Saturday, January 18, 2020

42 Minor Magical Items, Thief Edition

I had just downed a coffee stout and a bunch of cookies last night, so I was feeling both wired and unfocused. That's my perfect state for brainstorming, so I challenged the DW Discord to help come up with 40 minor magical items for thieves.  We got 41 in 39 minutes. (#42 came to me while I was compiling this list.)

Here are the fruits of our tipsy labor. Attribution given for each; if there's no attribution, it was mine.

  1. A vial of ink. When you write something with the ink, say someone’s name. Only they can see the writing.
  2. A worn leather purse. No one ever notices it or pays attention to it unless they see you open it.
  3. Sticky gloves. When you touch something smaller and lighter than your palm, wrap your hand around it and cross your fingers - it sticks until you cross your fingers the other way. (Caiphon)
  4. A pair of gloves. Whenever you touch something magical while wearing them, the magic thinks you’re whoever you last shook hands with while wearing the gloves.
  5. Whisper powder. Spread it around in a circle. Noise made inside the circle is never louder than a whisper to anyone outside the circle.
  6. Letter-opener. First, spread it over a piece of writing like you're spreading butter. Then, open a letter - the opened letter becomes a copy of the original piece of writing. (Caiphon)
  7. Incongruous Hat. While you wear this hat, any stranger who sees you will remember the hat (and your features) differently.
  8. Dagger of Silent Death. This stiletto completely silences anyone's whose flesh it pierces. No more screaming guards! (Marcus)
  9. Sculpting putty. Shape this soft putty however you like, then tap a special tuning fork and touch it (still vibrating) to the clay. The clay sets hard in exactly its current shape, as tough as strong ceramic. Another touch from the tuning fork shatters it.
  10. Thorn rope. Twist one end of this rope, and the fibers become razor sharp, making it deadly to climb up or slide down. (Caiphon)
  11. Second Story Shoes. These comfortable loafers let you jump great vertical distances, perfect for getting to those second story balconies. Warning: they provide no protection from falls, nor do they make it easier to jump down from great heights. (Marcus, w/edits)
  12. Affinity box. Anything you place in the box will be considered extremely valuable and desirable by anyone other than you.
  13. Chewie Manacles. Normal manacles, but they pop open with a guttural command word.
  14. Nightlight. This small lantern glows with a dim purplish light which is only visible to the one holding the lantern. (Marcus)
  15. Sleepytime Flute. Playing a soft tune on this instrument for a few minutes will lull everyone nearby into a light slumber. They're easily awoken, and you feature prominently in their dreams. (Marcus, w/edits)
  16. Fire moth. A little jar holding a tiny, mostly tame fire elemental. Will flit around you and generally go where you please. Doesn’t usually set very much on fire. Usually.
  17. Dominoes Mask. While you wear the mask, you can always ask the GM "How can I get out of here?" and get an honest (though perhaps convoluted) answer. Gain advantage on your next roll (or take +1 forward) to act on the answer, but only if you do so in an audacious or spectacular  manner. (Caiphon, w/edits)
  18. Bug shoes - shoes that allow you to stick to the ceiling, if you can get up there... (Mangofeet)
  19. Deck of useless items. Shuffle the deck, draw a card. Its face displays some unlikely, generally worthless mundane item. Tear the card in two and the item appears in your hand. A replacement card magically appears in the deck, but it will never show the same item twice.
  20. Talk-pick. Place this lock pick in a lock, and spend a minute whispering words of encouragement - it will pick a non-magical lock hands-free. (Caiphon)
  21. Taster Demon. A very small demon, like a grumpy slug with teeth. Lives in a vial. A connoisseur of poisons, it knows them all by taste or scent and will happily tell you all about them. Much louder voice than you'd expect.
  22. Catching mitt. Throw this glove at anything flying towards you, and it will catch it and fall gently to the ground. (Caiphon)
  23. Hand of glory, lesser. A candle made of a hanged criminal’s hand. Carry it while lit, and no one will notice you as long as you move slowly, make little noise, and don't touch anything. (Dialas the Spellbreaker, with edits)
  24. Hand of glory, greater. Carry it while lit, and everyone in its light except you is paralyzed.
  25. Weighted Dice/Rigged Deck. This normal-looking gaming accessory returns whatever result the owner wills. (Marcus)
  26. Trick pockets. Whatever you put in one pocket can be pulled out of the other. Yes, you can remove them and sew them onto different articles of clothing.
  27. Signal whistle. A whistle and earring set. Only someone wearing the earring can hear the whistle. (Toasters)
  28. Listening wire. A spool of enchanted copper wire. Wrap one piece around your ear, and then around your midsection. When you speak the command word, it records the next few minutes of conversation. Each strand can store only one conversation. (Caiphon)
  29. Gem of thought-storing. A semi-precious stone that you can whisper thoughts or memories into. You forget them until you hold the stone and ask for them back.
  30. A deck of playing cards. Playing games of chance with them reveals players' secret plans (via interpreting the cards they are dealt). (Caiphon)
  31. Stubborn twine. Animated, unbreakable, uncuttable. Smart as a three-year-old. Can talk, has many absurd or backwards opinions.
  32. Doorvish Ale. Break this bottle on a door, then drink as much as you can from the spill. You'll cough up a key to the door. (Caiphon)
  33. Purple lipstick, made of powdered oblivion moss. Kiss someone while wearing it and they forget something they were just thinking about. You learn it.
  34. Ear Worm. You put this worm in your ear and it sings a super catchy tune that you can't help but dance to. The benefit comes from the fact that this dance makes you uncannily good at dodging traps and attacks as you bob and weave to the beat. (Marcus)
  35. A pair of corks, each with a different rune. Anything in a bottle sealed by the first cork will seep into the bottle sealed by the other.
  36. Dupli-dice. Anything you place as a bet with these dice is duplicated after the roll. Weighting the dice breaks the spell. (Caiphon)
  37. Shadow gossamer. A small bundle of fine gauzy black silk. Unfurl it and it becomes an area of extra dark shadows.
  38. Ring of 1001 keys. Fits in a pocket, only seems to have like 10ish keys at once, but there are many, many more.
  39. Spy shell. Say one magic word and this conch shell starts to record what it hears. Say another, put your eat to it, and it plays it back.
  40. Passwall Chalk. Drawing a portal (circle, doorway, etc) on a wall creates an opening that persists just long enough for one person to jump through. (Marcus)
  41. Distraction in a box. A little music box. Crank it and leave it somewhere. After awhile, it starts making noises that sound like (roll 1d6): 1. a riot starting; 2. insults; 3. guards calling alarms; 4. a woman shrieking for help. 5. A large animal roaring. 6. GM makes something up. (Dialas the Spellbreaker, with edits)
  42. Swindler's Purse. Finely embroidered with silken thread, in patterns that are never the same. Put something in the purse. When you pull it out, it will appear to be something else of similar size and weight, something of considerable value. You have no control over what it will be. The illusion lasts until you tell a lie.

    -BONUS late addition-
  43. Sleeve Snake. A small magical serpent-construct that hides in your coat or under your shirt. Swallows small objects (coins, gems, etc.) that are slipped up your sleeve. Can spit them back out on command, in reverse order (last item in, first item out).  (Jimmeh, w/edits)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

My Framework for GMing Dungeon World

I've been working on the GMing chapters for Stonetop, and it's made me think about how the conversation really flows. I've also been thinking about GM moves, and Principles and Agenda, and how they all work together. I thought I'd talk about them a little here. 
I don't think that what follows is fundamentally different than what the game text tells you to do. Like, if you read the DW text and the DW Guide, and GM the game enough, I think you end up doing what I describe below. This is just how I conceptualize it, with 8+ years of experience running, playing, and talking about DW and similar games. (This is also pretty similar to what I describe here.)
Maybe you'll find it useful? Maybe a new GM will find this and something will click for them. Regardless, I'm going to be posting some excerpts from the Stonetop GMing chapters over the next couple weeks, and I think this will help set the stage. 
As always, feedback and questions are appreciated!

The Game is a Conversation

You say something. The players say something. You say something in response. You ask questions of each other, clarify, interrupt, talk over each other. To quote Vincent Baker: "you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns, right?"

The whole point of this conversation is to create the fiction, the shared imaginary space that we're all talking about, where the PCs and NPCs and monsters all exist and act. The game's rules mediate the conversation, and help us figure out what happens when there's uncertainty, and help introduce unexpected and challenging elements into the game.   

Dungeon World is (despite what some folks will tell you) is a rather traditional RPG. It structures the conversation and assigns responsibilities and authority in a very familiar way: 
  • The players are responsible for portraying their characters (who they are, their actions, their thoughts and opinions, their experiences and backstory). 
  • The GM is responsible for portraying everything else: the world, the NPCs, the monsters, etc. 
Dungeon World is different than a lot of RPGs because it explicitly encourages (and arguably requires) the GM to ask the players for input on the world, particularly during the first session and about areas where their characters have experience or expertise. But that's not that different than how lots of folks play D&D. (Ever done a session 0 where you make characters, talk about backstory and the kind of setting you want to play in? It's like that, but it's done during play.)

Different groups take this collaborative spirit to different degrees. Some DW GMs are very cognizant of The Line (I know I am) and avoid asking the players to make up details about what their characters are experiencing on the spot. Other GMs will actively ask the players to make up details about the room they've just entered, or the NPC they've just met, or what happens next. Some groups collaborate on where the story should go, and what kinds of scenes they want to have. None of these are wrong. They're just a matter of taste.

The Structure of the Conversation

Here's how the conversation generally goes. Stuff with black outline is stuff you say (or at least facilitate), as the GM. Stuff with a purple outline is stuff the players are saying/doing.

click and zoom for details!
Side note: this is similar to Adam Koebel's "how to play DW" flowchart, but I think this represents more of the conversation that happens during play. 

First: frame a scene. Say (or ask) who's present. Say (or ask) where are they. Say (or ask) when is the scene happening.  Say (or ask) what they'e doing.  Give some impressions. If you're not sure what scene to frame, or how to frame it, then ask questions until you are. 

Once the scene is framed, you establish the situation. Give (or ask for) details and specifics, enough to visualize what's going on but not so much that player's eyes gloss over. In an action scene, establish momentum and relative positions. Tell the characters what they see/hear/sense. Ask questions. Answer questions from the players and clarify what's going on.

Now, make a "soft" move. In my opinion, a soft GM move is when you say something in order to:
  • Provoke action/reaction from the PCs
  • Raise the stakes/tension in the scene
That often means saying that something bad is about to happen, or is in the process of happening, but the PCs have a chance to do something about it. But it also could mean that you're presenting them with the obvious choices and prompting them to pick. Or that things were previously calm and peaceful and now there's trouble. Or that you're giving them an opportunity to act and seize the initiative. Or or or.

It could also just be the slow turning of screws: their torch is getting lower, their food is getting used up, the storm is getting closer, the fire is spreading. 

SIDE NOTE:  Dungeon World's text defines a soft move as "one without immediate, irrevocable consequences.... [Either] something not all that bad... [or] something bad, but they have time to avoid it." And it defines a "hard" move as having "immediate consequences." 
I've never found those definitions satisfactory. The difference between them ends up being differences of degrees. You can almost always find an "immediate consequence" in whatever soft move is presented, and supposedly "hard" moves like deal damage aren't all that bad if the damage die is low and the PC's HP are high.  
I think it's much more useful to think of a soft move as "provoke action or raise the stakes" and a hard move as "establish badness."  There's still overlap between soft and hard moves with these definitions, but they're more actionable. It's much easier to look at the scene and think "how can I provoke action or crank up tension?" than it is to look at the scene at think "how I can say something bad-but-not-too-bad or something that threatens badness but gives them a chance to escape it? 
I'm sure that my definition isn't perfect, either. But it makes more sense to me!

My list of GM moves are similar to those in Dungeon World but slightly different. They are:

  • Announce trouble (future or off-screen)
  • Reveal an unwelcome truth
  • Ask a provocative question
  • Put someone in a spot
  • Use up their resources
  • Hurt someone
  • Separate them
  • Capture someone
  • Turn their move back on them
  • Demonstrate a downside
  • Offer an opportunity (with or without a cost)
  • Tell them the consequences/requirements (then ask)
  • Advance a countdown or grim portent

And the "Exploration" GM moves (which replace the "Dungeon" GM moves) are:
  • Change the environment
  • Provide a choice of paths
  • Bar the way; make them backtrack
  • Hint at more than meets the eye
  • Present a discovery
  • Point to a looming danger
  • Introduce a danger, person, or faction
  • Offer riches at a price
I do NOT think it's important to intentionally pick a move off these lists. I think the point of having a list of GM move is to give you inspiration when you're stuck, or to inspire you to say something different than what you'd say naturally. When you make any given GM move in an actual game, you can often retroactively match it to more than one of these moves. That's fine. It doesn't really matter which of these moves you're making, as long as you're provoking action/reaction and/or raising the stakes/tension.

Your moves should follow your principles. They should begin and end with the fiction, and you should address the characters, not the players and you shouldn't say the name's move. Etc. etc. (More on that below.)

After you make a soft GM move, ask the player(s) "What do you do?" 

"What do you do?" is a ritual phrase. Like, you know how when you're playing traditional D&D and the GM says "roll for initiative," and everyone sits up and starts paying attention? It's like that, but way more frequent. It's the GM's way of saying "your turn." This question drives the back-and-forth between GM and player, and it's a touchstone of good PbtA GMing.

Okay, the conversational ball is in their court. Now what?

If they ask questions--about the fiction, about the rules, about what you just said--then answer them, honestly, generously, and enthusiastically. Then put the ball back in their court: "So, what do you do?"  If they ask something that wouldn't be immediately obvious, tell them so and what they'd need to do in order to get the answer. Then: "What do you do?" (or "Do you?")

If they do something that triggers a player move, like Spout Lore or Discern Realities or Hack and Slash or Defy Danger or whatever, then resolve the move. Begin and end with the fiction.

On a 7+, do what the move says and establish how the situation has changed. If the move prompts you to add some detail or action to the fictional situation, you can use the list of GM moves for inspiration. For example, if they trigger Hack and Slash and get a 7-9 and "suffer the enemy's attack," then their attack succeeds but they also suffer the enemy's attack. That attack can be any GM move, from using up their resources to hurting them to capturing someone to whatever.

On a 6-, then they mark XP and you make a hard move.

If they do something that does NOT trigger a player move, then they're looking to you to see what happens.

  • If they ignored a threat, did something stupid, or did something with obvious bad consequences, then you make a hard move.| 
  • Otherwise, you just say what happens as a result. 

Making a hard GM move means: establish badness. Say that something bad happens, or make us aware of something bad that happened in the past.  Use the list of GM moves for guidance and inspiration, but, again, you don't need to intentionally pick from the list.

Regardless of what they did and how it resolved: ask yourself, is the scene still going?  If so, say how the situation has changed (and recap the situation if appropriate), then go back to making a soft GM, asking "what do you do?" and resolving their action.  Keep doing this until the scene ends.

When the scene is over: wrap it up. Take care of any bookkeeping (using bandages/poultices or the Recover move in Homebrew World/Stonetop; erasing "hold," figuring out how much time has passed, etc.). Have any meta-discussions you need to have as a group, like:

  • Do we want to keep playing? Or wrap up for the night?
  • What should we do next? 
  • What are we trying to accomplish, again?
  • How far is it back to __?
  • Etc. etc.
Figure that stuff out, then frame the next scene. If you're not sure where or how to frame the next scene, ask questions until you are.

To summarize:
  1. Frame a scene, if you haven't already
  2. Describe the situation
  3. Make a soft GM move (provoke action, raise tension/stakes)
  4. "What do you do?"
    1. If they ask questions: Answer, clarify the situation, back to "What do you do?"
    2. If they trigger a move: 
      1. On a 6-, make a hard GM move (establish badness)
      2. On a 7+, do what the move says to do!
    3. If they don't trigger a move:
      1. Did they ignore a threat? make a hard GM move (establish badness)
      2. Otherwise: say what happens
  5. Scene still going?  Return to #2.
  6. Scene over? Wrap it up, take care of bookkeeping & meta-talk. Return to #1.

The Spotlight

As you have this conversation, you'll change who you're addressing, moment to moment. This is often called "moving the spotlight" or "pointing the spotlight." Whoever you're talking to right now is in the spotlight.  

Sometimes you'll keep the spotlight unfocused and address the group as a whole. Sometimes you'll focus it on just one character.  When lots of action is happening simultaneously, you swing it back and forth between individuals and groups.

There's no formal process for managing the spotlight, just like there aren't formal rules for most conversations. The most obvious time to move the spotlight is after you resolve a character's action. Before you describe/summarize the situation, address a different character and describe the situation to them. Make a move at them. Ask them, "What do you do?"

But you can technically move the spotlight at almost any point in the conversation. For example:
  • You ask "What do you do?" and they freeze or stall; shift to someone else, give them time to think, then come back to them. 
  • You ask "What do you do?" and they say that they're going to do something that takes time; shift to someone else and come back to them as they finish their action (or as something interrupts it).
  • You ask "What do you do?" and they describe an action, and it triggers a player move, and they roll. You're not sure how to resolve the results, so you stall for time by shifting to someone else for a bit, then come back and resolve the first player's move.
Regardless of how and when you move the spotlight, be a good facilitator. Try to keep everyone involved. Make sure everyone gets some good screen time and has a chance to contribute. It's generally okay if players jump and interrupt each other, or kibitz, or have their characters act "out of order."  Heck, sometimes a move (like Defend) explicitly gives them permission to do so.  

With that said: don't be afraid to shut down an overly eager or aggressive player with a polite-yet-firm reprimand. “Andrew, you’re being rude. I’m talking to Jamie right now.” 

Principles and Agenda

The Dungeon World text (and almost every PbtA text that I've read) actually leads off with a GM's agenda and principles, before talking about GM moves and how to make them.

I get it. The principles and agenda are important. They inform what you're saying and doing during the conversation. But without understanding the structure of the conversation, they're just like a bunch of Zen-koans that can make the whole processes of GMing really intimidating. 

Here's the thing: your agenda is just what you're working towards. Your principles are "best practices" for getting there.

For Dungeon World (and Homebrew World), your agenda items are:
  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens
Basically: it's your job and responsibility to portray the world, and it should be a fantastic world, filled with magic and monsters and all that jazz.  It's also your job to keep things exciting, and give the players interesting, dangerous, exciting stuff to do. And finally, it's not your job to decide what happens in advance.  

That last agenda item--play to find out what happens--is, I think, the most important one. It's the one that shows up unchanged in almost every PbtA game that I can think of. It covers a huge range of approaches. Some GMs take it to mean: "do almost no prep, ask a bunch of questions, and improvise everything with the players."  Other GMs take it to mean "prepare interesting situations--tenuous and unstable, dynamic and fraught--and see what happens when the PCs interact with them, following the dice and the PC's decisions, respecting your prep and the integrity of the fiction."  Both approaches are valid and great. So is just about everything between them. What's truly important is that you avoid forcing the game into your pre-established storyline or your expectations of how things are "supposed" to go. 

Side note: the agenda items for Stonetop are...
  • Portray a rich and mysterious world
  • Punctuate the PC's lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens  
The differences are subtle, but important for Stonetop. It's much more grounded setting, and while there are fantastic elements, the mundane elements are equally important. And while the bulk of play focuses on the PCs' adventures, those adventures are interruptions to their day-to-day lives. 
"Play to find out what happens" is, notably, unchanged.  

Now, what about the principles? The principles are just your guidelines, your best practices, the things you should strive for. 

Some of them are really quite easy to do. Like, these principles are just establishing protocols for your part of the conversation. They're pretty easy to do:
  • Address the characters, not the players
  • Make a move that follows
  • Never speak the name of your move
Basically: talk to the characters in second person, rather than talking about the characters in the third person.  Don't make wacky shit happen just because you can. Don't announce the name of your move when you make it, because that's dumb and sounds weird and doesn't add any value. Once you've internalized them, these principles are easy easy to follow. 

Another set of principles is basically just "things that will help you portray a fantastic world:"
  • Draw maps, leave blanks
  • Embrace the fantastic
  • Give every monster life
  • Name every person
  • Think offscreen, too
These take a little effort, and represent a mindset, but they're basically just good advice. Draw maps, and prep a bit, but don't go nuts--leave yourself space to improvise and be surprised. Be cool with fantasy tropes, make your monsters more than just numbers, and try to make your PCs's interesting and memorable and actual people. Think about what's going on offscreen, and how that might come into play onscreen, because this is supposed to be a whole world that we're playing around in and not just a little bubble around the PCs. 

If you fail at any one of these principles, the game won't, like crumble. It'll just be a little flat.

Then there's the last set, the ones that I think are critical for running an excellent game of DW. They're also the hardest to do consistently and well. They sometimes conflict with each other.
  • Ask questions and use the answers
  • Be a fan of the characters
  • Think dangerous
  • Begin and end with the fiction
Like, thinking back over the years of DW-related conversations, these four points are the core of most GM's struggles. 

Ask questions and use the answers is one of the most radical things about DW (and PbtA games in general), because it pushes you to collaborate with the players in a way that D&D and other more-traditional RPGs don't. There's a real art to this: knowing where to ask questions and what questions to ask; how to phrase the questions to get interesting results without letting the players stomp all over your prep; recognizing which players enjoy this sort of thing and which ones don't; changing the nature of the questions based on the player or the amount of prep you've done or how much the world is established.  It's not easy.

Be a fan of the characters is fucking crucial, but it also bumps up against all sorts of GM instincts. Like, here's my favorite recent example (from reddit/r/dungeonworld):
My player's bard has a dinner date with the bad guy. How do I not reveal who he's secretly working for if the bard decides to be Charming and Open? 
The scenario: This is my first time running a game and I'm running an intrigue-based campaign. One of the party's contacts/quest-givers is a demon, disguised as an affable & handsome gentleman, whose goal is to further the designs of the city's overlords. He's trying to get the party involved in a scheme he's running. The rest of the party is interested in the money/items he's offering to get them involved, but the bard said he was only interested in dinner with quest-giver/demon. Since the demon is a bit of a flirt and is happy not to part with his items, he, of course, agreed to this. 
As the DM, now I'm realizing that my player may be thinking of using their dinner as a time to be Charming and Open and ask the demon who he's working for. I should have seen this coming, but I am not a smart man, so I didn't. Is there any way I can keep the intrigue going if the bard decides to ask who he's serving after being charming and open on a lovely dinner date?
The answer (which pretty much everyone gave) is "be a fan of the character" and let them enjoy the benefits of their move.  Don't be precious with your secrets and your storylines, and play to find out what happens.  This GM took the community's advice to heart and ran with it and was delighted with the results, but the whole episode speaks to how difficult it can be let go and let the PCs be the badasses that game wants them to be.

At the same, "be a fan of the characters" can also be used to justify just giving the PCs everything they want, or letting them walk over the opposition, or act without consequences. It is, I think, the principle that most often conflicts with other principles--especially the next two. 

Think dangerous is the DW version of my favorite principle from Apocalypse World: "Look through crosshairs." Basically: don't protect your NPCs, your monsters, your institutions, or the status quo.  In Stonetop, I call this "let things burn." 

Regardless of how you word it, I think this concept is crucial to making the world wonderous (or rich and mysterious), filling/punctuating their lives with adventure, and playing to find out. It's a mindset that requires effort and intention to develop. It's basically a discipline of non-attachment, applied to the fictional world you're creating. 

It's hard. Pretty much everyone has an instinct, a very natural instinct, to preserve their darlings, and preserve the player's darlings (because you want to be a fan of them, right?).  But you have to threaten the things the PCs care about, and then be willing to follow through on your threats. You have to let the PC's wreck your shit and upend the status quo. You have to let them one-shot the dragon, if the fiction and their moves and the dice all say that should happen.

Anyone who's done serious fiction writing will tell you that you have to "kill your darlings."  But if they're honest, they'll also tell you that this requires an act of will.  

Okay, finally, we've got this guy: begin and end with the fiction. There's a ton say about this, but this principle is basically what turns this...
“You attack the ogre? Cool, roll Hack and Slash. A 10? Do you evade its attack or deal extra damage? Okay, roll your damage +1d6. 7 damage? It’s still up, and it hits you back for 1d10+3 forceful, knocking you down. It's going to attack you again. What do you do?”    
...into this:
“You attack the ogre? Cool, what’s that look like? Stabbing upward into its gut? Yeah, sure, roll Hack and Slash. A 10+? Do you evade its attack or deal extra damage?  Okay, roll your damage +1d6. 7 damage? Okay, so like you said, you like stab up into its gut and it goes in but not all the way, and the ogre like doubles over, howling in pain, but before you can get away it just uncoils and backhands you across the face. Take 1d10+3 damage as you go flying and land in a heap, head spinning. You hear it lumbering towards you, grunting in pain and anger. What do you do?” 
This isn't just an issue of style or fancy language. Without establishing specific fictional details, the game starts to break down. A player says they do something that doesn't make sense based on what you're picturing. Or they do something that they thought was simple and safe but you think is Defying Danger, and now their salty about it. Or you invoke a player move, and they roll, and you aren't sure how to resolve it because the details aren't there.  

Beginning and ending with the fiction is how you decide what to do when the rules aren't clear. It's how you determine which PC actions are possible, and what moves they trigger (if any). It's how you decide on a GM move to make. It's how you keep everyone on the same page. It's arguably the single most important thing to do as the GM.

And it is hard. You have to juggle dozens of inputs, from the players, the dice, the moves, your prep. You have be able to visualize a fictional world and think through how it would react to different inputs. You have to communicate that in a way that is clear and accessible and evocative to your players, without overwhelming them or boring them, usually with only your words and your gestures and maybe some crude drawings or props.  You have to be able to inhabit NPCs and monsters and portray them, making them do things that make sense based on their instincts, wants, needs, knowledge, perceptions.  

Oh, and you have to decide when to ignore (or change) previously established fiction in order to support other principles (like be a fan of the characters or ask questions and build on the answers). You have to learn what sorts of things to prep and what to improvise, based on your own skills and abilities and weaknesses.   

Some GMs are naturally gifted at working with the fiction. Others really struggle with it. Some are gifted in one area but weak in other (I myself can run action scenes pretty effortlessly, but struggle with compelling NPCs).  I maintain that this is a skill that can be developed, worked on, improved. 

Which brings me to...

GMing is a Practice

I'm quoting myself, but:

After each game, think back on the decisions you made, the things you decided to say. Run those things against the game's proscribed agenda. Did you say or do anything that violated the agenda? Try to avoid that next time.

Look at the principles.  Did you say or do anything that violated them?  Think about what you could have done instead. Think about what adhering to that principle might have looked like.

Look at the GM moves. Think about your major decisions, the things you said to prompt action from the PCs or to raise stakes/tension. Can you match each of those things to one or more of the GM moves?  Were there any decisions you made, where you could have done one of these other GM moves instead? Keep that all in mind for next time.

The GM's agenda, principles, and moves are just ways to codify and describe good GMing.  Some GMs adhere to them closely and intentionally make their moves from the lists. Some GMs keep the principles constantly in mind.

But the core loop of the game is this:  Describe the situation. Give the players something to respond to. "What do you do?"  Resolve a player move or say what happens. Repeat.

And then look back on your work and see how you could have done better.

GMing is a practice, like yoga or martial arts or meditation or painting or whatever. You get better at it by doing it, by reflecting on it, by constantly trying to do better.  No one starts off as a maestro. Don't be afraid of being bad or mediocre or less than excellent.  Do the work. Show up. Get better. Get good. Get great.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Step-by-step: how to write up a front

This post was originally a conversation on the Dungeon World Tavern back in Google+. Bryan Alexander said "Let's talk about Fronts and Dangers and Grim Portents... you start!"    
Later in the conversation, Bryan said "Honestly, I'm struggling a bit with understanding it myself. I've reread the chapter three times now and it isn't really clicking. We are three sessions in and while I have several ideas and things that tie into each other--I’m not quite sure how it is supposed to come together in terms of how the book says to do it."
And, yeah... Fronts are one of the chapters that folks in the DW community regularly point to and say "this could be easier to understand."  So here's my answer to Bryan, regarding how to proceduralize it.  Maybe you'll find it useful, too? 

From 20 Dungeon Starters (Marhsall Miller, Mark Tygart)

After your first session (or maybe two):


1) Look at the fiction already established, and identify the dynamic actors, the people or things that will move forward and adapt and pursue an agenda: the rival adventurers pillaging the dungeon; the abusive lord looking to increase his power; the goblins trying to defend their home. Each is a Danger.

2) Look for fragile, untenable, unstable circumstances. Like a crumbling dungeon holding a slumbering terror, a village simmering with resentment at its abusive lord, a disease or curse poised to sweep through the land. Each is a Danger, though maybe not yet active. Consider putting a “face” to each of these dangers, like the rabble-rousing matron who’s had enough or the spirit of the restless priest-king buried in the tomb.

Impending Doom & Grim Portents

3) For each Danger, ask yourself: what’s its trajectory? If it gets going and runs unchecked, what’s the irrevocable bad thing that will happen? That’s you impending doom. (If the list of dooms in the book help, great! If they feel confining, forget them!)

4) For each Danger, plot out 2-4 “steps” along the way to that impending doom, your grim portents.

Don’t go into a lot of detail, but these should be observable, concrete things. Things that the PCs can see, or get word of, of otherwise be affected by, and (this is crucial) react to and possibly prevent.

“Lord Douchebag doubles the taxes,” then “Lord Douchebag’s goons start ransacking homes for ‘hidden wealth'” and then “Lord Douchebag’s goons burn down a few houses and kill a few holdouts” and then “Lord Douchebag’s reign of terror: killing anyone who question him or try to flee.” All leading up to the doom of: “the villagers are brutally enslaved, famished, hopeless and forlorn.”

Tip: if you aren’t sure about 3 or 4, pick the danger type that best matches and look at the GM moves for those. That’ll give you ideas for how that type of danger can act, the types of things they can do! Use those to write your Grim Portents and Impending Dooms.


5) Optional: Add names and personalities to the dangers. Who is Lord Douchebag’s right hand? Which of the goons is having second thoughts? Which of the townsfolk is colluding with the Lord? Which ones will stand up to him and take the brunt of his fury? (This is the Cast.)


6) Optional: Ask yourself some questions, things you aren’t sure about but would like to find out in play. Will Balfur's conscience get the better of him? Will any of the Stouthearts survive? Don’t answer them yet, leave them out there as open questions! These are your Stakes Questions. They aren’t critical to making the whole thing work, but I find that they add a lot of depth.

Tip: avoid making your stakes questions the equivalent of “will the impending doom come to pass?” You already answered that. The impending doom will come to pass if no one does anything about it. Stakes questions should (IMO) be smaller, more personal. How will this affect this individual? That sort of thing.

In play, put your stakes questions on screen! Frame a scene that puts the question front and center, where the PCs can witness it and maybe do something about it. Then do one or more of the following:

  • Let the PCs decide. "You can see Balfur's not happy about how this is going. You might be able to sway him. What do you do?"
  • Let the dice decide.  "Sounds like Parley, using his conscience as leverage against him. Roll it!" (and follow where the dice lead)
  • Let the NPC decide, based on their instinct and established fiction and so forth. (Yeah, you're still deciding, but you're doing so with integrity rather than whim.)  "Look," Balfur says after the player rolls a 7-9, "I hear what you're saying, but I'm Lord Douchebag's sworn man, and his father was always a righteous ruler. You give me some proof that he's behind his father's demise and we'll talk. But until then," he swallows hard and sets his shoulders, "I've got taxes to collect."  (this based on Balfur's instinct of "to do his duty").
  • Let things simmer.  If a scene fails to resolve the question, or doesn't resolve it definitively, that's fine. Move on to something else and loop back to these stakes later.  

Using Fronts in Play (by Alfred Rudzki)

Once you've got your fronts prepared, how do you actually use them?  Here's a comment from Alfred Rudzki that I think is spot on:

So the thing about Fronts is that they don’t provide mechanics and I think that’s where some people get tripped up. They look at the Fronts and the Dangers and go ‘but what does it do?’ and the answer is nothing.

Remember how early in the book, you’re told role-playing is a conversation? Take that literally, and consider that Fronts are note-taking. You’ve done your reading — some Tolkien, some Salvatore, some Martin, your own game — and now you’re scribbling on notecards, organizing your ideas, bullet pointing what you think, scrawling out your own educated guesses and conclusions, and then you’re getting in front of your audience and you’re going to invest your ideas in the discussion. And if your audience is grooving or has something else they want to talk about, you go off notecard, and you address what they want to talk about — but you’ve got the cards ready so that if the crowd is happy to follow along, you’re not unprepared.

That’s what Fronts are. You use them by talking about them, nothing more. The players show up, you all sit down… none of them say anything, they’re waiting for you to start. Where do you start? Look at that Front. Okay, you’re thinking something with a menace in the woods and a key and some mines would be rad. How do you get from A to B? Okay, better talk about that thing in the woods. And then you go, “After many days walking, you pass through the deep, dark woods…” or whatever. You take your notes, and you make them into conversation. They’ll say stuff back to you, and you’ll ad lib. You’ll respond, you’ll have fun, they’ll respond… and then you’ll freeze up… oh man what should you do now? Bam, look at your Fronts. Tell the players something else relevant to your notes, or ask them to fill in the blank for you, and keep going. This is how Fronts work. Fronts are just “I think this thing would be cool, and I think it might do X Y Z, and maybe here’s a custom move I should use.” That’s all they are.

They don’t have mechanics, because you already know all the mechanics: players trigger a move and roll, you make moves when they miss or look to you for an answer. Those moves you’re making — the hard ones, the soft ones, the ones because they fail, and the ones because they did something you have to respond to — are often going to come from your Fronts, and they’re not going to come about because of any special device that catapults them form your notes onto the stage, but because you will be expected to speak and you will have done your homework to keep things moving quickly and cleanly.

Have you ever worked in theatre? Between scenes, when the lights are out, we move the setpieces and the props and change the costumes. Nothing on the stage does any of that, we have to do it by hand but we have a plan for how it all has to be moved around. Your Front is your plan for how you would move pieces around if left to your own devices. When left to your own devices, go ahead and follow your plan. When the players do something wild, when you have a sudden inspiration that is killer, go with that instead… the Front is just notes, just ideas, just suggestions for when you freeze up or are put on the spot.

That is what all the Dangers and Grim Portents and all of that are about: they’re about having something to say, and never being at a loss when the players are engaging with your content. If they decide they want to do their own things… well, that’s fine because your prep is just some ideas and you’re willing to ignore it/cannibalize it/repurpose it/approach it differently, and because your prep comes from your perspective. It doesn’t presume anything the players will choose to do, right? That’s how the Moves and Grim Portents and all of that works. Its what the people you control will do.

So, like you know — based on your ideas, from your notes — that you want the PCs to get on the trail of these keys. So, you need to remember to talk about these keys or reveal some instance of these keys. So maybe when you stat up your Dark Elves, you give them a move “announce the vengeance they’ll rain down on their enemies once they have the Key.” Then, during play, if things get heated, and you’re distracted, you have a note right there: Oh, hey! I almost forgot to announce that, yeah, that’s what I’ll weave in right now. And maybe the player’s don’t bite and they go off and do something else. That’s fine! You haven’t forced them into a course of action.

Similarly, Grim Potents, which are bad events that will come to pass without PC involvement, and you use those to update your status quo and illustrate what is coming to pass, to let your players know that “bad stuff is going down.” You narrate a Grim Portent coming to pass, but its something your bad guys are doing, and it doesn’t rely on forcing or assuming the PCs to do X Y Z. The fact that all of your prep is focused on your guys is how you can use your Fronts/notes to run the game and still let the players do whatever they’re going to do.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

More noodling on Stonetop's gear & inventory system

We've now gone through about a dozen sessions with the current version of Stonetop's inventory system, and I'm... dissatisfied.

I'm leaning strongly towards something more like what I'm using in Homebrew World, something like this:

Some background... how'd we get here?

The gear lists (and how PCs acquire gear) have always been an important part of the game. The core conceit of Stonetop is that you're the heroes of a small, isolated, fantasy iron-age village. "Adventures" usually mean going out into the world to do something on the town's behalf. 

As such, I've always had three important goals for Stonetop's gear (and related systems):
  1. Tie the quality of the PC's gear to the prosperity and fortunes of their village. In other words: the PCs don't get better gear because they buy it with their ill-gained loot; they get better gear by building up their home town.
  2. Emphasize and establish the setting through the "material culture" of the town. Spears and shields should be the norm; steel is rare and valuable; candles and lanterns are luxuries for most folk; stuff is heavy; coin is uncommon and not how most trade gets done. 
  3. Include scarcity and meaningful resource-depletion, as a driver of player/character decisions. E.g. they might need to turn back from a mission because they get too beat up and/or run out of food, ammo, supplies, etc. 
To those ends, the village itself gets a playbook.  It has stats, mostly derived from the original Dungeon World steading rules. Like so:

There's an involved mini-game in how these stats all interact, but the relevant ones are:
  • Fortunes determines the general morale, luck, and mood of the town. It changes frequently, ranging from -3 to +3. 
  • Surplus represents the food in the granary, the water in the cistern, the extra wealth spread out throughout the town. It accumulates in Summer and Autumn, and gets taxed in Winter. It also gets used for civic projects, like building a palisade.
  • Prosperity represents the overall level of wealth, technology, and goods available in the town. It changes slowly, if at all. Higher Prosperity means that the PCs should have access to superior gear.
The original gear and inventory system was quite similar to standard Dungeon World, and it worked like this:
  • Each PC had a Max Load, determined by their class and STR (typical ranges: 8-12). 
  • Each item had a Weight, usually 0-2, rarely higher.
  • Each class had a starting set of items, usually 1 "good" item and ~3 standard items. Things like rations and adventuring gear weren't included, because...
  • When the PCs would Outfit for an expedition, they'd roll +Fortunes. On a 10+, they'd get 6 items; on a 7-9, they'd get 3; on a 6-, nothing. They could get +3 items by reducing the town's Fortunes by 1.
  • Items were split into lists, corresponding to the steading's current Prosperity. The items you got from Outfitting had to come from your current Prosperity List, but you could "trade down" 3:1. E.g. if the steading was currently Poor (-1) and you got a 7-9 to Outfit, you'd get 3 Poor items, or 2 Poor items and 3 Dirt item, or 1 Poor item and 6 Dirt items, etc. 
  • Most of the Dungeon World classics were there: adventuring gear, bandages, poultices, ammo, etc. Generally speaking: stuff on the higher Prosperity lists was lighter or just better. 
  • Weapons and armor, too, with crappy stone/copper stuff on the Dirt list, iron/bronze spears and arrows on the Poor list, and "serious" weapons on the Moderate list.  
Oh, here's an early draft if you're interested.

This system... worked.  But it had problems:
  • As in regular Dungeon World, players often wouldn't count their Weight vs. their Load. Counting 6-12 items, each with a different Weight value just doesn't work for people. They won't do it unless you force them to. 
  • The Outfitting procedure was painful.  
    • "Okay, so we'll be gone for 4 days and there are 5 of us... so we need 20 rations... that's... just over 3 picks of Porridge. Porridge is on the Dirt list, so that's just 1 of our picks. We've got 2 Poor items left... does anyone need a cloak? Or arrows?"  "I need adventuring gear." "Okay, that's a Dirt pick, so we've got 2 more Dirt items and a Poor item." 
    • Some players would inevitably glaze over. Others would knapsack-problem it. And then they'd figure out how to distribute the gear among PCs. It could easily take a party of 4 over half an hour to figure this crap out. 
  • There was no incentive for folks to "travel light." 
  • Rules were hidden in the gear descriptions. Bandages and poultice were the biggest problems here, but also whisky, probably some other stuff. If you didn't think to look for it, you'd miss it.
  • Adventuring gear somehow never got used up. Rope, I guess? But the different "levels" of adventuring gear rarely seemed to come into play.  When it did get used, it was often for things like "I'm out of bandages, but I've got adventuring gear. Can I use that?"

Consolidation and slots

I started tinkering with consolidation a while ago, looking for ways to consolidate the "expendable" gear: adventuring gear, rations, bandages, poultice, even ammo.

I also started to think about "inventory slots" instead of Weight vs. Load. Slots are a much better user interface: you can visually process how "full" your inventory is with slots much more quickly and easily than you can add up a series of numbers and compare it to another number.

Meanwhile, Blades in the Dark came out and blew my mind with the "loadout" thing. In BitD, you pick a Light, Medium, or Heavy load. That has fictional implications, but also gives you X items, which you can declare at any point during your job. It's great!  Gets you into the action with minimum fuss, but still provides grabby fiction and meaningful decisions.

Problem is... Blades is all about short-term jobs that (usually) take place in the city. Scarcity and resource depletion aren't really a factor. Dungeon World and Stonetop share a core conceit of "leaving civilization and traveling through/exploring dangerous places," and scarcity and resource depletion are an important part of that.

Combining all three ideas (consolidating expendables, slots instead of Weight vs. Load, and the Blades in the Dark "loadout") got me to the system I initially used in Homebrew World.

Homebrew World's original take on loadout (for the Fighter)

You've got slots, differences between "unencumbered" and "encumbered" (normal) and "clumsy".  You've got consolidated expendables with "Supplies" and "More supplies".  You've got gear lists specific to the playbooks, and quick methodology for deciding what and how much you have.  

It worked okay, but not perfectly. The Out of... mechanic was weird. When you needed to eat, or tend to wounds, or expend ammo, you could either expend 1 use of Supplies or mark "Out of __".  Likewise, you could produce small items by marking "Out of [that kind of item]."  This was obscure, not-very intuitive, and too forgiving.  

The other big problems with this approach is that slots don't work very well when they are pre-filled (or partially filled).

For example: in the image above, suppose that the player decides that, for their 2 choices, they want "More supplies" and "Healing potion".  Cool!  They haven't selected that slot with the "Shield... or crossbow", so it's technically available. They expend 1 use of Supplies to produce a rope. It goes in that last empty slot, under "More supplies." Later, they want to produce a pickaxe.  It could go in that unused slot with the shield/crossbow, but that slot doesn't look empty. They'd have to write over it, which is unintuitive and annoying.  

Another example: they use up "More supplies".  I just looted a jeweled skull, can I put it in that slot?  The slot is technically now empty, but the check-box is already ticked, so... can I put this skull in there?  (Yes. But, again, unclear and clunky.)

This would get exacerbated in Stonetop because the you're regularly re-Outfitting and the gear available would change over time, and (unlike Homebrew World which only expects to see the characters through only one adventure) the heroes of Stonetop would often accumulate stuff over time.   

Also: the consolidation of expendables goes against some of my design goals for Stonetop: emphasizing the material culture through specific gear, and having gear quality dictated by the town's Prosperity.  But I liked the slots (with differing levels of encumbrance) and I liked the define-your-gear-as-you-need-it aspect. And that got me to...  

Stonetop's current gear system

It's described in detail here, but in short, it looks like this:

When you Outfit, you... 

  • ...decide if you're bringing a Light Load (3 slots, quick & quiet), a Normal Load (6 slots), or a Heavy Load (9 slots, noisy, hot, slow, quick to tire).  
  • ...pre-populate as many of those slots as you want, either from the appropriate prosperity lists or your personal possessions. 
  • ...can choose to leave any (or all) of those slots as undefined ("?") for now, and fill them in during play (again, from the prosperity list or your personal possessions).

You can also use the Trade & Barter move (as you Outfit, or in the field as a flashback) to try and acquire better items (stuff off the higher Prosperity lists).

Note that you can produce small items more-or-less at will. There's no limit beyond "be reasonable" (and the Prosperity lists/personal possessions). Everyone can have a tinderbox, and some whisky, etc.

Part of this approach also meant tweaking with the gear lists themselves. In particular, things that were previously small items got grouped into "[]" items (things that take up a slot), but with more uses.

This system works pretty well. I think it'd work quite well for something with a less-defined gear list, like a modern-day game where everyone more-or-less knew the types of things you could produce, or a generic Ren Faire style fantasy game with anachronisms all about.

But for Stonetop, I continue to see problems with the Prosperity lists and the subtle differences between types of gear. For example, here are the 3 lowest (and most available) gear lists:

At the start of play, players can freely take things from the first two columns, and can Trade & Barter for things in the 3rd column. Plus, every player has a couple personal possessions from the inside of their playbook.

Notice all the subtle differences in similar gear:

  • Porridge (Dirt list) gives you 12 uses per slot but requires cooking (fire & water), vs. Provisions (Poor list) which gives you 6 uses per slot but is prep free.
  • Rotgut vs. Decent whisky are both good for burning, easy nerves, dulling pain, etc. (and thus a good resource to use when you Recover). The only real difference between them is how many times you can use them before they cause a debility. Oh, and fine whisky (Moderate list) has no such limitation and also can be used for advantage on a Parley.
  • How much does it matter that a wooden shield (from the Poor list) is crude, vs. a bronze/iron shield (from the Moderate list) that isn't?  (Answer: only as much as your GM pays attention to the quality of your shield. I.e. quite possibly not at all.)
  • Compare light sources:
    • Rushlights (6 uses, hand, crude, small) on the Dirt List 
    • Oil lamp (area, close, crude, requires oil, small) on the Poor List. "Oh, you have an oil lamp? It's small, but did you bring lamp oil?" 
    • Lamp oil (6 uses, [])  on the Poor List
    • Candles (6 uses, close, [])
    • Lantern (area, reach, requires oil)..."Hey, do you have oil?" "Crap."
  • Stone/copper spear (close, thrown, crude, []) on the Dirt list vs. Iron/copper spear (close, thrown, []) on the Poor list vs. Steel spear (close, thrown, 1 piercing, []) on the Moderate list.
  • Remedies (5 uses, slow, []) on the Poor list vs. Healer's kit (5 uses, slow, []) on the Moderate list. The healer's kit grants advantage and restores an extra 5 HP. 
  • A cloak (warm, []) vs. thick hides (1 armor, warm, crude, big [][]) on the Poor list, vs. a boiled leather cuirass (1 armor, []) on the Moderate list.  Sometimes (like in Winter) you want warm, sometimes (like in Summer) you don't.  Does the crude on the thick hides matter?  Remember, those hides are big [][], so they can't go in any of your first 3 slots.
  • Bow, short (near, 2h, []) on the Poor list vs. Bow, long (far, 2h, []) on the Moderate list, but don't forget to bring Arrows (3 ammo, []), of either stone/copper (crude, on the Dirt list), iron/bronze (Poor list), or steel (1 piercing, on the Moderate list). 
So when deciding on my gear, I need to:
  1. Know how many slots I have available
  2. Look at the lists of gear that I can choose from
  3. Find something that looks right
  4. "Are there better versions I could get? How are they better? Is it worth me Trading & Bartering to get that?"
  5. Are there any related things I should make sure I have? (i.e. you need arrows for your bow; you need oil for your lamp/lantern)  Do I have room for them?
  6. "Oh, it's big [][]? I guess I have to move some stuff around."
  7. "Oh, it's small, so that doesn't go into a slot?"
The fact that you can put off declaring the specific items until you actually need them is good, and helps, but come the moment where you Have What You Need, and suddenly you need to parse all of this and hope you don't make any mistakes.

Like, I think the system works, but it requires a lot of system mastery and attention to detail. In my home game, I'm finding that the same folks who would take point on the old Outfit procedure (X choices off of Y list, trade down at 3:1) are the same folks who grasp this new system and interact with it. Meanwhile, the folks who were overwhelmed by the old Outfit procedure are mostly still overwhelmed by this.  Which means that it's not working. 

Also of concern: in our home game (in which I'm a player, not the GM), we've recently reached Moderate prosperity.  And now that we're there, I'm seeing how much of a quadratic boost it is.  Everyone can produce spears and arrows that are 1 piercing; every time we Recover, we're using a healer's kit and getting back 10 HP instead of 5 HP, or rolling with advantage to treat an injury. 

And my favorite:  everyone can reasonably claim to be carrying a flask of fine whisky (it's on the Moderate list), but that means our party of ~12 (6 PCs + the Marshal's crew of 6 followers) can produce 12 small Moderate-value items that are well-established as trade goods with other settlements. 12 Moderate items is 6-12 handfuls of silver, which is 2-4 purses of silver. Basically at will! Compare that to just 2 sessions ago, where having 9 flasks of fine whisky was a Big Deal and let us make an important trade deal with Gordin's Delve.

(On the plus side: when everyone saw that the Moderate list included "Hound [alive]: A good dog" they all freaked out with joy.)

Meanwhile, in Homebrew World...

Further playtesting of Homebrew World, and reports from folks who had played it, led me to try something even closer to the Blades in the Dark approach.  After a couple iterations, we got this:

from Homebrew World's Thief playbook

No more slots. You mark up to a certain number of ◊ on either specific items or "Undefined." During play, you can move marks from Undefined to specific items or slots, and fill the slots with common, mundane items.  

Two of the ◊ items on every playbook are "Supplies" and "More Supplies" (each with 3 uses), which (per the original Homebrew World rules) consolidate most of the expendable stuff: rations, bandages, poultices, etc. They can also be spent to produce small items, but not full-sized items (those require using Undefined ◊).  

The specific items are tailored to each playbook. For example, only the Thief has "Throwing knives" and a "Disguise kit". The Thief doesn't have any "Serious weapons" or "Heavy armor" or a "Shield" but the Fighter and Paladin do. These customized pick lists allow me to suggest things about each class's capabilities and skills, and prod creativity. The player with the Thief might never have thought about impersonating the prince, but hey, they can have a Disguise Kit... let's try this!  

In play, I've found that this approach works really well. People quickly seem to grasp the Undefined aspect, and have fun using up Supplies to make small items (personal favorite so far: the young-and-eager Paladin producing a pamphlet, to give to the rather genial ghoul he'd been chatting up about natural philosophy).  

Another thing that I'm really happy with: look at how ammo is handled on the Bow & Arrows or the Throwing knives.  Instead of "(Ammo 2)" they've got "([] low ammo  []out of ammo)".  What Dungeon World GM hasn't had to explain that, no no, it's not 2 shots, it's 2 times that you can choose "Reduce your ammo by 1?"  (And it always felt a little off to me to have Volley depleting Supplies.)

Now, this approach does lose the UI benefit of "slots." But I'll say that counting a small number of filled-in ◊ is much simpler than adding together the Weight of a bunch of different items.  

Oh, and I originally started with something like "light load = up to ◊ x3" and "medium load = up to ◊ x6" and "heavy load = up to ◊ x9".  But in the end, I didn't think it was worth it for Homebrew World.  The character archetypes in Homebrew World are very specific, and we don't expect to see characters for more than one adventure, so it felt like unnecessary complexity. So, some playbooks get more ◊s than others, and a couple playbooks have options to increase their ◊, but that's it. You're under your max load, or you're encumbered. 

Where I think I'm going with Stonetop

Let's consider my goals for Stonetop's gear and inventory systems again:
  1. Tie the quality of the PC's gear to the prosperity and fortunes of their village. In other words: the PCs don't get better gear because they buy it with their ill-gained loot; they get better gear by building up their home town.
  2. Emphasize and establish the setting through the "material culture" of the town. Spears and shields should be the norm; steel is rare and valuable; candles and lanterns are luxuries for most folk; stuff is heavy; coin is uncommon and not how most trade gets done. 
  3. Include scarcity and meaningful resource-depletion, as a driver of player/character decisions. E.g. they might need to turn back from a mission because they get too beat up and/or run out of food, ammo, supplies, etc.

    Having playtested the game quite a bit, I think I need to add:

  4. Make it easy to use: limit the need for system mastery and cross-referencing; consolidate the information as much as possible; avoid traps and gotchas, get PCs out the door and into the field as quickly as possible.
  5. Don't break the economy: getting to Moderate prosperity shouldn't cause some sort of crazy ripple effect.  

To those ends, I'm considering something much, much closer to the current iteration of Homebrew World, something that looks like this:

New Stonetop inventory insert: working draft

Unlike Homebrew World, every class uses the same sheet (and it's a full 1/2-page insert, as opposed to the HBW sheets where it's a 1/4 page and embedded in the playbook). 

This consolidates ammo into the bow & arrow option; it consolidates oil into the lamp and lantern. Thus, avoiding "gotchas".

It consolidates expendables into Supplies, so there's no more "Porridge" vs. "Provisions" vs. "Remedies" vs. "Healer's Kit." Instead of limiting which of those items are available, the steading's Prosperity influences how many uses you can get out of each ◊ of Supplies, and how effective the Recover move is:

When you spend a few minutes to catch your breath and tend to what ails you, expend 1 use of Supplies; you or your patient recovers 5 + Prosperity HP. You (or your patient) can't benefit from this move again until you lose more HP. 
..<plus stuff about treating a debility or problematic wound>. 

Historically, the difference between Porridge and Provisions usually came down: Porridge gives you more uses, but requires fire & water & time.  Provisions are a good snack.  That's replaced by having this:

 ◊ *Mess kit (requires fire/water; use fewer Supplies to travel or Make Camp).

And something like this:

When you settle in to rest in a dangerous area, answer the GM's questions about your campsite. Each member of the party must consume 1 use of Supplies. If you use a ◊ mess kit (with fire and water), you only need to consume 1 use of Supplies for the whole party.  
...<stuff about recovering HP etc. after a eating your fill and getting a few hours sleep>

The beauty of this: the first time the PCs Make Camp, they'll encounter this rule and it'll prompt a discussion about "Does anyone have a mess kit? Do we start a fire?" etc.

Also, Supplies get used to produce small items (in addition to X + Prosperity "free" small items). That puts an actual limit on the number of small items a character can have.  (Though I'm not actually sure that this is necessary, and might drop it.)

Now, this approach will lose some of the "material culture" aspect of the previous gear systems, in that we no longer specifically track porridge vs. provisions and copper vs. iron vs. steel weapons. But... I'm okay with that.  It preserves (and arguably enhances) the material culture by giving players pick lists that establish technology levels and what goods are commons. This gear sheet tells us that, yeah, everyone in Stonetop can have have a spear and a shield, or another weapons that's also a practical thing like a hatchet or hammer or a mattock or a staff. A rope and a blanket and a pair of gloves? All legitimate things that you might have with you! A block & tackle? Maybe, if the steading's prosperity is good!

The steading's Prosperity continues to affect quality of gear in a couple different ways:

  • Prosperity adds uses to your Supplies, and the Recover move (which uses Supplies) is more effective. 
  • Spears, arrows, and mattocks get X piercing , where X = Prosperity.  This reflects improved materials and craftsmanship (and, hey, maybe more time to practice). Oh, and if Prosperity is Dirt (-1), then it means all the weapons you can pick are crude.  
  • Prosperity limits which things you can pick when you Outfit or Have What You Need.  You can't "just have" a mattock or a cloak if your town has descended to Dirt. You can't "just have" a leather cuirass until you get the town up Moderate. 

They'll can still produce common, mundane items that aren't on the list, but the most common things (rope, blanket, a shovel, etc.) are already there. Again, making things easier, and reinforcing the material culture.

A lot of the things that used to be on the Moderate or higher lists--like serious weapons (a longbow, a flail, a warhammer) or bendis root or fine whisky--will now be Special Items. Special Items will have a specific description, a typical cost, and availability. You can't produce those on the fly, you'll have to Trade & Barter for them. That should prevent PCs from producing infinite stuff that can be sold for valuable coins.

I did keep the "light load = up to  x3, normal load = up to  x6, and heavy load = up to ◊ x9."  I didn't like it for Homebrew World because that game's scope is much more narrow. I felt like it was important to keep that option of granularity in Stonetop. In play, the light/normal/heavy load has definitely come up a lot, and driven decisions.

This stuff isn't set in stone, and I'll likely continue tinkering with a bit. But it's the direction I'm definitely leaning. Some issues that still need to be worked out:
  • How many uses of Supplies is "right"? I defaulted to 3+Prosperity, but that seems maybe too low? But too much, and scarcity mechanics cease to apply.
  • Will people be able to easily track their  when there are so many items on the sheet?  It works well in Homebrew World because it takes up half as much space and there are a lot fewer specific  items.  I'm worried that it won't be as easy to tell what you've got with this.
  • Do I really need to limit the number of small items they can have? Does the limit on "*" and "**" items (by Prosperity), and the fact that you can't sell this stuff for anything more than coppers (see below) do the job well enough?
  • What exactly will the Special Items list look like? How will I set prices and availability?
  • How will the PC's starting possessions work with this? For example, how do communicate that the Lightbearer can start with a "** Lantern" as a personal possession, and thus Outfit or Have What You Need to produce it, even though the steading's Prosperity wouldn't allow it. 
  • How exactly will coin work with all of this? 
    • I'm thinking that you won't be able to sell the "standard" items for anything more than coppers. 
    • And I think I'll just say that coppers and silvers are on fundamentally different scales (i.e. it doesn't really matter how many handfuls of coppers you have, no one is going to sell you a sword for copper, or trade you silver or gold for it.)  
    • Silver and gold will become relevant with "Special Items" and work more on the level of steading Surplus.
  • Most importantly: will this still be fun?
So, more tinkering ahead!  If you're still reading, good on you.  I'd love to hear your thoughts and get your feedback.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Online Version of Homebrew World

I just finished creating an online character keeper for Homebrew World. Check it out!

Current online version

You'll need to save your own copy in order to use it. Instructions on the first tab (GM Stuff). 

The main action happens on the PCs tab: there are columns for each class playbook, with the intention that you'd collapse the unused classes and have everyone's character sheet visible on one widescreen monitor.  Or, close to everyone's sheets... if you're doing 3 PCs it'll probably work. 4+ and you'll have to do some horizontal scrolling. 

Lots of vertical scrolling will be involved no matter what. I have my doubts about how usable this would be for folks on a mobile device, but for a laptop or desktop with a widescreen monitor available, I think it'll be a pretty solid solution. 

I've tried to preserve most of the "functionality" of the printed playbooks, including pick-lists and the layout of the Gear sections. Aside from collapsing/expanding groups, I'd advise against making any changes that trigger the "You’re trying to edit part of this sheet that shouldn’t be changed accidentally" warning.  Don't insert rows or columns, don't copy/paste anything.  It's fairly brittle, unfortunately. 

If you use these, please drop a line in the comments and let me know how they work for you and your group!

Monday, June 17, 2019

How to handle "boss" monsters in DW

I originally posted this on the Dungeon World Tavern, in response to Lauri Maijala asking: 
"How do you handle wizards etc. 'boss monsters' that do not have a cohort of minions to keep the characters busy. I have failed constantly with them and feel like even three characters can take out any single threat without too much of a trouble."
The Dungeon World community at large is pretty quick to say "read the 16 HP dragon" article (content warning: passing reference to violence against children) when someone asks about making monsters more than just their numbers.  It's a good article, but it doesn't really tell you how to do those things; it shows you a high-level example of those things in action. 
It's on my "someday maybe" list to write up a fictionalized "actual" play example of the 16 HP dragon incident, showing how that scene might have actually played out, with moves and rolls and GM deliberation. 
But until then, here's an attempt at some specific, actionable advice for running "boss" monsters. 

Step 1: Stat the boss monster up, hardcore

Use their moves, special qualities, and potentially their lair and gear to make them hard to get at, able to interrupt player actions, and capable of dealing with multiple foes at once. Bonus points for moves that take PCs out of the fight without actually killing them.

E.g. qualities like “Aura of will-sapping menace” or “Hidden by swirling shadows.”  Moves like “Reveal a preparation” or “Unleash a spell of death and destruction” or “Turn their minds and fears against them.”

For a spellcaster/magic-user, maybe think a little about the specific spells they can cast, or at least the nature of those spells.  Try to word that into your moves (“Unleash a deadly spell of fire and flame” is better than “Unleash a spell of death and destruction”). Or, make a list.  But if this really is a big bad, don’t feel constrained by the list. Think of that list as giving yourself permission to do those things, but maybe they can do other stuff, too.

if it helps, find a badass picture that helps you visualize the BBEG

Give the baddie armor and HP by-the-book. The danger doesn’t come from the numbers, but the numbers keep you honest and make you play to see what happens.

Yes, this means that a solid blow from the Fighter or Paladin will quite possibly one-shot them.  (Consider the number of times Conan murdered a sorcerer by just effing throwing furniture at them.)

Here's an example, by the way, of the kind of hardcore stat-up that I'm talking about:  the ancient vampire lord.

Step 2: Show Signs of an Impending Threat

On the way to the big bad, drop hints of what its capable of. Build it up.  Have the party encounter the remains of a village, burnt to cinders with charred skeletons all about, a strange untouched spot in the middle where the sorcerer stood.  Share rumors. Show the big bad’s minions cowering in fear.  That sort of thing. 

If they you've built up some respect for the big bad by the time they encounter it, the next few parts will be much more effective.

Step 3: Reveal Unwelcome Truths, Tell Consequences & Ask

When the fight actually starts, use the big bad’s qualities and traits to block or counter the PCs moves. 

When the Fighter rushes in to attack, the sorcerer glares at him and his “Aura of will-sapping menace” kicks in. Describe the Fighter’s fear welling up like nothing he’s felt before, his hands shaking, his arms and feet frozen, unable to move, what do you do?  Probably, he’ll Defy Danger against his own fear and doubt.

When the Ranger takes aim and shoots, on a 10+ you reveal the flame ward surrounding the sorcerer. The arrow bursts into ash.  On a 7-9, if the Ranger chose to draw danger or attention, you also have the sorcerer gesture towards him and unleash an expanding wave of fire, coming at the Ranger (and the Cleric next to him) like a wall, what do you do?

When the Wizard starts casting a spell, tell him that he can sense the big bad’s powerful wards in place, like there’s a contingency spell ready to bounce back at him. Do you keep casting?

When the Thief sneaks around to backstab, the shadows themselves reach out and grab him, choke him, ensnare his arms, what do you do?

Block and interrupt their moves with the big bad’s defenses. Ensnare and bog down the PCs with the environment and its preparations.  React to any opening in their moves with disproportionate force, affecting as many PCs as seems plausible (and remember that "plausible" for this big bad is well beyond what's plausible for most foes). 

Step 4: Keep Up the Pressure

When it’s your turn to make a move (because they rolled a miss, or a 7-9 on DD or H&S, or because they chose to Defend or Spout Lore or Discern realities and thus ceded the initiative, etc.), go big.  Unleash a power word stun that hits everyone in the scene. Conjure a meteor swarm that blasts half the battlefield and sets buildings aflame and causes walls to start crumbling.  Summon a 12-foot tall fire elemental that's rushing straight at the Thief and the Fighter.

Whatever move you make, make it something that multiple PCs have to react to.  Ideally, make it something with consequences beyond damage, something that will continue to plague them and escalate the situation.

Step 5: Encourage Lateral Solutions

Once you make it clear that a straight-forward approach is doomed to failure or at least prohibitively costly, the players will start getting creative. Reward that! 

If they Spout Lore or Discern Realities, give them good stuff on a hit (but remember: keep up the pressure and fling something nasty at them when they pause to assess the situation or wrack their brains). 

If they come up with clever solutions, make them Defy Danger as appropriate but otherwise let the solution work! 

Step 6: Follow the Numbers

If the PC's get past the big bad’s defenses, identify a workable plan, and maneuver to a place they can take advantage of it, and they get a solid hit in… cool! 

Be a fan of the heroes.  Let their blow have an effect.  If it does enough damage to drop the baddy, drop him.  They worked for it, and they won.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Defy Danger, Restated

For Homebrew World v1.5, I've rewritten Defy Danger as follows:

I've been thinking about this move a lot the past few weeks, inspired largely by this post on the Gauntlet Forums, but also this old post from the PbtA G+ Community

I think the salient points of those conversations boil down to:

  • Defy Danger's trigger is incredibly broad and thus can arguably be triggered by just about any action with a modicum or risk
  • The move itself doesn't necessarily prompt players to say or do interesting things. It just serves as a fallback task resolution mechanic.
  • It sort of gives license to players to try ridiculous things, with the presumption that on a 10+ it'll work with no consequence. 
  • The 10+ result doesn't really do much to change the situation. It more deflates tensions ("phew") than pushes the game in a new direction. 
  • It'd arguably be more interesting if the move wasn't there at all, and when a character did something risky or dangerous that otherwise wasn't covered by another basic move, the GM presented a hard bargain or ugly choice, or just say what happened and follow up with another soft move, escalating until move is triggered.
I can see where a lot of where this is coming from. I do think it's easy (especially for newer GMs) to over-invoke Defy Danger, calling for a roll when the stakes aren't very interesting (I know I've done it).  I think it might be nice if the move somehow encouraged more dynamic or surprising outcomes (the way that Keep Your Cool does in Monsterhearts 2e) or at least more interesting actions (e.g. if "I dodge out of the way" wouldn't trigger it, but "I duck under his blade and dart inside his guard!" would).  

This revision doesn't get all the way, but I'm not entirely certain that any revision could get there without significantly restructuring the game. The move is simply doing to much. Instead, I'm going for: 
  • A clearer trigger
  • Better descriptions of when to use each stat
  • A more reasonable 10+ description
  • A 7-9 result that provides better guidance

The trigger

So, here's the original trigger for Defy Danger:
When you act despite an imminent threat or suffer a calamity, say how you deal with it and roll.
And here's mine:
When the stakes are high, danger looms, and you act anyway, roll...
This is basically just rephrasing "when you act despite an imminent threat," but I think it's better because it clarifies that the stakes need to be high before the danger matters. If I'm walking a tightrope, there's an imminent threat that I fall off it. But if it's only 5 feet off the ground and no one's chasing me and I'm not trying to impress anyone and I can just try again... well, whatever? Don't roll. Right?

For experienced players and GMs, I don't think this would change how or when Defy Danger gets triggered. But for newer players and GMs, I hope it will at least push play in the right direction, towards high stakes and danger looming and awesome characters acting anyway, rather than toward... skill checks, I guess. 

You will notice that this version of the move doesn't have anything like the "suffer a calamity" clause that the original version does. Mostly, it's because I don't think it's necessary.  If you suffer a calamity (your arm is cut off, you fall down a slope, your caught in a gout of dragonfire, you're poisoned, whatever), then whatever you do next, the stakes are almost certainly high and danger is almost certainly looming.  I.e. you're going to Defy Danger anyhow, unless you just lay down and die.  So why do we need this move?

A couple folks I talked to suggested that the "suffer a calamity" cause is there to determine just how bad an injury or other calamity is.  Like, if you get stabbed by a poison dagger, Defy Danger with CON to see how badly the poison affects you. 

To which I respond: meh. I guess if your GM move was Deal Damage and you knew the enemy had a poison dagger, that maybe would make sense and work?  But Deal Damage is a Crap Move, and in HBW it's replaced with "Hurt Them."  If my move was "Hurt Them" with a poisoned dagger, I'm going to hurt them:  "That cut on you arm is burning, way worse than it should, and you start to feel your muscles seize up, your vision is going blurry... you've been poisoned, you're sure! What do you do?"  And then whatever they do next, the stakes are high and danger looms, so Defy Danger, yeah?

That stat descriptions

In the original Defy Danger: 
...say how you deal with it. If you do it...
  • powering through, +Str
  • getting out of the way or acting fast, +Dex
  • enduring, +Con
  • ...with quick thinking, +Int
  • ...through mental fortitude, +Wis
  • ...using charm and social grace, +Cha

In this version, it's:
...and you act anyway, roll...
  • +STR to power through or test your might 
  • +DEX to employ speed, agility, or finesse
  • +CON to endure or hold steady
  • +INT to apply expertise or enact a clever plan
  • +WIS to exert willpower or rely on your senses
  • +CHA to charm, bluff, impress, or fit in 

It's mostly just a rephrasing, but I think these do a better job of reflecting how the stats actually get used. For example, every GM I've ever played with has called for DEX to Defy Danger by moving silently or hiding in shadows... even though it isn't covered by "getting out of the way or acting fast."  It would be covered by agility or finesse.

On a 10+...

In the original Defy Danger, the 10+ clause is:
On a 10+, you do what you set out to, the threat doesn’t come to bear.
I think the wording is pretty weird, but the real problem, I think, is that implies that a 10+ is consequence-free: "the threat doesn't come to bear."  I haven't seen it much myself, but I can easily imagine that leading to declarations like "He swings the club at me?  I just grit my teeth and take it!" with the assumption that a 10+ means he'll be fine and shrug off the blow.

Now, obviously, this is the sort of place for player-level conversation and GM moves like tell them the consequences and ask.  "You're just gonna take the hit?  I mean, okay, but you'll be Defying Danger with CON and it's gonna be like d8+3 damage even if you get a 10+. You sure?" 

But it'd be better if the move itself tempered expectations. Hence:
On a 10+, you pull it off as well as one could hope.
I guess you could get into some annoying conversations like "well, I can hope for quite a lot!" But at the very least, it's setting an expectation of "within reasonable limits."

On a 7-9...

In the original Defy Danger, the 7-9 clause is:
On a 7–9, you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

Okay, first of all:  "stumble, hesitate, or flinch" has always been my least favorite line in any of the basic moves. It describes a fictional outcome, and then implies that said fictional outcome leads directly into the worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice. Well, first of all: stumbling, hesitating, or flinching doesn't make sense as a fictional outcome in many of the cases that involve Defying Danger.  I mean, yeah, you can make it fit, if you really try to. But it's work. And in my experience, when I've tried to keep stumble/hesitate/flinch in mind, it's actively made it harder to come up with good, interesting results that are still fundamentally a success.

The "stumble, hesitate, or flinch" clause makes a lot more sense in Apocalypse World's Act Under Fire move. But that move is all about keeping your cool, as opposed powering through/acting quickly/all the other ways to Defy Danger. And even in AW, the example 7-9 results ignore the "stumble, hesitate, or flinch" part and just go straight to worse outcome/hard bargain/ugly choice.

So: gone. It's actually been gone from both Homebrew World and Stonetop from almost the beginning. 

More importantly:  the "worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice" part of the move has never felt like it offered particularly good guidance to GMs.  The number of G+ conversations, Reddit posts, conversations on the old Barf Forth forums, etc. that have stemmed from that phrasing are numerous. 

My take on it has always been:

  • Worse outcome: you do the thing, but the outcome isn't as good as you'd hoped. 
  • Hard bargain:  "You can do it, but..."  Basically, tell them the cost or the consequences and give them a chance to back off.
  • Ugly choice:  They do it, but it doing it, they have to pick between two or more consequences or costs.  
The distinction between "hard bargain" and "ugly choice" is fuzzy, and not necessarily helpful to the GM.   Also: it's easy for a new GM or player to read "worse outcome" as "worse than you when you started" and not "worse than what you were hoping for" and that's not right at all. It's important to remember that a 7-9 is still fundamentally successful. 

Both the hard bargain and the ugly choice involve costs or consequences, or maybe a lesser successes.  So... why not just say that? But there's still value in those "you can do it, if" and "well, you can do it, but either __ or __."  That led me to this:
On a 7-9, you can do it, but the GM will present a lesser success, a cost, or a consequence (and maybe a choice between them, or a chance to back down).
This wording:

  1. Establishes that they can do the thing (fundamentally a success, right?)
  2. Replaces "worse outcome" with "lesser success" (clearer, reinforces that that it's still fundamentally a success)
  3. Puts the cost or consequence right in there, in plain language
  4. Keeps the possibility of a hard bargain or ugly choice. 

In summary

I don't think this really changes Defy Danger significantly. I hope that it makes it clearer, and easier to use, and helps set appropriate expectations.