Friday, May 13, 2011

OSRAW! Fight that troll, Willow!

Had a good conversation, post-game, last night with George. He's critical of Dungeon World, feels like it's not quite there (or maybe he'd be more strident about it than that!), and one of his particular criticisms was an issue of scale:

In a game of Dungeon World we played at a Jeff-con, the party's bard managed to use a move, Fascinate, to bewitch a frog-god and convince it to follow him to the ocean, where he would threaten to force the god into the sea and kill him (amphibians breathe through their skin; the GM ruled that gods are no exception here) unless the frogman armies left the city alone.

So, from a D&D/OSR perspective, the idea of threatening an amphibian enemy with salt water is pretty badass. Everyone at the table agreed it was a really cool plan, and the GM ruled accordingly.

The other side of the OSR viewpoint could be/would be, however: how the heck did a level 2 bard manage to use his magic on a frog god, just like that? I mean, whatever, but the status of god would matter more than the status of frog, just like how some kinds of undead are harder to repel than others.
Even if it'd be amazing to see the party cleric repel a nasty mummy-king right into a bonfire and watch him light up like a thing on fire, there's still that part of the fiction that says, "Yeah, but, isn't this adversary pretty powerful? Couldn't his incredible evilness deflect the power of this dime-store holy symbol?"

That gets me thinking about the role of levels in Dungeon World - pretty much any charm-related/mind control spell in any incarnation of D&D is going to address the monster's level or hit dice. Player-characters get stronger based on level, not just in terms of benefits like attack bonus and hit points, but intrinsically - the saving throw rolls get better over time 'cause of some inherent excellence that develops with leveling up.

In Apocalypse World, advances can sharpen or broaden a character, and they eventually lead to a character retiring from play. You can't get more than 10 advances before you MUST take the advance, "Retire your character (to safety), and create a new character to play."

Dungeon World has rules for going up to level 10, and it has some moves that don't scale at all to level (such as Fascinate). I think that a direction should be chosen - are levels going to matter a lot more, or are we going to use them only for the vibe they give? I think either option would be cool, but at this point it feels like one of those is not happening. I wasn't particularly bothered by it in play, but it's an interesting notion: there are certain things that low-level characters can do just as well as high-level characters. That definitely grinds against the spirit of D&D. If I have to gain 10xCurrent Level experience points to ding, it'd be nice if it counted for a bit more.

I think the scaling issue could be fixed just by including info about levels, for monsters or for PCs, in a lot more moves.
On the other hand, what if "level" is just a misnomer, just a colorful term, and leveling up is really about gaining more abilities, not necessarily more powerful ones. But, in DW, that does depend on the class: any of a bard's moves can be bought any time you level up, whereas the cleric has some moves for levels 2-5 and some for 6-10.

At the same time, this is all entertaining a particular argument. How I really feel is that it's way too hard to level up in D&D, given the benefits that affords you, and especially when compared to AW.
It might make more sense to flatten the xp requirements for leveling, just making it 10xp/level, or some other flat but high-enough amount that it doesn't happen too fast but you do get to do it often enough that it feels actually possible.
Pre-3rd edition D&D is clearly a game about having almost nothing to work with and getting through a tough spot regardless. The level-up rules are a carrot for extended play, but really, I've never actually played in a D&D game long enough to go up a level. Especially in its OSR incarnations, D&D play seems to mainly be about having the pluck, courage, and sheer good fortune to make it through some really tough scrapes intact.

I don't know if a game like AW, with all kinds of ways to improve your character and to show off your powers, is really suited to capture this particular form of D&D. I think that a sweet fantasy adventure game is perfect for AW, but more for capturing what folks like me wanted D&D to be (a way to live out 80's fantasy flicks and Dragonlance novels), not what it actually was.

My recommendations: flatten the xp advancement, put in stuff about retiring your character, put in stuff about the intended scope or length of a campaign (somewhere between a 2-hour epic and a season's worth of TV), make dungeons a part of play and not the point of play (think Moria in LotR, rather than the module adventures of yore), and dispense with the whole monster-level-thing.
If we change up monsters like that, then various benefits of leveling wouldn't make sense anymore: HP gains, bonuses to the attack roll, or really any improvement that doesn't come from stat gains or new moves.

The other road (keep levels and the design ethos they bring to the table) is totally fine, of course, but I think DW is currently in a sort of middle ground where neither approach is really being explored enough. I think DW is an awesome project, and I want to give it another shot before I put any work into making OSRAW (Old School Revolution - Apocalypse World).


  1. At First, I thought you were addressing this post to Willow Palecek, and that she was having trouble with an Internet Troll.

    I only had a vague idea about what happened when Pierre's bard pied-pipered the Frog God away to party playing at the other table. Which was a totally cool thing! There is, however, a but...

    I could be wrong (I'm working from memory here), but it seemed obvious to me that Fascinate is modeled on the An Arresting Skinner move. I know there are a bunch of textual differences (the target of Fascinate can "only focus on you" or something, whereas anyone who sees An Arresting Skinner disrobe can do nothing but watch), but the sticking point for me is that "as long as you perform," for Fascinate, and "as long as you remove clothing," for Arresting, are *not* functionally equivalent.

    There's clearly a logical, practical limit to Arresting, and moreover the condition for using the move is clearly a cost: the Skinner gives up clothing, dignity, mystery, not being exposed; no matter your perspective, the skinner's definitely giving more than the opportunity cost of not being able to do another Move for the duration. Fascinate, by comparison, is pretty much free and limitless.

    I'd need to play the game again (I'm pretty sure I'm not going to get my exposure to the text by prepping to run it), but it seemed like there were a lot of bits (moves, spells, etc.) that really suffered because the were neither D&D-like nor Apocalypse World-like, and Fascinate was one of them.

  2. That's a good point about the Arresting move - it changes the situation, rather than simply leaving the bard in a kind of stasis.
    I think we should give the game another go and see how that works.

  3. An interesting side note about levelling...

    We all know that there are plenty of levelling methodologies out there, from XP acquisition systems such as "current level times standard multiple (x10, x1000, etc), through to achieving certain numbers of goals (3rd Ed D&Ds 13 encounters per level), then you get options that seem more extreme such as the triangular number advancements (1st lvl cost = 1pt [x standard multiple], 2nd lvl cost = 1 + 2 = 3pts [x standard multiple], 3rd lvl cost = 1 + 2 + 3 = 6pts [x standard multiple], 4th lvl cost = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10pts...etc.

    What I think is more interesting is a methodology like that found in the old Dark Sun setting. Basically, the designers said "This is a tough environment, the weak don't survive...let's start everyone at a minimum of level 3".

    When the monsters are tougher and the characters are tougher it really doesn't make a lot of difference, it just raises the base-line on both sides, but it eliminates some of those fiddly effects that just don't work out right with low levels (eg. 1 hit die, ending up with 1 hit point...level based effects that only work on creatures of lesser level than yourself are useless when you are level 1, but they might have an impact on a group of level 2 (equivalent) creatures if you start at level get the idea.)

    I know I had something else cool to write at this point, but I've lost it...sorry.

  4. @Mike: Oh, jeez - YOU'RE the person I heard those things from! I just reposted what you said in the context of playing Oe D&D at Camp Nerdly-- way to get into my subconscious! :)

    Another fun fact: up til about level 10 or so, the total experience needed to get from level x to level x+1 is about the same amount you need to get from level 1 to level x. So... until that point, you can mostly catch up to your friends after death forces you to start over.