Dungeon World: The Two Proofs

Last Friday night, we were scheduled to play Apocalypse World, but two of the players couldn’t make it, so I was set to cancel. But the other two players said, “Well, can’t we get together and play some boardgames or something?” To which I replied, “Sure! C’mon over!”1

When Chris and Elliott arrived, I gave them some options about what game we would play, and Elliott said he wanted to try Dungeon World2. Chris was okay with that, so I grabbed my DW kit3, handed them the character sheets, and spread a Noteboard on the table to start mapping.

Because both players were familiar with AW, it was pretty quick bringing them up to speed on the DW rules – I just had to explain the differences. We got through character creation – including asking the provocative questions4 that I used to build the adventure – in about half an hour. The wound up playing a fighter and a cleric, both of which were dwarves. They were in this strange land, where dwarves were pretty much unknown, to find a lost dwarf temple and the secret artifact it held.

The cleric had decided that his god was the Delver of What Lies Below, and his order had a tradition of seeking out lost and hidden lore. He had come to this far land where dwarves used to live seeking an ancient temple of his god which was supposed to contain the Golden Proof: a footprint, in solid gold, of where his god last walked on5 the earth. The fighter had met him on the journey while he was fighting snow demons in the mountains, and decided to accompany him, as his clan had been wiped out by a mysterious creature years ago and he had nothing better to do6. After crossing the see, they came to a port city, found out that any dwarves who had once lived here were long gone, and set out across the hills, where they were chased by werejaguars. They finally arrived at the Jungle of Xotoq, and found the first marker statue that points the way to the temple.

And that’s where we started play.

Because they had decided to start in the jungle, just like my first time running DW, I used the same challenge as that adventure, and had assassin vines grab them while they were clearing off the marker statue. The cleric managed to petition his god to gain three words that would stun the thing before it dragged the fighter off into the jungle, and they were able to clean off the statue, looking for the directions to find the temple. Unfortunately, the directions that should have been at the base of the statue were cut away, and replaced with the phrase, “The Grey Ones Rise!”

Lacking solid directions, they headed off into the jungle, arriving at a deep chasm with a river running through it. They cut down a tree to bridge the chasm, but the cleric had some trouble crossing. Fortunately, they had roped themselves together, and the fighter managed to keep them both from falling into the river thirty feet below. Unfortunately, falling off the log while roped to someone standing on the edge of the chasm meant the cleric swung like a pendulum into the rock wall.

The fighter hauled him up, a little worse for wear, and he tried again, crossing fairly easily this time. Which is when the elves popped up and started shooting at them. The cleric was crouched down on the side of the chasm with the elves, while the fighter was still back on the far side. The two characters had each taken a bond about how the other character wasn’t able to take care of himself and needed protection, so the fighter gave the rope a mighty yank and pulled the cleric back into the chasm for another pendulum swing into the cliff face and another desperate haul back up top, all under fire from the elves.

At this point, I decided to up the stakes, and brought out the elven arcanist, who started laying about with blasts of eldritch lightning. Our heroes scampered into cover, but lacked any ranged weapons to shoot back at the elves. With no other recourse, the cleric stood up and basically said, “Stop doing that!”

Turns out the elves had been trying to keep everyone away from the lost temple for generations, but had a prophecy7 that dwarves would one day come and lift the curse on the temple. Curse? Why yes, the curse of the Grey Ones, of course, that drove the dwarves away in the ancient times.

The elves healed the dwarves, gave them some food, and let them speak to the Mothers, four ancient elves that had entwined themselves in the roots of a massive tree, becoming the god8 of the village. The Mothers started out kind of spooky, but soon became a little bit comical as they debated what they should tell the dwarves and began bickering amongst themselves.

In the end, the dwarves learned that the temple was overrun by twisted dwarves with psychic powers that could control lesser beings9. And they got guided to the base of the trail leading up to the temple. But the Mothers didn’t know how to lift the curse.

Half-way up the switchbacking trail to the temple, our heroes came across a pack of giant rats10 blocking the path. The fighter, well-concealed and on point, let the cleric, with his terrible, terrible stealth roll, act as bait to lure the rats forward. The fighter then attacked the rats on the flank, but was beset by vicious whispering voices in his head. The fight was nasty, but they managed to kill the rats, and the fighter threw a huge rock up at a concealed cave entrance, dropping the two derros who had been controlling them to the path, where they didn’t last long.

Searching the bodies of the derros, the cleric found that each had a small bundle of wrapped dwarf skin, containing a symbol of the Delver of What Lies Below, pierced by a red iron nail. Spouting some lore, he remembered old stories of how the Delver of What Lies Below was once the Keeper of What Lies Below, until a heretical sect decided that revealing the secrets was better than hiding them. This temple, however, must be a remnant of the Keeper’s faithful.

They followed the twisting cavern the derro had been hiding in down into the heart of the temple: the labyrinth. There, they fought a derro riding on an ogre, killing the derro and freeing the ogre to rampage through the temple. This, while useful, did raise the alarm, so they raced through the labyrinth until they got to a chamber with an ancient dwarf ghost, who told them that one of the exits led up to light, one down to dark, and one to death. I was working out a riddle to force the dwarves to choose a passage when the cleric cast a spell to let his god guide him in the right direction.

So, down they went, into the centre of the labyrinth, pursued by heavy, stomping footsteps. The found a door at the bottom of a spiral ramp and the fighter smashed it open. Inside was a horrible, giant dwarf, pierced by hundreds of red iron spikes, weeping blood from empty eye sockets, with the symbol of the Keeper burning above its head11. It started tossing them around pretty handily, but the fighter kept its attention while the cleric climbed up its spines to shove his holy symbol into the burning holy symbol above its head.

There was the requisite explosion, and the deflating of the giant down to normal dwarf size, and then our heroes saw the Golden Proof and, beside it, another footprint in the rock – this one of red iron. So, the fighter took his axe to the Iron Proof and destroyed it, bringing the attention of the Delver to this lost outpost of the Keeper, slaying the twisted dwarves who had worshiped the Keeper, and freeing the temple from the curse.

Everyone had a lot of fun with the adventure12, but I liked it for a different reason. My intention for this evening was to run an entire adventure, start to finish, in one session, based on initial set-up by the players, and shaped by the DW system. I was very pleased that I was able to construct a sensible13 narrative, build the action, throw several different kinds of challenges at the players, and wrap it up in a satisfying manner. All improvised, all in one session.

That, my friends, is the strength of Dungeon World, in my opinion.

Chris and Elliott are hanging on to their characters in case we play again. I think odds are good.

 

  1. Yeah, I’m a game-whore. I’ll take any excuse to play games. []
  2. Elliott is running his own AW campaign – in fact, he’s running two of them, I believe – and wanted to see how things were different in DW. []
  3. I’ve put together kits for a number of RPGs that I bring to cons and gaming events so that I can run a short adventure in the system on the spur of the moment. It usually contains pregens or character sheets, rules, and an adventure, all zipped into a large Tom Bihn clear organizer pouch for easy transport. You can see an example in this post about my Fiasco kit, though that was before I discovered the Tom Bihn organizer pouches. []
  4. Why are you two traveling together? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen here? What are you looking for? Stuff like that. []
  5. Well, under, in this case. []
  6. To be fair, he was also trying to find out what had killed his clan; his only clue was a jagged tooth the length of his forearm. []
  7. Or something. I dunno. I hadn’t fleshed that out very much. []
  8. At some point, we established that the elves built their own gods out of ancient elves and fervent belief. I’m not sure where the belief came from, but I like it. []
  9. The derros from the DW rule book, but I didn’t want to give them a name to keep them creepy and mysterious. []
  10. Re-skinned worgs. []
  11. A reskinned barbed devil from the rulebook. []
  12. Or so they claimed. []
  13. Not perfect, but sensible. []

Dungeon World: Starting Three Times

Okay, so I’ve been talking a lot about Apocalypse World lately, because I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. Last year at GenCon  ((The gamer geek version of “One time at band camp…” )), I got a chance to try out both AW and Dungeon World, and came away very fond of AW, less so of DW. A large part of that is simply my experience at the table – Trevis, who ran AW, was awesome, the group was small, and I was playing with my buddy, Clint. With the DW game, the group was twice as large, the GM was obviously tired, and the whole thing was a more scattered, confused experience.

I don’t want to run down the GM – whose name I didn’t get – he was doing a great job with a large group of people that, not to put too fine a point on it, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to play with. I don’t want to run down those players, either – they were having fun, and if their fun is not the kind of fun that I enjoy, well, it’s still fun for them. I was the odd man out.

Really, though the point I’m trying to make is that I was not as impressed with DW as I was with AW.

And then I played it.

I put together a kit for running Dungeon World some time ago, simply because it’s one of those great pick-up games that I want to have ready to run with little-to-no preparation. And a few weeks back, the opportunity came up to try the game out with a couple of friends.

I had a few days lead time, so I got the players to pick out characters and answer a couple of provocative questions via e-mail leading up to the session. We rolled out with a Barbarian and a Ranger, standing outside a jungle ziggurat, and then they started rolling dice.

That’s when the game took off.

See, the guys started rolling badly. Really, really badly. Like, stunningly, appallingly badly. And so the vines attacked them, and stole the Barbarian’s sword, and bashed them up, and then they started hearing things in the jungle, and finally they just dropped through the collapsing side of the pyramid into a cave.

I was tap-dancing desperately, working to come up with interesting ideas for the moves I could make against them when they missed a roll, and it took me a little while to realize that I was enjoying this game even more than AW. When I did notice this, I started to wonder why, but then had to stop wondering about it because there were more bad rolls coming my way.

Our heroes took a little breather down in the cave, then crawled out, fire-bombed the vines, found an ossuary inside the pyramid, had their fingers bit off by ghouls, and woke something dark and dangerous down in the pits before fleeing to safety. It was the most fun I’ve had running a dungeon crawl in a long, long time.

And, after the game, I got to figure out why I enjoyed DW more than AW: I’m simply more familiar and practised with the tropes. I’ve been running fantasy games for about thirty years, and read a lot of fantasy, seen a lot of fantasy, and created a lot of fantasy. It’s easier for me, steeped in the fantasy tradition that I am, to come up with ideas that fit a fantasy game than for a post-apocalyptic game.

As far as post-apocalyptic stuff goes, well, I’ve run some Gamma World, watched Jeremiah and Jericho and the Mad Max movies and… nope. That’s about it. It’s not a genre1 that I’m as familiar with. That means that running AW is more work and therefor not as much free-wheeling fun for me. It’ still an awesome game, but requires more effort on my part.

We had enough fun with the game that I ran it again a week or so later, adding a Bard and a Fighter2 to the group. I didn’t handle the addition very well – I brought the new characters3 back at the little jungle village close to the pyramid temple.

In the intervening time, I had written up adventure fronts for the temple and for the jungle4, as well as the beginnings of a campaign front, and I figured I’d give the new players a little time to dig around on their own rather than just throw everyone together. I gave them some minimal prompting, and had them arrive at the village, so they could poke around, get used to their characters and the system, and stuff like that.

This was an error.

What I should have done is thrown them into something a little more high-pressure and dangerous to get them making moves and building that ever-important feedback loop. As it was, they could wander around and ask questions and generally take it easy and feel safe, which didn’t help advance things5. It would have been far more fun to have them attacked by bandits, or jungle cats, or whatever, to make for a more exciting start.

I mean, this way worked, but it wasn’t as cool.

That said, we got the party together, and they had some fun talking to the locals, and learning about the Brotherhood of the Heights6 and the corpse spiders7 and wound up fighting some jungle cats and swarms of savage apes.

And then the Akon, the Ape God8 showed up and everyone retreated. The Ranger managed to shoot out Akon’s eye, and that drove him off, but not before he smeared a big, bloody, ape-god handprint on the village palisade9.

At that point, I was completely sold on this game. I was in love with it. It became my go-to fantasy game. And then I had a third opportunity to run it.

I had a small group – only three players – show up for the Storm Point game. Normally, that would still be enough to run with, but the three who showed up were not keen on playing the characters of the folks who couldn’t make it, which is our default system. They opted instead to try Dungeon World.

Now, the three who showed up are really just casual gamers. This is not to imply anything wrong with them; they just don’t get into the rules mastery as much as the other players. I was interested to see how they would react to DW – I figured they would either love it or hate it.

I had learned from the previous session, and started our heroes – a Templar10, a Wizard, and a Thief – in the middle of a rock bridge over a deep chasm far below the ground, with a mob of skeletons approaching from one direction, and ominous flickering lights showing in the other. So, they had to act quick.

That led us to skeleton battles, death-defying leaps into the chasm, desperate swimming attempts, scaling sheer walls, magical traps, hungry goblins, and finally an ogre. We only played for a couple of hours, but more happened in that session than in the previous three sessions of the Storm Point game.

They loved it. They were excited, engaged, and active, laughing and talking and debating things and just generally enjoying the hell out of the game. The fact that I could pull this rather… distractible group of players together and get characters made and that whole adventure run in the short time we played is a real testament to the power of the Dungeon World.

So, in short, DW delivers everything I want right now from a dungeon-crawling game, and does it in a manner that makes running the game a breeze. It is, in my opinion, the king of fantasy RPGs.

You should definitely try it.

  1. Or sub-genre, if you prefer. []
  2. Played by a couple of players who hadn’t been able to make the previous game. []
  3. Who had links to the old characters and to the major NPC in the rudimentary backstory we came up with. []
  4. Including the village. []
  5. That’s not entirely true. It helped build the feeling of the world being alive, and provided a little more background information, but it didn’t move this along, story-wise or pacing-wise. []
  6. Bandits who live in the rainforest canopy. []
  7. Okay. The corpse spiders aren’t my fault. I let the group name the jungle, and one of them named it Corpse Spider jungle. So that meant there had to be corpse spiders. Totally not my fault. []
  8. One of the dangers of not reading your work aloud: I hadn’t realized how much Akon (ah-kon) sounds like King Kong until I said it at the game. Sound test your names, GMs! []
  9. I don’t know what that means, but the Bard spouted some lore, and it didn’t look too good. []
  10. From this collection of alternate classes. []