Some of my best RPG moments

This is the first of a series of two posts related to PbtA games that I wanted to post here on Adept Play after some discussion with Ron in the Adept Play Discord server. There has been some negative discussion and criticism of this family of games (which are, really, all standalone games sharing some vocabulary and a vague design philosophy, and declared inspiration from Apocalypse World). I want to bring some positive examples of play that maybe we can analyse to better understand where some of these games shine.

As the first post, we will focus on what is maybe one of my best RPG moments. This happened way back in 2013 (or 2014? I’m probably getting the dates wrong), a little bit after Dungeon World had just been released. Caveat: given the amount of time passed, my recollection of the events is incredibly fuzzy, I don’t remember the character names, and I mostly remember the salient moments (but that’s kinda good, because those are what I want to focus on).

This campaign was played with the gaming group I had kept through high-school, as I was starting university. What we had played was mostly a heavily-drifted version of D&D4E, which looked similar to what ended up becoming 13th Age. I was keenly aware that the game we were playing was not incredibly conductive to the experience we were trying to have, so we were constantly trying some other stuff, only coming back to D&D because of the lure of dungeonpunk fantasy — I’m actually still really into the 4E aesthetics. This group had played Dogs in the Vineyard in the past, so we understood what the “story-fun” meant, and wanted to get it again, but on different terms.

So, I bring out Dungeon World and we start this campaign. I think this game really shines in the first-session worldbuilding phase. I (playing the GM) bring all of the playbooks (classes) printed out for everybody, and we get-a-choosin’. IIRC it was a Warrior, Paladin, and a custom Monk class I had scraped off the Storygames forum. Players build their stats and choose their bonds with each other, I ask a few questions about the bonds to establish party relationships, ask to each character a few worldbuilding questions related to their alignment and class, and we begin in medias res as the players were attacking the keep of the main rival of the Monk’s order. I remember us being very happy about these characters and their relationships with each other and the world.

Moment #1. Dwarf freefall fight

We are exploring the unmapped dwarven tunnels leading to the dwarven underground capital. The Monk, a dwarf, meets his historic rival (an NPC he had established during first-session worldbuilding) in these tunnels, leading to a confrontation between our party and the rival on top of a slim bridge of rock over a seemingly bottomless pit (Mines of Moria vibes). The confrontation is about to escalate, and I Put Him in a Spot: I don’t remember what exactly the threat was, but the other PCs were facing significant consequences. Then the player declares “I pull Rival out of the way and throw him into the well”. I think this triggered Defy Danger, which failed and I brought my hard move upon him: “He drags you with him, and you start falling down the well together. What do you do?” (Turn his move on himself; Separate the characters from each other). What followed was an awesome freefall fighting scene where we managed to hit almost every basic move. The PC eventually won the fight and killed the rival, at great cost for himself (he got some scars from that). This was remembered as a great moment.

Moment #2. Dragon joyride

Paladin and rest of the team was fighting a dragon, who was doing flamethrower flybys over a beach where the party was standing. The Paladin player manages to grab the dragon’s attention, lure him to the ground, and grab onto its scales while it lifted off again. Some Defy Danger rolls happened here, most at 7-9 result which I decided to use to start inflicting damage to the player and burn his resources, while still giving him the successes the dice had earned him.

Player ends up basically riding the dragon in-flight, while trying desperately to get to its weak point, which he had determined to be under the belly (through Discern Realities roll). At some point I tell him (I really like to do this): “Your HP is running pretty low, are you sure you want to keep fighting him? Another damage roll and you might be toast”. And he says: “Yes. I don’t want my friends to be hurt”.

Remember, I can choose when to inflict damage on a 6-, so I still have control over the pacing of his probable death; but I’m trying my best not to pull punches (this is a mantra I often tell to new DW players, “don’t fear the hard move”): if I don’t inflict damage, I make something else significant happen that he really wouldn’t like, like making the dragon perform another flyby attack on the PCs left on the beach (they were fighting someone else in the meantime). In any case, the player manages to exploit his +3 Strength score to get enough successes to fictionally get to the weak point and start dealing large amounts of damage through Hack & Slash to the dragon. At the last roll, 7-9 result happens, and big damage roll is incoming for both. “You push your sword deep into the dragon’s flesh and find his heart. The dragon shrieks in anger, and grabs you with his right claw, lobbing you to the ground.”

Damage roll happens, and both of them reach 0; the dragon crashes somewhere in the distant ocean, while the player triggers the Last Breath move. A 7-9 happens, and I present him with a deal from Death: “you can survive, but you will have to betray your order and start serving me”. The Paladin player is super hyped and decides no, that he wouldn’t do that, and accepts death. We hold a funeral for the character and he drafts up a Dashing Hero for the next session.

The character’s death was completely the player’s own choice, and he did that because because of what person the Paladin was and what he wanted to do, and I loved that. At many points of the fight, there were chances to retreat. I really really loved that moment.

Moment #3. Monk capture and execution

This was our second-to-last session. The Monk had been captured by his order’s enemies and was tied up in a chair, being interrogated. The other PCs were desperately trying to infiltrate the keep to free him. The interrogation brings him in a confrontation with the monastic order’s biggest enemy, a local warlord which was getting more and more powerful. He starts interrogating the Monk for the secret location of his order’s temples and threatening him with a knife on his throat. The player won’t betray his order and starts insulting the warlord.

Me: “You know that he’s got a knife on you, right? If he cuts your throat like that, there’s no damage roll; you just die.”
Monk Player: “Bring it on.”

So I declare my hard move (when a Golden Opportunity arises): the warlord’s knife slits his throat, and he is left lying on the ground to die.

The player meets Death, and rolls 7-9 on Last Breath. He gets the same deal I offered the Paladin. Death says: “I will return you to life, but your mission is now to convert your order to worship me”.

Player accepts. The other PCs find him miraculously healed in the interrogation room, and break him out. But he’s a changed man now, and his alignment turns Evil, with a new trigger. Session ends.

In two out of three cases I mentioned when the Last Breath (death) move came into play. In my opinion this is the heart of the entire game: if you’re not hitting it often, you’re missing out. I’ve noticed that a lot of DW GMs really pull their punches when it comes to consequences, and in my opinion this dulls the game and removes character agency: since most choices in DW have some sort of cost in term of HP or resources, when you don’t bring that cost to bear in a credible and non-temporary manner, you are basically robbing the players of their choices. I’ve done this mistake myself when I felt pressured by a group that expected character death to be a failure state.

If your characters are not finding reasons they might want to risk their life for, the GM is either not hitting their resources and HP hard enough with hard moves, or the players are not really putting themselves into danger for what they want.

Looking back at it, Dungeon World leaves a lot of holes for the game group to fill. It was pretty awesome that we all knew what we wanted out of this game, and we were able to fill the voids in the game text. I’m referring to stuff like “who narrates the outcome of this move” or “how hard should the GM make a move”: we didn’t even use tho think about this stuff and just kinda did what made sense to us at the time. I’m also referring to establishing the main thematic questions of the characters: the game is not terribly great at setting this up at the beginning of play. We did it instinctively.

With less tightly-knit game groups, I have had experiences where it has taken a few sessions to get these kinks ironed out. I’ve had other experiences where this unstructured approach amplified personal relationship problems: a player I had a problematic relationship with constantly felt that what I was doing as GM was deprotagonizing his character, but never talked to me about it until much later when our game group (and friendship) exploded.

Anyways: what can I conclude? This game is still the only thing that has came close to giving me the adventuring, ‘story-fun’ with a high fantasy, dungeonpunky color, despite there being more functional games out there.

Next post: my worst RPG experience with PbtA (which I’ve hinted at already with this post).

8 responses to “Some of my best RPG moments”

  1. Which Rules?

    Great post! So Froggy, which rules or procedures in particular did you feel helped make those moments of awesome happen?

    IMHO, the Last Breath rule is the most interesting rule in DW, as it's where the character has the most potential to change. The consequence you picked involved a drastic change, even a reversal, of the PC's nature. Can you go into your thinking about why you chose that particular consequence?

    • First of all, I made a lot of

      First of all, I made a lot of effort to reconstruct what happened by contacting my former players, but some details are still fuzzy for everyone due to the time distance.

      I think at the beginning of the campaign we had a read-through of all the moves, and the Last Breath move had been really inspiring to us. We decided to keep undefined exactly what it meant, but we knew that we were interested in exploring what meeting Death was going to mean. The other thing that I was interested to explore was: what is the cost to escaping Death? Can you come back the same as you were before?

      So, when the Paladin drew his Last Breath, I decided to try something drastic: in my opinion, with that self-sacrificing action, he had exhausted the extent of his character's concept, and wanted to see if he could push it in another direction. So i asked him to betray himself, with no expectation that he would accept. The fact that he didn't, to me, felt like a further thematic statement: "I value my companions more than myself and I am willing to accept death for it". He wanted to leave the character at that moment.

      As for the other Last Breath, we had established by that point that Death was herself (Death is female in romance cultures) looking for servants. So they knew what the price would have been for remaining in this world. I think the player, at that point, wanted to meet Her.

      By the way, the Last Breath probabilities say you still have a 41.6% chance of outright croak. But there is 41.6% that you get a deal from Death and a 16.6% that you miraculously survive.

      As for the dwarves freefall fight (although this applies to the dragon joyride as well), the way that I handled these fights ended up inspiring an article ("Il Metodo della Cipolla", the onion method) which I wrote for the italian Dungeon World fanzine "Mondo Sotterraneo" (I should probably translate this article at some point). I don't think I'm bending any rules when I do this, but it's a particular way to use the rules to properly establish obstacles, choices and consequences, and preventing GM ass-pulls that end up directing the outcome of the scene. It's inspired by Sage LaTorra's "The 16 HP Dragon", but is a bit more strucutred.

      This method can be summarized as such:


      • I acknowledge that I can only make a GM move in the three situations described in the manual: Nothing's happening (players look at you), Roll failure (6-) and Established threat ignored (Golden opportunity).
      • In the first case, the move needs to be soft (framing a possible consequence or danger but not following through with it).
      • Whenever an occasion for a move arises, I can only make one specific thing happen. I don't get to reveal a dangerous detail and inflict damage.

      So, what I do is:

      • When I describe a character or monster, I am careful to describe it in detail, specifying all aspects of this character that might end up (sharp claws, well-crafted armor, agile movements). I don't allow myself to walk back on this description or to add further details without using a move for doing so. Details established previously for this particular type of adversary also caount.
      • Each of these aspects is like the layers of an onion, and before the character can be properly opposed, each of these needs to be neutralized (cutting off the troll's huge hands), avoided (dodging the deft strikes of the elite assassin), or circumvented (spiking the master archer's drink with a confounding potion).
      • Neutralizing, circumventing and avoiding can be done with or without a move, depending if the involved fictional content interacting with move triggers. However, unless the honesty of the fiction obviously demands it, a move success roll should be able to neutralize, circumvent or avoid only one aspect.
      • I can introduce new aspects by using one of my GM moves to introduce a new one (Reveal an unwelcome truth), given that it doesn't contradict what previously established. This usually means that I forego using that move to establish a direct consequence to a player character. I do this sparingly, but sometimes it's fun to do so. Is this relevant to this individual adversary only or is it new knowledge related to this kind of adversaries? This is answered through play.

      I tried to be synthetic, but the original article is much better at explaining what I do.

      This way of describing fights from the GM side in my opinion helps the players' choices have more consequence over the outcome of the fight. It's part of an ethical process that I call "GM de-responsibilization" (implied: over outcomes), which is a word that I was using way before playing DitV, AW or DW (I'm not sure if I got it from somewhere or made it up myself).

      This works really for any kind of scene with conflict in it, it's just that my group at that time really liked fights and DW is particularly well-suited to them.

    • Uhm, sorry again for the

      Uhm, sorry again for the spelling & grammar mistakes. What seems to happen is that I re-read the post in the web editor, I don't notice them, and then I notice them as soon as the post is published. Oh well; I think the content is clear despite the errors.

  2. Backstopping

    Here's a previous post here at Adept Play which became a little fraught: A session of Dungeon World. I've got a video in the comments which is probably relevant to your points here.

    Given the obvious sensitivities about the game, I'll look over your post with some care before commenting directly on it.

    • Hey, I’ve already read the

      Hey, I've already read the post in question, but thanks for the link! Please, don't feel like you have to mince words. I don't have any irrational personal attachment to this game or to any other game, and I definitely don't subscribe to the essentialist cult of D&D (I saw your video series about "Finding D&D" as well).

  3. Dungeonpunk: Clarification

    I would like to clarify one thing about the post: my usage of the term "dungeonpunk".

    I understand there are multiple meanings word, as all the "-punk" words; the first only refers to color, and the second refers to thematic content related to rebellion against oppressive authority.

    In this context I'm referring this word as it was used to describe the art-style of D&D 4th Edition, and partially D&D 3rd edition, especially in the Eberron setting.

    I am actually interested in "punk" themes and culture as well, but that's not what I was referring to in the context of this post.

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