I promise I’m (almost) done mulling over game systems and talking about what might or might not work.
Instead, lets talk about the game and what really did or did not work.
Character generation in Dungeon World is dead simple, and gets even simpler when you have only one player, because you won’t run into a problem where two players want to play the same character class.
At least, that’s theory I went in with.
The problem is, Kaylee can’t decide between the Druid (animal shapeshifting is a big draw) and the Ranger (animal companion is almost as good as shapeshifting, plus some cool stuff with bows and dual wielding). She also takes a hard look at Wizards, but isn’t ready to with the extreme social stigma mages suffer in this setting, first hand.
Eventually (and I do mean eventually) she settles on Ranger, and after a bit more dithering, decides to be a human. Female dwarves don’t appeal at this point, and the elves backstory is (like the circle mages) a little too oppressive to be attractive.
I sell her on having Mabari Warhound as her animal companion (she names him “Wolf” to make my future narrations extra confusing), which probably indicates that she’s either very lucky, a noble, or both. She writes down a bond with Wolf (he’s smart enough for it to be relevant/changeable).
We talk a little more about where she wants to start out, and between that and the history bits that she likes, I decide to save myself some time and start out with something a lot like the Human Noble origin from the video game.
Welcome to Castle Cousland
“For generations, your family, the Couslands, has stewarded the lands of Highever, earning the loyalty of your people with justice and temperance. When your country was occupied by the Orlesian Empire, your father and grandfather served the embattled kings of your land. Today, your father and elder brother once again take up House Cousland’s banner in service to the Crown——not against the men of Orlais, but against the bestial darkspawn rising in the south.”
Blah blah blah. I get Kaylee caught up on what’s going on in Ferelden right now: rumors of a rising darkspawn presence in the south of Ferelden has been confirmed, and a royal decree has gone out from King Cailan: All knights, banns, arls, and even the two teryns of Ferelden are tƒofo lead what forces they can muster to the ancient Tevinter fortress of Ostagar (originally constructed as a barrier to barbarian raids from the southern wastes); there to unite as one army to wipe out the darkspawn and stop a new Blight before it has even begun.
(It’s possible the King was raised on a few too man heroic tales as a boy, and wants his reign to be marked by thrilling heroics, one way or the other.)
More importantly to our young Elana Cousland, her father and brother are soon leading Highever troops south to Ostagar, her father’s highest-ranking Arl (Rendon Howe, of Amaranthine) rode in today, and her father has sent for her.
The thing is, Howe is here, but his troops aren’t. The tardiness of Howe’s men is being discussed in the main hall as Elana enters; Howe is all apologies and general swarminess, but Kaylee is playing Elana especially polite and obedient, so she doesn’t say much. Her father explains that due to the troop delay, he’s going to hold his departure, but send the Cousland forces ahead with Elana’s older brother Fergus; he also informs Elana she’s going to be left in charge of the castle until the two of them return (heady responsibility for someone only just turned 16). While they talk over particulars, something Elana asks about the fight reminds her father (and me) of another visitor at the castle, and he sends for Duncan, the leader of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden, who is passing through Highever on a final recruiting search before joining the King at Ostagar to face the Darkspawn.
I wasn’t sure how Kaylee would react to the Grey Warden showing up – maybe eagerly volunteering? Who knows?
Turns out, while Kaylee is very into the Grey Warden thing, Elana isn’t so excited, and gets a little bug-eyed when Duncan gently jokes “I’m sure your Ser Gilmore is a fine candidate, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that your daughter would also make a fine Grey Warden…”
The Teryn shuts this down – he’s not eager to send all his children into war, and jokes that if he did, his wife wouldn’t let him see tomorrow – and this is what actually gets a rise out of Elana – she’s not eager to jump into the fray for no reason, but she’s even less happy about other people making decisions for her. She and her father politely snipe at each other about this (“I bet I could convince mother…” “I’d take that bet, and sell tickets…”) until her father begs off and Elana bows and heads out.
During this scene, I also mentioned Arl Howe doesn’t seem comfortable with grey warden showing up, which leads Kaylee to some actions that trigger a Discern Reality move that Kaylee maxed out – she picked up a few interesting bits from the conversation: Duncan didn’t really expect her to say yes, but felt he had to at least ask, Arl Howe is actually quite nervous at the unexpected arrival of the Grey Warden, and her father is proud that Duncan asked after her as a warden, even though he refused the request.
As a side note, I want to draw attention to the way I worded the previous paragraph: Kaylee took some actions that triggered a move – one of the ‘basic’ moves in Dungeon World that anyone can do.
This is familiar territory for Dungeon World or really * World players in general, but it bears calling out here, explicitly: there are a fairly low number of ‘moves’ available to players and their characters, and the dice mechanics for them (really the only dice mechanics in the game) are very simple: roll 2d6 and add the bonus from a relevant stat (STR, DEX, CON, INT… you get the drill). You’re awesome when you roll high, and results get progressively more interesting the lower you roll (really bad rolls also get you experience points – failure is the best teacher).
Now, the tricky trap here is that the GM does not just say “Okay, to do [whatever it is you’re doing], do a Strength check.” You could certainly play a game that way, ad-libbing your way through a series of stat checks (it’s probably the easiest way to add non-combat skill-like rolls to basic DnD), but that game is not Dungeon World.
In DW, there are no ad hoc stat checks like those I’ve described; there are a set list of basic moves, augmented by special case and character-specific moves, and each of those moves have very specific criteria that make each move available: the fiction/play needs to (1) show the character taking specific sorts of actions in (2) a specific sort of situation. Those two things then trigger the move, and allow dice rolling.
What this means is that the game system needs the players to describe what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and needs the GM to provide “sensory feedback” for whatever they’re doing, or the dice system kind of falls apart, or at least gets really boring. Now, This rolls into another one of those rules-that-just-look-like-advice: “moves must flow from the fiction, and the result of a move should be more fiction” (I’m paraphrasing). You never say “I’m going to hack and slash” and then roll – you describe your attack (what you’re doing, and how), which then triggers/justifies/allows a Hack and Slash roll, which results in more description.
In short, in order for Dungeon World to work, you need to play (and run) it a lot more like Amber (where the fiction is pretty much all you’ve got) or classic DnD (where you only have a combat system, so everything else was usually narration/fiction), and a lot less like a tactical mini-game (modern flavors of DnD).
I mention this because I did it correctly here, in this scene, and totally screwed it up a bit later, when we got to a fight. (In other words, I screwed up the element of the game where, over the years, I’ve picked up the bad habit of allowing the game system to stand in for coming up with cool narration.)
Mischief in the Pantry (Kill Ten Rats)
Where were we? Right: Elana makes her excuses and leaves Duncan, Arl Howe, and her father to talk.
She doesn’t get very far before Ser Gilmore finds her. Gil’s a good friend, only a few years older than her, and they grew up sparring together (against her mother’s half-hearted protests); Elana was more than a bit jealous when he was knighted two years ago. Gil informs her he’s on a mission from her mother: Elana’s dog (the Mabari war hound I mentioned) is in the massive pantry of the castle’s kitchen, Nan the cook is hot enough to boil water, and mother wants her to fix it.
Elana heads off to do so, with Gil tagging along (“to make sure it’s done, before your mother can find me again”). She gets to the kitchen, where Nan is threatening to skin her dog, and the kitchen servants are flat-out refusing to go into the pantry with “that beast” going crazy in there.
(Luckily, Kaylee and I know very well what a loudly barking dog is like – my imitation of this sound brings our own war hound racing into the room, quite confused.)
They head into the pantry. The dog isn’t chewing anything up or eating a prize roast – he’s sort of pacing, growling, and randomly barking his head off. He settles down somewhat when Elana gets there – less barking – but actually gets more anxious and antsy. Elana tries to figure out what’s going on, and a Discern Reality roll tells her that her dog’s body language is “Oh good, someone who understands me is now here and can FIX THE THING,” and that Wolf’s main stress seems to be focused on the back wall of the pantry, where there are a bunch of flour bags stacked up vertically. (“Like bowling pins,” is how Kaylee summarized it.)
Elana pulls one of the bags out of the way, and it comes apart in her hands; it’s been chewed through in the back, as have quite a few of the other bags, and the culprits – massive rats, “grey-bodied and fat, like ticks” – first cringe back and then burst into the room, swarming toward Elana.
Combat, as they say, ensues.
So here is the bit where I kind of screwed up. The introduction of the rats was suitably tense and creepy and really got Kaylee invested, but once the fight actually got going, my GM-ing muscle memory defaulted to something like “okay, it’s your go, roll hack and slash…” which is kind of terrible.
One of the main reasons it’s kind of terrible is because the GM doesn’t roll anything in DW – it’s all player rolls. If you do hack and slash, an awesome roll means you hit the guy and shut his offense down, a decent roll means you basically trade damage, and a bad roll means it’s all bad guy damage, incoming. So… if there’s little to no narration going on, it’s literally just a series of rolls by the players until the numbers on the paper all hit 0. Terrible with a group of players, outright horrible with only one player.
Luckily, I didn’t fail with the fiction more than a few times, because the dice system pushed me to come up with stuff on mixed results and failures anyway, which is FANTASTIC, because it forces the GM to figure out the fiction and come up with interesting failures, even if their default is kind of lazy “okay, your go, roll” stuff.
During the fight, I used mixed successes and failures to put some hard choices to Kaylee, including:
- You can get the rats off you, or get them off your Dog. Who’s getting clear and who’s taking a hit? (She protected her dog. Good girl.)
- You can leave yourself open to danger from behind, or cover Gil from the rats on the shelves he doesn’t see. (Again, covered her ally, not herself.)
The rats were wiped out (I made a ‘kill ten rats’ joke that Kaylee didn’t get, because I’ve failed as a father), Gil bandaged her injuries (“before your mother sees”), they calmed down the kitchen staff, and headed out with Wolf in tow.
After that, it was a bit more roleplay with Elana and her family members (Father, Mother, her brother Fergus, his wife, their son (her nephew Orin, ten years her junior and often her babysitting responsibility) and their “casual” noble guests (a friend of Elana’s sister-in-law, and her son, about Orin’s age).
Then Fergus rode out of the castle with all but a few of the Cousland guard with him, and the rest of the family had an early night.
Took awhile to talk about it, but the session was fairly short (as most of ours are, since we squeeze them in where we can), and we picked up in session two with a bad dream, and Wolf waking Elana up with some godawful loud barking in the middle of the night.
It was only after Kaylee was off to bed and I was replaying the session that I realized what I’d screwed up during the combat and, knowing what sort of things the NPCs were going to be trying to accomplish in the next session, I made a mental note to really go big on description/narration, so Kaylee would (a) follow suit and (b) have something to work with for her own narration.
This was absolutely the right thing to do, but (as I’ll share in the next post), there were some problems with going too big with narration – a “lines and veils” issue that I had to sort out with Kaylee, and which almost killed this game before it properly got going.