Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dungeon World Under the Microscope

Our weekly Pathfinder-to-Dungeon World game continues apace, but that is not enough! I must have more Dungeon World! That feeling started back in July, when I was just starting to get into DW and was looking for ways to cram more play into my life. In my constant daydreaming about DW, it occurred to me that it might be cool to play a game of Ben Robbins' Microscopewhich I had been wanting to try after backing the kickstarter campaign for his next game, Kingdomand use the resulting world as a setting for a Dungeon World campaign. I came up with the idea independently, but of course it turned out I was by no means the first person to do so.

So I knew that I wanted to experiment with combining the two games, but I don't have enough free time each week to fold a second multi-hour rpg session into my life, so I decided to run it as a "play-by-forum" game at brokenforum, one of the handful of gaming boards I frequent. In a play-by-forum game, you don't have to adhere to a tight schedule (we've averaged a post roughly once a day per participant since we began), and players can check in when they have a spare moment here or there. It was open invite, and I capped it at four players. Once we had our group, I started a thread for the Microscope game, and about two months later we had our setting. You can read the original thread here, or just skip to the summary via the Google doc I set up to record our history. As we went along, I started to pull together a Pinterest board of visual reference so we would have a foundation upon which to build our common understanding of the world.

After we had a rough outline of our world's history, we chose a period in which our game would be set. I threw together a list of potential classes, and each player chose one to play. The idea was to have the race and class options evolve out of our setting, and then adapt them to Dungeon World, customizing as we went. DW is eminently flexible, as the profusion of hacks and mods for the system can attest, so with a little tinkering we were up and ready to run. We ended up with four characters who ran the gamut of customization levels, from a Telani Preserver who hews pretty close to the stock DW Druid, to a Wik Deadspeaker, a class we created pretty much from scratch. All of the resulting character sheets are viewable here.

I had it in my head when I started the game that I would make character portraits for the players as a way to get them further invested in the game, and as a little reward for taking the time to indulge in the experiment. So before we could start play I needed to whip those up. I've enjoyed drawing rpg character portraits since the 80s, when I would often spend more time developing a campaign than my high school buddies and I would spend playing, so it was fun for me to do, especially as a way to take a break from the sort of drawing I do for the comic book that comprises one of my day jobs.

So here are the four characters, as developed from scratch to final colored portraits:

Kalil Ru'Hana, Wik Deadspeaker

Tek'Utl, Telani Preserver

Saul Odelo, Archivist Finder

Amulus, Searcher Scout

We started playing the game proper last week, and it's been a lot of fun so far. Two great things I've discovered about GMing a PbF game are that I can post images to supplement the story if I feel like it; and I have more time to consider how the story is going to unfold. What a PbF game lacks in terms of excitement and off-the-cuff improvisation, it makes up for by allowing you the time to think things through. And that leads to a different kind of story, less theatrical and more like a book being read one page at a time.

If you're curious about how the adventures of these four intrepid souls will play out, you can follow the thread here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pathfinding in a Dungeon World

Apologies to the three of you who read the first two installments of my session reports of Adventure on a Dungeon Planet -- the scant few free minutes I have to do things like write blog entries about RPGs are easily eclipsed by any number of other things that can suddenly seem more important. To wit, most of my spare time over the past month has been spent adapting my 1.5-year-old Pathfinder campaign to Dungeon World. Since we had our first DW session of the adapted campaign last night, I thought it would be a good time to post about the whole process.

For several years I ran a weekly boardgame night at the school where I teach, introducing the youth of today to tabletop fare like Cosmic Encounter,  Battlestar Galactica and Fiasco, among many, many others (including a prototype of my own design). This was a great way for me to both get to know some of my students outside of class, and to play games on a regular basis. Twice in the past we took detours into RPGs, once to run through G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief using AD&D rules, and once to start Masks of Nyarlathotep using Call of Cthulhu rules. Although everyone had a great time in both cases, neither lasted more than six sessions due to the usual reasons: people moving away, persistent scheduling difficulty, etc.

Several years after the Call of Cthulhu game ended, some time in early 2012, a group of five students expressed interest in playing an RPG (specifically, they said they wanted to "play D&D"). Three of them had played computer RPGs but had never played a "real" one, and there are few things I love more than introducing new folks to tabletop roleplaying, so I couldn't resist the opportunity. And because I have difficulty doing things in half-measures, I couldn't just run a one-off adventure using rules I already knew. I decided to look into recent versions of D&D, and ended up going with D&D 3.5 as embodied by the Pathfinder system. I did a fair amount of research before I took the plunge, reading about how Pathfinder rules had been extensively playtested, and I was impressed by the sheer quantity of polished product that was available. Due to time constraints and a desire to minimize prep work, I decided to go with a published "Adventure Path," which is essentially an entire campaign that plays out over six 96-page modules/chapters, taking characters from level 1 to level 15. The best-reviewed of the many available Adventure Paths was Kingmaker, which is designed more as a "sandbox" than a linear narrative, and includes rules for the PCs to found and develop their own kingdom in a wilderness.

The initial group consisted of a Half-Elf Druid, Halfling Monk, Gnome Sorceror, Half-Orc Rogue, and Human Fighter. Everyone fell hook, line, and sinker into the game, and for about the first year of roughly weekly meetings we had a great time. Eventually, though, rules fatigue started to plague me. The Pathfinder rules are so detailed, filled with so many specifics and exceptions, that even though we were constantly looking stuff up online or in hardcopy, we were always discovering new little wrinkles that called into question things we had done in a previous session. Now, I have no problem just moving on from the fact that, for instance, the "color spray" spell that stunned a shambling mound the last time we played actually would not have affected it at allbecause, of course, shambling mounds have plant traits, which make them immune to charms, compulsions, morale effects, patterns, phantasms, paralysis, poison, polymorph, sleep, and stunbut the regularity with which we missed this or that tiny but important twist on an existing rule led me to feel like we were constantly in danger of getting things wrong. And the Pathfinder rules create a kind of feedback loop with that feeling, because they try to encompass every eventuality and possibility. For every unexpected situation that arises, for every in-game action the PCs want to take, there is likely a rule that describes it. So you have to hunt it down, and make sure you're getting it right, because sometimes the life of a PC might hang in the balance. On top of this, the kingdom-building rules included in the second Kingmaker chapter are dry to the point of being boring, overly-complicated, and don't appear to have been playtested much, if at all. Over time, although everyone continued to enjoy themselves, my job as GM began to feel oppressive and exhausting.

On off nights, when we were short players, we sidestepped into the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which I had heard about through a friend. DCC RPG was a tonic to merefreshing, exciting, and even relaxing, thanks to rules that rely heavily on GM fiat. The experience took me back to that sense of possibility I felt playing D&D when I first discovered it in 1979, and the desire to document those super-fun sessions (which you can read starting here) led me to create this blog.

Now, of course, I am totally free to employ GM fiat in a Pathfinder game, and throughout our campaign I have done so. But the rules themselves, in their attempt to mechanically model every narrative detail, hamper and discourage it. When situations are "hard-coded" and searchable online, my players can look them up on their iphones and point out that any given ruling I make might be "wrong" according to the official rules. They do it to be helpful, not because they're jerks, and they willingly go along with whatever my final ruling is, but the mere existence of those rules out there creates the niggling feeling in all of us that, again, even if we move on, we did something wrong.

Playing the DCC RPG coincided with investigating the "story game" community, which I had been doing already thanks to my interest in Jason Morningstar's terrific game Fiasco, and a kickstarted comic book project that grew out of that interest. Within that community I quickly learned of a little game called Dungeon World, which in short order replaced the DCC RPG as the off-night game for my group. I was only able to write up two sessions of our initial experience, but not for lack of joy. Dungeon World proved just as thrilling and fun as the DCC RPG, but whereas adapting our Pathfinder campaign to the latter was inconceivable, DW is so eminently flexible that the possibility of adaptation immediately occupied all of my gaming brain cells. After more than a year, my players were fully invested in Kingmaker, but I was at the end of my rope with the system, so I was looking for a way to make all of us happy. Adapt to survive!

So that's what I did. I consulted the Dungeon World Tavern Google+ community, and read as many hacks of the DW rules as I could find to see how other people had altered the rules to suit their needs. I built a custom playbook for each of my six players (the Halfling Monk had moved on, replaced by a Dwarf Rogue, and we had gained a Catfolk Ranger), translating the Druid and Sorceror's Pathfinder spells into DW parlance, then doing the same for their gear and magic items. I experimented with adapting Pathfinder's equipment pricing to DW, but realized it would be too much of a chore since I was working with a published campaign, and would have to convert too much stuff, so I decided to stick with the equipment costs of Pathfinder.

Without exception, the characters ended up feeling like cooler characters, instead of the aggregations of stats and abilities that makes Pathfinder feel closer to a computer RPG than a tabletop RPG. The alignment moves and bonds in particularbecause of the way they allow you to earn XPreally help the characters feel tied to their world and companions. You can see a sample converted character sheet, the Druid's, here.

Next, I had to adapt the kingdom building rules. It was a bit daunting, but I was so unhappy with the kingdom building as it was that I needed to get my hands dirty and see if I could make it more enjoyable. Here's what I ended up with. It's far more involved than anything in DW, and is still too dry, but it's a start. We need to see it in action before making more tweaks, and ultimately I want to make it mesh with DW's steading rules. Right now it's still somewhere in between.

The final step of conversion, and the part that will be ongoing, is converting Kingmaker's NPCs, monsters, and magic items. This part is relatively easy on a case-by-case basis, thanks to DW's elegant and open approach to the "stat block" problem, but all told it's still a lot of stuff. Based on what I've converted so far, I expect that I will probably need to devote an hour or so a week on this stuff, although it is fairly easy to do on the fly.

So I did the conversion work, but I wanted to kick off the first DW session in styleboth to sell my players on it and to get them re-energized about playingso I took the opportunity to make the campaign more my own.

The first thing I did was remake the campaign map in a style that I liked. Pathfinder's maps are fine examples of digital cartography, but they resemble satellite photos more than maps of fantastic lands. Really, they do nothing to spark the imagination. So I looked back to some of my favorite RPG maps, those that Pete Fenlon drew for Middle Earth Role Playing back in the 80s, such as this:

Here's what the map for the fist two chapters in the Kingmaker Adventure Path looks like:

And here, after far too much fiddling with Illustrator and Photoshop, is what our revised campaign map looks like:

Next, I reworked the map of the home settlement that the PCs had founded and built up over the course of two years of in-game time. The previous map I had made looked like this:

And here it is after I added the stuff they built in recent months:

My last "marketing" move was to put together some portraits for the major NPCs the players had come to know. I usually like my NPCs to live in the collective imagination, but the cast of secondary and tertiary characters has grown so large that attaching visuals to them helps me keep them organized, and gives me a concrete starting point when I find myself having to roleplay one of them unexpectedly. And because I've done so much similar work for my boardgame over the years, I can throw together these portraits pretty quickly.

Now, I feel compelled to point out at this point that all of this prep work is somewhat antithetical to the Dungeon World philosophy as presented in the core rules. DW is a game designed to be played with little to no prep; it fosters the idea of world creation on the fly, as an ongoing collaboration between the players and the GM, something to be brought to life in the moment at the table, not bought off the shelf. This is one of its greatest strengths, and unfortunately our greatest loss in the translation of Kingmaker. If it were my choice to make alone, I might throw Pathfinder completely out the window and start a new campaign from scratch, hewing to the DW philosophy. At this point I've run several shorter adventures that way, and they rank among the most fun I have ever had running an RPG. But I have my players to consider, and if this transition works, the DW rules stand a chance of breathing new life into the world of Kingmaker.

As I mentioned at the start of this long post, I ran the first session last night. I handed out the custom playbooks and explained what was different, the main point I emphasized being, "Don't worry about the mechanics, just put yourself in the story and think about what your character would do. Leave the mechanics to me." Then, we picked up where we had left off at the previous session.

A cursed, ravening owlbear assaulted their settlement, and they fought it off with much derring-do. They tried to track it to its lair, but got drawn in a different direction when they caught wind of possible bandit activity on their frontier. They searched for a rabble-rousing bard who had been stirring up unrest among their subjects, following a lead on his whereabouts to a dead-and, and then fought off a shambling mound that assaulted their camp at night. The session ended with their return to Freagol, their home steading.

The whole time I was anxious, not least of all because I had done so much prep work. It was ultimately fine with me if they decided they didn't like it and wanted to go back to Pathfinder, but I hoped that my work would help them see what I saw in Dungeon World. The fights went about three times faster than the same fights would have taken in Pathfinder, but I worried that people were feeling shorted on the opportunity to act; I discovered that juggling six players in DW can be a challenge. By the end of the session, I was so insecure about the way things had gone that I was convinced that they had not had a good time. So to give them the easy out, I said, "So, if you guys want, we can totally go back to Pathfinder next week. I would be totally fine with that."

All at once, they said something to the effect of , "No way, this was awesome!"

And I heaved a sigh of relief.

Earlier, when the cursed owlbear attacked their town, the PCs confronted it atop a watchtower. Wounded and near death, the creature wanted to flee. An idea popped into my head, and I said, "The owlbear turns and leaps from the parapet, back toward the forest from which it first emerged."

Everyone was shocked. "It's jumping off the thirty-foot-high tower?!"

"Right as it jumps, it spreads its feathery arms and you see the vestigal owl wings reaching from either side of its ribcage to its elbows. Miraculously, the wings catch enough air to allow it to glide, slowing the hurtling descent of its massive weight toward the ground."

"What? Owlbears can't fly!"

There was a pause as I considered the relative truth of this assertion.

"Fuck that. We're in Dungeon World now."


Addendum: I've had a few requests for the rest of the custom playbooks. You can see pdfs of them here: Mitharrna the Half-Elf Woodswarden (Druid/Ranger), Kervantes the Human Loremaster (Fighter/Wizard), Mawgrah the Half-Orc Poisoner (Thief), Bilabous the Demonborn Gnome Sorceror, Professor Bismuth the Dwarf Rogue Alchemist (Thief), and Nadara the Catfolk Ranger.