Once more into the Dungeon
It’s been a few years since I last played a tabletop RPG in a fantasy setting. So I thought, why not give Dungeon World a try? Here’s a session recap of my group’s current Dungeon World campaign. My friends and I wanted to have an especially dark setting for our campaign. So we adjusted parts of the world building steps and also some of the rules.
A few words about Dungeon World: It is a Fantasy RPG that feels like D&D but uses completely different rules (Powered by the Apocalypse). The plot develops during the game. Players and DM share narration rights. That means less time spent with preparations, but also a story tailored specifically to the characters. How that went for us, you will find out in this article.
Play to find out
The core idea with PBTA systems (Powered by the Apocalypse) is called “Play to find out”. This means that big parts of the story are created during the game. Dice rolls don’t just decide the outcome of any action, but also the result of a scene or a conflict, and how the resulting plot develops. A simple perception check doesn’t just give you new information, but also plot elements such as additional clues (with successful rolls) or obstacles and foes (with unsuccessful rolls). The rules help you with lists to choose from. Depending on the roll and its result, either the players or the DM decide how the scene continues. But here’s the twist: even the DM doesn’t know how the plot will develop and can experience the story through the eyes of a player.
My doubts with Dungeon World
Most PBTA RPGs have very limited settings. A group of bomber pilots in World War Two, a team of doctors in the ICU, a pack of werewolves arguing about their hierarchy. The close relationship between the characters and the story in a limited setting massively help to build plot hooks and interesting conflicts. The story nearly writes itself. But Dungeon World is a fantasy setting. That means there are long travels to far away places and a ragtag group of heroes with spurious motivations for their travels. So I had my qualms about whether a plot in a PBTA style would develop in this setting, or if I’d have to help out as a DM by adding my own storylines.
I invested quite a bit of time in limiting this huge fantasy setting as much as possible and creating various story arcs. In my experience, it helps the players’ creativity if the story frame is well defined. Many Dungeon World DMs say that the story should develop entirely from the characters’ stories. That works well with standard fantasy settings or in one-shots. But I wanted an especially dark setting with many religious aspects. Relying entirely on the backgrounds from character development seemed too risky in my eyes. What follows now are the framework plots and setting ideas that I worked out in preparation for the round.
How I prepared our campaign
I wanted to limit the setting as much as possible, so that all places, NPCs and storylines are more interconnected. Here are few guidelines that I worked out together with my players.
The right tone for Dark Fantasy
We wanted it as dark and gritty as possible, which is why we chose an early medieval setting as a basis. Life is full of hardship, a dominant belief or order decides what is good and agreeable to God and what isn’t. The people are pious and superstitious. Magic is rare and decried as witchcraft. Heretics are burnt at the stake. The common folk isn’t very well-travelled and only knows their immediate area around their home town. There are no ground-breaking inventions yet that could somehow upheave the power structures of the aristocracy or the clergy (e.g. no gunpowder). Knowledge is passed on orally. Writing is rare and expensive.
Touchstones for our campaign’s atmosphere were:
Uprooted (Naomi Novik), The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss), Princess Mononoke, Castlevania, Darkest Dungeon, Dark Souls, Blasphemous, Darkwood, The Last of Us, The Witcher
Rules hacks for a Dark Fantasy setting
The rules should augment the setting naturally. That’s why I included these four hacks of the original Dungeon World rules.
1. No bards
Bards are often goofy characters which are used for comic relief. This wouldn’t fit in with our campaigns style. That’s why I turned the bard into a “”vagabond”” and adjusted the rule book accordingly. Vagabonds are a mixture of travelling craftspeople and historians, who are greatly respected in the villages and towns. They have similar tasks to the bards’ historic models, but without the clownish aspect.
2. No healing spells
Without spontaneous healing out of nowhere, all fights become more risky and the injuries more painful. The stakes are raised, if I don’t have a cleric who can just act as a battery charger and heal up the whole team after each fight. This also supports the dark tone of the campaign. The cleric’s playbook thus becomes obsolete. So, we went without clerics and instead settled for paladins as the only holy warriors.
3. Magic comes at a price
Magic should be something rare and special in our setting. Performing it needs to be well thought-through. It won’t come for free. The mage therefore became a elemental summoner, who needs to call forth elementals and bind them, in order to perform magic with their help. This act is rather risky and can lead to exciting side effects. The idea comes from the Stormbringer RPG (Eric of Melniboné novels) and fits well into our campaign. Accordingly, the shapeshifter also faces several risks and possible complications, when using their shapeshifting move.
4. New races/cultures
Instead of the classic elves/dwarves/orcs, in our setting, we have humans, as well as these races:
Sylvani – the descendants of elves, a nomad people, who were expelled from their home by a putrefication and who are avoided by humans, as they might be working together with the sickness that haunts their former lands.
Nadragh – a race of servants created by humans, made subservient through chemicals and who are used for hard and unpopular work due to their physique.
Limitations for the setting
The play-to-find-out concept of PBTA RPGs works best in strictly defined settings. That’s why we severely limited the setting in which the player characters can act. The west of the empire is a hostile wasteland, polluted by a mysterious plague. The east of the realm is ruled by a militant religious order. The north and south are both unexplored wilderness.
This confines the plot to a manageably large swathe of land. It is a contested borderland ruled by quarrelsome lords. While the western part of the area has to deal with refugees from the polluted regions, the eastern section is infiltrated by a strict religious order that wants to gradually annex the area.
As the historical background for the setting we established the fall of the old pantheon of gods. For (as yet) unknown reasons, the gods began to turn on each other. This cost one of them immortality, and where their remains hit the world, the mysterious plague spread year after year in the West.
A religious cult took the fall of the gods as an opportunity to proclaim their deity as the only true savior. Large sections of the common people defected to this order, which promised salvation in these difficult times. The remaining followers of the old deities became outcast heretics over the years. The Order had the temples of the old Gods razed to the ground and declared them unholy places.
This dark frame story offers our party many plot hooks and open endings to explore with Dungeon World’s play-to-finish-out concept. What are the followers of the old Gods up to? How does the fall of the Gods affect the world? For example, the Goddess of Fertility withdraws her blessing from the fields, leading to bad harvests and famine. What path will the order of the new God take when all lands are under its rule? We left it open which sides the player characters will take, and which parties are the good or the bad ones. This provides us with plenty of material for future storylines.
Adversaries and Campaign Plot
For our Session Zero, in which the group works out the details of the world, the foes and the overarching plot, I gave the players seven possible campaign plots to choose from. The storylines were not yet worked out in detail. I only provided some keywords and an approximate direction. In the “Allies of the Sylvani”, for example, the players would try to assist the descendants of the Elves and cleanse their lands of the mysterious plague. In the “Chosen by the Old Gods” the players would join the followers of the old Gods and try to stop the dwindling of the Gods from this world. In “Marked by the Plague”, you would enter the field on the side of the mysterious plague and ensure its spread while being hunted by the Order’s henchmen.
Depending on the choice of campaign actions, there is a very different dynamic between the parties in power. The fact that the parties’ attitudes and motivations are still completely open makes things very exciting for me as a DM, too.
Tips from Adam Koebel on running your Session Zero
To prepare our campaign and the session zero, the tips from Dungeon World co-author Adam Koebel were extremely helpful for me. In his video, he explains in one hour how he structures his one-shot sessions and how he develops the plot from the players’ ideas directly in the first game. His approach is ideal for a one-shot.
Our Session Zero
In our first session we worked out the overall setting, the characters with their background stories and set the overarching plot for the campaign, as well as some more individual character-focussed plot lines. Let’s take a look at how that worked out for us.
World Building – Creating the Setting
On game night, I was quite happy to have already established some of the conditions of the game world (the plague, the death of the Gods, the religious Order) with the players in advance. That way we didn’t have to start from scratch. From this basis, new ideas for the setting were constantly added by the players. Which races predominate, the geography of the land, who rules over the region, etc. We also established what the putrefaction in the West looks like, how people protect themselves from it, how the fear of it determines the everyday life of the common people.
For example, it turned out that city guards regularly check people for plague sores, that people shave their hair short, and that wood, as a carrier of plague is a very rare commodity in this world. In this way we also worked out the structure and influence of the militant order. There were only a few moments when the players had a creative block. That’s when my catalogue of questions helped. Questions like “why are people turning away from the old Gods?” or “who or what is leading the order?” then brought new momentum into our world building phase.
As a campaign plot, the players chose to be selected as warriors for the old Gods. But they also wanted to be marked by the putrefaction and hunted by the order. We designed this choice as a mini-game: Each player got a few glass stones with which they could bid on the respective frame plots. We still left the exact details of this mixture of different plots open. This is supposed to develop from session to session.
After the interesting but also exhausting world building, the character creation was just what we needed. Thanks to the cool selection lists on the playbooks (character sheets), the players were finished with their characters, including stats, appearance, equipment and a rough backstory in only 20 minutes.
Afterwards, we had a detailed question and answer session for each character to flesh out the background stories. In the process, we went through all the details that the players had previously chosen. What does your fighter’s magic sword look like? Who wielded it before you? How did you get your animal companion? How does your family feel about the fact that you are always travelling? You chose a noble family as your background – what noble families are there in this area? This is one of the absolute strengths of Dungeon World. In this section, the players can determine an extremely large number of details about the game world. And as DM, that gives me a lot of food for thought for future plots.
For example, one player chose that she came from a noble family that was wiped out by a rival noble house. I then asked her how this came about. She replied that the rival noble house followed the new faith (the order) while her family remained loyal to the old Gods. Through several intrigues, it then came to the fall of her own family. Naturally, some people are now looking for her. As the last survivor of her house, she still poses a certain risk for them. And there we had a new plot line, which was also linked to one of our campaign plots. Brilliant!
Two other players chose the Nadragh as the race for their characters. In doing so, they determined that the Nadragh were human-animal hybrids bred for various jobs. This is how the pig-like and the cattle-like Nadragh came into being. In keeping with the Dark Fantasy setting, the players decided that the Nadragh would be made docile by their masters via a treated tree resin. The human aspect of those who do not consume this “nectar” daily, fades away until only an empty shell remains.
Creating Gods and killing them
To conclude our Session Zero, each player had to create a deity for the game world. For this, I worked out my own God playbook in advance so that this step could be done quickly. That way, the players determined the powers and spheres of influence, names, offerings and the architecture of the temples of their deities.
Together, they then chose one of these four deities who had already forfeited her supernatural life. Selenya, the goddess of nature was chosen as the fallen Goddess. This suited us well in the campaign plot of the putrefaction. Because the sacred glades of Selenya thus became the breeding grounds of the putrefaction. How convenient for the plot!
Final Preparation Steps
With all the plot ideas and the elaborated setting, we were sufficiently prepared for the first session. For me as the DM, there was not much more to do. I created portraits for a few of the NPCs, and with the information from Session Zero I used the Wonderdraft map making tool to create a rough map of the area. Especially in narrative games, I like to have a setting map with me. It’s a visual aid that provides additional plot ideas and inspiration.
From all the storylines that the players provided during character creation and the world building in our first session, I was then able to help myself for the first game night. I came up with a plot for each of the four characters and linked them together as best I could.
1. One character has escaped from his master’s servitude and is now being hunted by bounty hunters.
2. A monster marked by putrefaction is terrorizing a nearby woodland.
3. Another character’s family is in the area and is in danger.
4. The wooded area is in the principality of a lord who is looking for heroes to take care of the monster. He recognizes the party’s fighter as a descendant of the disgraced noble house. We leave his reaction to her open for the game (play to find out).
Our first round of actual play
As a warm-up exercise we designed out the main location of the area together, the border town of Hayfalls. To do this, I asked several questions in Dungeon World style, and through the players’ answers, the town became more and more vivid. Finally, we had a very interesting setting that we could use as a starting point for the group’s adventures.
I presented the prepared plot hooks for the round to the players as a handout in the form of a noticeboard (similar to Witcher 3). From then on, the story for the evening developed by itself bit by bit. The preparation of Session Zero really paid off. First, the bounty hunters who were after the escaped Nadragh were driven away. Then the lord’s offer was accepted, who wanted the monster eliminated from his forest. Next, the characters paid a visit to family of the vagabond in the group. This was a particularly tense scene, as the family’s mother had been infected with the mysterious plague and was being hidden in the cellar from the Order’s witch hunters. Fittingly for the finale, the infested woodland was explored, and a mutated dire boar was hunted down. In the process, the characters themselves were scarred by the rot. Then, as they went to claim their reward from their employer, Lord Mulwen, he summoned a nearby band of holy knights from the Order to sit in judgment on the band of heroes. Why he did this, and how the matter ends, is something we have saved to be discovered in our next session.
Dungeon World works well for us
Of all the PBTA role-playing games, Dungeon World, with its “fantasy world” theme, has the least well-defined setting. So if you want to play more than a one-shot with it, it makes total sense to work out a few framework plots and peculiarities for the setting in advance. From this, a lot of plot ideas can be derived for the game rounds in combination with the character backstories.
All in all, a round of Dungeon World is still much less work than learning a prefabricated setting of a classic role-playing game and working out a purchased adventure module. You just need players who enjoy helping to shape the plot and improvise the occasional scene. In return, you will be rewarded with a story individually tailored to you and your group. It worked out great for us, and I’m already looking forward to the next sessions and plot surprises in our dark fantasy setting. Many thanks to my great players Nathalie, Dominik, Joni and Michael!