Exploratory Plunge into Dungeon World

It was Aug’s inaugural Gaming Group at Dad’s Place. He’d spent the week calling his mates and arranging times, repeatedly leaving our address and phone number on answering machines. No one returned his calls, and as Sunday approached I was wary – was anyone going to show? I prepared anyway. I read the Dungeon World rules. I bought Vanilla wafers and mixed up a gallon of Robinsons Barley Water. Sunday morning we got a call, one of his friends was coming. We walked to the laundry mat and washed a load of clothes. Returning to hang them on the line, there was a second call. Whee, we were off. I sent Aug out to mow the back yard while I racked leaves in the front. Heading inside on an errand, a third boy called. Yes! We had a game!

At Noon the team assembled:  son and protege August, age 12, Cole, age 11, Frank, age 13, and David, age 10. I doled out the character classes: cleric, thief, fighter, wizard. I’d spent the day before double-sided printing the various pages, including the two equipment lists, and 4 Moves pages (what the characters can do), and folded them into handy pamphlets. The folded pamphlets looked neat and were handy. Small complaint: I didn’t like that they were sized for legal paper – who has that on hand? – and would have preferred that they were designed for landscape printing on regular-sized paper.

It was David’s birthday so he chose the cleric. Aug took the thief, Cole the wizard, and Frank the fighter. We went through the character creation process step-by-step, following the procedure in the basic rules. Most of the players grasped the details immediately, and I think David’s difficulty had more to do with his age than with complex rules. I had my doubts about letting the youngest player run a spell-caster, but it was his birthday and I didn’t want to spoil his fun. I figured a rule-lite system should be light enough for a child to play it. He could, he just needed help.

The biggest difficulty was the Bonds, the connections that the players have to each other, and the basic rules could spend more time explaining those. Why is it important? There is an Assist Move that allows a player to add a bonus to another player if he succeeds with a Bond check, but that is buried in the Moves pamphlet. The bigger issue was the idea that bonds grew, but I didn’t understand how they grow, or even how they were ranked. It says a player can pick the value of each Bond, but then later I thought that the Bond value was calculated by the number of Bonds a character had to another character. So if Tredkid (Aug’s theif), both hates Striggi (Frank’s fighter) and owes Striggi money, does he have a Bond to Striggi +2? Or is each Bond ranked?

I know I could ask this question on the forum – I think there is a forum, who doesn’t have a forum these days – but I didn’t. It came up while we were playing and I didn’t want to break dramatic tension to browse the Internet. I’d only scheduled three and a half hours for the game.

Characters made and Fronts (the ad-blurbs or the nutshell explanation of what is going on) explained, the game began. Tredkey the halfling thief, Striggi the dwarf fighter, Ator Lupis the elf wizard, and Cinon the human cleric squatted on a ridge and gazed at the gates of the Bloodstone Idol, the introductory adventure that comes with the basic game. The Fronts were a turf war between the goblins and the lizardmen and a rogue wizard exploring the dungeon under the hill to awaken the Bloodstone idol.

An aside: to gain experience the player has to make rolls that use one of two selected stats (Dex or Str or Int or etc.) . He doesn’t have to succeed, just make a roll (I think – could be wrong). The DM picks one of the stats and another player picks another. Picking is called “highlighting” in game parlance. Bond is important here, because the player with the strongest bond highlights the stat. Now, if your buddy picks for you and he likes you, he’ll highlight a stat that you use all the time and you’ll rack up experience points like social diseases in Saigon. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll highlight Charisma, and brother, you ain’t gonna be making a lot of Charisma rolls fighting goblins. The DM gets to highlight after the player, which can manage this a little, but it still only works if the group has a strong social compact. I was playing with pre-teen boys who would happily poke each other’s eyes out with sticks for amusement. There were a lot of Charisma stats highlighted.

Back to the dungeon. Tredkey, Striggi, Ator Lupis, and Cinon were hunkered down on a ridge line, peering through brambles at the rude fortifications the goblins and lizardmen had constructed. The two races were warring, turning the entrance into a no-humanoid’s-land (can’t call it a no-man-land’s, there aren’t any men anyways) of dead bodies and broken weapons. I described the scene and finished with, “Ator, what are you going to do?” The basic rules suggests this technique, although it hardly needs to. As a DM/GM/referee/keeper/storyguide, I’ve been saying “what do you do” for twenty flippin’ years. Still, it’s fine advice.

Ator had a spell that would turn someone invisible. Tredkey offered to sneak through the battle lines to the front gate, tantalizingly left ajar. I helped create the scene by drawing a map on a large whiteboard and populating it with lizardmen and goblin figures. The boys had selected minis to represent their characters, then spent a good few minutes having the minis kick each other. Cole rolled for the spell and it went off. Tredkey threaded his way between goblin warriors and lizarman berserks and reached the front door. They hadn’t decided what to do at that point and started discussing it. Instead of saying, “Hold it, Tredkey can’t talk to Ator, he’s on the other side of the battlefield,” I let them talk. The rules actually suggest allowing a player to discuss his intended action before performing it. It decreases the tension between players and GM, and it worked well to just let the boys talk. Tredkey key decided to knock loose some stones as a signal. Ator, Striggi, and Cinon saw the signal, and then the players discussed what that meant, and what they should do now that Tredkey was in place.

I decided to make a Move, or take a turn, and up the threat level. One of the goblins, stationed at the end of the goblin line of defenses, hustled over to the ridge to relieve himself. Striggi and Ator decided to hide, while Cinon ran across the ridge and hid behind one of the lizardmen battlements. I asked for rolls. Ator rolled fine and hid, but Striggi only received a partial success. He wasn’t spotted, but he stepped on a twig and made it snap. The goblin pricked up his ears. Ator reacted instinctively and shot an arrow into the goblin’s shoulder. He squealed, but only loud enough to bring his nearest neighbor. Not knowing the combat system well, and regularly playing games that have lethal combat systems, I wanted to hold off on sending waves of baddies at the boys.

Striggi came barreling from cover and sliced the goblin in half. Frank had a lucky streak of rolls ahead. Ator shot the second goblin, but only wounded him. Cinon decided to attack a lizardman who had thus far not noticed him. If Tredkey wondered why he’d taken the pains to sneak invisibly through the battlements he didn’t say so, and quickly positioned himself to back stab the lizardman chief. Essentially, all hell broke loose. Goblins attacked the lizardmen and a full scale battle erupted.

Play went around the table, starting with Frank and moving in turn to Cole, Aug, David, then me. Frank rolled well and brutalized every goblin he met. Cole also rolled well, and Ator shot Magic Missile after Magic Missile, his rolls high enough so that Ator remembered the spell after each cast (instead of forgetting it, which is often the case in rpgs). Aug rolled all right, enjoying the thief’s back stab options, and wounded the lizardman leader. Poor David didn’t roll well, ever. Attacking the lizardman, Cinon missed, the first of many.  Then it was my turn. Normally, each creature that was attacked, and lived, would attack back. But in Dungeon World I got one Move, meaning I could have one creature damage a character, or some other threat. Not wanting to kill anyone, I held back. My role, as I saw it, was to make the world fantastic and dangerous, not lethal. People will argue with me, and my viewpoint probably deserves another post, something like “if a character dies through dice rolls  something has gone horrible wrong.”

Anyway, Cinon was in danger, wounded and losing his fencing match with the lizardman. Tredkey, visible and engaged with one of the toughest baddies, was losing ground. The game doesn’t have movement rules and I’m glad. Striggi and Ator flew around the battlefield like wasps, covering great gobs of ground on their turns and slaying lizardmen and goblins in droves. Rules-lite systems are fun, but a lot depends on the dice rolls. If you are rolling hot, it’s a ton of fun. If not, it sucks and there is little you can do. All the Bond assists in the world aren’t going to turn a 3 into a winning roll. The dwarf character, Striggi, really packed a wallop, and if he did hit, which he often did, he killed his opponent. Ator and Tredkey dealt out enough damage for the boys to enjoy themselves, and even if they weren’t killing opponents they were wounding them. Poor Cinon had a bad streak of rolling and couldn’t do much, but run away.

Another thing with rules-lite games are that options are often limited. Aug commented on this. The basic Moves are few, and he felt like his options were limited. They are and they aren’t. I think the moves are broad, which he didn’t understand, so even if climbing a rope, running away, sneaking to the doors, or hiding are all the same roll, Defy Danger or whatever it’s called, there are still many options. Well, Cinon failed his running away roll. But I’m not going to kill a ten-year-old’s character on his birthday. I wouldn’t do it on any other day, either. It would be different if I was playing with grown ups, but wouldn’t that still suck? “Shit man, I can’t roll better than a damn 3 on these diced and now I’m dead. Thanks for the game.” Okay, I’ll get off my high horse. But I can see why a grownup player doesn’t want to commit a lot of effort to a “first level paladin who might go down with a few bad die rolls”.

Cinon didn’t die! The lizardman was distracted by Striggi’s war cry, and as he turned paled looking at the blood-drenched dwarf charging at him. Snicker snack and that was that.

Frank had a great day. Cole had highlighted Strength for Striggi, so Frank got XP for every Hack & Slash roll he made: 9. He and Ator ended up with 9 xp each, Tredkey had 6 or 7, and Cinon had 1. That didn’t seem right. However, and this is most important, the boys had fun! They all want to play Dungeon World again and continue the quest below ground. We’ll reconvene in two weeks, at which point I’ll have read the rules (again) and have a better grasp on Bonds, XP, and highlights.

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