Wednesday 11 December 2013

Dungeon World: Session One

I recently started a campaign of Dungeon World. I thought I’d collect some thoughts about it, as well as a look at the system and the wonderful monsters that are my gaming group.

First of all, what Dungeon World isn’t
I’ve grown annoyed with “old school” style games as the phrase seems to hand-wave a lot of shoddy design in mechanics, art and setting because that’s apparently what it was like when we were younger. Hackmaster was a fun parody of the mood of those games, but the system was unwieldy in its 4th edition and somehow worse in its newer iteration as it removed the ‘fun’ of the previous one. The Free RPG Day reviews I’ve been writing have been a slog because there are so many ‘old school’ adventures and systems and I can only write “hate” so many times.

So what is Dungeon World?
Dungeon World takes the feeling of the old games, the fun, wonder an yes, occasional silliness. Then we get some interesting and simple mechanics in the style of modern games like Fate, which are where my mind’s been at lately.
Dungeon World uses the six basic stats of most d20-based games; Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, then puts a modifier going from -3 to +3 on each one depending on each score. To make an action you roll 2d6 and add a stat, translated in the system as Roll + Strength, if you’re climbing a rope, for instance. Roll + Bond to call on your bond with someone to help or hinder them. Roll + Dexterity to roll through the blade traps. You get the gist, but it gets so much better from there.
You roll 2d6 + a stat, and if you get a 10 then you succeed. If you get a 7-9 you succeed at a cost. If you roll a 6, you fail miserably but get an XP from the experience. Not just that, but rather than having 100 pages listing all the detailed things skills can do, you simply describe what you’re doing and the GM determines what move you’re using. The key rule to this game is that the narrative comes first. Before anything else, you describe what you are doing and then the GM says if this is an attack, they say if it’s a Charisma roll instead, or an Intelligence, or if you don’t actually need to roll at all.

There’s more, but I’ll get to that when I describe the session.

A chest of random treasure!

Session One sees my group one man down. My idea for collaborative campaign creation will have to wait until next time. Before then I’ll be using a convention game for Dungeon World written by one of my favourite game designers, Jason Morningstar. He’s best known for Fiasco and Durance, both of which will get covered more on this site soon. His adventure, The Slave Pit of Drazhu is up on the Dungeon World website here and there will be spoilers in this game report. I recommend it as a good introduction to the game for new players and should only last a few hours. Should. I’ll get into that later.

First of all, the cast.

Alex is the longest-running regular member of my group. He’s a fan of systems with a good mechanical foundation, so normally that means these games aren't a match for his style of play, but he’s the guy who will know all of the rules and is my go-to guy for discussing how and why a system's mechanics do or don't work.
Shaun is our wildcard, an amazing gamer when he puts his mind to it but easily distracted and some kind of sentient vortex of chaos... and possibly evil.
Lee is my flatmate and best when he doesn’t realise the spotlight is on him. He’s fairly recent to the hobby compared to the others and a little nervous when it comes to story games. Despite all of this, his character in our monthly game is the wonderful, horrible protagonist of the series most recently famous for assassinating a king and leading to millions of deaths.
Jacob is a science teacher and when I’m not running something, he will be. Almost as logical as Alex, he’s got the cruel streak that makes any GM worth their salt and knows when to wreck things for himself and other players in the name of a good story.
We’re missing Steve, a fellow story game person who will inevitably pick, “Bard” out of the character classes and gesture wildly with his hands all the time. All the time.
Together, we are The In-Fighters.

Character creation is easy as most of it’s handled on character sheets you hand out to the players. Each person picks a class, takes the sheets and follow the instructions. They pick a race, an alignment, circle little options for how they look and either roll or pick fixed statistics for ability scores. We rolled dice for them, as we’re hardcore (okay, we're not hardcore, we just love dice). You pick out starting moves specific to your class, the bonds you have with other player characters and normally gear. I had to tell them that they weren’t starting with any equipment before they started to pick their shopping lists of stuff. They would be starting with ragged clothes instead. Sad times.
In Dungeon World the class starts you off, and then you’re allowed a limited selection of race and alignment choices. Race will give you a little bonus ability and alignment tells you a thing you can do to gain extra experience points (XPs). For instance a human wizard can pick a cleric spell in addition to their wizard ones. A good-aligned wizard can gain an XP by directly aiding another with a spell.
In this game, I asked them a few questions about why they have been caught by the dread lich Drazhu and put to work expanding his underground lair.

Alex created Aston Chitwell, a young human wizard who was the accountant to Drazhu before offending him and being sent to work in the pit. Her spellbook is held elsewhere in the dungeon, leaving only a couple of tiny spells in her head. She’s seen visions of Brandon Shrike’s freedom, was a member of a magical academy and confuses Cimmerian with her odd (to him) ways.
Shaun made Greggor Augustine, a lawful human paladin of The One God. He’s about the law more than good and has an oath to defend everyone from the undead. This oath gives him immunity to bladed weapons and he doesn’t need to eat or sleep. To keep these powers, he has to fight without underhanded tactics and is not allowed to let anything evil live. He was on a quest to kill Drazhu.
Lee made Brandon Shrike, a neutral human ranger with his loyal wolf, Fang. Brandon thought he lost his brother when they were younger, but he’s the lich lord Drazhu. Whether that means any of Brandon’s brother is still in there is yet to be seen.
Jacob created Cimmerian, a barbarian in the eyes of the locals. The Barbarian is a free bonus character class. Their race is ‘outsider’ which means they can be any race they pick, just not one from round these parts. He’s a holy murderer for a death god and Drazhu stole their holy gem. He has enlisted Greggor to help him, although the pair both chose to educate Brandon in the ways of their separate gods.

So we have our setup, we have ideas of who the characters are and a very rough grasp of the system. Now to go to the adventure itself…

Brandon's semi-legible bonds

We have our setup for the adventure. Aston, Greggor, Brandon and Cimmerian have been captured by the lich lord Drazhu, who is a total jerkwad. Seriously, it says, “Dickish” on his stat block. Brandon’s wolf hasn’t been seen in days, no one has any of their equipment.
The adventure itself started in the tunnel the slaves have been shut into. There are barred gates keeping them from the two ways out. One leads to the place the orc slavers come from and the other is where the slaves who talk back are taken to, only known as The Killing Pit. The action began with an earthquake which shook the bars on the gates loose. The goblin taskmaster fled, calling for reinforcements from the room with the slavers.

Now there’s no initiative in Dungeon World so the first time action breaks out, there’s no ‘battle mode’ initiated. I simply say that they can see the goblin taskmaster running and calling for the alarm and ask what they do. Things resolve when people react.

Greggor and Brandon chased down the taskmaster, Aston tried to levitate a stone and Cimmerian watched the situation at hand. Brandon got stuck in the warped bars and had to be freed by Cimmerian who had managed to find a shoring timber. Little would they know that the acquisition of the timber would be one of the most important times in their lives.
The taskmaster and his orc bodyguards were dispatched quickly, but an aftershock caused a cave-in, blocking the group from going that way. They could only get out through The Killing Pit. It was dark, the floor was slick, and it had a giant hole on one edge. Most of the group went slowly, but Greggor stormed ahead, as is the wont of a paladin. A twenty-foot tall spider crept around them. It shot a web at Greggor and sank its venomous fangs into him.

Back to the system for a moment, the spider has a few character traits and instincts. Monster creation is very simple and in this case it was already statted out for me. The GM doesn’t roll any dice in this game. I’ll say that again, the GM does not roll any dice. The players roll to ‘defy danger’, I tell them how much damage to roll for. Where a player move might be, “Hack & Slash”, a GM move might be, “Deal Damage” but it should only be done when narratively relevant. Greggor’s player failed to spot the thing sneaking around in the dark, so I had narrative permission to have the spider poison him.
There was a special move in here and special moves can be pretty rad. This one made the player Roll + Constitution. On a 10+ he wouldn't be affected, on a 7-9 he could pick two of the following; “You are not paralysed”, “You are not deal a lot of damage”, “You aren't debilitated”. Note the wording, as there’s a relationship between statement and non-statement. So Greggor was paralysed and debilitated. He was frozen in place and needed an anti-toxin.

The group did their best to stay on the slippery ledge and fight the spider who was jumping around and attempting to web up other people. After a couple of attacks with what little equipment the group had, Cimmerian used the shoring timber to pole vault through the back of the spider, smashing it to pieces with his feet.

Cimmerian is a barbarian, he has a d10 damage dice, so every time he can justify doing damage, whether it’s with a sword, the body of a fallen enemy or himself flung through the air, he does a d10 damage. For being a barbarian, he also makes any weapon he wields (including himself) have the messy and forceful tags. These are narrative cues mainly. Forceful attacks knock things around and messy ones make chunks.

So… chunks. The spider exploded everywhere and the group looted the room a little. The ranger found a sword which glowed, the wizard found a pouch of money and there was a healing potion which was used as an anti-toxin on the paladin so that he could move. The next problem was how to move on. The group had a map which showed a fallen bridge ahead. They could see spider webs and vines, as well as a supposedly bottomless pit. The vines started to lash out at the heroes and slash away with barbed thorns. Greggor and Brandon were both hit and looked like they would be knocked into the abyss. Brandon was hanging by his hands gripped onto the killer vines. Greggor was held up by his feet and nothing else. They both started to clamber back up.

Greggor’s player, Shaun, said that he wanted to use the vines to get up. I told him that death was on the table. As ever, he had to defy danger using his weakened Dexterity. If he rolled a 10+ he would be safe. If he rolled a 7-9 then he would get back at a cost. If he rolled a six… well… he found out.

The paladin’s body fell into the darkness, where it was dashed against a jagged chasm which was covered in slithering assassin vines which feasted on his carcass. Aston and Cimmerian were looking for ways across while this happened and Brandon had managed to clamber over to the other side where he found a wizened old goblin crone. She jammed her knife into his gut before he was able to get an attack in.
Aston and Cimmerian found a couple of interesting items, more money and a cursed chain (the holy chain of his people, Cimmerian insisted), then decided to start making their way across the chasm. Cimmerian climbed across and Aston calculated how to use the shoring timber and momentum to catapult herself across.

Despite having a ‘light’ system, Dungeon World actually provides mechanics for gaming elements which old school D&D didn’t have. Making camp, having a party in a local tavern, and death. Oh yes, death has mechanics. You Roll + Nothing, so just 2d6, and if you get a 10+ you escape from Death’s embrace. If you don’t… well, this time Shaun rolled between 7 and 9.

Greggor felt himself being poured down a river of magma, skeletons around him, some reaching out to grasp onto anything which could help them escape from their certain doom. At the end of the river was a giant blackened skull which consumed everything from the river. Death itself followed Greggor along the path. It asked him for a favour, to kill Good King Theodore of Wall. Greggor agreed and was returned to life.

As a non-system aside, I had my players other than Shaun write down bargains with Death and I took my favourite as the one to use. I think this is a technique I’ll use again. It was great fun and had the players do things during a one-player scene.

Greggor breathed once more. He was being lifted by the killer vines and could hear a wolf in the distance. It was Fang, the ranger’s companion! Above him was the working bridge, guarded by orcs who were mocking the caged animal. Greggor arrived and threatened the pair. They fled and he chased them into a trapped chamber. The room locked shut and zombies started to rain on them all from above. Greggor told the orcs that if they worked together then they could have an honest fight afterwards. His oath was that he would never use underhanded tactics in combat after all, and keeping the oath meant that he could be immune to bladed weapons and never needed food, water or sleep.
While Greggor fought the zombies, the goblin taskmaster was easily dispatched by Cimmerian and Brandon. Joined by Aston, the three went into the central chamber where Drazhu was ready to monologue (the players insisted I monologue, so I went full Skeletor-voice for Drazhu). Brandon was heartbroken to see the monster his brother had become, but Drazhu didn’t care and unleashed icy talons of death and soul-sucking darkness.
One of the orcs fighting with Greggor was killed by a stray blast from Drazhu. Greggor grabbed an obsidian sword from a nearby statue, killed the zombies and then stabbed the remaining cowardly orc in the back. The orc didn’t entirely die from this backstabbing, but Greggor crushed its head in his hands and lost his paladin’s oath from his attack. Cast out by his god he suddenly felt hunger for the first time in a decade, and exhaustion. And then the icy talons of Drazhu.
The lich floated around, blasting the group until he was finally brought down by them. He was smashed to pieces (the adventure stated that he needed to be killed by a cleric to die forever, so I made a note and he will return one day, the players know this).
Brandon was devastated by the death of his brother and wept with his newly rescued wolf in his arms. The characters were free, were safe, and could finally take their first steps out of the slave pit, into the sunlight and the world.

It was almost midnight when we finished the adventure. No one realised what time it was, and it was great that we were able to make our way through to the conclusion. The game lasted longer than expected, but was amazing.
There were only a few desperate scrabbles for the rules to make sure everything was done right. I don’t think we fell down in our rules usage, but I made sure to avoid most special moves (taking camp, etc) to settle the group into things and then will go further from there as the campaign goes on.
A few notes:
Levelling up looks quick, but I think the system might mitigate that as it goes. You need 7+Current Level amount of experience points to level up. My group reached there mostly through their constant failures. As they level up they should get better at making their rolls and have a slightly larger amount of XP to get before levelling. This should make it slower between levels, otherwise it’ll be a fairly short campaign before they hit the end of their progression.
Printouts are your friend. Alex printed out this file which has multiple copies of the basic moves, each of the character sheets, the GM sheet and the Campaign Fronts. I’ll get into the campaign bits later. The players (and I) weren’t familiar enough with the basic moves to play entirely without them. The GM Move Sheet also had information about what you want to be doing as the GM. These include, “Be a fan of the characters” and “refer to the characters, not players”. All great little reminders to cheer on the characters for their stupid and wonderful ideas, and getting the group acting more like their characters than like players moving pieces around a board.
Finally, there’s the “initiative” issue. In a normal d20-based high fantasy roleplaying game everything tends to get split out into slices of six second action. Everyone rolls a dice, adds a number and from highest to lowest take turns to do a thing. In Dungeon World you are presented with a problem and in any order you react accordingly. A giant spider jumps at you from the darkness… what do you do? Despite any thought about how people might lose control and yell, the group rarely talked over each other, they reacted quickly and instinctively to the threats and improvised to suit the strengths of their characters. It felt like the only effect we had was a regained focus. Normally people have a minute of action and have to wait until they can do something. When they are attacked, they can’t do anything but take damage depending on what the GM rolls. This time everyone’s involved at the same time, everyone’s acting or waiting for an opportunity to act. The ‘chaos’ of a system with no initiative actually brings more order and more involvement into an RPG.

This has been a brief look at my first session. I’ll be continuing to write up the campaign here, pointing out extra mechanics as they appear. Next session we’re going to have some world-building and a new party member.
In addition to my game reports I’ve set up an Obsidian Portal page for this campaign which you can find here.

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