This is part 3 of my ongoing retrospective of JimCon 2012 in Winnipeg. In this part, I’m going to talk about DMing.
DMing Dungeon World
The real attraction to JimCon for me was an opportunity to DM Dungeon World. Well, that and the sweet DM rewards. I had two scheduled games to run, each one based on a homebrew location/adventure. The first, The Fucked-up Feygrove, had the players investigating a crashed spaceship, and the second, Into the Gullet of the Graboid, saw the players venture into a giant petrified graboid to search for treasure.
Dungeon World is a very rules-light system. The basic rules are that you roll 2d6+stat for just about everything. Six or less is a failure, and ten or higher is a success. On a 7-9, you succeed, but the DM throws some complication at you. For example, on a 7-9 you might successfully cast magic missile, but in the time it takes you to focus your spell and your aim, a bad guy gets up in your grill. This helps keep the action flowing and contributes to some potentially hectic encounters, as it gives the DM an opportunity to respond to fails and middling successes in a creative way by adding complications.
The rules-light nature of this system does two important things for me. First, it speeds up combat and encourages players to be more descriptive in what they are doing. While I love 4e, sometimes encounters seem to drag on a little long. I play online, and even though playing online makes the combat go a bit faster because you have macros doing the math for you, it’s hard for my group to get in more than two, maybe three encounters in a night.
Secondly, and more importantly for me on the DM side of the table, it means I can make shit up as I go along. I don’t need hours to prepare an encounter, which means I don’t have to have everything pre-planned in great detail. Not only does it reduce the amount of notes I have to keep in order, but it also liberates both me and my players from the railroad. My players are a little more free to explore and have more choices, while I don’t have to work to keep the players on the railroad because I’m not left high and dry without an encounter prepared if they decide to do anything other than what I thought they would do. And players always throw a wrench into their DM’s well-laid plans.
Anyways, after a few delays while I scrounged up players, I managed to get a group together for The Fucked-Up Feygrove. Somehow, I went rather quickly from one player to six, and found the table a tad crowded, but rolled with it anyways. Most of those players returned the next day for Into the Gullet of the Graboid.
Both of these adventures were locations-in-motion which I whipped up. In a lot of ways, a location-in-motion (LIM) is similar to a sandbox with a timer. Just put together a location, populate it, and give the inhabitants goals – some of those goals possibly conflicting with the players’ goals. And let ‘er rip. Works much better than trying to prepare a plot in advance.
My games seemed to be well-received, with nearly all of the players from Feygrove returning for Graboid. I think part of it was the tone of the game – Feygrove especially didn’t take itself too seriously. Once you’ve introduced an intelligent owlbear known as “Beakface Killah of the Hoot Tang Clan,” you’ve pretty much lost any pretense of being serious and given your players free reign to have fun.
It’s okay to assume a few things. Your players are going to be playing as a group of adventurers. Obviously, that means they at least somewhat know each other, and get along well enough to That said, there is something to be said for letting the players have some input into the quest. For example, in Graboid, I start off with the assumption that the players are searching for a Great Treasure which is located deep inside the graboid. Then, I let the players decide what that treasure is.
Starting with action is important. For example, the first scene of Graboid starts off with a bit of flavour text, and dumps the PCs in the middle of the desert, being attacked by Kreen raiders. If you get the action rolling right away, you’re starting on a high note. This is especially important for convention games, as you don’t have time to screw around at the tavern, waiting for the DM to dangle a hook in front of you.
Of course, I am nowhere near a perfect DM. I’m not one of those people who have decades of experience behind a screen and has been DMing since the last time Dexy’s Midnight Runners had a hit song. In fact, JimCon was only the second time I’ve DMed Dungeon World, and the second time I’ve DMed at a con. I’m still learning and unlearning things about DMing, and my style is still evolving. But, criticism and self-criticism is an important part of that. To quote Chairman Mao, “We have the Marxist-Leninist weapon of criticism and self-criticism. We can get rid of a bad [Dungeon Mastering] style and keep the good.”
First off, it seems like in an initiative-less system like Dungeon World, once you get up to five or six players, it feels like you’re a bit beyond what is optimal for the system. Things can quickly degenerate into chaos, which for a few moments it did at my table.
Part of this is on me though. I need to be a bit more assertive as a DM in keeping the game running smoothly and on track, especially when there are six players and we are in an environment like a convention where there are distractions abound. Perhaps next year I will bring a gavel…
Remember above where I was saying that Dungeon World was great because its simplicity allows me to roll with whatever the players want to do. Well, there were times when I reverted into the old linear style of play. I think my worst offense came in the Feygrove, when the fighter was infested by mindflayer eggs. Somehow, I got attached to the idea of the quest to rid his brain of the eggs being a key driving force for the players to continue exploring the feygrove. Also, I wanted to make it clear to the players that illithid eggs are a nasty infestation, and not the kind of things that you can just remove with a simple healing potion or a cure light wounds spell. But, I think I went too far – when the Druid came up with a cool idea to remove them, I quickly dismissed it, in the back of my mind thinking I have to preserve this “hook” so the adventure can go on.
But, what I failed to realize in that moment was that we’re in a dynamic world, one which contains a band of hunters hunters, a clan of intelligent Owlbears, a mad wizard and his minions, all kinds of crazy animals coming through rifts to the Feywild, and of course, ominous extra-terrestrial squidmen. So what if they get the eggs out? There are literally dozens of things I could do to advance the story.
Another self-criticism I had was how I dealt with complications in combat. I tended to default to “well, you hit him, but you also get hit.” It’s easy, it’s quick to resolve, and it doesn’t require a whole lot of thought. The problem is that there is a lot of cool things you can do in a battle scene other than hit someone. Raise an alarm, call for reinforcements, trap the party, charge a spell, drop a chandelier on them, etc. Without mixing it up, I feel that things sort of defaulted to “I hit him with my sword, he hits you with his axe” ad nauseum. In the future, I’m going to keep a list of complications and moves handy, so I can mix it up easier.
I love Dungeon World. It’s easy to play, easy to learn, easy to teach, and most importantly, easy to DM. The chapters on DMing style and campaign organization should be read by every aspiring DM. After frustrations with my last 4e campaign, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that Dungeon World has rekindled my love for DMing.
I hadn’t been able to get the “location in motion” aspect of Dungeon World really going with convention play though. It just seems like you need multiple sessions to get the wheels within wheels turning, and to discover and establish the relationships between various factions. Had it been an ongoing game, I might have thrown in some complication with the McGuffin which can snowball from there.
Finally, I learned that if you’re trying to play a tabletop RPG that isn’t one of the big boys and doesn’t have an organized play system going on (Pathfinder, I’m looking in your direction), you may need to work to find players. Really promote your game and your system, otherwise you could wind up frantically searching for players 5 minutes before your game is about to start.
So, summarizing my thoughts, Jimcon was great, Dungeon World is awesome, don’t take your game too seriously, and let the players take you along for the ride. You never know where they might take you.