You have all been enslaved by the evil Lich Drazhu and his vicious minions! All of you have been put to work digging tunnels to expand Drazhu’s underground lair. You’ve lost track of time, and have no clue how long you’ve been down here. You don’t remember the last time you’ve seen sunlight. You’re starving, thirsty, and malnourished, only getting a tiny piece of rotten food and dirty water if you’ve done your work for the day. The air is thin, stale, and makes you all nauseous from the foul smell of sweat, body odor, and decay. Or it used to make you nauseous; you’ve all been here long enough that you’ve gotten used to the stench. To make matters worse, there are metal gates here etched with magical runes that prevent anyone capable of magic from casting spells. On top of that, the strange magic of these runes make animal companions feel sick and weak. The only thing that has kept you going is that an enterprising dwarven slave, who has since passed, has managed to make a detailed sketch of the complex. A map that is now in your possession…
I basically paraphrased how I opened last week’s foray into running the tabletop role-playing game Dungeon World, an award-winning fantasy tabletop RPG. No seriously, it won some awards, including:
- Golden Geek RPG of the Year 2012
- Indie RPG 2012 Winner: Best Game, Best Support, Best Production
- ENnie Award Winner 2013: Best Rules – Gold Winner.
I thought I’d blog about it for my first post of 2015. First, I’ll go back to the story, as that’s the most important part of the game, then write about my impressions running the game.
So as I’ve said so many times in the past when blogging about RPG’s (usually Dungeons & Dragons), the big damn heroes are:
- Lilly, a female, human bard. Joyous eyes (normally; maybe not so joyous after being enslaved for god knows how long!), rather fit, usually wearing fine clothing and a stylish cap.
- Philo, a male human ranger. Wild eyes and physique, wearing a cape and hood. Accompanied by his animal companion, a snake named Whiskers.
- Sashin Hadib, a male human thief. Shifty eyes, messy hair, knobby physique, and usually wears fancy clothing. Also stands 5’0″.
- Tesla (aka The Artist Formerly Known as Eccentrius; for whatever reason we all had problems saying his name, so he instantly changed his name to Tesla), a male elven wizard. Haunted eyes, wild hair, and very thin, adorned in strange robes.
We take some time establishing how the characters ended up being enslaved. The player’s get to exercise their creative and improvisational muscles here, guided by some choice questions by me. Lilly served as a court jester, and made an inopportune joke about Drazhu’s mother. The next thing she knew, she was working in Drazhu’s slave pit. Philo actually worked for Drazhu as a guide until he was framed for stealing a treasure, the irony of which he was actually after said treasure. His life was spared because the real thief was caught, but enslavement was inevitable. Sashin used to be an information gatherer, but was caught with the Prince’s daughter and his profile was deemed too high. His usefulness in question, he was given to Drazhu, who enslaved him immediately. As for Tesla, he apparently tried to steal books about becoming a Lich (and gaining immortality), from Drazhu. He failed, and was enslaved for his efforts.
So there are two gated areas that lead out of the slave-pit; one leads to an area guarded by Orcs, while the other area leads to the killing pit, a large hole where misbehaving / dead slaves are disposed of. After enduring misery that would crush the spirit of lesser folk, a fortuitous event happens when the ground begins to shake! An earthquake proceeds to cause chaos, destroying the metal gates that forbid magic, and Philo’s animal companion, Whiskers is no longer felt ill. Sashin took this time to heroically…run for the tunnel leading to the killing pit, quickly followed by Tesla. In the meantime, Lilly and Philo proceed to take out the lone Goblin Task-Master, and quickly follow after their companions.
The two happen upon an interesting sight; Sashin and Tesla locked in combat with a giant spider! Philo’s snake Whiskers provides a distraction while Philo manages to use some rope he found to tangle up the spider’s legs. Sashin swings at the spider with a metal bucket he found (and eventually wears on his head), while Lilly does damage with a makeshift club. Eventually, the spider is defeated, and the four search the area for anything useful before proceeding forward. They happen upon a deep chasm with a giant web leading across. Proceeding across the web, the not only encounter no danger, but also manage to find even more useful items, before finding themselves in a tunnel that leads to…Drazhu’s sepulchre.
Interestingly enough, Sashin goes in trying to reason with Drazhu. This turns out to be a mistake, as he is ambushed by Drazhu’s most trusted servant, an Orc Tunnel-Keep. Lilly joins the fray, taking down the Orc while Sashin, Tesla, and Philo take down Drazhu. Tesla casts a magic missile spell to do some damage to the Lich. In a more hilarious moment, Sashin takes out a wand he found earlier, and tries to use it on Drazhu. The wand fails to work, but Sashin doesn’t realize that as Philo fires a scavenged arrow he found and seemingly takes down Drazhu…naturally, Sashin, thinks he slayed Drazhu, though this isn’t entirely accurate, as Drazhu has a second life (like many video game bosses. Think Ganon in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.)
But the party is up to the task, and Drazhu goes down once more, and loot the tomb. Sashin takes Drazhu’s beheaded skull, presumably as a trophy. In an interesting, yet strangely disturbing twist, Lilly starts consuming raw Orc flesh. The party leaves the Sepulchre, and narrowly avoid getting into combat with a small horde of zombies, before getting to exit. For the first time in a long time, the party is nearly blinded by the sunlight, the air is sweet, and the four leave to find clean water, a good, hot meal, and a bath.
To give credit where credit is due, we played a free Dungeon World scenario, the ‘The Slave-Pit of Drahzu,’ written by Jason Morningstar, designer of Fiasco and owner (I think) of Bully Pulpit Games. If that game sounds familiar, it may be that you’ve seen it played on Tabletop. Here are some links:
But I digress; back to Dungeon World!
Things I Liked:
- I’m liking this game a lot! Granted, it’s a rather small sample size, but it’s pretty fun thus far.
- I think my favorite thing thus far is that results of rolls aren’t binary; there are degrees of success worked into the mechanics. When running D&D, I try to work degrees of success into skill checks and what not, at least in terms of the flavor I use to describe things if not mechanically (since it’s not really built that way), but not so in Dungeon World. Here, when you roll, 6 or less is a failure, 7-9 is a partial success / success at a cost, and 10+ is a complete success. It’s working out really well in practice.
- When creating a character, one can choose to use a stat array (no point buy) or roll for stats. When rolling for stats, it’s old school 3d6, not the debate-ably generous 4d6 and take away the lowest die that has permeated modern d20 games. Furthermore, one can roll 3d6 and assign stats or roll 3d6 in a specific order of stats (super-old school!) However, if one does the latter, he / she can opt to change their class after rolling. Two of my players opted for the stat array, while the other two opted to roll for stats and assign them, and it was hilarious how…statistically average they rolled. No one rolled higher than a 12, and no lower than a 7. That’s more or less in line with expectations for rolling 3d6. Go to anydice, and calculate 3d6 to see what I’m talking about. As an aside, anydice is a great tool for any fan of tabletop RPG’s, players and GM’s alike.
- Because we’re finding things out together, and contributing to the story as a whole, it was nice to see the players get to contribute to the fiction of the game. Dungeon World emphasizes / advertises itself as a conversation, and that turned out to be absolutely true.
- It was nice for the players to role-play not only their characters, but the situation they were in, and try to get out of dodge. Due to the direction they took, they ended up having to fight Drazhu, but I like that they got out of the ‘We must clear out and loot every single room.’ mentality that permeates D&D and Pathfinder at the moment. For those that would argue about a desire for revenge, tell me how you feel about that when you’re severely, severely, severely, severely, severely, severely, severely, malnourished and dehydrated. Not to mention lacking the gear you usually enjoy (though the party scavenged several nice items to play with.)
Things I Wonder About:
- I’m not entirely convinced this system is for everybody, but then again, that makes sense. There’s no such thing as a perfect system, and as a wise person once said, different strokes for different folks. I think people who love min-maxing and meta-gaming wouldn’t like Dungeon World as much. It’s not a crunchy game rules-wise, certainly there are far less rules than Pathfinder or fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. This makes the game easier to run, but for those that emphasize player minutia and enormous damage numbers over the narrative, I don’t think Dungeon World would be a good fit.
- I also don’t think it would be a good fit, or at least a good starter game, for players that are incredibly shy or lacking confidence. Placing them in a situation where they must contribute isn’t kind, though I suppose an experienced GM could ease them into the situation as much as possible.
- Also, since we are in fact having a conversation at all times, those with short-attention spans / focus issues or tend to dominate conversations wouldn’t function well in Dungeon World unless they are fully aware of their quirks and can rein them in when necessary. Since the narrative is the #1 emphasis, so much so that it drives game mechanics, constantly going on side conversations / tangents will bring the game to a halt. Mind you, that’s true of any tabletop gaming experience, but I suspect it to be even more true with Dungeon World.
- I’m also not entirely convinced this makes a good starter game for a starter GM, with the caveat that said GM really puts a ton of time and effort into prep. It’s not that Dungeon World is prep heavy per se, as I mentioned there are less rules than D&D. Rather, the GM is controlling the ebb-and-flow of the conversation, and needs to make sure everyone involved contributes to the conversation. I can imagine a brand new GM struggling with this, and letting one person contribute more than another, or conversely allowing very little contribution to be had because he / she feels a need to control what’s going on. Speaking of which…
- It was weird to let go of some of the control I usually enjoy GM-ing tabletop RPG’s, but it was also…kind a liberating. Less to think about, less multi-tasking, more opportunity for everyone to be creative and improvise. It was good…I think.
- I still feel like I’m wrapping my head around the rules and the experience, but I think several more sessions will get me and eveyrone more comfortable with the system. It’s weird to me that I’m not rolling monster attacks regularly. It’s doubly weird to me that I’m not having anyone roll initiative, but strangely enough, the system appears to work…so far.
For me personally, tabletop role-playing games are at their most fun as a shared, cooperative, storytelling experience. Dungeon World emphasizes this by having the fiction drive the game mechanics, which is a rather large paradigm shift for me. I had one player mention this game reminded him of Fate Core, which I own but have never had the opportunity to play. (It’s currently on my bucket list to play / run.) All the players appeared to have a really good time, and we’ll definitely be playing it again. There were two other free scenarios that came with the game when I bought it. Also, the players left a lot of fun stuff to play with by the way they handled playing through Drazhu’s Slave-Pit, so there’s that to consider. In the end, I would say if you would love a tabletop RPG that emphasizes the story, the fiction, over everything else, and the players you run games for are of the same mindset, than pick this one up.
In the meantime, I got permission from two of my players to post their character sheets. I’m just going to post the first page (usually 2 pages, but spellcasters also have a list of spells too.)