I’m about to introduce some RPG newbies to gaming with Dungeon World.

I’m about to introduce some RPG newbies to gaming with Dungeon World.

I’m about to introduce some RPG newbies to gaming with Dungeon World. Some of them don’t know a lot about standard fantasy tropes. Does anyone have advice for how to stop the setting development via Q&As from degenerating into Monty Python/gonzo silliness?

19 thoughts on “I’m about to introduce some RPG newbies to gaming with Dungeon World.”

  1. Discuss tone up front. Pose your questions carefully. I haven’t had a lot of problems with DW going gonzo, but maybe I’ve just been fortunate.

  2. Eric Nieudan if he is asking how to prevent it, though, it’s inherently bad for him.

    I, for one, hate playing gonzo style games and it turns me right off, as a player or gm.

  3. I’m fine with games being silly, but from experience of introducing people to roleplaying, it also seems to be some kind of default that people slip into, and while fun, I’m a little tired of it.

    I’m thinking preparing lists of NPC and place names for them to choose from and being heavy handed with the leading questions.

  4. These bits in particular…

    Ask: What kind of tone do you expect from this story?

    This will be a pretty lighthearted adventure. There will be moments someone might be invested in treating seriously. It’s important to look at the other players at the table, consider and try to recognize what matters to them in this story. Let them have their moments. You can always broadcast your intentions going into a scene, and if something is too gonzo, we can take a break to do that.

    Ask: What kind of content do you expect we’ll see in a story like this?

    Dungeon World is a fantasy game, so you can expect fantasy tropes (though we will mix in plenty of original stuff as well). This world is a dangerous and scary place full of monsters, so you can expect some suspense, horror, violence and death in that regard. If we don’t want this experience, we probably shouldn’t play Dungeon World.

  5. A lot of good stuff already discussed above, but I want to dive into Ray Otus’s bit about “pose your questions carefully.” I think that’s a super-duper powerful one, and when done right, can set expectations for a group of new players as well or better than having a conversation about it up front.

    Not that direct, meta-level conversations are bad. But I find that you can talk about something like tone in the abstract and find that people don’t really follow-through in play. You ask the right questions, though, in the right order, and you’ll naturally establish a mental framework that new players can grow on—even if they don’t know the tropes.

    This requires a little prep work. You have to come to the table with questions at the ready (or a strange talent/skill for coming up with them on the fly). Adventure starters are often really good for this.

    For example, here’s a starter I made for a contest the Gauntlet was putting on:


    Check out the initial questions. When I used it, I had the players make characters and introduce each other (by name, look, and class) and asked a couple clarifying questions. Then, before doing bonds, I asked them the first 3 questions from the starter, which boil down to:

    “Who or what are you fleeing, that you were desperate enough to flee into the Obsidian Forest of Yend? Why do you dare not tarry or turn back?”

    “What has each of you lost already, torn or shredded by the obsidian trees?”

    “Who is the youth leaning on your shoulder (exhausted, pained, still bleeding despite your best efforts) and how was he wounded? Why is it so important he survive?”

    So right off the bat, before we started talking about PC-PC relationships, we’d established a tone of desperation, a weird alien landscape of obsidian trees that cut and slice, a wounded youth, and a sense of obligation.

    Even without knowing the fantasy tropes, that gives the players a framework to play in that’s probably going to be gonzo-light if not gonzo-free. You start figuring out how the PCs fit into that framework, and pretty quickly everyone’s on the same page and the mood is established and folks will naturally add more details that work within the frame. (Unless you’ve got some tone-deaf jackass who just wants to make dick jokes. Which happens, I guess. But no amount of “this is the tone we want” conversation is going to help with that guy, either.)

    The key, I think, is:

    1) Have some specific tones and themes you want to work with.

    2) Ask questions (and provide initial details) that assert those specific tones and themes.

    3) Do this after the players have made characters but before they start screwing around with bonds or how they know each other. Get these tones and themes established before they have to start figuring out that they, like, met in a tavern or something.

    4) Gently guide or prod their initial answers to stay within those tones or themes. I doubt, for example, that anyone’s going to say that they’re fleeing into the Obsidian Forest to escape a horde of bunny rabbits. But if they do, just a little bit of nudging should do the trick. “Really, bunny rabbits? Well, okay. Why is that so terrifying? What’s the worst about about this horde of vermin? What sort of noise does the horde make that makes it so unnerving?”

    If you’re going for something longer-term, not just a one shot, you could do something similar but for the overall worldbuilding itself. Dirk Detweiler Leichty’s Discern Realities starter is great for this. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1IHa8A33hy7UTBYclpEOHNNLU0

    So are Dirk’s “atlases” for his game Rogue, Warrior, Sage:


    Look at how the questions and—at least as importantly—the possible answers imply tone and theme without dictating details or even restricting possibilities. It’s such a powerful tool!

    drive.google.com – RWS-Atlas.pdf

  6. Excellent Jeremy Strandberg I was going to provide examples of questions but was on my phone, thumb typing.

    Martijn Vos that’s an interesting observation. I wonder how much of the gonzo impulse comes from nervousness about self expression and from testing the limits of creativity. On the other hand I think gonzo can be a symptom of laziness; saying the first fantastic thing that comes to mind to have input and get a reaction without taking a second thought to refine and improve one’s input.

  7. When you pose a question about setting or background and they respond with silly, just say “that’s a bit too gonzo for me. Can you give me something more serious?” I do the same thing when players give superficial or vague answers: “I attack him” “How?” “I hit him with my sword?” “Yes, but exactly how are you going to get around his shield? What would it look like in a movie?”

  8. Massively useful, all. Thank you.

    Yes, I suspect the gonzo impulse is in part a defence mechanism, especially amongst people thinking they might be “doing it wrong”.

  9. An idea along the lines of what Jeremy Strandberg is saying. Maybe instead of starting with a completely blank slate, start with one of Marshall Miller ‘s Dungeon Starters? finemessgames.com – Dungeon Starters – Fine Mess Games

    I’ve had very good luck with these and new players. You can even give the players the choice of the starter, by giving them a one or two sentence outline of the ones you are offering.

    This lets people create a fair amount of setting (by answering the questions) but also keeps things a bit more within a certain space.

  10. I think part of it comes from the freedom of “So I can do anything I want in this game?” combined with being new to the whole thing and perhaps feeling a bit embarrassed about taking things seriously (as weird as that sounds).

    TBH I struggle with this from time to time too, although more often than not we kind of get off task as players rather than take the game itself off theme.

    I like Jeremy Strandberg ‘s idea of playing it straight even when someone’s trying to be goofy (Bunnies? How about creatures from the Fey instead who vaguely resemble rabbits. That’s what the villagers told you anyway). There’s also the idea of being careful of handing over a bit too much narrative “power” when asking a player for something. Framing your questions carefully to be a little more leading can keep this in check.

  11. Something else I’ve been thinking about (and alluding to) is the idea of “creative crystallization.”

    (I think it was Dan Maruschak that I first got this metaphor from. I’ve found it really useful.)

    It’s like, when you make caramel sauce, you have to have a very clean pan, because if there are any impurities to sugar will glom on and start to crystallize, growing off of the impurity and then further growing off of itself. And then, boom, burnt hunk of crystal sugar.

    Well, creativity (yours and your players’) is like the sugar. If you’ve got a blank, empty, wide-open fictional space, there’s nothing to crystallize onto and you just get this hot liquid slurry. Which might be what you want in a caramel sauce, but it’s the opposite of what you want in an RPG. You want crystallization.

    You want hard edges for ideas to catch on a grow off of. The edges shouldn’t be too far apart, because then you get just a bunch of crystals growing on their own. The edges shouldn’t be too close together, because then there’s no room for it do anything unexpected. But you should have some hard edge, and sizable blanks between them, and then add different sugars (your players and you) and heat (the game) and watch things grow.

    This applies to the macro level of creating the world and the micro level of resolving a move. If you’ve established that this fight is on a balcony, with a few support pillars and a chandelier, and tables stacked high with wine and trays of h’ordeuvres, well, it’s a helluva lot easier to come up with something interested to do or say on a 7-9 or a miss or whatever than if the fight is happening in a 10ft x 10ft stone room with an orc, two doors, and a chest.

    And now that I’ve written this, I’m not sure what my point was.

    Oh, right: without hard edges to crystallize on, players… especially new players without a rich cultural heritage of D&D tropes… will likely flail about. And they’ll fall back on what tropes they do have (Monty Python and crappy Ren Faire “huzzah” stuff). Maybe they go with the silly as a defense mechanism, but honestly, I think it’s just that they don’t have any edges to grow on so they just go with the first thing their brain jumps to.

    And for me, apparently, that’s bunnies.

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