[DW/Planarch Codex] How to bring Dis to Life?

edited April 2013 in Play Advice
Hi, I'm getting back into gaming and I'm interested in taking another crack at DW using the Dis setting presented in "Dark Heart of the Dreamer" It's brief but evocative and I love the idea of the neighborhood being a dungeon until you get to know it, but the next parish is still unfamiliar and risky.

I thought it might be a lot of fun to start off with characters who are freshly come to Dis as refugees when their homeland got consumed, with only the clothes on their back and the holy books of their faith and maybe some knives, and have to take odd jobs as they find their way around. If the game lasts long enough, they'll grow to be cocky adventurers, then notables of the parish, maybe get secure enough to start hating on the planar refugees that show up looking for work as newcomers.

Are there any big disadvantages to this approach that I'm not seeing -- the main thing I can think of is the lack of backstory that develops with time, but I'm not sure how big an absence that would be. I suppose I could specify that the characters have been in Dis for a year or so before the start of the game, so they've had time to know their way around a bit and make some friends/enemies before things start.

It seems to me that one way of creating some background development in an infinite city that never stops growing is to come up with events based on what new planes have been contacted and how they're effecting the city over time. Like:
--Dis starts consuming an alternate plane which is like a miniature Carceri, inhabited by prisoners and their jailers. What happens now that the plane is breaking down and prisoners are being freed to take revenge or flee into the city?
--The Heralds, a cult that believes that Dis is the one true God and will become Heaven when it has consumed all other planes, send missionaries to the planes that are being consumed. One missionary recently made a remarkable conversion, of a whole warrior tribe who packed up, marched forth into Dis, and now call themselves the Herald Crusaders. What will they do, now they have an army?
--Dis has just opened portals to an archipelago of wizards and spice plantations, a civilization so wealthy that ships from the elemental fleets are abandoning their usual routes to play pirate.

Is this kind of thing helpful, do you think, or should I be focusing more on the emergent story of the characters as it develops?


  • Write those down but then forget about them until you're stuck for something cool to have happen.

    You know that advice for Apocalypse Engine games, cultivate a head full of imagery? That's part of it.

    Cultivate feral and fantasic anthropologies and politics.

    But yeah, start them on capers, keep reading cool social history and setting books for interesting stuff, fit it in where it feels organic too.
  • I love the refugee initial situation, that's gold. I reckon that IS your starting tense situation - the characters are in this overwhelmingly massive melting pot of a city and everyone just wants a piece of them.
    Invisible cities ROCKS for setting / situation hooks for Dis.


  • Listen to Orlando.
  • Like, so you're writing about spice plantations. Cool. That's a real thing. Read about the history of slavery and resistance in Haiti. It's really amazing tale of brutality and resistance.
  • edited April 2013
    Are there any big disadvantages to this approach that I'm not seeing -- the main thing I can think of is the lack of backstory that develops with time, but I'm not sure how big an absence that would be. I suppose I could specify that the characters have been in Dis for a year or so before the start of the game, so they've had time to know their way around a bit and make some friends/enemies before things start.
    The downside to having the PCs be strangers in an unfamiliar environment is that you can't ask the players to invent setting details for you. As the GM, you are responsible for the whole of the setting, which they then explore. This is pretty classic D&D, and it works there because the dungeon is the most important element of play. "Backstory" is a thing you get through play--what the PCs did before the game starts doesn't have to be important at all, but all the stuff they do during the game will be remembered by the players and they will become comfortable and familiar with elements of the setting over time. This can take a while, though.

    If you go with the AW-style of play, then the PCs are living in a place that is more or less familiar to them, and the easiest way to actually role-play familiarity is to have the players invent their characters' lives and the setting those lives take place in, while you spend your energies formulating ways to threaten those lives and that setting.

    Going half-way, like having them be there for a little while so that they have sort-of settled into a routine is okay, too, but you have to make sure that the players have bought in to the premise and that you make sure to keep the pressure on them about how the lives of the PCs are bad and they're living on the knife edge in this ravenous city. Let them have a few nice things, and let them describe the culture(s) that their characters come from, but always ask them about what they lost, how far they have fallen, how they have had to betray their culture in order to keep it and themselves alive in the city, and stuff like that, so that the stuff they give you fits with the setting stuff that it's your responsibility to invent (which is the unfamiliar parts of Dis).
  • Also, listen to Johnstone.
  • Thanks for all the feedback! I didn't say it but people correctly perceived, the frame is there to bring a AW kind of scarcity to DW.
    Also, on some level, the whole setting is a big metaphor for colonialism, isn't it?

    "Hi, I know you had your own plane with its own civilization and history, but you're about to be annexed and destroyed by a gigantic totalizing city which will accept you only as deracinated individuals in an ethnic ghetto. Some of you may become lords of the system, but most will be reduced to penury and become cogs, or sent out as cannon fodder in the next wave of conquest. By the way, the people living in those towers in the nice part of town are making a lot of money out of this and laid some side bets on you, so keep your chin up." It's straight out of Marx by way of Rage Against the Machine.
  • Yes, Dark Heart of the Dreamer uses the postmodern immigrant diaspora experience as its lens through which to approach Planescape. Or perhaps it uses Planescape and D&D tropes to teach you about the postmodern immigrant diaspora experience? It is a world where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser might be great thieves and swordsmen, but they are also Pakistani engineers driving taxicabs in London to make ends meet.
  • Methinks a Love Letter is in order to kick(er) the game off after chargen. Just to firmly ground the narrative in the (Dis)topian recent arrival vibe. Just add a few names and hooks and places and blanks (as options in the love letter) to be filled by the players (inclusive of the GM) in the first few scenes. Oh and YES to Johnstone's postmodern immigrant insight :)
  • Now I want to write love letters for different locals and refugees from different worlds.


    Like that.

  • I like those love letters very much. After reading the Vecna references, I want to include a bar in Dis where all the Big Bads of all the planes get together to commiserate about the worlds that got destroyed before they could do it themselves. Lots of black and red in the decor, and lots of dusty bottles with weird things floating in them behind the bar.

    I'm also thinking that the Road Wardens are a pretty interesting source of drama in themselves. At first, I was just like, OK, the masked traffic cops of the setting, but when you consider that they all died before being offered the job, it gets interesting. I made an experimental table for it, thinking of the wardens as a species of revenant:

    When you encounter a Warden on the road, roll 1D6 twice:

    First roll is for demeanor:
    1: A sheriff
    2: A knight
    3: A mystic
    4: A pilgrim
    5: A killer
    6: A fool

    Second roll is for obsession:
    1: Vengance
    2: City politics
    3: The fortunes of his/her home parish
    4: Greed
    5: Justice
    6: A vice (GM's choice)

    I'll try this out and see how it works, I'm not sure how many Wardens they'll encounter but as lowlife freebooters, probably at least a few.
  • "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser... are Pakistani engineers driving taxicabs in London to make ends meet" should be on the back cover.

    Great advice all around. Strangely, the Road Wardens have only made brief appearances in my own play so far, but I think that's because it's been mostly one-shots, so I haven't had a PC die and then been able to be like: "So the Sultana wraps your body in copper wire, places a demon mask on your face, calls your soul back, and rechristens you Erebus, 6th Warden of the Lower Court of Primrose."
Sign In or Register to comment.