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 genre ((Or sub-genre, if you prefer.)) 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 Fighter ((Played by a couple of players who hadn’t been able to make the previous game.)) to the group. I didn’t handle the addition very well – I brought the new characters ((Who had links to the old characters and to the major NPC in the rudimentary backstory we came up with.)) 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 jungle ((Including the village.)), 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 things ((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.)). 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 Heights ((Bandits who live in the rainforest canopy.)) and the corpse spiders ((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.)) and wound up fighting some jungle cats and swarms of savage apes.

And then the Akon, the Ape God ((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!)) 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 palisade ((I don’t know what that means, but the Bard spouted some lore, and it didn’t look too good.)).

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 Templar ((From this collection of alternate classes.)), 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.

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2 Responses to Dungeon World: Starting Three Times

  1. Elliot says:

    Sounds grrrreat!

  2. Elliot says:

    Though now I feel I should prepare a short list of my favorite post-apocalyptic books, movies, and games so you can get caught up on the best the sub-genre has to offer. Seeing as you have so much free time, of course. And seeing how my favourites = the best, naturally. 😉

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