A taste of Dungeon World

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I picked up Dungeon World earlier this year from RPGNow, and I was hooked after one quick reading. My only regret was ordering the electronic bundle instead of going for the print edition. I got to play the game when Little Nephew came over the weekend of 14 April, and we had a blast.

I was a bit uneasy preparing for an entirely improvised first session, as prescribed by the rules. So I decided to get out LotFP’s Tower of the Stargazer, using DW’s module converter, just in case we needed a ready-made location to explore.

My misgivings were completely unfounded: The fiction generated from making characters provided adventure hooks the players cared about, setting up an interesting conflict right from the start. We still visited the Stargazer’s Tower, but it became a mere backdrop for an altogether unforeseen adventure.

Some highlights

Some mistakes

I kicked off the game with my nephew and my daughter with some pulse-pounding peril that I cooked up on the spot based on the background established by their bonds; but when neighbor girl joined us, they had reached the Tower, which I was running like a procedural dungeon delve out of habit. I was in a rush to get started, and I didn’t ask her as many questions as I did Little Nephew and Junior; as a result, she didn’t develop strong ties to the fiction right away, which made the first scenes a little boring for her. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, but the high-intensity kicker made a huge difference. Seeing it unfold for different players both ways made a strong impression on me.

The fast and loose combat system of Tunnels & Trolls was a good education for Dungeon World action. Like T&T, DW does not have rules for sequencing the action in combat (like D&D’s “Initiative” system), and they both push for vivid fictional positioning and action-packed narration. But figuring out how to strike a balance between hard and soft moves took some calibration: One battle that should have made the delvers’ lives flash before their eyes—at least—barely made them sweat. And not because of smart play, but because I made too many soft moves as the GM. In another battle, I figured it out and the pendulum swung the other way: I was going full throttle on the hard moves without giving the delvers a chance to catch their breath. After the Fighter was brutally smashed to a pulp and failed his Last Breath roll, I thought I might have been a little too harsh.

I don’t mind if players thrash the obstacles I set up, and I’m also happy to thrash their characters when they get themselves in over their heads; I just don’t want to make the game a cakewalk or a gauntlet of certain doom by mishandling the GM moves. It’s fair for players to one-shot Lord Evil if they find a chink in his defenses that I didn’t anticipate, and it’s fair for them to get killed if I have been forthcoming with “unwelcome truth” and “signs of approaching threat”.

Even more mistakes!

After the fun we had in those first sessions, I was jazzed to introduce the game to some other friends we game with occasionally, and we planned a one-shot adventure a couple weeks later. In that session, I made too many mistakes to list here—suffice it to say that I’m lucky if I didn’t squander my entire GM reputation. Here are some dos and don’ts, so others might avoid my path of folly and despair:

  • Do ask leading questions during setup. They’re a great way to bring in some initial thoughts about the situation while leaving room for the players to build on the fiction.
  • Don’t plan nine leading questions at a table with four or more players. We built up a lot of interesting fiction that way, but the result was less creative than I expected because in sum, the questions converged on my pre-conceived notions. It also took a lot longer than I anticipated. I’d suggest starting with one or two leading questions, and asking follow-up questions based on the responses, if needed.
  • Do talk about the party’s bonds and other choices that come up during basic character creation. Not only do these decisions produce flags about what kind of game the players want, but they can have significant implications about the background and focus of the adventure.
  • Don’t rush into the game without developing meaningful fiction based on the party’s bonds and basic character choices. Because we spent so much time answering my leading questions, I felt anxious to get started and we gave the bonds short shrift.
  • Do kick off the game with an intense situation! It works.
  • Don’t expect vague foreboding or a general sense of menace to offer the same focus and motivation as an intense kicker. I had sketched out a threatening situation before play, and without vivid details that might come from character bonds, it remained just vaguely threatening with an uninspired incentive before the delvers.
  • Do create custom Moves to develop interesting resources or threats for your Dungeon World. It brings key elements into focus and gives them gears to interact with the game system, and it’s fun.
  • Don’t make custom Moves that will come up too frequently, like several times in a single scene or encounter. I made the mistake of making a Move triggered “when you dive deep or swim underwater”—in a fricken water dungeon—so every player had to make multiple rolls just to move around the environment. With partial success coming up so often, it was a cascade of complications, making the dungeon “entrance” virtually impassable! This was certainly my worst mistake.
  • While we’re on the topic, you don’t need a roll for every custom Move. Remember that some class moves and monster moves signify things the character can just do. We had a magic item the players could use to swim underwater without holding their breath, but I made it trigger a separate Move with its own complications. D’oh!
  • Finally, don’t miss the End of Session move at the end of every session, even if it’s just a one-shot. For one, seeing how the advancement system works is essential to understanding what the game is about. But it’s also a great conversational way to check in as a group to find out what was most memorable and engaging, or less so. By the end of the evening, I just forgot to remember End of Session. I realized the omission on the drive home and sent out an email about it later, but we were all so busy over the next week that it never happened.

I took that as a sign that the fate of the one-shot was sealed. Dungeon World has a whole lot of what I like, but it uses different muscles than T&T and other fantasy games, so don’t be surprised if it takes a little practice. I’m encouraged by this advice under Teaching the Game:

If you find yourself struggling in the first session consider it a pilot, like the first episode of a TV show. Feel free to start over or retroactively change things. … If your first adventure wasn’t working too well scrap it and start something new.

It gets better!

That was almost five months ago, and since then I’ve run Dungeon World every time Little Nephew visited, including a public game at our local game store on Free RPG Day. I’ve been busier than before with work and other events, but we have managed to push through several adventures including two more PC deaths. (They earned it.)

This past weekend my seven-year-old niece joined us for a session, playing a Druid, and she was so jazzed about the game that she kept the narrative going in her free time when the kids were playing outside.

I realize that I’ve repeated a similar pattern over several adventures, and it’s been both successful and fun: I start with an outline, either a published module or something I sketched out: Tower of the Stargazer, The Vile Worm (now available free), B2, et cetera. This provides a loose backdrop for the adventure. Then I start each session with a bang—usually an intense battle, based on what the delvers were doing last time and how the players respond to a handful of leading questions (like “What are you fighting right now? How did you get here?”). Sometimes I pick a few monsters or other interesting threats based on the setting; it almost doesn’t matter what I pick, because the players tie the situation in to their adventure by giving basic answers to a few questions. Finally, we move on from there, with the situation informed by the inciting crisis and established history, and seasoned with elements from the adventure modules I may have on the backburner.

Before our last game, I asked Junior and Little Nephew whether they would prefer to explore a wizard’s seclusium or Death Mountain. They picked Death Mountain, so I told them that the shaman of the barbarian tribe, whom they saved in our last run, had a vision of an artefact of great power that is hidden there, and I asked them what it was. When my young niece decided to play with us, I decided that I would focus on the journey to Death Mountain, and I wrote down the stats for a couple creatures they might encounter, which appeared in the kicker.

The stuff on Death Mountain would probably be too intense for my niece, but I think my daughter and nephew can handle it. We’ll come to that next time!

That’s all for now!

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