I played a 5-session run of World of Dungeons recently which got me thinking about a few things. I can see why the system is getting such praise, and the game had a number of high points. But I struggled to an uncommon degree in running it, which come down to a few things, only one of which is anything to do with the system.
The first, which I'll mention and get out of the way first, was playing with a group of people who (bar one) I met only a month ago. We're all pretty tight by now (five solid weeks of alchemical daoist practice together will kind of do that) but that social factor is worth mentioning. In particular, the oldest player has an extensive history with AD&D 2nd Ed, and very much used to playing against hard-nosed GMs with the purpose of meeting and overcoming challenges that emerge in the system, by any means necessary. This is different to my default play style, but I actually think it's fairly close to the OSR ethos and thus the intended approach of WoD. So I don't want to attribute problems to this player, who will come up later, but more to point out that they put pressure on me because it felt like they were playing the game the *right* way, whereas I didn't feel like I had the tools to play along with it.
The second one is techniques, ones I seem to lack in running this kind of game and that the game itself doesn't appear to supply. The issue is 'when to go to the dice'. With Apocalypse World, which I've run a few times, rolls are pretty explicit in their fictional triggers, and the consequence of roles are clear outcomes that feed forward nicely, both for me and for the players - surely we've all looked at a move and thought 'a 7-9 would be pretty cool right about now'?
In contrast, the ethos of WoD is old-school dungeoneering with scant hit-points, not crunchy protagonism that thrives on your character's situation complicating and deepening. As a consequence the players (especially the old-school one) were far keener to dodge the mechanics as much as possible. What's more, the trigger to the mechanics is 'something risky' which feels like a huge ball of GM discretion, especially given examples I've seen touted. It seems to amount to 'whenever the GM wants a die roll', which is not a bad thing (I don't think it's dysfunctional, just a style of play) but hard work for me - especially when for the players 'not triggering a die roll' seems like a testament to 'playing right/carefully'. This can lead to some tension - fruitful, maybe? - between my own and the other players' expectations of the fiction, and decreases the mechanical inputs that can spur ideas to feed the fiction.
It also created a disparity between players, where those that painstakingly advocated their position adequately were navigating the fiction better than others. I felt like I was doing neither faction any favours: the brazen players were a bit annoyed that the system seemed to put them in nasty (potentially lethal spots) for being proactive and heroic, rather than backing away from everything, whereas the cautious one was skeptical that I would even allow rolls for swashbuckling feats like flipping out of a tightening magic electricity net using a spear as a pole vault. I was basically trying to yes-and wherever possible, give consequences and make the character's lives interesting and them look good. But I'm not sure that this is compatible with the game!
Most of all, it makes me realise how much I've benefited from modern games that have dispelled the murk, because I pretty much suck at the murk.Remember the murk
? It was one of Ron's terms of theory, lexically hitting a sweet spot between the cuteness of some (vanilla, typhoid mary) and the dryness of others. I really identified with the issue (see that thread for way-back SG discourse, esp here
), and it was one that prevented me from getting into a lot of play that I was interested in (numerous CoC adventures purchased, read and put aside as I realised I just didn't know how to adequately let this stuff occur in play).
[EDIT: I should just define it here for convenience. Why read a 6-year old thread if you don't want to? For this thread, murk means procedural absences/vaguaries in the game that make you stop short at points in the game and feel unclear about how to proceed - proceed enjoyably, proceed fairly, proceed comprehensibly, whatever.]
So here's an example of murk from my DoW game. The party were moving down corridors in a dungeon, and the most experienced player had by now reiterated a dozen times that he is always moving carefully, always listening for sounds, regularly checking the sides, and the other players have started to voice 'me toos'.
So, there are also a bunch of monsters in the dungeon, some lizards that can squeeze through cracks in the walls as well as cannibals creeping on their home turf. They are going to attack sometime, for sure, they're in their element. But this became a massive headache for me to adjudicate fairly.
For instance, the monsters would surely pick their best moment, such as when players start disputing where to head at a crossroads, or the wizard is casting a cantrip. But at these points out of fairness to the group I'm always confirming the situation before throwing something at them, as I don't want to contradict their fictional space too deeply. "So you're all peering down this passageway discussing whether a delicious smell wafting from there is a good thing or bad thing, right?" "Uh - no. I'm just sending the odd barbed comment over in that direction, I'm checking the environment as always..."
Or, "you're casting your cantrip, right? Ok, so as you do so, a creature creeps into the darkness, as you had to douse your torch to do so..." "Wait, naturally I would pass the torch around to others. We said that we would be paying attention to light sources."
When I point a light at aspects of the fiction the players recognise likely tactical consequences and adjust: the act of my observation changes the state, a double slit particle physics kind of deal. Of course, I could just say 'the hell with it, you're surprised', or give them a Dex roll to determine this but that seems to retreat from the fictional efforts made. I guess this is where the whole traditional 'GM skill' comes in, weaving narrative in a holistic way, introducing dodges, red herrings and tactical false choices through description. But I'm not really built that way, and would prefer to develop other skills all told.
This doesn't seem to come up in other games I play. Shadow of yesterday is stacked full of conflict and adversity and GM challenging players, but whenever I've tried this out the murk doesn't appear. When the attention is right, fit conflicts emerge and there is no need to try and finagle your way around it, this is the situation as it stands so you go for it. It's dramatically or thematically appropriate. In TSOY a barbarian chieftain can spot you in the souk and I can say 'he pushes you against the fruit stand, a soft pomegranate bursting under your buttock, as he swears to kill you for dallying with his brother', and while there may be a little debate (leverage, propriety, scope, nature of conflict) we're typically just refining the situation, there is enthusiastic agreement with this situation being escalated. We are essentially participating to find the fit arenas for interesting play. Whereas similar situations in WoD were receiving a flat out "Hang on, that wouldn't happen because...."
You know what? This may all be me saying 'I like and know how to play narrativist'. Or it may be something else.