World of Dungeons and reacquaintance with the murk

edited March 2013 in Play Advice
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 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.

Comments

  • Yes, I know where you are coming from. I played 10+ sessions of WoD with 2 groups and eventually went back to DW (and Moldvay) as there is more procedural support in both. I can totally see how this "murk" can be good in the hands of a GM who is comfortable with it and players who buy in. For me, I prefer to have more support.
  • What if you dropped hit points in lieu of descriptive harm and asked the players "what do you figure the risk is here?" whenever they announce they're doing something that seems to you like it might be risky? At that point, if it calls for a roll in both your heads, roll. The rolling is part of the fun so your players dodging the opportunity is sort of at odds with my experience playing WoDu.
  • The rolling is part of the fun so your players dodging the opportunity is sort of at odds with my experience playing WoDu.
    IMO it makes sense from an OSR PoV, think in terms of fictional positioning and total dominance of a situation to the point at which there is no risk ie no roll. If you are interested in "winning" vs the GM challenges then this is the ideal place to be, OTOH if you are interested in how the story forks unexpectedly then rolling is fun.
  • The lack of specificity in WoDu, which results partially from it being super short, actually means you can play it a number of different ways and have it be totally functional. But it's good to do that semi-intentionally rather than wandering through it and trying to suss out what to do, because the game doesn't explicitly tell you. Like a lot of super short games, it really wants you to bring your gifts and style to the table.

    I've played/run 12+ sessions of it and have never yet had it feel really OSR-like, though I'm sure it can lean in that direction. The low hit points are capricious, definitely, but if you have moves like Death's Door in play (which you may not), then death is less likely. And even if it is super deadly, you can make a new character in about 30 seconds, so I don't really see that as a huge incentive to play super cautiously. I often play WoDu with a character who -- in a classic Narr style -- is often not acting in their own best interests, especially where safety is concerned. And the system handles reckless play just fine. In fact, I've actually run two different Planarch sessions using WoDu in which nobody ever took any damage. Maybe that's a failing on my part as the GM, but the failed rolls didn't involve anything particularly harmful.

    You do have to kind of be on the same page as the players on what tone and style of game you're having and then, as GM, be more or less consistent about enforcing that in the way you ask for rolls and the way you describe outcomes. You can definitely be super deadly if you want, but you don't have to be. It sounds to me like the players desired and wanted a variety of different things from you as the GM, which pulled you in multiple directions and made it hard for you to feel like you were satisfying everyone. That's a pretty standard issue to encounter, right? In a situation like this, where the rules point in a general direction but don't really provide super strict guidance on the style and tone of the game, the players have to step in and set it themselves, and if they don't it can feel a bit scattered or awkward.

    In any event, that's been my experience.
  • edited March 2013
    This discussion is relevant to me.

    I think part of the issue is the "GP as XP" leveling paradigm, since that promotes pursuing treasure while avoiding conflict. With this style of XP gain, the player can reap all the rewards (increased character capability, monetary and equipment gain, reduced risk to character well-being) while still actively trying not to engage the Risky Mechanic. A story objective (like, "Save the princess from the dragon!") might force some risk taking if they have motivation to actually want to achieve the goal, but still doesn't really encourage it, since the players could still try to achieve the quest with as little risk as possible or ignore it in favor of avoiding death or major loss.

    For a system mash-up I'm working on, I'm considering having the players mark XP whenever they roll a failure or a success on a roll (but not a partial success). So, the players can find treasure, bypass monsters, and discover new stuff about the world, but if there's no risk involved, there is no XP reward. I'm going to frame it specifically as "XP is your character learning from their triumphs and mistakes when taking risks." This method (in theory) promotes the player seeking out risks to take, as opposed to avoiding them. Does that mean the player might thrust his character into a conflict despite common sense in hopes of scoring some XP? Sure, but that's probably not really a bad thing.
  • One thing I think is important to keep in mind with WoDu, both as a player and GM, is that "risk" doesn't solely have to translate to "clear and present physical danger".
  • edited March 2013
    Yep, what Sodzilla said.

    When you go slowly and analyze everything carefully, you might minimize the risk of physical harm (from traps or treacherous environments), but going slowly through a dungeon introduces the risk of wandering monsters catching your scent or finding your trail.

    When you arrange to take the sentries by surprise, from behind, in the dark, you eliminate the risk that they'll stab you if you miss, but you introduce the risk that you'll get separated from your friends in the dark.

    There are an infinite number of possible risks in any dungeon adventure situation. That's the nature of dungeon adventure -- it's insanely risky. It's the players' job to figure out which risks they want to work to minimize (since they can't possibly eliminate them all). It's the GM's job to look at the fiction and see which risks they're exposed to, and call for rolls.

    The move trigger in WoDu is very specifically NOT "when you do something that might hurt you."
  • Having said that, the text of WoDu is little help here, of course.

    Getting on the same page and setting expectations before play is a critical phase for any successful RPG play.

    The experienced player expected they could eliminate all risks (since certain cultures of D&D play, particularly among power-obsessed teenagers, promoted this style). While you (rightly, in my mind) assumed that dungeon adventure is by its very nature wildly risky, and attempting to eliminate all risk is an exercise in madness. Classic assumption clash.
  • robb and Christopher, I'm nodding along to your dialogue

    J_Walt, lots of good stuff here (and thanks for answering some queries ahead of time too). On Death's Door, that's a funny one. One of the characters, a Wootia (high gypsy) demagogue bespoke class - got taken to negative HP and failed a CON roll, so I took him to the mythical Plain of Plenty, where he rode with - bit of fishing here - his grandfather, long dead, shooting hawks from the sky. I suddenly remember that bit of Whitman,

    "You beautiful-bodied Persian at full speed in the saddle shooting arrows to the mark!"
    (I used to know that whole poem by heart. I must relearn it.)

    His grandfather is he and Death alternately, and the PC ends up outracing Death across the plains, so impressing him to return to life. Lots of cool consequences - his Cure ability was contaminated by the death plane (plain? Now I'm confused), and if he ever lets a Wootia die, he will die as well. After the game, there was consensus - including from the old-school player - that this was the highlight of the game and my best gming. Which was a world apart from the tactical, decision-focused play I'd been trying to deliver. Go figure.

    So Jonathan there is definitely some truth to your suspicion - we weren't clearly agreed on our style of play. Which is partly an artefact of D&D being different things to different people, and partly that I wanted to try out this more OSR philosophy with it, but I'm not sure my heart was totally in it, due to not being wired to play that way, as described above. So even in myself I was pulling in different directions!

    Zachary_Wolf I think that toying with XP in that way would have a nice effect. Sometimes I think 'mechanical rewards are unnecessary, just get players on the same page to play together and they'll do it.' And then this happens, and I realise how nice it is to nudge people to see where that page is, exactly, through quiet systemic reinforcement. I think.

    This is really useful conversation guys. I feel like I'd like to get involved in some more old-school play, but probably play some first and pick up by following how people resolve what feel to me like alien decision points. Meanwhile, I think I'll pick up WoD again soon, more assertively mould it to what I want from a game, pitch it properly and play the hell out of it. XP could be one thing for sure. HP too: I still feel that even with death's door the fact that a blow from a weak weapon is enough to kill many people does create a particular vibe. Not a bad one, necessarily, and a reckless campaign with plenty of Death's Door would create a fun X-Men "revolving door to heaven" feel. But Christopher's approach could be fun, purely in-fictional damage considered.
  • Above cross posted with John!

    That makes a load of sense. I think there is a skill of noticing risks in the fiction, which may include generating the fiction so it is redolent with risk in different facets, that I don't have in spades. It's a really interesting skill! I wonder if we talk enough about how to build it. Maybe 'you just have to have that kind of mind', but I think we've found that in many other domains, guidance can make a difference.

    For me, for example, I tried to address the go slow/wandering monsters by trying to keep in mind the likely movement of the (finite) denizens of the dungeon. But I don't have a good enough model of that stuff, so really I'm just deciding 'well they probably might attack.... now?' in a really unprincipled fashion. Basically taking far too much stuff on. Have I never heard of random encounter tables? Or custom moves? (If the die of fate rolls a 1, or a 1-2 if the party are dawdling...). That interplay between mechanisation and GM judgment - there are infinite possibilities here, natch, but it would be really interesting to see a few configurations laid out.

    Like here's a heuristic: "Use random tables for random encounters. You might have 1-2 key agents in the dungeon who are credibly mobile, and it's cool to try and keep track of them as moving threats, but don't try that with a dozen, you'll go crazy. Let the table simulate that". If I'd written that out as part of my prep, I would have had a much easier time. I suspect these already exist, within scenarios and dungeons moreso than game systems is my hunch.

  • I ran World of Dungeons for the first time the other day and ended up feeling much the same. After playing Dungeon World with all its clear fictional triggers, playing WoDu felt distinctly murky. And not in a good way, either - we had fun, but it had a certain sense of "fun despite system" rather than the system encouraging and supporting us. It might be just whiplash from having only played AW hacks with clear fictional triggers for the past two years, because we've played very light systems before and enjoyed it, but WoDu just didn't quite click for me as a DM...
  • theloneamigo, here's a question: did this come up for you in combat, and if so, do you think this has anything to do with lack of rounds? It seems to me that more traditional games lack the AW-type triggers too, but ensure a different kind of procedural clarity through turn-taking procedures. It's stilted but tried and tested. This was something the group were clamouring for by the 5th session, and we ended up taking a round-esque approach for that. In its absence, there was a sense of some characters getting away with excessive action (I take a snap-shot, drop my bow and leap at the other guy drawing my twin blades!) because it was described with conviction, whereas others - often the same characters at other times - would be pushed away from meaningful action, usually because the moves I made were less damage dealing and more fictionally consequential (weapon spun away, character sent sprawling, pinned under rubble), and I tried to give these events teeth by refusing to let the character immediately pop back in (trying to be resistant to "I scoot up my weapon and attack!"). But it all felt pretty arbitrary - every move and its impact came from me, and I can't claim to consistency of severity from one miss to another. I felt a lot on my shoulders.

    Once again, there is a player expectation thing going on. If I was playing with my school-crew at home, I think a lot of this would dissipate, partly because I'd distribute some of the decision-making responsibility knowing that the player's priorities are to make the fiction feel fun for each other. But there was also a cognitive load deal that I struggled with, for sure.
  • I'm curious what things could be done to help reduce the murk without going balls to the wall and adding sheets and sheets of moves to the point where it's now Dungeon World.
  • edited March 2013
    So, I've never played World of Dungeons, but the conceit as I understand it is that it's the "original" dungeon world from the 70s, right? Does it still have the GM Move/Player Move back and forth? If so, I would think that solves the problem.

    GM: *describes a situation in which a bad/interesting thing is about to happen* and then says "what do you do?"

    Player: does something. If that thing is "risky," as defined by John Harper upthread, then you roll.

    Repeat.

    I pretty much use this exact procedure in Don't Rest Your Head and it works fine even though there aren't any formal player moves. You don't need a bunch of defined player moves -- ultimately all the player moves really do is create different formal outcomes anyway. They are just different ways to answer the question: "how will the player get out of this jam?"

    Wallflower characters ought to be getting just as much opportunity to act as the chatty characters because they are being confronted with "what do you do?" just as much. The point of GM moves, I think, is to induce player action. The REASON you "take their stuff" or "separate them" or "show signs of doom" or whatever is so that they will do something about it. And, the thing they do about it usually requires them to risk something -- so they roll the dice. If players are just wandering around aimlessly it means the GM isn't making any moves. If the player doesn't know what he should do in combat, it means he hasn't heard, "the black knight hurls his spear at your chest, what do you do?!"

    This idea clicked for me after reading one of John Harper's blog posts: http://mightyatom.blogspot.com/2011/05/apocalypse-world-guide-to-hard-moves.html
  • Alex F: The thing with WoDu is, it's kind of a winking joke toward old-school play. Not that it's satire or anything, but it's not really a "complete" game (which is why it was given as an add-on to Dungeon World, which has all the stuff you'd need to fill in the holes if you want to).

    It's designed (visually) to appeal to a certain audience who recognizes the type of game it's winking at, and already has a raft of skills to play that sort of game.

    I'm pretty surprised that some people have chosen to attempt old-school play for the very first time using WoDu. It makes sense, in a way, and I'm thrilled that the game has broader appeal, but it's just weird to me. :)

    A much better starting point (IMO) is the 1981 Moldvay Basic edition of Dungeons and Dragons (play ruthlessly by the rules, of which there aren't many).

    Having said all that, a slightly more robust WoDu is in the works, with some guidance for wandering monsters, treasure, etc. in the vein of the addition you suggested. Plus the fantastic "fourth page" stuff that Mike Riverso created.

  • Having said all that, a slightly more robust WoDu is in the works, with some guidance for wandering monsters, treasure, etc. in the vein of the addition you suggested. Plus the fantastic "fourth page" stuff that Mike Riverso created.
    That is good news!
    I hope that you also have space to put in some explicit GM-side moves even if super cut down from AW/DW.

  • I anxiosuly await the WoDu Cyclopedia then =]
  • Yeah, don't expect too much from WoDu. The 'full game' already exists -- it's called Dungeon World. :)
  • I find this interesting, actually:

    Why do you (anyone, that is) suppose that so many people are excited about WoDu, and want to add to it, instead of just going, "Nice! Now let's play Dungeon World."?
  • The delicious murk.
  • WoDu works wonderfully with a younger bunch of particpants too.. eh Blake? :)
  • This has kinda already been said, but not explicitly. I kinda-sorta think the solution might be—and you'd need to be explicit about this—to just say, Hey look guys, there's going to be dangerous shit and you're going to have to roll for it, but your caution *will* be rewarded, because failed rolls will be considerably less bad than they'd've been anyway.

    I mean, honestly, I've probably done that myself a few times when running AW, MH, and/or DW. It falls pretty well within the principle of making the game-world seem real.

    Matt
  • edited March 2013
    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...."
    Yeah, but isn't that exactly where the currency of TSOY lies? You may as well be describing a huge pile of gold and noting how no one has a problem running toward it like scrooge Mcduck.

    It's not in the rules, but if you incentivised that whole 'you put out your torch' they'd probably go for it. so
    "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."
    becomes:
    "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."
    "Well, I guess you wont get the 25 XP imperfect plan bonus then..."
    "Hmmm, well, I think my dude can take them in the dark - this'll be an easy 25 XP...oh, I mean yeah, you're right! I think my dude just couldn't be bothered with all that messing around and droped his torch, so it went out!"
    "Note down your 25...now, the next thing that happens is..."
  • "You're casting your cantrip, right?"

    -Yeah.

    "OK, do you put your torch out and put it away or pass it to someone else?"

    -Wait, these are simple spells, right? Can't I cast it with one hand and still hold the torch?

    "Maybe. That's a bit tricky. Do you want to make a DEX roll to see if you can pull that off?"

    -Nah, I guess I'll pass it to Snargle.

  • I could see players getting annoyed if the GM is just coming up with reasons out of thin air why mundane tasks require dice rolling. As a player, it bugs me when I have to roll for tasks that seem like they should be simple to perform. Especially when the only result of failure is that I'm taken out of the action. That's frustrating.

    I think the better practice is to make risk inherent in your set up. Put characters in situations that force them to make risky decisions -- don't manufacture risk for things that aren't that big a deal.

    -- To a Samurai: on a crowded street, a peasant spits on you. Your grumpy master tells you that honor requires you to kill him on the spot. There are dozens of peasants supporting the spitter -- you are out numbered. Everyone looks at you expectantly. What do you do?

    -- To a thief in a dungeon: When you pry the jewel out of the statue, it stands up! With the sound of grinding stone, its heavy fists swing toward your head with alarming speed, what do you do!?

    -- To an archer assassin: from your perch in the belltower, you suddenly spy your target, the Cardinal, emerge from the keep. He is talking with the Duke's young daughter. You THINK you can make the shot from here. What do you?

    &c.
  • edited March 2013
    Hello Alex:
    That makes a load of sense. I think there is a skill of noticing risks in the fiction, which may include generating the fiction so it is redolent with risk in different facets, that I don't have in spades. It's a really interesting skill! I wonder if we talk enough about how to build it. Maybe 'you just have to have that kind of mind', but I think we've found that in many other domains, guidance can make a difference.
    Here is some guidance that I've read over and over again. http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/16138/dd4e-big-next-time-gadget-techniques-for-fictionful-4e#Item_25
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