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).