Monday, March 12, 2012

dungeon world - - the Lichen Forest

So I'm now also game-blogging at - - check it out sometime. I think the tone of that blog is going to be a bit more showcasy, and a bit less thinky, given that there isn't much of a story-games community on Tumblr as of yet, as far as I know. It's no G+, to be sure, so I'm not expecting reblogs and in-depth discussions. Hm, maybe I should just post on G+...

Anyway, last night was our first session of Dungeon World. I didn't know what to expect, but quite inadvertently we did some amazing stuff. We're using the Dec2011 preview version of the game, so our experience is probably a mashup of older stuff and things yet to come, but at least we have the v2.0 monster-making rules on hand, which tamps down the insane damage output a bit.

Anyway, so these rules don't have strong guidelines on prep; the first-session advice is basically "start with a tense situation. You'll build on it." Honestly, this really is about all you need - think about that alongside the Bonds questions (which illustrate connections between PCs) and you should have some vague ideas about the setting and about what could be going down in it.
In this case, I thought about their Bonds for a bit, and then resorted to targeted questions - - I asked the Wizard, Osmolord, to tell me, "What were you looking for in these woods, anyway?" He told me, "A place of power." That felt like a sufficiently Wizardly question; glad I asked it.
Then I asked the Ranger, Aranwe, "What's a creature that threatens these woods?" She told me, "That giant demon from Princess Mononoke, the one covered in worm-things." So I looked it up, tweaked it a bit in my head to make it more nature-y, and decided that when it attacks stuff it leaves sprouts and spores behind.

Boom! Gametime. The players have been sent to explore the ruins of a village destroyed by the monster. There is no sign of the villagers whatsoever; only furniture, tools, and the foundations of the houses remain - even the thatch in their roofs was gobbled up by the creature what did this.

So they take a sample of the spores and go back to the ranger's house, which she decided - very much on the fly - to be a cozy, dry cave underneath a big tree in the forest. There's a bio-luminescence theme in the forest, so I decided that elves use jars of water so they can bring glow-foam (glowing freshwater algae) home with them.

The spore sample caused the glow-foams to all freak out for a hot minute and glow bright red. Further study merited a visit with a local sage, Celion the Elf.
Celion had few answers, but he suggested that the reaction from the glow-foam could suggest that a) the spore-source is unnatural and evil and b) maybe it comes from the River of Lights?

So now that's a thing. The players spend the night at his place, and they fail their Make Camp check, so I decided to be a bit of a softie and have Celion's tree-home come to life and walk around while they're sleeping. They wake up just as it's starting to settle into a new spot, some miles west of where they started.

They bid a frightened, confused Celion goodbye and head to the River, where they capture one of the weird glowing jelly-creatures that lives in the water (very Miyazaki, imo) and see what happens when they place it (in a bowl of water) next to the jar with the monster-spores.
It freaks out and tries to claw out of the bowl, its little tendrils twitching in fear.
They relent and separate the two receptacles, but now they really think something ugly is going down. They send Aranwe's hawk-friend Apollo down south to try and spot the monster while they, up north, check out the River of Lights some more, and try to find its source up in the mountains.
That's about where we ended, and I left out some detail so as to present a more streamlined narrative.

Mechanical thoughts:
-Making monsters is a blast with the v2.0 rules! They still do too much damage, but maybe I just need to reframe my expectations of level-1 characters.

-I totally forgot to make the Wizard roll to cast his spells. I'm still giving him the XP, though, as he did use Intelligence (which was highlighted).

-I haven't quite figured out what kind of communication ability the Ranger is supposed to share with an animal companion (can they talk, or does that require Wild Empathy?), but the Command move (much like the Apocaworld Driver's relationship to his car) lets the Ranger get big stat bonuses by incorporating her companion into the action - for instance, you add its Ferocity to your melee rolls when you fight together - - this led to a sweet +4 bonus on a Discern Realities check!

-It looks like it'll be slowish going with XP and leveling. I think combat is probably going to be a good source of XP, though, and honestly I didn't mind the current (non-BBC) stat-highlighting procedure, but it may end up being useful to explore other options.

-The fact that casting a spell counts as a move means that you can highlight your magic-stat and reap lots of XP that way. It is a bit of a risk, of course...

-If anything, I think the Fronts are more comprehensible to me now than they were with Apocaworld, partly because I'm putting less pressure on myself and partly because I'm more familiar now, but also there's an element of "duh, of course!" when designing Dangers. I do miss the more abstract/conceptual options AW presents, but I'm okay with having the human Mayor count as a planar force - construct of Law on the basis that his impulse is, indeed, to "eliminate perceived disorder".

-I'm trying rilly hard not to get ahead of myself with Campaign Fronts and Dungeon Fronts (I don't quite understand these yet - - I think the latter carry the presumption that play will be dungeon-centered, but that's a big if). Basically, I think DFs are for contained or limited-area threats that are directly challenging the players because of their current situation, while CFs are for broader "motive forces", like the movers and shakers of the setting or the world.
I think the best, biggest asset to making Fronts in DW is the very simple, focused ethos behind them: what would happen if the players weren't around to be heroes? Since DW characters are supposed to be problem-solvers, this makes it very easy to have thoughts like "the elves and humans would go to war" or "the Mayor will declare martial law" or "the monster will destroy most of the farming villages before it can be killed".

In AW, I found it more challenging because I didn't inherently see the players as being good guys - they were just around, and even though RPG expectations and even genre expectations were a factor, I didn't point the NPCs quite directly enough at the players in conflict. I eventually got the hang of it, but there was definitely some disconnect early on, with NPCs just doing their thing and almost ignoring the players. But that's going too far (for my purposes) in the direction of creating a world that exists for its own sake, and not enough of creating a world while exploring what the players are up to.

I think that once my AW players started to feel like it was their world to conquer, things got much more interesting, but at first I was acting like the players would break the setting if it tried to come up and talk to them. I feel a lot more competent with it now, and our DW game will get to reap the payoff on that. Session 2 is tonight, and we have a third player joining us! What will he play, I wonder?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dungeon World gems, pt. 1

so in Dungeon World, there's a little gem tucked away in the Cleric section (p34):
"Once a spell is granted the Cleric can cast it. When a spell is cast
it may be revoked by the deity. A revoked spell is no longer granted
to the Cleric and can not be cast until the Cleric Communes and
asks for it again."

So - - let's ponder this for a second. Clerics have lost heavier armor in DW (it counts as Clumsy for them, but not for Fighters), and frankly items like poultices, bandages, and so on really give Cure Light Wounds a run for its money - bandages in particular restore 4hp, while CLW only heals 1d8 (not all that much more, tbh).

But Clerics get a boost from that line "may be revoked by the deity". Not just a power boost, potentially, but that one small sentence means that the DM has a clear, concrete way to comment on a god's current feelings towards its loyal servant. You can also be weird and mysterious by revoking certain spells but not others.

At the same time, this is a challenging, fiddly bit of decision-making to embark on - - the DM must remember her principles and abide by them very carefully. Be a fan of the PCs. It's possible that a god could be punishing its disciple by revoking spells, but if so, the DM should make that clear in other ways so the player can address it. If the god is instead micromanaging, then hints or clues about the "mission" the god thinks the Cleric is on right now would be useful.

Don't think about what you're trying to do to or for the player with revocation. Think, in the fiction, what the deity is trying to do to the cleric.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Last night, I played a little Labyrinth Lord.
I rolled up some ... stats that didn't really fit anything other than a) mediocre thief or b) crappy wizard. So, thief it is!
I reprised my role as Otto Lampblack, but this time around apparently, he is a neutral-good two-spirit individual who worships Frigga, making him something of a rarity in his very butch, Vikingesque hometown of Hommlett.
Yep, classic adventure called The Village of Hommlett - it's the prelude to the Temple of Elemental Evil, apparently.
So! Frogs. We ended up only having time for one encounter, and it was against four giant frogs - 3 the size of dogs, and one the size of a horse. Kind of terrifying, especially when the big one swallowed our dwarf whole. The rules were, "Roll d20 each round. 18+ frees you. You get three tries, and are then digested." Yikes! The dwarf succeeded on his 2nd try, and apparently that kills the horse-frog and results in a 100gp amethyst being found in the frog's belly.

I have never given a frog-related high-five before, but you only get so many opportunities ^__^ Since I'm working on a Labyrinth Lord adventure myself, this was a good experience of the game and what it's like to play. Frankly, since it's OSR, it doesn't have a huuuge difference from other OSR joints I've encountered (like S&W) - it's kind of like all OSR games I've seen (minus Lamentations, which I haven't played yet) are about as different as the daytime vs. nighttime Denny's menu - lots in common, but just some different peripheral options.

Friday, February 17, 2012

the material conditions of fudging

So I was just thinking, when you're running a game, why on earth would you ever fudge the dice or check your swing?
I think part of the blame lies in the module system, and here's why:

- if a module is mainly about the puzzles and the monsters, and not about a story (least of all a time-sensitive one), then players are just there to be challenged and clever and explore lots of stuff. They die? Then I guess they aren't good enough, mwah haha! A challenge here for the DM is to think about what content is likely to be experienced and what content is likely to remain hidden or unknown - - you don't want to put too much work into an amazing set of traps if it's unlikely the players will choose that path in the first place.
[- - Being able to re-visit a given dungeon can reduce the "unseen content" factor, but of course in one-shots and the like, this just isn't a realistic goal]

- OTOH, if a module has a strong component of setpieces (things that are time sensitive and maybe sort of "mandatory" to get the "full experience"), then there's an incentive to make sure at least some of the players survive long enough to see them. And if we put our fancy hats on and try to design puzzles or "experiences" that require a certain minimum number of (living) players, or a particular class is required for some reason to get through it, then the DM is going to feel that much more of a squeeze to let everyone live, always.
[- - Setpiece-focused design is all about the performance. It's like being on a ride! Ultimately, the priority of showing off the module's content supersedes the priority of no-holds-barred exploration. When you start to figure out that the DM isn't going to let you die, it changes the dynamic, and not always for the good.]

You know which side of the fence I'm on! But that doesn't make it any easier - just because you're committed "ideologically" (so to speak) to a particular play ethos doesn't mean you can just snap your fingers and make it happen - apparently that takes practice.
Cases in point:
1- I didn't really think very tactically about how to play Ishigiri the Ogre Mage (homebrew: Dwarf Troubles Lv 1), and instead of him using his 1/day cone of cold on the healer, he used it on a henchman. The dice roll was pretty epic, nonetheless: I ruled that, due to extreme overkill, the henchman's feet broke off and remained frozen to the floor while the rest of his icy corpse went skidding along the tunnel, only to shatter against a door.
2- I did make sure that people had appropriate warning about the pit trap in the opening hallway (homebrew: Lair of the Cyclops Lv 1) - - "the floor's creaking", "the dwarf senses a trap", etc. Once you are given a warning, and you keep walking on the creaking tile floor, it's on your head ^___^ There's a trick to it - imo, in order to be a reasonably likable and trustworthy DM, you can be cruel, disgusting, and vicious, but only insofar as you have established reasonable credibility (a highly localized phenomenon) regarding your ability to be fair.

What is fair? I think it's a fairly simple matter of establish-then-execute. AW & DW talk a lot about this: do what the fiction demands. How do you know what it demands? Well, kid, the MC/DM moves tell you what you can put into the fiction and when, but the players do a lot of that for you and you just wait til they screw up a dice roll.
Creaking floor? OK, the pit trap is good to go.
Glowing eyes? The cultist's magic powers are good to go!
In the case of Ishigiri, I think a frost theme around his lair could have signaled that that's one of his signature powers. That, or fog-breath, or something. Hints like that are big, loud, alarm bells to the veteran adventurer, and something subtle really can establish your credibility enough (adventurers like to blame themselves for dying...)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

gm style flowchart/eulogy for a PC

Yes, this chart has some age to it. but you don't come here to read new ideas, do you? haha
The full image doesn't fit in this space, but the format in that link there is pretty good.

[below is x-posted at Story Games also]
So! Different topic: last night's AW session. One of our protagonists died.
Keep in mind that this PC was nicknamed the Ronin, took potshots at Mudflat villagers kind of "just because", and never fully backed down from a fight, not once.

Let's explore this a little more. His name was Rue Wakeman, a Gunlugger. He had bad, bad scars from when his boss, Diamond the Chopper, beat him up and left him in the desert, where his wounds went bad and exposure did its thing, and made him really hard to look at.

He lived in a drainage tunnel that fed a semi-toxic river outside of Adobe-town; hallucinogenic mold grew inside the tunnel, which Rue ate to open his brain to the Maelstrom. Doing so got him in trouble a couple times, like the time the Mudflatters finally arrested him for deadly assault and he ended up thinking his captors were dog-headed monsters serenading him, so he shot one and ran away.
The guard lived, but only just. Thanks to Boo the Angel on that one, I think.

Anyway. So Rue forged his nemesis when he was walking past the Mudflatter work-camp in town (across the river from the Mudflatter village of Northside) and a couple of guys stopped him to ask if he'd be up for making a little money.
Rue: Sure, what's the job?
Roy (Mudflatter): There is a ... forgive me, but a child we wish for you to assassinate [the playgroup started telling John, Rue's player, that this must be a reference to Dr. Last, a semi-immortal warlord from down south whose current form is that of a 6yo boy.]
Rue: A child, huh?
Roy: Regrettably, sir. Will you take the job?
Rue: *shoots Roy* No.

Roy's friend runs away. When Rue is eating, later that night, Roy and two buddies jump him. Rue manages to kill two of them and send Roy packing again, but this time the Mudflatter camp all saw what happened and formed a big old gang to hang him and put an end to this.

Ol' Rue got away that time, but after Diamond's boss, Havok, ate it in a gunfight down south (Boo got him), and things started to settle down a bit, Rue made the error of robbing some Mudflatters playing dice in an alley. Well, Rue had been sleeping in the desert for a bit, ever since the first near-lynching incident. Now that he was back, and they sure knew his face, about fifty Mudflatters got together to stop him for good.

They chased him out of town, throwing rocks. The elder of Northside sees what's going on, sees Rue's defensive counter-fire, and sighs. He was in the middle of a visit with Diamond and Vega (the Operator, old boss of Adobe-town), and apologized before giving the order for the village guards to shoot Rue on sight.

Diamond: Honestly, I helped him get out of town last time a mob came after him. I'm done.
Vega: He'll probably be okay.
Elder: ...

So the gunmen from the village go charging out into the desert, and soon enough they intercept the mob and a tiring Rue. He turns to lay a little cover fire before taking off down a nearby dune, and flubs the roll. So he doesn't get away, and they get him with small arms fire (2-harm; Rue has 2-armor), and he rolls a natural 11 on the +harm move.
I tell him he's incapacitated.

Right before Rue dies, A. (playing Vega) turns to me and says, "Is Rue gonna die? That's harsh."
Me: "I mean, it's what the fiction demands. I have mixed feelings about it, but I can't not do it."
A brief discussion of "be a fan of the PCs" vs. "look through cross-hairs" ensues.

This is when I get a little nervous. I've hardly killed any PCs in my time, so I feel kind of bad. I describe Li, one of the Mudflatters, a guard who's got a thing for Vega, coming up and delivering the fatal back-of-the-head shot himself. He then goes to throw up.

Later, we're packing up to go, and John (ex-Rue) says, "Maybe I'll play a Faceless next. I really want to do something that's noticeably different from Rue, though." Clearly I got worked up over nothing. I did have to sit with it for a couple of hours (I have anxiety; what can I say?) but I got over it, and Lord knows, John got over it in about sixty seconds. Next week, onward and upward!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

tolkien and class politics

[inspired by a Michael Moorcock essay on the success of the nursery-rhyme motif in the fantasy genre, found here]

Orcs are the working class. The Tory vision of the working class, at any rate.

While hobbits and Men and Elves and Dwarves all come from storied ancestry and can recount the names of their forefathers and the grand halls (or grand burrows) from which they hailed, Orcs have no fathers. Orcs have few names, and of course the Black Tongue is nasty, brutish, full of short, sharp sounds.
Orcs toil; we never see the Free Peoples toiling, except for a bit of farming now and again.

Orcs build. Orcs make engines that spurt flame; Orcs raze whole forests and dig deep, disgusting pits where they breed! Orcs, ironically, are the only race of Middle Earth whose breeding habits are put (mostly) on display; they are the only race that is growing, that is rising, that is gaining in strength. All around them are declining princes and listless civilizations. The Orcs have plenty of room to expand, and their industrial masters are happy to oblige.

Now, on the one hand there are a great many literary devices wrapped up in Orcs that make them easy to dislike, especially in the films: they're smelly, slimy, cannibalistic, unpredictably violent, and vaguely simian. Tolkien, at once, rolls dark skin, primate features, and spontaneous generation (they apparently "grow" in pits and come forth fully muscled and fully grown) into an altogether unpleasing whole.

At the same time, many fans of the trilogy find a certain pleasure in Orcs: they are dangerous, they are serious, they wear the coolest/scariest outfits, and they hang out with Wizards who do more than light fireworks and talk to bugs.

But again, Orcs are Tolkien's very Tory image of the working class. They're a dark-skinned, foreign-tongued horde of builders and soldiers and ruiners who eat anything and everything, are a threat to all (even themselves), and, most tellingly, are constantly under the yoke of powerful, singular demagogue intellectuals who dwell in not-quite-literal Ivory Towers.
Compare that to the Istari, who are angels in the shape of old men (a creative choice I can't recall seeing anywhere else but in It's a Wonderful Life). One Istari in particular is deeply fascinated by the middle-class, status-obsessed Hobbits of the Shire, and seems to like nothing better than spending time in their twee, half-size pavilions and houses and so forth.

The Orcs come to despoil the natural world, and cannot stop themselves. Their actions are not truly their own; truly, Tolkien's chief Enemy is the future, industrialization, science; Orcs, not being exactly scientists (beyond an offhand comment that they "made many clever things, but no beautiful ones"), are nonetheless the Industrial Army, ready and willing to build, destroy, and kill in the name of hated Progress.

While pretty much every major character among the Free Peoples is the descendant of some king, the Orcs, as I said, breed in holes in the earth. Ironically, Tolkien has painted us a world where dark-skinned, violent humanoids would probably be called Mudbloods if the opportunity came up, and in which the Wizards must save us all from the dangerous, disgusting creatures of the earth that seemingly live only to breed and to build. Old men in hats will save us from those dirty workers, wot wot?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Apocalypse World, session 9ish::

so Diamond the Chopper leads his gang and his friends to the city of Bluesquare, to confront his employer, the warlord Havok.
and by confront i mean kill. there's a big old battle in and around the town hospital - - we see some fancy gunplay, diversions, and decoy tricks from Rue the Gunlugger. Diamond drives his gunjeep right into the hospital lobby, and runs dudes over like Brock Samson.
Boo the Brainer (former Angel) uses a six-gun and a little psychic force to corner Havok in the darkened upper level of the hospital, where zhe shoots him and his bodyguards dead.
it doesn't really sink in until they're burning the corpses of Havok's crew that anyone thinks to ask, "So, did we kill Havok back there, or what?"

i laugh (they've been hunting this guy for like 6 sessions, and then he dies almost off-camera) and nod my head.

somewhere in there, Diamond opens his brain to the weird to find out how the good townspeople are holding up after all the carnage, and he rolls like a 3. he pops, taking 1-harm (ap psychic silent). he becomes semi-vegetative for a little while, very suggestible but generally calm and mindless for about 30 minutes or so.
around that point, what's left of his gang appoints itself a new leader named Clarion (sarcastic blond dude). the gang goes home to Adobe.

anyway, it's a few days later and Diamond is living down in the city instead of up in the fortress. and he's ok with that. returning late one night, the gate-guards pretend not to recognize him, and he doesn't get mad. an anthropologist in a scramblesuit (he is known as a Shifter) comes by to interview him about, you know, stuff.

Diamond's player, Biff, has taken upon himself to become a sort of commie paladin - - he never starts a fight, he set up communal medicine and food supplies in Adobe, and he ruthlessly crushes saboteurs and opportunists. now that he isn't in charge, he's trying to fill out every last improvement slot in his playbook before he's forced to retire, and he plans to watch the new boss (that Clarion guy) like a hawk until then.