26 September 2013

Ask Questions, Gain +Improv

 A wonderful article by "weem" describing some very juicy techniques with which to run a game. It's  geared towards Dungeon World, but can work in literally every game you play in. Let me give you an example:

"In Dungeon World however, the players play a much larger role in the crafting of the world around them. Using that same example, as the DM you may turn to the Elf in the group and ask him a question. It could be simple… “Have you met the Elves to the North before?” (keep in mind, the campaign may have just begun!) or it could be a more leading question (the best kind)… “You were there once, and were even offered a place among them. Why did you turn it down?”."

Using the principles and suggestions in this humble blog post will make the quality of the games you play in and host significantly better. Some of the more experienced GMs out there will doubtless recognize these techniques as things they've developed over the years, and that's pretty much how you know it's golden.

The full link follows:

22 September 2013

Dungeon World Session Two Recap

I would like to dedicate this post to Bartleby, the half-dead halfling warrior who was very nearly slain in a courageous and heroic duel to the death with skeleton champion Siggurd Broadson, known in life as a masterful and honorable fighter.

He probably could have made it if he hadn't had to swing a burning bookshelf at an ice giant lich. Or if he hadn't been beaten at by the same, or nearly extinguished wholesale by death magics.

Let me tell you about the game.

The adventurers stand at 4; Dirk the thief, Aziz the druid, Bartleby the halfling fighter, and Baldric the Bard. They had set out to the Ice Giants' Tower for reasons of completely petty larceny and looting, and found, instead, a complex filled to the brim with skeletal guardians, angry and petty ice giants, and heroes of distant legends past.

In this week's exploits, they ventured deeper into the tower, and discovered, unlike the bare and stony upper levels, a cushioned, carpeted, and comfortable sanctum, complete with dresser, chest, and numerous stocked bookshelves. In the middle of the room stood a pedestal topped with a crystal skull. A staircase led onwards and downwards, the brother to the one which they entered the room with.

The halfling and the bard went to the dresser and pulled open the shelves. The bottom one had luxuriant and beautiful robes, which the halfling mangled into a suit of clothes and a turban, since the last battle against the mimic left him without armor or much other than the underwear he'd had. The bard tossed the giant's staff to the druid, who caught it without much enthusiasm.

The second drawer had the giant's ignored and disgusting socks, which were growing edible mushrooms somehow. A thriving ecosystem of insects and small rodents were present.

I don't remember what's in the top drawer, but I do remember what was in the chest and in the secret shelf the thief spotted on the bookshelf: A thorny and enormous crown of silvered metal, and a golden goblet that the ghost in the thief's head helpfully informed him was used in the blood magical rituals.

The crystal skull was found to speak, annoyingly, and make grand and loud proclamations. Everything, from crown to mushrooms to coinage found its way into the thief's sack. They were in the middle of covering their loot in books and piling it into the chest when the owner of said treasures walked in. An ice giant lich! He shouted in indignation for his staff from the diminuitive thieves. For lack of anything better to do, they threw it at him. He caught it and blasted horrible death magic. Yeah, he was pretty mad. Dirk's ghost screamed that it was Geiknir the Thrice-Dead and the bard recalled some fairly interesting facts. I'll write them in more detail later.

They fought him with moderate success, taking a few lumps and giving out a few in return, and snapping the giant staff in half, until the druid decided to attempt to ignite the ice giant. He misthrew the torch, and lit the carpet on fire instead, which spread to the bookshelves and threatened to engulf the entire room.

The thief fled, and the druid attempted to change shape, but failed, and stood in the middle of the fire and did nothing. The bard abandoned his musical stylings and tackled the wizard, which let the halfling fighter chop the hand that was swinging towards the druid, who had shifted into a bear and charged. I'm omitting some of the fight for the sake of brevity, you understand. There was also a burning bookshelf bludgeoning and some entertaining songs. And a thrown knife or two?

Geiknir teleported away, and the party decided to pursue down the only unexplored avenue, only to be stopped by a squad of skeletons, standing in formation, led by a singular skeleton with a large sword, a golden helmet, and a gilded breastplate. Bartleby immediately challenged him to a battle, an honorable duel, in hopes of slaying their leader before the battle properly began.

The skeleton revealed himself to be the twice-killed Seiggir Brodson, a famous warrior that the bard had sung songs about, but the halfling was stuck. The duel ended poorly for him- after a couple of slashes, the skeleton pressed his advantage and slew the halfling, who hung onto life with the faintest of threads. They recovered their dead, as is the custom after a duel, and the party fled up the giant stairs back into the sanctum.

It was no use, though- the lich was there, and demanded the other half of his staff back. The thief discerned that it was a ruse, and that the skeletons were back! A retreating melee ensued, but Bartleby and Dirk were captured by the skeletons while Baldric and Aziz fled. A single headbutt from Bartleby, in defiance of Seiggir's mocking taunt shocked the skeletons, and both of the heroes lept into action and smashed the head of Seiggir. The rest of the undead collapsed in a heap, no longer bound to serve a slain master, and the heroes quickly scooped up the loot and high-tailed it the fuck out of there.

Nevalix is the closest settlement, as a town built around a keep on the border of civilization. The populace is mostly military, merchants, and the families of guardsmen, but they're friendly and helpful and happy and have a good life. They dispersed- Bartleby found a halfling cook named Tark Haverngton and fell to discussing mushrooms and the delights of home. Baldric is in the company of Lord Anaster, who recognized the bard on sight and offered his home to the vagabond bagpipist. The Druid went to seal his pact with Death itself, and preyed upon a young wandering couple while disguised as a great albino wolf.

Dirk, on the other hand, proceeded directly to the nearest temple, that of Shaunra-thom, and asked for a quick exorcism. An immensely fat priest helped him, but the ghost was absolutely not happy when he heard what Dirk had planned. Too bad for him. At least, for now...

They secured passage south on a returning supply wagon from the ancient and bizarre quartermaster, who essentially said that if it's just them then they can hop on wherever there's space because the wagon's going south with or without them, so they got their stuff ready, found a nice and neat flophouse to snooze on for free, and prepared to figure out how they were going to turn their loot into piles of gold.

And that was the second session of what was planned to be a one-shot but just can't seem to end. Not that I mind, though, because the game is brilliant and fast-paced and creative as hell, and it feels like no matter how much I play of it, I want to see more happen.

21 September 2013

Orcs Again!

The coolest and best thing about Orcs is that they are completely unlike any existing human society. It's the reason that I wrote so much about them the other day (here); because they haven't quite managed to be relegated to a single human subculture yet, Blizzard's strange stereotypically vague Native American attempts notwithstanding.

They are part Ancient Greek city-states, part Polynesian seafaring raiders, part Mesopotamian god-kings, part Gallic warrior caste, and uniquely their own thing. Their depictions are often negative, but they're often portrayed as the enemy, even in Dungeon World. I said, why not let me play as Orcs and experience the world from the other side?

So let's do that.

Here they are.

20 September 2013

Dungeon World Tomorrow! And: Playing Orcs

Dungeon World

I almost feel guilty about being this excited for it. It's such a brilliant game, exploding with enthusiasm and ideas and fun. Everybody, from the guy that usually sits in the back and watches, to the guy who's all about rules and structure, everybody loves it, and it feels great. The way that everybody contributes equally, and the way that you can (and are encouraged to) pick on characters and draw them in with the fiction is great.

They're currently in a giant's tower that's sticking partially out of the snow. I can't remember what they decided it was, but for some reason my notes include the word "courthouse"? Maybe some sort of civic building constructed by giants, or maybe a temple to some sort of lawgiving deity? It doesn't really matter, because the giants are long since dead, and the only thing that's left is a small horde of skeletons (which fused into one giant skeleton due to the slightly bungled attempt at disenchanting them by the Bard, read more about it two posts back or so), some of your typical dungeon denizens (rats, mimics, you know, whatever), and who knows what else.

It'd be fun if the courthouse tower/dungeon opened up into a sort of labyrinth (and I even have some dungeons generated and waiting on the wings), but maybe something more exciting is in order?

Gotta write up some Fronts and some Dungeon and Monster moves to use on them next session. Probably gonna do a couple of writeups about the Giant Skeleton and the Mimic, so that when this session wraps up, I can tie it together in a nice module-sized PDF, clean up the rough edges, fluff out some cool ideas, and then put it here. Mostly for my own benefit, you understand.

Should be a good time. This game is great. I can't say enough good things about it.

Dark Heresy

It's going to be weird to be going back to Dark Heresy. I've been running it as a detective game, and it's been rough. I've never done it before, and it's frustrating because the powers that they're up against are clever and mysterious and it's difficult to get the right balance of "damn these guys are good" with a sense of movement- because when they run out of clues, the only thing that's going to happen is that the bad guys are going to start winning. Which is actually kind of alright, now that I type it out in front of me, because their plans are pretty sinister and noticeable. If the players screw up badly enough, it'll be time for running and gunning. Heh, heh, heh...

Don't wanna spoil the surprise, so I'll leave it at that.

Lemme wrap this up with something I'd intended to post yesterday but ran out of ideas before I could: the Dungeon World Orcs. You remember, the ones from an ancient fallen civilization from another continent, you remember, cmonnnnnn it was just yesterday! Go read it again, then come back here for some rules.

19 September 2013

Dungeon World Orcs

You finally spot your quarry- the dozen orcs that have set fire to your village and slew all of your friends. There couldn't have been more than twelve of them, but they were battle-hardened warriors where your fellow villagers were mostly farmers and their wives and children, and they put them all to the sword. None of them died. They stole everything of value, killed and cooked what livestock hadn't run, and left, singing songs in their strange tongue, mindless of the blood and gore that caked in their thick hair and in their armor.

You'd tracked them over the past day; not a difficult task, since they were obviously making no effort to hide or keep secret what they'd done. They marched at a quick pace, despite being obviously burdened with heavy armor and their huge, spiked weapons, and talked and chattered amongst themselves the whole time. Now that they've camped, they'd taken off their armor and they huddled around a single campfire, yapping at each other and wrestling among themselves, almost rolling into the fire once. They all laughed at that, but you watched in horror. These were the orcs that slew your village? Not a day ago they killed dozens of your kinfolk and now they were rolling around in the grass and making obscene gestures at each other? 

One of them, the largest one, snapped a command and the other orcs visibly sunk. Here was the boss of the warband. You had a tiny dagger that the orcs had deigned to steal, and it seemed useless against the scarred hulk that towered more than twenty feet from you currently stood. The huge orc had no helmet, and you could see that he was missing an eye. He glared out from his empty socket at the others, and cuffed one on the head. He spoke several sharp words, and then gestured at the sky. The orcs quieted and calmed down, and eventually they all went to sleep.

You were still standing there. What on earth were you going to do?

Let's talk about orcs.

In Dungeon World, Orcs are savage, bloodthirsty and hateful. They all swear fealty to a chief, and they are all trained to fight. Some of them are berserkers, transported to near-insanity during battle because of their demonic rites. Some of them are priests, who pluck out their own eye as a sign of devotion and make pacts with their gods for vengeance. Some of them are shamans, who talk to spirits. And some of them are slavers, who roam the seas looking to shanghai a crew or two. This is all directly from Dungeon World's writeups of the race, and is taken for absolute truth.

But is it? How much is exaggerated by terrified enemies, or disgusted onlookers? And most importantly- what can we infer from these descriptions?

Well, a lot, actually. Nearly everything you could want to know about a people is there, actually. Funny how that works, isn't it? So let's start with the basics and extrapolate where we can.


Stating the Obvious

If we take them at face value, we have a people who are pious, angry, and ready for battle, which we can clearly see from their aggressive disposition, their numerous warriors, their willingness to fight, and the central place that their shamans and priests hold in their society. This is the basic facet of orkiness- a sort of aggressiveness mixed with religiosity.

Each of these things tells a story about who orcs are, where they came from, and what they're like as individuals.

Orc armies, assembling

Ready for a Fight

Let's start with the most obvious facet of "orcishness," their combativeness. If every orc is taught to fight, then we can assume they have a strong martial tradition. Martial traditions occur only in societies with frequent low-intensity warfare, like Ancient Greece, Gaul, Mesopotamia, or Imperial China. In order for this to happen, the landscape must be of a type that supports at least city-states, and either large enough that a centralized government is difficult to administer efficiently, or dispersed enough that centralization is impractical entirely.

Both kinds share key features; in the absence of a centralized government, there are no kings to moderate in-fighting and direct their population growth towards an external enemy, there is no ethnic kinship (despite seeming similarities in language, appearance, and customs) so they remain free game to be enslaved or pillaged, and there are numerous feuds and rivalries with any neighbor, so that there is a kaleidoscopic web of temporary allies, potential enemies, and chains of atrocities committed on both sides.

This all, of  course, necessitates that there are cities, or at least permanent settlements, both because tribal nomads don't produce iron goods that orcs are known to possess, and because nomads generally do not have strong martial traditions, which orcs are again known to possess. This actually completely gels with their being described as hordes, because the peoples that have been historically referred to as hordes (i.e. the Roman's "barbarians" and the Mongolian Empire's "hordes" that enveloped swaths of Eurasia). Both of these people actually had complex societies with some fairly large cities (including the "barbarian" cities of Orleans, Bourges, and Chartres, which still exist today), trade routes, non-food producing specialists, a priestly class, and various other trappings of civilization.

So we've decided that they obviously have squabbling city-states, that they may or may not have had experiments in feudalism, and that they are very obviously possessed of at least a couple of disparate ethnic groups that fought constantly, leading to the establishment of a "warrior culture." This leaves us a couple of useful seeds you can use in your next game, including peaceful orcish cities, orcish ruins, and orc traders. Or possibly an ancient orcish battleground, or an orcish tomb of an ancient emperor.

Help From Above

Next up, we have their religion. Their religion is explained by three entries in Dungeon World- one of them being the Berserker, who undergoes a "kind of twisted knighthood" called Anointing By The Night's Blood, which turns a normal warrior-orc into a half-mad warrior whose madness never really ceases. This mirrors the real-life view of the Nordic berserkers, whose enemies believed that they looted, pillaged, and destroyed constantly in their horrible heretical frenzy. Of course, this isn't true- in real life, berserkers were highly valued and completely sane outside of battle, and even formed a regular part of armies and the personal guard of kings. But we do, undoubtedly, have a sort of holy warrior here. Can you say paladins?

Secondly, their religion is described in the entry on the Orc One-Eye, where a lengthy prayer of vengeance is delivered to one "Gor-sha-thak, the Iron Gallows," praying for vengeance against an unnamed foe, invoking the powers of night, of runes, and of the clouded sky. This, again, sounds fairly nordic; runes, blood magic, and one-eyed gods being a notable part of the Norse pagan worldview.

Lastly, you have the entry on the Shadowhunter, who is literally a holy order of assassins. They serve He of Riven Sight, the one-eyed god, and use poisons and shadowy magic to kill people that the orcs deem unworthy. This tells us a whole lot about orcs, once again- namely that there is enough left of orcish society to support not only a priestly caste, but to have holy assassins. This implies a high degree of organization, of information about other societies, and of frequent stretches of peace. After all, you don't send assassins to kill people that you're attacking- you send in assassins when they're not expecting it. This puts a wrinkle in the nordic theme, of course, and lends a sort of ancient middle-eastern paganism in. Which is kind of neat- now we've got a bit of interplay with lunar symbolism, the shadows of night, and a bit of the vengeance pokes through once again.

So when you put it together, what have you got?

An orcish general surveys the carnage he has wrought

Who's The Tusked Dude Over There?

A people who willingly meet their enemies in battle with no qualms for "fairness" or "honor," watched over by one-eyed sky gods hungry for sacrifice and for rivers of blood, who sail the oceans in their reaving ships, pillaging and plundering the cities of their foe-men, led by priests and berserkers anointed by night, commanded by chieftans' force of will and strength of personality in a de-centralized world of city-states and feudalism.

From this, we can extrapolate that orcs are independent, pious, and unafraid of personal sacrifice. They value personal accomplishment and do not acknowledge inherited prestige or positions, although they're not stupid and won't do things like disrespecting a king in his own castle, surrounded by guards. An orc makes friends and enemies easily, and has little to no truck with stupid notions like honor. To the victor goes the spoils, says the orc, and if the gods didn't like betrayal and backstabbing maybe they should do something about it. They tend to act rather than think. They talk with their hands and are vivacious. Their language is harsh and fast-paced, and tends to be made of compound words rather than unique words for each thing. A troll would be an uglywartmonster, and an dragon would be flyingfirelizard, for example.

Want to play them yet? Me, too. But I haven't written the rules just yet. Maybe check back tomorrow?

17 September 2013

Dungeon World!

Last Saturday I played Dungeon World.

At the risk of sounding a bit like a crazy person I want to just go ahead and say that playing it was like a dream come true. It was a bit like a really great pair of underwear- it's got support where you need it, it mostly stays out of the way, and it doesn't look terrible, either.

The best idea, I think, is that each players' action has the potential to really make things worse, so you often have situations that quickly snowball out of control. I really do mean snowball; shit gets crazy quick.

As a good example, the first thing my players' party did was decide that they're going to a frigid arctic dungeon, deep in the north. I had them roll to make a Perilous Journey, and so they did. The quartermaster, to whom the food supplies belong (a halfling who immediately demanded that he be quartermaster as soon as he found out what that was, no less), rolled fine, so nothing happened to their food. The trailblazer, not so much- he rolled a 7. I asked him what was up, and he told me: "Oh, the map was upside down!" We decided that they'd have to eat an extra ration, since they were headed exactly the wrong way and wasted a lot of what would normally be productive travel time. But it got interesting with the scout, who rolled really, really poorly. I offered him a hard choice- you can either stand your ground here, and try and outsmart, outfight, or otherwise trick it (not entirely unlikely, since the scout was a bard,) or you can run for your life and hope that your party helps you deal with it. He chose to run for his life, and I told him what was chasing him: An enormous, slavering yeti.

And so, without any preparation or forethought to what was happening, we have a clear picture of the party; a somewhat oblivious but well-meaning bard, a possibly sheltered thief, and a halfling who is more concerned with the food than with where they're going.

I can't remember how the fight went, but I do remember that they ended up getting some help from the Druid (the last party member, who according to the Bonds that they wrote before the session, actually knew most of them from before), and they dispatch the Yeti, but not before the bard's music attracts more of the beasts. I left one of the failed song attempts hanging, because I'd had a plan for later...

Anyways, they run into a nearby ice cave (they used Spout Lore to decide that there were some caves nearby, I think,) and the thief uses his powers to detect traps, asking if it's safe. It isn't- the bard's bagpipe music has weakened the ice and it's going to collapse! But the Druid runs deeper into the cave (a result of a failed attempt to aid, I think)!

The entire session goes on just like this, with two steps back to every three steps forwards. It was like a roller-coaster ride, and I highly recommend Dungeon World to anybody who's tired of preparing game material and just wants to play a really fun, really exciting fantasy game.

11 September 2013


This Saturday I'm running Dungeon World, and I'm excited.

And why shouldn't I be? It's a semi-narrativist, semi-traditional game of dungeon crawling with an obvious love for its source material and no qualms whatsoever about giving you that old-school D&D vibe in a totally new way.

It's no secret that I'm in love with old-school dungeon crawling, especially in a system that lets you get away with making literally everything up on the spot. I mean, the entire game is based around exactly that; every roll lets the players or the GM dictate what's happening in the world, in totally in-game terms. And it's all player driven.

See, the players actually get to shape the world during character creation. You ask them what god they serve, and they just make it up. Where are the from? They make it up, and tell you a little bit about it. They have "Bonds" to other characters, and that lets them define who other peoples' characters are.

During play, it's the same way. When they want to attack something, the monsters get to hit back if they roll decently well. They can choose not to take this retribution damage, or they can choose to knock the enemy around a little. Or they can choose to hack extra hard.

And if they roll poorly? Then I get to "make a move," too. And it's always something cool. If it's just a fight, maybe their sword gets knocked away. Or maybe they slip and fall. Or maybe their enemy uses their momentum to push them towards the chasm they were fighting near. Or maybe now the valiant hero is in the middle of the hordes of monsters! Or maybe the bad guy's about to smash the super-important Crystal of Amun-Reth? It's all about making the consequences match the outcome. And it's all written directly into the way the game works.

The whole game is like that, and it's really exciting and really weird. Instead of thinking up even a skeletal plot, I've got to wait and see what the players come up with, draw (but not fill) a couple of dungeons, sites, and places, and come up with some names. I can't fit anything together yet, because I don't know what the players are going to bring. It's like getting ready for a jam session, and I really, really hope that they are going to bring their A game, because I'm going to bring mine.

I haven't been this excited about a generic fantasy game in a long, long time.