Jon's (and friend's) more gloracular DW game

Hi Jon!

To start off, had you modified the GM moves and the outcomes of the playbook&basic moves? Can you give some examples of how the new moves looked?
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  • JonJon
    edited June 2
    Hi Jon!
    Hi!
    To start off, had you modified the GM moves and the outcomes of the playbook&basic moves?
    Yes, somewhat. As a general rule we tried to leave unmodified as many things as possible, because part of a good Robbins-style West Marches is in having enough players. We didn't want to use D&D because it tended to be too cumbersome (I've had bad experiences with West Marches games and wasting lots of time explaining to players how to build characters, and how long it can take to prepare adventure locations), so Dungeon World was a next best option with lots of popularity, and we didn't want to ruin that by homebrewing the entire game from the ground up.

    That said, the default picture of Dungeon World (as well as some of its rules and contents) did not mesh well with prep heavy game. We tried to be excruciatingly clear that this would not play like many improvisation-heavy story-forward Dungeon World campaigns people might be used to, and that a few changes had been made where necessary to support a planning-based play experience.
    Can you give some examples of how the new moves looked?
    I actually made a little Google Docs hyperlink adventure booklet for precisely this purpose with new players. That includes all the Dungeon World rules, though, including the ones that weren't changed, so I'll discuss some of the ones that were specifically changed here.

    As mentioned previously, we tried to avoid changes where we plausibly could. So this typically led to 3 kinds of changes: clarifications (the most common), tweaks to existing Moves (less common), and the creation of new Moves (least common).

    Clarifications were often of the sort like how most Moves actually implicitly involve the term "relevant" or "makes sense". From experience I've found lots of people who interpret the Moves without this idea of "makes sense in the fiction so far" in mind have trouble playing the game, so we made these clarifications where they were needed. Here are four representative examples.

    As a kind of ur-example, if you gain +1 Forward from acquiring knowledge of a monster's weak spot on its belly this would reasonably apply to your next Hack & Slash or Volley Move. But probably it wouldn't apply to Last Breath, because why would it? Many clarifications of this sort were made throughout the Moves -- if it doesn't make coherent sense, obviously you can't do it.

    A similar clarification was made to Hack & Slash. To be in melee means you are in a conflict at short range where you and something else are trying, and have the ability, to hurt each other physically. If you can't hurt it or it can't hurt you, that's just GM Moves deciding that based on what makes sense (generally: it bops you in the face or you bop it in the face, respectively).

    Spout Lore was clarified to point out how you are consulting your character's knowledge, and your character reasonably wouldn't know a lot of the things you wish they did in a game about exploring an unknown continent.

    Discern Realities clarifies two things that I believe were present in the original rules but many people miss. One: basic sensory details are always provided by the GM in their description of what is happening or as answers to basic player questions. The Move is for learning more than that, including relying on your character's in-world reasoning capabilities beyond those of the player. The example I gave in the document was that the GM will tell you about the six thumb-sized holes in the wall, but "What here is not what it appears to be" could reveal that they're probably part of a dart trap and "what should I be on the lookout for?" would mention you should be looking out for those holes, they seem dangerous. Two: question 3 and 4 look like they ask the same thing, so we decided "what should I be on the lookout for?" meant dangerous things while "what here is useful or valuable" means good or useful things.

    So there are lots of clarifications and minor alterations of those sorts.

    For bigger alterations, Last Breath and Make Camp are good candidates.

    Last Breath was a rare case of finding a bit of inspiration in Freebooters on the Frontier (or that other one that's almost exactly like it, I forget the name). It now reads like this:

    Last Breath
    When you’re dying and someone checks your body within a few hours, you catch a glimpse of the true face of Death (the GM will describe it). Rumors have long said that Death will offer the strong a game of chance against their life. The rumors are true. Take Death’s Black Dice and Roll+NOTHING. ✴On a 10+, Death allows you to continue: you’re in a bad spot, but alive. ✴On a 7–9, Death offers you a bargain. Take it and stabilize or refuse and pass beyond the Black Gates into whatever fate awaits you. ✴On 6-, your fate is sealed. You are now marked as Death’s own, and must die. The GM will tell you when and how. Usually ‘right now, messily.’

    Checking the body was from whatever source that was and I thought it was cool, because it's like "did that 200 foot fall really kill them or did they miraculously survive somehow?" (Hey, it happened -- three times, if you can believe it...). It adds just one more mystery to investigate in a game about investigating mysteries, and it adds a lot of gameplay. At least once a sole survivor rallied a whole new crew in town within the hour to embark on a new expedition to save their fallen comrades.

    The other major change is that the 2d6+nothing roll is framed diegetically as literally playing a game of chance for your life with the avatar of Death. We decided early on to make the game as diegetic as possible, which extended to the Skype discussion group (which represented in-character conversations in the Cock & Whistle Tavern and Taphouse -- actual in character conversation was rare here, but it was an abstracted form of something actually happening in the game world), the forum for game listings and town happenings were locations in the town (you've heard of Virtual Bulletin Board, now get ready for Virtual Real Bulletin Board), connected in-game and out-of-game time (each week out of game contained a month of time in game, leading to a new season every 3 weeks), and we even gave the GMs characters in the game world (two scribes who were hired to record the adventures of the players as they were reported to them and generally serve as their secretaries by providing the players with all kinds of important town information -- I regret to say that experiments with playing as this character while running an actual game session met limited success and was dropped, but they were more successful outside of the game session).

    In Dungeon World vanilla Make Camp basically heals you to full. But in this campaign nature is fundamentally hostile, so that didn't make a lot of sense. We reduced the healing to 5+CON HP, and required you to carry rations or suffer serious consequences like accumulating debilities.

    Some new Moves included things like Forced March (roll to resist fatigue), Carouse (a total re-write of the existing party move for spending money in town to throw a big party celebrating yourself and become famous, which awarded a kind of meta-game leaderboard points), or Return to Town (a total re-write of the Move for getting XP and resolving Bonds). There were also Moves specific to downtime in the town.

    So that's basic and special Moves.
  • GM moves and ... playbook
    Regarding Playbooks:

    Some playbooks required more re-writing than others. We decided at the outset that since it would be a dark fantasy setting and we would have a lot of players (we aimed for around 16, 8 to 10 of which would be playing at least once a week) we would have all the core classes (except Druid -- being at one with nature in a game about exploring hostile unknown nature didn't really fit), the official Barbarian, plus as many of the classes as we could justify from Grim World the fan supplement. We ended up adding one more (a Monk we cobbled together from various sources plus our own brains), which left us with 13 character classes.

    The most major rewrites were probably of the Bard (who would you talk to? it's just monsters and trees out there for the most part; we re-wrote it as more like Dandelion from The Witcher, a person focused on learning and knowledge from stories who accompanies the characters to record their exploits, plus a bit of charm and magic on the side and a special focus on the Fame meta-game), Monk (as mentioned it was created roughly ex nihilo as a blend between eastern-style martial artist and sage and western-style literate academic), and Ranger (more of a woodsman or hunter and less of a living compass and pet-owner to keep with the 'nature is hostile' theme). We did make minor changes to most classes, mainly in keeping with the theme of "players often can't just make stuff up" and the needs of long term campaign play. I can talk more about specific examples if you'd like but this is getting pretty long.

    Finally, GM Moves largely remained the same, the main change to those was in how we had a system to standardize their usage. For example, under certain conditions we would always damage characters in certain ways in fights. This was partly for consistency that benefited the players trying to figure out the way things worked, but it was also partly because we had two people running sessions and we didn't want the game to be noticeably different depending which GM you had. So a lot of the changes "under the hood" were playstyle things more than rule things. That said we did also make some systems of our own for things like exploration-based XP and things like that.

    Anyway I can say more but goodness look how long I've gone on already. Hopefully that's a pretty thorough answer to your question about Moves and how we changed them in terms of the actual rules.
  • Good answers! Did you document all the “under the hood” changes to MC moves, and applying them consistently? How did this work?
  • So a lot of the changes "under the hood" were playstyle things more than rule things.
    Yeah, GM facing rules rather than player facing rules! ♥

    Thank you for
    A. Making this awesome blorby DW campaign!! AWESOME!
    B. the thorough and prompt clarification!

  • JonJon
    edited June 3
    Good answers! Did you document all the “under the hood” changes to MC moves, and applying them consistently? How did this work?
    I assume we documented it, though I don't know where that piece of history went so I'll be relying on my memory here.

    Before I get to the Moves I'd like to have a quick sidetrack into the Agenda/Principles, since all Moves ought to be made in accordance with the Agenda and Principles. In general, there's nothing wrong with any of these for running a more traditional style prep-oriented game, they just require a certain point of view.

    For example, here's what Adam Koebel told me when I sent him an email about my plan to run a more traditional or prep-heavy Dungeon World:
    So, the big thing about the whole 'collaborative storytelling universebuilding blah blah blah' is that it's a dial. Our marketing for the game is all about how you can include your players and stuff but honestly, you don't have to. You can dial the player feedback meter to zero, if you really want to. Ask them ONLY what their characters are feeling and thinking and leave it at that. Don't feel bad about it, either. I've run completely traditional style games of Dungeon World with a published adventure. The point is, then, to never play to guide the PCs in a certain direction. To let them explore the world and get into trouble wherever they like as they learn what you, as the GM, already know. It's still fun, it's still awesome and the core rules of the game are still there. Just ask questions whenever you feel like it and build on what you do ask about. Don't feel like you have to hand over the authoritative control [...]
    So, that was emblematic of the sorts of ways we interpreted the principles and agenda. For example, to ask questions and use the answers doesn't mean to ask players what's in the chest they just opened (in fact, Koebel, LaTorra - and relatedly John Harper - all pretty much walked back on that kind of question ever being a good idea; these days they all prefer to ground player-established world details in things the character ought to know, at least).

    The biggest changes in implementation in the GM Moves were probably related to combat stuff like Deal damage and wandering-monster-type uses of things like Show signs of an approaching threat.

    I don't remember all of the specifics, but for the former we had lots of rules of thumb like "on 9 or less Hack & Slash if it makes even the remotest bit of sense be sure to deal HP damage in addition to whatever else happens" or "warn PCs of potential bodily mutilation on the first hit before actually doing it." When players got hit automatically, what triggered Defy Danger before they could perform this Move, how to handle fighting while outnumbered, things like that were all fairly standardized and all threats were designed to be strongly telegraphed.

    Since combat was a big place where GM preference can really alter the difficulty and experience of the game we thought this area of standardization was one of the most important. We also re-did how monsters were generated pretty substantially, and we got a lot of mileage out of all of our monsters having specific weaknesses, somewhat beefier than vanilla DW stats (so we could rely less on being mean with our Moves and more on numbers), and building their Moves together so we both understood how they were supposed to work.

    We definitely also came up with something about how PCs escape from monsters but I can't recall what it was.

    Regarding stuff like "Show signs of an approaching threat" used to indicate approaching monsters or something, we did also have a random encounter system we cooked up. It ended up being a bit overcomplicated and unfinished (a rule for anyone making a West Marches campaign: if you're tempted to say "I'll finish that later" be prepared for it to remain unfinished). When we did our post-campaign discussion, though, nobody had noticed anything wrong with it, so I guess it was sufficient.

    We were also both very on board with the general way to play Dungeon World in a player-skill-challenge oriented fashion, namely that players should be actively seeking to get what they want by doing something that obviously works but doesn't invoke a Move wherever possible (and only then resorting to Moves they're good at, Moves they're not good at, and doing things that will be obviously bad for them but with no corresponding Move, in that order). In post-campaign interviews the players seemed to get this idea pretty quickly if they hadn't already, so I'd guess that meant our GM Moves on 7-9s or Misses were pretty punishing and pretty consistent, which is exactly how we intended it to be.

    If you're interested in specific impressions from the player's side of things, though, feel free to ask @Vivificient.

    You can imagine the general case of how these changes were made by imagining two Dungeon World GMs coming up with a common game situation and then being like "how would you adjudicate that?" and then arguing about it for 45 minutes (or an hour... or two hours...) until we came to a rough consensus. That way we'd run the game consistently, and that'd go on to benefit any players who were interested in figuring out how the game worked "under the hood" for their own benefit.

    We did end up having a bit of a fight over whether one or the other of us had adhered to these decisions properly at least once that I can remember (probably more like a small handful of times). But by and large it worked well, and the impression I got from the campaign veterans was that it felt pretty consistent and predictable. So the bottom line is probably just that deciding to follow certain rules of thumb to standardize your approach to the game works, whether or not you mess with the Moves themselves or what the rules of thumb you develop happen to be.

  • These generous and detailed accounts are very much appreciated by yours truly♥
  • Jon,

    That's a fantastic overview! I appreciate how thorough you're being. I've heard of other people playing PbtA games in this style, but they generally didn't seem to as thoughtful about it as you were, so that's really admirable.

    I have further questions! Hopefully you remember enough to answer them...

    We did end up having a bit of a fight over whether one or the other of us had adhered to these decisions properly at least once that I can remember (probably more like a small handful of times).
    Do you remember any examples of that? I'm curious what "level" of the game they came in on (e.g. prep vs. adventure design vs. MC moves vs. adjudicating particular player-side moves).

    You can imagine the general case of how these changes were made by imagining two Dungeon World GMs coming up with a common game situation and then being like "how would you adjudicate that?" and then arguing about it for 45 minutes (or an hour... or two hours...) until we came to a rough consensus.
    Is this kind of an illustration of the way the two GMs spent some time getting on the same page, or would you actually make a point to do this before running the game?

    How much of a range was there between your two "adjudications", and what helped you get on the same page?


    Now, these are the nitty-gritty elements that I feel would be pretty key to making this work:

    The biggest changes in implementation in the GM Moves were probably related to combat stuff like Deal damage and wandering-monster-type uses of things like Show signs of an approaching threat.

    I don't remember all of the specifics, but for the former we had lots of rules of thumb like "on 9 or less Hack & Slash if it makes even the remotest bit of sense be sure to deal HP damage in addition to whatever else happens" or "warn PCs of potential bodily mutilation on the first hit before actually doing it." When players got hit automatically, what triggered Defy Danger before they could perform this Move, how to handle fighting while outnumbered, things like that were all fairly standardized and all threats were designed to be strongly telegraphed.

    We also re-did how monsters were generated pretty substantially

    We definitely also came up with something about how PCs escape from monsters but I can't recall what it was.
    It sounds like you either don't remember or didn't document these details, but they sound really vital and important to making this work. Any chance you have some of it somewhere (in email records, perhaps)?

    If not, that's OK, of course, but it would be really great to document a lot of this stuff, because I think it's where the real work of doing this lies, and it would certainly help someone recreate what you did.

    Unrelated question:

    Do you see the campaign as a success? Would you run something like it again? Would you recommend it to others, or only with certain changes/caveats?

    (I'd love to hear from @Vivificient about this topic, too, of course - what was it like from the player side?)
  • This sort of work is reminiscent of the Every Square Is 5 Feet principle in the orig West Marches, which also was the main reason for me doing the whole Introducing Late Night Fighting; to add this crispness into a non-miniatures gameplay. (Not to try to threadjack or steal away from the attention of the fantastic work you and your friend put into DW, Jon!)
  • JonJon
    edited June 3
    Jon,

    That's a fantastic overview! I appreciate how thorough you're being. I've heard of other people playing PbtA games in this style, but they generally didn't seem to as thoughtful about it as you were, so that's really admirable.
    Thank you! I appreciate your interest as well.
    Do you remember any examples of that? I'm curious what "level" of the game they came in on (e.g. prep vs. adventure design vs. MC moves vs. adjudicating particular player-side moves).
    The one that comes to mind was to do with maiming PCs. A player had got their finger caught in a mimic and my compatriot GM had it get torn off, which I thought was in line with our standard. But then he said it was OK to re-attach it with Cure Light Wounds, although it would not regain its functionality. I thought that violated our common understanding of Cure Light Wounds not being able to re-attach lost limbs at all, regardless of whether the limb worked or not after. So we had a bit of a spat over that, and the fate of the finger was in limbo ever since.
    Is this kind of an illustration of the way the two GMs spent some time getting on the same page, or would you actually make a point to do this before running the game?
    It's a typical description of how all of our actual rules got made. We were both fairly argumentative people, though, so I imagine it wouldn't have to take as long as it often took us. It'd also be faster if you didn't need two people to agree and were just doing it by yourself. We didn't run a game with two GMs in the same session, so this was all prep work.
    How much of a range was there between your two "adjudications", and what helped you get on the same page?
    Sometimes it was as easy as "oh yeah I do that the same way," other times we had to come up with a whole procedure because we had never really thought about it before. One example that comes to mind is we spent some time talking about different circumstances in which a player would just get hit by something in combat. Like, if you're fighting two guys and one is on each side of you does that count? Both in front? One ahead and one behind? What about doing something else while there's an archer overlooking the whole situation 50 yards away? Over the course of an hour or so we basically exhausted all the common scenarios we could think of where somebody might just take damage without getting a Defy Danger or anything, and then we made a big list of the ones where we agreed it would definitely happen.

    One example of something we didn't bother to standardize was how we selected players to spotlight during combat. I tended to just go with whatever made sense as the next most pressing thing based on a combination of speed, importance, and making sure nobody gets left out for more than a few minutes at a time. He preferred to pick an arbitrary order and just cycle through it. But because of how Dungeon World works regarding how consequences rarely happen to you unless you first take action we thought it would be equally fair either way we decided to handle who sits out and when.
  • JonJon
    edited June 3
    It sounds like you either don't remember or didn't document [all the standards, monster stats, and running away], but they sound really vital and important to making this work. Any chance you have some of it somewhere (in email records, perhaps)?
    Well, I want to be careful in answering some of these because one of my rules for running West Marches is I never reveal any of the world content to the players other than what they find, and I have one of my players running around this forum =P

    I can answer to a pretty large degree stuff about systems and rules, though, insofar as they don't give away any secrets about the world.

    Regarding fleeing monsters I think we never wrote it down and I don't remember the specifics of what Moves got made when from actual cases from the game. I could contact some of the players who were involved in the more famous chases but there's no guarantee they'd respond or remember anything.

    I can say some things about the monster system, though, because that was recorded for reference purposes.

    We built the system number-wise to balance around two goals: that a monster shouldn't just gib a wizard with minimum hit points (in our game 12) and that an "appropriate encounter" ought to badly hurt but not kill a "typical party" of Fighter, Ranger, Cleric, and Wizard if they just trade back and forth. The assumption was that players should be finding cleverer ways of fighting than just trading Hack & Slash back and forth with the monsters if they wanted to get by with more than the skin of their teeth.

    In practice this happened sometimes, so go us, but more commonly the Barbarian and Fighter players got into it with the monsters and the other players supported them by holding the flanks and dealing with unexpected problems so they could keep at pitched combat with their superior damage, armor, and HP. This is because Barbarians and Fighters actually have a very substantial advantage in a straight fight compared to the other classes on account of how Dungeon World's numbers work, so monsters calibrated to challenge a "typical party" overall are not nearly as much of a challenge to a Fighter or Barbarian in particular. This led to a funny dichotomy where, depending on their preferred method of dealing with monsters, some players treated Defend as the Second Coming while others treated it as patently useless. Some enemies totally dismantled this style, though, so it wasn't happening every time.

    Anyway, we basically made our balance rules around running sims of a few "boring combats" like that. In the end we decided a peer monster (a monster meant to square off against one PC) should start around 8 HP and with d8 damage, and to adjust from there depending on the intended level and number appearing. Unlike Sage I think "stuff gets less HP if there's more of it in a group" is more about game balance than realism, but I like having good game balance even at the expense of realism in edge cases (armies of human soldiers, prides of lions, etc.) so that's fine by me. In retrospect I think slightly lower HP and slightly more damage may have been more prudent since fights took a little longer than I wanted (quick fights being another reason to pick Dungeon World over, for example, 3rd edition D&D), and fulfilling the goal of not gibbing the Wizard while challenging the Fighter on raw numbers proved to be tenuous, and I'd rather challenge the Fighter than not gib the Wizard.

    On top of that monsters got various Strengths based on the intended level of their PC opponents. A higher level monster had slightly bigger stats, but also things like the Messy tag, some narrative advantage that tends to require Defy Dangers to be made, a specifically advantageous environment, or handing out Debilities. All monsters also had one or more Weaknesses, which were fictional positioning elements that gave a dramatic advantage over them in a conflict if utilized.

    Monsters also had the usual DW Instincts, which we treated as their overarching goal in life, and Tells & Behaviors, which covered telegraphing that the monster was about and what it was trying to do on a moment to moment basis. The monster's Moves were the particular things it would do to fulfill its Behaviors, which in turn would lead to fulfilling the Instincts. They also all had Origins, which were a major source of XP if discovered (they often weren't).

    To give you an example of all this, one of the first monsters we designed was a kind of ten foot tall bog monster covered in rusty chains and padlocks that lived in a lake far from town (we referred to him affectionately as Rusty). He wasn't the highest level monster that existed, but he was near the middle of the level 1-10 spectrum. We chose his extra levels to grant a bit of extra Damage (we thought this made sense as he was physically quite big) and a fair whack of Armor (we thought this made sense because of the giant metal chains). Being a solitary monster grants some additional survivability, so we opted for a bit of extra HP and also a Defy Danger type defense (the chains acted as Reach+ weapons you had to get past to close the distance).

    Some of his Strengths the players experienced but never noted were that he was very intimidating (basically an aura of fear that caused DDs to approach), he was extremely strong (Forceful tag), and he could wrap people up in the chains and loved dragging them into the lake with him since he didn't have to breathe air (so that's a strength of being adapted to its environment as mentioned earlier). I recall a few PCs almost drowned this way.

    I don't want to talk about one of the Moves or the Tells & Behaviors because those contain a few things I don't think anybody ever experienced, but the other two Moves make obvious sense: Enwrap in Chains (from its strength of the chains) and Do a Massive Punch (from being Forceful).

    Finally, they did note the monster's main Weakness, which they had exploited: you could unlock the chains if you dared to use the keyed padlocks, rendering him much less potent (being without weapons or armor).
    Do you see the campaign as a success? Would you run something like it again? Would you recommend it to others, or only with certain changes/caveats?
    I'd say it did many of the things we wanted it to do, but in a kind of limited or reduced capacity from what we imagined in many cases. I think a revised version could be very successful by fixing these problems, but what we had was pretty good and was probably worth doing.
  • That’s excellent, thank you!

    (Though I’ve always wondered what the purpose of the “messy” tag is. Does it make a monster more dangerous somehow?)

    How would a revised version solve those problems? (And what problems are we talking about in the first place?)
  • That’s excellent, thank you!

    (Though I’ve always wondered what the purpose of the “messy” tag is. Does it make a monster more dangerous somehow?)
    Well, the description in the DW book is:
    It deals damage in a particularly destructive way, ripping people and things apart.
    I take that to mean basically anything it hits starts losing body parts immediately. I'd say that's pretty dangerous! DW's dragon can either deal 12 damage or bite your head clean off your body when the GM Deals Damage -- you can lose through fiction a lot faster than you can lose through hit points, which is why we were so particular about this sort of thing.

    People who got a 7-9 on Last Breath was one of our intended windows for inflicting Messy damage without necessarily needing the Messy tag. One PC lost their leg below the knee that way.
    How would a revised version solve those problems? (And what problems are we talking about in the first place?)
    Before I get to this I want to pull over some of the unanswered stuff from the other thread, because a lot of that is directly relevant to the campaign's weaknesses.

  • I see! That's quite interesting. Would you sometimes kill PCs before they ran out of hit points?

    How was treatment and healing handled for missing limbs and similar major wounds? What would be the impact on the game if they kept playing (e.g. a one-legged character)?
  • JonJon
    edited June 4
    From the other thread:
    From my point of view the underlying consistency / prep / no-fudge attitude was obvious. Telltale signs included (as Paul would predict) occasional boring sessions where we went out exploring somewhere and didn't find much of anything, and the occasional player death due to bad decisions and bad dice rolls. This was very much what I had signed up for and I thought it was obvious that this was what the game was going to be like from the GMs' pitch.
    One thing we tried to do to minimize sessions that were a bust was to ask for not only one plan of action, but a backup plan of action in case the main plan was a bust. The risk with not doing that is either a) the session is a total bust or b) they get there then try going someplace you hadn't prepared yet when they realize it's going to be a bust. By having the backup plan in mind you need to hit two busts in a row, which is quite rare, but you also won't have to worry about players running off the edge of the map.
    Huh. So not enough transparency of method…? When it’s not clear to what extent the gloracle is responsible, the GM takes the blame?
    I have a story about this, not from this game of DW WM but from a prior West Marches game I ran in 4th edition D&D (you can see now where my bad experience with explaining how to build characters comes from). It involves a player, let's call them D.

    D and some pals were exploring some crypts near the town when one of his pals has to leave unexpectedly. He's a cool dude so he says "you guys can run my character to help out in a fight or whatever just don't get me killed" so the session can continue. D is a bit of a power gamer so this is no problem, he can run any character in a combat. As the session goes on they run out of healing surges, which in 4th edition means they basically can't recover hit points anymore and this is a dangerous state of affairs to be in. D's compatriots want to return to the town, wary of losing their comrade's character in his absence, but D says (and this is nearly a direct quote): "You can go back if you want, but I bet the boss is behind this next door so I'm going in whether you come with me or not."

    You can imagine what happened next.

    This was the singularly most deserved PC death I have witnessed in thousands of hours of RPG play except perhaps the time a Barbarian drank from a fountain of acid with a skeleton in it. They had already guessed successfully that a big scary monster was behind this next door, their friends urged them not to, and they ran ahead into a trap I was in the middle of describing. There's really not much I can do to help stop that series of events if I'm supposed to be a hands-off referee.

    Nonetheless, I was blamed (called a "Killer DM," in fact). Technically it was my fault: I built the whole world they were playing in, and I could have given every monster 1 hit point and 0 damage if I wanted. But I don't think that's very reasonable, so instead I mostly tried to follow the DMG's encounter guidelines. The lesson I took away from this is that some players are just determined to see the GM's hand in everything no matter how strictly they follow design guidelines and telegraph dangers and all the rest.

    Long story short, I'd imagine there are parallels between these cases. But that's just a guess. The unfortunate thing about players leaving online games is they usually don't stick around to do an exit interview.
    I’m learning about Freebooters of the Frontier which seems to be more of a blorby take on DW?
    It's more like "I want to do an OSR hexcrawl with lots of random generation, but in a Dungeon World way." It's very cool and I highly recommend it, but not really for the purpose of a prep-forward game.
    And there was somebody else who complained the GM used the “deal damage” move too often in combat, rather than offering them interesting choices.
    The funny thing about this incident is that nobody even hit 0 HP. Since nothing even happens to you in Dungeon World from losing HP per se until you hit 0 HP I had a hard time understanding how this could be using Deal Damage too much. For all the color and flavor in that battle I may as well have not even hurt anybody at all.

    Perhaps it was just because the fight involved too much fighting and not enough... whatever else you do in a fight. I don't recall that they specifically asked for more interesting choices, though, just that I was doing Deal Damage too much. So we're left to guess at their motivation.

    Either way, that player made a principled stand to never play in a session I ran again. I couldn't understand it.

    So, regarding:
    (And what problems are we talking about in the first place?)
    One problem was definitely something to do with player expectations. I'm not entirely sure how to solve this, but it was a real struggle gaining and retaining enough players to have a real big tent feeling, which to me is one of the leading features of an open table game like West Marches. Typically you were looking at around 1 person in 8 making it from application to first session, and a bunch of those people left too.

    One part of the problem is obviously just the fact that we were running an online game on Roll20. Random online players have never been the most reliable people.

    Many of them probably saw "great for someone with an inconsistent schedule" and thought "low commitment game!" West Marches is actually a higher commitment style than meeting once a week because in addition to playing in the game the players have a host of other responsibilities: scheduling sessions, talking with other players to tell them how their session went, saying what their character does between sessions, and so on. The GM isn't leading you on a fun-house tour whether you want to go or not, you need to make the game happen.

    Another possible part of the problem is we used a system "against type," as it were. I'm not sure how we could have been clearer about this -- online players, again, not being well known for reading a 250 word explanation of what this game is like and why it's not like most Dungeon World games on the application page. We required a small application to weed out this sort of thing (name, skype contact info, what interested you about the game, nothing crazy), but I'd still get applications by people named JewStomper (yes, really) that consisted entirely of: "imma need in". No, JewStomper. I'mma need you out, actually.

    Finally, joining the game mid-stream may have been too overwhelming. By the time there were 40 unsorted almanac pages and a janky paint-and-tile map covering a few hundred square kilometers that was a lot to take in for a new player. And without enough knowledge about the state of the world they often couldn't get time to shine on their first expedition to Everybody-But-Them-Knows-This-Place Gulch.

    The core of veterans at the end all pretty much said the same thing: "I knew it wasn't story game style Dungeon World going into it, and I think it was a pretty good choice of a system given how you handled it. I got exactly what I expected." As for why all these other people weren't getting what they expected I have no idea. As mentioned, players who leave online games usually don't stick around to do exit interviews, so I'm basically reduced to guessing. So it seems like something ought to be done about this, but I honestly don't know what.



    There were more problems, too, but I'm going to take a bit of a break to get my thoughts in order before discussing them. Hopefully Vivificient can come along with his two cents in the meanwhile.
  • That's very interesting! Good riddance to JewStomper (yikes!).

    I think that "low commitment online" could have a lot to do with much of what you're describing. It's very easy to step in and step out.
  • This thread is awesome, and let me join the chorus of people thanking Jon for sharing his thoughts.

    One of the things I love about DW (and, really, pretty much all PbtA games) is how there's no separate "combat" phase of the game, really. There's no, "now roll initiative." You can freely use the combat moves along with trying to parley, or interact with the environment, or escape, or whatever. I think, perhaps, that one of the emergent features of Jon and his co-GM's modifications was less of that feeling: combat became more rigorously adjudicated, and thus more of "its own thing" in the game, separate from "normal" play.

    I'm not saying that's bad, not at all. Just that it may have been a bit of an unexpected side effect that jarred some players.

    I could be totally wrong.
  • edited June 4

    I see! That’s quite interesting. Would you sometimes kill PCs before they ran out of hit points?

    How was treatment and healing handled for missing limbs and similar major wounds? What would be the impact on the game if they kept playing (e.g. a one-legged character)?

    Just like “Oh, Injury!”♥♥♥♥

    D and some pals were exploring some crypts near the town when one of his pals has to leave unexpectedly. He’s a cool dude so he says “you guys can run my character to help out in a fight or whatever just don’t get me killed” so the session can continue. D is a bit of a power gamer so this is no problem, he can run any character in a combat. As the session goes on they run out of healing surges, which in 4th edition means they basically can’t recover hit points anymore and this is a dangerous state of affairs to be in. D’s compatriots want to return to the town, wary of losing their comrade’s character in his absence, but D says (and this is nearly a direct quote): “You can go back if you want, but I bet the boss is behind this next door so I’m going in whether you come with me or not.”

    You can imagine what happened next.

    Oh wow that story just made my year. So awesome♥

    This was the singularly most deserved PC death I have witnessed in thousands of hours of RPG play except perhaps the time a Barbarian drank from a fountain of acid with a skeleton in it.

    Didn’t she see the sign that said

    “Little Conan took a drink,
    little Conan is no more;
    for what Conan thought was H₂O
    was H₂SO₄?

    Nonetheless, I was blamed (called a “Killer DM,” in fact)

    Some DMs never ever ever kill a PC (at the expense of the integrity of the game) so by default that makes the rest of us that don’t have such a policy “Killer DMs”.

    We had a player who joined our LMoP campaign at like the third session or so. And when his characters went down and started making death saves and the goblins started hitting his corpse imposing autofails on death saves so that he died, he said grimly and sadly: “I see. So this is the kind of game this is.”

    That was five years ago and he’s been playing with us ever since!

    And for our current campaign (doing its 66th session tonight) he is the only character that has been alive from the start. Two players are on their second character, one is on his… I think fifth, and one is on his I think eighth.

    Perhaps it was just because the fight involved too much fighting and not enough… whatever else you do in a fight. I don’t recall that they specifically asked for more interesting choices, though, just that I was doing Deal Damage too much. So we’re left to guess at their motivation.

    Either way, that player made a principled stand to never play in a session I ran again. I couldn’t understand it.

    They wanted more of a “moves snowball”? IDK.

    One of the things I love about DW (and, really, pretty much all PbtA games) is how there’s no separate “combat” phase of the game, really. There’s no, “now roll initiative.” You can freely use the combat moves along with trying to parley, or interact with the environment, or escape, or whatever.

    Yes! That was the first thing I wanted to copy from DW into my game♥

    You could see in the big D&D live event this year (“the descent”) where there was a “now roll for initiative” and the players were like “wait, what? they’re hostile?”

  • JonJon
    edited June 4
    Still working on the bigger thoughts about major points of failure, but a few bits to keep the conversation going meanwhile:
    I see! That's quite interesting. Would you sometimes kill PCs before they ran out of hit points?
    Well, I wouldn't kill anybody -- that's the rules' job ;)

    But yes, sometimes fiction death preceded hit point death. A particularly good example is the guy who lassoed a giant bird. It did not particularly like being lassoed, so it took off and did a tight bank -- he lost his grip (Defy Danger 6-) and fell hundreds of feet to his mangled, instant death.

    Overall, though, the game was surprisingly low on PCs actually dying or being subjected to Last Breath given the tone and difficulty. Three early on, then a few in dribs and drabs over the following months. That said, probably about a score came within a roll of one or the other, so it wasn't exactly a cakewalk.
    [healing, being maimed, effects on long term play?]
    We had developed a few in-world solutions for this sort of injury, though the players never ended up pursuing them so I won't say more in the interest of secrecy.

    The one major injury of this sort that I recall was a badge of honor for Handel the Skirmisher, who was the previously mentioned character missing a leg below the knee. He was one of the ones who got maimed by Last Breath, in this case as the result of - what else - falling from a great height.

    He replaced his missing leg with a hook leg (long story) his compatriot had stolen from a rascally pirate (an even longer story), and spent several in-game months basically doing physical therapy in the town rather than the normal town moves to eventually recover his lost mobility. Maintaining it was no problem since he took the Advanced Move in his class that basically made him a handyman. Aside from the occasional stumble in janky terrain he made a full recovery, and I like to think he resembled one of those people with the modern high tech curved runner's prosthetics, but, like, medieval style.
    [DW flows nicely between combat and exploration]
    I can't say I lean towards this as the definite explanation, though since I don't have a great explanation myself I have to concede that you may be totally right for all I know. For the record I like the system for the same reason you do.

    Did we use Deal Damage enough so the players would notice? Yeah. But, I mean, if the monsters aren't damaging you then what are they even doing? As for other decisions based on standardized procedures, if we imagine 5 alternate universes in which I'm faced with the same situation I'd imagine I make the procedure-based decision in 2 or 3 of them anyway, so I don't think things were particularly rigid or unnatural. We had plenty of talking turn into fights and plenty of fights turn into talking, sometimes by the baddies' initiative and other times by the players' (especially considering the game setting was a hostile wilderness full of hungry abominations). As the cherry on top I practice Renaissance martial arts so I pay special attention to fictional positioning in combat compared to most GMs. As far as I could tell we weren't hung up on rigid procedures and numbers.

    Speaking of fictional positioning and consistency in and out of combat, I remembered another guideline I developed partway through the campaign that I believe is actually fundamental to the style and in fact is applied to most adjudications in a given session.

    DW is very forward about rolling in the open and the GM is encouraged to not even roll the dice at all. That's cool, and it certainly prevents traditional fudging of results by fudging the numbers on the dice. But changing the numbers on your dice isn't the only way to fudge the result of a dice test. In traditional games the numbers on the dice mean certain things, so you use the mechanism of the face-up numbers to change it to the result you want. In DW, though, you don't have to fudge the numbers to get a desired result because you can fudge the thing the numbers mean by executing a softer or different Move after you see the 6- hit the table than you would have done in a vacuum.

    While technically rules legal, and not always committed consciously, I call this a kind of fudging and I think it's bad for two reasons -- I believe in general, but certainly at least under the traditional challenge/sim-oriented playstyle.

    One reason is that I think in practice you'll find the Move you would pre-commit to is much harder than the Move you would actually make after the 6- hits the table. Your only concern when pre-committing is what would reasonably happen, and preferably be interesting, as the result of failure. You don't have to concern yourself with the fact that with the 6- already on the table your Move choice is all that stands between a PC and death and that you will be personally responsible for killing them if you arbitrarily choose to do so.

    The other reason is that pre-committing gives the players more information about their action, and having more information leads to more informed choices, and more informed choices leads to better play because something something a game is a series of interesting choices (thanks Sid Meier).

    So the delivery I developed is that whenever it would make any sense at all I would tell the player what would likely happen if their attempt failed (so sometimes not for snap reactions or if the character would reasonably not know what would happen if they failed like on Discern Realities in an empty room or whatever).

    In addition to circumventing the two problems mentioned above (inconsistent/wimpy Moves and lack of information), it also has two further benefits.

    One of those benefits is foregrounding fictional positioning. Often players will make a prudent plan in Dungeon World but not feel like it had any effect on the outcome because it wasn't good enough to skip the roll entirely and they rolled a 6- and bad stuff happened anyway. With this method if they were trying to climb a cliff with no equipment I could say something like "OK, but if you fail in you're probably going to plummet to your death on the jagged rocks jutting out of the ocean down below." And then the player would go "WAIT, I HAVE ROPE!" and they'd anchor themselves with rope and I'd go "OK, now if you fail you won't plummet to your death, but when you're caught by the rope that'll jerk you around and might bang you into the cliff or knock something loose out of your pack or something like that." This makes the advantage gained from smart planning in the fiction very apparent in a form like "without this plan, X would have happened if you failed; but now with this plan Y will happen if you fail instead, which is much better." This idea can also apply to successes if needed.

    The other benefit is that the players become immediately involved in making a fair, impartial game as your helpers. Where Ben saw lots of potential in 3e's fairness-as-bureaucracy (everyone gets the same rules, no exceptions), this method offers fairness-as-democracy (everyone gets a say about whether something is fair before it happens so that if the GM is about to make a genuine error they can catch themselves better). Obviously the final say must rest in the GM as the referee, but fairness-by-group-consensus is one powerful way to take the arbitrary sting out of fundamentally fiat-based systems like selecting a GM Move. And with legit players calling you on wimpy Moves, in a weird way you get the same kind of fair result by consensus rather than by writ.

    So that was a long digression but long story short I don't think I ran combat really differently than I normally would.
  • One thing about this project though… I remember one of my friends asking me about DW and I said "lol you really want us to switch to a game where there's around 40% chance of fumbling on every roll?" 6- rolls happen often
  • One thing about this project though… I remember one of my friends asking me about DW and I said "lol you really want us to switch to a game where there's around 40% chance of fumbling on every roll?" 6- rolls happen often
    Assuming that players are leaning on their higher stats to frame their actions, the probability is much lower (25% on a +2 Stat, 14% on a +3).
  • You're right, and with a +1 it's a little under 30%. (Man, I hate bell curve.)

    Not that 14% of brutal fumble is low
  • JonJon
    edited June 4
    One thing about this project though… I remember one of my friends asking me about DW and I said "lol you really want us to switch to a game where there's around 40% chance of fumbling on every roll?" 6- rolls happen often
    One thing to keep in mind is 6- is "make a GM Move," not necessarily "the players fail." We erred on the side of being jerks on a 6- for consistency with our setting and tone, but you don't necessarily have to do that all the time. That quote from the infamous Dungeon World combat primer you had in the other thread is all about how fudging the difficulty of a 6- is technically rules legal, and to be fair it is. You could also just hand out extra +1s to stats or whatever more frequently, but from experience Dungeon World characters are tough and can handle a lot of failure unless you decapitate them every time they take damage.

    It can also help just how you frame failure in the narrative. A trick I picked up from Stalker: The SciFi Roleplaying Game is that unless the plan was really bad and bound to fail (in which case they probably shouldn't even get a roll, since rolling implicitly requires the possibility of success) you should narrate player failure as not really being their fault - the situation imposed on them. Anybody can effectively 10+ Hack & Slash on a target dummy (because you don't even have to roll), but against a live target your 6- isn't just you sucking: the baddie's trying to stay alive, too! If they Defy Danger 6- to jump a chasm they don't trip, their impressive leap was just not far enough. If they Parley 6- they don't stutter and mumble, the target just doesn't react to the leverage in the way you might have expected - who could have guessed?

    Incidentally, "a missed roll is an embarrassing fumble" probably has its memetic origin in a poor reading of D&D's combat system if I had to guess. A poor reading because actually a "miss" in D&D combat doesn't mean a failure to connect, it means that there weren't any effective hits. Maybe the opponent dodged your blow that was otherwise well-aimed, maybe their armor shrugged it off, maybe they parried (not that D&D gives an AC bonus for having a weapon, though it probably should given how hard it is to block a sword with your bare hands). And originally a to-hit roll represented something like a minute of scuffling, so to say that you swung wildly at the air and missed like a buffoon for a full minute is kind of ridiculous if you think about it critically, nearly as much so as treating HP as "meat points" where you take full axe blows right to the nose to no effect 3 or 4 times before suddenly keeling over dead. But that's not really on topic I guess, just a personal theory.
  • Great post.

    It's true that our own house rules (thinking of the "Oh, Injury!" subsystem that me and Paul cooked up in the "remapping thread") it's pretty lethal if you fail both lines of defense. Heads will roll♥

    I'm looking for a model of hyper competence for both monsters and PCs♥
  • One thing to keep in mind is 6- is "make a GM Move," not necessarily "the players fail..
    Totally, missed rolls are key to the dramatic ebb and flow of the game, and definitely reflective of a "brutal fumble" by a player character.
  • I mean "moves snowball" etc, I get that
  • I'd love to hear from @Vivificient about this topic, too, of course - what was it like from the player side?
    Let me see, what can I tell you?

    Definitely the highlight of the game for me was exploring the world that the GM's had developed. Before the start of the game, they had been developing it for, I don't know, a year or two? It always felt very big, full of details, and endlessly expansive in every direction.

    There were a lot of different ruined towns and manor houses, and I'm certain that there was a complex backstory involving all of them and how they became ruined, feuds between different nobles, etc., although I don't think any of the players managed to put all the pieces together. The one player who had figured out the most of the lore got promoted to GM after Jon's original co-DM quit the game (possibly to focus on his PhD thesis, but he never explained, just mysteriously stopped answering messages...).

    It was also an ever-changing world. The scenery would change with the seasons, old sites would burn down, new monsters would move into the area. There were these awful porcupine monsters that were big and spiky and sneaky and agile that we were always trying to wipe out completely, but a few would always get away and then next time they would return in greater numbers. There was one region we always tried to avoid (the "Bell Forest") because we couldn't figure out how to deal with the crazy goddess who lived there; but eventually the whole darn forest started moving around the map of its own accord, blocking our favourite routes and making us seek out new ones or risk travelling through it.

    The least enjoyable aspect of the campaign was the scheduling (so, nothing to do with the in-game system). We had players from many time zones so it was a hassle trying to get a game together. Often we ended up falling into groups who would go at similar times each week for a few weeks at a stretch, since that was easier to schedule--but less ideal for the West Marches theory of playing with mixed groups.

    It could be challenging deciding where to go on the big map because just from looking at the map it wasn't obvious which sites had been cleared and which sites had only been scouted. Theoretically we should have been keeping each other up to date in the Skype chat for the game, but there was so much off-topic chatter and random anime memes that I didn't keep up with it. Usually when trying to schedule a game I would just blunder into the chat and say "Hey, where's a good place to go have an expedition?" and hope someone knew somewhere. Otherwise I would simply aim to return to the last place i'd been and push farther in the same direction (which was hazardous because if you kept forcing your way forward you would pretty soon get out of the level-appropriate zone into the "giant hell bird eats your friend" zone. (And then once the "giant hell bird eats your friend" zone was on the map, people would think "that sounds cool" and keep going back there...)

    I can't really compare this Dungeon World to other Dungeon World games because it is the only Dungeon World game I have played in. I can compare it to D&D games I have played, since it was arguably a Dungeon World trying to stand in for D&D.

    Compared to D&D, the monsters were harder to nail down for a fair fight. In D&D (especially 3e and 5e), the monsters often hit very hard in a straight fight, so you want to hit and run, or mess them up with zone control spells and debuffs. In this game, it was the opposite--If we could get them to stand still and trade blows, then we'd quickly form a shield wall (a good formation since it let us trigger a mix of Hack & Slash and Defend moves) and the battle was as good as won. But they were all tricky bastards--either they would attack quickly and then leap 10 feet to safety, or they'd outrun us and hide in the high grass, or they'd leap out the window and climb onto the roof, then harass us with ranged weapons.

    The world felt very deadly, even if we didn't actually die that often. There was a definite feeling (as I've told Jon before) of having to insert yourself into the mousetrap to get the cheese.

    However, unlike D&D, armour in Dungeon World is very dependable (shaving n damage off each blow, on top of what you can manage with Defend moves), so health usually didn't deplete very rapidly. That may not have been the impression of all the players, since my guy (a zealous lawful-netural exterminate-the-unholy templar type) was probably the most heavily armoured character around. I tended to use my hit points as a gauge of when to reteat.

    The dice could certainly always betray you. I tended to have extraordinary luck when I needed it most (which, in character, I attributed to Divine Intervention on my righteous behalf). My particular playbook was full of "win more" moves that only triggered on a 10+, but could (literally) work miracles when they worked. So when things got really bad my MO was to try to keep stalling and triggering moves on favourable stats...

    There were some areas in which I found the move system of Dungeon World slightly anti-immersive. We had a bit of a joke (not too serious, but slightly serious) about "Never ask questions!" because if we asked too many questions we could trigger a "Discern Realities" roll, and then on a miss the GM could trigger some negative move. This is basically similar to D&D when you don't want to spend too long searching a useless room, lest a wandering monster show up, but perhaps a little less deeply fictional feeling.

    Likewise, there were a couple times when I felt like we (the adventurers) had taken reasonable precautions to pre-empt any negative consequence of a course of action, but then the GM still made us roll defy danger and inflicted something bad on a failure. One case I remember (this was the other DM, not you Jon) was where we were climbing a cliff... something like this happened:

    Me: I climb the cliff
    GM: Defy danger
    Me: (miss)
    GM: You slip and fall
    Me: OK, but I'm still tied to the rope as established
    GM: OK, in that case you drop your shield
    Me: Well, I also mentioned that my shield was tied to me
    GM: OK, you make some noise and it attracts a monster...

    That might not be exactly how it went, but it was something along those lines, and it felt a bit unfair.
  • Oh, that’s a great example of how the AW move system makes it hard to adapt to challenge-based playing. It’s not built for consistent adjudication. That you managed as much as you did is remarkable, I think!
  • JonJon
    edited June 5
    Before the start of the game, they had been developing it for, I don't know, a year or two?
    It was just under a year I'd say, though how much time we devoted within that year is anybody's guess. In retrospect some of it was wasted theorizing, too.
    There were a lot of different ruined towns and manor houses, and I'm certain that there was a complex backstory involving all of them and how they became ruined, feuds between different nobles, etc., although I don't think any of the players managed to put all the pieces together.
    There was and they didn't, respectively. This is probably another problem worth fixing: the ability to find out about past history without resorting to knowing lost foreign languages or magical scrying of some sort is rather limited. I have a new found respect for the abuse of audiologs and journal entries in video games because your options really are quite limited -- and I say this as a history major with training in how to find stuff out about the past from historical artifacts!
    It was also an ever-changing world. The scenery would change with the seasons, old sites would burn down, new monsters would move into the area.
    I recently stumbled on a system we made for this that involved rolling 2d6 every season. I don't think we actually used it, though. Restocking the world and random encounters were two things we were going to rigorously systematize but just kind of didn't and rolled out with a half-done system that it turns out was sufficient as far as the players were concerned (this is why I keep talking about fairness being largely in the eye of the beholder).
    Compared to D&D, the monsters were harder to nail down for a fair fight. In D&D (especially 3e and 5e), the monsters often hit very hard in a straight fight, so you want to hit and run, or mess them up with zone control spells and debuffs. In this game, it was the opposite--If we could get them to stand still and trade blows, then we'd quickly form a shield wall (a good formation since it let us trigger a mix of Hack & Slash and Defend moves) and the battle was as good as won. But they were all tricky bastards--either they would attack quickly and then leap 10 feet to safety, or they'd outrun us and hide in the high grass, or they'd leap out the window and climb onto the roof, then harass us with ranged weapons.
    This goes back to what I was saying earlier about the Big Combat Numbers classes making hash of a monster that would in turn make hash of a Middling Combat Numbers class like a Cleric in a straight fight. Dungeon World just isn't very granular in that way by comparison to something like D&D thanks to rolling on a small bell curve and having numbers no bigger than around 20 for anything.

    When we found this out in the testing we figured we needed a way to make monsters competitive with players beyond a straight fight, which is why we invented the system of Strengths and Weaknesses to give a rough balance pass to fictional positioning. I'm not sure if you were there for the first encounter with the infamous porcupine monsters at the manor house, but they had been living there a while and the session devolved into what could charitably be called "Tork looting the whole house by himself while everyone else experienced Fantasy Vietnam." Upstairs, downstairs, climbing improvised ropes made of sheets, through windows, hurling projectiles, tossing furniture down flights of stairs, hiding around blind corners and ambushing people using merely sound cues (by both parties!), one side driving the other away merely through the ferocity of their assault seizing key terrain only for the other party to return at a new angle, it really had it all. It even culminated in one of those famous chases back to town that I don't remember how they worked.
    So when things got really bad my MO was to try to keep stalling and triggering moves on favourable stats...
    Which worked on multiple occasions, as I recall. Your class more than most preferred doing Moves that would have high stats involved, even compared to automatic successes without triggering Moves for the reason you gave about the 10+'s, and I think you did a good job of exploiting that. Or at least you got lucky every single time it counted, which to me implies a good job I suppose.
    There were some areas in which I found the move system of Dungeon World slightly anti-immersive. We had a bit of a joke (not too serious, but slightly serious) about "Never ask questions!" because if we asked too many questions we could trigger a "Discern Realities" roll, and then on a miss the GM could trigger some negative move.
    Yeah. The Moves where the GM Move doesn't obviously follow are the hardest to adjudicate in a way that seems natural. Like, OK, your character reasoned about what here is dangerous but got a 6-. Flatly stating "you don't know" is fine, I guess, but it doesn't do a lot to move the scene forward. And the things that do move the scene forward often don't really follow, or require improvisation that wouldn't be acceptably prep-forward.

    Notably this is a weakness D&D shares to a degree, not just in the way you noted but even in its general structure where it's hard to make diegetic consequences and this leads to a stalled out scene: "I roll perception." - 5 - "Dang. Guess I don't learn anything. Hum." time passes "I roll insight..."
    Likewise, there were a couple times when I felt like we (the adventurers) had taken reasonable precautions to pre-empt any negative consequence of a course of action, but then the GM still made us roll defy danger and inflicted something bad on a failure.
    Yeah, this is exactly why I developed the method of stating the failure condition that relates fictional positioning to the outcome explicitly. This kind of situation where it doesn't matter what you do because you trigger a roll and then the roll is 6- so something bad happens is very frustrating from a challenge and fairness perspective because it's kind of blatantly cheating the player out of their good ideas. Sometimes you need a good idea to justify rolling at all (often in the case of Hack & Slash), but sometimes your good idea should influence the outcomes of the roll instead, and if it doesn't (or even if you just can't tell that it does!) then that kind of sucks.
  • edited June 5
    Yeah, this is exactly why I developed the method of stating the failure condition that relates fictional positioning to the outcome explicitly. This kind of situation where it doesn't matter what you do because you trigger a roll and then the roll is 6- so something bad happens is very frustrating from a challenge and fairness perspective because it's kind of blatantly cheating the player out of their good ideas.
    This is definitely better.

    Although, I suppose it could give the following which better but also not ideal:

    Me: I climb the cliff.
    GM: OK, defy danger and on failure you fall.
    Me: Wait, before I climb, I tie myself to the rope...

    --the point being that if the GM announces every danger, it's hard for the player to mess up.
    I'm not sure if you were there for the first encounter with the infamous porcupine monsters at the manor house, but they had been living there a while and the session devolved into what could charitably be called "Tork looting the whole house by himself while everyone else experienced Fantasy Vietnam."
    I was there, in fact! Here, you can read my session notes and re-live your glory days tormenting us with spiky porcupine monsters:

    We cross the valley, walking aobut 40 minutes. We climb a hill, and see a large house.

    It is a large house with two stories. It has a less imposing structure bolted onto it on the near side. It seems to have some windows.

    As we get closer to the house, we see that the door is on the near side. Facing the house, the substructure is on the left side. We are about 200 m from the door. The house is in bad repair. There is no glass in the windows, and there are white streamers or ropes hanging down the walls.

    The house is raised up on a foundation, with the windows up at eye height.
    The white streamers hanging down are bedsheets or tapestries tied together.

    Doesn't look like anything is moving around in there. It looks like the thing off to the side is a stable. Gareth boosts up Lasair to look through the window -- and a javelin shoots out at him!

    Tork: We've got your javelin! You'd better come out if you want it back.

    We stack up near the door, SWAT-style. Inside, there is some chittering and clicking.

    Around the right corner of the house comes a ... difficult to describe entity.
    - Very tall
    - Hunched over
    - Three-jointed arms (reach to ground)
    - Tan skin
    - Red swirls on right side
    - Porcupine-like spines on back
    - Four beady eyes--two sets of two
    - Moves by loping.
    - Using one of the long arms to corner.
    - Javelin in other hand -- about to hurl it as us!

    It vanishes quickly from sight -- probably climbed the ropes like a monkey.

    We go into the entry hall. I am hit by some javelins on the way in. Off to the right is a spiral staircase going up. To the left is a wall... no door in sight. To front-left, there is a large gallery. And dead ahead is a very large archway into another room... barricaded with chairs and the like.

    Behind the chairs and so on are three more creatures; 2 with swirls on the left, 2 with swirls on the right. We rush up the stairs. I get hit by more javelins. My armour is paying off.

    A porcupine-ettercap-thing (maybe the same one as before) leaps down and tries to bash Tork with an oil painting. He dodges. I smash a shield right through the painting. I manage to delay the thing long enough for Tork to get it... but he misses the shot and falls down the stairs. We all pile up on the staircase. The creature escapes.

    Lasair and Gareth rush down the stairs. Tork and I rush back up. I examine the ropes, discovering a hitherto unknown knot technology. An ettercap bursts down the hall; Tork ambushes it, gets up on its back, and stabs it repeatedly until it is dead.

    Tork bursts into the study, and finds... a bird. It sqwuaks something like, "Brrk! Not gonna get my manor! Brrk!" Tork finds a letter -- it seems this is the house of someone Markev. He finds the signet ring with the blue/red rooster sigil.

    Another ettercap bursts in, with a big meat cleaver. I charge it from behind, defending Tork. I tangle it up in my chain a little. It gets free. It hits me in the eyebrow with its cleaver (armour prevents damage) and retreats.

    Tork continues searching through the rooms as I fight. Tork finds a book labelled "The Triumph of Ingerlise."

    Some nonsense happens. We try to guard a door. The bug goes around and charges down the hallway. Lasair bursts in and throws Tork at it.

    It runs. I smash through a door to pursue it, and give off a flash of holy light. It trips, and falls out the window head-first. Splat.

    We hustle down the stairs as more ettercaps flood onto the scene. Dunno how they all got there. Another javelin bounces off my back.

    I stand at the bottom of the stairs, deflecting javelins. They bounce uselessly off my impenetrable defense.

    We retreat. They come against us in force. We fight them in fierce melee, to the brink of death. We give a good account of ourself, then turn and go. I give off a blinding light as we flee.

    A volley of arrows catches Lasair as we flee... he escapes with no sandals.
    While I am reading these old session notes anyway, here is my favourite moment with those lucky 10+ moves:
    Magnus blasts gravity. I am down to 1 hit point.

    The divine wrath flows through me. The pain drives me on. The monsters are just as beaten and weak as I am. Surely they are mortal beings and fear death. I give a roar of defiance, determined to show these creatures that I am not going to give in -- I am determined to fight to the death. (I defy danger -- Charisma. 12.) There is a flash of blinding light. They flee. Magnus kills one. We run.
    It was literally whenever I assumed I was done for and started acting out a suitable heroic death scene, that move would go off. : )

    Unfortunately my notes don't shed too much light on how chases were run... just "we run". I believe it involved a Constitution save... and on a 7-9 you could still escape, but took a physical debility.

    Presumably the bit in my session notes where it says, "We retreat. They come against us in force. We fight to the brink of death..." also implies that on a failure, you were thrust back into melee.

  • Yeah, this is exactly why I developed the method of stating the failure condition that relates fictional positioning to the outcome explicitly.
    This is such a good practice. It's baked-in to BurningWheel and OtherKind Dice (including Goblinville) and I think it has a massive impact on shared understanding of the fictional space / stakes. This seems like a great addition to your DW campaign.
  • Yeah, this is exactly why I developed the method of stating the failure condition that relates fictional positioning to the outcome explicitly. This kind of situation where it doesn't matter what you do because you trigger a roll and then the roll is 6- so something bad happens is very frustrating from a challenge and fairness perspective because it's kind of blatantly cheating the player out of their good ideas. Sometimes you need a good idea to justify rolling at all (often in the case of Hack & Slash), but sometimes your good idea should influence the outcomes of the roll instead, and if it doesn't (or even if you just can't tell that it does!) then that kind of sucks.
    Oh, interesting; like sometimes in 2097e I don't have them roll at all, it's just "ok you can do that"; does that happen in JonDW?

  • My impression so far is that the answer is a strong "yes", and that positioning yourself so you didn't need to roll was a major part of the game. (Because rolling could always turn rather sour for you.)

    Is that close?
  • if the GM announces every danger, it's hard for the player to mess up.
    Well, it's harder for them to do worse than they might have by forgetting things or being bad at predicting things, that's for sure. Though in the absence of good ideas they can still fail.

    Still, that's why it might be a good thing to not state consequences aloud in 100% of cases (I didn't, sometimes because I forgot and sometimes because I didn't think it made sense to allow a long chain of deliberate reasoning from the player due to the circumstances), but it would still be good to do it often and to at least privately pre-commit to consequences before the player rolls.

    You also have to always be prepared to explain in the action that follows how the player's reasoning impacted that result. So something I would often do even if I didn't state the consequences in advance is to narrate results in a way like "Because you did A, the result is B instead of C," where C would be roughly what I'd think would have happened from a very blunt approach like "I attack the monster" or "I climb the wall" without further planning or details.

    I never fully mastered that procedure in the sense of being completely consistent about using it because it requires constantly comparing counterfactuals and that's very tiring to do quickly and consistently enough without also slowing down the pace of the game, but to the extent that I managed to do things of that nature I think it was really helpful for establishing a fair and consistent feel.

    I was there, in fact! Here, you can read my session notes and re-live your glory days tormenting us with spiky porcupine monsters:
    Oh yeah they hit Tork with a painting! That was pretty funny because they were directly converting the monetary value of the place (which he cared about more than anything) into weapons to hurt him with. Who says dungeon crawls can't have powerful themes?
    It was literally whenever I assumed I was done for and started acting out a suitable heroic death scene, that move would go off. : )
    It is kind of like Gygax was on to something when he said a game isn't about telling a story, but about having a story to tell when the game is over. I've read lots of accounts of sandbox type game experiences being effectively "story generators" through the emergence of unexpected properties when their systems interact. In our case it certainly seemed like the dice failed you precisely to get you into trouble and then saved you precisely at the final possible moment to get you out of it.
    Unfortunately my notes don't shed too much light on how chases were run... just "we run". I believe it involved a Constitution save... and on a 7-9 you could still escape, but took a physical debility.
    That sounds like the kind of thing that would be in line with existing Moves like Forced March. I think it involved something like establishing how you escape in the short run (i.e. turn it into a chase to begin with) followed by some evaluation of how the chase goes in the long run (i.e. do you just generally outpace the pursuer, and what unique environmental factors might be brought to bear on that overall result like shortcuts or doubling back or other such ploys). I forget the exact systems used for this, but it would make sense that the long distance portion would involve Defy Danger + CON.
    Presumably the bit in my session notes where it says, "We retreat. They come against us in force. We fight to the brink of death..." also implies that on a failure, you were thrust back into melee.
    As I recall in that instance you had all judged that your overland speed was no match for theirs and decided to turn and ferociously scare them off all at one go rather than deal with being harried all the way back to town. So that may not have been a system result imposed on you, but rather a decision you made strategically.
    Oh, interesting; like sometimes in 2097e I don't have them roll at all, it's just "ok you can do that"; does that happen in JonDW?
    My impression so far is that the answer is a strong "yes", and that positioning yourself so you didn't need to roll was a major part of the game. (Because rolling could always turn rather sour for you.)

    Is that close?
    I'd say Paul's got it. The game was designed and run to encourage players to do things that would 'just work' without 'accidentally' triggering a Move as a theoretically optimal way to play.

    An example that probably took this a little too far was their half-serious-half-joking refrain of "don't ask questions." Players often sought additional clarification about what their characters saw from me in order to help make decisions, but not to the degree that they were consulting their character's intuition and rolling Discern Realities or their character's memory and rolling Spout Lore. They were OK with sometimes not having important information because they believed missing some information was often preferable to risking a 6- result.

    Personally I think they took this too far sometimes. Knowing what I did, it was frequently the case that the solution to a puzzling situation in front of them was information they had previously learned, or perhaps even had access to in their almanac, carousing stories, and player reports, but for whatever reason had forgotten or neglected. If they had risked a failed roll they also would have ventured to crack open the whole scenario. But they chose to play it safe, and that was designed to be a valid option.

    There are plenty of arguably more successful examples, though. Climbing things slowly and carefully using teamwork, rope, and harnesses was very common. Navigation was done entirely in this way: they said "I walk towards the rock" and so they did, no Move required. Many players successfully took advantage of the fact that if you attack a helpless opponent you skip straight to dealing damage by creating a situation in which their opponent was rendered helpless. Perhaps Vivificient can recall some more specific cases where he took advantage of "automatic success" type planning.
  • Yeah, I'm sure there were things like that. Like there was a tower with a trench around it, so the first time we went there we had to keep climbing in and out and jumping across; then next time we brought a big plank and just threw it down across the trench.

    I don't know if I can think of any time we got the drop on the monsters and killed them without a roll. They were all pretty devious and hard to pin down.
  • Monsters that are devious and hard to pin down isn’t always the case in D&D style games!

    Was this a conscious design choice, and what efforts did you make to maintain it? How did you agree to do the same way or reliably?

    Also, are you familiar with other attempts to do this kind of thing? I’m thinking of games like Freebooters on the Frontier (a Dungeon World hack designed specifically for this style of play).
  • JonJon
    edited June 6
    Monsters that are devious ... Was this a conscious design choice, and what efforts did you make to maintain it? How did you agree to do the same way or reliably?
    Well, it's not like we sat down one day and went "you know what, we should have all our monsters be tricky bastards." But a bunch of things came together and that ended up being the way we tended to go with things.

    One reason is, as I keep mentioning, a monster that pastes a Ranger at Hack & Slash in turn gets pasted by a Fighter, and that only gets worse as the levels increase. The numbers just happen to work out that way. So you simply can't balance Dungeon World combat by numbers alone, even if you wanted to. We weren't playing GURPS here so we weren't trying to balance it completely by numbers, but even our best result in that respect was still only close enough for horseshoes.

    The other GM and I were both very aware that Dungeon World's combat difficulty basically revolved around how much of a dick the GM is with their Moves, and that we would need to do something in this area given the realities of the numbers discussed previously (besides, balancing by pure abstract numbers is boring and misses the main selling point of the system, which is that it's fiction first).

    Robbins' WM was very much in the vein of "prep according to fair guidelines, then play as hard as you can within the rules and prep knowing that you've been constrained fairly by your past self already." The question became: how hard could we play "within the rules" and what would our constraints from prep be?

    To know the limits of "as hard as we could within the rules" we invented all of the rules of thumb for adjudicating combat situations. As you saw in Vivificient's example, monsters in this world were often intelligent, and intelligent things don't want to die. They'll use whatever advantage they can scrape together, like ambushing with projectiles. What's a fair way to damage people with projectiles from ambush? We had to consider that kind of thing. Once we had the rules in place for what would and wouldn't happen in a certain situation, we could move on to playing the monster as hard as we could within our prep certain that the outcome would be fairly well understood in advance for those actions.

    So then that's the other question: what would we prepare in advance in terms of monsters being cunning? This is where our system of building monsters, and most especially Instinct, Tells & Behaviors, Strengths, Weaknesses, and Moves came in. All monsters tried to fulfill their ultimate Instinct, and they did that by making their Moves, which were telegraphed and portrayed by their Tells & Behaviors. Rusty liked to wrap people in chains and drag them into Crescent Lake. There's a reason for that in Rusty's instinct, strengths, moves, and behaviors. I won't discuss what it is because I don't think anybody ever figured it out, but we both knew from each and every monster entry what a monster was trying to do and how it would try to do it no matter which person was running it or which person had created it. There were times when one or the other of us would look at a monster entry or location and go "uh, what? I don't know what you mean here, what would happen if the players did XYZ?" and in the few days before a session the other GM would clarify things. Usually that wouldn't take more than a couple minutes.

    We would always do our best to explicitly take advantage of a monster's listed Strengths whenever possible. Rusty was strong (and, mechanically, Forceful), so naturally he liked to get into tug of war because he would always win that game (except that one time he didn't, but even an intelligent monster can't tell the future). He had Reach weapons and an aura of fear, so naturally he played zone defense to keep those pesky barbarians with the big sword away from him. And if someone did somehow get too close and present a serious threat he'd boot them away (Forceful, remember?) and they'd have to run the gauntlet all over again. And if that somehow failed, well, he could breathe underwater and the PCs couldn't, so he'd just retreat into the lake. In this respect a monster's tactics kind of played themselves if you just took 5 minutes to read the entry, look at the location, and think about it a little. We were both on the same page from the beginning about the general style of challenge-oriented play, so there weren't any issues in that regard. We both wanted to play monsters as hard as we could within the prep and guidelines and we both did a pretty good job of being creative (while not violating prep or guidelines) with that I think.

    We were also always doing our best to at least display a monster's Weakness(es). A player can't exploit something they don't know about or can't infer. We were obligated to portray monsters as the whole package of goals, information (tells, weaknesses), behaviors (as well as specific moves), and strengths at all times. Lots of locations were designed in tandem with their inhabitants, and we took that interaction into consideration while imagining how the scenario would probably go in advance.

    In fact, locations were all designed with an explicit progression for what would happen there if the players didn't interfere (just like Fronts in the base game) just so the world didn't feel like a location was waiting in a time capsule for players to show up, and this progression typically was a result of their inhabitants' Instinct and Behaviors. Just ask them about the infamous tornado bridge. So this further incentivized us both to be very familiar with how the inhabitants of locations would behave if it came to a fight. Every fight had a goal they were trying to accomplish, and they'd use the whole gamut of their monster entry to try to achieve it.

    So basically our priorities were already aligned, it was just a question of working behind the scenes to shore up Dungeon World's willy-nilly nature to something more consistent and, for lack of a better term, 'legible' to someone who didn't create a location or monster in the first place but who had to run it.
  • JonJon
    edited June 6
    Also, are you familiar with other attempts to do this kind of thing? I’m thinking of games like Freebooters on the Frontier (a Dungeon World hack designed specifically for this style of play).
    I don't think Freebooters actually is designed for this style of play. I have made a couple short comments on this so far, but like you I had a thought process something like "Freebooters? That's that OSR hexcrawl wilderness exploration thing for Dungeon World, right? I'm doing a OSR wilderness exploration sort of thing, maybe it'll be useful." It wasn't useful, it turns out, because it was really designed to accentuate the Dungeon World where players are making stuff up all the time and you're improvising everything and so on and so forth as it is marketed. Just about the only things we ended up using from Perilous Wilds and Freebooters were 100 coin weighing 1 and rolling over somebody's body to grant them Last Breath.

    For example, Freebooters' suggested process for making the map of the region is to start with a blank map, ask someone to draw the border region and home steading, ask a player to start defining the steading, then another player to continue defining it. The players name the steading. They name the place in town they call their headquarters. The players define the predominant terrain of the wilderness, a lost civilization, a region, a landmark, a creature. Players players players. Players don't make any of these things in Robbins' deep history model, it's 100% backwards.

    The new Moves are by and large equally pointless. Perceive is just Discern Realities without a question list, Establish is just Spout Lore by another name. Negotiate is no different from Parley. We didn't need to add a new stat (Luck) because it didn't do anything for our setting: in a grim dark fantasy frontier you don't get lucky, if anything you're in a perpetual state of un-luck instead. And you don't have hirelings because the PCs are the only ones crazy enough to go out into that horrible mess, so Rise to the Occasion doesn't serve any purpose and neither do any of the hireling Moves. We didn't need to replace Moves and Playbooks that already worked just fine -- we were trying to maximize approachability for player count reasons, so each unnecessary change was actively bad for us and we tried very hard to avoid them.

    The system of Discoveries and Dangers in the base supplement Perilous Wilds is cool, but it's similarly all improvisation and generated randomly. You build a stock of locations (or perhaps roll them on the fly) and pull them out whenever the dice say the players found something.

    But there's a reason there was a trail-sized gouge in the ground from just north of Wenton all the way up to Crescent Lake, and it's not because Gareth rolled an 8 and I thought "you know what'd be cool? If he found this huge gouge in the ground, I'll figure out what it means later." And it couldn't have been in any other place than it was, either, because the thing that made that gouge in the ground only would have done so if certain events took place at Crescent Lake first.

    There are some things you can improvise, and some things you can weight on a random table, and it won't matter when or where in particular they happen so much and that's fine. If somebody rolls a 6- on Spout Lore and you want it to start raining, well, that's not Deep History (tm) but what's the harm? Sometimes it just starts raining, you know? But you can't just die-drop entire locations onto your map at random and expect the same kind of result you could get by placing them deliberately.

  • JonJon
    edited June 6
    As an aside I mentioned to another one of the campaign's players that people were interested in campaign war stories from a player perspective, so they said they might drop by over the weekend (if their account is approved by then) if you have any questions for them.
  • The review of Freebooters is much apprec, thanks for your insight♥
  • Yes, fantastic answers. This is pretty fascinating and I really appreciate the depth of thought you’ve given the matter.

    Could you share an example of a monster write up and combat goals, as an illustration of what you’re talking about there?

    (Also, I am a bit confused by your attempts to avoid “spoilers” about the campaign. You speak about it as though it’s in the past, but you’re also careful not to give things away. Why is that? Are you planning to run it again with the same players, or something like that?)
  • JonJon
    edited June 6
    Could you share an example of a monster write up and combat goals, as an illustration of what you’re talking about there?
    Well, I've basically shared all of Rusty that matters, so here is what combat with him tended to go like (not based on any particular encounter but more of a pastiche of what I remember in general from all their run-ins with him):

    Players are exploring near the lake he lives in. He is interested in drowning them, so he stalks them from the water (instinct & behaviors, roughly speaking). I describe ripples in the water (tells). Players don't attend to the ripples. I describe one character being grappled by rusty chains suddenly shooting from the water (golden opportunity, they ignored the ripples). They describe pulling and resisting, and somebody helps them. Aid Another or automatic fail (Forceful makes it impossible to plausibly beat Rusty at tug of war by yourself which precludes Defy Danger). Aid Another succeeds, they pair up to pull on the chains and haul Rusty to the surface of the water and just barely to the shore (Defy Danger + STR). I describe him as a giant human-shaped monster covered in lake gunk (physical description) and rusty chains (Strength) affixed with keyed padlocks (Weakness).

    The other two players make an attempt to attack the creature in melee by running up to it. It whips chains at them, and one thinks better of risking being hit and rummages through their bag for some kind of ranged weapon (player taking action that automatically succeeds due to not triggering a Move). The other player dodges the chains (Defy Danger + DEX). They succeed, but when they get up to it they see its imposing size and physique and suddenly feel cowed (Defy Danger + I forget, whatever resists fear). They succeed and maintain courage enough to attack, rolling Hack & Slash. 7-9, their attack deals some damage to Rusty (mitigated by his armor from the chains, descriptive narration involves striking the chains to highlight Strength), and Rusty boots them like 6 or 7 feet away onto their face (Forceful + HP damage, Monster Move = Do A Massive Punch (also Deals Damage)).

    One two skip a few, players get free from the chains with some more Defy Danger or perhaps an automatic success by e.g. coating the grabbed person in oil or some such thing, the players all retreat to a fair distance and threaten Rusty with that ranged weapon the player rummaged their pack for and so he retreats into the lake (a kind of 'automatic success' of sorts, since I know how Rusty will react to being threatened by ranged superiority and great distance from the lake and so there's no need to Parley with the leverage of being turned into a pin cushion due to his instinct and behaviors).

    Something like that. Is that what you were interested in?
    (Also, I am a bit confused by your attempts to avoid “spoilers” about the campaign. You speak about it as though it’s in the past, but you’re also careful not to give things away. Why is that? Are you planning to run it again with the same players, or something like that?)
    This is for two reasons. One reason is that Ben is notoriously resistant to giving away specific information from his campaign, so I figure it's traditional for West Marches games to do that and so I had better do it, too.

    A less obtuse reason is that I believe missing information has value in many cases. Handing it out can change the value of the original work in much the same way a sequel answering certain questions one way rather than another can change the value of the original work by modifying its context in retrospect. I'm not interested in modifying the context of my campaign in retrospect in terms of the contents of the world, so I refrain from answering those kinds of questions.

    After all, if I can't keep a secret to myself in such a low pressure environment how will I maintain one when it actually matters during the game? And keeping secrets to oneself is vitally important to running a game in the exploratory prepared style. At the end of the day, West Marches is about giving player actions real weight. The players are the only ones willing and able to explore the dangerous world beyond the wall, in the game or out of it, and to give away the answers they worked so hard to get for free at a later date is to cheat them of their labor.

    So basically I think it would make my game be worse and less immersive in retrospect, and at this point in time retrospect is the only way to experience it at all and I am not interested in making my game be worse and less immersive. I am aware how you would get a lot of value out of knowing these specifics, but it is a non-starter for me.
  • Yeah, the info on the playstyle / approach of Freebooters is really interesting. Thanks for sharing.
  • JonJon
    edited June 9
    Alright, I've put some thought to the matter of whether the campaign was successful or not and in what ways. Here's a pretty good shot:
    Do you see the campaign as a success? Would you run something like it again? Would you recommend it to others, or only with certain changes/caveats?
    I'll try to answer in three parts: what the campaign was trying to do and how I tried to do it, and what parts of that succeeded (both in instrumental terms -- did I hit my goal? -- and in terms of simple enjoyment) and possible ways to fix any rough spots. That last one is pretty long so I'll split it into three sub-sections of its own. You'll have to judge for yourself if it sounds worth recommending. As a famous reviewer of model trains once said, "this is the kind of thing that will be liked by those who like this kind of thing."

    Section 1: What was I trying to do?

    The general goal was always to make "something like Ben Robbins' West Marches posts describe."

    Different people rank the features in Ben's portrait of West Marches differently. You'll often see, for example, people who think they could make a West Marches hex crawl even though Ben stresses that hexes are inappropriate because they make it feel like the world is full of little containers that can be "fully explored" in a binary way.

    My own core take-away is a campaign primarily about a rotating cast of players episodically exploring (and to some degree pillaging) from a centrally located, safe, and relatively mundane home base location in an immersive world that pre-existed the sessions that explore it; with players taking the lead on things actually happening in the game; and permeated by a general sense of 'hands-off' GMing and objective fairness. The overall setting of the game rules and world is something like "a place that doesn't feel invented specifically for play purposes, but that nonetheless offers lots of deep challenge and mastery oriented content centered around players taking the initiative to explore the world."

    I had already given a first shot at that with my last big campaign, so I had a bunch of ideas I wanted to try out to improve on that first effort as well. Beyond hitting all those usual points, my own biggest concerns were making the campaign world bigger and better planned, with more players, wasting less effort so I wasn't as frustrated, and improving on many meta-game elements I felt were lacking like the players' attempts at making maps (especially in terms of immersion), and with a greater emphasis on "friendly rivals" style play between players competing to be the best (my prior campaign's players joked they weren't just 'the party' but were actually 'the communist party').

    My best players from that campaign had also highlighted some things that I took under advisement when planning my DW WM. I could write a whole post about those, but for sake of brevity the highlights were that navigation could get tedious or was too difficult, the lack of GM-driven play could be daunting or feel aimless, and the overall difficulty of the game made it hard to play just for its own sake -- a lack of success often felt more like a failure. The overall difficulty I felt could be addressed by advertising the game as "dark fantasy" at the recommendation of my co-GM (that way it would feel natural to the setting, since high difficulty is fairly non-negotiable itself according to Robbins), the lack of GM direction I thought might be solved with more robust player information-sharing systems (Almanac, map, full size Roll20 game forum, real-time chat room) and more explicit game objectives (in this case the Fame leaderboard and XP system), and the difficulties with navigation might be solved with new aids to help players make their own maps (something those players had been notoriously bad at).

    Out of the needs listed above you can pretty easily see how the elements I've mentioned in my Dungeon World WM game came to be. The need to reduce wasted prep and increase player-base were both catered to by DW's popularity (in theory) and simplicity. The meta-game elements like maps, almanacs, fame leaderboards, and diegetic forum boards could be bolted on to any game system. Another GM could help increase player count and reduce workload. That just left a world that felt impartial, fair, and full of good gameplay that nonetheless felt prior to the sessions experiencing it, which is where the bulk of the work I've already described was done on the system modifications and world preparations.

    So, overall, those were the sorts of things I was trying to accomplish.
  • JonJon
    edited June 9
    Subsection 2.1: Did I hit the main goals of West Marches?

    The cast of players certainly rotated, and the game was definitely episodic, though the European crew never grew large enough to really break out into truly mixed up parties.

    The new exploration-based XP system did encourage exploration in theory and was a great tool to aid world building for the GMs, but it had a natural internal tension: if you got XP for noting down important information about places and monsters, how would you know when you were done without a Doom-style "Secrets Found" meter that would instantly break immersion?

    The town was fairly well fleshed out, but still suffered I think from the general problem of "we'll do that later." Events in the town often proceeded slowly because other things, like preparing new locations to adventure to, took precedent. And, while some players obviously had beef, overall I think the consensus was the world did in fact feel "hands off," and therefore that our world building and running techniques worked.

    The world was generally hailed as very impressive, immersive, and fair, so I count that as a pretty full success. The same for generally being filled with interesting challenges (the players particularly called out combats I ran as a good example of this).

    I feel I did make sure players took the lead on doing things in the game world (though the game world was never passive - it bit back at the players' interference and had its own agenda when the players weren't around). They did mention that they still sometimes felt a bit directionless and that the game could have had a lower barrier to entry especially as it went on.

    Subsection 2.2: Did I hit my own patch goals from my prior West Marches campaign?

    The short answer is "sort of." I'd say overall that these were good first-pass fixes, but that they still have a ways to go in many cases. Two that stand out:

    Firstly, DW's simplicity definitely helped reduce GM overload and agitation at wasted effort in some ways, but it wasn't as much of a help in the quest for players as I had hoped. While my co-GM built more adventure sites than I did, I ended up being the "player handler" GM -- I was responsible for recruiting almost every player that ever played a session and I was nearly the exclusive moderator of the meta-game chat and forum to keep them up to date and so on.

    While the player meta-game is one of the most interesting parts of West Marches to me, this also meant that I experienced an interminable cavalcade of introducing myself and my game to people (often two or three times a week) who ended up ghosting me a few days or weeks later. As someone prone to depressive thinking and who isn't really a "people person" that was pretty crushing in its own right. The occasional conflict between the other GM and I and the fact that he also eventually joined the long list of ghostings didn't really help matters. I think the game was up-and-down largely on the basis of player count and interest, and once the other GM left it was obviously downhill from there overall, even if it did still have a few highlights on the way down.

    Secondly, many of the meta-game systems did seem to be a good first-pass solution to the problems I had identified in the previous campaign about things like not making maps or sharing information. But they could have been better in ways the players helped me identify in a post-campaign chat we had a year or two ago.

    So that's how well I felt I hit my campaign goals roughly overall, next section will be what still needs patching and some possible patches and that'll about cover my overall campaign evaluation.
  • Subsection 2.3: What would I fix going forward?

    Robin Laws famously said that you can always trust a playtester's feedback about whether they enjoyed a game or not, but that you couldn't trust their ideas for why they didn't enjoy it (and even worse, how to fix it!) as far as you could throw them. This section is the longest because it involves lots of that kind of speculation. Consider this a warning that I'm stepping out of the realm what I know and into the realm of what I think - a dangerous proposal indeed!

    One recurring topic in the post-game discussions players and I had about the campaign overall was the XP system. It was originally invented to help incentivize exploration and information transfer (you only receiving XP by noting down important information about locations and monsters, this information would then naturally be available to other players). However, it had a few things we tended to identify as common problems.

    One such problem of the XP system was that it was naturally cryptic, mentioned above. Some proposed solutions included the GM acting in the role of the scribe to drop leading ideas like "You mentioned there were bells on the trees? I wonder what those were there for. If you found out for me I think the readers would be really interested in that!" which would give players specific objectives to pursue without giving away the whole scheme. Another possible solution we thought of was that a completed entry might give certain benefits to indicate its complete status diegetically, like if you had a magic book where reading a complete location entry could teleport you there or something (more on fast travel later).

    These problems also arose partly because some information in the world was not made especially for player accessibility. The other GM wasn't very concerned about the players missing things, often making statements like "if they don't bring a wizard to magically decipher the writing then that's on them, I'm not giving them a Rosetta stone so there's no other way they could reasonably learn what it says; they'll just have to be smart about it." In retrospect players mostly didn't do these things so my favored approach of "how could I plausibly present this information in the world so that a dumb as bricks fighter would probably learn it?" worked better for XP-granting world features since that way people wouldn't feel like they were stumbling around totally in the dark.

    The XP system was embedded in a broader set of meta-game systems like the Fame system, town events, and game forum. I felt many of these needed more fleshing out prior to starting the campaign than they actually had, as I've mentioned before, and players often reported lower engagement with them as the game went on partly because they were so slow to develop.

    This naturally leads to questions about player convenience in general. All this meta-game stuff and the XP system were a bit of a hassle even for the core players, and this meant even core players sometimes felt at a loss for what to do next or where to find certain information. Often this was because we faced a trade-off between diegetic immersion and utility ("should the almanac be a plaintext Google doc or written on little sheafs of digital vellum?"). The players almost unanimously preferred accessibility to immersion whenever it came up, and made further points (which I agreed with) about this being important for player retention. While you can retain some players merely through mechanical complexity or interest in the game world or personal social connection to the GM or other players, it seems like lots of people who play RPGs show up at the same bat time and same bat channel every week because their DM entertains them by putting on a one man show without asking anything in return. As you leave the realm of "core players" who play weekly (or, if you're Gareth, twice weekly) and enter "marginal players" who play one or two times a month this kind of barrier to play might really get in the way.

    Nonetheless I do think the changes to the map in particular - to make it a page on Roll20 in front of players' faces and to provide them little terrain sprites to help those who felt they "couldn't draw" - were largely successful. Some players noted that they didn't feel they received enough of a reward beyond "not being lost" to justify the often-talked-about-but-never-performed solo map adjustment sessions to make the map more objectively accurate for new players' sake, but in my prior campaign I had awarded the most XP of all for improving the map and nobody ever did it back then, so it's something of a paradox of player motivation.

    Moving into session play now, people generally agreed with me that although the combats were very good they could have been a little sharper and quicker. We agreed that a fight should stick around just long enough to present its "puzzle" (figuring out how to deflate a monster's strengths and take advantage of its weaknesses), and once the puzzle is solved should go away quickly (in practice usually from a barbarian swinging their great-sword in a Hack & Slash that decapitated everything in one fell blow). In the actual events this mostly happened, but a bit less monster HP and a bit more monster damage would've probably made it a little better.

    There was also a pattern of discussion where gameplay closely matched or only slightly deviated from players' expectations, including how much exploring there was (one said I represented that it would be about 50% of play, and it was still high, but more like 40% in practice), how cohesive the world was (almost spot-on as-advertised), how fair and challenge-oriented things seemed (basically as advertised, especially in combat and thanks to my state-the-consequences style of delivering Moves), and that Dungeon World was largely a good choice because its fiction-first play meant it was simple (especially good for onboarding new players) and got out of the way of the play of actually making smart decisions and experiencing the world. Several more matched-expectations include remarkably flexible scheduling that was nonetheless not as flexible as perceived, and difficulty that was perceived to be very high in the moment of play but that in retrospect was actually not as deadly as they thought it would be at the time or in advance. So you can see how players whose expectations weren't met are something of a conundrum. We all generally agreed I did all I could to make the expectations clear and then basically met them, so I'm not sure how that failed in the cases it did.

    Speaking of on-boarding players, we had a long discussion about that. Ideas to improve this included assigning new players a kind of "mentor" player for a couple sessions until they had learned enough to become self-directed, using various scheduling apps to help make scheduling sessions easier, and using chat programs that had a couple more channels than a single Skype group chat to help keep things organized. So lots about lowering barrier to entry and improving information transfer. Despite problems of information transfer, all of the players I interviewed remarked that there were times in the game where they got to use their familiarity with an area to "lead the team," and that these were really enjoyable. Such times lived up to that fantasy of playing in a world where you got to experience both sides of there being only one legendary explorer who knows the road to El Dorado, and sometimes it was another player and other times it was you, but it was never some NPC making you feel second-fiddle.

    We also identified a long list of "common to all West Marches games" issues that needed continued refinement going forward, which I'll put in my next post along with my overall conclusion.
  • Sub-section 2.3.a bit extra (sorry): Problems Common to West Marches More Generally

    West Marches features a particularly interesting system of first-person overland navigation, like what many people are familiar from in D&D but applied to exterior environments like being in the woods. This is really hit or miss. Some players instantly get it and it's great and no problem at all, others find it interminably confusing and it drags.

    The player of the infamous Tork Jefferson was the former sort of player: he'd rattle off a list of directions based on the player map like "we head up the road keeping the river on our left until we hit Wenton, then we walk through Wenton and turn right about 90 degrees and walk down the valley until we see a lake with a village behind it, we keep that on our right and when we pass that we veer to the right about 30 degrees to head between the two hills to our front and when we hit the river we look for a bridge to cross it. When we see the burned village to our front after that we turn left and head up the valley until we hit the rocky arch, then scramble over that to cross the river on our right."

    This took about 30 seconds to say but sent them reliably half a day's march from town. Other players would spend 30 minutes to go that far. (Remarkably, these same players often sped up considerably when the session had 5 minutes left and they had to get back to town.) There's also commonly an issue with the navigation play where usually it's one player who's doing it and everybody else is just kind of waiting and watching (this is also a highly general problem in D&D exploratory play in dungeons and things like that). To give them something to do I'd often do "flavor" fills like "what are you talking about while you're walking?", but these were also hit or miss due to sessions typically having a hard deadline or 4 or 4.5 hours for some players and they felt a bit like wasted time especially as objectives got farther from home.

    This relates to two more issues that commonly come up: location placement and episodic play re: returning to town.

    Naturally, as you get farther from town (and difficulty gets higher) you'll want to place things farther apart so players can get lost more easily. This leads to a density near town and a sparseness far from town that often leads to an "early game" of frenetic activity in the "newbie area," and then a gradual deadening of the game as it shifts to a phase of far exploration and location restocking. If you don't do this right it can lead to two ill-effects: slumming in the newbie zone as it restocks and having locations that feel disconnected due to their distance from other things. The latter can be fixed through tight narrative ties and designing locations in batches which our location system often (though not always) helped with. But the former I haven't found a good solution for yet aside from steepening the reward/difficulty curve.

    Speaking of the reward/difficulty curve, this is another problem so I'll have to address that before getting to the promised returning to town problem. In general, if you make the characters' power curves, difficulty curves, and reward curves steep, this is good because it rewards good and consistent play. On the other hand, it can also bifurcate your player base and lead to situations where new players have to accompany veteran players to areas they are totally unsuited to and vice-versa. I went with a flatter curve in this iteration and it worked OK. My recent thoughts are that a steeper curve is also OK, but that the rewards should be extra steep so newbies who go to the death zone actually get something worth it out of that. Then you should just be extra-careful about curating your player-base, and perhaps include things that let people restart characters at half their prior level or some such thing.

    Anyway, returning to town was a bit of a point of disagreement between the players and I. I always felt it was a bit of a mess, though some of them disagreed. My perspective is that players tended to push the end of the session to play more (a good thing), but that this often left them with an uncomfortable amount of time to return to town (a bad thing, especially if unforeseen circumstances like a random encounter arose). My solution to this was to simply abstract the return to town as a Defy Danger roll (after all, it was dangerous!) if time compression was ever needed due to player bungling. But they would always beg and cajole me to give them 5 more minutes instead. Some players thought this wasn't a big deal, but I can remember many exasperated session finales where the falling action took longer than planned, and there is a fundamental tension here: do you go back early and risk missing out on extra play time, or do you go back late and risk being obnoxious? One player was adamant that solving this problem should involve a system of "fast travel" to places they were familiar with, but I'm not entirely convinced. We did have a few hooks for such systems in the game, but none of them ended up panning out (like the Wizard's shadow walk spell or whatever that was called). Worth thinking about, I guess.

    Speaking of being fixated, that's probably the last major common West Marches problem. Sometimes players will become obsessed with certain things in the game world, which can be good, but can also be bad -- such as in the case where they're obsessed with figuring out the ultimate secret to a piece of window dressing or in exploring something they're clearly not ready for. In more character-driven games that aren't as prep-forward you can always just roll with this, but in a West Marches game there's not much you can do except tap their head with the cluebat and hope they get it or you're in for some boring sessions.

    Finally, for some reason players who apply to your game as a group of friends who already know each other are nothing but trouble. Perhaps it's a small sample size, but this has consistently been my experience. Especially in an open-table game they tend to form a little clique of their own, and they tend to like fighting the GM on things in ways that ordinary singletons don't. I suppose maybe they feel that their own group expectations have extra heft because there's several of them. Either way, though, would not recommend, no idea why.

    Conclusion

    So, that's pretty much it. Do I see the campaign as a success? I see it as a few steps in the right direction and a few stumbles. What I tried fixing got more fixed, though not always solved. And the new things I introduced to be better than ever also did good things while introducing new problems of their own. Would I run something like it again? Probably, with all the fixes and caveats mentioned (and probably also a hefty helping of trying some new stuff that's as likely to crash and burn the same way a lot of the new stuff in this campaign did compared to the last). Would I recommend it to others? I dunno, read Ben's blog posts and the last 40 pages I wrote and see if it sounds like something you'd enjoy. If so, then I guess I'd recommend it. If not, then probably I wouldn't.

    Ultimately, it's like that model train reviewer said. If you read West Marches or my posts here and go "that sounds awesome!" you'll probably think it's awesome, no matter which approach you take to it. If you read it and go "that sounds kind of obscure and I can't understand why you'd do it that way" then you probably won't find it to be awesome, but rather a lot of confusing and unnecessary work. Some of my players thought the former, others the latter.
  • Thanks for the thorough analysis!
  • Jon, very much appreciated, thank you so much!

    These posts are from the perspective of "was WM good for DW?"; what's your take on the converse Q, "was DW good for WM?".
  • Jon, very much appreciated, thank you so much!

    These posts are from the perspective of "was WM good for DW?"; what's your take on the converse Q, "was DW good for WM?".
    I'm not quite sure how those two questions are functionally different. Would you care to explain a bit more?
  • "We want to do DW… but is WM really the best fit for it?" I think you've answered in a way that makes me say yes.

    "We want to do WM… but is DW really the best fit for it?" I'd rather personally use another rules engine for it. What's your take, in hindsight?
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