We had a Chrismas party a week ago. Instead of board games, I said I could run World of Dungeons. It’s an ultralight hack of Dungeon World which I hadn’t run it before, so we took it on a spin. Because nobody believed that we could play entirely sober, I decided on a full improv session. It degenerated slowly, but inevitably—and undeniably gloriously—into player vs. player mayhem, which surprised me very little. Despite my mistakes as a drunken GM, we had a whole lot of fun, and I learned a few important lessons. These are my notes from the GM’s standpoint.
The idea behind WoDu’s design is cool: what if there was an original game back in 1979, of which Dungeon World is the latest edition? The system fits on two pages, two and a half if you count the experience table. You can download the game as a free pdf, either in retro-color or simple black & white.
The vibe’s definitely old school, sword and sorcery, and very un-Tolkien, which is how I like my fantasy. Maybe the coolest feature is magic, which is non-Vancian and relies on summoning fickle spirits instead. There are only the sleekest, barest bonest of mechanics and it’s made to be hacked, added to and modified. As I find adding stuff easier than modifying it, I definitely like the approach. Instead of a huge variety of moves, there’s only the basic AW mechanic of rolling 2D6 and adding a stat. That gives a lot of power to the GM and enforces the old school feel of the game.
If you take a look at it and feel intimidated by the simplicity, just remember the basics of Apocalypse World hacks: ask a fuckton of questions.
As the party’s theme was Lovecraft, Lauri had wished for a mythos-flavored fantasy adventure. That was the starting point. I’ve been wanting to start a campaign using Jonathan Walton‘s excellent Planarch Codex/Dark Heart of the Dreamer, and that gave me another starting point, that is using a big city as the location, one that takes its name from Dante. So mine was a huge wretched hive of scum and villainy called Malebolge, and the players were on a mission to find the Book of Eibon. That settled, they created the characters, and I asked them questions: where do you know each other from? What about your looks makes you so charismatic? What is special about your crossbow? How come you hang around with that guy even though you’re X and he’s sorta anti-X?
Then the adventure was on. Although we didn’t use character classes, they were quite clearly a fighter, a wizard, a cleric, a fighting dwarf, a rogue-ish ranger, and finally a rogue-ish fighter who joined in some time after we began. They entered a decrepit house and thought they heard a noise from behind a pile of junk. My first thought was it for to be just a rat; but once the players started talking to it and the cleric missed his attempt at persuasion, I let go of my original idea and made it into a pale, lizard-like humanoid which fled into a hole in the floor.
That’s lesson number one from this session: in improv, kill your darlings. You might have a good idea, but don’t force it through. Follow what’s going on at the table, listen to the other players’ input and react to that. The gameplay feels more organic that way.
The dwarf, holding a torch, peeked into the hole, which had something very slimy at the bottom, and a horizontal tunnel into which fled the humanoid. The dwarf followed it by jumping in and threw a 7-9 result, thus barely making it, dropping the torch into the slime, and holding onto the ledge. Miraculously, the torch kept burning and slowly descending inside the slime. The dwarf succesfully crept into the tunnel.
Lesson number two, for running Apocalypse World variants: by asking a fuckton of questions, you keep the fiction alive and have a lot more to go on when you have to think up 7-9 results.
I was quite satisfied with the hole in the ground, the tunnel, and the slime: I like my dungeons three-dimensional. It makes them feel real and alive. (For a really cool fight scene in three dimensions, see Raid: the Redemption.)
The slime turned out to be sentient, and not ostensibly malevolent. It took the form of the wizard and tried to learn their language. It extended its eye into a snake/tongue thing and approached the wizard’s mouth. He took the chance and kissed it, merging with its consciousness and slowing down his subjective time. While they were discussing, the rogue/ranger fellow shot the slime in the head. As a result, the slime dissolved permanently into the wizard’s mind and gave him +1 to INT, which is a really big deal in WoDu.
At this point the last character, the rogue-ish fighter joined in. Everyone went into the tunnel in the hole and found a pile of rocks. The wizard summoned the other one of his spirits, a jet-black millipede called Azaghal, and commanded it to find out what was on the other side of the rocks. The spirit went in, and as it was not commanded to immediately return, it didn’t. Ah, the joy of fickle spirits.
After the pile of rocks (and a single skeleton quickly dealt with), there were three ways ahead. That was a good call from my part: dungeons need to spread out, and players need to have choices to make. The bad call was that I made the first tunnel a long, if winded one, which ended up looking over a huge cavern. My thinking behind the decision was that the middle tunnel ends up way above the cavern, and the two others lead into the cavern, giving the players some tactical choices.
As it is, the players only proceeded onwards and spent a lot of time arguing. With six players, all of whom are into PvP in oneshots, I should’ve seen it coming.
Lesson number three: avoid long and huge spaces in dungeons. They give the players a chance to waste a lot of game time arguing.
The funny thing is, I’ve given Lauri a lot of feedback for his dungeons, which also tend to have a lot of long tunnels and wide open spaces; and I’ve long done it myself. I guess this harks back to not playing a lot of D&D and reading a lot of Lovecraft. I admit that I love underground adventures, ominous tunnels, gargantuan designs, vertiginous heights, and colossal caverns, hinting of creatures and cultures older than man.
But in dungeon crawls, they aren’t always the best of ideas.
The session ended up in a big, long fight. The system ensured some colour (see below) and I thought it was a fairly well-done fight, for a drunken oneshot. However, there weren’t too many tactical elements: there was just this huge space, and a rope leading up to the tunnel the players had come from, a few other tunnels, and a statue of a god in the middle, surrounded by sea water. The antagonists were eight deep ones and a big crowd of the little reptilian humanoids.
Instead of this gigantic cavern in which the whole fight took place, I could’ve and maybe should’ve made it into a complex of interconnected rooms. Such a design would entail more tactical options.
However, the system helped where my drunken improv dungeon design failed. The players rolled a lot of 7-9’s, which always result in tough choices. What I especially like in WoDu, is the lack of a hack’n’slash move. In Dungeon World, going into melee only results in three things: on 10+, only you deal damage to the monster, with the option of doing more damage if you expose yourself to damage in turn; on 7-9, both sides deal damage; or on 6 and less, only the monster does damage. In World of Dungeons, the results of a 7-9 roll (and a 12+, to boot!) are wide open to interpretation. I think it made our fights better, because I could always add colour and choices to the fiction: for example, “do you do damage and expose yourself to the horde of reptilians, or do you press on, avoiding the horde?”
As to the fiction, the players ended up divided and fighting against each other. I have to admit that I was fairly drunk at the time and don’t remember much about how I ran the player vs. player fights. I guess I made them both roll and interpreted the results, with a success on the attacker’s side giving a negative modifier to the defender.
The fighter slaughtered a few of the deep ones, but succumbed in the final battle against the head cultist; they killed each other simultaneously, and the cultist’s phallic sacrificial dagger pierced the fighter, giving his blood to their god. The perfect stone ball started quickly expanding into a misshaped, bubbly thing, and ended up consuming the whole city. Almost everyone died. The dwarf escaped. The end.