Damn. My fourth DW session as GM with my sortof-newbie-group was a big disaster. The players said they had fun (I have very nice players), but I certainly didn’t.

Because one of us couldn’t make it that night, I thought I’d do another one-shot ‘flashback’ episode based around a Joe Banner starter, this time Altai Keep (http://joebanner.co.uk/altai-keep/). That approach worked so great last time, but this time it just… didn’t.

A big problem was that the objective “find out what happened to the missing villagers” was ultimately not very satisfying: they pretty soon discovered the villagers had been desanguinated and turned into walking undead. But since there was nobody for them to rescue (because I didn’t think of that in time!), there were no stakes left other than dealing with this horde of undead (which the players did by setting them on fire — that at least was a novel solution that led to a nice scene) and searching for the “whodunnit”. I completely failed to keep the subsequent fight with the big bad vampire priestess from just turning into a ‘keep whacking until she’s dead’ grind. The other big reveal in the scenario (that she was in cahoots with some resurrected minotaurs) went even worse, partially because by then I had ran out of time so I had to hurry up and infodump a lot of information, partially because I could already see I was not going to be able to stop the fight with the boss minotaur from turning into another grind, and partially because my players were getting bored and no longer taking anything serious (you try to project an air of menace and atmosphere when everyone’s giggling).

I hope next time (when we’re back to the main storyline in our campaign) things will go better. But I fear for the worst, because there we have also just reached the part where they need to confront a Big Bad monster — and I now really worry about my ability to make a scene like that engaging. The smaller puzzles & combat stuff I’m doing okay with, but the bigger fight scenes remain problematic, no matter how often I reread the “16 HP Dragon” inspirational story.


10 thoughts on “Damn.”

  1. It happens to all of us, especially when we’re new to the game. The things that I’ve found that help me are to remember that I also don’t just have “deal damage” as a GM move – take a look at the other hard moves you have, and keep an eye out for offering the players a tough choice. Players new to Dungeon World will forget that they have anything other than Volley and Hack and Slash, too – using your other moves will encourage them to use their other moves, too!

    I don’t mean to say “here’s what you could have done better”, but I don’t know your next big bad, so…

    For your example on your vampire priestess, one failure can mean she casts a spell on the one who failed, paralyzing them. That immediately puts them in a tough spot, and requires the next player to react. (Once you have the players in a reactionary position rather than being the primary actors, they can feel out of control if you tell them what to do. Resist doing that and you’ll put them in a position to make a tough decision without even knowing the options.) If they don’t do something to help their paralyzed ally, (Hack and Slash doesn’t cut it, if you’ll excuse the pun) the vampire can go and start to desanguinate them – and that’s just for free, as they left you with a golden opportunity. Let anything they do to help their fallen ally bring them back into the game quickly – perhaps with a debility in the short term, though.

    Lastly, GM’s are usually their own worst critics. Your players might not have had the time you planned for them to have, but every RPG ends up having “beat ’em to a pulp” moments. Just remember that you can make your players gasp for breath by hurting more than their HP.

  2. Try tying some of the things that happened into the main story line. That way it’s a long run pay off. Makesomething in that flash back really relivant in the next sessions.

  3. No one is owed a fun game of DW.

    The fact that you (or any GM) took the time to run a game for people is awesome and it’s great that you can at least “post-game” the session and have a pretty clear idea of what could have gone better.

    You’ll just be that much better next time!

  4. Shit happens, bad game too.

    When you don’t want a big bad monster fight to turn into a grind then look at all their special abilities and moves and ask yourself how can you use them to put their characters in a spot. You’ll only have to use it once or twice to make the fight interesting.

    The 16 HP Dragon example works because every special quality is turned into a hurdle the characters have to overcome before anything else.

  5. I’m not a very experienced GM, but a few tips that I’ve appreciated for the “Big Bad” fight:

    + Moving target(s). Find a way to have the fight be mobile: they’re chasing you! You’re chasing them! Who knows who’s chasing who, but you’re all falling down a pit shaft, being swept along by a river current, or in a maelstrom on a ship that’s being tossed to and fro in a rocking arc.  So the scenery and the relationship with the environment change constantly. 

    + Use that environment: additionally, I find it helpful to come up with 3D, vertical vectors along terrain, or ways the players and monster(s) could interact with that terrain. 

    The first time I ever GM’d DW, playing with newbie role-players, I had a giant spider ambush from above while they were climbing down a collapsed spiral staircase. Combat was crazy; the ranger shot through the spider’s dangle-strand (?!), but the spider leaped onto the barbarian’s rappelling rope. Somebody had a broken stone step fall on their head from above after a bad roll. The spider eventually got set on fire at the pit bottom. It was pretty awesome.  The final fight that night was against a giant toad/troll crossover thing that was underwater, jumping out at the players around a pool in a cave. I got to ask bad roll consequence questions like “something falls into the water: the torch, or you. Your preference?”  

    Although each of these was just a fight against one big thuggy creature, they felt very dynamic, and I saw real dismay on my players’ faces more than once. [evil cackle]

  6. Sounds like you did ok! What was un-fun for you? the Fact that you felt unprepared (with the unexpected plot development) or that you had a different ‘minds eye’ expectation of what might happen after reading the set-up in  Joe’s starter?

    It all sounds normal to me 🙂

    All the advice above is gold, and I would only add that sometimes asking the players for a suitable hard move to make (thinly veiled as a provocative question) is always a GREAT option. Then incorporate their answers like crazy. They will Love it and claim fervent ownership of their PC’s misery.

    With the Big Bad, make them immune to normal means of HP ablation. Make them a transparent and open countdown clock with a HORRIBLE Impending doom instead. Lay in front of the players… ‘If you don’t stop this nasty so-and-so, this WILL happen’. The only way they can clear the clock is by wonderfully imaginative fictional positioning (and associated moves) rather than just spamming hack and slash.

    As Vincent Baker eloquently surmises:

    “For our purposes, the raw materials an improvisational GM has to work with are the game’s setting and scenery—that is, its places and things—and its cast of NPCs. The players’ characters are their own to play, of course, and their belongings are theirs too.

    The game’s eventual storyline is strictly hands-off: The storyline emerges, develops in play, live at the table, as a result of the players’ characters interacting with the GM’s setting, scenery, and NPCs. Because the future storyline is unknown, it’s impossible to give the NPCs their narrative roles in advance. The GM can’t know which NPCs will turn out to be antagonists, sidekicks, trusted friends, hidden influences, love interests, or even just forgotten, until the moment that it comes true in play.

    Before then, it’s just guessing, and the best policy is to give every NPC, even the most casually-invented, the potential to step into a major role. The right resonances and deliberate contradictions can do it.”

  7. Thanks to everyone for the words of encouragement and support! I’m sure stubborn perseverance of practice on my part and the occasional bits of advice from this community will help me get better at this GM’ing lark eventually. 🙂

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