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?
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!
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…
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
So, yesterday Bard Week started on The Dungeon World Tavern over on Google+. In honor of that, I have made a compendium class for Bards who include breakdancing in their Arcane Performances. You can see it below, but first I’d like you to see this on air hangout I participated in as a kickoff for Bard Week along side Tim Franzke (the host) and Joe Banner! We discussed the class in depth, both the fiction and the moves!
When you have been tutored in the secrets of the wardancer, you may take this move the next time you level:
When you make the dance of war as a part of your arcane performance, on a hit you can move between foes without endangering yourself and you get +1 hold next time you defend in this battle.
Once you’ve taken “Dazzling Wardance,” the following moves count as class moves for you. In addition to your normal list of moves, you may choose from this list when you gain a level.
When you make the “air flares” dance move roll+CON. On a 10+ you can briefly fly and can carry a nearby ally into an advantageous position. Your GM will give you a choice between two such positions. On a 7-9 you also get slightly dazed and take -1 forward as you vision keeps spinning for a while.
When you make the “windmills” dance move roll+CON. On a 10+ you create a wave of repulsion that will blow back any enemies at close range. On a 7-9 it goes out of control and you blow away all allies as well.
Your mad dancing skills attract all the b-boys and flygirls in town. When you make a street performance showcasing your latest and most difficult moves roll+CHA. On a hit you attract a group of fans. On a 7-9 they can introduce you to some useful and influential people in the city’s underground. On a 10+ one of the fans has some influence in the city’s underground milieu and is willing to pull some strings for you.
The inspiration for the windmill and air flares was harvested for this neat site, so check it out! It’s a list of the 25 craziest breakdancing moves that’ll be pretty awesome to see even if you don’t normally have any interest in breakdancing.
Back to the tavern…
If you care to celebrate bard week with us, then join us on the tavern! I have a vote going about what other Compendium Classes I should make, so come on in and join the party!
I read a post on a GM’ing community about choices in RPG’s. It was inspired by an episode of Extra Credits with the same theme. If you haven’t seen it, you can see it right here. There’s more videos in this EC series, but the link directs to the first one.
Meaningful choices in RPG’s is kind of a pet peeve for me. Choices are important, because it is the thing that makes our medium relevant. We can make choices and make reasonable assertions about the consequences, but a computer game can’t. A computer game is scripted. When playing an RPG our choices are limitless, because we can improvise.
The beautiful thing about choices in an RPG is that we can make them about literally anything! It is not only about how to solve a problem, but which problems to solve, which conflicts to engage in, what to say to people you meet, literally anything that can affect the situation at hand or future events in the game world.
That is a thing I truly love about RPG’s, and it is why we can play the exact same scenario with two different groups and have two extremely different outcomes. It is also why I dislike railroading, because railroading is all about removing meaningful choices in order to script the future.
To me, RPG’s are not at all about problem solving. They are about meaningful choices and how they affect the fiction in ways you can’t possibly foresee. It’s beautiful, really.
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