GMing really complex action scenes

GMing really complex action scenes

GMing really complex action scenes

Our last session had the most complex battle I’ve ever seen in Dungeon World. We had a skirmish at sea between two imperial destroyers. The battle involved hundreds of NPCs and monsters, boarding action going both ways, player characters fighting on both vessels—there was a lot going on.

Dungeon World handled it gloriously smoothly. As the GM, I simply did like always: Set up some action, asked someone what they were doing, listened, and repeated until a player-facing move was triggered. In most cases, it was obvious which PC should be in the spotlight.

But at a certain point, it got so complicated, with immediate threats for everyone, that it wasn’t obvious which PC to cut to next. In the moment, I simply asked the table “Who haven’t we checked on in the longest?” It was all happening pretty rapidly. Someone piped up, I described the immediate threat in their perspective, and we kept things moving.

It’s my understanding, and the way I have always played Dungeon World, that it’s the GM’s job to take the role of “movie director” most of the time. The game text doesn’t use those exact words, but the concept of making GM moves + beginning and ending with the fiction, followed by asking someone “what do you do?” seems to imply it.

The play examples of Defend in the rulebook offer a perfect illustration of how the GM moves the spotlight from one PC to another in the middle of conflict. Usually, it’s just the natural flow of events in the fiction. Sometimes one PC gets a few more narrative beats, sometimes less. One thing I like to do when the action is scattered is make a GM move that sets up a minor catastrophe or cliffhanger and then cut to someone else before letting the player react.

But when I reflect on this particular instance, I wonder if that one moment might have been a good time to use something like “popcorn initiative”. Popcorn initiative is when the player in the spotlight gets to choose which character the spotlight goes to next. In Dungeon World, it would be a case of asking the players and using the answers.

I’m curious what other people do in the GM seat in situations when the action is scattered, the threat is everywhere, everyone is in immediate danger, and it’s not obvious who goes next.

I don’t think that it was a big problem, I just thought it was an opportunity to improve my play.

It’s funny because a few weeks ago I posted a question about what a certain magic item should do. One person, who has gone on record as a Dungeon World critic, replied “It tracks initiative because the Dungeon World does not”. I laughed out loud. I have played a LOT of Dungeon World, and I never needed to “track initiative”—but I never ran into a battle with this many characters in motion either.

(That said, I’m sure the most common methods of “tracking initiative” would have turned this skirmish into a tedious nightmare and taken double or triple the table time to resolve, at least if they were applied to Dungeon World.)


10 thoughts on “GMing really complex action scenes”

  1. Did the battle feel epic? Did the players have fun and did they feel in the middle of something special? Did everybody feel included and could take part in the action?

    If all answers are yes, I think you hit the all the drama buttons perfectly. Initiative would probably not have made this any better. To better myself at that point I would look at how I set up the scenes (drama) and try to improve on the narrative immersion.

  2. The battle DID feel epic! I do think the players had fun. I got the vivid impression that a few moments in the session were the most emotionally riveting play for a few players that we’ve ever had with Dungeon World—and that came as a total surprise.

    I haven’t gotten a chance to debrief with all the players, but a few responded with a lot of enthusiasm, so I would say they thought it was special.

    I don’t know if everyone felt adequately included or involved in the action. I did notice when writing the linked blog post that there was one character whose role in the actions doesn’t seem as vivid or prominent in my memory. You might notice that if you read the post. I haven’t heard from that player yet to find out if they felt adequately included or involved.

    I think that’s part of why the “who goes next” moment sticks out in my memory.

  3. Yan Périard wrote: “Initiative would probably not have made this any better.” Like I wrote above, I can only imagine “roll-for-initiative” type ordering making it drag out.

    To clarify, I wasn’t hoping to shoe-horn “initiative” into Dungeon World, I was just asking if anyone had similar experiences and how they handled this kind of situation.

  4. Deep Six Delver understood, the only time I did something this big I did it pretty much the same way. Sets of mini battles in a raging environment. Jumping from player to player. Danger was established clearly and early, soft moves were done all the time, so it gave me plenty of opportunity for hard moves when required.

  5. Deep Six Delver are you familiar with the “everyone declare, all roll at once, resolve as makes sense” approach?

    Like, you recap the scene in front of everyone, making GM moves as you do so (often “targeting” multiple PCs at once). Ask what everyone does, and figure out what (if any) moves they are triggering but don’t let anyone roll for any moves until everyone’s declared.

    Then, everyone who’s triggered a move rolls. You resolve the results in whatever order makes sense. You even trigger (and resolve) a follow-up move from one player before you go back and resolve the initial move from another.

    It might not be appropriate in the situation you describe, where there are multiple theaters of action, but it’s a pretty fun way to make sure that everyone’s involved and paying attention to the whole situation.

  6. I had not heard of that method—thanks, Jeremy Strandberg!

    It sounds a bit like Sorcerer and Trollbabe, which both have “free and clear” stages before dice hit the table. During “free and clear” everyone declares their actions, but players are free to adjust based on what the GM narrates and what other people are doing. Then everyone rolls for their actions, and those dice determine the action order.

    Heck, what you’re describing is even closer to combat in Classic Tunnels & Trolls, which has no inherent action order—apart from “spells go off before missile attacks before melee”. The rules don’t dictate a procedure for resolving what happens in the fiction during all this, and it’s up to the GM to settle it in whatever order makes sense.

    This is a method I’m familiar with and I can definitely apply it at the table, it just never occurred to me to use it with Dungeon World!

    Thanks again!

  7. No prob.

    It’s got a bonus advantage in Dungeon World… it helps eliminate the “let’s all just sit back and let the fighter tank the BBEG.” Because when you ask everyone what they’re up to, they almost always say something and that’ll often trigger a move, and with a bunch of people rolling, there’s more chance for a miss, and thus more chance to make a hard move with the BBEG.

  8. And in reference to this particular session, it helps explain why no one drew their Last Breath. I was hitting hard with GM moves at every chance, and a couple PCs came within a few hit points of seeing the Black Gate, but in the end they only lost NPCs.

    I always let the dice and fiction rule their fates, but I feel like I wasn’t doing my job. 😉

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