belongs to neither family, and partly to avoid a feud because the Skaldmey had killed one of the neighbors in a wrestling match, tempting fate.
Some of the interesting things I saw at the table:
At the end of two and a half hours, all three players said they liked it. One of them had run a few sessions of Apocalypse World for us, ages ago. He liked it. The other had played in those Apocalypse World sessions and he had also played in my One Shot of Colonial Marines. He said that he liked Sagas of the Icelanders best.
The things we liked are the simple rules, the layout keeping rules and character sheet on a single page, this being a different situation entirely than Lady Blackbird…✎
When compared to Lady Blackbird, I noticed a difference in theme. The thing I like about Lady Blackbird is that the underlying theme appears to be love and friendship. Is the love between Lady Blackbird and the pirate real? What sort of bond is there between Lady Blackbird and her body guard? What sort of bond between the captain and his goblin? What sort of relation between Lady Blackbird and the mechanic? It’s interesting, it’s positive, and it goes into themes that my usual games do not.✎
In comparison, the theme of Magister Lor wasn’t as strong: revenge and forgiveness, the love and hate between siblings – somehow we couldn’t relate as much. The setup is also highly symmetrical. Master and Apprentice vs. Master and Apprentice. Brother vs. Brother. Magister vs. Demon. This contrasts with the multi-layered Lady Blackbird setup where bonds of various strengths relate characters to each other in asymmetrical ways. This made it feel a lot simpler, or it provided us with less guidance towards a complex situation.✎
One proposed solution was that we might start our next game without any pool dice, forcing us to start with refreshment scenes. Perhaps that would introduce some initial asymmetries and some “grit”.✎
Another thing we noticed in comparison with Lady Blackbird was that this is a clear player-vs-player situation, the game does not come with a suggested list of obstacles, events, and so on. These provided a lot of setting and inspiration for the game master to improvise upon. This is lacking in Magister Lor. A list of things to do in the Sanctum would have been nice – even if just a list of things to use against each other! Circuits? Elevators? Traps? Archives? Magical currents? Prisons? Names of demons and their characteristics? It would have helped, I think. Perhaps somebody else will write something like that?✎
When compared to our goto player-vs-player game, In A Wicked Age, we noticed that Magister Lor does not provide best interests for the characters. There is some guidance hidden away in the keys, but since these try to suggest various ways of running the game without offering a clear “win condition”, I think we all went with the simplest solution: Fight! Master and apprentice vs. demon and apprentice. In hind sight, not the most exciting development.✎
All in all, 4/5 stars.✎
★ ★ ★ ★✎
Here’s how I think about the number of stars: 5 is a recommendation, 4 is a good game with some very good elements, 3 is a good game that I’d play again, 2 is only for people who like a particular thing about the game and 1 is not recommended.✎
An der letzten OerliCon habe ich In A Wicked Age geleitet. Irgendwie war mir die Würfelmechanik aber nicht mehr ganz präsent, und so habe ich etwas improvisiert, und jetzt, ein paar Tage später, habe ich nochmal nachgelesen, wie das alles funktioniert. Ich finde In A Wicked Age sehr schön geschrieben, kurze, prägnante, fast poetische Sätze. Und die Beispiele sind wunderbar ausführlich, bedenken alle Eventualitäten, bringen dir bei, wie man das Spiel spielt – und wie man Rollenspiele generell spielt.
Leider taugt es nicht als Nachschlagewerk. In der Eile etwas gesucht? Oje! Deswegen für mich selber hier die Zusammenfassung. Ideal für eine Convention. Deutsche Charakterbögen und Orakel gibt es bei 3w20.
Konflikt: Wenn ein Spieler zur Tat schreitet und jemand dagegen halten kann und will, dann kommt es zum Konflikt.
Formen: Alle Beteiligten Spieler wählen zwei Formen für ihren Charakter (Gewaltsam, Liebevoll, Direkt, Verdeckt, Für mich, Für andere) und nehmen die entsprechenden zwei Würfel (W4 bis W12) zur Hand.
Besondere Vorteile: Wer einen besonderen Vorteil einbringen kann, nimmt den entsprechenden Würfel dazu (meistens ein W8, selten ein W10, sehr selten ein W12).
Die Liste: Wer auf der Liste steht, kann sich streichen lassen, und sich dafür jederzeit einen Vorteil kaufen und diesen bis zum Ende des Konflikts behalten. Spielercharaktere kommen auf die Liste, wenn sie mit kleineren Würfeln die erste Runde überstehen.
Vorteil: Wer den Vorteil hat, darf einen W6 zum eigenen Resultat hinzu zählen. Einen Vorteil kann man im Konflikt erringen oder durch die Streichung von der Liste kaufen. Beides bringt je einen W6. Mehrfache Vorteil erringen oder kaufen bringt nichts. Es ist egal, gegen wen ein Vorteil errungen wurde. Ein Vorteil ist ein Vorteil.
Initiative: Alle Beteiligten würfeln ihre Würfel. Gibt es mehr als zwei Beteiligte, so wird in der Reihenfolge der Initiative angegriffen. Das höchste Ergebnis steht. Alle Anderen werden ihre Würfel neu würfeln müssen…
Angreifen: Man erzählt, was man vor hat. Gibt es mehr als zwei Beteiligte, so benennt man diejenigen, die sich verteidigen sollen. Das müssen nicht alle sein! Wer nicht angegriffen wurde, darf später noch angreifen, seinen Angriff neu würfeln und die Beteiligten benennen, die sich verteidigen sollen.
Verteidigen: Man würfelt seine Würfel neu und versucht, das Ergebnis des Angreifers zu schlagen. Wer sich verteidigen muss, kann diese Runde nicht mehr angreifen. Es kann sein, dass man sich mehrmals verteidigen muss: Wenn man gegen mehr als einen Gegner antritt und die Initiative verliert.
Resultat: Der Verteidiger vergleicht sein Resultat mit dem Resultat des Angreifers und erzählt etwas passendes:
Kurzum: Man versucht den Gegner um das Doppelte zu schlagen oder wenigstens den Vorteil zu erringen. Wer nach drei Runden den Vorteil hat, gewinnt.
Erzählen: Man beachte, dass der Verteidiger erzählt, was passiert ist!
Verlieren: Der Sieger wählt zwischen Erschöpfung (für Spielercharaktere: der Würfel für Gewaltsam und Direkt wird um einen Schritt zurück gestuft) und Verletzung (für Spielercharaktere: der Würfel für Verdeckt und Für andere wird um einen Schritt zurück gestuft), oder die beiden Spieler einigen sich auf ein anderes Ergebnis.
Nächste Runde: Nachdem alle gehandelt haben (Angreifen oder Verteidigen), beginnt die nächste Runde wieder mit der Initiative.
Drei Runden: Ein Konflikt dauert maximal drei Runden. In der dritten Runde gewinnt das höhere Ergebnis, Punkt. Wenn sich die Spieler auf ein Ergebnis einigen, kann jeder Konflikt vorher abgebrochen werden.
In A Wicked Age. Das PDF kostet $5 und lohnt sich allemal!
At the local con, I ran four games. The game for Saturday morning was Darkening Skies by Chris Sakkas, an unofficial chapter two for Lady Blackbird by John Harper. The players at the con were the very same ones I had a year ago, plus one. Seven players!
Last year, we played Lady Blackbird, this year we played Darkening Skies. And I think they want to play another session next year. I had to make two new characters. They love it, they love my running the game, and I love them.
The game mechanics are great. Simple enough for everybody to understand. Using a trait and various appropriate tags replaces a multitude of related skills, and it informs the narrative. The results, on the other hand, cannot be talked away using bennies. You must invest your pool dice before you roll. Oh, the groaning at the table when a sure roll fails anyway! “One’s for free, one for being a veteran, one for being fast, and … uh … help, guys??”
The refresh mechanics are also extremely simple. Players need to replenish their pool. If there’s a lull in the action, two players can get together, have a flashback or some intimate conversation that lets us, everybody at the table, know something about them, how they got to know each other, how they felt about each other, how they feel about each other right now. When I run the game, I tell the players that we all want to be entertained. Tell us! And slowly, players start to appreciate that the game is also about the personal drama. He loves here but she’s looking for somebody else. This somebody else is an imperial captain out to get the pirates. One of the players is the pirate captain come to rescue them. One is the imperial spy come to rescue the imperials. One is the sheriff come to see justice done. One is the priest come to find forgiveness. This initial setup, and the mechanics slowly pushing the players to reveal more and more about their characters. At the end we have a sister betraying her brother, a gentleman shooting the true love of his beloved, an aristocrat rebuffed by a pirate, all of these things come together, and ships are exploding, and escape pods are raining down from the sky, and everybody is shouting and shaking their heads and whispering under their breath, “That was cruel, man. Cruel.”
I love it.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Comparing it with my previous experience of running Darkening Skies, I’d say what worked much better was Jezebel’s love interest going on a mission to capture the pirates, so it wasn’t easy for her to leave. Other than that, we had the same effect as last time: the party split up into three groups or more, but this time, with so many players at the table, and many of them so much into it, this was not a problem. They simply moved aside and talked about things, in character. Twice, I had to tell such groups to please not keep their secrets to themselves. We all wanted to know what was going down. So many things were going on, all at the same time. It was confusing and wonderful.
Extra German characters:
Support John Harper on Patreon, if you are so inclined.
Heute war der erste Tag des Zürcher Rollenspieltreffens, der OerliCon (in Dietikon). Ich habe viele Leute wieder getroffen, welche ich von früher kenne, alte Mitspieler aus alten Runden und von früheren Jahren, ein paar Bekannte aus der [Pen & Paper Schweiz] Facebook Gruppe, … viel zu kurz, um mit allen zu schwatzen. Ich habe In A Wicked Age geleitet und es hat super funktioniert. Gerne wieder mal!
Am Samstag Nachmittag habe ich dann Isotope geleitet. Auch dies hat grossen Spass gemacht. Diesmal ging es mehr um die Komik der Postapokalypse und der Mutationen als um die Beziehungen unter den Charakteren.
Am Samstag Abend habe ich noch eine kleine Mission Mouse Guard geleitet, was leider nicht sehr gut ankam. Da ich selber auch immer noch kein Freund von Mouse Guard bin, sollte ich das Spiel vielleicht aus der Liste streichen. Es ist halt ein guter Kontrast zu den anderen Spielen. Mechanisch intensiv, wie alle Burning Wheel HQ Spiele.