Hello tavern!

Hello tavern!

Hello tavern! Newer GM here, and I have a question about “trying again” and how to handle it when players want to do so.

Let me paint the scene:

Our Fighter has recently acquired a cursed item that attracts undead. The characters do not know about the curse. The adventurers return home after some time away and learn that right after they left home last time, there was a bit of an undead rising issue. They were only home briefly, then. Now, they decide to go check out the local cemetery. The Fighter’s presence in the cemetery causes more undead to rise and basically try to eat him.

So the characters are in this graveyard, fighting wave after wave of undead. The Druid, who is shapeshifted as a wolf, describes sniffing out to see if she can smell evil magic, or a necromancer, or a person that’s not one of the characters. She Discerns Realities and gets a 7, and asks “who or what is in charge here?” I tell her that the Fighter is in charge.

The Cleric, who is a valkyrie, describes herself flying over the cemetery and trying to spot signs of an arcane ritual or something like that. She Discerns Realities and gets a 5. I choose to Reveal An Unwelcome Truth and tell her that there are no signs that a necromancer is here or was recently. Perhaps I could have been more descriptive or shared different information or something, but that’s what happened.

So here’s the problem: all my players are used to D&D. They think in their heads, oh, the cleric failed their Perception check, there was something to notice but she didn’t notice it.

So the Thief then describes that she will climb on top of a mausoleum and look around. I am dubious, and ask what she thinks she can discern that the cleric couldn’t. In other words, how is she doing something different than the cleric. She explains she’s looking for ambushes or something. It was thin, but I let her go ahead and roll Discern Realities. She got a 3. I confirm that she doesn’t see any signs at all of an ambush, or anyone else in the cemetery besides them and the undead, and I deal her some damage for her trouble as some of the undead climb up the mausoleum and attack her.

Then the Barbarian is like “I’m going to roll too!” And at this point I say no. I ask what he thinks he can contribute over and above what the Druid, Cleric, and Thief already did, and he admits he can’t think of anything.

We wrap up the scene, and have a bit of an in character chat afterwards. The Druid insists that this is somehow the Fighter’s fault (and indeed, I described all the undead swarming around him and attacking him when possible), and the Thief suggests it might have been the cursed item. But the other party members are skeptical, and ask some allies to look into the undead problem for them.

After the session, the Fighter’s player confesses to me that he didn’t have a great time “because too much relied on us passing these rolls that we kept failing.” He also complained that we couldn’t pass because “we don’t have an arcane character with the right skills.” Now this player is a close friend that I trust, who also GMs many different game systems but not DW. So I peel back the curtain and explain exactly what moves I was making (Reveal An Unwelcome Truth) and explain, again, for the hundredth time, that they are not failing rolls the same way that you fail rolls in D&D.

Anyways, I have two questions that came out of this.

1. More generally, how do you handle situations where the characters want to “try again” at something?

2. More specifically, how do you describe outcomes, in particular to Discern Realities and Spout Lore, that don’t make the players feel like they are missing a clue?

15 thoughts on “Hello tavern!”

  1. I don’t know about the general case, but in the specific story you’ve told, there’s one thing that you could have done differently: when the Druid got a 7 on Discern Realities (and a 7 is a success, remember), you could have said that the cursed item was in charge instead of the Fighter. The question does include “who or what”, and in this case a “what” may have been more relevant.

  2. In a general sense, one thing you could do to make it a non issue to “try again”, is have the miss change the situation in a profound way.

    Every failure should be interesting right? If the players miss rolls, and the situation is such that they feel it’s logical and narratively feasible to “try again”, then maybe that is a clue to you as the gm that you are not making hard enough moves, or moves that drive the narrative.

    I’m struggling with this myself. (Years of trad gm experience). But it’s mostly about just letting go. Let go of the need for control. Let go of the fear of going off the rails. Just do something wild and crazy that you can’t see a way out of (yet).

  3. It doesn’t seem like the situation is changing significantly as they try.

    Thief rolls a 3 after climbing a wall to scope things out? “You almost get a glimpse of something before the unstable bricks under you give way. You’re falling. What do you do?”

    But aside from that, you need to talk to them honestly. “The cleric wasn’t able to spot anything – I’m not hiding it from you, this is the truth because the game doesn’t allow me to lie. What are you trying to find out? Why the undead are here? What other ways do you think you can learn this?”

    I like the wording that City of Mist uses when a player expends a clue to learn something – the GM must either give them an answer or tell them how they can find the answer. “There’s no necromancer” is boring “there’s no necromancer, but they’re all definitely moving toward the fighter…”

  4. For their comment on “because too much relied on us passing these rolls that we kept failing.” That’s not your fault, or even a fault of DW, sometimes characters just have to continue on in the dark. You shouldn’t be going in with the expectation that every detail will be revealed to you. There is certainly a difference between the party needing a +10, or a nat 20, or whatever, to proceed; but if the plot can continue despite a failure, that’s just part of the game.

  5. Let me say what I would have done. When the Druid got the roll my unwelcomed truth would have been a “Post Credit Scene”. This is something I like to do at the end of the night to give the players a glimpse of something happening in the world. It really helps with the roleplaying.

    So in this case, my post credit screen would have been a moment in the life of the cursed swords real owner. “Honey what did you do with my death sword”.

    “I gave that to charity, you never use it anymore and I am tired of cleaning up bits of zombie everywhere”.

  6. Something I like to do once and again is rereading the moves discussions in the rules. One important thing is this line: “The GM always describes what the player characters experience honestly,”. Try to remind yourself and your players of that, and also that “Just like spout lore, the answers you get are always honest ones. Even if the GM has to figure it out on the spot. Once they answer, it’s set in stone.”

    I frequently had to remind myself when transitioning from DnD to not be so coy with information. The most interesting part isn’t figuring out that the sword is cursed, it’s playing to find out what the characters do about that.


    acodispo.github.io – Basic Moves | Dungeon World HTML SRD

  7. Interesting post!

    In pbta you are encouraged in a way to go full meta with the players. Who’s in control here? 7-9 is a success so you answer truthfully : It’s the cursed item that fighter is carrying that calls all these undeads. You will not realize before you deal with all these zombies. Speaking of which, there’s one that crept on you and is about to chomp your leg, what do you do?

  8. By the way, it’s really hard to break the trad game reflexes of long standing d&d players. I’ve been running 7 sessions of DW now and my players still chose the least impactful choices on 7-9 options, they still see a 7-9 as a failure, they never take ownership of the story unless I ask them specific questions, etc. It’s harder work to convert a harden trad game player than a full neophyte! Arm yourself with patience and passion! Be transparent, don’t be shy to tell your friends : look guys, I’m also learning as we go, I mostly don’t know what the heck I’m supposed to do. Let’s all keep open mind as pbta games require a whole new perspective to rpg. Let’s try to play it as if it were the first rpg we ever played and let’s just have fun. Forget about the system, focus on what you’d like to do and I’ll try to translate that into DW terms.

  9. First off, and most importantly, you kinda screwed the druid over. You gave them a crap answer on a 7+.

    When the players Discern Realities and get a 7+, you owe them honest answers from the POV of the character doing the discerning. You don’t have to tell them stuff they couldn’t possibly know, but you should be generous with the truth and the inferences they can make about it.

    So the characters are in this graveyard, fighting wave after wave of undead. The Druid, who is shapeshifted as a wolf, describes sniffing out to see if she can smell evil magic, or a necromancer, or a person that’s not one of the characters. She Discerns Realities and gets a 7, and asks “who or what is in charge here?” I tell her that the Fighter is in charge.

    Problem is, the fighter was not in charge. The fighter was the primary target because he happened to be the one carrying the cursed item. The cursed object was clearly in control of this situation, and if that’s not “evil magic” I don’t know what is.

    So you could have (and IMO totally should have) said something like “Ugh… there is something on the fighter’s person that is just giving off an unholy stench, like the stench of death itself, and you’re sure that’s what’s drawing the undead. Not the fighter himself, but something he’s carrying. You know what it smells like? That he picked up back in . But like, cranked up to 11. What do you do?”

    The druid earned that answer, both mechanically by rolling 7-9 and fictionally by telling you that she was using her wolf senses to sniff out evil magic. And that answer would have totally changed the situation, giving the druid (at least) actionable information and a new conundrum: know that we know that this artifact is attracting undead, what do we do about it.

    As it was, you didn’t give the druid the information that she earned, and the rest of the scene was the party futzing around trying to get the answer to the question that the druid originally asked.

    Second, when someone rolls a miss on Discern Realities, especially in a dynamic situation like a fight, the least interesting thing you can do is say “you don’t see what you’re looking for.” Which is basically what happened with the cleric.

    Instead, escalate the situation aggressively. “Well, you’re up there flying about, looking for a necromancer or signs of a ritual or something, and you think maybe you see something over the ridge, like some weird flickering light, and then you realize that, oh, oh no, those ghostly lights are getting closer. And they’re ghostly because they’re ghosts! Like a dozen of them, spectral riders, charging towards the party, what do you do?”

    Similarly, if the Druid had rolled a miss on that first Discern Realities, the least interesting GM move would have been to say “you don’t smell anything like that,” because that’s basically “you failed at your perception check.” You’ve waves and waves of undead, right? Well, while the druid-as-wolf is sniffing the wind, you have her get tackled/surrounded/bit by a zombie coming out of nowhere.

    You do that, and you never establish “no Druid, you can’t smell anything.” You just use your hard move to change the situation so directly and aggressively that they’ll have to scramble in order to even care about trying to sniff out evil again.

    And if that happened, it actually wouldn’t feel weird at all for the Valkyrie cleric to be like “I take the air and look around, we’ve got to figure out what’s animating these things!” because the Druid never actually failed to detect anything… they got interrupted before they could even really try.

    See the difference?

  10. Internet friends, than you for the feedback. Although it is hard to hear, and to admit it, I was wrong, and only through mistakes can we grow.

    Anyways, I wanted to provide an update. During the next session, I made sure to happen almost right away that the Fighter was interacting with the cursed object again and the Druid immediately recognized that it was the mysterious evil smell she recognized from before.

    So they went to deal with it and destroyed the object by removing it from existence – now they all know that they probably destroyed some evil magic that was doing bad things but they aren’t quite sure what it is they destroyed!

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