Everwhichway: Valley of the Defiled

Fiction Synopsis: Our heroes must break into a stronghold of apostate halfling paladins to take back blueprints for trap designs. Plans go awry when the same solar eclipse that allowed our heroes to sneak into the stronghold allows something more sinister to return as well.

The social sphere: This particular group’s first D&D campaign had just finished a week or so prior, and we were trying to find a good compromise between the player’s expectations (continuing with the setting and following up on loose threads from the campaign), with my own wanderlust as a GM. Of the larger group, 4 players attended this session.

Another factor at play was that the campaign had initially been set up as being super casual- we played on Saturday afternoons, and it was assumed that a portion of players would miss any given session. As we got deeper into the campaign, it started to look like we had a consistent roster, but winter holidays borked that trend fairly properly. They love doing that.

Attending players: Joseph, Doug, Steven, and Jo.
Absent players: Robert, Shelby, James, and Logan.

System: The system is an intentional pidgin of D&D 5E and Dungeon World, mixed with my own design sensibilities. This iteration favored Dungeon World mechanics, trading out 2d6 checks with a 1d20 and dividing tiers of success as 1-9: miss, 10-16: partial success, 17+: success. We mostly used Dungeon World basic moves, with me creating on-the-fly advanced moves based on specializations described by the players (Martial Arts, Disarm Traps, and Big Bada Boom).

Tone: Light-hearted satire with a touch of pulp heroism. Some mature topics.

Agendas and Analysis

Agenda 1: Smile for the camera
I’ve been recording audio for sessions for years- maybe even a decade- but this is only my second time recording video. Seeing myself move as well as talk is kinda cool from a self-critique position. It’s already started shaping some of my GMing techniques.

I was concerned about the players feeling self-conscious. There’s a screen at the far end of the table where I can see what the camera sees- usually a group shot of the table. To my surprise, the players acclimated to it to the point of almost ignoring it*. By the time the session began, it might as well have not been there except when I drew attention to it (I have it set up so I can project my notes onto it).

They became comfortable enough in front of the camera that I have waaaay more blackmail material than I ever expected to have.

*technical note: the monitor is at the opposite end of the table from me. It turns out that the player’s attention was directed to my end of the table the vast majority of the time. Go figure, right?

Agenda 2: Pidgin System
The group has been playing D&D 5E with a few homebrew hacks. They’ve been patient with me as I’ve dipped my toes into Dungeon World. The result is kind of a bastardized mutt without any pretense of system purity. For example, instead of 2d6, we rolled 1d20; 1-9: miss, 10-16: partial, 17+ succes (the probabilities don’t perfectly align, but close enough that it wasn’t broken). That meant we got to keep 5E’s rolling at advantage and disadvantage.

I’m more or less playing with system in an undisciplined fashion and seeing what parts I enjoy, which parts I might enjoy if I made a more dedicated study of them, and which parts I chafe at.

Agenda 3: Dungeon World moves as pedagogy?
Integrating Apocalypse World style move lists into gameplay fascinates me, especially how it scales with experience. To be entirely unforgiving, the structure of the moves are a bit like having to look up the rule in the handbook each time. But in practice, they don’t feel like that. They’re simple enough to navigate easily, but complex enough that pulling out the list feels like a part of play instead of an interruption of it. It also means that a person can sit down with no knowledge of the system other than the dice mechanic and be able to learn as they go. They don’t have to read the rules because the rules will be presented to them as they’re needed in an unobtrusive manner. That’s cool. I want to explore it.

Agenda 4: Delicious failures
When a player rolled a partial success, the group got one coin. When a player rolled a full success, the group got two coins. When a player rolled a miss, they got nuthin’.

With group consensus, though, any player could spend five coins from the group pool to upgrade a roll by one category- from fail to partial, or partial to success. Or spend ten coins to go from a fail to a success.

I was really happy with how this played out. It seems like it’s popular to reward failed rolls (example: in Dungeon World, you get an EXP for failed rolls). I find it far more interesting to keep failures unforgiving, but to give the players control of when they experience failures. As long as the group had at least 5 coins in reserve, failure was a choice. And I love that. It’s a simple hack that turns otherwise arbitrary dice rolls into interesting choices; instead of randomly depriving player agency, they create opportunities for exerting it. Makes me squee.

Agenda 5: One-shot campaigns
One of the variables I’m playing with on the social and fictional strata is episodic one-shot campaigns. In this session, the characters witnessed the return of a powerful lich. In the next session, a different set of characters discovered the liches’ phylactery. I’m hoping that long term play will be about introducing elements in far flung areas and then slowly bringing them together to solve the problems. Each session, the implied question is “what piece of the puzzle do y’all want to invent this time?”

Agenda 6: Homebrewing Moves
As we go, I’m watching for interesting moments where a player did something that could be translated into a move. In this session, Doug kept wanting to decapitate his enemies. Cool! I’ve written up a move so that when he plays that character again, he has a codified way of doing the thing he was excited about. Other moves so far include “Puppy Dog Eyes” and “Stone Cold Death Glare.”

I really dig the idea of “the first time a character shows up, don’t worry about abilities. We’ll build the abilities to fit the things that emerged during play. Have fun, and we’ll write your type of fun into the contract.”

Agenda 7: Simple Relationship Maps
One thing that started to percolate in my mind in this session, and began blossoming in the one that followed, was a simplified relationship map. Instead of coming up with a full matrix of how each PC relates to each other PC, we pick one character that the others hook into. In this session, the de facto main PC was Yojimbo Valgrim (played by Steven). In the next, it was Kara (a stone-faced officer played by Joseph).

I’m curious if this is a dynamic that just has to emerge naturally- whoever rises to being the central character has to do it organically- or if it’s something I can encourage with structure.

I’ve tentatively included the full session with most of the blackmail-worthy asides edited out. Some of the lewd humor ended up being central to setting development, so it stuck around. If it’s taken down for any reason- we’re still exploring player’s comfort with these recordings- there’s an excerpt here.


8 responses to “Everwhichway: Valley of the Defiled”

  1. See now this is how to do it

    Regarding your filming, I’m grinding my teeth with envy because that’s how I want to be filming things, and I even have two cameras and a conference mike to do it. I’m way ahead on being able to film live play … and way behind for on-screen play, which is the majority right now. Grrr!

    But anyone reading this – see what Ram’s doing? Try it! He’s right, too, that the much-feared inhibitions and artificiality turn out to be no big deal.

    Your “pidgin system” description makes me laugh …

    I'm more or less playing with system in an undisciplined fashion and seeing what parts I enjoy, which parts I might enjoy if I made a more dedicated study of them, and which parts I chafe at.

    … because my name for that is game design.

    I don’t really want to get into a discussion of Moves as they variously apply in actual Apocalypse World or any of the “engine” games. That can get dicey between Vincent and me. I do want to say that in the actual game of that title, one of the most important rules is that a player can announce anything for his or her character to do, and either it’s covered by a stated Move in the rules somewhere, or it’s covered by the all-purpose Custom Move. In other words, you don’t actually even have to think in terms of Moves at all, and can think of Move-specific bonuses or effects as plain old class-specific abilities in classic RPG fashion. So what you’re talking about with homebrewed Moves is right in there.

    I also think that making Moves into a sheet feature rather than a rules list that you have to go to the book for is a major benefit too; to me, that’s the clearest benefit of the design.

    Your delicious failures coin mechanic: THAT is what Tor was missing in his 5th edition game, with their Inspiration rules! That right there! The 5:1 conversion for a useful effect makes all the difference in the world.

    Turning it into a group pool is really interesting. My wicked sweaty self even suggests removing the consensus requirement, much like the resource pool in InSpectres, raising the chance that not everyone might like it when so-and-so blows the five coins from what’s supposed to be “everyone’s.”

    I’m goin’ straight over to my Consulting post with Tor and typing that into the comments.

    Your relationship map thing … well, I’ll intrude, if I do say so myself, as something of a veteran in these matters, with the suggestion that you are on the right track already. First, losing the full matrix which is a highway to the hell of locking-down what everyone knows and wants and oes; and second, letting the map’s (or list’s) particulars, including its central component, emerge by describing what play has produced rather than outlining a directive for how play is supposed to go.

    • Filming Inhibitions. I’m

      Filming Inhibitions. I'm actually starting to think that recording sessions has the opposite effect: instead of being more inhibited, my players have just gotten progressively rowdier and bawdier. The session that followed this one is going up on youtube tonight so the players can look it over- and I have to admit, I find that one a lot more fun to watch. It was almost impossible to edit- so a lot of the jokes ended up staying in the final cut. After editing, the session in this particular post ended up feeling relatively sterile. About half the laughs got cut out.

      I'm hoping to catch up with you on the online play! Launching the current iteration of Dragon Pulp when I did was a stupid move- the entire thing is stupidly time consuming. Stupid, stupid, stupidly time consuming. It's taken me about 3 months to get back up to speed on my freelance backlog. I should be back up to speed by the end of March.

      System design by any other name. Haha… that's entirely fair.

      Apocalypse World Moves. This is one of those areas where the undisciplined fashion of my play has been a hindrance. D&D nostalgia was one of the main hooks for getting the group together, so when I started looking for other things I could use with them, I went straight to Dungeon World without getting a grounding in its lineage. I've made a preliminary reading of the Apocalypse World rules, but haven't read it in a disciplined fashion yet.

      I wouldn't want to drag the dialog into unconstructive places, but if it's already been there, do you have any links? I have ideas for how I want to play with the structure. I'd be curious to see critiques of it.

      Delicious failures. Ah, yeah! Cool! Always nice when something is useful.

      Relationship Maps. Duly noted! I've been trying a handful of variations, but the most consistent theme that's emerged has been "Everyone in the group has X in common, but one of you is the exception. How are you the exception? Everyone else, how do you engage with the exception?"

      The simplest iteration so far has been "you're all in the same military with the same basic training. Which of you is an officer, and why? How do the rest of you feel about the officer?" It feels like it gives just enough structure that the other relationships flesh out during the discussion, and gives just enough points of drama for a one-shot to work with.

    • Tor- Heya! The times that’ll

      Tor- Heya! The times that'll be the most interesting in terms of the currency:

      Where the good stuff starts. Gameplay starts around the 1:00:00 mark. Everything prior to that is character and quest creation- not a lot to glean from it for your immediate purpose. After the hour mark, the mechanic pops up here and there throughout the session.

      Consensus. For questions of consensus, 2:49:00 through about 2:51:30 show a little bit of what Ron is talking about in terms of dropping consensus. I don't have any hard and fast rules about what consensus actually meant- I've mostly been leaving that up to the social strata of the game. Out of the past three sessions, the players have collaborated pretty consistently on spending coins. Your mileage may vary.

      Role in Endgame. In all three of the past sessions I've been using the currency, they've played a key role in the endgame. The players get to the "if we succeed this roll, we win this encounter" moment and spend the coins they'd saved up. Most of our endgame moments boil down to skill checks- if you have attrition style conflicts like combat (e.g. victory comes from wearing down your opponents' health), that dynamic might play out differently.

      In this session, the endgame moment is around 3:13:00. In the session that followed the on in this post, Doug used the coins to win a dance-off against a lich. And in the session I ran tonight, the players used their remaining coins to bargain for narrative control over the epilogue after a Player v. Player encounter ended in a TPK.

      We used plastic gold coins as tokens. The players have been stacking them in piles of five for easy counting. It almost has a Psych 101 positive reinforcement vibe to it, but hey- it works.

      Good luck running the game tomorrow- I'd love to hear if the mechanic works for you, and if not what fell flat!

  2. Okay, so I stole the 5 coin mechanic and this is what happened

    The way it works is similar to the way you describe it, but with some key differences. Every time you roll a success on a d20 I put a token into a central pile (we're using actual poker chips, the heavy, casino style ones, not the cheap, light weight plastic ones). 

    Then, at any point, you can use 5 of these tokens to turn a failure into a success.

    We went with Ron's idea of letting anyone use the tokens, regardless of who was responsible for generating them, and I also broadened the power of the tokens to allow a player to turn an enemie's success into a failure.

    • 5 coins, continued

      Allowing the coins to turn enemy successes into failures made them a lot more powerful. Essentially, as long as you have some piles of coins out there, you're golden. But when they run out? Now you're running on fumes and you better watch out.

      Also, as I mention in the video Ron just posted, we ended up ditching the Inspiration mechanic about halfway through our second session, to no one's complaint.

  3. d20 fail/partial/success

    Hey! Jonathan Tweet did that d20 fail/partial/success in Talislanta back before he was lead designer on 3e …

    My instinct says I'd prefer the coins on failure, but maybe not.

    I love the game description, hope to find time to watch your play soon!

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