Don’t hold back!

It’s a lot more fun to win despite adversity than through the sheer lack of it. That’s a very important lesson learned from playing with Eric and Bastien.

I see this question a lot of times on the net: “How much can I throw at my players in Dungeon World?” Short answer: All you’ve got!

Dungeon World really empowers the players, sometimes to a scale where the GM can feel a bit powerless. If they continue to roll well, they can more or less do whatever they want, as long as it does not contradict the fiction.

As the principles goes, we are supposed to be a fan of the characters. We are doing that by letting them be awesome. They are awesome when they win despite the odds, not because of them. Also, we should think dangerous but we shouldn’t limit it to thought.

Keeping a hand over the character only blocks their limelight. Think about your own campaigns; which moments were the most exiting? The ones where the players leveled armies without breaking a sweat? I’m guessing the answer to this question is a big resounding “no”.

In my last game I actually had a player roll Last Breath. Just telling a player to roll that made me shiver. I really wanted to make the roll meaningful, and if he had rolled a miss instead of a hit, I’d probably had let him be the one that toppled the tower over, sacrificing himself to save his reality. That would have been an epic ending, but I’m still glad both characters survived.

Without danger, adventure is meaningless. Don’t hold back, and give them all you’ve got! If you know that the characters will survive, then they are not really in danger.


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About Undreren

I'm a university student from Denmark, currently taking my candidate degree in Mathematical-Economics. I have played pen & paper RPG's since 2004, but my interest for the phenomenon sparked about 3 years prior to that. I'm an amateur programmer and knows Java and Haskell as well as some rudimentary HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript.

5 responses to “Don’t hold back!”

  1. Eva says :

    On one hand, I agree with you that it’s much more exciting to overcome something big rather than of knowingly skipping through a cake walk because the GM is “letting you win.”

    On the other hand… I think there’s such a thing as too much too soon. Throwing everything up to and including potentially world shattering disasters at your players from the first second of the game starts to become overwhelming and a bit tedious/monotonous after a few sessions. I think you get more bang for your buck if you maintain a cycle of calm and panic and vary the level of the threats you’re using against the party at least somewhat.

    I definitely think it’s important to keep the characters moving forward so they don’t get bored and feel they’re being challenged, but setting the pace at a dead sprint that never slows seems like a bad idea to me.

    • Undreren says :

      I didn’t mean it as you might have read it. If the players are sneaking into a dungeon, not all rooms (not even the majority of rooms IMHO) should jam packed with goblins or anything else that festers in the dark.

      What I meant was that you should hold back to “let the players win”. You just want to reach that point where you are uncertain if they will succeed. I used “succeed” instead of “survived” intentionally, as those too are not exactly the same. Sometimes they are, but it’s rare in my experience.

      You have a great point about the cycle thing. There should at least be some rests between the moments of action. I think I do it well myself, but that is only because I, as the GM; need a breather. You’ll have to seek confirmation from my players though. 😉

      The last session was pretty rough. We only had a few minutes of that session that wasn’t pure dynamite. It was the last session of the story though, so I don’t think it was a bad thing in a fantasy action adventure.

  2. Mark Knights says :

    I absolutely agree. We played a game of Pathfinder last night set in the Reign of Winter campaign and they hit an encounter with an ice troll and a few guards that was meant to be a bump in the road. The players unfortunately did not roll a single hit in around 5 to 6 rounds of combat and things were dire. They were talking about retreat but they knew that they had nowhere to retreat to.

    Long story short, thanks to the fantastic industrious work of the party cleric/ranger and the die hard attitude of the fighter, paladin and ranger as well as some judicious use of Hero Points (an option I use) the party scraped through in a heroic display. There was relief, laughter and a fantastic night had by everyone. Throw it at them as the battles that are closest are the ones that are packed full of fun.

    The game was recorded live via a Google Hangout so go to my website and look for the Reign of Winter game 11 blog page if you want to see it. Warning though the game went for around 4 hours 🙂

    Thanks for a great read!

    • Undreren says :

      The various D&D clones have a tendency to create these kinds of experiences. It’s a lot of fun sometimes to get screwed, but not too screwed, on bad dice rolls 🙂

      It happens in Dungeon World more often in my experience, since every 6- result on your dice means that the GM gets to do something, and it can be as hard as he wants. I feel that characters in DW are generally more capable at dealing with bad odds though, funny as it may sound. It might have something to do with the lack of a skill system.

      I’ll have to take a look at that blog post though 🙂

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