Common Hour “D&D”

During the fall semester of 2023, I started a weekly game on the campus where I teach, on one of the days where the noon hour is reserved for club meetings and similar activities, no classes. They call it the “common hour,” so I called the game “Common Hour ‘D&D’,” with the idea that the quotes signify that, well, it’s like D&D but not exactly D&D. We’ve only got an hour, after all.

I think it’s getting momentum. I’ve billed it as “open table,” meaning show up if you want, when you want, and the adventure takes shape around the player-characters who are there. There are two students and three or four faculty members who show up pretty consistently, and I’ve had one or two people come up to me and ask about it. I can also see a few of my colleagues warming up to the idea of running a game or trying out their own game design in this space, and I’m going to encourage that, for sure.

For now, though, it’s me running a fantasy role-playing game for an hour each week for a variable number of players in the middle of the day. Since we’ve only got an hour, all of that time has to be packed with play–none of this “15 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours of gaming” nonsense. I tell people who ask that we’re using a rules-light homage to Dungeons & Dragons called World of Many Things.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love oracular game mechanics–think Everway or In A Wicked Age…, where you draw cards and interpret them, tarot-like, for the fictional meanings they provide. And it seems pretty clear the D&D’s “Deck of Many Things” is a gloss on the special “Major Arcana” cards of the Tarot deck. So I made up a world-building game where you deal out cards from the Deck of Many Things onto a blank map sheet divided into regions with what to me are evocative names (“Hyperborea,” “Atlantis,” “Uybrasil,” etc.) and terrain descriptors (“mountains & glaciers,” “islands & stormy seas,” “jungles & sargasso seas,” etc.). Players take turns interpreting cards as denizens or locales within each region, or introducing events and artifacts across them.

That’s how we started last semester, with two players (one student, one professor) defining the world we’re now playing in. We’ve been to the capital of the Empire in the center of the map a couple of times now, spent time in the desert to the south in the cave of the great Sand Dragon as well as the oasis of a hag-seeress, and have been making our way towards Hyperborea in the north, where the moon itself has been frozen to the peak of the tallest mountain. At the end of last semester, the adventurers fought a band of Moon Pilgrims who turned out to be were-jackals in the service of Anubis, who apparently has some beef with the moon-goddess Selene.

Part of the inspiration for the game was the Ronnies–the course that Ron runs here at Adept Play–which reminded me that play is design and vice versa, among other things, and that if you’ve got enough to sit down and start playing, you should. So World of Many Things has been both iterative, in that I’m making changes as we go, and syncretic, in that I’m cobbling together bits and pieces of different half-finished game ideas that may have been floating around in my notebooks for years and years. Character creation is fast and light: you get three cards from the deck, and assign them to determine your character class (there are 22 different ones!), patron deity (only 9, one for each alignment), and wealth level (from “skint” to “well-off”; you don’t start off rich); they also determine your stats. Give your guy a name and you’re good to go.

Earlier this week, we played the first game of the new semester, and we picked up right where we left off. The basic cycle of play is the same: I throw a card and it tells us what the inciting incident of play is (it’s like a bang, but evoked not “prepped” per se), and then we play it out, with PCs either gathering information to develop the situation or taking action to make things happen. So, to start this game, I threw “Vizier,” which can mean messenger, so I had a messenger from the were-jackals arrive and demand that the villagers the PCs defended turn them over to the were-jackals or be destroyed utterly. Meanwhile, however, a new PC had arrived bearing a secret (the cards told us) about a sudden betrayal (ditto). The player playing a warlock whose patron was Anubis–of whom he’d briefly been the avatar in a previous adventure–decided that that warning probably referred to him.

So two of the PCs agree to be turned over to the were-jackals as some sort of Trojan-horsey bait, and the were-jackals arrive to cart them off. Two other PCs follow, and the other two (including the treacherous warlock) stay behind in the village with other plans. In the end, it all goes to hell: the rescue of the captured PCs goes awry thanks to bad die rolls, one of them is stabbed to within an inch of her life by the Evil High Priest of the were jackals, and her blood stains the moon red. Luckily, the other captive escaped his bonds and administered aid, or it would have been all over. Back in the village, one of the PCs prayed to Selene, who opened a portal to the desert-oasis of the hag-seer. The PC convinced her to come help, gave her the silver moon-sigil the goddess had given him in a previous adventure. Empowered by its magic, they bounded up the mountainside to set things to right–only to be felled by a lightning blast from the perfidious warlock, who was only doing Anubis’s will.

So obviously–and this is bounce–Selene has lost the moon, and now Anubis is the moon-god. There were two or three PCs with Selene as their patron; now it’s Anubis. What it means for the fiction, and for play, I’m not sure, but I’m intrigued to find out. Minimally, the drawing of the Moon frozen to a mountaintop that we drew last semester, I’m going to color that in a deep dark red and we’ll see if the players take up the lost moon-goddess’s cause or join Anubis’s crusade to conquer the pantheon.

2 responses to “Common Hour “D&D””

  1. It’s like seeing “Bill’s dream” suddenly come together across so many things you’ve discussed and worked on over the years … and in such a wonderful social context! This is the kind of radicalism that I’m teaching about at this very moment.

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