Category Archives: Game Design

Still working on Lost Worlds

Taking a break from blogging let me start working on the actual game.  I’ve got a strong start on the ground-up structure.  I have character creation rules completed, along with some custom races and a set of core classes – including a bunch of (probably unbalanced) powers.  I have rules for health and dying and how you trigger powers and how a skill system (more like backgrounds from 13th age), as well as achievement powers and origin powers that tie you into the game from the beginning.

A feel like a big milestone has been reached, and now I’m resting from working on the game a bit.  The next step: some big decisions about the combat system – specifically how crunchy and tactical should it be. Similarly, I’ll want some specific rules for adventuring and interactions.

Still, progress is being made.  I’m going to ask my group of players to create characters using the current rules and then try and play through some combats with what I have sketched out now – knowing there are gaps and rough edges.

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Dungeon World – Last Breath

Dungeon World

 

One of the special moves in Dungeon Worlds happens when you’re reduced to 0 hp. This move is called Last Breath. The move is described below:

Last Breath

When you’re dying you catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the Black Gates of Death’s Kingdom (the GM will describe it).  Then roll (just roll, +nothing – year, Death doesn’t care how tough or cool you are).

*On a 10+, you’ve cheated Death – you’re in a bad spot but you’re still alive.  *On a 7-9, Death himself will offer you a bargain.  Take it and stabilize or refuse and pass beyond the Black Gates into whatever fate awaits you.  *6-, your fate is sealed.  You’re marked as Death’s own and you’ll cross the threshold soon.  The GM will tell you when.

On one hand, this certainly seems deadly. 50% of the time that your character is reduced to 0 hp, you’re going to die. Other systems have you make death saves over and over, and you have to fail a bunch of them before you actually pass away. Not so here.

On the other hand, the 6- death gives a specific example of the GM allowing the character to continue on with death hanging over their head. Basically, the game seems lethal, but gives everyone room to maneuver if the character death is either not convenient to the story of the game, or not popular with the player whose character died.

While I kind of like the Last Breath mechanic as a lethal but interesting hook for adventure, resurrection is also included in the rules, and seems like an option specifically encouraged a bit in the text. The text even recommends that the GM not make things too difficult on the players around this, and maybe let them go to the next town and drop some coin donation on the temple in return for a resurrection.

“GM, when you tell the players what needs to be done to bring their comrade back, don’t feel like it has to derail the flow of the current game.  Weave it in to what you know of the world.  This is a great opportunity to change focus or introduce an element you’ve been waiting to show off.  Don’t feel, either, that is has to be some great and epic quest.  If the character died at the end of a goblin pike, maybe all it takes is an awkward walk home and a few thousand gold pieces donated to a local temple.”

The game even make some allusion, although doesn’t specifically mechanize, a group “decision” for Resurrection.

“If your character dies you can ask the GM and the other players to try and resurrect you.  The GM will tell them what it will cost to return your poor, dead character to life.  If you fulfill the GM’s conditions the character is returned to life.  The Resurrection spell is a special case of this: the magic of the spell gives you an easier way to get a companion back, but the GM still has a say.”

When I first looked for the resurrection spell, I couldn’t find it.  That’s because I made the mistake of looking at the end of the cleric spell list.  Instead, I found it in the list of 3rd level spells!  So, while death is common, overcoming death seems pretty easy.  I have a real hard time with this, because it seems like on one hand, it encourages players to play various characters and get people used to character death a bit, but on the other, it make character death pretty weak and creates a situation that’s hard to explain into the rest of the world fiction!

I get this is a story game and many of the rewards are based around building and playing a dynamic character, but why not follow through with being an ode to old-school gaming and let those characters die. Surely the rest of the party will experience more depth and change if comrades perish and new characters are thrown into the mix. Of course, the system does not specify this game mode, but it does feel a bit wishy-washy, and a little pulp, around character death.

Dungeon World – 10 Level Cap

Dungeon World

 

An interesting decision by Dungeon World is that the game indicates that, upon reaching 10th level, a character is either retired, takes on an apprentice (which is played along with the old character), or starts over as a new class. In any case, the character stops gaining XP at 10th level.

This level cap is interesting. First, with the way it seems advancement might move in a game of Dungeon World, a character could hit this cap pretty quickly. You need 108 experience points to get to level 10. If you gain, conservatively, 3 per session from goals of defeating enemies, finding treasure, exploration, bonds, and alignment, and then you fail maybe 5 rolls per session, you’ll reach the level cap after 13-14 sessions.

This implies to me that Dungeon World is focused on telling tighter stories, and not quite as focused on a long term campaign OR that Dungeon World does not expect the players to be making 10-15 rolls per game session. Since some of the play samples have characters making a defy danger and hack and slack roll within the same couple of minutes of real time, it seems hard to imagine that a player won’t end up making 10-15 rolls in a 4 hour session (which the game explicitly assumes).

The 10 level cap can mean a few other things as well. Dungeon World assumes a fairly heroic starting character. After all, you’re unlikely to gain more than a couple points in traits which are used for your moves, and you’re unlikely to gain more than a couple of extra damage or armor. The game’s core mechanic always being a static 6-, 7-9, and 10+ mean that the math does NOT have very far to stretch. 10 levels then may then feel like an appropriate place for those abilities to stop in order to avoid outgrowing the game’s math where the targets never change.

Allowing a character to start over as a new class (although, you get to retain a few signature moves) is a strange inclusion to me. I suppose it is there because players are going to get attached and feel like their character’s story isn’t over, but for a game that focuses on the fiction being so important, having a character forget most of their old class moves and start over at level 1 seems like an awkward option. Having a second character join you, and staying at level 10 seems like a bit of a disruptive choice as well. Now you have a level 10 AND a level 1, while another player retired his character and started over with just a level 1 character. I get that insisting on character retirement is a bit heavy-handed, but the other options feel out of place.

The main take away from this is that, if there’s one flaw with the streamlined mechanic of dungeon world, it’s the inability of that mechanic to take much modification to the math.  This limits the characters to fewer character levels, less magic item modifications, and no real way to model enemy strength into the roll (since rolls are player-attribute based only).

 

Dungeon World – Prescriptive & Descriptive

Dungeon World

 

The rules of Dungeon World reiterate throughout that the game only works if the rules and the fiction work together. This means that the rules will drive the fiction of the game, BUT ALSO, that the fiction of the game impacts the rules. The attention the system gives to this concept is constant, and you can see how important it is to the designers that the game flows as a natural story that’s not constantly burdened by the chains of the rules.

The system is clear that if someone cuts off your hand – your hand is gone. You should mark this on your character sheet. If you try to climb a rope with one hand, you’re going to have problems doing it, because the fiction demands it, not because there are rules for missing hands. Most people agree that the biggest advantage that table-top RPGs have over any other type of game is the ability of the players and GM to provide a world with texture and options that simply aren’t achievable in video games today. Dungeon World has realized that a lot of strict game systems get in the way of this fundamental power of human creativity, and emphasizes over and over that if the fiction dictates something, that something must be supported then by the rules of the game.

You can see this in the damage chapter, where the rules talk about specific damage (yet GM moves don’t explicitly deal specific damage). You can see this in the character advancement rules related to gaining special moves that aren’t part of your class because the fiction implies that you have learned new moves. The empowerment of the fiction makes Dungeon World quite a bit more narrative focused than classic D&D. Still, one of the most frustrating aspects, to me at least, of recent RPGs (I’m looking at you 4E) is the reduced significance of the fiction for the sake of mathematically sound and consistent mechanics.

From the rules on Character Change:

“Advancement, ilke everything else in Dungeon World, is both prescriptive and descriptive.  Prescriptive means that when a player changes their character sheet the character changes in the fiction.  Descriptive means that when a character changes in the fiction the player should change the character sheet to match.

This isn’t a benefit or detriment to the players or the GM; it’s not an excuse to gain more powers or take them away.  It’s just a reflection of life in Dungeon World.

… Descriptive changes only happen when the character has clearly gained access to the ability.  It’s not up to any one player to decide this – if you think a character qualifies for a new ability, discuss it as a group.”

There is a downside to some of this, and some players are going to be thinking it right now. With the fiction in control, and the GM is so in control of the fiction, the players lose some rules “they can count on.” The world begins to shift under your feet a little bit. I can see and sympathize with that point of view. Dungeon World does one other thing though that helps ameliorate that concern. Many moves in Dungeon World allow players a bit more control over the fiction of the game.  You can see this influence even in the character advancement rule above.  In this way, it becomes even a little bit more like a story-game, but I think it does so just enough to grease the wheels of adventure and file off the rough edges of a vast clunky set of rules that may, or may not, well-simulate a given scenario in the game.

Dungeon World has taken the stance that the game rules, if they are truly going to be simulationist, are going to overwhelm the game play at the table. Indeed there are so many scenarios that are somewhat different that trying to create strict simulationist rules for everything is the wrong way about it. Why not take advantage of the human element of the players and the GM to use the simple framework of Dungeon World’s rules to adjudicate each scenario as it presents itself. And if the basic framework doesn’t well-model the fiction of the game, then the fiction wins anyway and doesn’t have to abide directly by basic framework rules.

Dungeon World – Experience

Dungeon World

 

Dungeon World gives experience from a number of different sources. To gain a level of Dungeon World, you must spend experience points you’ve gained equal to your level + 7, so 8 points to gain 1 level to level 2, 9 points to gain a level to level 3, etc. They’ve ditched the 29,000 experience point issue that has plagued D&D from the outset of the game.

Next, Dungeon World gives you experience for a variety of different things. At the end of each session, you answer a few questions about the session to determine whether you earned an experience point for each question. Just simple enough to be very usable, just complicated enough to encourage a wide range of behaviors – not just combat.

So what kind of questions do you answer? At the end of the session, you can take the End of Session move:

End of Session

When you reach the end of a session, choose one of your bonds that you feel is resolved (completely explored, no longer relevant, or otherwise).  Ask the player of the character you have the bond with if they agree.  If they do, mark XP and write a new bond with whomever you wish.

Once bonds have been updated look at your alignment.   If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP.  Then answer these three questions as a group:

  • Did we learn something new and important about the world?
  • Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?
  • Did we loot a memorable treasure?

For each “yes” answer everyone marks XP.

For each question answered yes, each character gains an experience point. You also answer some questions about your own character

So – at the end of each session, 2-5 experience points are up for grabs. There is one other major source of experience though, and that is baked into the core mechanic. Any time you miss (6-) on any roll, you mark an experience. This means that when your character attempts an action, you either succeed in that action, succeed with a complication, or the GM makes a move and you gain an experience. Really takes a little sting out of failure doesn’t it? This “learn from your mistakes” method is a great little mechanic! The system now rewards players who get involved in the game with actions, including actions that aren’t necessarily their character’s strengths. This is a power equalizer as well. If you have a character that’s weaker than the rest, that character will likely fail more rolls over time, and gain experience faster, and become a stronger a little faster. Rewarding an experience point for failure means that, conceivable, if you’re a first level character and you are asked to attempt at least 8 rolls in a session (certainly you’ll attempt more than this), and you fail 8 rolls, you’re going to gain a level for that session.

I haven’t gone through the math of this, but I’d like to see how that works in practice. It seems that, with the experience gained on a failure rule, level progression would be quite fast in Dungeon World – maybe a level every session. The number of rolls a player might make during the course of the game could vary drastically, I think, based on the way the game is handled by the GM. The GM is given a lot of leeway in triggering the players to make certain moves, and this frequency will directly impact level progression. This is a minor issue though, since this is an easy threshold to house rule so that level progression meets the group’s expectations.

So, Dungeon World creates an experience advancement system that rewards all the behaviors the system is looking for in players and builds in a little bit of relief from the strict failure that poor dice, weaker characters, or “sub-optimal” actions can cause in a standard game of D&D.

Dungeon World – Magic Items

Dungeon World

 

Anyone who has played many RPGs with me know how I despise the magic item economy of D&D and Pathfinder, especially in the recent editions. I have written pretty strongly about it here before, and so I’m happy to see that Dungeon World has taken exactly my approach to magic item creation. Magic items in Dungeon World are not needed, and they aren’t factored into the math of the game for advancement. In fact, since the game has a pretty small range of advancement (after all, target numbers never change!) from 1st through 10th level, there’s not much room in the math of the game for a bunch of math adjustment magic items to give you +1 to hit, +2 to damage, +2 Strength, + 1 armor, and +2 to your will power defense.

Dungeon World accepts the premise that magic items are there to be interesting rewards, plot devices, adventure hooks, and thematic character-defining tools. We don’t think of King Arthur having a crown of + CHA, and boots of striding and a cloak of protection. We think of Arthur wielding the iconic Excalibur.

Some examples of these interesting magic items include:

Arrows of Acheron (1 ammo, 1 weight)

Crafted in darkness by a blind fletcher, these arrows can find their target in even the deepest darkness.  An archer may fire them blind, in the dark, with his eyes bound by heavy cloth and still be assured of a clean shot.  If the light of the sun ever touches the arrows, however, they come apart like shadows and dust.

The Burning Wheel (2 weight)

An ancient wooden wheel, as might appear on a war-wagon, banded with steel.  On a glance, it appears to be nothing special – many spokes are shattered and the thing seems mundane.  Under the scrutiny of magic or the eyes of an expert, its true nature is revealed: the Burning Wheel is a gift from the God of Fire and burns with his authority.

When you hold The Burning Wheel and speak a god’s name, roll+CON. *On a 7+, the god you name take notice and grants you an audience.  An audience with a god is not without a price: on a 10+, you choose one of your stats and reduce it to the next lowest modifier (for example, a 14 is +1, so it would be reduced to a 12, a +0).  *On a 7-9 the GM chooses which stat to reduce.

Once used, the Burning Wheel ignites and burns with brilliant light.  It does not confer any protection from those flames, nor does it provide any bonus to swimming.

Dungeon World – Alignment

Dungeon World

I have considered removing alignment from Lost Worlds and replacing it with something more fluid, such as a distinction that asks the characters to describe personal outlooks, motivations, or attitudes of their character. As an ode to old-school D&D, Dungeon World keeps alignment, although it simplifies things a bit. In Dungeon World, the alignments you can play include: Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic, and Lawful. The system does not use a two-axis system, instead relying on these five choices for alignment. A Good character may have lawful tendencies (or chaotic tendencies), but the choice of alignment forces the character to select their dominant personal attitude towards life.

The next thing that the system does is award experience for following your alignment. Each alignment has a series of movies that the system believes embody the spirit of the alignment. For example, if you’re a good Character, an alignment move might include “show mercy.” When you create your character, you will select an alignment move based on your alignment, and at the end of a session, if you have performed the action, you gain an experience.  As your character evolves, you can change alignments (which represents a large shift) or you can simply change alignment moves (which represent a smaller shift in focus within an alignment).

The basic alignment questions are:

Lawful

  • Uphold the letter of the law over the spirit
  • Fulfill a promise of import
  • Bring someone to justice
  • Choose honor over personal gain
  • Return treasure to its rightful owner

Good

  • Ignore danger to aid another
  • Lead others into righteous battle
  • Give up powers or riches for the greater good
  • Reveal a dangerous lie
  • Show mercy

Neutral

  • Make an ally of someone powerful
  • Defeat a personally important foe
  • Learn a secret about an enemy
  • Uncover a hidden truth

Chaotic

  • Reveal corruption
  • Break an unjust law to benefit another
  • Defeat a tyrant
  • Reveal hypocrisy

Evil

  • Take advantage of someone’s trust
  • Cause suffering for its own sake
  • Destroy something beautiful
  • Upset the rightful order
  • Harm an innocent

In addition, the game places alignment restrictions on each class, but each alignment listed in a class comes with its own alignment move for that class.  For example, the Druid class can be Chaotic, Good, or Neutral.  Each of these three alignments come with an alignment move specific to Druids, such as:

Chaotic
Destroy a symbol of civilization

You could easily implement this kind of system with the classic two-axis alignment. My thought though is that I can use this in an even more deconstructed way – because the real cleverness here is that each alignment has a series of actions that grant it experience. So instead, you could select your own set of actions that you think embody your character’s outlook on life – and they could be anything. Then, the system could reward you for playing to those actions. I can foresee some difficulties with this, and it is really the same difficulty I have with backgrounds: generic choices meant to allow wide interpretation of use. Having an “alignment” or attitude aspect that is generic could be advantageous for a player for advancement, but would be worse for the game. Still, I think this is a route worth considering, because it gives players the flexibility to play characters with depth, with significant differences between them (since you’re not limited to 5-9 options), and if interesting actions are encouraged and bought-in by the group, I like that the system will encourage players to think about their character’s depth and motivation in play.