JimCon 2012 – Part 3: DMing

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.

Om Nom Nom Nom

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.

What’s that? You want to wander off to the Wizard’s Temple rather than fight off the Orcs? I… have to take a shit.

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.

What worked

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.

This is how I feel whenever a session starts with “Okay, you’re in a tavern…”

Criticism/Self-Criticism

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.”

"Resolutely defeat the imperialist running-dogs of WoTC and the social-imperialist lackeys at Paizo!"

“Criticize Crimsyn, criticize Gygax – it is the most important matter for the whole party, the whole table and the people of the whole convention.”

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.

General Thoughts

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.

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4 Responses to JimCon 2012 – Part 3: DMing

  1. Rebecca says:

    The first time I read through this article I had intended to reply with a comment about Stunting, although now I have time to write I don’t remember why. Stunting is a neat mechanic used in Scion (Scion download) where players gain bonuses for dramatic descriptions. For example, instead of saying “I attack the guy with my sword” you say “I take an assertive stance and scream fiercely as I bring my sword down on the goblin’s neck”. Scion being a WW dice pool game they suggest “+1 dice if a player makes a reasonable effort, +2 dice if everyone else playing sits up and says ‘woah, cool!’, +3 dice if they surpass even that…”. I’m not sure how this applies to your article but Past-Me thought that it was a relevant comment to make… so… there you have it.

    For what it’s worth honestly I thought you were a great GM. I doubt I would have enjoyed that game as much as I did with a less-skilled GM. The game was fun, the story flowed well, the scenario was very imaginative. I did very much enjoy the rules-light style of play. I thought my char had some neat useful powers at the start of the game. The other players were also very good- was that the game with the shredding bard?

    I didn’t really feel railroaded when you vetoed my brain-cleansing idea. I’d just figured I’d misunderstood the scale of the infestation (my mental image switched from facehugger-embryo to “brain full of caviar”). I will confess I had the same criticism of my own GMing effort that weekend. A player wanted to use a spell I’d given his character to beat the Boss. It was a level-one cleansing spell. He tried to use it to “clense the area” to evict a powerful spirit. I felt I failed to clearly explain that as a level-one spell it was intended to be used to clean up negative energy after the Big Bad has been evicted. What I could have said to him was “Okay, you’re going to need [Boss’s HP] successes for that to work” to illustrate that it wasn’t the best choice. If I’d had a “You’re thinking chicken eggs, you should be thinking caviar” clean, clear explanation to give I wouldn’t be still thinking about it!

    Anyways. Good job! I was disappointed I couldn’t join in the second game but I like to try a variety of things- especially RPGs which can be slim pickings. I will keep an eye out for you at upcoming cons!

  2. crimsyn says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence! Yeah, I remember we had a shredding bard who learned the Owlbear National Anthem, “Hoot Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ ta’ fuck wit”

    The thing I love about DW is that we’re leading with the fiction rather than the move. I’m kind of a “good roleplaying is its own reward” kind of guy, although when I do 4e I give out bonuses on things like diplomacy and intimidate rolls, but I might try out some kind of stunting mechanic in one of my groups to encourage them to lead with the fiction more. It would be pretty powerful; a +1 in DW has a 25% chance of being the difference between a miss and a weak hit, or a weak hit and a strong hit.

    That, and the DMing section of the Dungeon World book should be required reading for any DM. I really struggled as a DM until I picked up Dungeon World, read the guide, and started playing with a great group of guys online, who applied some of the principles of DW to 4e.

    And the Druid is awesome; it’s my favourite class in DW, and possibly my favourite class in any RPG. I mean, it’s main move is basically “Think of an animal. Transform into that animal, and make up some moves.” That’s basically the coolest mechanic I’ve ever seen.

    Next con, lets coordinate to make sure we pick different slots to DM. I’d love to try out some new systems. And us non-PF RPGers have to stick together, given the dearth of other RPGs

  3. Rebecca says:

    Sounds good to me. Will you be at PrairieCon? I am thinking about re-running my WoD scenario and a deliciously campy RPG based on the Xena: Warrior Princess universe.

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