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.)