Dungeon World – Actual Play (Part 2)
In my previous post, I started off with some initial impressions of Dungeon World by Sage Kobold Games, including an Actual Play writeup of my first session, playing through the awesome old AD&D classic G1 – Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In this post, I run through our second session, and finish up with some opinions and observations about this innovative and fun new RPG.
Session 2 started in media res, in the Steading of the hill giant chief Nosnra, with the PCs fearing the elf wizard’s failed Detect Magic spell backfire might have attracted some unwanted attention. Shamira Sunfire, the cleric, and the character with the highest Wisdom score, made a Discern Realities Move at the double door out of the chamber to see what she could detect amidst the distant revelry she could hear beyond. That felt a bit funky: Discern Realities, used when you study a situation or person, is kind of a default perception-style roll, and uses Wisdom. That means generally it’s going to be your cleric who’s best at this, rather than (say) your thief. To be truly old school, of course, you’d be getting elves to get a bonus on this roll; as it stands, having your cleric listening at the door, etc, felt kinda weird. Still wondering about that one.
Anyhow, the Discern Realities Move was a complete success, revealing that the space beyond the door was a shadowy hall, and somewhere a hundred or more feet to the left was a large space where lots of giants were engaged in a raucous, barbaric feast. Gramfive the Grim, fighter and chief door-opener, declared he was going to push open the giant door as quietly as he could. He rolled a 7 – partial success! I thought damaging his shoulder was lame, so I let the door fly open far too readily, attracting the attention of one of the hill giants further up the hall, who came down to look. What do you do?
The party panicked, and dashed for cover, running back into a previous, darkened room and flattening themselves against the wall. I narrated the bulbous nosed hill giant clumsily stomping into the adjoining chamber, then peering into the darkened room with a blazing torch in hand. A Defy Danger (DEX) Move! Now, I was unsure at this point whether to have everybody roll – it could get tedious. Still unsure, I decided to begin with the worst DEX character, Shamira Sunfire the cleric, who promptly rolled a 4 – failure! The hill giant looked into the room, and saw her, bright as day, attempting to look inconspicuous against a wall. The hill giant’s eyes light up with alarm – what do you do!
Felix Pook the thief threw throwing knives; Xiola Zenwaith cast a Magic Missile spell. Both were successful – one a Volley Move (complete success), another a Cast a Spell Move (partial success). As a consequence of the partial success Magic Missile, Xiola elected to take a -1 ongoing penalty to spellcasting until the next time she Prepared her Spells (a Wizard Class Move); we decided this was as a result of the previous magical backfire, and that her magical energies were becoming distorted and needed “realigning”. The throwing knife did 7 damage (1d8 for a thief, +2 for a halfling using a ranged weapon), and the 2d4 Magic Missile did 5 damage. Hill giants have 1 armour, so that was a total 10 damage, exactly the number of HP the giant had; it crashed to the ground, dead before it had chance to alert its fellows! But they’ll be sure to miss him – what do you do?
Pook i’the Hood decided to peer back out into the shadowed long hall to check out the giants’ feast. That was a Discern Realities Move, but Felix figured he’d be better than Shamira at using DEX to Defy Danger if he failed (+2 DEX, as opposed to Shamira’s -1). He rolled a (12+1 = 13), complete success! He selected three questions from the Discern Realities Move: What should I be on the lookout for? What here is useful or valuable to me? Who’s really in control here? Given the result was a 13, I filled in Felix’s player thoroughly, identifying the “high table” at the giants’ feast in the Great Hall to the north, where 30 giants and ogres were eating, wrestling, brawling, and generally being unspeakably monstrous, whilst the hill giant chief, Nosnra, was talking seriously with a huge cloud giant and 3 stone giants. Cloud giants and stone giants? That’s unusual – what are they doing here? Felix – what do you do?
Felix opted to sneak out into the shadows of the long hall, and try and get close to where it opened up into the Great Hall and eavesdrop on the hill giant chief and the high table. That’s a definite Defy Danger (DEX) Move; he rolled a (6+2 = 8) partial success. Now, at this point I thought about also requiring a Discern Realities Move in order to successfully eavesdrop; however, I decided that the Defy Danger Move included that – the move was to get close enough to eavesdrop without getting spotted, so a success (partial or not) would allow for successfully overhearing the chief. So, Felix heard mention of a giant alliance, revenge on the humans and the City State, and the mysterious “allies” that someone called “Jarl Grugnur” had promised. A conspiracy!
Now for the “partial” bit of the partial success. I decided to Put Felix In a Spot (the GM Move), and have the hill giantess Esni, the chieftain’s wife, suddenly realise one of the hill giants was missing – the one who the PCs had just killed! She ordered another hill giant to go and find out what was keeping him. Felix – what do you do?
Another Defy Danger Move – Felix wanted to scuttle back in the shadows and warn his comrades. The result: a partial success! This time I elected to Give the Player an Ugly Choice (a GM Move); Felix could either rush back to warn his comrades, and get spotted, or remain in hiding and be unable to aid his friends. What do you do?
Felix elected to warn his friends, and get spotted! “Wha-at!” shouts the hill giant, “There’s a little guy running in the shadows here, boss!”
Mayhem. “Stop him! We need more meat!” roars the chief, and suddenly the hill giants are getting up from the tables. Felix rushes into the room where everyone is still hiding, and Gramfive the Grim tries to slam and pin the door behind him. I asked for a Bend Bars / Lift Gates Move (2d6 + STR), which was a (2+2 = 4) complete failure! I described the door smashing open with the hill giant behind it, flinging Gramfive against the wall for 7 points of damage! What do you do?
“We run out the other door!” “Even with the hill giant after you?” “Yes!”
According to the Dungeon World rules, I described the danger very clearly to the player(s), who didn’t address it directly (instead continuing to flee). Result: no Defying Danger there – the giant Does Damage automatically. As Gramfive was bringing up the (fleeing) rear, I described the hill giant’s club smashing him in the back for… 9 damage! Suddenly, Gramfive is at 9 HP (from 25!), and he’s realising there’s nothing to stop the hill giant from striking again. Gramfive – what do you do?
“I turn and attack the hill giant, letting everyone else get clear!”
Awesome – that’s also fulfilling an alignment goal for Gramfive – Defend those Weaker than You – so will be worth an XP at the end of the session. I also realised that I could have used the Defend Move here (which I haven’t used yet), but Gramfive was pretty clear he was trying to kill the hill giant, so it’s a clear case of Hack & Slash, a STR Move. That was a (11+2 = 13) complete success, for 1d10 damage with “Cutter”, his signature ancient sword, which does +1 damage and has the Piercing 2 Tag (ignores 2 points of armour). He rolled 10 – maximum damage! – plus 1, ignoring the hill giant’s 1 point of armour, and killing him immediately! Roar of cheers as the hill giant crashes to the ground – and Gramfive turns and runs after his fellows.
The PCs are on the clock, now; they’re also damaged, and looking for somewhere to hide and heal. They find it in the “Guest Chamber” of the Steading, where the cloud giant and stone giants have their quarters. They’re not here right now – they’re with the chief – so the PCs hole up and heal. However, Guido of Gasconfold, the bard, uses his arcane performance to heal Shamira Sunfire, the cleric, and rolls an 8 – partial success. That heals 5 damage, but under the circumstances the only viable consequence is to Draw Unwanted Attention, so my GM Move is to declare that Guido’s healing song on his lute carries a little too far and alerts someone. “We can’t stay here,” says Felix Pook. “Someone’s sure to hear that!”
So the PCs find another room, an empty dormitory, and extinguish the torches and hole up, waiting to see if anyone comes to check out the Guest Chamber. That’s a golden opportunity in the Dungeon World rules for a GM Move, so I narrate a group of craven orcs coming down from the Steading kitchens, sent by the giantess cooks to find out what that weird music was. The PCs watch as the orcs check out the Guest Chamber and find nothing, and then turn to the dormitory where they’re hiding in the dark, and open the door, peering in by torchlight. What do you do?
It’s a Defy Danger (DEX) Move. Again, like last time, I opt to begin with the worst DEX. I’m still unsure whether I’ll require everybody to Defy Danger, as that’s a bit tedious, but it doesn’t matter; Shamira fails outright, with a (3+1 = 4). She gets an XP for failing, and the orcs spot her right away. Shamira – what do you do!
“I smash the orc with my mace!” Well, it’s decisive. 🙂
For a moment, I’m reaching for the Hack & Slash Move, then I realise the orc with the torch is unarmed, craven, and not about to melee with anyone. It’s simply a Do Damage Move. Shamira’s player is surprised – “I don’t have to roll to attack at all?” “Nope – Hack & Slash isn’t really an attack roll anyway. Just roll your damage.” So Shamira does, but only rolls 2 on a 1d6 (clerics do 1d6 damage, and her mace has no damage bonus); the orc drops to 1HP, but is still standing. All five orcs suddenly turn tails and flee back for the kitchen. What do you do?
“We chase them! We can’t let them get to the kitchen!”
Cool! But – um – what do I do now? What Move is that? For a moment I’m stumped – the PCs aren’t Defying Danger, they’re not Defending, they’re not doing Hack & Slash. In fact, I can’t find any Move that fits what they’re trying to do. There are no movement rules per se, so I’m flailing around a bit for some rules support. In the end, I simply declare that each PC gets one chance to do damage to an orc before it reaches the kitchen. It kind of keeps some tension and sense of attrition you want in a chase, but I’m not happy with my interim solution – I’m still looking for a good rules decision here, so chime in if you have one!
So, the 5 PCs all roll damage. Xiola Zenwaith rolls 6- on her Magic Missile Cast a Spell Move, a “failure” (see below), and as a hard move I declare she’s forgotten the spell. I kind of wish I hadn’t done that: I’m still a bit unclear as to exactly what my options were. The DW rules are sometimes a bit unclear as to “best practice” on rolling a 6- on certain moves (especially class moves) – the general rule doesn’t even say a 6- is a failed Move, it says it’s “trouble”, and the GM gets to say what happens (ie choose a Move). That’s a very large amount of leeway; in theory, I can say the spell works, and something bad happens; or I can say the spell fails, and the Wizard forgets her spell; or any one of a number of things. In other words, I can choose a sucky result off the top of my head, with no real justification other than “feel”. I guess with experience you learn to avoid sucky decisions – this was my second session, and I was flailing a bit for a decent “hard move” in the circumstances. So, declaring Xiola forgot her spell was a fair counter-move / consequence, but Magic Missile was her only attack spell, and now she’s thrown back on Charm Person and her quarterstaff until she prepares her spells again, which feels like one of the suckier aspects of being an old school D&D magic user. No spells! I’ll try and choose something else next time, although this bit of Dungeon World feels a little arbitrary – I guess when a wizard has several spells, the You Forget the Spell consequence isn’t too bad, but otherwise I think it’s a bit sucky. This is definitely an area of the rules I need to look at more.
Anyway, the result: one of the orcs makes it into the kitchen, yelling “They’re com-iiing!” Behind, two dozen orc slaves run screaming for cover, herded by 3 hill giantess cooks, while 2 other hill giantess cooks in aprons and wielding meat cleavers whirl to meet the PCs. What do you do?
It’s a good satisfying melee. Hack and Slash Moves all round. I want a bit of a fight, here – the PCs are only 1st level, facing off against 2 hill giants, so standard D&D would be a bloodbath. However, in Dungeon World the PCs have a real chance – in many ways, the difficulty of an in-game event is all down to how the narration unfolds. I decide I’m going to pump up the Reach tag the hill giants have, and require each PC using a Hand or Close weapon to make a Defy Danger (DEX) Move to get inside the hill giantess’ guard before they can attack. The danger they’re defying is a nasty slice from the cleaver.
That decision makes things nicely tactical. Gramfive the Grim and Shamira Sunfire, fighter and cleric, both in armour, wade into the fray, as does Guido of Gasconfold, the bard, who’s uninjured and armed with a duelling rapier (with a Precise tag, so he can use his DEX to Hack & Slash instead of STR). Felix Pook hangs back and throws knives; Xiola, having used her Magic Missile, hangs back and does nothing. That felt lame; in retrospect, I realise she could have done an Aid / Interfere Move, maybe shouting encouragement, or throwing pots and pans at the giantess – I’ll remember that next time. Just need to get my head out of “melee mode”.
Speaking of melee mode, there was one interesting point in the combat. Like Dungeon World fight scenes seem to, it didn’t last long; by the time every PC had made a Move, one hill giantess cook was dead and lying in the fire, and another was staggering, almost out. At that point, a little instinctive voice in my head said “OK, end of the first combat round” – then I stopped myself. Dungeon World doesn’t have combat rounds; I’d just gone through every PC, asking them their actions, and was about to do exactly the same thing as a habitual “combat round” activity, when I realised I didn’t have to. There was 1 PC – Guido of Gasconfold – Hacking and Slashing at the remaining hill giantess, and there was no need to go through every PC again; the narration was focussed on him, for that moment, so I asked him what his next Move was – Hack & Slash – and he promptly slew the last giantess, to a resounding cheer!
The fight had taken minutes. With more combatants, it would have been longer, but I wouldn’t imagine much longer. That was nice – compared to many modern fantasy RPGs, combat was quick and fun. However, it was also simple. That was a good thing in this particular session – hill giants aren’t complicated foes, they’re big and wield clubs, what more do you need to know? But I was left wondering how, for example, a fight with a complex sorcerous foe would go. That’ll be something to hold in mind for future sessions. For now, it was a good, satisfying battle.
We decided to wrap there. We awarded XPs again, with the following tally after two short sessions, a little under 5 hours play:
Gramfive the Grim (fighter): 4XP
Guido of Gasconfold (bard): 3XP
Felix Pook (thief): 7XP
Shamira Sunfire (cleric): 5XP
Xiola Zenwaith (wizard): 3XP
One observation on the XP awards was clear: characters who make the most rolls get the most XP. Even if they fail. In fact, especially if they fail. I could see that leading to some minimaxing; Felix Pook the thief has more than twice the XP of Xiola Zenwaith the wizard, largely because there’s more creeping around, checking for traps, doing recon, etc, in the adventure than researching stuff. To compensate for that, I’ll have to encourage a lot more use of the Spout Lore Move. In fact, there’s a GM Move Give an opportunity that fits a class’s abilities, which I’ll try to use more – not just for Class Moves, but for Basic Moves which spotlight a given class’s strengths (high INT, for example).
So, that’s our first couple of sessions with Dungeon World. We’re still learning the rules, and we had fun, but here and there the rules felt a little “flat”, and sometimes somewhat arbitrary. In particular, because character class niches are well protected, and because the point-based character creation tends to end up with every character having a score of 16 (+2) in his class’s prime attribute, the overwhelming majority of dice rolls (at 1st level, at least) seemed to be 2d6+2. Almost every roll was 2d6+2, just narrated differently. There was relatively little tactical crunch within that; where the crunch did come out, it was fun. In combat, with the Reach tag-related Moves with the hill giantess cooks, we had some neat moments; also, I think there’s tactical depth in the resource management of reducing ammo and adventurers’ gear (rope, pitons, etc) using the Reduce Resources Move. I’m also sure there are other areas where a greater familiarity with the rules will produce greater depth and tactical crunch, too – watch this space.
After 5 hours play, one character is 1 point from 2nd level (Felix Pook), and the others are at least half way there. That’s going to be something like 2 levels per adventure, which for me is a bit fast. Partly that’s because my sessions are short, but that’s not the main reason; the XP on failure rule is very nice, but the more rolls you make, the quicker everyone advances. That’s something to watch. It’s also easy to houserule: just increase the XP requirement from the current (Current Level + 7XP) to something higher. However, I always like to thoroughly play the RAW before houseruling, so we’ll see how we go. GDQ is 7 adventures, which would take the party to 14th level – in fact, probably less, as levelling up gets incrementally (not exponentially) harder and slower the higher your level (you fail less often, so you get less XP, and you need more XP to advance). So 10th – 14th level, then. That doesn’t feel so bad, except that Dungeon World currently maxes out at 10th level. I raised an eyebrow the first time I read that; I can definitely see me adding some “epic” or higher tier levels as we go, assuming the game remains compelling and fun for longer-term play.
But what about longer term play? The jury’s out on that one. Dungeon World was definitely fun, but it wasn’t “utterly cool and awesome” for these first two sessions. To be honest, though, that could easily be my lack of experience, and the module: G1 is just about as old as modules get, and is very flat – you have to inject the awesome yourself. So we’re definitely going to carry on playing; I want to bring in some of the Advanced Moves as characters level up, and also get to grips with internalizing the rules more, to see what the system can do. I’m also a little wary of a certain arbitrariness in the rules, where GM fiat might play too large a role – in deciding what happens on a 6- rather than that being a “fail”, in deciding whether a PC gets injured, in deciding how difficult an encounter is purely by complicating the narration, and so on. I enjoy narrative games, but I also want to play a game, with a solid set of rules which we’re all playing within, rather than simply rolling a bunch of dice and making stuff up: Dungeon World didn’t obviously fall into that pitfall on the first couple of sessions, but I can see the potential is there, and I’ll be keeping a sharp eye on it. Hopefully the underlying game system is sufficiently robust and non-arbitrary to fit my preferred style of play.
On the innovative side, having only the players make dice rolls is a very interesting feature of the Dungeon World rules, and worth the price of entry alone. It really hones your GMing skills, and is quite intense; you find yourself really poring over those GM Moves, and hooking the to-and-fro of move and counter-move into your narration. Out of the whole Dungeon World experience, I think that’ll be my big take-away for use in other games. On the downside, it does take away the confrontational fun of “dice vs dice” which sometimes happens in RPG conflicts; I’m still in two minds about that aspect, but on the whole it’s a very interesting mechanic, and worth talking about more.
And I also love the old school vibe, and am excited as hell to be playing GDQ in the Wilderlands again! Woo! The fact that Dungeon World allows for quick combat, modern rules aesthetics, and some degree of narrative sophistication, while all the time focussing on the old school feel, is extremely seductive, and that alone makes me want to carry on with the system. I think also the old school vibe will inform a lot of the game’s baseline assumptions, and experience will fill in the rest.
Also, there are sides to the game I haven’t mentioned: Bonds in particular are a great game device, focussing on interpersonal relationships within the party. I’m playing here with my husband running 5 characters – the Brown Dirt Cowboy is my go-to “let’s play now!” playtester, so I haven’t played with a full table of players yet, so Bonds have taken a back seat. We’re both keen to start pushing those next session, and also exploring what else the system can do. In particular, I’d like to look at simplifying the “in-play” character sheet to a one-pager – I’m sure that’s easy – and highlighting the cool stuff like Gear, Advanced Moves, etc.
That’s it! Hope you’ve enjoyed these posts – if you haven’t already, I definitely recommend giving Dungeon World a look. It’s a great little game, very tightly focussed on its target genre, with some excellent GM advice and techniques. It’s still intriguing me, and I’ll be visiting the Wilderlands again with it shortly! By Mitra’s Fist, those hill giants will pay!
Thanks for reading – and a Happy New Year 2013 to everyone! 🙂
You can buy a PDF of Dungeon World for just $10 from DriveThru RPG. I definitely recommend checking it out!