DW GM First Impressions (part 3)

DW GM First Impressions (part 3)

DW GM First Impressions (part 3)

As I look ahead to the convention event this Friday, I’m wondering how I may have to change things. I had nine potential fights planned, but given that we managed to get through only two, I am going to have to reduce them. How many encounters would be reasonable for a four-hour convention slot? Would it be worth pre-generating characters to allow for more dungeoneering?

I am also wondering how I should handle magic items. When the characters looted the Orkaster, they found an orb. It didn’t seem right to just tell them what it was, as the ability to do so is restricted to the Wizard and even then it’s an Advanced Move. First-level characters should be out of luck until they can get back to town and find an expert, but that seems wrong for a convention event. Should I just not worry about it and simply hand them a treasure card?

One thing I didn’t previously touch on was mapping. While I drew myself a map, I never got around to drawing out the dungeon for the players as they went. Since they only got to the second room, it wasn’t a concern. Still, I’m wondering how the “draw maps, leave blanks” thing works in practice. How do you leave blanks in an engineered environment such as a dungeon? If I tell them that the room has two doors, how can they choose Door #3? 

Finally, how do I prepare for the potential of a long run of failed (or partially failed) Hack and Slash and Defy Danger moves?

I do want to wrap up by saying that the game ran very well and we all had a good time. I know that some of my concerns will lessen as I gain more experience with storytelling games in general and DW in particular. That said, I would gratefully welcome some advice as Friday looms on my calendar!

32 thoughts on “DW GM First Impressions (part 3)”

  1. My quick thought would be not to use pre-gen characters. If part of the point is to let the players get a feel of DW, they need to see how character creation leads directly into what the game is about.

  2. Don’t over-prep – come up with some things that could happen but don’t even put them in order, just details and events that kinda go together. Don’t forget that you don’t have to start at the beginning – if you start in the second room of the dungeon then you can skip all of the hemming and hawing cause they’ve already committed to venturing in. Then you can ask them about what was in that first room, why it scared them, where they had seen those signs before, and whether they tied up the goblins or just killed them… Don’t skip character generation – it’s only a few minutes but it buys you so much.

  3. For maps, consider just drawing a room on a sheet of paper. The room is a set piece, you only pull it out when things happen there. Make a couple with different shapes and sizes. Make sure you have a couple blank sheets extra. Don’t worry about an overall map with corridors and mazes and entrances, leave those in-between places as blanks.

    For magic items, consider taking a page from Jason Morningstar ‘s book and write two treasures on a card. When they find treasure, hand them the card and ask them which one they found. Yeah, a con game is no time to fool around with the ‘let’s play 20 questions to figure out what the item does’ game.

    Alternately, tell them an item is magic and just let them spout lore about it. 

  4. No pregens, that’s for sure. Creating characters is half the fun. 

    About maps: predrawn map with no blanks is not the best way to play DW, but actually works out not bad for a one shot. If you’re not comfortable yet with improvising so much, just stick to your old ways that one time. 

    That said, you still play to find out what happens: no preplanned fights, nothing of that sort.

    “Finally, how do I prepare for the potential of a long run of failed (or partially failed) Hack and Slash and Defy Danger moves?”

    Read a thread on Last Breath on the official forum.

  5. 1. There are no encounters in DW. Follow the PCs around and see what trouble they get into. It’s a dungeon so there’s always trouble, though not always fights.

    2. Don’t decide everything about the dungeon beforehand. Leave lots of areas where you can respond to what the players do or ask them questions. Do they know someone there? Have they been someplace similar before? Explore the dungeon with them and see what you find together.

    3. When dealing with failed rolls, just say the bad thing that was about to happen if the PCs didn’t do anything about it.

  6. Keep in mind a couple of things. One, I’m coming at this as someone with virtually no experience with storytelling RPGs, and (more problematic) three decades of experience with more traditional RPGs. I’ve most recently come off a long run of 4E, and while much of what I liked about that game was the ability to create encounters on the fly, I’m simply not accustomed to games that actively discourage prep. (Not coincidentally, the thing that attracted me to DW over similar games is precisely that there IS a bit more crunch to the rules.)

    Two, it is a convention event. It needs to be self-contained and playable in under four hours. 

  7. I created nine encounters because it’s my first time and I don’t know how many are needed to fill a four-hour slot. I wanted to build in enough material to give them choices about which way to go.

  8. Still no character pregens and no prepared story.Other way it’s not Dungeon World. 

    “The Slave-pit of Drazhu” is about maximum prep you can throw into a dungeon starter, more would not be appropriate. “Shallow Sea” is about optimum: it lacks only the name list to be perfect. Both are available at dungeon-world.com

  9. DW isn’t a storytelling game, really. It’s just a player-focused sandbox RPG. Nothing that new or weird about it. But like all sandbox games, the GM can’t really plan out what will happen in advance.

  10. One of my concerns about getting involved in the DW forums is dogmatic statements like “there are no encounters in DW.” (Not to pick on you, Jonathan; it’s just an example of similar things I’ve read here and on the official DW forum.) The more I feel like there’s only one right way to play, the less I feel that this may be the game for me.

    I honestly do not know how to wing an entire dungeon. I need to have some kind of structure on which to hang things. I’m certainly up for having people deciding to go left when I wanted them to go right, but what I’m unsure about is how to convey that going left is even an option. (More so in a dungeon environment, which by its very nature is dependent on knowing that doors and corridors exist.)

  11. Yeah, I was taking a flyer from “Slave-Pit of Drazhu” in crafting my convention event. That one strikes me as very much pre-planned. There’s a fully-drawn map and explicit encounters. The choices seem to be more about how the characters react to the environment than about building the environment in reaction to them.

  12. David, my sense is that there are hundreds of ways that you can play DW, and that none of them are right or wrong necessarily. But some work better than others because they fit with how the mechanics work. If you want to have encounters and it’s super fun, then, awesome. Don’t let me convince you otherwise. Everything should be about making the game the most fun for the people playing it.

  13. RE: Magic items, my suggestion would be, describe the item to them but don’t tell them what it does. Leave it up to them whether they test it out to see what happens (they almost definitely will, and it will probably be entertaining).

  14. In terms of prep, for one-shots I think you do need more of a structure, and Slave-Pit of Drazhu is a good model for sure. I like using Tony Dowler’s maps (Purple Worm Graveyard is the best) and populating them with a handful of predetermined “encounters,” but I also keep a short list of appropriate monsters that I can pull out as necessary, in the spirit of leave blanks and introduce a new faction. Don’t forget also that DW is very conducive to non-combat “encounters” and challenges of all kinds, whether you detail them in advance or make them up on the fly.

  15. Thanks to all for the comments so far!

    I agree with you all about the pre-gens. The playbooks are among the things I like most about DW; they step you through the process and solve the whole “our story begins in a tavern” thing.

    Having the players run multiple characters accounted for the lengthier-than-expected creation phase. I just wasn’t sure if two characters wouldn’t be slaughtered. Plus, I thought they’d be missing out on some bonds.

    Marshall’s suggestions about starting “in media res” are helpful. I’d thought that plopping them in front of the dungeon doors was already starting in the middle, but never considered commencing with the aftermath of the goblin fight. (Oh, and I like the idea of using Spout Lore to help identify the magic items, at least for the convention event.)

    Pavel is perhaps right that I wasn’t cruel enough, but I thought that it might be a bit much to rip the adventurers apart in the first room! My friend Kyle really did have the most appalling run of 6- rolls. (I came to believe that “being a fan of the characters” meant appreciating them for their utter ineptitude.)

    Jonathan, one of the questions I used to start the adventure was to ask what connection one of the characters had had with the builders of the dungeon. He suggested that he’d been there before, and that seemed like it would’ve been something we could’ve run with in order to flesh out the environment together. We just didn’t get far enough in for it to have come up!

    Felan, I think that I’m starting to head more in the direction you’re suggesting. I’d already come up with a list of “wandering monsters.”

    Again, thanks to everyone! You’ve given me a lot to think about, and some definite direction.

  16. David, the “no encounters” advice people are trying to give you is: sure, prep the dungeon, prep the environment, prep the stuff that lives there, but don’t plan how it will be experienced when the players start exploring the dungeon. Know where the goblins hang out and what they care about, but don’t think “this is where there will be a big goblin fight!”. The rules don’t want you to plan out scenes or action set-pieces. The rules want you to have raw material so you don’t face a blank page when you need to make a GM move, but they also want to keep you in-the-moment as the GM not thinking ahead to “what will happen next” because part of the fun of the game is seeing what happens. It’s not meant to be guaranteed excitement in a particular sequence, like a roller-coaster, so don’t worry about that.

    It also seems like you’re possibly bringing in some habits from some other games, like thinking there needs to be a minimum party size (DW challenges aren’t much easier if there are more characters, each time any character is in the spotlight there’s a chance of hard moves, etc., so just stick to one character per player), or that it’s the GM’s job to keep the party alive (if doing damage seems like the most appropriate thing, do damage, if the characters end up dying that’s something that can happen in a dangerous world, not something you’re supposed to bend over backwards to prevent). It also seems like you want to make decisions based on what’s “too hard” or “too easy” for the players. I think you’ll have an easier time if you stop doing that and just follow the rules.

    On your bigger question of how to prep so that you have a session that exactly maps to a convention slot… Yeah, that’s tough.

  17. One thing that helps me is thinking of the dungeon in terms of regions and areas rather than rooms and encounters. Monsters may roam from room to room, after all, not standing static. Other areas could be filled with pits where the floor’s given out or natural lava flows or what have you. And then I ask the PCs where they go and what they do, having them make moves as appropriate. Sometimes they sneak by stuff, sometimes they avoid stuff, sometimes they fight stuff, sometimes they talk with stuff, sometimes they investigate stuff, sometimes they run the other way. All these are fun in Dungeon World, and I don’t necessarily know what the players will choose. But if I plan in areas (section A is like this, section B is like this, etc.) rather than encounters, I have some basis for making decisions as GM but still have a fair degree of freedom and room for different possibilities.

  18. Dan, you’re absolutely right about my bringing over habits from 4E. I’m not opposed to character death–in fact, I was actively trying to kill PCs when I ran the most recent version of Gamma World–but I have the mindset that it should at least be dramatically appropriate (and not in the first room).

    Jonathan, the “regions” suggestion is terrific! I think I heard something in my head actually click when I read it.

    I’m thinking now that I’ll go with creating a few regions, stocking each with a couple of possible encounters. And if time is starting to run out, hey, this secret door leads right to the treasure cave!

  19. I think the idea of leaving blanks during dungeon design is not to define every room. Draw a map, put some “Goblins here” or “Throne Room” notes but leave a bunch of empty rooms. This gives you the opportunity to fill things out as needed. Need an extra encounter, use an empty room. Players point out something or spout lore about something that makes sense, boom, put it in an empty room.

    When hashing out your rough encounters remember that nearly half of your player’s checks will fail. So maybe they encounter only a couple of goblins, but then someone fails a roll and your goblin can make his move: call more goblins.

    If they roll awesome and destroy the goblins they’ll know they rolled well and will feel good, even if they steamroll the encounter.

    I love 4E but it is at a different end of the spectrum of RPGs from Dungeon World. 4E is a series of linked encounters. You have to plan out what creatures to used based on the level and size of the party, determine how much XP and treasure they’d get from that encounter and then tweak it.

    To give an idea, when running a Google Hangouts one-off I drew a quick map with a couple of rooms. My notes (mental only) were that the first room was a goblin bathroom with a hidden door and some decoy bedrolls. The next was a chasm with a couple of goblin guarding the other side and an otyug at the bottom. Then we had a couple of rooms of goblins including the goblin boss. That alone took a few hours.

  20. If you don’t kill players, you don’t get the awesome Final Breath moves! 🙂 I killed a PC about once every other session. I think Sage LaTorra said that’s pretty close to his PC death ratio. Making a deal with Death is awesome.

    Only one of my 4 PCs actually ever died during a Last Breath. The others either cheated Death or made a deal with him. I love the Deal With Death much I made Death a major character in the War of the Gods Adventure I wrote. I had PC even commit suicide twice to get Death’s attention. >:)

    I’ve got some twisted and insane PCs. I never thought they would chose Last Breath to get an audience with the Grim Reaper. It was thoroughly entertaining, the moments that were generated in that game. My players were always surprising me with these kinds of powerful and risky decisions.

  21. Yea, my last session the Bard died 3 times I think…cheated Death Twice and made a deal once…now he channels the power of entropy with his music and it deals damage instead of healing. After a bit he decided he wants to be able to channel something positive, so we have a new quest.

  22. I spent a lot of time playing 4e before moving, via Savage Worlds (which I still play, damn good system) towards Fiasco and Dungeon World. 

    In my 4e games I often found myself changing encounters on the fly because the players chewed through the oppos too easily or if chipping away at something’s high HP  became a grind. I found myself missing lots of fun locations because they turned left and not right and I found myself having to make monsters stupid enough to stay in room A while there was obviously a battle going on next door in room B.

    This is not to belittle D&D, but to explain that the way I solved these problems is basically the way DW works normally:

    *  _There were as many mooks in the encounter as was fun_: my monsters ran away in fear, scampered off for reinforcements, barricaded themselves into the next room or started appearing out of the shadows, as wanted. The guys in the next room would join in or dig in, whatever was most fun.

    * The cool wizard’s workshop full of dangerous, unstable equipment I thought up was down whichever corridor they chose next.

    That is how DW works out of the box. Better yet, the DW mechanics allow you to make an individual goblin wicked fast or mega-clumsy; you just establish it in the fiction: “the small, scarred guy with the rat-skull necklace is moving that scimitar too fast to follow / the fat one has a massive hammer that he can barely lift, an easy kill”.

  23. In response to the various suggestions here I reduced the dungeon floor plan to four “regions,” each with a bare bones list of possible rooms and a couple of monsters that might be encountered within. Two rooms are still fairly detailed, as they come with special environment-based moves.

    I’m still not entirely certain how best to convey to the players which directions of travel are available to them within the dungeon environment. Don’t I still have to tell them (for instance) that there are two exits from the room? 

    I recall dungeons once being described to me as a series of if/then statements, which was one reason that they were so well suited to early computer games. However, if I follow Tim’s example above and place the wizard’s workshop on the other side of whichever door they choose, haven’t I effectively removed the if/then? Am I truly giving them a choice? Or am I railroading?

  24. I typically draw maps for the players as they go, sometimes with player collaboration, but typically solo. Here’s this room, here’s that room. The temple in general looks kinda like this, etc. I never have false choices (whatever the players choose, they get the same result), but I do react to what the players are interested in, playing up or playing down different elements.

  25. You still have an if/then, its just “If the players continue deeper, then they encounter something interesting.”

    Have two options,

    “There is a gaping hole in the wall, beyond you can see a huge underground ravine that stretches beyond the feeble flickering light of your torch. A rickety rope bridge leads out into the ravine, and you think you can see a faint light on the other side, far away.”

    “On the other side of the room you’re in is a stout door intricately carved from stone. There are words written in an old, long dead language, and a bas relief scene of a single figure fighting off a great horde. Bolts of power radiate out from the solitary figure, striking down her foes.”

    Both of those sound exciting, but instead of my planning that there’s a lich’s tomb with 5 skeleton archers behind the door and a goblin horde on the other side of the ravine, I’ve written a few questions.

    “What myths has the party heard of the Sorceress-Queen from 400 years ago?”

    “What was the Queen’s greatest treasure?”

    “Who told you of these caverns? Why did they tell you?”

    “Who has already died since you’ve entered?”

    “What rules these caverns today? What lives down here that even they are afraid of?”

    Your players’ answers will help you flesh out the fiction of your cavern and ensure whichever option they choose is exciting. One of the reasons you’re told to leave blanks is to avoid spending hours making something your players won’t see.

    Perhaps write down some statements or questions about traps or other dangers – that bridge sounds like it would have a cool custom move. Monsters in dungeon world are a few simple stats, and then some tags that relate the the fiction of the monster. Stat up some small, horde things, some medium, well trained things, and a big scary thing. The fiction when you reveal these menaces will help inform what they are and allow you to add appropriate tags.

    You and your players will populate the game with amazing things and terrifying dangers as you play. Ask them questions all the time, ask yourself questions, the answers will make sense in the moment, yet still surprise you.

    Don’t necessarily plan for where the secret room is, just jot some ideas for a secret room, and then you can slot it in anywhere when you see a golden opportunity. Treat all of your prepared material like cards in a deck you can draw from to make interesting things happen. You can create the layout of the dungeon as you play this way, following the agenda to play to find out what happens!

  26. Yeah…you’re giving me waaaaay too much credit for my improvisational skills. If I could come up with such florid descriptions at the drop of a dead goblin, I wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  27. David Thiel This stuff gets much easier with practice and you can prep the crap out of it: spend all your commute and shower time thinking up spectacular accidents, striking monster descriptions and weird locations, fill index cards with ideas. There is nothing wrong with prep in that sense, just don’t spend time creating a storyline or encounters.

    Think of the moment in Lord of the Rings when the cave troll attacks, the sheer mass and mindless fury of it and imagine telling your players that it was coming through the wall…. I find it helps to see a little film in my head of the situation: I have a very visual imagination.

  28. Your imagination is a muscle, the more you exercise it the strip onager it will get, ad DW is like an aerobic workout for your imagination!

    Look at cool fantasy art, crib from your favourite works of fiction, prepare some prose and questions about things you will present before your players beforehand.

    One major thing to consider about exploring a dungeon in dungeon world; just like with moves, the players actions, hit or miss drive the fiction forward. It doesn’t matter if the players choose left or right, they will find something interesting because you will use their moves to make something interesting happen. one of the GM moves is “exploit your prep” so when they choose left, you look at the areas you’ve prepared, pick one and narrate them exploring until they find it.

    “You go down the left corridor, the tunnel winds and twists, almost organically through the rough hewn rock. After a tense hour of careful exploration, and a few dead ends, the tunnel opens up into the side of a large hall, barely lit by the illumination of your torch. You hear a scurrying, chittering sound and think you glimpse movement at the edge of the torchlight. Wizard, what have you heard of the creatures that make their hives in the forgotten halls deep under the earth?”

    Have the last part pre-written as a description for an area, perhaps something you’ve called “Infested Hall”

    The players will love your evocative description, and be inspired when you hand the quill over to them to help you fill in the blanks.

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