First session Dungeon World actual play with single PC

darkbard

Legend
Recently, I began GMing a single-player Dungeon World game, wherein my wife plays a Svirfneblin Ranger. I think it may prove useful to present an actual play write up of our game, focusing on GM moves and framing and the snowballing effect of PC moves, since Dungeon World gets some attention on these boards in discussions of indie vs mainstream games, but there are precious few consolidated examples of play. Plus, the unconventional nature of a single-player game adds something further to the discussion (hopefully).

In preparation for our first session, we discussed possibilities for custom racial and advanced moves (you can read what we came up with here) and agreed to start her PC at level 2 in order to have access to a multiclass advanced move that could provide some healing. She wrote two bonds with her Animal Companion (using the alternate rules presented in The Perilous Wilds: a kavvekan, or mastiff-sized tunnel dog of ferocious visage), one with an NPC in a local steading (a kindly baker whom she believes she can count on for aid), and one open slot tbd through play.

Her character concept: The Ranger is enslaved to a clan of slave-trading Duergar who utilize her tracking (both mundane and detect magic varieties) as a “hound” in discovering abductees with magical potential to seize and sell to a Tiefling religious organization known as the Procurers Exquisite. (Think something like Rachel Summers from classic alternate future X-Men.)

I decided to start our first session with a flashback scene, both to see if this established another bond (spoiler alert: it didn’t) and to test the tension between her unwillingness to be used as a hound versus her instinct for self-preservation. So I described an unsavory marketplace (in the same steading where the NPC baker has a stall) in the Underdark, with a multiracial crowd of onlookers gaping and jeering at a group of wretched human abductees from the surface realm on the auction block. A looming and dour Tiefling clad in burnished bronze armor glowers at one of the Duergar, complaining that their new hound (ie, the PC) has been holding out on him. Another Tiefling, a slim female, holds aloft in one fist a male human child, no more than seven years old and gripping his mother’s filthy shift with one hand and a stuffed toy bear with the other, his toes dangling several inches off the ground. “This one holds potential,” says the armored Tiefling, indicating the child.

The Duergar begins scanning the throng in a fluster and calls out for the Svirfneblin Ranger, cracking his knuckles ominously.

“No, mama! Don’t let them take me!” the boy cries out as the female tiefling jerks him away from his sobbing mother’s arms.

What do you do?

She casts Mind Fog and tries to hide herself in plain sight amidst the crowd. A 7-9 result, success with complication. She decides to take -1 ongoing to cast a spell, and I decide to telegraph a danger (soft move), describing the jostling of the crowd, elbows knocking into her head and such as she is crushed among the much larger forms of those who press closer to witness the escalating scene. She’s hidden for now, and the Duergar moves off in search of his missing hound, but the crowd follows in his wake, eager to watch a pending thrashing and threatening to crush the Ranger underfoot.

What do you do?

She decides to Discern Realities to determine “What here is useful or valuable to me?” (hopefully, an escape route) on a success. Not so fast, say I, you’ll need to Defy Danger first (CON) to stay upright and have a good enough view through the surrounding crowd. Another 7-9. I tell her that as the crowd jostles and shoves around her, she spies a side tunnel that could allow her to make a break for freedom, but in the fracas her weapon has come dislodged from her pack and is several paces away. Do you go back for your weapon, or do you make a dash for the tunnel?

What do you do? (Somewhere in there she suffered a debility, confused, as she took an elbow to the head, but I don’t recall specifically how; that means a -1 to any WIS moves, including spellcasting.)

She casts Telekinesis to bring her weapon to hand without going back for it but loses her invisibility (as casting a spell is one of the triggers to end Mind Fog). Also, another 7-9, and she chooses to draw unwanted attention to herself. That’s easy: clearly visible again, she is spotted by the Duergar, who bears down on her in a rage.

What do you do?

She casts Precognition. A 10+! I describe her seeing a flash of the future, the Tiefling slinging the child across his shoulder like a sack of grain and stalking off from the market. She will take +1 forward acting on this knowledge. She decides the child is doomed either way and that she might save herself a thrashing with some quick thinking. She offers to Discern Energies on the boy to confirm the Tiefling’s claim. That should raise the value the Duergar receives for the boy, right? Counting as leverage for Parley? Another 10+ (quite the coup as CHA is the character’s lowest stat; the +1 forward wasn’t even needed). The Duergar holds his raised fist and agrees to the logic of her argument.

She casts Discern Realities but comes up 6- (here that confused debility turned a 7 to 6). First failure! Sure, she confirms what the Tieflings say about the child’s potential for magic (maybe she’s wrong about this, indicative of her failure), but as she does so the female Tiefling, clearly a practitioner herself, notes the Ranger’s aptitude, and I mark this for use as a complication at a later date. “The magic is strong in this one. She knew of the boy’s potential all along, for sure.” As a hard move, I decide to exploit the Tiefling’s instinct: to dominate. He demands to punish the Ranger with a public whipping. I decide to end the scene here, with her punishment and its painful scars that she will carry forward occurring off screen. Did this fail to honor her success on the Parley, to avoid physical punishment from the Duergar in return for using a foe’s instinct as a hard move? Maybe, but we both thought it appropriate to the fiction.

I frame the next scene considerably forward to the present day. The Ranger leads a train of shackled prisoners and Duergar guards through the twisting passages of the Underdark, back to the Duergar fortress of Grimmglimtë Keep. She and her animal companion are at the vanguard when the earth begins to shake, sand and pebbles begin to filter down from the ceiling, and then, without further warning, the great annelid form of a purple worm breaks through the surface of the passage amidst the train, all writhing violet cilia and gaping maw. Is a purple worm too much an adversary for a single 2nd level character in Dungeon World if the Ranger chooses to fight it? I judge not necessarily, for the animal companion would surely attack or defend its master, and the Duergar would just as surely jump into the fray as well, so I could utilize the same rules for additive damage when resolving multiple enemy attacks when PCs fight foes, but in reverse.

But I don’t have to implement such measures, as the Ranger decides to use the fracas as a distraction and make a bolt for freedom. When I ask what do you do? she responds, I cast Mind Fog. 10+. I narrate how the forty foot serpentine form thrashes amidst the shackled prisoners, crushing bodies as its maw opens wide enough to swallow a cart and engulfs one of the Duergar guards. Someone shouts, “Beware the purple worm, the god who crawls!” as Duergar loose their axes and jump into the fray; the Ranger disappears completely from their senses. A small side tunnel leads deeper into the Underdark, away from the Duergar fortress.

What do you do?

The Ranger Discerns Realities, 7-9, and asks, “What should I be on the lookout for?” I return that the Duergar avoid those tunnels because of all the horrid creatures that inhabit them, and maybe it’s still the migration season of the rainbow-frilled velociraptors; best to avoid those if you can. Still want to dash off? Yes.

Hidden until she’s in the passage, she dashes down the tunnel in the dark, twisting and turning with one hand against the near wall. When she feels she has put enough distance to cast Bioluminescence and have it not be seen, she will do so. How far is that? I leave it to a fortune roll: 10+ the passage is tortuous and after a few dozen paces she will be out of sight; 7-9 it will take a hundred yards or so; 6- the tunnel descends slowly in practically a straight line and she’ll need to travel a good quarter-mile before being out of sight. The fortune roll comes up 7-9.

So after a hundred yards, where am I, she asks. I respond, you’re at a Y intersection, that much is clear, with the left branch leading downward steeply, there’s a cool breeze faintly billowing up. But without light she can’t determine anything else. She casts Bioluminescence, 7-9, drawing unwelcome attention. It would be too easy to have Duergar follow her, so I describe a kind of vaulted ceiling at the confluence of these passages and mineral stalactites accumulated about the intersection. Clinging to one, eyes squinting and blinking at the sudden light, is an albino choker ape, reaching out with one preternaturally elongated appendage to douse the source of its misery.

What do you do?

A series of Volley, Defy Danger, Hack & Slash, and Do Your Thing commands to her animal companion ensue, but the dice are not with her. The choker, wrapping the kavvekan in its muscular legs, constricts them with a sickening crunch of bone, and while the Ranger manages to slay the creature, crushing its head with a hefted boulder after losing her pick in the scuffle (on a previous 7-9 roll during Hack & Slash), its return damage on a 7-9 Hack & Slash also reduce her to 0 HP.

Time to make Last Breath rolls for both the Ranger and her animal companion: 12 for the kavvekan, but a less sanguine 7 for the Ranger!

I take a while to mull things over. Death will offer her a bargain: stabilizing in return for a geas, to destroy the phylactery of the ancient lich, Ny-Hor, who has escaped Death’s clutches for aeons.

When next we play, the Ranger will come back to consciousness, having been retrieved by the surviving members of the Duergar party, shackled, in a cell, deep in the Duergar fortress, with an unyielding compulsion to seek out and destroy the ancient phylactery.

Here’s my write up of the geas, loosely modeled on the Paladin Vow move:

Geas: Destroy the phylactery of the lich Ny-Hor.

Boon: An unwavering sense of direction to the phylactery of Ny-Hor.

Boon: When making a move in direct fulfillment of this geas (ask the GM), take +1 forward.

Bane: When choosing not to act to extinguish an undead creature of which you are aware, take -1 ongoing until you atone (the GM will tell you how).
 
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JiffyPopTart

Bree-Yark
I don't know anything about that system, but reading the playthrough of the session it would probably make me want to not play it anymore. If the gnome succeeded at anything they wanted to do cleanly the entire time I failed my spot check to notice it. It reminds me of a multi-session Harn game where my major accomplishment was finding a nice tree branch to carve into a spear so that I had something other than a dagger and rags to my name, meanwhile losing two party members to a few wolves.

Kudos to you guys if you like it, though.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
I don't know anything about that system, but reading the playthrough of the session it would probably make me want to not play it anymore. If the gnome succeeded at anything they wanted to do cleanly the entire time I failed my spot check to notice it. It reminds me of a multi-session Harn game where my major accomplishment was finding a nice tree branch to carve into a spear so that I had something other than a dagger and rags to my name, meanwhile losing two party members to a few wolves.

Kudos to you guys if you like it, though.
That’s kind of the thing about Dungeon World, though; most checks lead to success with complications. It’s worth noting, though, that the outright failures are where most XP comes from – which then lead to more successful checks.

Edit: Also, every one of those 10+ results (on 2d6, modified) was a complete success. Most moves specify what that means.

Edit 2: Also worth mentioning that DW is narrative-driven. The fiction triggers the mechanics and the results adjust the direction of the fiction. Thus, frequent complicated successes are the engine that predominately drives the game.
 
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darkbard

Legend
That’s kind of the thing about Dungeon World, though; most checks lead to success with complications. It’s worth noting, though, that the outright failures are where most XP comes from – which then lead to more successful checks.

Edit: Also, every one of those 10+ results (on 2d6, modified) was a complete success. Most moves specify what that means.

Edit 2: Also worth mentioning that DW is narrative-driven. The fiction triggers the mechanics and the results adjust the direction of the fiction. Thus, frequent complicated successes are the engine that predominately drives the game.

Thanks for saving me the trouble of an explanatory response, as I'm currently preoccupied with stirring a risotto. It's worth noting, too, the GM principles (1) be a fan of the PCs but (2) fill their lives with adventure. As you mention, the mechanics lead to this kind of snowballing action.
 

JiffyPopTart

Bree-Yark
I get what you are saying and am certainly not saying you are playing games wrong...its just not for me.

With a quick tally on your write up I count

Success: 3
Success with setback: 6
Failure: 1

This doesn't include the "series of Volley, Defy Danger, Hack & Slash, and Do Your Thing commands to her animal companion ensue, but the dice are not with her", which I assume add up to additional failures and success with setbacks.

That's too high a ratio of frustration for my tastes.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Thanks for the write up. Dungeon World has an intensity about it that really caught me off guard the first time I played. I'm glad you are doing the play through, as that feeling comes through. It's a great game, and I hope this encourages more players to give it a try.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
I get what you are saying and am certainly not saying you are playing games wrong...its just not for me.

With a quick tally on your write up I count

Success: 3
Success with setback: 6
Failure: 1

This doesn't include the "series of Volley, Defy Danger, Hack & Slash, and Do Your Thing commands to her animal companion ensue, but the dice are not with her", which I assume add up to additional failures and success with setbacks.

That's too high a ratio of frustration for my tastes.
It’s not for everybody.

But, by my count, that’s 9 out of 10 successes and 7 places where the story turns. That last part is important in DW, because the GM doesn’t get turns in the traditional sense. (And, thus, neither do NPCs.)

Technically, the players don’t either, but almost all of the action in DW is either driven by the PCs or a consequence of PC-driven action (sometimes indirect).

Things still happen off-screen, but they (usually) manifest as events triggered by the dice. The dice aren’t exactly success-checks; they're really more story-triggers. (Often that story wants to know whether success happens, though.)

Edit: It is, in practice, no more frustrating than any turn of events in any RPG would be. Less so than most perhaps, because of the “Be a fan of the players” principal mentioned by @darkbard.
 
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darkbard

Legend
I get what you are saying and am certainly not saying you are playing games wrong...its just not for me.

With a quick tally on your write up I count

Success: 3
Success with setback: 6
Failure: 1

This doesn't include the "series of Volley, Defy Danger, Hack & Slash, and Do Your Thing commands to her animal companion ensue, but the dice are not with her", which I assume add up to additional failures and success with setbacks.

That's too high a ratio of frustration for my tastes.
I hear where you're coming from, and I too believe not all games appeal to all players. Tastes matter. And yours is the second comment in several months where I've seen someone opine that a success with complication feels like a fail (@prabe, sound familiar?), this after literally never encountering it in years of discussions like this about these PbtA games. So I guess that does tie into taste somehow?

Anyway, thanks for the civil commentary.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I hear where you're coming from, and I too believe not all games appeal to all players. Tastes matter. And yours is the second comment in several months where I've seen someone opine that a success with complication feels like a fail (@prabe, sound familiar?), this after literally never encountering it in years of discussions like this about these PbtA games. So I guess that does tie into taste somehow?

Anyway, thanks for the civil commentary.
It sounds familiar, yes. :)

I'm genuinely pleased the game is working well for you and your wife.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
I hear where you're coming from, and I too believe not all games appeal to all players. Tastes matter. And yours is the second comment in several months where I've seen someone opine that a success with complication feels like a fail (@prabe, sound familiar?), this after literally never encountering it in years of discussions like this about these PbtA games. So I guess that does tie into taste somehow?

Anyway, thanks for the civil commentary.
I’ve always found that DW is easier to grok by people who aren’t burdened with prior RPG experience. Took me a little while, as well.
 

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