We started a Worlds Without Number (WWN) game, playing in-person.
WWN is built on the chassis of various editions, rememberings, and reconfigurations of the pre-3rd edition non-Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It turns the dial up on Vancianisms, mostly through spell names and spell powers (spells are more versatile and powerful than spells in, say, Moldvay Basic, but spellcasters get fewer of them). It also gives non-spell powers to Mages, which are able to be used by Committing a resource called Effort for a certain duration: a turn, a scene, or all day. Squint (or don’t, even) and it looks like At-Wills, Encounters, and Dailies from 4e or Short-Rest/Long-Rest abilities from 5e.
There are four classes in the game: Warrior, Expert, Mage, and Adventurer. The latter allows you to take two partial classes, splitting up the previous three into various combinations. The game has some nifty healing rules that I like, too, and oh, I don’t need to detail it all here, but you know: it’s one of those games: it gets called OSR. Its most salient feature is really not about procedures or mechanics that turn the gears during play itself, but about how it supports prep: there are a lot of good tools for creating dynamic places pregnant with crisis for all sorts of reasons.
I have a bunch of awesome modules laying around, some favorite rules tweaks, and ideas and excitement about a far far future dying earth; and I knew some people who were interested in the game. So I decided to run it.
I knew for a game like this I’d want to take some time to really get prepared; I wanted to make sure I felt comfortable with the rules and with the starting situation. So I declared in June that I’d begin running the game in August, and started my prep. That sounds like a long time, and I suppose it is, but I enjoyed not having any pressure to prep. I read the rulebook twice, I followed the preparation procedures, and I let myself noodle and dream and steal ideas from all sorts of places. And I drew two maps! I’ve never done that before. It was fun and the visuals really drew potential players in, I think.
The header image is the larger region of play, with each of those icons essentially fleshed out in a large sense: who lives there, what their society and/or religion is like, what they think about the other groups in the area, what they want from the other groups in the area, noodlings from me about possible areas of interest and danger, etc. Around a hundred years ago, the Immortal Reaping King, who conquered this whole peninsula, mysteriously disappeared (he lived up at the top, where it says “Folding Palace”)
This is the map of the starting section of the region. This used to be a place of squabbling petty warlords, but around fifty years ago, two things converged that have made it the place it is today (a largely thriving feudal land that is just beginning to recognize its own statehood, and what that might mean): The nobles who lived around the Folding Palace, no longer getting any tribute from anywhere in the region after the Reaping King left, began to filter throughout the region, and many settled here: it’s temperate, and Uth the Lart (his title) allowed them to buy nobility, making his burgeoning state flush with cash. And also, around this time, Uth procured (somehow, from somewhere; rumors abound) what are known as the Calibres: ten incredibly powerful, frightening hand-held weapons that allow one to kill a man just by moving their finger. With these he was able to consolidate and hold power over what are now known as the Marklands, after his nobility, known as “Marks”.
He has nine Valiants that attend him at all times, except when he sends them off, singly or in groups, on business. They are the highest authorities in the land below him, but are outside of the Mark hierarchy. They hold office due to wielding one of the Calibres. It is the station of office and the right to it. If you possess the Calibre, you own it. If you own it, you own the office of Valiant, along with its attendant ceremonial (and very practical) armor, as well as the right to ride a Courser for a mount, a lion-like, horse-sized creature that is incredibly expensive and dangerous to break, train, and maintain.
That’s a lot of backstory-dump, but it was essentially what I described to the players as they made characters and formed the group, so it provides context for anyone following along. We have three characters, all from the town of Imya, which is where the military (really just semi-organized groups of men-at-arms) is headquartered:
Demetri, a Warrior, who got into a street altercation as a kid and accidentally killed a person; his fists are deadly, and this was his first lesson. He had a choice: get shipped off to the dungeon-prison beneath Omid, or serve for two years as a man-at-arms. He did, and now his term is up.
Ambition: Prove to people that I can be a hero, so that they’ll see me for who I really am, not for what I’ve done.
Torix, a Warrior/Expert, who knows a thing or two about how to keep books and how to recognize quality goods. He dealt goods and arms to the burgeoning military, skimming off the top quite successfully for a while, until someone caught him and gave him an ultimatum: find a MacGuffin (“something you can put in a dungeon somewhere” is a paraphrase of what his player said”) for me, or I’ll rat you out.
Ambition: find the MacGuffin.
Fincules, a Mage/Expert, who is a bit of a man-about-town, a gregarious face who knows how to sell, and oversell, his goods. He may provide you something magical, or he may just say it’s magical — not to grift you, but just because he wants you to know how impressive he is.
Fincules is the linchpin of the character group, keeping an eye on Demetri and using him for odd jobs and bodyguarding. Both he and Torix know a thing or two about shady business deals, and in that world you can’t help but cross paths. As play starts they all find themselves broke, wondering what is next in life, and in the middle of a couple rumors.
As the Marklands becomes more stable, and wealthy, there are increasing incursions into the Omelas Mountains, which is crawling with toughened mountain people and warlords, but is also home to untold lost magical civilizations carved out under those mountains. Having some magical knowledge, Fincules has heard a rumor about a mage who used to come around here nigh fifty years ago, doing research into the Live Wood (a dangerous feature of the landscape that seems to secrete monsters and has to constantly be chopped down, only to grow back very quickly). He hasn’t been heard of since then, but he does (did?) have a tower in the Omelasan Foothills, often surrounded by lightning, which can be seen on extremely clear days.
The other thing they heard was that one of the Valiants was on his way to Imya (it had been announced in advance, and everyone was very much looking forward to it/fearing it) when he veered south off the road into a section of the Live Wood. That night, the report of his weapon was heard for miles around. Then he wasn’t seen again.
The players opted to go check out the Mage’s tower, with Fincules being the primary instigator in this regard: it’s gotta have treasure, right? And treasure = fame, right? So off they go, but not before we pause a bit for them to ensure they have food and water.
At this point I tent a 3×5 card and put it on the table and write the following on it: “Find out what’s interesting/valuable in the Tower — 3xp, 1 renown.”
WWN doesn’t define how XP is earned, but instead throws out options: XP for Gold, XP for showing up (blegh), XP for completing Goals, etc. I went with a modified version of the latter option, defining Goals as group goals — any option for adventuring I might give the group will get an XP value attached to it, and they can pursue it or not. Or any particular goal they define for themselves will get an XP value attached to it. And then whatever they pursue is what they pursue. Also, each character has a broad Ambition, and if they can reasonably be said to be aiming in its direction during a session of play, they get 1XP.
I realize now that I forgot to assign and communicate an XP value to the second option for what to pursue today, finding the Valiant. So I should do that at the beginning of next session, just so they are aware of the options and what’s at stake.
3xp is enough to get to 2nd level, and Renown is a sub-system that lets players spend their fame and social capital to undertake major projects (establish an educational institution, a religious order, turn a town into a trading hub, etc). I’ve opted to attach Renown to the group Goals, as well, with the caveat that while XP will always be what is written (i.e., as a judgement of difficulty it may be off, but whether the Goal is easier or harder than expected, you’ll get the XP written), Renown may fluctuate from what is written depending on what is actually done and then communicated in civilization, with it being far likelier that the group will acquire more Renown than what is written than less.
After they got their food and water, Torix wanted to look through old piles of surveying documents and see if he could find some sort of clear path to this tower, or any information about it. He failed his skill roll, and I botched the description of his failure, stating that he found a little bit of old information about a trail, but it may or may not be useful these days. It dead-ended that inquiry instead of opening it up. In retrospect, it would have been better to say that no, he didn’t find anything useful, but someone found out that he was poking around and was willing to sell him access to some useful documents. Or something. Anything more useful for play than simply, “no”. I established before play that the “intent and task” rules from Burning Wheel are in effect in this game, as I find that separating intent and task when it comes to skill rolls in task-based d&d-likes heads a lot of problems off at the pass and tends to ground skill action in the fiction better. But in this case, it didn’t save me from my own creative failure (I’m belaboring this, but I don’t mean to make it a big deal: the ball got tossed to me and I flubbed it a little bit, that’s all–but I wanted to pull that interaction apart).
In the middle of high summer they headed off through grasslands and scrub, toward the tower. They had four days of pleasant journeying, with Fincules eating far too much of his share of the food and Torix running out of water (Usage Dice from the Black Hack are in effect here, replacing consumable items with a die that gets rolled on each use and steps down the die chain on a 1 or 2, until eventually you’re out).
They had gotten into the hills now, bare scrub hills that look like bald brown heads, and had to spend half of each day foraging for water. They see the top of the tower way off, a glint of metal, and lightning flashing down to it every so often. No one had chosen Survive as a skill, so they were rolling at a heavy disadvantage to find food or water, and were only able to scrape together a little bit of water for the rest of the trip. They haven’t suffered any System Strain yet, but they are low on everything.
Finally, as the end of the sixth day comes, they scale a small hill and see a large stone tower, capped with a bulb half made of the stone and part of the rest of the tower, with the top half made of interlocking metal plates with spikes sticking up off the plates. Lightning is hitting these spikes often, and hitting four large spikes in the ground around the tower. The rest of the ground around the tower has been pulverized into fine moonlike dust over the years.
Okay, so, then, it’s time to end the session. We’ve actually gone a bit over time; it’s clear that we’re all digging this.
One of the players turns to me and says, “Is this Tower of the Stargazer?” That’s a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module, and it’s indeed the module I’m using as the basis for this particular tower, with a few small tweaks. I hesitated; I didn’t know what to say. Bizarrely, I considered lying for a second. Then I said that yeah, it was. He said that he had run that before.
I felt instantly deflated. I kind of felt accused, though not by the player (he clearly was doing nothing other than being honest and trying to help head off a bad play situation waiting for all of us in our near future); it was as if I had failed, somehow, in my prep, though of course I hadn’t. It took me a couple hours after that to really get over it, poring through some things on my shelves, googling other Wizard’s Tower adventures that could fit the fiction we had established and that I was interested in presenting. I’m all good now; I have something that I’m excited about, and it was merely a hiccup (other than a couple hours of prep time that I can’t use). But in emotional terms my reaction to that moment was quite strong.
To make what I’m running next time fit, I will have to change one detail about the Tower as previously established–it had no windows, but it will have to have some next time–but that’s relatively minor.