Oh man, I had a zen moment last night. Anyone mind if I gush a little? No? Ok, here goes.
This is my sixth session GMing Dungeon World. The first few sessions were a little bumpy, but still fun. The next couple just seemed like work. I wasn’t having a huge amount of fun, and I definitely think it showed in the quality of the sessions. But last night…it clicked.
I’m sure this will be remedial for most of you, but I’m gushing, remember?
Last night was a pretty standard dungeon crawl. The sessions before that had been more about establishing the setting and dialoging with the natives. I have been doing that part wrong, and it took a dungeon to demonstrate it.
I built the dungeon as a front. It was really my first time sitting down and working through a front completely. (Full frontal?) That made all the difference. I had a few traps written up as custom moves, a few dangers, and a list of impressions.
The players hit the windmill pretty quickly. Hordes of goblins, a botched rescue attempt for a fallen comrade, and an epic battle with an earth elemental. There were some close brushes with death, and every character had a few awesome moments. I need to start recording these, because there is no way I could tell the story and do it justice. Instead, let me sum up why I think it was so awesome and what I learned in the process.
I am a fan of these characters. I want to see them do awesome things. That changes the game. So many rule sets create an adversarial relationship between the GM and players. Forget that! These characters are going to win, they are going to win big and I am going to make them look good doing it. I am not going to make it easy. A come-from-behind victory is sweeter than an easy win. But my job isn’t to beat them, it is to give them challenges to beat.
Also, moves matter. “Duh”, you’re saying. Don’t lie, I can hear you. Here is the biggest insight I gained: 10+ is awesome! 7-9 moves the story forward. 6- is awesome! Some of the biggest moments of the evening were when the mage failed a roll (and he failed a lot – two levels worth of failing). Working through a botched roll was just as fun as working through a mighty success.
Because I’m a fan of the characters, a botch doesn’t mean “kill them”. There is room for so much more nuance than that. Let me give you a few quick examples from last night.
The group was at the edge of a pit, fighting hordes of goblins, who were climbing up from the depths. A goblin lunges for the wizard, who rolls Hack & Slash and completely fails. Dead wizard? No, the goblin catches the wizard’s staff with his dagger and yanks it out of his hands, causing it to fall down the pit. Did I mention that the wizard had previous cast Light on the end of his staff? Oh yeah. The party is plunged into darkness. Goblins can see in the dark though…
The halfling t̶h̶i̶e̶f̶ merchant, who fails a Hack & Slash roll and is tumbled over the side of the pit, makes a Defy Danger roll and catches a rope just in time. From there, he can work havoc on the ropes the goblins are using.
The druid, rushing several goblins and jumping off the ledge, succeeds in his attempt to shape shift into a bat, but not in time before hitting the bottom and being knocked unconscious.
The wizard, trying to talk to the spirits of slain knights botches the roll, bringing the spirits — screaming and howling — and alerting the big bad earth elemental that they are there.
The ranger, who was bowled over by goblins who, instead of just dealing damage, tangled him up and tried to gnaw on him.
The paladin, going toe to toe with the earth elemental and on his last leg, rolls a 7-9 for the death blow. Rather than Deal Damage, which would have almost certainly killed him, I had his halberd break from the mighty swing. From the groans, it sounded like death would have been more welcome. The paladin takes a hard move, it’s awesome, and he doesn’t die. Score!
Because the moves matter, they should happen nearly constantly. The reason that the early sessions seemed to drag was because the players weren’t rolling dice. Roll the dice! It either gives the characters a chance for awesomeness, or it moves the story forward. Sometimes both! “Custom moves” and “dungeon moves” are just suggestions for how to apply the three result categories of “Awesome good”, “story”, and “awesome bad”. I’m glad that I made my dungeon moves, but now I get why they are important.
There were a few places where I skewed the rules. Hack & Slash and Defy Danger didn’t automatically Deal Damage. I did other things when it would have kept the character alive and driven the story forward. As GM, am I kind of arbitrarily deciding who lives and dies? Hell yes! At any given moment I can beat these characters, I can break them, I can win the fight. But I’m a fan, remember? I want them to win, bloody and bruised and awesome.
Ok, I’ll stop babbling. I had a great night, and some happy players, and I’m feeling bubbly and truthsome. I sent out a note to the players, and they seem to agree that last night was great. I expect the next sessions to be even better.
The only place where I felt strained was on Discern Realities. The question list seems pretty limited. I followed the basic three-tiers-of-awesome formula as best I could, but that’s something I’ll have to look at a little closer.