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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

Armor

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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Yesterday I posted some ideas for using dice to “roll for initiative” in Dungeon World. Some comments came in after posting that made me want to clarify a few things. This article focuses on issues around individual initiative and what happens if the monsters go first. At the time of this writing, no one has taken issue with methods 4 or 5.

What if a player triggers a golden opportunity during their move, and the obvious consequence would be a monster move out of sequence?

None of the above was intended to break the rules of Dungeon World, so golden opportunities would trump “turn sequence”. There are a bunch of ways to handle it:

1) The referee uses the golden opportunity to set up the next character in the sequence.

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “It bites down and swings your flailing body toward Paladin. Roll 2d12 and take damage from the higher roll, plus 5. Paladin, what do you do?”

Paladin (going at 7): “Uh, I get out of the way fast!”

GM: “Sounds like you’re Defying Danger. Roll +DEX.”

2) We cut to the next character in sequence, and we hang in suspense to find out the fate of the character who triggered the golden opportunity.

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “Okay. Paladin, what are you doing while the dragon is distracted?”

Paladin (going at 7): “I, uh, what’s going on with Thief?”

GM: “Do you want to hesitate to study the situation closely, or take advantage of the distraction?”

Paladin: “No way! I drive my longsword into the webbing between her toes. ‘Go back to the hell that brought you forth, Dragon Gehenna, you blight on the land!’”

GM: “To do that you risk getting hit by her tail.”

Paladin: “So it’s Hack and Slash? I got 11! And 7 damage.”

GM: “Ouch! Your blade pierces between the scales into ropy muscles, and blood bubbles forth smoking on the ground. The dragon draws its wounded foot back, tucking it under a coil.” (Making the dragon’s move on 6) “Okay Thief, the she swallows you whole. Roll 2d12 and take damage from the higher roll, plus 5. Also, you are stunned. It’s dark in here, tight, and you can barely move or breathe.”

Thief: “You mean the stunned debility?”

GM: “No, I meant ‘stun damage’ on page 22. You have to Defy Danger to do anything, until you get out of the dragon.”

3) Make the monster move right away, as an interruption to the sequence. The random sequence was just to add spice anyway, not an 11th commandment or anything.

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “As you gaze into the maw, you see two rows of dagger length fangs and a throat big enough to drop a wagon wheel into. Are you sure you want to do that?”

Thief: “I don’t care. I’ve got to earn Paladin’s trust and she’s on a quest to slay Gehenna, isn’t she?”

GM: “Got it. As you steel yourself in front of the maw, you hear a sound like a giant bellows as she draws in a gale of breath. She opens wide and you put your head the dragon’s mouth just as an explosion of flame erupts from within. Take your Last Breath. Everyone in front of the dragon roll 2d12 and take damage from the higher roll, plus 5.”

Thief: “I got a 7.”

GM: “The Black Gate opens onto a burning plane. You see someone who died before whose name you know. Who is it?”

Thief: “It’s Nixxon, the master of the Thieves Guild. ‘Nixxon, what are we doing here? What’s going on?’”

GM: “Nixxon says ‘Death sent me with a message for you. He said you can go back, but if you go back you will always bear the fire of Gehenna within you, and the touch of water will forevermore bring you suffering.’ What do you do?”

Thief: “That sounds cool. I go back.”

GM: “Paladin, the dragon turns and drop Thief’s roasting carcass on the coin-littered floor before you. What do you do?”

Rolling for initiative has drawbacks.

I’m aware that individual initiative can create other obstacles to the immersive conversation of play. For example: Players stop talking about what their characters say and think and play switches into a tactical mini-game. Or players who know it’s not their “turn” lose interest in the fiction until their “turn” comes, and then they need to be briefed on the situation again. Or the cool thing a player wants to do has to wait until another character or event sets it up, and you have to “hold” your action, which is dumb and boring—especially if the event doesn’t happen.

I admit I’ve seen all of these situations come up in game with random action sequencing, and none of them in Dungeon World. Still, I wonder if it’s the problem is inherent in the technique or whether it’s cultural. Or both.

LotFP Weird Fantasy has countdown initiative like I outlined above, only with everyone rolling a d6, and when we played that it worked well without the problems I laid out above. My hunch is that those issues are escalated by using a tactical grid in combat instead of theatre of the mind.

But there’s no denying that the conversation in Dungeon World combat holds everyone’s attention in a way that I haven’t seen in games that randomize the action sequence.

What if the monsters go first?

Here are some more examples from the conversation on Reddit.

Suppose the dragon’s initiative roll beats the Thief and Paladin’s, and the GM makes a hard move:

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “You stand in terror as a terrible gust rushes past you into Gehenna’s nostrils. Before you can react, you are surrounded with gouts of fire as hot as a forge. Who’s closest?”

Thief, shyly: “I am.”

GM: “Roll 2d12 and take the higher die in damage, plus 5. Your clothes and gear and skin are all on fire. Everyone else in front of the monster, I’d say this is a calamity. Thief, you’re up. What do you do?”

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “If you do nothing about being on fire, it’s going to hurt. Is that really what you want to do?”

Thief: “At this point I’m toast anyway, and if I’m going out, I at least want to give my friends a shot at killing this thing.”

GM: “Okay, Gehenna bites down and revels in swinging your flailing figure to the left and right. Take roll 2d12 and take the higher die in damage again, plus 6 because of your burning gear. Paladin, you see the dragon’s left pinion is vulnerable while she’s distracted, but you’ll have to get through the inferno to hit it. What do you do?”

But if the monster makes a soft move, isn’t it just flummery?

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “You stand in terror as a terrible gust rushes past you into Gehenna’s nostrils. Before you can react, you are surrounded with gouts of fire as hot as a forge. Thief, you’re closest. What do you do?

Thief (going on 8): “I duck the fireball and run toward the dragon’s junk. I imagine that it comes out like a cone, so it’s safer under her jaws than it is over here, right?”

GM: “Yeah. She’s on all fours and you don’t see any junk, but you can make a dash to get under her forelegs. Sounds like Defy Danger. Roll +DEX.”

Thief: “I got an 8.”

GM: “You manage to get through the fire with a few singes and a sunburn—take d4 damage—but Gehenna lifts her forefoot and pins you under it with the strength of two lions.”

Thief: “At least I’m not toast!”

GM: “Paladin, this is a calamity for you too. What do you do?”

Paladin (going on 7): “I, uh, I duck behind my shield!”

GM: “That sounds like you’re enduring. Roll +CON.”

Or, keeping with the golden opportunity, making a soft move with the dragon might look like this:

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “You stand in terror as a terrible gust rushes past you into Gehenna’s nostrils. Before you can react, you are surrounded with gouts of fire as hot as a forge. Thief, you’re closest. What do you do?”

Thief (going on 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “To get there, you need to charge directly into the blast. Is that what you want?”

Thief: “I’ve cheated Death twice already. Might as well go for the hat trick!”

GM: “Okay, you take the highest die of 2d12 damage, plus 5. Your clothes and gear and skin are all on fire. Paladin, this is a calamity for you to. What do you do?”

Thief: “Did I get my head in her mouth, or not?”

GM: “You sure did, but at this point everyone else just sees your silhouette charge into the flame and disappear.”

Another possible soft move with the dragon that would change the situation entirely:

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “As you stand in terror before the beast, you hear a sharp intake of breath. She opens her mouth, and… speaks! ‘Paladin, don’t kill me. I’ve been cursed! I’m your mother!’ Thief, you’re the first to gather your mettle. What do you do?”

Thief (going on 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to plug her lying pie-hole!”

Doesn’t this allow the dragon to kill the thief without the player even rolling a Miss on a Move?

Note that in the examples, the Thief put her head in the dragon’s mouth. But even without that, the Thief was in a bad spot already: she was standing close enough to put her head in the dragon’s mouth.

The examples started en media res, so you we didn’t see how the Thief got there. But if it happened at my table, that would have either been a sneaky move that failed or the referee telling them the consequences and asking—“The dragon’s eyes widen in astonishment and her nostrils flare as you brazenly stroll up to get close enough to touch her. You sure about this?”

It’s not losing initiative that got her into that position, it was getting close to a dragon—the Solitary, Huge, Terrifying, Cautious, and obviously Ready For Them kind. If it was a Sleeping, Sedated, Poisoned, Tied Up With Adamantium Ropes, Itty Bitty, Stupid, Meek, or Surprised dragon, this would be a different story.

It’s crucial for the referee to “show signs of an approaching threat” or “point to a looming threat” early and often. If they get to the point where you would roll for initiative in D&D, they should have seen it coming a mile away.

Wouldn’t the initiative sequence become a deterministic force that trumps fiction and rules?

That’s not what I had in mind, no. Like any roll of the dice in Dungeon World, the players and referee would have to interpret the result in light of the current fiction, informed by the rules. If there’s no way someone could go before everyone else, they don’t roll.

The upshot is, I’ve realized something. If it included individual initiative or monsters going first, “Roll For Initiative” would have to be a player-facing move with a clearly-defined trigger based in the fiction.

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Randomizing the Action in Dungeon World

Update on 25 Aug 2017: This post was a process of working through some ideas about the action order in Dungeon World combat. Hashing these ideas out with the Dungeon World communities on Reddit and Google+ brought the inner workings of Dungeon World into much clearer focus for me, and I no longer think it might be constructive to use any kind of random initiative system.

In Dungeon World, like every RPG I’ve ever played, the players and referee take turns talking.

Players ask questions and make moves in an ad-hoc fashion, and they resolve their actions in whatever order makes sense based on where their characters are in the fiction and what they are doing. Usually, the referee plays a role in adjudicating who does what when comparatively.

But this judgment often has some built-in flexibility. If a player says “No I wasn’t over there yet,” that can usually stand without dispute, and without invoking any game mechanics to sequence their actions.

But many games, taking after Dungeons & Dragons, do something different when the action breaks out: Instead of relying on fictional positioning and ad-hoc judgments by the players and referee, you instead use a game mechanic to determine the turn sequence, usually before anyone chooses their actions. In D&D and its heirs, players snap to attention when the referee calls out “Roll for initiative!”

Dungeon World is peculiar (but not alone) in breaking this trope.

Instead, Dungeon World continues following the same rules as always for whose turn it is to talk—which is no formal rule at all. The players and referee continue using the fictional positioning of the heroes, their adversaries, and the environment, to pass the focus from one character to another. Because the referee implicitly gets to narrate the result of each action, the referee plays a key role in choosing another element of the fiction to highlight, and choosing the character who gets to react.

This can be jarring to anyone who is used to games in which you roll for initiative. I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle it myself, even though I played a lot of Tunnels & Trolls before my first Dungeon World run. T&T is another game with very loose guidance on sequencing the action. But I got used to it quickly, and now it feels pretty natural. If you keep your mind in the imagined space, it’s not hard at all, and it works just fine.

This post isn’t to say the Dungeon World way is better though, and rolling for initiative does have a few benefits: It’s fair, because everyone knows that they’ll get a turn, even if they aren’t as quick to shout out their actions as everyone else. And they know roughly when their turn will come. Moreover, the random sequence is like any other content or events generated by random procedures: Interpreting the results the dice give you quickly creates interesting threats, assets, opportunities, and trouble that no one would have created on purpose.

So here are some ways you might “roll for initiative” in Dungeon World. I haven’t tested any of them in actual play, but I can’t imagine they will break the game so badly that all the players flee in disgust.

Method number 1 is the easiest. Roll the Die of Fate from World of Dungeons. Low roll means the monsters go first, high roll means the heroes go first. There’s a certain old-school quality to this method, and if you wanted to go totally Classic D&D, you could have each side roll. That’s what method number 2 does.

Method number 2 uses the biggest damage die on each side. In Dungeon World, your class’s damage die implicitly incorporates a lot of information about your character’s combat ability and reflexes. In the monster-builder, it is determined by how the monster hunts or fights, putting solitary monsters on the same level as Fighters and Barbarians, and horde monsters with small and weak armaments on the same level as a Wizard.

The GM can roll the biggest damage die on the monsters’ side, and the player with the biggest damage die will roll hers, and whichever side gets the higher roll goes first.

Method number 3 builds on method 2, but with more granularity: Initiative for individuals! Say what? This is what contemporary D&D players would be used to. Have each player roll their damage die, the referee rolls the highest damage die for each monster group, and then the referee counts down from 12 to 1. Players and monsters get to act when their number comes up. The open question is whether to keep the same action order when the “round” is over, or roll again. I say roll again!

Method number 4 is what I would call Sorcerer-style, but it keeps the heroes in focus. The referee describes the situation, and asks what everyone does. Each player says what they want to do in any order, the referee narrates how the monsters and environment play into this, and anyone can change their action before any dice hit the table. If any moves are triggered, all the players roll 2d6 +stat at the same time! Then, you resolve each move in order of highest roll to lowest.

Method number 5 is most in keeping with the way Dungeon World works, and it’s not really a new method as much as an implicit option that’s always available when things get complicated in Dungeon World. It’s just like method 4 above, with describing actions before rolling and then rolling at the same time. But after that, you resolve the moves in whatever order makes sense, and resolve any other moves that come up as you go as they crop up. I picked it up from Jeremy Strandberg.

This article came about because I was thinking about a magic item that was described in a recent session of Dungeon World—an abacus used by Death for some purpose. I posted about it on Google+, asking what it might do.

Asbjørn H Flø posted the idea I used in my game, but there was a tongue-in-cheek reply from Zak Smith: “It tracks initiative because the Dungeon World does not”. I laughed out loud!

“Seems too overpowered though”, I replied.

Seriously, I’ve run a lot of Dungeon World and we never felt that what was missing was a random way to sequence the action. If the referee and players trust each other and have a basic sense of fairness, it’s not hard to look around the table and know whose turn it should be based on the fiction.

But if we ever get the hankering for random action sequences, I might give one or more of these methods a spin. The only drawback I can foresee is that it could become an unnatural burden when the follow-up on any given event seems obvious. But the whole idea of using dice and rules is that constraints provide a context for creativity, and I trust that would be the case with rolling for initiative.


Fight or Flight

Update on 11 Aug 2017: After several rounds of discussion on Reddit and Google+, and writing some comments and afterthoughts here, it was clear that the above post wasn’t explicit enough in how “rolling for initiative” would work in the flow of conversation between GM moves and player moves in Dungeon World. Here’s a new player-facing move based on method 3 above aimed at clearing things up.

When you scramble to seize the initiative, anyone who could go first rolls their damage die. The countdown begins, from highest roll to lowest! If you roll higher than everyone else, the GM will tell you an opportunity to act. Otherwise you falter, hesitate, or flinch. When it’s time to make a move, the GM will feature the next character in the countdown, unless there is a golden opportunity. You can’t trigger this move again until the countdown ends or everyone backs down.

GM Section
For a hero, being featured would mean the GM frames some situation for them through a soft or hard move, then asks what they do. If the next character in the countdown was a monster, it would mean tilting the players attention toward that monster with a soft or hard move—then asking a player what they do.

This move would explicitly maintain the flow of conversation between player and GM moves, and it explicitly relies on a judgment of the fictional positioning: Completely Silent Assassin Striking a Distracted Enemy from Behind is not scrambling to seize the initiative—they just deal damage, or maybe trigger H&S if it’s a character who can’t be surprised. Slow, Confused, and Bumbling Wall-eyed Goblin may rush into the fray, but he’s not a contender in seizing the initiative either.

Coda, 15 Sep 2017

As I wrote in my comment above, the discussion following this article really brought the inner workings of Dungeon World’s conversation between GM moves and player moves into a fine-grained focus I didn’t notice before.

When I first wrote it, I knew experientially that Dungeon World works, and works well, without an initiative system. But it wasn’t clear to me that using dice to determine action order would be detrimental to the game. Why not play around with it?

But Jeremy Strandberg wrote the clearest breakdown of how initiative works in Dungeon World that I have seen, and it persuaded me to abandon the idea. Here’s his comment, appended here with his permission (emphases are mine).

My problem with the idea of a roll-for-initiative move isn’t that it’ll trigger too often (and thus needs a “can’t trigger until” clause). The problem is that I don’t think it’ll clearly get triggered at all given how fights tend to start in Dungeon World.

Like, think about the fictional and conversational setup that would lead to PCs “scrambling to seize the initiative.”

When I’m running DW (and most cases where I’ve seen it done well), the initiative is already established by some combination of fiction, GM moves, and “what do you do?” By the time we’d stop to roll dice for initiative, someone already has it.

For example, the PCs are exploring a dark, cluttered tower by shining lights around. They discern realities, roll a miss, and I introduce a threat as my GM move. “Kios, while Nolwenn is examining that big hunk of obsidian, you spot… something… move behind her at the edge of her lantern light. What do you do?” And Kios discerns realities, and asks what he should be on the lookout for (“you catch a glimpse of it, a stone or clay ball the size of a basketball, with all sorts of metal legs sprouting out of it, like an oversized daddy-long-legs. Then it’s gone!”), what isn’t what it appearst to be (“oh crap, there’s 2 of the them!”) and what is about to happen (“one of them is about to leap on you out of the shadows, what do you do?”). I’ve just claimed the initiative and made a move that they have to respond to.

Maybe Kios responds by dodging. Maybe he responds by spinning and shooting it with his crossbow. Maybe he spins and crouches and puts himself between it and Nolwenn. Maybe he spins and draws his blade and cuts it down mid-strike. Each of these will trigger moves, and rolls, and the results of those rolls will change the situation and establish a new fictional position and momentum and initiative.

Hell, the rolls for those moves largely act as the initiative roll. A 6- on any of the above would likely indicate that Kios was caught flat-footed, and my GM move is a hard one, an attack by that leaping mecha-spider that closes the distance and does damage and sends Kios reeling. If he, say, Volleys or H&S’s and gets a 10+, then Kios clearly had the initiative and got his attack off before the mecha-spider could launch (or at least land) its attack. (Obviously, the results of the move could be interpreted otherwise; like on a 6- maybe Kios does go first but misses the attack and then the thing strikes. Or on a 10+ the thing launches its attack and Kios shoots it down and dodges to the side as it lands. But initiative-related fiction is totally something that can and should be considered.)

My point being: I don’t need a separate initiative roll because the momentum of the scene has been naturally established by the moves leading up to it. And the PC moves that trigger during the scene already serve to determine, inform, and reflect the shifting initiative of a fight. Trying to reconcile that with an established initiative order doesn’t sound fun or fruitful to me.


Another, related point: if you introduce an initiative system to players, you have to account for the significant baggage that such a system comes with, based on previous play experiences in other games.

To just about anyone who has played an RPG before, “initiative” means “when do I get to take my turn” and not “when is the spotlight going to be on me.” Initiative = when I get to be active and not reactive. Reactive stuff has always been represented by things like having a high/low AC, saving throws, resistance rolls, etc.

If you introduce an initiative count, and then regularly have your monsters make moves at PCs such that on their initiative they are basically spending their “turn” to defy danger… I think you’re going to have some unhappy players. At the very least, you’re going to have to manage a ton of expectations.

And yes, I know that you can react to a “soft” move from the GM with a rather proactive response, but not every player has the social or creative hutzpa to assert that kind of thing. A fair number of players will respond with something like “well, crap, I dodge” and roll Defy Danger with DEX and that’ll be their turn.

Obviously, if you think that your players would like this sort of system, and that it would add something that you feel your game or GMing style is lacking, then by all means try it out. But realize that you’re tinkering pretty damn near the core of the system, and don’t be surprised if it proves resistant to tinkering.

If it’s almost always obvious who has the initiative in actual play, this move would be irrelevant. And in my experience, Jeremy is right. It almost always is.

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Last time I wrote a summary of what happened in Session 16: The Flameghoul Reloaded. I want to write about how all that happened using the Dungeon World system. But first, I’ll lay out how I prepared for the session, and I’ll go over how we handled specific events and clashes next time.

Session prep

One of the big reasons I chose Dungeon World when pitching an open table game is that I don’t have a lot of surplus time and Dungeon World requires almost no prep. If you’re skilled at improv, there are a bunch of role-playing games that run easily without depending on hours of study and reams of notes. But Dungeon World provides several features for generating content as you need it, and the prep it does require can make an impact far beyond the effort.

My method of getting ready for the next session is nothing magical. It starts like any other creative effort: I jot down ideas as they come, indiscriminately, and immediately when they arrive. Almost no idea is too stupid to get into my notebook or text file. Because it’s easy to delete a terrible idea or something that doesn’t fit. But if you get a good idea and forget it, it’s gone.

And any idea may seem dumb or boring by itself, but when you have a collection you might see unexpected connections and combinations. When you see interesting connections and combinations, you’re cooking with gas. I’m not saying that it will be brilliant, but in a hobby that includes owlbears and flailsnails, not everything needs to be a thunderclap of genius.

The kernel of this session came to me already combined. We knew that there was a dead woman named Fayrin hunting the party—they encountered her several times previously—each time Ghanna the Ranger fired the shot that sent her back to Death. We also knew that there was an Imperial destroyer called the Flameghoul shipwrecked in the Netherworld, thanks to Sugar the Bard. (Don’t ask.) And we knew that the rest of the party was aboard the Flameghoul’s sister ship, the Mawbreaker, en route to the Imperial capital.

With the party at sea, I had a bunch of ideas stewing about what might happen. But then I got an image of the Flameghoul appearing out of the boiling sea, commanded by Fayrin, and I knew that was it.

Stocking locations vs. Fronts

This brings us to my first adventure front. Every RPG works best when the non-player characters have goals, and Dungeon World gives you a tool called “Fronts” to organize the movers and motivations that create trouble for the players.

I could tell from my first brush with Dungeon World that Fronts would be useful, but it took me a while to figure out how to use the structure in a way that served the game.

My notions about “dungeon fantasy” were shaped in large part by Tunnels & Trolls, followed by the clones of Basic D&D, along with select OSR blogs and forum posts whose aesthetic vision appealed to me.

The most useful material for my games was commonly organized by location. You had your dungeons, stocked with all the secrets they contained; your towns, with their resources; your wilderness, kingdoms, oceans, and worlds, each crossed with webs of relationships between key people, places, and things.

Their form might be lists or tables to randomly generate content just in time for play; or follow a clear, logical structure: “If the players go here, they see this stuff. If they do that, this happens.”

Somehow, I thought Dungeon World’s Fronts were supposed to capture all of that. When I first picked up DW, I leaned heavily on the Adventure Conversion appendix along with a few published dungeon modules—I thought it would make it easier to jump in. But having my mind set on the published adventure content held me back from seeing how Fronts really worked and how to use them.

Fronts are a lot simpler than what I was used to. The trouble with such simplicity is that it’s often a sign that there is secretly a lot more work that has been left for later; then, what seems like simplicity is actually a to-do list. I think that’s why I didn’t quite trust the method.

But Fronts are actually easy to create and easy to use too. The key for me is to focus on what dangers are at hand right now, and then figure out the bad things that might happen if the players fail or do nothing. Dungeon World calls those bad things “grim portents”, and the idea is that they escalate to something worse—an “impending doom”.

In the case of Fayrin and the Flameghoul, I already had the first grim portent:

☐ The Flameghoul appears out of the boiling sea.

For some reason, I thought the idea was to imagine how the Fronts might develop over a long span, which led to distracting complications when the goals of one Danger might contradict or interact with another. But that’s clearly at odds with the actual rules, which suggest setting 1-3 grim portents for an adventure front. If different factions collide or interact during your session, that’s fine—you don’t have to map out every possible permutation. Any given Danger just needs a few key bangs to punctuate the session if the players don’t stop it from escalating.

To map those out, I had to define Fayrin’s immediate goal, which was already obvious based on the previous sessions: She wanted to bring in Sugar the Bard in for to fulfill ### #### #### #####, and take Ghanna the Ranger for revenge. In Dungeon World terms, that was her “impulse”. (I’ll unblock the spoiler text pretty soon.)

With Fayrin’s impulse in mind, it’s easy to see what might happen in short order if the players do nothing:

Impulse: To capture Sugar for #####; to take Ghanna for revenge.

☐ The Flameghoul appears out of the boiling sea.
☐ Fayrin strides out on deck, demanding the surrender of the Falconer and the Goat Man.
☐ The Flameghoul and Mawbreaker skirmish, with massive destruction.
☐ Captain Snezhana surrenders—Flameghoul skeletons begin boarding to take custody of Sugar and Ghanna.

Impending doom: Usurpation.

As you can see, one builds on the other almost automatically—provided the players don’t take action to prevent it. In fact, I felt a little cautious that it might come across as inevitable. I’ll come back to how it worked out in play in my next post.

Besides the Flameghoul, I knew about another danger that would probably come into play if it came to violence, and I sketched out grim portents for that too. Most of those portents were fulfilled in play, but I’m not sure the players put it all together yet, so I’ve blacked out some spoilers:

☐ A Mawbreaker ork is violently brained in combat, and then keeps fighting.
☐ The ###### ###### inside Arg emerges, twisting and shredding his insides.
☐ Another ork takes fatal injury, and laughs. Security officer Bulag exclaims “There is fell magic afoot!”
# ######## #### ####### #### ##########, ######## ####### ######## ## ######## ### ###### ###### ####, ## ##### ## ### ######## #######.

Impending doom: ######.

Optional: Gather monster stats

In addition to the adventure front, I also prepared monster stats for Fayrin and the Skeletons, the orks, Captain Snezhana, Sly, and one other character who did not come into play. And after some research and discussion about how to handle ships in Dungeon World, I created monster stats for the Mawbreaker and the Flameghoul Reloaded using the simple system outlined in Adventures on Dungeon Planet by Johnstone Metzger.

Gathering monster stats is nice, but it’s not absolutely necessary. They have encountered Fayrin a bunch, and I always used a slightly re-skinned stock Dungeon World monster for her before.

Likewise, I forgot to prepare stats for the security officer Bulag, who wound up playing a central role this session. But I used the hireling rules to give him the necessary mechanics on the fly.

Custom moves, maps, and lead-in questions

I also created two custom moves for the session. Neither was triggered by the events in play, and both might come up in the near future. I’ll come back to those when I find out.

For my mapping needs, I did a quick search for deck plans of a destroyer online, but I didn’t find anything worth printing before the session. It was enough to get a general sense of their proportions.

Finally, I jotted down a few notes to get us started: We always do a recap of previous events, and everybody takes part. But this time there were a few key events from their past encounters with Fayrin I wanted them to remember.

My other starting notes were also more-or-less reminders for myself. The Barbarian’s Outsider move requires the GM to ask the player about her homeland each session, and I often forget to do that before we mark XP at End of Session. So this time I jotted down some leading questions. Since we were at sea, I thought it would be interesting to get details about another time Lur was in a boat. I had no idea how we might use it.

Arg and Wei were introduced in Session 14, but it had been so long since we did a First Session, that I didn’t ask very many questions to flesh out their background and connections to the setting. I decided to revisit that in my prep, by setting out some questions to ask Axl and Vivia before we got started.

And since there was some travel time between sessions, I thought the Ranger might take note of the Mawbreaker’s ranged weapons. So I jotted down a few questions for her about that.

Ask the Barbarian: When you were a child, Jurek the mohawk guy took you on a hunting trip by canoe in the frozen northern sea. What were you hunting? He gave you only one tool besides your furs—what was it? Jurek was pulled beneath the ice by something—what was it? How did you save him? When you saw his lifeless body on the beach of Narushe, what did you say to him before the orks swarmed you? Mark XP.

Ask the Ranger: Besides the cannons below deck, you’ve noticed another weird ranged weapon on deck, and an ork showed you how it works. What was its weird power source? It was dangerous not because of it’s sheer destructive power, but because of something else—what does it do?

Ask the Troll: Where were you stationed when you deserted the Imperial Shock Infantry? Why did you go AWOL? Who gave you your ancient weapon? What was the last gigantic creature that it killed?

Ask the Druid: Why did Sinon leave the Druids of Dain? How were the others scattered? Besides yourself, are any others from your circle still alive—or are you the only one? Have you traveled away from the mountains before? (If so, why?)

The last bit of prep was a note to give the characters XP if they seize command of a vessel; and if they sink an enemy vessel—in addition to the normal XP rewards.

Moving into actual play

That’s it for now. Next time, I’ll write about how this prep and Dungeon World’s mechanics shook out in actual play.

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Last time I wrote about Dungeon World, it was all about Fail. I want to write about my current Dungeon World campaign and how I’m using the Dungeon World toolbox these days.

Last Fall, I got the idea to run an open table game at the game store, but the players latched on and we took the game to the dining area at our local Wegmans, where we have met up just about every fortnight. We just had Session 16 on Saturday, which seems like the most dramatic and emotionally riveting episode yet. First, I’d like to introduce some of the characters, then I’ll explain what happened in the fiction. Next time, I’ll talk about how that arose out of my prep, the players, and the mechanics of the Dungeon World system.

Characters

This week we had Axl, Bella, Vivia, and Phoebe playing Arg the Troll, Lur the Barbarian, Wei the Druid, and Ghanna the Ranger, respectively.

Arg is Axl’s second character, which he took up in Session 13 because his primary character was indisposed. Arg is a Fighter, using the “Towering Brutes” playbook from Number Appearing [PDF]. Since he was from the region of Wei’s homeland, we established a little bit of history and rapport between them. That’s probably all you need to know to follow the action.

Lur is not just any Barbarian. In her second session, Bella noticed she hadn’t picked a race, and we established that she was a “dark elf”—definitely a strange sight in the Spine Hills, beyond the frontier of the Chthonic Imperium. This fact had significant consequences for the Campaign Front, and for the events in this session.

Lur also adopted a 7-year-old girl she found in a razed neanderthal village high in the mountains in Session 8. She didn’t share a language with the girl, so she took to calling the child “Raven”. This gave her access to the Modorwulf compendium class when she dedicated the child to her tribe’s savage god. As a result, she always knows the direction and distance to Raven, and can attack with frenzy anyone who stands between her and her “cub”.

And when Lur encountered her own people for the first time, she gained heritage moves of the Shroud Elves: seeing in darkness, and invoking Shroud Elf magic. She needs only to rest in the Shroud to invoke the rights of her blood.

Vivia only started playing with us in Session 13, so Wei’s career isn’t as storied as Lur’s or Ghanna’s. She was a member of the Druids of Dain, and a guardian of the Iron Tower of Phesh-A’tri. That tower collapsed in Session 12, in events closely related to the party, and Session 13 brought her into contact with them. Those events are too involved to go into here.

Ghanna is the longest-running character in the campaign, a Ranger from the desert on another planet. She has a hawk named “Steve”, an orkish bow, and she bears the Holy Cross of Saint Crucian. Because she struck down a bounty hunter sent from Death’s domain, she gained our Hunter of Hunters compendium class, which gives her special abilities to sense, track, and fight the undead and Death’s agents. And when she swore fealty to Saint Crucian’s cross, she gained the Crusader compendium class, which lets her unlock the relic’s powers against Hornéd Fiends and their spawn.

Sugar the elfin Bard looms large over the events in this session, despite being elsewhere. Sugar was Axl’s primary character, who joined the game in Session 2. He was involved in a ritual to seal the rift between 2 planets, but he wound up on the wrong side. He cheated death so many times that Death started to take notice.

Sugar also had some dealings with a witch, which gave him access to two compendium classes. In their first encounter during Session 5, they made a pact which gave him horns and access to the Goatkin moves. Death was hot on his heals when they met again in Session 9, and the witch offered to hide his heart into the roots of the world, so that Death could not take him. This transformed him into the Heartless Troubadour, and Death was none too pleased.

Setup

After a quick recap, we started with a flashback. Lur was a little girl, about the same age as Raven, and she went on a hunting trip in the frozen northern sea with Jurek, a mohawk-wearing warrior from the Spine Hills. They were tracking the Mirror Seal, so named because its hide can be treated to reflect like a mirror, and Lur was armed only with a harpoon and her furs.

Unknown to them, a mother seal was tracking them to keep her pups safe. Lur saw Jurek disappear thrashing beneath the water, and Lur saved him by killing the seal with her harpoon.

Years later, Lur saw Jurek’s lifeless body on the beach of Narushe just before she was swarmed by the orks who killed him. Now, she was on the Mawbreaker, an Imperial Destroyer crewed by orks of the same navy. The Mawbreaker’s orkish security officer Bulag reminded her of Jurek: He wore a “mohawk” of metal spikes, and like Jurek, he had a tick of clenching his left fist when trying to conceal his stress.

Lur isn’t the only one haunted by her past. Being on the Mawbreaker, Arg remembered deserting the Imperial Shock Infantry when he was stationed not far from here in Slaveport. That’s where they were headed now to resupply before leaving port for Kobolstadt, the imperial capital. Will anyone recognize him?

He left Slaveport because they wouldn’t let him eat the slaves. But to keep out of the way of the Empire, he settled under a bridge beyond the frontier, and out there travelers were few, and his appetite was left unsated. By then he found the bone of an ancient beast which he fashioned into a signature weapon. And with that he could hunt larger prey, like the Scaly Dire Hippo.

Wei, meanwhile, was recalling her ally Sinon, who left the Druids of Dain. The others scattered even before that. Sinon is dead now—what about the others? As she left her mountainous homeland for the first time, she pondered that she might be the very last issue of the Druids of Dain.

Ghanna was taking note of the Mawbreaker’s armaments. Besides the canons below deck, she noticed another weird ranged weapon on deck, and an ork showed her how it works. Powered by a two-seater stationary bicycle, it was designed to shoot a hull-piercing hook at smaller vessels to seize and tow them.

Action!

Lur was sipping steaming ciaccolatl by herself in the captain’s quarters. The captain was a Shroud Elf, nurtured by darkness, and she kept a shroud lamp bubbling in her quarters at all times, casting a pall of inky darkness over the scene. Suddenly, two yellow eyes appeared in the gloom, and Lur beckoned him to step forward.

It was a bodach, a boogeyman, a type of goblin common in the Imperial Capital. “I heard the rumors that the Empress was aboard, but I had to see you for myself,” he said. “Tell me: Are you really out of your mind.”

“I am when I want to be,” Lur replied.

Looking into her eyes, he said “I don’t think you’re out of your mind at all. And I don’t think you’re really the Empress.”

“That’s because you’re smart. Who are you?”

“Forgive me,” he said, bowing. “I’m Sly.”

She started asking another question, but Sly interrupted: “I’m not supposed to be here, and I’ll be in big trouble if I get caught. I better go.”

“I like you,” said Lur, smiling heartily.

“Thank you,” Sly bowed again. “Your Imperial Majesty!” With that, he turned and vanished into the inky pall. But Lur screwed up her eyes to peer into the Shroud, and saw him open a bodach-door in the wall and step in.

She knocked on the door immediately. He opened, and she could see the bolt-hole went right through the wall into another shadow, but such doors can only be used by bodachs.

“Will I see you again?” Lur asked.

“I’m sure we’ll meet again soon,” said Sly. His ears pricked up, and they heard footsteps approaching. “I better go,” he said, pulling the door shut again.

Suddenly, there was some alarm on the main deck. Orks were motioning toward a patch of sea that had turned black and began to bubble and boil. It reminded Arg of a time he saw a volcano erupting under the sea, but this was different somehow.

The boiling began to belch out great bubbles of gas and a foul wind picked up. The picture was like a sandcastle blowing away, only in reverse: black sand was blowing toward the bubbling waves, and massive twisted iron beams began to take shape. A shattered black hull formed before them, on the same scale as the Mawbreaker, and spectral flame pulsed along the seams, welding it together—not anew, but whole at least. The phantom destroyer surged upright out of the ocean and righted itself on the waves.

The captain Snezhana strode out on deck, leaning over the bulwark. “Is that… the Flameghoul?!”

The Flameghoul was the Mawbreaker’s sister ship. This party last saw it in Session 12. Sugar had surrendered to a Shroud Elf commander, boarded the destroyer, and the ship imploded shortly after that, sending a burst of hellfire across the harbor.

Now the Flameghoul was sidling up to the Mawbreaker’s port. And as it drew near, at least a hundred skeletons appeared on it’s deck. The entire party was on deck now, but at every go they looked on with awe at this spectacle.

On the deck of the Flameghoul, there was a red-cloaked figure. As they ship steadied beside the Mawbreaker, she held a large megaphone to her mouth and called out for Captain Snezhana by name.

“I am Fayrin, an agent of Imperial Crown Intelligence.” She paused, while that sunk in. “But I have found a higher call. I come to you seeking a goat-man and falconer. Surrender them to me, and I will leave you in peace.”

The captain looked to Ghanna who stood nearby on the bridge, as if asking for her testimony. Ghanna answered only by knocking an arrow and—over the captain’s protest—firing it at the red-cloaked figure. There would be no surrender, and no parley with Death’s agents!

Fayrin brought down her hand as a signal, and the Flameghoul’s cannons fired at close range. Immediately, skeletons launched grappling hooks over to the Mawbreaker. Ghanna’s keen eyes caught sight of a black key hanging on a chain from Fayrin’s neck. But while she knocked another arrow, Fayrin’s pistol fired, hitting Ghanna in the hip.

Wei called upon the spirits to turn her into an eagle. Soaring high above the Flameghoul, she spotted the key too, and knew it would be useful. She turned a spiral over the destroyer, studying it closely.

Skeletons began climbing across their lines to the Mawbreaker, armed with pickaxes hanging from their bodies by leather thongs. But Lur swung her body onto one line, defying danger to knock the oncoming enemies into the surging sea with her sword as she crossed.

Arg positioned himself between two grapples, knocking a dozen or so skeletons off their lines with the reach of his bonehammer. When he saw Lur reach the Flameghoul’s bulwark, the security officer Bulag shouted “Your Majesty!”, and climbed upside-down across the same line as quickly as he could.

“Raven!” Lur and Ghanna made momentary eye contact and realized at the same time that the girl was still in the captain’s quarters. The Flameghoul’s cannons fired again and the Mawbreaker began taking on water. Orks rushed out of the lower decks to repel the skeletons swarming the main deck, but Ghanna rushed back to find Raven.

Arg was surrounded by skeletons now, and Wei landed nearby, returning to her human form. Arg kept them back in mighty sweeps of his bonehammer, but Wei fell under the tide of blows from their pickaxes.

The Mawbreaker began to noticeably tilt.

Ghanna crossed the bridge holding Raven on her back. She noticed two orks frantically pedaling the contraption she spotted before, and fire it’s hook into the Flameghoul. She let fly another arrow at Fayrin again, but her shot disappeared into the billowing cloak. Looking for a higher vantage point, she saw the smokestacks belching out a black cloud and decided to seek some other avenue. Suddenly she felt her leg give out, followed by the echoes of a pistolshot from across the waves.

On the Flameghoul, Lur and Bulag were now surrounded by skeletons, fighting back to back like comrades, and slowly winnowing their enemies. The orks began to gain ground against skeletons invading the Mawbreaker, but Arg saw a skeleton brain an ork, splitting the warrior’s skull with a pickaxe. The ork howled, but straightened himself and kept fighting despite the shower of blood spraying out of his wound. Arg knocked the skeletons away from Wei and leapt onto the deck of the Flameghoul with Wei under his arm.

Gritting her teeth and getting upright despite the pain, Ghanna looked down at the main deck, seeing orks literally hacking each other to pieces in pitched battle over the lifeboats. But somehow, despite mortal injuries, they kept fighting. She turned to the captain and asked, “What are you doing about this?”

The captain opened her mouth and put her pistol in it. Ghanna told her to stop, but she dismissed the urge to wrestle the gun away. There was a shot, and the captain fell.

Lur and Bulag kept shattering their foes. Lur knocked a skeleton back and it fell onto another, getting their ribs interlaced like a tangled slinky. Lur took advantage of the opening to dash toward the ship’s helm.

The Mawbreaker began to tip to the port side. Its deck was at least 10 feet below the Flameghoul’s now.

Bulag was surrounded, and now he took a bad hit. Looking back, Lur’s wolf-mother instincts woke within her, and she slashed through the skeletons in frenzy.

Fayrin drew another pistol and pointed it at Wei. Arg leapt to her defense. Ghanna took advantage of Fayrin’s distraction to fly another arrow, this time perfectly aimed. It was a killing shot.

As Fayrin fell, her pistol dropped from her hand and her fingers wrapped around the black key. Where she fell, she vanished in a pool of bubbling red vapor—key and all.

Then there was the sound of squealing metal. The Flameghoul’s seams began to erupt with spectral fire.

Arg jumped into the water. The skeletons began crumbling around Lur and Bulag. Then the deck started peeling off in twisted sheets of steel perforated by flame.

Lur and Bulag dove. When they got their heads above water, Lur laughed. But then something pulled Bulag under. Lur dove again, grabbing Bulag by the arm. He fought her off, shaking his head, while bubbles erupted from his mouth and nostrils.

Then Lur made out the rope wrapped around Bulag’s leg—it was one of the grapple lines, still attached to a hulking piece of steel. She got down to the rope and cut it, and saw that piece of the Flameghoul’s hull plunge into murky depths.

She got Bulag’s head above water, and water rushed out of his mouth as he choked and sputtered.

The Flameghoul started going down rapidly, and the Mawbreaker’s towline was taking it into the Flameghoul’s grave. The cannons fired a third time, but most of their shots went wild.

Ghanna looked up to the starboard side, and judged it too steep to run while carrying the girl, with her injuries. Toward the Flameghoul, the water was boiling again. She decided to risk it.
Plunging into the searing sea, she escaped with superficial burns covering most of her body. But Raven—

Raven boiled.

The deck buckled and collapsed under Wei, and she called upon her spirits again for aid. As the hull of the ship began closing in around her, they did not fail her. Shapeshifting again into an eagle, the updraft created by the inferno shot her high above the hellish scene.

Under the water, Arg saw the Flameghoul disintegrate into fire and black sand.

About an hour, or an hour and a half later, dusk was closing in while they survivors of the Mawbreaker dragged their battered bodies and lifeboats onto the beach.

A campfire was lit, and Lur held Raven, trying to comfort her.

Because Raven couldn’t stop screaming. Her body was cold, there was no breath or pulse, but she couldn’t stop screaming. Bulag stood guard as shattered ork bodies gathered around the crying girl.

Lur called upon her Shroud Elf magic to heal the girl, and she calmed down a little. Raven was still blubbering, with a terrified expression, but Ghanna made out the words “B-b-bl-bl-black G-g-g-g-g-gate! Bl-bl-black g-g-gate!”

Ghanna pulled her hood low over her eyes, in order to examine the touch of Death.

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