Summer Break RPGs with Kaylee, #5: Tearful Farewells

After Kaylee voiced her concerns with the way things were going during the last session, we started off this session by immediately addressing what was going on in her other brother’s rooms – to address Kaylee’s concern about Elana’s little nephew being killed.

While her mother wailed and beat her breast a bit, leaning on the splintered doorway and urging Elana to “just look away”, Elana looked closer, and realized that neither the woman nor the boy on the floor had the right hair color for her sister in law or her nephew. A Discern Realities confirmed the victims were the two guests of her sister in law, and that Oren and his mother must be somewhere else.

Elana figured that, if they’d realized something was going wrong in the castle, Oren would have hidden and since Elana had been his default playmate/babysitter for the last few years, she had a pretty good guess where he might have gone (actually, she had three good guesses, and checking out Oren’s hiding spots would take some sneaking about the castle).

With this information in hand, Elana and her mother set out to look for Oren and reunite with Elana’s father (hopefully).

Along the way, I had Kaylee Defy Danger to get through the castle without running into more Howe guards while she checked a few of Oren’s hidyholes. She got a mixed success, at which point I threw a couple panicky castle servants in her path. They were freaking out and wanted to run for their lives, and Kaylee wanted to calm them down and get them to stay with her and her mother. Sounds like a Parley move. Kaylee got a mixed success, so she needed to arm the servants before they developed enough backbone to stick around – this, she accomplished by backtracking to the dead Howe guards outside the family suites and taking their weapons.

Having expanded her little group, I then had a small patrol of Howe guards stumble into them (mixed success on that defy danger, after all), and we had a bit of a skirmish, which they handled fairly well (Kaylee was much less inclined to take a hit to protect a servant, but luckily for him it didn’t come up.

They eventually made their way to the main hall of the castle, where Ser Gilmore and few men are in the process of being overwhelmed by an equal number of Howe soldiers, plus two archers and a circle mage. Kaylee wanted to get the drop on the mage, so I asked for a Defy Danger (the danger being the mage spotted her and lit her up like a votive candle) – she got a complete success, which allowed her to use her Ranger “called shot” move on the mage: in this case, an automatic hit, with enough rolled damage to take him out in one shot as she and the others surged into the room. It was a brief, fierce battle, but with Wolf mucking up the archers and the servant and Elana’s mother flanking the soldiers, most everyone came out in good shape.

Ser Gilmore sent his men to reinforce the main doors (already being pounded on from outside) and hurriedly reported Teryn Cousland had headed for the servants’ entrance to keep (in the kitchens) to secure it for his family’s escape. Duncan the Grey Warden had gone with him.

Elana wanted to go her father, but wanted Ser Gilmore to go. Parlay did not work out for her in this case, and Gil stood his ground, saying he’d hold the gate until the family could escape, as was his duty. Elana nodded, resigned, and Gil ran off to the doors.

Elana and her mother headed for the kitchens, and found the halls oddly silent. The kitchen, by contrast, was a warzone – Howe bodies everywhere, in what must have been a massive melee. Elana followed a blood trail into the pantry, and found her father propped up against the intact bags of flour. Duncan was nowhere to be seen.

Father, mother, and daughter had a quick reunion, and Bryce confirmed that Oren and his mother were already out in the stables, hiding. Whew. Elana wanted to get him up and get them all out of there, but Bryce shook his head.

“I’m afraid I would not survive the standing…”

Duncan (who had been chasing down the last Howe soldier from their previous fight) returned. Bryce asked the Grey Warden for his help in getting his family to safety, and Duncan said he would, with conditions: he’d come to Highever to claim a recruit, and he and his duty demanded he find that recruit if at all possible. With Ser Gilmore unavailable… he looked to Elana.

Bryce closed his eyes and nodded. “If you get the rest of my family – my grandson and his mother and my wife away, then yes.” He looked at Elana “our duty is to protect Ferelden and then our family – in this new service, you will be doing both.” Elana nodded.

They got ready to depart, but Elana’s mother refused, saying she wasn’t going to leave her husband behind.

Kaylee’s response was a shouted “Aww come on!” and she tried to talk her mother into going with them, to take care of Oren, if nothing else. I called for a Parley, and she blew it (earning the last XP she needed to get to level 2).

“It’s your time to shine, my daughter. Tell Fergus what’s happened. Tell the King. Get away from here, and I will buy you time.”

Elana and her father had a few more words, which I’m a bit proud to say had us both smiling sadly and a little misty eyed. It was a sad scene, but a good one, and cemented Arl Howe as a long-term bad guy for both Elana and Kaylee.

She and Duncan got the stables, took up Oren and his mother, then snuck out of the the castle and into the city of Highever. There, Duncan led them to a “potential recruit” named Ser Jory – a big man with a farmer’s face and a very pregnant wife. After some talk, they came up with a plan for Ser Jory and his wife to head to Denerim (the capital) with their new “maidservant” and Jory’s new “son”, there to wait for word from either Elana or Fergus.

With that, Duncan and Elana headed for the city gates.

“Horses can wait,” murmured Duncan. “For now, we need to get away from here. Stealth first, then speed, then Ostagar.”

“And the king,” said Elana. She had much to tell him.

Summer Break RPGs with Kaylee, #4: Lines and Veils

The title for this post doesn’t have anything to do with the story of what happened in the game. It has everything to do with what happened with me and my player.

“Lines” and “Veils” are terms originally used in this context with Ron Edwards’ Sex and Sorcery, a supplement for Sorcerer. The basic idea is there’s a line that marks subject matter that isn’t allowed in-game, and a “veil” behind which lie events with are allowed, but not described in detail.

I try to be the best dad I can be, but sometimes I miss the mark. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Dragon Age that there’s some subject matter that doesn’t suit everyone, either because it’s a bit too graphic, or (more often) because it plays hardball with the emotions, and sometimes I don’t successfully identify what those elements are, and need them pointed out.

It’s like this: every time I’ve run any tabletop game based in Thedas, someone at the table has teared up. Once it was over a dog, and I stuck to my guns. Once it wasn’t, and I realized I’d missed the mark.

This time, I flubbed up or nearly flubbed up a couple times, so by all means learn from my mistakes.

Before we played, I made a few notes about the main NPCs in this part of the story, and what they wanted, so I could act accordingly. The two main ones:

  • Arl Rendon Howe – wants to “reclaim” the seat of Highever that his family once held (many generations ago). He will stop at nothing to accomplish this, up to and including the murder of innocents. He has orchestrated a situation in which he has the overwhelming advantage, playing on the trust Teryn Bryce Cousland has in him.
  • Duncan – needs a strong Grey Warden candidate to bring back to Ostagar. He has several options within Castle Cousland, and won’t leave without one of them, unless staying means the failure of his whole mission.

Howe Treachery

In the night, Arl Howe’s “delayed” troops reveal themselves and attempt to seize the castle. This force vastly outnumbers the skeleton crew of Cousland guards within the keep, and it’s only through the quick thinking of one (now deceased) guard that the Howe forces don’t take the castle and kill everyone in a matter of minutes: most of the attacking troops are still outside, trying to bash their way through the keep’s heavy portcullis and front gates, both of which have been secured with deadman weights that take a dozen men to lift.

Although she went to bed early, Elana does not sleep well. Her rest is troubled by a disturbing dream in which she relives the earlier conversation with her father, while the face of a simpering Arl Howe transforms into the narrow, long-nosed mask of one of the fat grey-bodied rats she fought in the pantry.

It’s almost a relief when Wolf’s ferocious barking wakes her. Normally, she’d try to keep him quiet, as her quarters connect via a large common room with the other family apartments (one suite for her mother and father; the other for her brother, his wife, and their son), and she’s gotten in trouble for her furry companion’s noise, in the past.

She shushes her pet, but he won’t be entirely silenced, and continues to growl menacingly at the door to her room. Elana remembers both the pantry and her “Arl Howe as Evil Rat” dream, and both things prompt her to action: she eases out of her bed and over to a chest where she’s tossed her armor and other weaponry.

Finally, she shushes Wolf properly, and prepares to pull open her door to see what’s going on out there.

Kaylee doesn’t know why yet, but this action triggers a Defy Danger move, and I have her roll.

No one, least of all the two soldiers on the other side of the door, were expecting the result.

She nails the roll, and pulls open her door just as the soldier outside was about to kick it in. He sprawls in the doorway, doing a painful split, while his companion (holding a nocked bow), gawps.

To her credit, Elana’s first instinct isn’t to run a helpless man through. She demands to know what’s going on, but the only response is the man on the ground scrambling back and getting to his feet (she notices the emblem of Arl Howe on his shield), and the other man growling “kill her!”

Kaylee pulls a nice little tactical move, drawing back to the right and hard against the wall, so the archer has no angle on her and the closer soldier will have to come partway into the door to engage her, blocking his ally.

After some goading, the guy with the shield surges in, head on a swivel, and he locks in on Elana.

Unfortunately, he forgot about Wolf, who rushes him from the side, and with that distraction, Elana is able to run him through, just above the neckline of his armor.

This was the first point where we hit a slight disconnect between Kaylee’s expectations and the fiction. She’s played tons of games with me, but they’ve almost all been supers genre, or inspired by stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender or pulp adventure. In short, they may have a lot of action, but generally, no one’s dying.

Basically, this more brutal fantasy setting was a surprise to her, and she hesitated more than a little when she realized her character had actually killed someone. It didn’t freak her out, exactly, but it set her back on her heels a little bit.

The archer had pulled back further into the common room, and Elana didn’t have any desire to charge a drawn longbow. Much better to engage in kind. Elana’s bow was still on the chest, on the other side of the room, so Elana dove across the doorway to get to it.

I called for a Defy Danger + DEX, and Kaylee blew the roll (and got a point of XP!). I asked her if she was going to get hit, or if Wolf was going take the damage for her (and be out of the rest of the fight) – the bow sang, Elana pushed Wolf ahead of her, and the arrow went halfway through her calf muscle. OW.

Kaylee’s character actually got the crap beat out of her during this and the next session – by the time it was all done, she was down to single digit hit points and I was skimming the “Last Breath” move.

Another side note: There’s actually a Ranger move that lets your animal companion soak a hit for you, then recover later. I wasn’t using that move (Kaylee doesn’t have it), but simply giving her a hard choice on her failed roll. Kaylee really doesn’t like her pet taking a hit in her place (also, he really does help with the fights).

Elana gets her bow while the bowman taunts her. She readies her arrow, holds Wolf back by his collar, and then whispers “Go.” Wolf charges through the door, and Elana steps out (onto her good leg) and Kaylee rolls Volley + Dex, getting perfect boxcars. The archer wastes his shot, missing Wolf, and drops before the war hound even reaches him.

Elana calls the dog back immediately and scans the large common room. Two more guards are pounding on the double doors leading into her parents apartments, making a great deal of noise (they’ve almost gotten through and are shouting threats at whoever’s inside). They haven’t noticed what’s going on on behind them.

Kaylee wants to sneak out and surprise them with her bow, and a successful Defy Danger lets her do a called shot and take one guy out before they realize she’s there. The other guy dies before he can reach her.

She rushes to the door and calls out, and her mother responds, then forces the door open. She’s donned armor as well, and has a well-worn (if not recently worn) sword in hand. Her eyes go wide at the arrow sticking out of her daughter’s leg, and tears up a sheet to make bandages while they catch each other up. Elana’s father never came to bed – he was up talking with Arl Howe, and he mother doesn’t know if he’s even still alive. If he is, he’s probably in the main hall, defending the main entrance into the keep. Her mother, once shown the Howe blazon on the soldiers’ shields, is livid and swearing a blue streak.

Her mother then has Elana bite down on one of her own arrow shafts while she works the other shaft out of Elana’s leg, bandages the wound, and tells her they need to get to the main hall.

Heading back down the common room, they see the door to her brother’s rooms, broken off its hinges, and two bodies on the floor within – one woman, and one child.

We stop there for the night.

On the whole it was a good session, and Kaylee was really into the scenes and the tactics of it, but a few minutes after she went to bed, she called me in and told me she wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep playing.

I asked her why, and she told me that she wasn’t used to the kind of fighting we were doing. I’d been going into lots of detail about what was going on the fights, but thing is, I was going into the wrong kind of detail – stuff she wasn’t comfortable with. I told her that I could be more vague about certain things – saying “he goes down” or “she out of the fight” to kind of soften things up (put it behind a “veil”), but the setting was the sort of thing where people were going to die, so we needed to be at least okay with that, or we should stop.

She was okay with “vague death,” but then went on to say she really wasn’t okay with what looked like her character’s six year old nephew getting killed. This was much more of a “lines” kind of conversation, and I reassured her that while things were pretty grim in her brother’s room, they weren’t as bad as they seemed, and if she’s trusted me to do another session, we could work through that.

So: some stuff goes behind veils, and some stuff needs to be behind a line and just not get touched. In hindsight, I should have guessed all that ahead of time, but I got wrapped up in (a) getting the narration to work with and for the rules “right” and (b) the setting and the story. My bad. I have to say, I came away from the after-session conversation very impressed with how Kaylee was able to articulate exactly what bothered her and what she wanted to do about it.

And the next session ended up being pretty darn awesome for both of us, even though…

Well.

Summer Break RPGs with Kaylee, #3: Getting Things Started

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

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.

Sort of.

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.

Duncan

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.

The Dog Named Wolf.

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.

Post-game analysis

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.

More soon!

Summer Break RPGs with Kaylee, #2: Dungeon Age? Dragon World?

So I’m pondering Dungeon World with only one player, but player characters in DW need bonds with other characters, and maybe I can solve this with… companions? Persistent NPCs the player’s character can interact with in depth? This tickled something at the back of my brain – a region scientifically known as “that bit that makes me give BioWare too much money.”

As I’ve mentioned, I like Dragon Age (the RPG) and that’s at least partly because I love the setting for the Dragon Age video games – Thedas is a rich setting, and more than that it manages a potent mix of fresh invention and classic tropes – one might almost say cliches – of the genre; in many ways, there’s nothing especially new about the world BioWare presents in Dragon Age. Rich history, countries VERY OBVIOUSLY AND DIRECTLY based on real-world cultures, a rising evil, and a hero leading a motley band of misfits to save the world. It has, to put it lightly, been done.

But BioWare does it really, really well (most of the time). Then they do it again, then again, then again…

In short, it occurred to me that if I wanted to front-load some kind of heroic fantasy “thing” in a world with which I was quite familiar and which I already associated with the kind of “hero plus a double handful of role-play-linked NPCs”, I could hardly do better than starting with Thedas.

Thedas

With that said, there are all kinds of potential red flags with using this sort of solution with Dungeon World, mostly having to do with the fact that the game expects a lot of world building to emerge in play. But I had a pretty solid counter argument to that:

“Fuck it, it sounds fun.”

Still, I needed to make sure Kaylee agreed, so one evening we sat down and I went over the setting from roughly -6400TE to Sometime Yesterday Afternoon to see if anything in there sounded cool.

Result: LOTS of stuff sounded cool to her. The challenge then shifted to narrowing down to one or two places (both physically and temporally) that really grabbed her. We eventually winnowed it down to:

  • The Qunari arrival in the lands of Thedas (Zen-Communist Utopia Warriors invading evilish wizard empire).
  • The Grey Wardens (secretive organization dedicated to stopping the recurring arch-demon-led “Blights” that rise up to wipe out all life – who seem to know the only way to stop the Blights, with members from all sentient species and all disciplines).

We also talked about the various countries, and she really seemed to dig the reverse feudalism of Ferelden (where a noble’s job – one they can easily lose through incompetence or negligence – is essentially to protect local land owners and other civilians from predation, in return for… you know, payment).

So knowing she was into Grey Wardens, thought the Qunari were pretty cool, liked the idea of fighting a Blight, and liked Ferelden, it seemed pretty obvious we could basically start off in the same time-frame for Dragon Age: Origins, and then see how far we can blow those events to smithereens and do our own thing.

Thinking on it some more, I came up with a basic list of things to watch out for, and how to deal with them.

  • Don’t let the game run on video-game rails. This one is pretty obvious, but luckily it’s also pretty easy to deal with. The thing with Dungeon World (and, conveniently, my own play style) is that rather than some kind of meta-plot of events, you want to focus on people (well… “people”), what they want, and what they’re currently doing about it (see also: Towns in Dogs in the Vineyard). Anyone who’s played Amber with me knows that my between-game prep was basically just flipping through a complete deck of trump cards for all the NPCs (and places) and thinking about what they were doing either on their own or in reaction to whatever happened in previous sessions, and then playing accordingly in the next session. This is pretty darn close to how DW suggests managing the game’s “Fronts,” and conveniently, after mumble-hundred hours playing DA:O, I’m familiar with the various Fronts in that storyline, what they’re up to, and what they’re planning to do to get what they want. Out of necessity, the video game presents this stuff linearly, with set points in the story where interference is possible, but I can just wash all that cruft away and let the thing live and breathe. Spend a few evenings sketching out Fronts in the Dungeon World style, and I’m prepped.

  • Don’t try to map every event directly. Or: “don’t try to play through every single fight in DA:O.” Again, obvious, but worth keeping in the back of my mind. I want to focus on important social and martial conflicts, focus on the fiction, and focus on what my player is doing.

  • No custom playbooks to match the setting exactly. This may be something that makes both Dragon Age purists and *World hackers shake their heads a bit. In short, I’m just going to use the “classic” classes presented in Dungeon World – the ones pretty much any fantasy RPG player knows: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Wizard, Ranger, et cetera – and shoehorn them into the roles presented in the Dragon Age fiction. There will be some tweaks made to Paladins to focus more on anti-magic stuff (since paladins will be templars) and basically all other magic-users (from Clerics to Wizards to Bards to whatever) will, within the fiction, just be different flavors of Mages (either Circle Mages or Apostates), and I’ll probably tweak the settings on multiclass moves so the lines between the spellcasting classes are a bit fuzzier, but otherwise, that’s about it. Dwarves won’t be clerics, and I might drop clerics entirely in favor of Circle Mages who use a move to learn spells from the Cleric list, just to keep magical healing roughly in line with the setting as presented.

But mostly, I don’t think I need to customize things. As much as I like the Dragon Age RPG, there are lots of different game-system ways to present Thedas, if you focus on the fiction.

“Focus on the fiction” is one of those tricky rules-that-don’t-look-like-rules that tend to crop up in Lumpley games, and it kind of tripped me up in our first session, which I’ll write about next.

A hard lesson from Bioware

I’m going to spoil the end of Mass Effect 2.

Ready?

Okay, here it is…

You’re going to save the galaxy.

Yup.

There are a lot of choices to make in the game, but as long as none of those choices are “I’m quitting this game”, you’ll inevitably fight the big bad and win.

Because of those choices, everyone on your team might hate you, or love you, or want to sleep with you, or want to kill you. They might all die. YOU might die.

But you will BY GOD save the galaxy, mister. Period.

Furthermore, along the way you WILL face the bad guys on a colony world, and get lured into a trap, and crawl through the mind of a dead, mad god.

The rest of it is theoretically up in the air, but I could probably still name about twenty-three other WILL HAPPEN things that every Mass Effect 2 game has in common. And I’m not picking that number randomly: there are twenty-three, precisely.

There: spoiled.

I’m going to do the same thing with Dragon Age: Origins.

You’re going to beat the Big Bad. Again, you might die or live based on your choices, and the people you have on your team and what they think of you depends on what you do and say, but there are a few immutable things that WILL HAPPEN in every playthrough. Broad strokes, but immutable none the less.

Spoiled.

Now here’s the real gut punch for a collaborative storytelling games junkie like me: I love those games. Love em. I’ve played DA through three times (and two half-runs I have hold), and Mass Effect 2? More than that. Five? Yeah. I can pretty much recite every one of the unavoidable events in both games. (And will do so at the slightest provocation.)

Those games have demonstrated a hard fact; something that most story-games (if not story-gamers) would choke on, just a little bit, because it’s a slightly bitter pill.

If the trip is awesome, no one cares if they're on rails.
If the trip is awesome, no one will care that they're on rails.

Good or bad, it’s the truth.

The best thing a game can do is help a mediocre or novice conductor deliver a good trip.

Everything after that (read: a lot of the stuff that newer indie games concern themselves with) is – perhaps – a level of play many people will never miss.

Regardless of how great that stuff is.

*wanders off to ponder*

Wasting time playing DnD

No, I’m not saying that playing DnD is a waste of my time, settle down. Breathe.

I ran into a pretty interesting thing I wanted to talk briefly about, though.

This week, I have a lot of gaming going on, which is kind of exciting; after months of pretty much nothing in the way of RPG play, I’m playing DnD, running Dragon Age, and then playing Burning Wheel — all in about five days.

Pretty heady stuff.

Last night we played the DnD game; that gave rise to this post. (Which should have probably been called ‘Wasting my time while playing DnD’, but who’d read that?)

Anyway, to my point.

For the last over-a-year, I’ve been lucky enough to have a pretty regular game going on weeknights. We’ve played quite a few games, most notably (in my mind) Don’t Rest Your Head, Diaspora, Primetime Adventures, and other stuff like that. Games in which, speaking broadly, there are a lot of ‘flags’ attached to your characters — things where you’ve said “this is something that interests me about this guy: I’d like to play around with that in the game, please.”

For instance, in the Diaspora game, Kate’s ‘flags’ (read: Aspects) had to do with being a bit of a lapsed pirate, something of a swashbuckler, a ship’s captain, and having some unfriendly family members looking for her. This was the stuff that was interesting to her, and as the GM I usually felt pretty safe if I planned for something or someone to come along and hit one of those elements of her character.

I could list many more examples, but they’re all pretty obviously along this line, and they all have a few things in common: “hitting” those things in an interesting way is what the players want, so it’s socially rewarding in the game, and most of the time it’s also mechanically rewarding.

Also, if I’m doing something as the GM that doesn’t touch on anyone’s flags in any way… well, the question to ask at that point is “What the hell are you doing, dude? I trust you, but get back on task.”

And that would be fair.

So. DnD.

No flags.

Now, Tim and I have been hammering on his Return to Northmoor campaign for awhile (him for QUITE awhile — I’m Johnny-come-lately), and for the ‘first arc’ of the game I think we’ve done a good job of creating a ‘flag and reward’ system for play that isn’t much of a rules hack.

This short game we’re doing right now isn’t that, though — it’s the mid-arc part of the Northmoor saga, and as such the original ‘secrets’ stuff doesn’t work, exactly. We did some in-character secrets-to-be-revealed, but they didn’t really work in the same way, and they made things a little wonky at the table.

(We’re addressing that by cribbing from Dragon Age and setting up Goals, rather than Secrets-to-be-Revealed, and I think that’ll work better for this arc, but I digress.)

How wonky? Well, when I answered Tim’s ‘secrets questions’ for my character, some of my answers were pointed at Kate’s character. I was all enthusiastic about this ‘what if Beren and Luthien hadn’t hit it off right away’ idea, and went with that — didn’t check with Kate on it (should have), and rattled it all off.

Kate didn’t finish her questions. Chris couldn’t make the first game.

So… guess which were the only “flags” flying for that first session? Guess what every scene seemed to center on?

Yeah.

Which is fine, except those weren’t Kate’s flags for her character. At all. So it wasn’t much fun for her. I think the quote was “it was fine for the first scene, but it’s every scene.”

For her, every scene was wasting time on stuff she wasn’t that interested in.

Second session, everyone else has had time to fill stuff in. I was trying not to play up my flags, because I felt like I’d got enough time on them the first session, so I played extra hard on whatever anyone else provided.

One of those ‘provided things’ was this kid I’d known in the past who was now all grown up. I’d introduced him to the game, Tim brought him in, so I felt obliged to play up whatever he was potentially doing in the story…

… which was trying to propose to Kate’s character. Oops. More time spent on a thing Kate was already tired of.

Then there was a kind of echo chamber thing with the Mysterious Bog Avenger that Tim introduced, who was some kind of vigilante who — inexplicably — dresses up like my character.

He gets introduced, so I play to it… then some NPCs react to my reaction, so I react to their reaction, so they react to …

Yeah. You see where that went. Or didn’t. I couldn’t drop it, though, cuz the only other thing I had going on was the thing with Kate’s character that I didn’t want to mess with at all.

And I couldn’t play to the flags on the other characters, because we hadn’t done the “Goals” yet — we just had Secrets, and I didn’t KNOW them because… yeah. Duh. SECRETS.

I finally fell back on a half-mentioned obsession with the MacGuffin we’re hunting down, just for something to talk about.

So what do I mean about wasting time?

I’ve gotten in the habit of playing to the flags on the characters at the table, trusting that doing so will (a) please and entertain the player of said character and (b) reward everyone involved in some mechanical way. Playing to those themes is, in fact, part of the game.

Well, no: it’s part of those games — the one’s I’ve been playing. It’s not part of DnD, and even though we’re in the middle of hacking that, we didn’t have the hack up to date last night, so it wasn’t doing what it’s supposed to do — give people indications of what everyone wanted play to be about and reward them for it. Without that, the whole hack is just a cool ‘power up’ chip we get for free each session.

(And in any case the hack will always and only ever be something extraneous to the Original Game — like having a battery mounted DVD player mounted in your car — nice, but easily forgotten and unused, unless you keep giving it power.)

In DnD, if you’re just playing to your own flags (or, as with the Bog Avenger, to no flags at all), it feels like you’re wasting time.

Why?

Well, A, you’re not hitting interesting elements of play for anyone (or only for yourself); and B, you aren’t engaging DnD itself by doing the stuff it’s good at doing (combat).

Which means you’re just spinning your cogs, not interacting with any of the machinery — you might as well be chatting about the most recent Dancing with the Stars, because you aren’t playing any part of the game, (even the part you added).

(Yes, you might be roleplaying… but about what? And who cares? Improv is great, but the audience needs to give a shit, y’know?)

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to note that it’s given me a lot to think about with regards to what I’ve started thinking of as ‘the Northmoor Hack’.

That, and I’m looking forward to all the games happening this week.