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.
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.