10 things I learned running Dungeon World (part 2)

Ziggurat by malachi78 from DeviantArt

2015 was a pretty good year for my roleplaying, all told. It’s the year I started this blog. It’s also the year I started attending a monthly RPG Book and Brunch Club, which introduced me to games like Breaking the Ice, Sorcerer, and Swords Without Master (plus games I never reviewed, like Microscope). I’ve run and played a variety of games, both one-offs and campaigns.

And, of course, it’s the year I started and finished running my campaign of Dungeon World, which I started reviewing in my previous blog post.

(That’s as much of a retrospective on the year as I intend to write, but Michael Duxbury, who played Enrico in Dungeon World, has his own retrospective at his blog. And he mentions the Dungeon World campaign too, so go have a look.)

Where were we?

In the last post, I started listing my top ten GMing tricks that I’d learned (or had confirmed) while running Dungeon World this year. For reference, the first five things on the list of things I learned were:

  1. Starting in media res works really well, you guys
  2. If the GM doesn’t have an answer, it’s ok to ask the players
  3. Not every fight needs to end with murder
  4. Silly accents are fantastic
  5. Give everyone personhood (and make your hirelings awesome)

Now you’re up to speed, here is the rest of the list.

6. Pre-generated monsters are super useful for light-prep GMs

I’m a firm believer in Playing to find out what happens, which is one of the items explicitly mentioned in Dungeon World as being part of the GM’s Agenda. Because of that, and also partly out of laziness, I generally do as little preparation as possible before each session.

Now “as little as possible” rarely means “nothing”. As I GM, I have to be prepared sufficiently to be able to respond to whatever the players do. I need, at the very least, some handy stats for any enemies that the players decide they want to fight and maybe kill.

In previous campaigns I’ve run, mostly in Fate and Smallville, I have had to stat up all characters myself. Those are generic systems and antagonists need customised stats, particularly to tie them in to the players’ stories.

For Dungeon World, though, there is a huge selection of pre-generated monsters in the back of the book. I never understood why Dungeons & Dragons had the Monster Manual as one of its core books until I realised that I could literally pick a monster from that section and throw it at the players without having to customise it in anyway whatsoever.

The choice offered is great, and it was easy to find something appropriate. When I had ideas for situations the players might be involved in, I could just keep extracts of monster stats with me. In fact, the choice of monsters even helped inspire how certain stories would go. Of course there needed to be a Kraken under Lake Ozruk, and of course the village of the frog people was built on the back of the Dragon Turtle.

It was very liberating, and gave me more time to think about situations and settings for upcoming sessions, instead of numbers.

7. Make the setting your own

Dungeon World is, the rules assume, based in the sort of generic D&D fantasy world inspired by Tolkien and European folklore. The standard races, built right into the character playbooks, are humans, elves, dwarves and halflings. The rules on steadings imply Medieval European-style settlements and castles.

We decided very early on that this did not interest us. We never changed the rules as written, but wherever possible we played against expectations. In the whole campaign we visited no castles or forest kingdoms, fought no orcs or goblins, and humans were one of the least common races around.

The early sessions of the campaign were set in a teeming jungle, and the first steading we visited was populated by dwarves with Ancient Egyptian-style trappings (pyramids, linen loincloths and dresses, eyeliner, blue-and-gold headdresses with snake symbols, etc.). The first few “dungeons” we visited were step pyramids, either Mesopotamian-style ziggurats (in the first story arc) or Mesoamerican-style temple-cities (in the second story arc).

After the first arc had concluded, and we’d established that we were going for this sort of “ancient-Egyptian/central-American mashup aesthetic”, I brought a big piece of paper to the game and had the players help draw a map of the world. Each player contributed key locations from their own backstory and quests, and then anything else they thought was cool.

We left blanks, as it says in the GM’s principles in the rulebook, but having a map was really useful for pinning down the wider world. Most of it we didn’t visit, but knowing it was there made the world feel real. It also really helped me with ideas for future locations, especially the swamp land occupied by stork people and their houses on stilts.

In fact, on the subject of maps, getting players to draw maps for dungeons they explore is also a really good idea. When they delved into the cave beneath Lake Ozruk, they mapped as they went and did a much better job than I could have hoped to. One of them even drew in the confrontations with the Kraken and the Sahuagin (shark people), which was awesome!

And once you’ve got a setting firmly in your head, keep your narration on point by bringing in aspects that highlight the setting. The pyramid city of Lopitchitzlan included themes from Aztec art and culture. It was populated by shapeshifters (nagual, called doppelgangers in the book’s monster section) and ruled by the Naguar, a divine half-naga-half-jaguar creature with a tail like a feathered serpent. Images of the jaguar were venerated, even in the doppelgangers’ blocky wooden helmets and the looping patterns engraved on the walls. Gold was everywhere. The inspiration was clear to the players, even without making it explicit.

8. Have a destination in mind

After the first story arc, about the time that Morgan (the fourth player character, who left before they became famous) dropped out of the group, the remaining players and I sat down to have a serious talk about the future of the game. None of us were really feeling very happy with it. We didn’t entirely like the system, and the campaign at that point was open-ended so we weren’t sure about how long we wanted to continue playing.

Two things convinced us to keep going. First, we already had the world map at this point. Second, Rurgosh (the dwarven Cleric of the god Fade) had already been mostly dead. Rurgosh succeeded on their Last Breath roll, so in exchange for letting Rurgosh return to the land of the living, Death had demanded that Rurgosh seek out the forgotten civilisation beneath Lake Ozruk and make it remembered. From the map, and some ideas that I had already come up with, I judged that if the party went straight to Lake Ozruk, there would be about three short adventures of two sessions each: one in Lopitchitzlan, one in the swamp with the stork people and the frog people, and one under Lake Ozruk.

Now we had a plan, and an end point to aim for. We felt rejuvenated and motivated to continue.

I even threw out the few fronts I had worked out. The rest of the campaign was going to be episodic, culminating in the conclusion of Rurgosh’s quest. It was the best choice we could have made, and I am very glad we stuck with it.

9. Sometimes, barbarians just need a vorpal sword

Dungeon World is heavily inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, so it’s expected that finding treasure will be a big part of the game. Heck, all the players in the party gain an additional experience point at the end of each session if they looted a memorable treasure.

However, that’s not my general playstyle. When I’ve played D&D in the past, I’ve usually just equipped myself in a way appropriate to the character and then ignored treasure. I was very bad at describing treasures that the players would find memorable, and that’s probably the main thing I’d try to do better if I ran the game again.

It became clear just how wrong I was on this at the end of the Lopitchitzlan adventure. I had described the stepped pyramid as filled with gold and treasure, so once they killed the Naguar they of course got to roll on the loot tables provided by the Dungeon World book. They got some gold, some jewels and a magic item.

Since I had not prepared a magical item for this eventuality, I turned to the section in the Dungeon World book with pre-generated magic items. There were 11 pages in the section, so I asked Clovis the Giant (the desert halfling barbarian) to roll a d12. He rolled a 12. I could have asked him to roll again, but on the 11th page, at the bottom of that page, the very last item in the list was a Vorpal Sword.

It was so perfect. Clovis had always used swords, and we’d established that he’d been travelling around the world training and looking for weapons to help him kill his nemesis, the Great Horned Dragon. It’s a nice piece of serendipity that the random magic item had armour piercing, and was therefore ideal to take down the established big bad of the game.

I cannot adequately describe how much Clovis’ player’s face lit up when I said he found a Vorpal Sword. Pretty quickly he’d named it Morag and it was his favourite thing. When he briefly dropped it in swamp muck, he was devastated. In the final battle, it was this very Vorpal Sword that Clovis used to hack off the Great Horned Dragon’s massive scales and cut out its heart. Thus did Clovis the Giant come to be called Clovis the Dragon-hearted.

I might not become excited by random treasure, but I should never forget that not all players enjoy the same things. It’s good to understand what your players want and expect, and to motivate them accordingly.

10. Give players room for character talk

There’s a temptation for GMs to move the story along when it gets slow. In Dungeon World and other games Powered by the Apocalypse, the GM acts by making moves. As part of a regular repertoire, this can include showing signs of an approaching threat.

The rulebook says that GMs should make a move in three situations

  • When everyone looks to you to find out what happens
  • When the players give you a golden opportunity
  • When they roll a 6-

What I learned, especially in the finale session, is that when none of these three things happen, you should just let the players do their thing. The reason the first half of the session was sedate and character-focused was because I held back and just watched the players interact, tying up all the dramatic threads left over from the end of the previous session and from the whole campaign up to this point.

It was quite a beautiful thing, seeing Clovis regretting his barbarian rage, which had caused him to crush Enrico’s father’s mandolin, on which Enrico (the elven bard of Lothlorenza) had hours before completed composing the Ballad of Clovis the Giant. Rurgosh used their powers to reattach and heal Enrico’s severed arm, which had been torn off by the Sahuagin, instead of heeding the call of Death to complete their mission. Enrico, after waking, calmed his friends and said that he would find a new instrument, an instrument that would be his own and not his father’s, an instrument for performing not for composing, on which he would play the Ballad of Clovis the Giant around the world.

It’s the stuff great stories are made of.

Bonus 11! Cat people love cat characters

A light-hearted bonus lesson to end on.

In Lopitchitzlan, complications arose just as Clovis killed the Naguar. Weaving together things that had already happened earlier in the session, particularly regarding the shapeshifting doppelgangers and their reverence for the jaguar, I said that Clovis was transformed by the Naguar’s blood into a jaguar person. He grew fur, pointed ears, spots, a tail, etc.

Be careful when you do this to your players. Sure, there’s a risk they might object, but I would have been happy if Clovis had been returned to normal soon after. What I didn’t expect was that the players of Clovis and Rurgosh, both cat lovers (who in fact bought a new cat during the campaign), would find the new feline Clovis to be adorable and (out of character) avoid any attempts to cure him.

Clovis remained a jaguar/desert halfling hybrid for the rest of the campaign, and for many years afterwards.

But, hey, if the players are happy, who am I to argue?


Header image is Ziggurat by malachi78 on deviantArt. Used without permission.

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