Experiments with one-shots

I’ve begun fooling around with one-shots over hangouts again. This time around I’ve been asking for feedback on my GM’ing, and boy, people don’t hold punches, do they?

After having my selfesteem destroyed a few times over (yes, I’m overly dramatizing), I have learned a lot of things, about what mistakes I make when GM’ing.

There’s a very fine line, I’ve noticed, about how much improvisation is good improvisation. Yes, that’s right; there actually seems to be an upper limit! For me when I run one-shots at least.

The thing is, when I GM a totally improvised session, I get exhausted near the end. Like really exhausted. Not because we’ve played for around four hours straight with only two or three very short brakes, but because it is hard work to run a session with zero framework before play begins.

I’ve tried a lot of different things out the last few days, and here are some of my intermediary conclusions.

Pitch the game with a strong premise

When you sit down to play, people want to make characters and then find out how these characters fit together and “what they do” to get by. Basically why they are adventuring together.

While that isn’t wrong, it can cause some very unfocused play and characters that don’t really fit well with each other. It doesn’t necessarily force this to happen, but it easily can. You might argue that the GM has great control over this, but the more you rely on the GM to have the skill to resolve these issues, well, the more mistakes that GM will eventually make. It’s simply better to remove the need, especially for a novice GM.

If you start out with a premise, like “adventuring band for hire”, then we have established two things; the party is already a coherent group of adventurers, and they are getting paid to do what they do. It doesn’t take much effort to make the characters have some history together.

The premise can be worked out in the beginning of the session, but you can save a lot of time doing it in advance.

Have a clear objective

In a one-shot, we don’t have a lot of time for mystery. We don’t have time to start from scratch. It’s much easier to start in medias res, with some basic information and a very solid lead on how to get more.

The players literally have to have an immediate goal when play begins, otherwise they’ll just poke around doing next to nothing for around an hour of game time.

These goals can even be a part of your premise! “Band of adventurers hired to delve into the Pyramid of Sorrow to fetch the Hellslayer sword”. Now the players will be aware that it’s going to be a Dungeon Crawl, which means that they can choose options and classes that makes them better at that.

Everybody likes to have cool stuff to do, right?

Finishing thoughts

There’s a lot more to this, but I still need to gather my thoughts on the matter. I’m experimenting a lot at the moment to make these things work, and there’s a lot of do’s and don’ts.

I’m going to focus on the do’s that minimizes the need for skill on the GM part. Dungeon World already helps a lot here with the Principles, but you still need to think a lot when improvising. Mostly the rule book focuses on how to start campaigns, not one-shots, and having a “first session” as a one-shot often mean we spend a lot of time establishing facts that we don’t have time to use.

One-shots needs to be focused, because we don’t have time to deal with all the details of a full campaign, so I’m trying to set up a few guidelines on how to do that.

More to follow!

Stealth in Dungeon World

I was asked to write a post about stealth in Dungeon World. Stealth is tricky for many newcomers to the system, and I can honestly understand the confusion. So, here’s stealth from my point of view.

The “problem” with stealth…

… is that it isn’t really covered by neither basic, starting nor advanced moves. A lot of people think that it is a sort of Defy Danger using DEX, but it really isn’t, as they aren’t “defying danger getting out of the way or acting fast”. OK, some cases exist where this is the case, but that sort of implies that you are about to get discovered, and it doesn’t cover all stealth situations. You could house-rule it to work like this, but I recommend not to. I’ll explain why in a bit.

Some seems to think that stealth is an excellent opportunity to make highly specific custom moves, with triggers like “when you sneak your way into the duke’s castle…” or “when hide yourself in a barrel…” and similar. While custom moves are always nice, this means that you specifically have to prepare every stealth roll in advance, for every situation and for every way of “stealthing”. That’s a lot of work and is frankly not feasible. You can’t prepare for everything. Play to find out, right?

Instead, my recommendation is to use…

GM moves!

This is the most “elegant” way of handling it in my opinion, as it makes you able to react to an unforeseen stealth situation, no prep required. I’m not talking about hard moves here, but making a chain of soft moves to explain the situations helps the players know what’s at stake, and lets them find “smart ways” to solve problems instead of relying on the dice. Unless they find a way to exploit a move they have that requires a roll of course.

To really illustrate what I mean I’ll give an example on how to do this:

Castor (the human fighter): OK, I take off my scale mail. Does the armor of the guard i just stabbed fit me?
GM: What?! Why?
Castor: I figured sneaking in would save us a lot of hassle. But I’d prefer being at least clad in some armor, some that won’t attract attention.
GM: Oh, good point! Yeah, it sort of fits. It’s a bit tight around the crotch, but otherwise it fits just fine. You’ll have to wipe off the blood first though.

GM move here is “offer an opportunity, with or without a cost”. In this case without a cost.

Lanethe (the elven ranger): While Castor dons the armor, I’ll scout ahead, looking for an easy entry to the Duke’s castle.
GM: You move through the undergrowth, and before long the castle is in sight. A few guards is taking rounds on horses, and a few are guarding the main gate. Around the castle is a somewhat wide moat. What do you do?

Reveal an unwelcome truth…

Lanethe: Can I spot some other entrances from here?
GM: No, not from here, you’re too far away. Maybe if you sneak closer to the castle, but that would risk pulling attention from the guards.

Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask…

Lanethe: OK, I mark a use from my Adventuring Gear to produce a spyglass. Close enough now?
GM: Fair enough! Well, looking closer, you see that there’s an open window above the moat on one side of the castle. If you could find a way to breach the gap, then you could easily get through. But you’d need to create a distraction first, otherwise the rider could easily spot you. What do you do?

Another offered opportunity, but this time with a cost, or more correctly, a requirement.

Lanethe: Well, I’m sure that I have a grappling hook and a rope in my Adventuring Gear, in case that is necessary. I head back to the others and tell them what I’ve found.
GM: OK, Lanethe has returned and told both of you what she has learned. What do you do?
Robard (the halfling druid): So we just need to create a distraction? I could easily provide that.
Castor: Without raising the alert?
Robard: Sure! I’ll just shapeshift into a wolf and scare the horses! That should keep them preoccupied!
Lanethe: And then I’ll throw my grappling hook through the window, so we can climb in. Robard can turn into a bird and fly through afterwards.
Castor: OK, that’s the plan then. Lanethe and I will go into position and wait for the distraction!
GM: OK, you two wait for a while. Robard! You see the two riders come close to your hideout behind some bushes near the edge of the woods! What do you do?
Robard: I turn myself into a fearsome and savage wolf, of course! I call on a wolf spirit and demands that it changes my form!
GM: Roll+WIS then!

Notice that this is the first roll, because the no player had triggered a move until now. Robard rolls a 9.

GM: A spirit wolf appears and leaps into you, changing your shape to that of a big, red wolf, as by your tell! You get two hold. What do you do?
Robard: Oh yeah, I go red when I shapeshift… No matter! I leap out in front of the horses, growling as I go. Can I spend a hold to leap and go for the throat on one of the horses?
GM: Sure! You feel your fangs penetrate the soft flesh, the warm blood starts pouring out of you. The horse rears and collapses, whinnying. The other horse rears as well, nearly throwing off its rider. The rider on the ground rushes to his feet, and with fear in his eyes he draws a longsword! The other rider draws her sword as well! What do you do?

Putting Robard in a spot. If he uses his last hold to defend himself, he will revert to his halfing form. If he does nothing, they’ll probably hurt him really bad.

Robard: I have no idea why I didn’t see this coming. I flee back into the woods. Can I spend hold to outrun them?
GM: Well, yes, but only briefly as you will revert. What do you do?
Robard: Well, I do it! I flee back into the woods and hide behind a tree, then reverts.
GM: Well, it happens as you say. As you get behind the tree, you feel the spirit wolf pulling free from your body. You have returned to your halfling self. The remaining rider is close behind you though, and you only have seconds before she’ll catch up with you, and subsequently put two and two together. What do you do?

Keeping up the pressure by keeping him locked in the situation as what he did didn’t actually solve anything, with the exception of giving him a chance to inconspicuously shapeshift into a bird…

Robard: I turn into a raven by calling on a raven spirit in my mind!
GM: Roll!

Robard rolls a 7.

Robard: Phew! I fly back towards the castle!
GM: In the meantime, Lanethe and Castor has climbed through the window, unnoticed as far as they know. You are currently standing in a larder. A moment later, a red raven flies through the window. You have now all successfully entered the castle, and to your knowing without discovery. You all hear some chatter outside. It sounds like a kitchen crew bantering about some porridge. You hear a female voice saying “I’ll just go fetch some more flour from the larder!” Someone yells in consent. What do you?

Reveal an approaching threat, namely the threat of discovery…

That’s it!

The above would continue until a player triggered a move and rolled a miss or gave me a golden opportunity, in which case I would make a hard move instead of a soft one. I left that out from the example, but one remark on hard moves in stealth situations; it is all too easy to make a hard move into a “you get discovered!” move.

While it makes sense in many situations, it can also feel like the players did a lot of work for no gain, especially if a lot of other obstacles on the way was handled with significant cost to the party, like using scrolls to avoid rolling to cast spells or equipment from Adventurer Gear. Keep that in mind and be a fan of the characters!

But that’s not all!

As a finishing remark, I’d like to point out that stealth isn’t really a “special” situation in Dungeon World. A lot of stuff isn’t covered by player moves, such as hunting and foraging in the wilderness or navigating underground caverns. No matter the situation, it is important to understand one simple thing about Dungeon World (and Apocalypse World hacks in general): It is all about the conversation!

While Dungeon World doesn’t have a strict turn structure, it is important realize that there is an assumption on how the conversation is supposed to be structured:

1) The GM makes a move and asks “What do you do?”
2) The players respond.
3) If the players triggered a move, resolve it immediately.
4) Go back to 1.

More formally, a guy named Matteo Suppo formulated it as a flowchart for Apocalypse World, but it should apply equally to Dungeon World. The flowchart can be seen here.

I made one myself, much in the same way, to help new GMs understand the implied “turn structure” of Apocalypse World-based games. It can be viewed here.

Happy sneaking!

Microscope Write-Up

It’s a long time since this happened now, but we played two sessions of Microscope. You can find the transcript here.

It was incredibly fun and gave me a lot to work with as a GM. In my next post I’ll give a rough rundown of our first, albeit short session.

New campaign!

I’m about to start up a campaign of Dungeon World, and my friends and I will play the first session some time early in the new year. As a twist, we decided to play two sessions of Microscope to generate a rough outline of the session.

If you don’t know Microscope, I would advise you to at least read the rules, if not play it once or twice! It’s a great game, one I would love to play a campaign in some day. I won’t give a review, but here’s a (very) short (and superficial) explanation.

In Microscope, the players take turns adding a Period, Event or a Scene to the timeline of a world’s history. A Period is a kind of “age” that describes what kind of events is happening in it. An Event is a thing that happens happens in a Period, like someone important being assassinated, or an important object is discovered.

A Scene is a kind of mini role-playing session that takes about 5 to 10 minutes, with the point of answering a question about an Event. When the question is answered, the Scene immediately ends. A question could be “How did Marius the Cloak sneak into Blackwind Castle?”. A Scene tries to elaborate on something that happens in an Event, and as such it cannot extend the Event, but must happen entirely within its time-frame.

There’s more to it than this, but this is the gist of it. The most important rule though is that no one is allowed to make suggestions when it is another player’s turn. It can be a bit uncomfortable to just sit there without any ideas, but it ensures that everyone has equal say in what happens. It also make the game utterly uncontrollable. I love that part, as it makes the game draw upon the collaborative creativity of a group.

I’ll make a write-up of the timeline in a later post, some time after Christmas. Our theme was to make a “points of light” inspired setting, and ours turned out to be almost post apocalyptic.

If you are interested to learn more about Microscope, you can find the official homepage here.

How not to run Apocalypse World

I tried out Apocalypse World a few days ago, and I was absolutely sold. It’s a fantastic game, and it feels incredibly different that Dungeon World. The extreme difference in base moves between *World games does that to the experience.

Tim Franzke ran a wonderful one-shot, and while I always thought sex was kind of stupid in RPG’s, for the first time I experienced how it can be used as an effective drive for conflict. And if nothing else, Apocalypse World looooooves them conflicts.

One of the biggest differences between Apocalypse World and Dungeon World is that the former is very much about interaction between the players, while the latter is more about interaction between the party and the environment.

The base moves reflect this! For example, the seduce or manipulate move gives you a way to make the player want to do, what you want him to do, by letting you offer him XP to accept your deal. You can also have him act under fire not to do as you want, which is kind of like defying danger. He can of course interfere with your roll, but if you still succeed, you can highly incentivize (but not exactly force) specific actions for other players.

Another thing is that the playbooks for Apocalypse are pretty damn powerful. You can play a Hardholder that fucking owns an entire community, with around 150 inhabitants! They even have a gang they can use as enforcers! Or what about the Chopper, a leader of a biker gang? Or the Brainer that can invade peoples minds? Every single one of the playbooks is a mover-and-shaker in the game. That is something that can really push conflicts!

Tim sold me on it so damn well that I decided to re-read the PDF in three days and run it on the fourth! And that’s when it didn’t go too well.

I could write a very long list of regrets, but I decide not to. You won’t have the time to read through it (yes, I think I did a pretty bad job), but I’ll give you a snippet. I basically made all the mistakes I made when I ran Dungeon World for the first time:

  • I didn’t ask enough questions
  • I didn’t make enough moves
  • nearly all my “hard” moves were actually soft moves

OK, it is not like we didn’t have fun, but it just felt very bland and uninspiring. We had a little talk afterwards, because frankly, I craved the feedback. The rest of the article is a summary of my newly gained insights, based on the feedback.

I didn’t ask enough questions

Yeah, this one pretty much led to most of my other mistakes. I asked so few questions about the characters that they felt hollow and two-dimensional. We didn’t know much about them, so that was just how it felt.

We also didn’t know much about the place they lived, because I didn’t ask enough questions. This meant a lot, because that also meant I had to improvise everything on the spot, all the time, without player input. Needless to say, this wasn’t easy.

What I could have done was to ask the most obvious questions to the individual player. Where do you live, and how many people live with you? What do you usually do for a living around here? What kind of food do you like? What is it like where you live?

After these very general questions, I could have asked a lot of leading questions. What did Bramlock do that makes you owe him one? Why do you hate Chrome? Why are you so protective of Amy? What did you do that made Dog Head so fucking angry at you?

Not to mention all the question I could ask about the answers to these questions. No, instead my mouth just jammed shut. I just couldn’t think of anything at the moment, yet now, I could improvise all these questions in just one or two minutes time!

To be honest, I was really nervous, when we started the session, and that might have played a hand in all of this. Still, I feel pretty crappy about it. Not asking enough questions is my biggest gripe about the session, because I feel that is why it sort of failed.

I didn’t make enough moves…

… which meant that I didn’t push enough conflict. Literally, if I open my mouth, I should either answer a question posed by a player (which is very likely a move), I should make a move, or I should close it before I waste air.

I didn’t do that, and that meant that I couldn’t properly snowball my moves. When the players missed a roll, I didn’t actually have a “perfect opportunity” to do anything, because I hadn’t established “future badness”. It meant that I had to improvise “sudden badness” all the time, and I just couldn’t. The players flunked a lot of rolls, which didn’t exactly help either. I think I spent five to ten minutes making a hard move at some point, and it was just really lousy.

Which brings me to the next point…

My hard moves were soft moves

A lot of my “hard” moves were inconsequential. They didn’t irrevocably change the situation, and there were no “price tag” on the move. I let the players of so cheap.

I have that problem, even in Dungeon World. I’m a “nice” GM. I don’t like “punishing” the players, but the game explicitly says that I can do whatever the hell I want on a miss, as long as I adhere to the Principles and push my Agenda. And in a game where a move can be “3 weeks passes, and the settlement suffers from an epidemic”, breaking an arm isn’t actually that bad. That’ll heal in around six weeks, and will be usable a lot earlier. Especially if someone plays an Angel, a “healer” type playbook.

My current plan

My main focus next time I GM will be this; to make a helluva lot of moves, ask questions all the time, and be almost cruel on a miss.

I think the games will be better off for it.

The Beheaded Beholder Inn

All filth eventually runs into the harbor they say, and this hold no less true for Port Stillwater. Close to the dockside lies the biggest nest of filth you’ll ever encounter; The Beheaded Beholder Inn.

Technically, you can’t behead a beholder, but when you boil off the flesh after a good old fashioned piece of slaying, no one will argue with you. Such a skull hang just above the entrance of the Inn, and this isn’t just a fancy piece of decor either. It’s a warning to those entering of what the owners are capable of, if they think you rightly deserve it.

Igor and Wolda, husband and wife, are the two dwarven owners of the inn, and while their manners can be quite deceptively pleasant, the same can’t be said about their ogre bouncer Grogg, nor the clientele. Only the foolish or hard enter, because there’s no fist-fights here, only drawn swords and axes and the inevitable crushing sounds of Grogg’s massive club when things get too out of hand.

While Igor and Wolda are the owners, they’re both old adventurers, who formed a band with Grogg. Their exploits weren’t legendary, but they got by and the money they earned was spent building this inn.

Igor works as the barkeep in the tavern, while Wolda plays grim songs on her string-fitted axe-lute. Grogg usually just stands outside, making sure the wrong type of people won’t enter; the kind that’ll surely start a knife fight and die trying to get out again. You can only have that many casualties in a tavern before you get trouble with the authorities…

“Enter at ye own peril!” the sign says outside. Better heed the warning, mate.

Fantastic Locations

I’ve been wanting to make portable pieces of setting for a while, either as a campaign starter or a campaign supplement. The point was to make them very high fantasy, with no totally mundane sites or locations, because the dramatically fantastic is way more engaging. We are not playing Medieval World, and portraying a fantastic world is part of our Agenda!

In this regard, I want to pitch a piece of setting that I’m currently creating as a part of my Storium game, and I hope it will inspire you to make your own fantasy settings more fantastic!

The Tempest Islands

In the Sea of Eternal Storms rests a marvel of the world; the Tempest Islands, a subtropical paradise, wild and untamed. With the exception of the marvelous Port Stillwater, there’s not many settlements here.

Above each of the twelve islands floats a Storm Monolith, an immense structure of unknown origin. These monoliths attracts and absorbs the violent lightning, turning the individual islands into serene paradises, if you do not mind the rumbling sound of the eternal thunder. Every few seconds lightning strikes the monoliths and they gleam with a blue light, shedding a soft light on the islands even by night.

Port Stillwater was founded a few decades ago when a ship was wrecked in the storm, and the surviving crew was thrown into the sea. They found refuge on the marvelous islands, and discovered remnants of a lost civilization. Empty houses were carved into the solid rock, and longer up the mountain they found a mine brimming with silver.

They claimed the city as their own and built a harbor and a shipyard. They sent word to near and far about their discovery, and with their newly gained wealth they bought soldiers to keep the peace. Soon after, a portal system was discovered that connected the islands, making it easier to travel between them as you did not have to brave the storms by ship.

They started hiring adventurers to explore the rest of the islands, hoping to amass more wealth. The few that responded have yet to return from their excursions, and most fear that they never will.

The rumors soon reached the mainland and adventurers stopped arriving until recently, when Lord Magdos of Stillwater declared that any wealth found on the other islands was rightfully to be kept by its discoverers. The bold and reckless was quick to heed the call.

These islands are dangerous places, filled with monsters and ruins of civilizations past, as well as wealth unimaginable. It will take some fierce and courageous men and women to reach out and take it.

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