10 things I learned running Dungeon World (part 1)

Skeleton mariachi band. DIA DE LOS MUERTOS by RM73 at deviantart

Last night I ran the finale session of my Dungeon World campaign, and boy did it end on a high note. The first half of the session was relatively sedate and character-focused, and the second half was an all-out battle against a monstrous dragon.

There were three player characters at the end of the campaign:

  • Clovis the Giant, later Clovis the Dragon-hearted, a halfling barbarian from the great desert to the north-west who longs to kill the Great Horned Dragon that wiped out his people.
  • Rurgosh, a bald dwarven cleric of the god Fade, who presides over rocks and forgotten things. Rurgosh secretly longs for fame and glory, despite the precepts of their god.
  • Enrico, elven bard of Lothlorenza, who is composing the Ballad of Clovis the Giant upon his father’s mandolin as they travel.

(There had originally been a human wizard named Morgan, but he left before they became famous.)

These characters, with their hirelings and a local town of (skeleton) civilians, came together in the final session to defeat the Great Horned Dragon. ‘Twas truly a tale for the ages.

The campaign started in January, so it ran for almost exactly a year. In that time, I’ve learned (or been reminded of) a few tricks not just for Dungeon World, but other roleplaying games too. Here are the top 10 things I learned from the game.

(This is a long post, so things 6 to 10 will follow in a separate post.)

1. Starting in media res works really well, you guys

As is typical for games Powered by the Apocalypse, the first session of a Dungeon World campaign should include both character creation and a short bit of play.

After character creation, I opened the scene deep in the depths of a dungeon, the Ziggurat of Ashkagath (a name I had prepared in advance), with the players attacked by a club-wielding ogre on a wooden lattice suspended above a great pit (a set piece that I came up with essentially on the fly).

Starting in the middle of a fight scene is a great way to immediately get the players involved without (relatively tedious) narration and plot-justification, which can come later in small doses. It also gives the group a much better chance of concluding the current adventure during the session, rather than ending on a cliffhanger.

2. If the GM doesn’t have an answer, it’s ok to ask the players

This is alluded to in the Dungeon World book in the section on gamesmastering the first session, and while it’s brilliant advice for the first session it actually applies throughout the campaign.

Sometimes, the GM just doesn’t have any idea what should happen next. They’ve run out of prepared material, either because the players did something unexpected, or they’ve realised they need to describe something in more detail than they anticipated. If something comes up that the GM isn’t prepared for, and they don’t have a great idea on the tip of their tongue, it’s ok to turn around and ask the players to help flesh out the world.

For example, in our first session I threw the players into the middle of the Ziggurat of Ashkagath, but I didn’t know what they were looking for. So I asked the players, and it turned out they were looking for a set a bells for a nearby village called Mossiondz. This set of bells, it transpired later, was to be used to resurrect their ancient god-king, Amenhotep… who, it transpired later still, was actually an undead mummy…

Even in the last session, when I had a much firmer grasp on the setting and ideas of what could happen in most situations, there was still an opportunity to get player input. I described a bell tower in the middle of an underground town, but when Rurgosh went up to the bell itself to use the bell as a focus for their own resurrection spell (this, by the way, was a callback to the first session entirely of the player’s making, and it was great), I didn’t have a description of the bell. So I opened it to the player to describe, and it turned out that the bell was made of polished bone, without a clapper, and it rung loud and shone unnaturally white in the crystal-light of the cave. Awesome stuff.

3. Not every fight needs to end with murder

The players were standard adventurers. Clovis in particular was big on fighting big and powerful monsters. And yet not every fight in the game ended with the monsters dead. In Dungeon World, there’s no guarantee that you’ll go up against enemies that you can actually defeat, especially at low levels.

In the second session, I gave the players a random encounter with some hill giants that wanted to put the players over a fire and eat them. I expected that the players would be able to fight off the giants. However, the fight quickly turned against the players, and they might have been killed and eaten if Morgan the wizard hadn’t impressed/frightened the giants with a light show, giving the party a chance to escape.

In the third session, when going face-to-face with Amenhotep the Mummy, who been woken by the bells and gone on a rampage, the players were again outmatched but managed to put Amenhotep back to sleep by repairing its stuffed (i.e. mummified) toy griffin and leading it back to the sarcophagus.

I love when players come up with clever alternatives to fighting. Running away and talking calmly are all fine options, but often it was a case of players (especially Rurgosh the Cleric) trying to come up with inventive ways of using their powers. Hey, the Cleric Spells might be restrictive, but as a GM I am totally open to stretch the rules if it means I get to see cool stuff.

4. Silly accents are fantastic

All of the players (except Morgan) gave their characters accents: Clovis the desert halfling was a rowdy Scotsman, Enrico was a melodromatic Spaniard, and Rurgosh was soft-spoken Irish. This rather set the tone for the whole game, and I started to give accents to the main NPCs that the players encountered:

  • The lead hill giant from the second session, later named Windsor, had an odd gruff-but-upper class English country accent
  • The doppelgangers from the Aztec-inspired Lopitchitzlan spoke with a Geordie (Newcastle) accent
  • Shy, the excitable minitaur held captive by the doppelgangers, only ever shouted encouragement. “Yeah! Do it! Come on!”
  • The Ekek, stork people from the swamplands, spoke in Indian accents
  • The frog people, sworn enemies of the Ekek, spoke like Yoshi from the Super Mario game series (“Froggieeeee!”)
  • The Great Basil, basilisk ruler of the frogs, spoke in a Louisiana Cajun accent
  • Mycteria Stark, a migratory Ekek from the distant south, spoke like a Southern Belle. Her brother Anastomus Stark spoke like Big McIntosh (“Ayup.”)
  • The Chupacabra shopkeeper outside the entrance to the Lake Ozruk cave spoke in a Cockney (London) accent
  • The Calavera skeleton people from the forgotten civilisation beneath Lake Ozruk spoke in Mexican accents

Hardest of all was Enrondo, the father of player character Enrico, because I not only had to do a Spanish accent, I also had to try to replicate as close as possible the Spanish accent that Enrico’s player was doing.

I should stress that none of these accents was very good. None of them particularly sounded as they should have done, but that wasn’t important. There’s also a big risk of causing offence unintentionally with accents, so it’s good to be open with players up front about intentions and it’s important to avoid insulting a culture while imitating the accent. (With the possible exception of the skeleton people, none of the accents had any connection to the culture of the characters we were portraying.)

The key thing was to give the characters something that the players could identify, and inject a bit of personality into them. Speaking of which…

5. Give everyone personhood (and make your hirelings awesome)

The Dungeon World rulebook includes ‘Give every monster life’ and ‘Name every person’ as two of the GM’s principles. However, I quickly found that the line between monsters and persons was so blurry as to be irrelevant. Instead, I look to the principle given in the Dungeon World supplement Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer, which says to ‘Give everyone personhood’.

Giving silly accents to all the characters, even the monsters, is a good start, but it’s also good to consider that even monsters are individuals, with personal needs and wants. Amenhotep the Mummy just wanted its toy griffin so it could go back to sleep. The Great Basil, basilisk ruler of the frog people of the swamp, was a polite gentleman and willing negotiator despite seeking the annihilation of the Ekek people. At the same time, the generally friendly Ekek had a cultural history of oppressing the frogs. The mercantile river dwarves were utter cowards.

Something I hadn’t expected when I started giving the characters accents was that some of these characters would become so popular with the players that they were adopted as followers and hirelings.

Windsor, the gruff lead giant from the second session, reappeared in session three and helped the player characters put Amenhotep back to sleep. He subsequently followed them for the rest of the campaign as a hireling. But it was clear that he remained a dangerous creature, prone to violent outbursts and attempted cannibalism when he got hungry (his hireling cost was to be fed). The party not only had to direct him to constructive ends, but also had to make sure that he had enough creatures to eat. Over time he developed fast friendships, particularly with Clovis, and became a loyal companion.

In fact, the return of Windsor was a turning point in establishing the tone of the game. As Enrico’s player put it: “Yes, killing and eating people is very very bad, but if we don’t talk to people who kill other people, then who’s going to be left to talk to?”

Shy, Minitaur of the Beef Tribe, also joined as a hireling. He was primarily a tracker (“I’m great at mazes! Yeaaaah!”), but also liked to headbutt enemies… at whatever level his little horns came up to.

Later still they hired Mycteria and Anastomus Stark. Mycteria in particular ended up being very cool. A graceful stork warrior, armed with bladed wings and capable of enhacing magical spells through her whirling dances. She longs for victory in battle, and maybe has a thing for Clovis?

It was important that the side characters didn’t outshine the player characters (fortunately this is built into the hireling rules, so wasn’t much of a problem), but also be badass enough to justify their continued presence in the game.

Even in the final session I was introducing new quirky characters, including the crystal-skull priest of the skeleton people and the local skeletal mariachi band (see the image above), who aided the player characters and their hirelings in defeating the Great Horned Dragon. Afterwards, Enrico asked the band to join him as his new backing group, and they got a chance to do the tour they always dreamed of.

To be continued in part 2

Header image is Dia De Los Muertos by rm73 on deviantArt.

6 thoughts on “10 things I learned running Dungeon World (part 1)

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