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Trigger: Ambush Goal: Solve mystery Obstacle: Clear name
Location: Tower Feature: Clockwork machinery Phenomena: Hauntings
Villain goal: Greed Relic: Flask Theme: Wonder

In this post, I’ll show you 1 method for running a one-shot or First Session with almost no prep. This isn’t advanced GM knowledge, but it is something useful that I did not know until I saw it in action. It includes some examples, and some free downloads from the Risus Monkey archives to get you started—keep reading!

Getting ready for the 29th session of Planets Collide next Saturday got me rifling through my old notes, and I stumbled over my First Session scribbles. At the same time, one of the Planets Collide players is kicking off a new campaign as a GM, and our conversations lately have taken a close look at GM prep for role-playing.

What kind of prep is vain and ineffective? What kind of prep is useful and productive at the table? We all know (or we should know) that the best-laid plans “don’t survive first contact with the players”, but how can we focus our prep on those things that we will actually use at the table, and eliminate or minimize everything else?

There are many ways, some specific to certain games or styles of play. And there are better blogs than mine out there discussing them. But as I look back at what I do from week to week, and how my current campaign got started, I suppose there might be some benefit in talking about what works for me. And when it comes to what sparked the First Session of this campaign, I stole the method from playing with the Risus Monkey blogger Tim Ballew—a masterclass in GMing. Since his website is no longer with us to point to when new GMs need the benefit of his wisdom, I thought I’d take a crack at describing it.

A few years ago, Tim invited me and Natalie over, along with some of his regulars, for a one-shot of Old School Hack. Natalie wrote about it here. It was a riot!

While we were making our silly band of characters, Tim was secretly rolling dice, maybe even cackling to himself, and jotting down words. We wouldn’t understand why until later—after we dined, after a libation—when the adventure began.

I did not know that Tim had no plan for the evening’s fun. There was no dungeon map keyed with encounters for us to explore, nor was there an overarching network of villainous schemes in the offing. Everything Tim needed to weave the adventure emerged from the adventure goals each player came up with, right then and there; and that secret list he made while we made our characters; and most of all, from the conversation of actual play.

At some point during the night’s antics, someone noticed that Tim was checking off words on his list while we explored. “Are you playing Dungeon BINGO?”

“Dungeon BINGO”—I don’t know who said it, but the name stuck.

What Tim was doing that I call Dungeon BINGO can be boiled down to 2 steps:

  1. Generate a short list of evocative words, images, or concepts using a method of selection that will give you unexpected results. For this purpose, Tim was using his own lists of DungeonWords and WilderWords, picking words at random using dice.
  2. Whenever you need an idea to move the game forward, look at your list of words, and check it off.

That’s it! The alchemy that turned it into gold came from another discipline: Listening, asking questions, and building on each other’s ideas. That’s beyond the scope of this post. If you want to get a jump on it, read Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley: You can get it in PDF from DriveThruRPG or in paperback from Lulu. (I’m not part of an affiliate program, and these aren’t affiliate links. I just love the book.) I might write about Play Unsafe another time.

But even that stuff isn’t too hard. And you are probably doing a lot of it already, because listening, asking questions, and building on each other’s ideas go with having a conversation. And having a conversation is the medium in which role-playing happens.

Setting up your BINGO card

Tim got his words for Dungeon BINGO from lists of words he made just for this purpose—DungeonWords and WilderWords. To get unexpected combinations, he used dice to select a few words from each list. Thanks to Tim, you can download these resources below to get started. Thank you, Tim!

The Risus Monkey word lists are a great source for getting unexpected content inspiration like this, but there are a multitude of options out there that can serve the same purpose: Rory’s Story Cubes, B.J. West’s Story Forge Cards, or any of the billions of tables in role-playing rulebooks, supplements, and blogs that give you random encounters, dungeon twists, or NPC motivations.

Tim called them inkblots, after the Rorschach test: An inkblot is anything that provides input that doesn’t have a settled meaning, but gives you the raw content to spark creative connections. The key is not where you get the ideas, but how you use them.

For my First Session of Planets Collide, I didn’t have any prep at all. I used the D30 Sandbox Companion by New Big Dragon Games. It has a 2-page spread of 10 “Adventurer Generator Tables”—10 columns of evocative ideas for seeding an adventure.

In the spirit of BINGO, I drew a 3-by-3 grid on scratch paper—right there at the table—while the players were making their characters, and quickly obtained 9 words from the tables using a 30-sided die. The table at the top of this post was the result, but here it is again:

Trigger: Ambush Goal: Solve mystery Obstacle: Clear name
Location: Tower Feature: Clockwork machinery Phenomena: Hauntings
Villain goal: Greed Relic: Flask Theme: Wonder

Using your BINGO card: An example

One of the players was Phoebe, who created a Ranger named Ghanna. I asked Phoebe about the lands Ghanna ranged as a ranger, and she said “desert”. That put me in the mind of 1,001 Nights and Persian folklore—like Aladdin.

Now, one of the elements on my BINGO card was a clock tower. So on the spot, I made up Yusayin Buruck, and said he was smuggling Black Lotus into the city. I said he was an aristocrat, and his clock tower was the tallest spire in Adûnibad, the city of a thousand minarets. I asked Phoebe why he was out to get her. She came up with the idea that she had been guarding his caravan, and it was caught in a sandstorm. We established that she was the only survivor, and he held her responsible for the loss.

We could have set the scene during the sandstorm and started playing there, but I was asking the other player questions too. He was a Druid of the plains, and he decided he met Ghanna because she found her way there after the sandstorm. That was where she tamed her animal companion, and 1 of their bonds was based on that. I can’t remember much about his character though, because he just came that once.

You could say the sandstorm was the inciting incident, but that was simply narrated as background. The actual play began with Buruck’s lackeys attacking the heroes just outside the city gate with a wild animal. They defeated the lackeys, and Ghanna got a relic from one of the guys they captured: an intricate stopwatch from Buruck’s tower. And that established enough mystery and drama to launch a campaign that has spanned most of 2 years of nonstop action, without showing any signs of winding down. (No pun intended.)

You can probably see how elements of the BINGO card worked their way into the conversation: I combined “tower” with “clockwork machinery” to get a clock tower. “To clear her name” wasn’t exactly an obstacle in the adventure, but the idea that Buruck blamed Ghanna for the loss of his shipment was based on that. And “greed” was very much Buruck’s apparent goal. Even though we found out later that he had more complex motivations, “greed” was enough to get us started. “Wonder” is hard to invoke, and in my experience it happens by accident. But “wonder” is part of what inspired me to embrace the flavor of 1,001 Nights and describe a city of 1,000 spires instead of a more gritty desert setting.

Then there was stuff I did not use: Instead of a “flask”, I introduced a relic connected to the clock tower theme. And I didn’t use the idea of “hauntings” at all. And though it didn’t turn into a hard boiled detective story, the players were left with a “mystery”: What the heck is going on?

What, indeed? It was after that session that I asked, who is this Buruck guy? And why was he smuggling Black Lotus into the city? I could have said “profit”, and then the next session might have focused on the sordid Black Lotus trade. But it occurred to me that he might have other reasons to keep a critical mass of the population in a dreaming state.

That’s when I got the idea of a demon-dragon attacking the real Buruck and drinking his blood. What if Buruck was a descendant of one of the Sages involved in an forgotten ritual? What if there was a Seal keeping 2 planets apart, and the clock tower was an instrument that measured the Seal’s strength? What if the dragon took up the Sage’s work after gaining his memories? And what if something caused the Seal to weaken?

These musings were what launched a campaign that the players are still unraveling 2 years on. Now I was off the “First Session” reservation and out in the domain of Fronts. And that is for another article.

Why does this work?

We’ve all been in a “conversation” where the other person just wants to hear their own ideas, and it’s not much fun. It’s distorting the meaning of the word to even call that a “conversation”.

But role-playing is about conversation first and foremost. Whatever else might be included—rules, complicated scoresheets with character info, dice, maps, figures, counting tokens, or anything else—these other elements are for reference in the conversation. Conversation is what provides the medium in which all this other stuff can play an active, supporting role.

One of the risks we take as the referee in a role-playing game is that maybe we won’t know what to say when it’s our turn to talk. Like, the players want to explore that dungeon they heard about, and we don’t have a map, a boss monster, or any ideas about the deathtraps, hazards, or the treasures it holds. Oh no!

We plan stuff because we want to feel safer during the game. We want to have something cool to offer the players no matter where the conversation turns. There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to relieving this anxiety—including pre-fabricated monsters, doodads, NPCs, rewards, plots, modules, sandboxes, and campaign sourcebooks. They wouldn’t sell very many products if they just said, “you and your friends have brains, make it up!” Some of it is quite good. Some of it… not so much. (And some of them deserve every penny they get!)

Whether the prep comes out of our own brains or we get it elsewhere (or some combination), the hazard is that we’ll get so attached to the ideas in our prep that it blocks the conversation. It can become an obstacle to the authentic listening that’s necessary for a conversation. If we get too attached to our own ideas, we won’t notice or build on the sometimes brilliant ideas that come up in the conversation of actual play.

One of the benefits of getting your ideas from an inkblot, instead of planning, is that you don’t think results you got randomly are anything special. You know the dice or cards or whatever could have given you all kinds of other stuff, so you aren’t so attached to the ideas. If anything doesn’t fit, you can more easily drop it. You can use them to form leading questions to get the players’ ideas, and you can use their ideas in combination to make connections that wouldn’t have occurred to you.

But if you memorize a 4-volume campaign setting, or labor over binders of your own ideas before actual play, you’re much more likely to get stuck on them. After all, these ideas are the product of deliberate design. “Of course they’re better than whatever might come up at the table”, you might say. Trouble is, that ain’t always the case.

I’m surprised I used so many of those random ideas that First Session of Planets Collide. But as you can see, I let them fall by the wayside when actual play took other turns.

As a referee, you also have the duty to portray a more-or-less consistent world so that the players can make judgments based on their experiences and reasoning. That means, over time, you do get attached to certain ideas, namely the ideas that were given concrete reality in the shared imagined space. That will sometimes mean putting a cool new idea on hold in favor of established “facts” of the scenario.

But that’s not to shut down the players, rather to protect the boundaries everyone needs to participate constructively.

Okay, now what?

If you have limited time and attention for prep, it’s better to prepare to have a conversation than it is to prepare a sequence of encounters, or anything else that strong-arms the players into a given scenario.

“Story” can grow naturally from the most meagre seeds, if you water them with good conversation habits. Concrete, meaningful challenges can likewise emerge from the simplest parameters, provided you make them a “real” part of the scenario and let the players deal with them according to reason and experience.

Dungeon BINGO, inkblots, and building on the ideas that come up in conversation are not the only way to run a First Session or one-shot. You can layer in any other prep that you want. You can bring a dungeon map, use the Adventure Funnel, or generate a scenario with the Mad-Libs adventure generator. You could even bring a fully-keyed 1-page dungeon or some more comprehensive resource.

The most important thing is not that you eliminate all prep, but that you focus on what is useful. And if actual play turns your scenario upside-down, it never hurts to have a BINGO card ready and to know how to use it!

And if actual play doesn’t turn your scenario upside down, session after session, you need to fire your boring players!

Get started now!

With Tim’s kind permission, I have archived some of his inkblot resources here, until the day the Risus Monkey soars again!

Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]
Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]
Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]


After this article went live, @OFTHEHILLPEOPLE sent me this resource for more Dungeon BINGO fun: The Old School Hack Adventure Generator.

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Season 3, Episode 2, Session 28


When Ghanna the Ranger and Sugar the Bard first visited his world from beyond the Sealing Veil, King Edgar called them the Returners. Along with Lur the Barbarian and a mix of other personalities, they traveled across mountains, over ocean, into the underworld, and through time.

  • Ghanna the Ranger pledged her fealty to the Holy Cross of Saint Crucian, and vowed to destroy the Mother of Fiends.
  • Sugar the Bard transformed into the Heartless Troubadour and the Herald of the Mother of Fiends, before delving into the Roots of the World and reclaiming his heart.
  • After adopting an orphaned child, Lur the Barbarian was revealed as the missing Tsarevna of Kobolstadt, Iluriayne, the daughter of the Cthonic Empress.
  • And now they are joined by the Paladin Malcolm Chaser, an Inquisitor Praetor of the Western Magisterium.


Ghanna has just followed the shade of Fayrin through the Black Gate. Immediately, Death’s fortress is shaken with a colossal boom, and gates open in all the columns of the arcade in Alberich’s great hall. Shades swarm through from all directions, some of them seemingly dead for a hundred years or more.

Ghanna spots her grandfather, the Bishop Sharyar of Deltoss, in the throng. Having been killed as a general of an early clash between the Western Magisterium and the Sultan’s forces, he is carrying his head under his arm, and they make eye contact.

Ghanna asks Alberich which way to the Lizard King, and he points through one of the gates while distracted. Ghanna’s grandfather gives him his rosary as a token of remembrance.

Ghanna passes through the gate.

Castle Figaryo, in Adûnibad

In the aftermath of the collision, the city has lost nearly half its population. Lur and Sugar were pulled out of the rubble of the Asterdial and taken to Castle Figaryo to recover.

Three weeks later, the High Council of Adûnibad convenes a special meeting at Castle Figaryo. They are none too pleased to have a castle in their midst, and a king claiming dominion in their jurisdiction, but the massive death toll and other problems have forced them to call a truce and work together. The chairman calls the meeting to order on behalf of the Grand Ajimaar, and announces that the council recognizes King Edgar as an honorary member.

King Edgar introduces Sugar, Lur, and Sinon as “world travelers” saying Sugar was once toasted as one of “the Returners”. He asks for their assessment of the current crisis.

Sinon Crimmthain is covered with burns. He shows a dead sparrow, and tells the council that it came from his ally Wei in the northern mountains of Dain. Before it died, the sparrow brought a message: “We have the mountain witch, and we will meet you at the monastery on the plateau. Come if you want to see her alive.” Sinon requests provisions for a journey North, and the appointment of guards to take him to the rendezvous.

The council denounces the frivolous waste of resources on such a foolish journey, but King Edgar says he will open his treasury to Sinon to provision the journey. He says if none of his other friends will escort Sinon, he will go himself.

The chairman insults Sugar, and Sugar breaks out into song about the elfin homeland of Forostadt. Through the power of the song, he sees the homeland now, razed and abandoned, and yet showing signs of new life. The song is so vivid, that Sugar produces a bloom from one of the trees there. The council is amazed.

Sugar asks the council to lay aside their squabbles and unite. With the reunion of the divided worlds, they will be facing new dangers, and they ought to face them with solidarity and resolve.

There is a rumble outside, and a tremor shakes the room. Sugar presses on, pledging to take Sinon to his destination, and imploring the meeting to lend their support in overthrowing the witch. They yield, offering whatever assistance they can after Sugar delivers them from whatever threat is stirring outside.

Another rumble outside startles the council. They begin panicking and fleeing from the room, only to enter again through a twist in space.

Lur rises and sees the hornéd fiend Dra’athos emerge from the rubble of the Asterdial. She leaps out of the window, touching down in the sandy courtyard two stories below.

Sugar uses Herr Votzar’s harpsichord and his own charm to calm the panicked council members, and they take refuge under the large table.

She rushes into the armory, grabbing a shield. As she surveys the arms, she hears the dragon’s wings beat, kicking up a thick cloud of dust. She wraps her face in a wet cloth, and goes outside. Dra’athos has lauched himself to a towering height, and Lur dashes to the highest tower.

Sugar shouts to the Fiend with a vocal blast, and the dragon turns to face him in the air. The shockwave of Sugar’s shout shatters the weakened foundation of the tower Lur is in, and she surfs the rubble to the earth.

Sugar calls the Fiend to him with another blasting shout. The Fiend reckognizes Sugar and dives toward the window. Another bawl from Sugar sends the dragon hurling back, and it lands in the courtyard.

Lur takes this as her cue to run up the Fiend’s back and lash herself to its horns with a rope. Sugar engages the monster in a frank conversation about their contrasting wants and needs. Through this exercise they learn that the monster doesn’t want to help them destroy the witch.

“Enough talk”, Dra’athos says. “Have at you!” With that, he sends a torrent of hellfire into the council meeting. We don’t think the harpsichord will hold up.

Lauron, Steppenkhazzat

The Inquisitor Praetor Malcolm Chaser is surveying the extent of geographical upheaval after the planetary collision, scouting the borders beyond the Magisterium with a band of witch hunters under his command. Chaser reach the outskirts of Lauron on the extended veldt by night.

Ghanna steps out of the Black Gate in front of him, appearing from the darkness with black sand cascading off her form and disappearing into dark vapor. Startled, Chaser addresses her, and she greets him as an old friend.

They see the large house blazing in the yurt city below, and Ghanna tells Chaser she came here to see the man who lives in that house. Chaser dismounts and dedicates himself to learning the truth of this person.

Chaser invites Ghanna onto his mount, and they ride down to investigate. As the make their way into the city, they see hundreds of people, nomadic yurt-dwellers of the Steppenkazi horde, frantically gathering water in any vessel that can hold it from the river and forming a chain to pass water uphill toward the blaze. But as they get closer, the dense crowd of people stops passing water, as they look on in terror at the scene in front of the burning mansion.

Chaser and Ghanna see a small band of horned figures in silhouette in front of the house. Laying prone before them is the Lizard King, and over him a hooded figure hunches. She rises, lifting a small mass in her left hand, and speaks: “You all serve me now. Your master’s heart is mine!”

Chaser spurs his horse to charge through the dense crowd of people, inviting Ghanna to knock an arrow. The witch commands the horde to protect her. The Steppenkhazim ignore their survival instincts and press in on the horse, trying to tear down the riders.

Ghanna uses her stopwatch to freeze the scene, leaping off the horseback and vaulting off the shoulders of a native in order to reach the clearing. She slashes through the witch’s forearm with her shortsword, and takes the heart-clutching hand, just as the flow of time resumes.

The witch shrieks out a blasphemous curse, freezing Ghanna’s blood in her veins. Still gripping the witch’s forearm, Ghanna staggers right into the horde of people. Then Matka inhales and swallows Ghanna alive.

Chaser begins chopping through the mass of people tearing at him, while he readies his horn. They unhorse him and he loses his sword in the fray, but he winds the horn before being tramples. Another horn sounds from the hillside, and Chaser’s band descends into the city on horseback.

Ghanna attempts to pivot her shortsword to cut herself free, but she can’t get any leverage while squirming in the witch’s tight mass of guts and slime, and she can barely breathe.

Chaser comes face to face with some of the Steppenkhazi warriors—the royal guard—still under the witch’s sway, and they exchange blows. Chaser is wounded. (How?)

Horses sweep into the crowd, and the crowd begins to panic. Sgt. Thomas Begenhof stops near Chaser, offering his steed to his captain. They drive out of the crowd before Chaser asks for Begenhof’s sword, and commands him to find a sniper perch and fill the witch with arrows. Begenhof springs into action.

Ghanna begins losing consciousness inside the engorged witch, but she hears Matka’s voice say, “Into the blaze, my children!” Suddenly, the organs boil around Ghanna, and she is scalded by the roasting heat.

The spell loses its hold on the Steppenkhazim, and they begin to gather around their fallen king. Chaser gives orders to his men: watch over the steppefolk, and to don’t let them leave until we interrogate them. Seeing the hoofprints leading into the blaze, he quickly makes supplication for Crucian’s guidance to rescue Ghanna.

Chaser enters the burning house, his faith inuring him to the flames. Unable to find any sign of the goatkin or their mistress, he pauses to examine the burning structure as timbers collapse around him. One of them falls on him in a stunning blow. Chaser is knocked out, but unharmed.

Chaser’s men pull him out of the blaze just before the house caves in.

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I haven’t posted anything here in a while, but my ongoing Dungeon World campaign continues. After a few months hiatus, we began Season 3 with Session 27 at the beginning of this month, and we just played Session 28 last weekend.

For the first time, I invited the players to post a session write-up, in their character’s perspective, for a little extra XP. I’ll post my own log of the session shortly.

This comes from Axl, the player behind Sugar the Bard, who played a central role in the events of my last session write-up here, despite being elsewhere. To sum up, Sugar cheated Death several times, became the Herald of the Mother of Fiends and the Heartless Troubadour, triggered a massive rewrite of the campaign’s history, got a heart transplant from a dragon, among other mayhem. In Dungeon World terms, whenever I need a grim portent to shake up the adventure, I just look to Axl and Sugar makes it happen:

During the aftermath of the planets colliding, Castle Figaryo landed on top of the city of Adûnibad which caused some obvious political tension. Sugar and Lur were invited to the peace talks. While trying to inspire the present company to set aside their squabbling, Sugar saw a vision of his home. The wood was petrified but evidence of new growth was present. He managed to pluck a single flower and take it with him back to the present.

While this was going on there was a rumbling from the clock tower. The dragon that Sugar had so often sided with in keeping the worlds apart was now enraged, but not for the reasons we think. Before he could fly off, Lur jumped out the window to face him. Sugar tried getting his attention by channeling his powers through the court’s harpsichord. In a matter of moments, the dragon was face-to-face with Sugar, and Lur was tying herself to his horns. Sugar parlayed with the dragon and he learned that Ma’a and the dragon are “partners” and have had children together. He also learned that the only reason that the dragon hadn’t reunited himself with his “partner” was because the memories of the Sage had forced him to keep the worlds apart.

We now know that the world cannot be saved by continuing to run from this conflict. Splitting the worlds was doing more harm than good and the conflict needs to find some sort of resolution.

The next report comes from the player 7th Outpost, who joined us for the 1st time this session. 7th Outpost takes the role of the Paladin Malcolm Chaser, a witch hunter hailing from the Light World’s Magisterium:

Addressed to Lord Inquisitor Hallglow

Lord Inquisitor,

Attached to this document will be a more detailed report, along with as in-depth eye witness testimonies as I’ve been able to muster from my men. As a word of introduction, I can say it is not good. The cataclysm has joined enormous amount of landmass with our region, and the messages I’ve received from other cantons along the border have proven the same. It is not dry landmass, however, but one filled with strange occupants, that curiously enough, speak our language. Referencing the lore seems to indicate (though muddily) an event of cosmic proportion being undone when this cataclysm occurred.

I’ve come across a city, but I haven’t yet made any diplomatic contact with it. Instead, I have come upon its outskirts raided by a heretic certainly infused by demonic power (a maleficum, perhaps). I lacked both the equipment and preparation to deal with that being right away, and so it has managed to elude us. A detailed description of it and what it did in combat has been included. It had within its thrall both a score of goatmen (I had them burnt; they were of no use for questioning) and a group of human villagers. When it vanished (through the use of demonic magic, I’ve attached the description) its thrall on the villagers seems to have stopped. Attached is also a detailed questioning of one of them. As soon as I finish penning this letter, I shall hurry to the town hall to make diplomatic contact and resolve the situation.

Crucian’s Flame cleanses,
Inquisitor Praetor Malcolm Chaser

(The attached reports are written in shorthand, in great hurry, and though detailed, they carefully omit the role of ranger Ghanna with her unexplained knowledge and abilities in all this, along with her subsequent capture by the maleficum.)

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My Dungeon World game was winding down after 26 sessions, and the players wanted to try something different. Namely, Tunnels & Trolls. After such a riveting—and often “serious”—ride through Dungeon World, the zany and madcap spirit of T&T sounded like a welcome change.

I found a few other resources in my library for inspiration and sent out the pitch: “I’m thinking about a kung fu ghost mystery dungeon ruckus. Did you ever think you’d see those words together?”

I thought we might do another session to conclude the Dungeon World game, but a new zone of my brain opened up to ponder the impending shenanigans, and soon I had a handful of house rules to season the Classic T&T rules with a certain wuxia flavor.

Session 1

The game night was scheduled, but I didn’t know if we would play out a finale to our 26-session Dungeon World game, or start the new T&T game—so I didn’t have much in the way of prep.

After a quick deliberation, we decided to let the Dungeon World campaign remain paused for now, because a new player was joining us, and he would be stepping into a very storied and complex chain of events.

So I set out my 5th edition character sheets and we got started.


Untergon (Human Warrior)
Untergon is a street person who found a gladius in a dumpster a few weeks ago. A hooded figure known as “Gravitas” took interest in him, offering Unter a big windfall if he gains prestige in the Adventurer’s Guild.
Unter got caught up in a brawl between Flint and Glint, who were so preoccupied with their quarrel that they didn’t see him. Unter parried an axe that almost killed him, and he doesn’t like Flint as a result. Flint admires Unter’s gladius skill. Kai witnessed the ruckus, and joined the crew to relish the fights between the twins.
Flint and Glint Fireforge (Dwarf Warriors)
Twin brothers, they were roughhousing so violently that their mom told them to go outside. So they went to the city to find an adventure. Flint doesn’t like Kai because Kai seems feminine, and “he thinks girls are gross”.
Kai (Nelwyn Rogue)
Kai is always seeking rare new stones for her rock collection. When she met Ra, Ra began contributing to Kai’s “adorable” rock collection. Kai doesn’t like the pebbles that Ra gives her, though.
Ra Oewi (Elfin Wizard)
Trapped in an arranged marriage, Ra’s groom promised her that he would have the marriage annuled and give her a comfortable alimony if she takes down a troll. Ra took notice of one of Unter’s meetings with Gravitas, and she thinks he is gullible.


  • At the Black Lotus Tavern, the party saw a notice on the secret job board that said Trollstone Caverns was “ripe for the picking”.
  • Unter met with a one-armed man at the Black Lotus and got some nonsensical information about a door in Trollstone caverns that could be opened by arm-wrestling or “making a deposit”.
  • Ra met with a geographer who gave her a map to the Caverns.
  • Kai met with a geologist who told her about the Trollstone, a carved piece of obsidian that could be used to unlock the troll’s treasure.
  • Flint recalled from his primary school days that Trollstone Caverns was known to be infested with red demons.
  • On the way to Trollstone Cavern, they passed Catherder Village, where Unter attempted to tame a cat to no avail. On a path through the tangled woods, they followed tracks of two-toed bipeds to a cave formed from the upheaval of great plates of rock.
  • Ra lit a torch and they entered the cavern, where they came to a large door with 3 strange features. Flint overcame the door in an arm-wrestling bout, and they passed through.
  • On the other side, they came to a 3-way intersection, where 4 horse-sized bristling wolves awaited them snarling. Fight!
  • Flint was knocked down and a wolf bit him in the face. Ra was killed when Kai’s shuriken missed a wolf and hit her instead. A wolf began devouring Ra’s body, but Unter killed the animal and looted her body.
  • The party departed the dungeon to recover before any further exploration.

The funniest thing I remember was when Ra wanted to make a ranged attack, but she didn’t have any missile weapons. Looking at her hands, she saw the torch—the sole source of flickering light! Lobbing it at a wolf, she aced her Saving Roll and dealt massive damage. So the torch got lodged in the wolf’s mouth while he was burning and choking on it. And then, darkness fell over the scene.

Getting up and running, and fast

Something I like about Dungeon World is that it gives the workaday perpetually-pressed-for-time GM a bunch of tools to spin up adventure on the fly without much prep. The character sheets, for example, are specialized for each character class, and they offer the players a bunch of choices about highly-evocative story-rich elements that create meaningful implications for the fictional world around them.

One of these elements is something Dungeon World calls “Bonds”—they are statements that you fill in with the name of another character, creating an instant relationship between the characters and background for their adventures. One of the Bard’s bonds, for example, is “I sang stories of _______________ long before I ever met them in person.” If the player fills in that bond with another character’s name, the GM will ask them questions about it to develop a mini-flashback, right there at the table.

T&T doesn’t have bonds, and that’s perfectly fine. After all, instant death is on the table, and sometimes it’s better for the party if we haven’t invested too much in getting to know the deceased. ;)

But being the GM without all my adventure stuff ready, I thought it would help stall for time launch the party into action if we had something to go on. In lieu of formal bonds, I simply had everyone take a peek at their neighbor’s character sheet and say one thing that they liked about that character. We fleshed out those ideas to some extent, and then they looked at the sheet on the other side, and named something they disliked about that character. As you can see above, some of the ideas were more entertaining and adventure-licious than others, but we weren’t going for Pulitzer prizes here.

Another Dungeon World tool I used was leading questions. Normally the way that works is, the GM asks the players questions about the story-rich choices they made in character creation—including homelands, quests, relationships—anything they can mine for ideas. As the fiction gets filled in and the world around the characters becomes more vivid, the questions often get more specific, until a conflict surfaces that becomes the inciting situation of their first adventure.

I didn’t employ the technique to the fullest extent here, because I intend to run the game as a sandbox, by seeding in adventure hooks and letting the players lead the way entirely. But for this “tutorial” session, I only had the 5th edition rulebook, the house rules and “GM sheet” I printed up, and 5 imaginations.

So I assumed, for the sake of simplicity, that every character in the party had some burning reason to visit the Trollstone Caverns adventure site in the rulebook, and asked the players what it was, and we fleshed out the situation from there.

After that, I went around and asked each player one thing they did to gather information about the dungeon in advance, and we narrated little cutscenes for each to cover their preparation.

Reaction Rolls

One thing that surprised me was the part reaction rolls played throughout the session.

I can’t remember if I ever used reaction rolls back in the day, or ever. My first memorable exposure to the concept was the Mega-Gargantuan reaction table in GURPS 3rd edition, and I’m sure I did not use it. (As a result, players who chose Advantages or Disadvantages based on the reaction system were mainly taking on traits for fictional positioning, which would hardly ever come into play mechanically.)

By the time I stumbled upon T&T, I “knew” that it was a pointless mechanic. When I was the GM, it was almost always obvious to me how a given NPC would react in any situation that came up in play.

For some reason, I saw the Reaction Table in a new light when was refreshing my brain on the 5th edition rules last week, and I printed it on my GM sheet. Instead of determining reactions by simple fiat, I decided to roll on the table whenever there was a new encounter—and if I wanted to “put my finger on the scale” based on fictional positioning, I simply applied a bonus or penalty ranging from -4 to +4.

Reaction rolls came up a lot more than I expected and it was a lot of fun not knowing what would happen. I used them for all of their “research” efforts and several other interactions before the delvers left town. And when I narrated that they passed “Cat-herder” Village and a player asked if he could take one of the cats, it seemed obvious to use a reaction roll for that. When they encountered the cave wargs, I rolled with a -4 modifier, since I figured the animals were put there on guard duty and would be disinclined to parley.

Since Kung Fu City is the name of the game, it ought to have a lot of opportunity for social interaction in the fiction. I expect reaction rolls will be a really handy piece of game tech for this campaign. But it’s certainly something I never saw myself being jazzed about. Maybe I’ll even re-read this supplement by Courtney Campbell, which I seem to remember uses the OD&D reaction table to turn social encounters into gameable puzzles for the players. (DTRPG tells me I own it, but I haven’t read the text in a long time.)

I also recall reading this blog post recently, about using reaction rolls to generate flavor while re-stocking the dungeon. That might be cool to play around with, too.

Firing into Melee!

During the combat, I’m afraid I got carried away with the fictional action and I didn’t quite showcase how the action is sequenced in T&T very well. One player told me it felt a lot like Dungeon World as a result.

Of course, the players frantically calling out their actions contributed to the chaotic feel, and that’s something that running Dungeon World for the past year built up a tolerance for. The frantic energy is great for the game, but bad for teaching the basics, and I realized I need to slow down next session to explain what’s going on step-by-step.

I made sure to prime the players in advance, and remind them at intervals throughout character creation and play, that these were starter delvers. They would all probably die. Still, I could tell it took seeing to believe it when Ra was killed by a stray shuriken.

Honestly, it’s a situation that never came up in my T&T experience before. In the past, when players were shooting, all the delvers were on one side of the “field” and all the monsters were on the other—so there wasn’t any thought about “friendly fire”.

But this time, Kai did a summersault under a warg and wound up on the other side. Then she threw the shuriken when one of the wolves charged Ra—so it was established that the wolf was between them, putting Ra right in the line of fire.

Kai missed her Dexterity Saving Roll to hit the wolf, so it seemed intuitive to call for a Saving Roll on Luck from Ra’s player. It was only a Level 1 Save, but she failed. The damage was too much to mitigate by my Speed Dodge house rule and Ra’s 9 Constitution combined. She had one last chance, with my Save or Die house rule, which was still only a Level 1 Save on Luck—and she failed again.

I did have at least one mental model for the situation, which is covered in the rules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RPG:

Firing into mêlée with a missile weapon is a very uncertain thing. If doing so, randomly determine who in the mêlée is actually targeted—the firing character does not get to choose—before rolling to hit.

(The Labyrinth Lord or Basic D&D rules that LotFP emulates might have the same rule, I just can’t remember.)

In hindsight, though, I realized that if it weren’t for Kai’s 17 Missile Adds, the damage would have only been 1d6, and Ra might have lived. Since Adds represent your fighting skill and luck, it makes sense to me that Adds would not be included in a missed attack. That’s probably how I’ll run it from now on if this ever comes up again.

I notice LotFP has a similar rule:

Dexterity modifiers [the D&D equivalent of Missile Adds] do not apply, for either the firing character or the targets, when resolving missile fire into mêlée.

In light of this consideration, I’ll bring it up next time we meet. I don’t mind admitting if I’ve made a mistake, and I’ll ask the player if she wants to revive her character or bring in a new delver.

In the past, I was comfortable making rulings like this on the fly with T&T, but I guess I’ve gotten used to running a game with more buttoned-down rules. For shame!

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It’s no secret that I love the world’s 1st RPG (if you don’t count “Fantasy Wargaming”) Tunnels & Trolls by Ken St. Andre. There’s a lot to love about it, but one of its cool features is that the referee can create monsters on the fly with nothing but a vivid idea and a single Monster Rating.

The Monster Rating (MR) in T&T is a number that determines how easy or hard it is to fight the monster, how hard the monster hits, and how much damage it can take in combat. It’s possible to add more mechanics to monsters, like armor or special attacks, but the Monster Rating is all you need: The rest is fictional positioning—describing how the monster behaves and moves!

Another aspect of the Monster Rating in classic T&T is that once a monster takes damage, its attacks and defenses suffer, creating a death spiral. The effect of this is that you can start out with a monster so terrifying that the heroes don’t stand a chance if they take it head on—but if they are clever, creative, and lucky, they might cut it down to size. This rewards planning, teamwork, and imagination in spades, and it gives players a rush when they succeed at getting the monster bloody or wearing it out before engaging it directly.

Monsters in Dungeon World are almost entirely composed of fictional positioning too. But making a monster has a few more steps than in classic T&T.

I’ve toyed around with the idea of using a Monster Rating for monsters Dungeon World a few times, but I never landed on something that felt right. But today, I found this note in an old notebook and it clicked together. I think it might work.

Here’s the basic idea: When you create a monster, give it a Monster Rating from 1–44. MR 3 would be your average peasant, and MR 30 would be among the most shocking and colossal monsters in the game. The Monster Rating stands for the monster’s Hit Points, and you derive a monster’s damage dice from its MR as follows:

MR Damage dice
1–4 w[2d6] (roll 2d6 and take the worse result)
5–9 1d6
10–14 2d6
15–19 3d6
20–24 3d6+1
25–29 3d6+2
30–34 3d6+3
+5 +1 damage

The formula is this: Divide the MR by 5 and round down to get its damage dice. If that number is higher than 3, add +1 damage for each multiple of 5 instead of adding a damage die. If this would give you zero damage dice, roll 2d6 and take the worse result instead. So, a monster rated at 33 would roll 3d6+3 damage. Clear and simple.

The monster’s Impulse, Tags, Moves, and other qualities would be set in the normal way.

This gives you both aspects of T&T monsters: Create monsters more rapidly, on the fly, as you need them; and monsters will have a handsome death spiral your mom will be proud of.

The Monster Rater Generator

Assigning a Monster Rating is more of an art than a science. You should just pick a number from 1–44 based on the guideline above, then assign moves and qualities as usual.

But for good measure, here’s the Dungeon World monster questionnaire, adapted to give you a piping hot Monster Rating instead of Hit Points and damage dice. The original text is, of course, written by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel and used with their permission under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. The Monster Ratings are by me.

If you end up with a Monster Rating lower than 1, use 1 instead—but you may wish to let “MR 1” represent a swarm or gang of the creatures. Or you could set the MR to 1, but reduce the damage dice to d4s.

Monster Rating

How does it usually hunt or fight?
In large groups: horde, MR 3
In small groups, about 2–5: group, MR 6
All by its lonesome: solitary, MR 12
How big is it?
Smaller than a house cat: tiny, hand, -3 MR
Halfling-esque: small, close
About human size: close
As big as a cart: large, close, reach, +4 MR
Much larger than a cart: huge, reach, +8 MR
What is it known for? (Choose all that apply)
Unrelenting strength: +2 MR, forceful
Skill in offense: +2 MR
Uncanny endurance: +4 MR
The favor of the gods: divine, +3 MR
What is its most common form of attack?
Note it along with the creature’s damage. Common answers include: a type of weapon, claws, a specific spell. Then answer these questions about it:
Its armaments are vicious and obvious: +4 MR
Its armaments are small and weak: -2 MR
Which of these describe it? (Choose all that apply)
It isn’t dangerous because of the wounds it inflicts, but for other reasons: devious, -2 MR, write a move about why it’s dangerous
It’s kept alive by something beyond simple biology: +4 MR
It doesn’t have organs or discernible anatomy: amorphous, +3 MR
It (or its species) is ancient—older than man, elves, and dwarves: +2 MR
It abhors violence: -2 MR


What is its most important defense?
Cloth or flesh: 0 armor
Leathers or thick hide: 1 armor
Mail or scales: 2 armor
Plate or bone: 3 armor
Permanent magical protection: 4 armor, magical
What is it known for? (Choose all that apply)
Skill in defense: +1 armor
It actively defends itself with a shield or similar: cautious, +1 armor
It doesn’t have organs or discernible anatomy: +1 armor

Tags, Moves, and Qualities

What is it known to do?
Write a monster move describing what it does.
What does it want that causes problems for others?
This is its instinct. Write it as an intended action.
What is it known for? (Choose all that apply)
Deft strikes: +1 piercing
Deceit and trickery: stealthy, write a move about dirty tricks
A useful adaptation like being amphibious or having wings: Add a special quality for the adaptation
Spells and magic: magical, write a move about its spells
What is its most common form of attack?
It lets the monster keep others at bay: reach
Its armaments can slice or pierce metal: messy, +1 piercing or +3 piercing if it can just tear metal apart
Armor doesn’t help with the damage it deals (due to magic, size, etc.): ignores armor
It usually attacks at range (with arrows, spells, or other projectiles): near or far or both (your call)
Which of these describe it? (Choose all that apply)
It organizes into larger groups that it can call on for support: organized, write a move about calling on others for help
It’s as smart as a human or thereabouts: intelligent
It collects trinkets that humans would consider valuable (gold, gems, secrets): hoarder
It’s from beyond this world: planar, write a move about using its otherworldly knowledge and power
It was made by someone: construct, give it a special quality or two about its construction or purpose
Its appearance is disturbing, terrible, or horrible: terrifying, write a special quality about why it’s so horrendous

With Descriptive Damage…

An earlier draft of this article offered a way to track monster wounds without logging every single Hit Point. If that appeals to you, here’s what to do:

Forget about the Monster Rating, and just mark the monster’s current damage dice. If a monster takes less than 3 damage from an attack after armor, simply narrate how it is knocked back, stunned, or whatever. When a monster takes at least 3 hits of damage (after armor), downgrade it’s damage dice by one level for every multiple of 3 damage that gets past its armor.

So a wizard who hits the giant wildebeest (MR 16, 3d6 damage) for 5 damage would knock it down to 2d6 damage. A Barbarian hitting another wildebeest for 9 damage will kill it.

Some people won’t like this because it makes lower-range damage less mechanically meaningful.

That’s it for Monster Ratings.

Use it if you dare. Let me know what you think!

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