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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!

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.

A few Principles more

This is the final installment on my series of posts devoted to the Agenda and the Principles. I know it’s a long time since the last entry, but we just moved and it took a week and a half to get our Internet up and running.

The Principles I will go over today are be a fan of the characters, think dangerous, begin and end with the fiction and think offscreen too.

Be a fan of the characters

I’ve played role-playing games for about 10 years now, and the worst GM’s that I’ve had were the ones that weren’t fans of the characters. I think this is the single most important Principle in the game, and it is an important notion in most other RPG’s as well.

Being a fan of the characters is pretty simple, because it is all about putting spotlight on them. Every kind of positive spotlight is great; giving the character a challenge that play to his strengths so that they can “show off”, or making that character important by in some way letting them have a significant impact on the setting. Everything is great!

The one thing you absolutely must not do is to hold their hands. In action heavy games, you really have to push the heroes to their limits. We want to win despite the odds, not because of the odds, because that’s what heroes do.

All this doesn’t mean that the heroes should never fail, on the contrary. As the book says on the subject: “Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats.” Even heroes fail sometimes. The possibility of failure makes the game all the more exciting!

This also a call-out to all the GM’s who uses GMPC’s. Having recurring NPC’s are fine, but we are here to see what the character’s are doing, not what the NPC’s does.

Think dangerous

As I said, we want to see the characters win despite the odds, not because of the odds. Dungeon World is a game of high adventure, about exploring the most dangerous parts of the world.

Put the characters in some dangerous situations. If it doesn’t threaten their lives in some way, it is probably not meant to be the focus of a game like Dungeon World.

This is one of the things I really suck at. I’ve pulled it off a few times, but I’m pretty much a soft GM. I really want to see them win, and because of it, I some times don’t push things as far as I really should. My experience is that the game is way more interesting when the party is struggling for their lives.

It shouldn’t always be life-threatening, but if you have a four hour session without a life-or-death situation, my experience is that the game will neither be entertaining nor memorable. YMMV.

Begin and end with the fiction

Every move in the book follow this procedure; trigger happens in fiction, move takes over, effects narrated in fiction. When we say “begin and end with the fiction”, but what is meant is best explained by an example. Which of the following sounds most interesting?

  • The orc deals 6 damage.
  • The orc slashes your arm. You take 6 damage. The wound is pretty deep, and it starts bleeding quite bad.

I really hope you think the second one. The reason this Principle is important is because of the paradigm of Dungeon World: All mechanical effects are triggered by and impacts the fiction.

The example about the orc conforms to this. The orc slashes your arm, which triggers the mechanical effect of dealing damage, which then impacts the fiction by mangling your arm. You can’t slash someones arm and deal damage without any fictional consequences. That just wouldn’t make “sense”.

Think offscreen too

Sometimes you will know things before the players do, and things can happen when the characters are elsewhere. When you make your move, it might be better to make it somewhere else than where the characters are now. Remember to foreshadow this though; this is a good time to use the reveal an unwelcome truth or show signs of an approaching threat.

This Principle is important because helps you portray a dynamic world; things happen even though the players aren’t there. The most simple way to use this is to point out small (or even big) changes in an environment the players return to, like a village or just a room in a dungeon.

It doesn’t take much effort really. The hardest part is to remember actually doing it. Once that is solidly drilled into your skull, this Principle can really make that game world come alive!

A fistful of Principles

It’s time to go over the next four Principles. Today I’ll talk about never speak the name of your move, give every monster life, name every person and ask questions and use the answers.

Never speak the name of your move

This Principle is all about making the game seem real, and it can be readily applied to any other game. If you have a Thief scaling a wall and he rolls poorly, then say what happens, not which move you invoke. Don’t say “I’ll reveal an unwelcome truth here. You can hear the rope creaking, and you only have a moment to catch yourself before falling to your death.”

Reminding players that you are invoking a rule doesn’t help you portray a fantastic world, only an artificial one. Say what happens, not which rule you invoke. It sounds so logical when you say it, but I really never thought of it before this Principle explicitly instructed me not to do it.

Give every monster life…

… unless it’s undead. Pun aside, this Principle is pretty important if you wish to avoid the “hacking at a block of HP” trope. No one likes boring monsters, and the only boring monsters out there are those that feels like just like another “bunch of rules with graphics”.

“The monster moves four squares, avoids your attack of opportunity, and uses its Gore attack on the wizard”. I’ve made these descriptions so many times that I’m almost embarrassed for saying it. That is not a real “monster”, that is just gaming jargon and die rolls.

A great monster does things in the fiction, and then the rules kick in. In my experience, this will make the monster feel more alive and a lot more intimidating for that matter.

“The monster runs by you, keeping its distance by running in a great arch. As it is clear of your reach, it takes up speed in an attempt to smash into the wizard.” I don’t know about you, but actually saying what the monster does is way better in my opinion. If the players ask, you can always explain the rules then.

I really wish I thought about this when running my D&D campaign a few years ago. That campaign was really just a series of tactical encounters, and the reason for this was the heavy focus on the rules from my end. Well, you grow and learn, right?

Name every person

This is actually pretty hard to do, at least it requires conscious effort from me. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be taken literally. Walking down a market square, don’t give the players the name of everyone they see, but do name everyone they interact with. At least if learning their names through this interaction is plausible.

I’ve found that this has a tendency to spawn some really interesting NPC’s, and they will populate your world making it feel more alive. Players shouldn’t go down to “the blacksmith”, they should go down to “Galdruf Goldfist”, or whatever naming convention you follow for dwarfs.

Players stop saying “we find a blacksmith” and start saying “we go down to Galdruf” instead. This just feels so good, and it requires absolutely no effort. Unless you are bad at coming up with names of course, but this is easily solved with a random names generator.

Try it out and feel the difference! It can’t really see how it can make the game worse, but it has a huge potential to give life to the game world.

Ask questions and use the answers

Not only is this a great way to make players more involved, but it is also the closest thing to “GM cheat codes” that I’ve ever known. This Principle instructs us to ask the players for input, when whatever they answer can be important.

A good example can be when a player goes out to buy ingredients for a potion or something like that, then you can ask him questions like “who do you usually buy this from?”, giving that player a chance to tell you something new and important about the setting.

An even better example that really emphasizes why I call it a “cheat code” would be to use this whenever the players ask you a question that you don’t know the answer to. So, when the players ask you “is there a mage guild or something like that in this city?” then you can turn that around with “I don’t know, is there?”.

Of course, they’ll answer in the affirmative, or give you something similar. They needed it after all, hence why they asked. This great because it allows you to ask all sorts of questions about it, letting the players fill in a lot of blanks in the setting! “How old is it?”, “when did you visit it last?”, “what has changed since then?”, “who leads it?”, “who do you know there?”. All these questions expand on the setting, and tie the character to it!

GM’ing the World – First Sessions

We just rounded off the first panel on GM’ing Dungeon World. This time we focused on First Sessions, and we plan on going over Prep & Fronts the next time.

Enjoy!

The Guiding Principles

So, Dungeon World has a lot of Principles, as mentioned in my previous post. You’ll see the full list below.

  • Draw maps, leave blanks
  • Address the characters, not the players
  • Embrace the fantastic
  • Make a move that follows
  • Never speak the name of your move
  • Give every monster life
  • Name every person
  • Ask questions and use the answers
  • Be a fan of the characters
  • Think dangerous
  • Begin and end with the fiction
  • Think offscreen, too

For the sake of brevity, I’ll only go over the top four today.

Draw maps, leave blanks

So you have prepared a nice Dungeon and carefully planned what every room should contain? Well, maybe keep the first few rooms, but leave a lot of the rooms “empty”.

Having the layout of the Dungeon is fine, preferable even, but with the exception of where you might find traps and secret doors, having every encounter pre-planned is boring.

Monsters should be where it makes sense for them to be at all times! So leave a few rooms “empty” and improvise when the players walk into them.

This move is mostly a call out to play to find out what happens. If everything is pre-planned, then you really don’t do that. Leaving rooms “empty” forces you to think it terms of what the characters has already seen, done and said. Use this as inspiration to give them interesting, improvised situations that “makes sense” in the context! The Dungeon will feel much more dynamic this way.

Also, just to be a little frank about it; if the party has massacred 20 goblins in one room, some other goblins will surely notice given some time. This should most definitely change the environment in some way, as monsters are now more alert, and maybe even scared and edgy. Scared and edgy monsters are interesting, because it makes them come alive!

Address the characters, not the players

We all know that this is a game, but there’s really no point in reminding people all the time. When you say “Hey Peter, what does Glarion do about that?” then you remind them, and we are pulled out of the fiction and take on a third person view instead of a first person one.

It just works much better to ask “Glarion, what do you do?”, even though we aren’t fooling anyone. I don’t generally like to talk about “immersion”, because it is too nebulous, but this is really what it is all about; we want to invest the players into the game, making the game feel as real as any other kind of media. We can’t do that if we consistently remind everyone that it’s a game. The world simply just feel more fantastic and real, when we forget that it isn’t, even if only for a moment.

Embrace the fantastic

This is a high fantasy game, so you should really fill the world with high fantasy stuff. If every creature in the world is a mundane human, then the world becomes mundane.

This might be one of the things I’m having the most difficulty with, because it requires active thought on my part. Last session, I wanted a team of thugs to harass the players, but five humans with swords and crossbows felt pretty boring, so I made their leader an Ogre called Obgrob. He was large, had a big club, was well armored and he wasn’t terribly bright, but it really set the scene much better than having all the thugs being human. My greatest regret is no to include a dwarf or an elf also, but hey, I tried.

It should go without saying that this helps you observe the Agenda, by portraying a fantastic world.

Make a move that follows

This Principle is of a slightly different sort, but it is an appeal to the GM that his moves should “make sense” and be prompted by the established fiction. It doesn’t necessarily need to follow from what is happening right now, but simply from something that makes sense in the moment.

For example, if you are in an underground lair filled with goblins and the fighter rolls a miss when attacking some of them, you may just let him succeed with some bruises, only to tell him that reinforcements are coming. You could have told him that he was simply run over as well, but the point is that the effects of your moves are not required to be directly related to what the players are doing, but your moves should always be experienced directly.

So, when the players search a room, then you can take advantage on the fact that they spend time doing it, and tell them that they hear the sounds of footsteps from around the corner. It is not related to what they are doing, but the effects are immediately observable.