Posts Tagged ‘actual play’
Dungeon World might be my new favorite pick-up game. This post is mostly me geeking about it, followed by some thoughts on the system. (I tweeted a bit ago that it’s got the best writing I’ve seen out of indieland since Chronica Feudalis & Fiasco. And I’ve been looking forward to playing it since I read it.)
I finally played it at Nerdly Beach Party VIII (The Search For More Gaming), GMed by Hamish Cameron and played alongside the fantastic Will Huggins (of the Actual People, Actual Play podcast) and Garret Narjes. Hamish talks about it a bit on his LiveJournal. I have this thing for playing Halflings like they’re badass ex-Mossad types, so I grabbed the Fighter class and checked Halfling. (I played a second game of it the following morning with the same character, GMed by Andrew “Pipesmith” Linstrom, but I’ll keep my AP to the first game.)
I named him Ben. Ben didn’t need a fucking elaborate name. He’s just Ben the Fighter. Will played Galadiir the WIZARD!!!! and Garret played Thorndir the Ranger. Both of them elves. Fucking elves.
Ben didn’t make a big deal about how he’s one of the chosen people. He and Thorndir talked about the spirits of nature, to which Ben shrugged. You know, hey, one true G-d. His mace, Exodus, was forever blood-stained when he used it to slay his brother during one of the many Halfling Civil Wars — the endless wars being why he left the Halfling kingdoms in search of glory and, possibly, redemption.
The adventure took place in The Shallow Sea (or as Ben said, “We just fucking call it ‘The Sea’). There were some human settlements on stilted platforms.
Over the course of events, Ben made his foes fear him. He fought off fishmen, and chased after them as they fled — “There is no escape!” He found some strange golden gauntlets that he put on. They found an evil sorcerer that was tapping into a demon-rock in one of the settlements, so he did what any self-respecting sellsword does when dealing with evil magic: jump into the water and knock his house down. (The “Bend Bars, Lift Gates” move.) The wizard and his spearmen met their doom, during which Galadiir decided to commune with the damned rock demon.
More stuff happened with interplay, Ben helping the humans who were just subjected to this tyranny rebuild their homes, giving them some of my gold because, man, orphans. And while the two elves were debating the ethics or tapping into a bound demon, storms came in, and a dragon-turtle was about to get up in our business. Uncomfortable with this, Ben decided to Bend Bars, Lift Gates again to smash the rock open. Both times I used this, I picked the “Nothing of value is damaged” option from the list (which I’ll talk about below).
Turns out Ben unleashed a water demon just as the dragon-turtle was about to fight us. Thorndir parleyed with the dragon-turtle to attack the water demon rather than us. It did…after it bit into Thorndir’s arm and tossed him aside. The fight wasn’t going well for the dragon-turtle, so we jumped into the fray — Ben literally, as he kept doing his halfling “I’m going to jump up and punt you with the head of Exodus” thing.
So, funny thing. When you roll for Hack and Slash, and you get a strong hit, you have two options: hit and take no damage, or increase your damage by two and take damage. I did a strong hit with this move, and rolled well. I thought “what the hell, I’ll take damage. Suck it, water demon!”
Apparently the water demon was pretty high level, so Ben, a second level Fighter with 17 hit points, took 16 damage. He lost his mace in the water. This was Not Good Times. The rest continued to attack, and when Ben got up, he grabbed a nearby spear, used his wounds to coat it in blood (since wielding a weapon soaked in Halfling blood is kinda his thing), and threw it at the water demon’s face. BAM! Dead water demon.
They nursed the dragon-turtle back to health, got some demon-tainted water for the wizard, and Ben proclaimed himself Ben Demonslayer. Still, he had far to go before he earned the redemption he sought.
What I think of Dungeon World After Playing It
What I Dig
I like Dungeon World overall. The feel is fun. It takes some of the good ideas in Apocalypse World and sets it in a fun environment.
Unlike in D&D, the sense of leveling not increasing static competency (i.e. raising bonuses) is interesting. Coupled with the fact that the target numbers don’t change either — you’re just rolling the same skill and hoping for a 10+, settling for a 7-9, dreading a 6- — it means you have a very different feel on scale.
In D&D, if I’m fighting a level 1 kobold as a level 1 dude, that’s something serious. If, over the course of my adventures, I get to level four and fight some level 1 kobolds, it’ll be a cakewalk. There’s something neat about the idea that as time goes on and you accumulate power the threats of the past as lessened. Likely my character won’t often run into such threats, but that there’s a real sense of scale shift is key to the reward of D&D, even if the DM never explores that. The players know, and that’s often enough.
That doesn’t seem like that’ll happen in DW. As you advance in DW, you get more hit points, and another option (which may or may not increase one aspect of your competence, and often instead broadens it). Thus scale doesn’t change like in D&D. What seems to be “level” is how hard a monster can hit, how many hits it can soak, how many hits you can soak, and additional moves.
So your level 1 kobold has the same chance of fucking you up as a level 8 water demon — it’s all based on how well you roll on your attacks. Whether the hit is cause for immediate concern is what changes. Thus when you’re of higher level, those kobolds are going to hit you — unlike in D&D. But that also meant my level 2 fighter could take on and hope to match the level 8 (if I heard Hamish’s mutterings right) water demon, and win.
Very different feel for something that shares the same conceptual space. The above isn’t a criticism (unless what you’re looking for is D&D, in which case I guess it is).
Bend Bars, Be Confused
I dug the Bend Bars, Lift Gates fighter move, though both times I used it were very aggressive. Ben, a neutral fighter, still didn’t want to fuck with the lives of innocent people. (Civil wars show you the true horror or metahumanity and all that.) Hamish & I had a quick conversation both times I said “I pick ‘Nothing of value is damaged.”
“But you’re knocking over a fucking housing block into the sea.” “Yes, and in a way that won’t take long to repair. Because, civilians. And strong hit.”
He rolled with it, and we knocked the housing into the sea, knocking the wizard in it around and prone but preserving what I wanted. Still something “of value” was damaged — that was the point. Just not damaged worse than I wanted.
When I broke the rock containing the demon, I again picked that. “I really don’t think that works. You’re smashing a rock containing a demon.” “You said this could be explosive (per the Spout Lore I rolled beforehand). And I’m of value. So I don’t get damaged.” He nodded and rolled with it. Was it in the spirit of the move? We’re not sure, but we kept going.
What I Disliked
The two things I really didn’t care for were advancement and the antagonistic bonds. Advancement is something they’re working on, but the stat highlighting doesn’t do for DW what it does for AW — AW is a bit of a drama, where highlighting Hot means “I want to see you secure and manipulate people in this episode.” DW being a party adventure game, that’s weak. And, honestly, I’m not sure why saying “you get XP for killing shit” is a bad option for a D&D riff.
I quickly ratcheted up the experience with my Hack and Slash stat highlighted and one of the information-generating moves highlighted (Discern Realities). Will’s wizard did similar, since Spout Lore and I Cast Magic Missile In Your Face are both linked to the same highlighted stat. Garret had DEX & STR highlighted, so him firing arrows was good for him, but his information gathering (which he was good at) didn’t help him like it helped Will & I. So he was a good 10 XP down midway through the game.
During a break, I told him and Hamish “Dude, I want to see Thorndir be all ranger-wise and see shit we don’t. Move the STR highlight to WIS.” They both were cool with the change, while expressing dissatisfaction with that part of the game. DW is a game about having a job, and the highlighting system from AW doesn’t jive with it. That said, I know Adam & Sage are working on that.
But what I very much dislike are the antagonist bonds. It’s a huge turn-off for me. In a game where the conceit is “let’s go adventure,” I don’t want baked-in reasons to say “fuck these guys, I’ll find other people.” I accepted it because I had some decent players around me that didn’t needle the “Ben is the subject of my experiments” or “Dodge stole from me and I know about it” stuff, but I could also see where I would just check out of the game if that became an issue. I suspect some people dig those, but I’d like to see more options for bonds to where the players at the table aren’t mechanically penalized if they avoid the antagonistic bonds (and thus be worse off at helping each other).
Those two pieces I didn’t like, but overall I really, really dug it. Enough to play again the next morning. Enough to have some plotting with Colin Jessup for Big Bad Con. And since one of those is being worked on, and the other is easy for me to just edit myself if I care to, those two sticking points will be smoothed over in time.
 And because I want in the Adventurers’ Guild.
 To NBP peeps: I recognize that this subtitle is apocryphal, but I don’t remember what we actually called it.
 Speaking of, I didn’t see a lot of helping each other in the game. Hmm. Something I should think about, with respect to my own play. It could be that the D&D mindset has to be retrained in that regard.
The following is a scene from our last game, whipped up into fiction. Some commentary below.
Abby watched as the massive inhuman killing machine stared at the teddy bear it (he?) was holding. Moments ago, she had to lead it (yeah, let’s say “it”) out of Will’s room, where she found it holding the teddy. Thank god it didn’t wake Will up.
Normally, Atlas wears his holographic mask, but for all intents and purposes, the machine that was created to hunt and…capture her kind was sitting in the living room, naked as all get out. It reminded her of the Terminator movies, if you made one of those machines bulk up some on steroids. The exoskeleton was a shining alabaster — Primium — that stored Quintessence, which also had the effect of making him look a bit like a Día de los Muertos skeleton.
She would not look at Halloween the same way again.
James came out of the kitchen, holding a bottle of tequila and two glasses. The three of them moved into the neighborhood a few weeks ago. They had a nervous truce for the time being, her a “Reality Deviant” living with the two Technocrats. The leader of Aethertide — at least, the person who they assume is — and the man holding answers to many questions lies in a coma in the basement. When he gets better, all bets are off. But for the time being…
“Okay, I guess we’re at that place. I have something to tell you,” James said as he poured heavily into the two glasses. He slid one to Abby. He didn’t bother to change out of his black t-shirt and black boxers. An NWO spook through and through.
Abby looked down at it, but didn’t touch it. “About why the killing machine was in Will’s room? What the hell’s going on?” She was more shaken by that than by seeing him terrorize the security guard earlier that night. At least that she knows to expect from the Technocracy.
“Atlas Six is a member of the Enlightened Shock Corps. Do you know what that is?”
Abby bit back the vitriol. Her rational brain knew that arguing would do know good, even if her sleep-deprived and scared out of her mind hindbrain thought otherwise. She shook her head.
“Tell her,” James ordered.
“Very well. She is classified as a Reality Deviant collaborating, and her knowledge of this security issue may be risked.” The words came out hollow, as they always did, but from a deep, manly voice. A voice of authority. It was easy to think of it as a “he” when the holograph disguise was up.
And, unlike the HIT Marks she’s had to run from, this thing had a soul. It was Awake. It.
“The Enlightened Shock Corps represent Iteration X’s finest achievement in front line units, designed to penetrate Reality Deviant strongholds and neutralize all hostile threats to the Consensus.”
Abby didn’t hear anything new in that statement, but the lack of passion mixed with the utter assuredness of it was chilling.
“Tell her how the ESC are recruited,” James said.
“Reality Deviants are captured and subdued. They are processed by New World Order procedures until they are blank slates. They are shipped to Autocthonia for further processing. With Progenitor technology, their minds and Genius are grafted into a primium exoskeleton, as you can see before you. A personality matrix is loaded with essential Iteration X procedures and protocols, creating an Enlightened Shock Corps operative. We are then sent into the field to handle powerful Deviants for which our previous constructs were insufficient,” Atlas said, with that same calm, soulless demeanor.
Abby didn’t touch her tequila. James slammed his and poured another. After a few moments of utter silence, “That’s…” She couldn’t find the words to finish that sentence.
Atlas said, “Why would we waste an Enlightened mind? Just because you’re wrong doesn’t mean you should all be assassinated. You’re worth converting.” It sounded rehearsed.
No, it sounded implanted.
James spoke before Abby could. “Tell her what happens after one of your ops.”
“Our data is downloaded, and our personality matrix is reset. We are given relevant operational data to keep after each mission, as mandated by protocol,” Atlas said.
“Tell her why,” James said.
“Our personality matrix has a halflife of six weeks. After that glitches enter the system. We are not meant for long-term operations.”
“How long has it been since you’ve been processed?”
“Two years, seven weeks, five days, twenty hours, sixteen minutes, forty-three seconds.”
James turned back to Abby. “You know the things you call Marauders?” he asked.
Abby shooked her head. That’s all she could do to respond.
“Imagine one with Technocratic technology, a built-in fusion reactor, and a skeleton that is fused with primal essence,” he said.
“That is a distinct possibilty,” Atlas added. He was staring at the teddy bear again.
James watched Atlas for a moment, then slammed his drink again and poured a third. “He’s remembering. That is not good.”
Abby finally spoke, staring straight at James. “How can you be such monsters! I might have known his family!” It didn’t occur to her right then that she said “his” rather than “its”.
James put his drink down, sighed, and leaned in. He looked at Abby square in the eyes, one of the rare times he did that without his mirrorshades on. He said with irritated disbelief, ”Did no one tell you that we were at war?”
As I’ve said before, the Enlightened Shock Corps is something Jerry made up a few years back in his own Mage games. The idea is pretty damned compelling — that Iteration X made near-soulless killing machines out of Tradition mages, and had to keep processing them to keep their old personalities from emerging, while needing them to handle the worst missions.
This scene was entirely done by the players (though I altered some details to make it a narrative that made some sense outside of the game stream). It was one of those times as a GM that I got to feel both pride and sit back to purely enjoy. Pride that what I had put together built up to this moment, and getting to just enjoy it by listening to them without interjecting.
This scene reminded me why I love playing campaign games. You get to actually build something, and at times take a step back because they’ve got the momentum to keep going.
The other day I said on Twitter:
My method of making antagonists: come up with a hurtful behavior & a target, then backfill the history until the antag becomes sympathetic.
It met with some resistance, as people said they find players want one-dimensional villains. But then I said “antagonists” and not “villains.” There is a difference, though I’ll leave that as a thought-exercise for the reader.
In any case, I like antagonists (and villains) to be more than one-dimensional for three reasons:
- If I understand their internal logic, I can play them consistently.
- One-dimension people can only be beaten. Complex characters can also be manipulated.
- Playing one-dimension characters bores the crap out of me.
At the Mage LARP I played in this past Saturday, I was asked to play an NPC that would be harassing one of the PCs. I was told the situation (said PC moved very quickly after a fire in her bar) and the NPC’s belief (that he was pretty sure said PC burned it down for the insurance money). I got to go from there. Oh, and the PC was a totally clueless sleeper.
Given the situation (said PC having moved across state lines), I decided to make him a fraud claims agent for the insurance company. And the STs gave me fairly broad narrative authority to declare things about the situation that would make it complicated. So, with that authority and background, here’s what I had:
Hurtful behavior: figuratively crucify someone you believe to have committed arson
Target: Amber’s character Allison
So, I could be “some asshole that just wants to make someone’s life hell” but I needed more in order to make him feel believable. I didn’t have much to go on, because suddenly I was in character. But I knew that I could backfill the history of this guy and justify why he was an asshole during play.
Oh, and he had a name. I was Agent Frederick Hicks. Because I like naming antagonists after my friends.
The thread of justification:
- Allison (character) was at her bar, where I walked in and interviewed her about the fire. I was charming and nice enough, but I personally knew that was a front to be disarming.
- I then asked about her friend in the bar, Charity, by name. Apparently this was exactly the right thing to do, because she (played by my dear friend Jennifer Brozek) was totally paranoid at this point. And said that I would be in touch. Her eyes went wide.
- At this point, I walked away. I knew they needed time to stew. I didn’t have anything else to do as an NPC, so I went up to the STs are and just watched. Made a little small talk about how I was fucking my friends over, and confirmed that I could do big things, like pull the fire department or play related NPCs that this guy was connected to. The Head ST, Matt, was all for me rolling with it.
- I still didn’t have the history yet, but I was starting to get the feel for it. I came back, and played out a phone call with Charity, where she was fairly defensive (and a bit rude). I knew that was the catalyst for Bad Things. And I needed a couple minutes to figure out why.
- My mind worked fast. I decided that this guy was a (quiet) misogynist. And a woman just challenged his authority.
- That wasn’t enough, though, to not be one-dimensional. I had to understand why, so his behavior wouldn’t just be “uh, because he hates women.” That’s morally equal-weighted to “uh, because he’s evil.”
- I then walked up, telling them that they got a call from the insurance company that the current policy was under suspension. That was Allison & Charity’s (and, really, Amber & Jenn’s) Oh Shit moment.
- I knew they were going to start using magick to figure out what the fuck was going on. So I took a step back to finish up the history. I was walking with a cane at the larp, and I decided that Hicks was crippled. Crippled by a famous in-game event that happened years ago. Was a firefighter, saved a famous person’s daughter, like the governor’s. Declared a hero. But his wife still left him when she didn’t want to take care of someone going through intense physical therapy and was scared by the experience. Which turned him into someone bitter. He doesn’t think of himself as hating women, but he does out of a fucked-up vulnerability.
- I had to add the counterpoint that once he got his job as a fraud claims agent, he was good. Good, and because he was a hero who lost something, others in power sympathized with him and thus he was connected.
- Admittedly, I hadn’t quite clicked on that one until about five seconds after I walked back in the scene, and said I was a different character, a “guy dressed as a fire chief.” He just walked in the bar, looked around, tipped his hat, and walked out. They were unnerved as all hell. (And for the record, that was the fire chief, but I said “dressed as” because I wasn’t going to give him a speaking role enough to declare it fact.)
- And to add to the end, and this might have been jumping the shark, he was pretty sore on this one and not thinking clearly because (a) his wife was also named Allison, and (b) he is a self-hating moron who still has his ex-wife on Facebook and recently saw pictures on her wall with her new boy-toy.
- Which mean suddenly I had history to explain why this guy thought he was right (or, rather, skipped from “strongly suspect” to “guilty under proven innocent”) about Allison burning down her own building. He had sleeper evidence that lead right to her, was damned good at his job, and was in a bad headspace for dealing with someone with the same name as his ex-wife.
That took around two hours, partly formed in response to reactions from Amber & Jenn, partly formed from my own actions and backfilling why they make sense. Sure enough, they used magic to figure out what was up with my character, and Allison (or maybe Amber) was left with an “oh fuck, I’m screwed” feeling.
Later, they figured out how to use my tenaciousness to their advantage. Since my character felt he was right, all they had to do was break him of this notion and he would get set on the next path. So they did their own digging, with magick, and Charity apologized and made herself uncharacteristically humble to a subtle, woman-hating asshole. The end result: they fucking co-opted him, made him someone they could use to do some sleeper policing.
That’s why I play complex characters. So that they can be treated like complex characters and the situations that arise can be dealt with in a number of ways. If I’m running a pulp game, sure, one-dimension villains with faces primed for punching. But for real drama, you have to remember that every character who acts thinks they’re right and have reasons to justify hurtful behavior.
I’m reminded of the first time I saw this that I can recall: In Final Fantasy 8, Seifer (an early-on antagonist) talked about how he was the hero and Squall (your character) was the bad guy. That blew me away. Sure, it didn’t change how I treated Seifer, but it did make that moment awesome.
 Do this and I will happily be a vessel for your truth.
 Which, incidentally, displays an incredible amount of trust in a large-group dynamic. Something I’ve been pondering since the game for when I write up about my larp experiences thus far.
 I swear, I thought this was going to be a shorter post.