On Friday I ran Dungeon World for the first time for some friends. I've played a few sessions and enjoyed it so I wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the proverbial GM's screen. Here's my post-game analysis.
Blank-page improvisation is hard
If you go to the Dungeon World Tavern on Google+ you will see numerous GMs who boast of their ability to come up with worlds, characters, settings, and monsters for the players to encounter. Here's one example:
My current campaign started like this: "You are all on a rope halfway up (or down) a high stone wall. There is a window about 20 feet above you and a dragon flying right at you. He fires a fire breath at you. What do you do? What wall are you on? Are you coming or leaving? Why?" So I had absolutely no idea what the story, location or anything else in the campaign would be.
The problem is that type of off-the-wall improv requires a lot of buy-in from the players. None of my players have ever played Dungeon World before, and 3 of them are teenagers who have only played D&D before and are used to the DM fleshing out the scenario.
They did give me a couple of great tidbits to hang the first session off of:
- The Paladin and the Cleric fought together in the battle of Charmountain against the undead hordes of the Nameless Lich.
- The Paladin of the party has an elaborate series of tattoos on his head that look like rows of braids but are actually tiny runes.
- The halfling Barbarian somes from an arid land where years of sandstorms have push the tribes out of their homeland.
Thanks to a set of random maps that I printed off, I had a couple of places for them to explore. The village of Julkoun is their starting point; the party was asked to investigate the ruins of Harpshield Castle, destroyed during the war, for evidence that the castle had been infiltrated by the Nameless Lich's agents prior to its fall. There are nations and powers who are keeping an eye out for any evidence that the Nameless Lich survived the war, but they want to keep their search quiet for fear of alerting the Lich (if it still exists) or its servants.
Unfortunately the session ended before we got to a good stopping point; the party is on their way to the castle ruins.
Play to my strengths
So what do I do? Do I keep trying to run the "ideal" Dungeon World game, where the players throw out revelations and tidbits that I weave into masterful plots? What do I do when those tidbits aren't forthcoming?
For me, the solution (for now) is to have more prep work done to fill the gaps; this is where Dungeon World's fronts come in very handy. Rather than having a strict storyline, fronts allow you to define potential threats in general terms.
- What is the front's overall goal?
- What are signs that their plans are in motion or that their agents are on the move?
- What happens if one or more of their objectives is obtained?
Dungeon World has moves that can all be used to reveal new fronts: "Show signs of an approaching threat", "Introduce a new faction or type of creature", and "Reveal an unwelcome truth". If the fronts are defined loosely enough, then you can tie information provided by the players into your fronts. In addition to learning the fate of Nameless Lich, I already have some good questions to answer so far:
- What is causing the desolation of the Barbarian's homeland?
- Why did the Ranger intentionally guide the Paladin to the wrong set of ruins so long ago?
- Who was the green-robed wizard who gave the Ranger his first animal companion?
Perhaps as we all get comfortable with the mechanics and the storytelling rhythm I'll feel better about handling player input as they get more used to me asking questions rather than just telling them what's going on.