Mixed age group Dungeon World Actual Play

darkbard

Hero
I ran a game of Dungeon World for friends visiting from out of town last weekend. The participants: my wife (@Nephis here), a seasoned gamer with many years of experience with most iterations of D&D, DW, and Blades in the Dark; my gaming-curious friend, whose only previous exposure was smoking cigarettes in the kitchen with the mother of one of his high school friends while the others played D&D in the adjacent dining room back in the ‘80s; his wife, no prior gaming experience; and their two sons, 15 (and reserved) and not-quite-10 (precocious and a bit of an attention whore, if one can excuse the expression deployed for one so tender of age). My friend had asked me for some game recommendations a few weeks back as a way of prying the boys away from screens (I posted about this here on EN World and garnered some great suggestions), and their visit provided the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the concept and pique interest. In fact, I think the prospect of gaming was a motivating factor for the visit.

I began by introducing the concept of RPGing and DW in particular: you are creating an individual heroic fantasy character based on archetypes you’re familiar with (they’re fans of LotR, Witcher, Harry Potter, and similar cultural touchstones). Your job is to build not only a personality but motivations for your character to do what they do, and then to advocate for your character as I introduce scenes and challenges in response. I outlined ability scores and modifiers, the Basic Moves of the game, and then had each player choose a character playbook, at which point I explained the Special Moves related to that playbook.

The 15 year old settled on Sven, a barechested human Fighter (if we weren’t making screens offlimits for the weekend, I would have pointed him to the online Barbarian playbook instead); the 9 years old on Aaron, a human Thief; my friend’s wife on Lang, a human Wizard; my friend on an elven Ranger named Throndir with a Wolf companion named Thor; and @Nephis on Knelle, a halfling Druid from The Stinking Mire with a tell of mottled green, toadlike skin. Since we only had about three hours total for the game, I asked each player to choose only 2 Bonds between their character and another, despite the large-ish group. Two highlights: Knelle the Druid’s belief that “The spirits spoke to me of a great danger that follows Throndir, the elf Ranger” (more on this below) and the nine year old’s response when I asked him what it was he stole in his choice of “I stole something from Sven” (the Fighter played by his older brother): “his girl”!!!

We drew a map together, containing many of the fantasy tropes: wooded highlands that are the ancestral home of the elves; a walled human city, Dubrovnik; a sea known as The Blue Gale, windy but warm watered; an enchanted isle called Silent Moon, where one cannot speak aloud after stepping foot upon its shores; an expansive marsh known as Green Moss Mire, home to snakepeople, halflings, and lizardfolk; and a canyon inhabited by feral raiders (I think maybe this is where Sven is from, but we never established this overtly). With this complete and a group of mostly Good aligned PC, I decided to frame them into a rescue mission building out of their bonds: Laeta, former beloved of Sven, the Fighter, and a handful of others were taken prisoner from a small village outside of Dubrovnik by marauding lizardfolk. The four others had arrived at the thatched hut of Knelle, the halfling Druid, on the outskirts of the Green Moss Mire, hoping to pick up the trail of lizardfolk and the aid of the Druid native. Knelle, suspicious of these newcomers to her land, called out from the bushes, from which she peered, asking who they are and what they intended.

Some freeplay ensued, wherein Sven deemed himself spokesperson for the group since it was his girlfriend (however fraught that relationship!) among the abducted. I probably should have stressed more strongly the cooperative nature of the PCs as a group, for his gruff and uncivilized character was not winning any points with the Druid, who now viewed these interlopers on her doorstep with serous mistrust. Lang, the Wizard, intervened by speaking telepathically (one of her three spells) to Sven, urging him to demonstrate respect and good manners when entreating with the diminutive Druid, but Sven’s further disdain for the mores of civilized folk (peeing on the bushes beside the hut’s opening, wherein squatted poor Knelle) and a poor roll by Lang on her Cast a Spell Move (6-) introduced immediate complications: Knelle used Shapeshifter to transform into a wart-covered, mottle-skinned anaconda (with the Moves Slither and Constrict), rolled a 10+, and Slithered across a channel to wrap Sven in her scaly and—hopefully—submission-inducing embrace; and I made a Move after Lang’s fail—three lizardfolk, bedecked in tortoise shell armor and carrying spears, rose from a fetid pool, dripping algae and menace. Throndir (relatively silent so far), what do you do?

My friend scanned the list of playbook and basic Moves and settled on Called Shot; the lizardfolk hadn’t truly acted yet, so I ruled (generously, perhaps) that they counted as surprised foes. He downed one with a swiftly loosed arrow. Your group is startled as Throndir’s quick action both reveals and responds to this threat. Aaron (the Thief), what do you do? Aaron successfully made a Defy Danger (DEX) move to hide behind the trunk of a tree so he could position himself for a Backstab Move, which he made with a 7-9, the added damage enough to take out a second lizardfolk foe but Young Aaron suffering a spear thrust wound in return.

Lang, the remaining lizardfolk warrior sees his friends fall to your armored allies and decides to rush you, the squishy Wizard, with an outstretched spear. What do you do? Lang decided to leap out of the way by navigating across several stones protruding amid the watery channels of the swamp, which sounded like quick thinking to me, but a Defy Danger (INT) Move turned up another 6-, and so Lang took some damage as the lizardfolk’s spear opened a wound across her thigh as she jumped to safety.

I turned to my wife, playing the Druid: Knelle, you have this large outlander wrapped in your scaly embrace, but now combat has broken out between these newcomers and the lizardfolk warriors native to the Green Moss Mire. What do you do? Time to establish her relationship with other swamp inhabitants and commitment to other “civilized” peoples. Knelle decided to release the brawny Fighter and Slither across to wrap her serpentine form around the remaining lizardfolk warrior. (Some mix of Defy Danger Moves and a roll for Slither or Constrict resulted in Knelle taking some damage but establishing her grapple, though the exact details escape me.)

Sven, you are now free from the embrace of the diminutive-halfling-turned-giant-snake. You see her wrap herself around the remaining lizardfolk. What do you do? The fifteen year old had chosen Sharp and Versatile for his Signature Weapon (a pair of matched handaxes), adding Reach as an additional Range (to the default Hand) to represent hurling an axe at short range. With the fictional position of the lizardfolk established as Close Enough™ through Knelle’s Slither Move, I ruled Sven could deploy Hack & Slash rather than Volley in the situation. A 7-9 result yielded damage inflicted against his foe, but not enough to drop it, and the lizardfolk was able to release his spear in reprisal, despite the anaconda encircling its torso, dealing some damage to Sven.

Throndir, what are you doing as melee has broken out between your allies and the lizardfolk? The elven Ranger decided to fire an arrow at the lizardfolk via Called Shot, despite the Druid-anaconda wrapped around its torso, aiming for its head. But the roll turned up a 6-! I think we all know what that means: you take careful aim for the lizardfolk’s head, but your shot goes astray and strikes the Druid instead! You’re an expert marksman, though, right? What caused you to miss your shot like that? Throndir responded that his wolf companion Thor, whose weakness is Forgetful, aroused by the combat around him, must have forgotten his proximity to his trainer’s legs, and knocked against him in his eagerness to join the fray, jostling him just as he loosed the shaft.

The battle ended quickly thereafter as Sven made a sliding tackle of the lizardfolk, lashing out with his remaining handaxe and dismembering his foe at the knee, thus redeeming himself from his earlier irreverent behavior. Lang consumed a healing potion, and Sven and Knelle applied some healing poultices after the figurative dust settled. Knelle declared her suspicion, in the wake of his errant shot that wounded her, that Throndir, the elven Ranger, was a reckless predator, and that the great danger that followed him would be her, as an avenging avatar of Nature!

Your foes are conquered, and you establish a fellowship of shared mission with this halfling shapechanger. What do you do next to find the abducted villagers?

The nine year old declared that Aaron would climb a tree and speak with a magical bird, asking if it had seen the villagers. I responded that the bird didn’t speak the human tongue, despite its magic, but perhaps, in the spirit of unity, the Druid might converse with it. Knelle did so, and established via a successful Spout Lore roll that the lizardfolk had a seasonal moot at a congregating point to the south, and that at that location they made their dark sacrifices to appease whatever fell powers they worship. To make this not only interesting but useful, I established that Twiti, the magic bird, could lead them to the moot. (Earlier in the discussion, my friend indicated that he would have Throndir use the Hunt and Track move to try to follow the lizardfolk trail back to their lair, but, in the interest of good parenting (and, I think, more interesting gameplay, ultimately!), deferred to his son’s creativity.)

The group then made an Undertake a Perilous Journey Move (I use the alternate rules in The Perilous Wilds supplement) to follow Twiti to the lizardfolk moot. They picked roles: Throndir as Scout, Lang as Navigator, and Knelle in charge of Managing Provisions. My friend rolled a 7-9 on his Scout Ahead Move and got to choose between

*You get the drop on whatever lies ahead

*You discern a beneficial aspect of the terrain—a shortcut, shelter, or tactical advantage (describe it)

*You make a Discovery (ask the GM)

*You notice sign of a nearby Danger—ask the GM what it is, and what it might signify.

He chose Discovery.

Throndir, I imagine this part of the swamp as a kind of mangrove, with you picking your way amid raised roots in knee-deep water, with tendrils of moss and vines hanging in deep curtains all around you. As you hack your way through the mire, you notice a dark and foreboding stone edifice atop a hillock, clearly a constructed but abandoned tower of some sort. I turned to his wife, the player of Lang: Lang, you recall stories of a wizard, Acorax, who had a tower in these swamps years ago. Was he a member of your Wizardly Order? No, but he was a member of the Order to which her sister belonged. People say that Acorax turned to necromancy and dark arts, sequestered himself in his tower over a decade ago, and was never heard from again. What else do they say about him, Lang? I asked.

Lang’s player said that Acorax was in possession of a magic golden circlet. The group decided to investigate the tower. One of the players, I don’t recall who, made a Discern Realities Move roll, a 7-9, and asked from the preset questions, What here is useful or valuable to me? I narrated that as they peered into the long, dark corridor extending into the stone tower like the opened maw and gullet of some great beast, visible floating in the air at the end of the hall was a faintly glowing circlet. And there, since we were three hours into the game session, we ended play.

Is the circlet real or illusion? Will the nine year old remember to use Trap Expert? Will Knelle the Druid seek revenge on the elven Ranger Throndir or Sven for their infelicitous behavior? We’ll Play to Find Out!

I’m quite happy with how the session went. My primary goal of introducing the boys to gaming was achieved, and I think I helped demystify the process of gameplay and improvisational collaborative storytelling for my friend, should he decide to don the GM mantle in the future. We may very well continue this game monthly via Zoom. And, at the very least, I suspect that a minimum of one more copy of Dungeon World will be sold, as the nine year old spent a good part of the next morning reading through my sole copy of the book.
 
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This is awesome!

I wish I could have been a little birdy perched on your shoulder to watch the game! And the broad strokes of the setting draw me in immediately. I would love to play a character in those enchanted lands!

The Discovery conversation that the game ended upon was provocative. You definitely led a interesting conversation there. How did you feel about your GMing overall? My guess is that (a) you did quite well and (b) you did it confidently (that is an observation from how you are as a player…your playing shows the GM in you in various ways). How did DW help you with a group this size and of this experience where D&D would have created struggle in uptake/galvanizing creativity?

@Nephis , what do you feel was “the play of the game?” Did you feel compelled to “show them the way” a bit (given your seasoning and their noob-state) or did you draw back to encourage them to act (that can be a tricky line to navigate)? How did that go (whichever your choice)? Did the mother or father talk about their boys’ play choices? If so, what did they say?
 


Nephis

Explorer
This was definitely a fun session!
@Nephis , what do you feel was “the play of the game?” Did you feel compelled to “show them the way” a bit (given your seasoning and their noob-state) or did you draw back to encourage them to act (that can be a tricky line to navigate)? How did that go (whichever your choice)? Did the mother or father talk about their boys’ play choices? If so, what did they say?
The "play of the game" could definitely have descended into chaos, due to many factors (some of which @darkbard mentions above, myself below), but the GM proved masterful in corralling the varied attention and channeling the varied energy levels of such a disparate group of players, all the while teaching most of the group new rules, etc., making for very effective play, somehow without GM force. I mean, crazy exclamations of unlikely scenarios (e.g. I leap from the tree and chop their head off!) were broken down into roll-able possibilities and woven into the shared creation of fiction and gameplay (okay: it sounds like you're making a Defy Danger (Dex) move combined with Backstab). The two boys were more familiar with roleplay, it seemed to me (perhaps in part due to that screentime in addition to the reading material @darkbard mentions above?;)), than their parents, but all four were game for the ... err ... game! Honestly, the "corralling" - or herding of the player-cats - I mentioned was more at the beginning, before we all got absorbed into play.

There were definitely moments of "show the way" but not in a overly pedantic way, more in giving examples of possibilities, perhaps? The "teaching" was more within the play itself, trying to react to their actions as I felt Knelle - a halfling Druid living as a hermit in a swamp - naturally would. Here are some examples of how it worked out:
  • that "peeing incident": Sven declares that he will pee - Knelle makes her presence known to forestall this (with Knelle's player giving Sven's player a seriously hard stare!) - Sven insists he will continue, resulting in the rather cranky Druid's decision to Shapeshift and attack the intruder.
  • after Knelle has changed "constricted victim" from Sven to the Lizardfolk, when Throndir declares he will make a second Called Shot, this time at the constricted Lizardfolk, Knelle's player reminds him that the Druid is constricting the LF's upper torso and around his head - e.g. the larger lower torso is open for attack; e.g. perhaps the Called Shot shouldn't be for the LF's head. Of course he was going to miss and of course he was going to hit Knelle instead! (most of Knelle's damage was from friendly fire, in my memory)
  • the bonds: Knelle's bond changing - as @darkbard alludes to above - from a danger to Knelle possibly (probably?) becoming the danger: her alignment is Neutral: has Throndir just become the Unnatural Menace Knelle has vowed eliminate?
  • the bonds: one of Sven's is Knelle is soft, but I will make them hard like me. After the anaconda attack, I turned to Sven's player and asked Does Sven still think Knelle is soft?
  • the bonds: Knelle's other bond is Aaron smells more like prey than a hunter, having decided that the Rogue looked weakest of the males. Having just constricted Sven, I mentioned that the name in that bond may switch. These examples gave our trusty GM a chance to forecast a bit the end of session resolution of bonds.
  • the importance of checking the state of the party before embarking on a Perilous Journey: everyone was guns ablaze to race headlong into the wilderness to find the villagers (perhaps because they, unlike Knelle, had more than half of their original hit points!). Knelle's player asked them to examine how everyone looked, in term of health: e.g. Knelle looks like she's in pretty bad shape, and perhaps we need to take a moment before racing into danger!!!
Regarding parental interference, the only thing I can think of was the Telepathy spell @darkbard mentions above, and - as Lang was the actual leader of the group - it was seamlessly done, the two boys accepting the directions (it happened a couple of times) as the leader's natural action. Both parents seemed as interested as the boys in playing the game and not in over-parenting.

I would make a slight edit to @darkbard's description re the Perilous Journey move (it was late when we finished the session, and I had only my part specifically to keep track of, while GM @darkbard had six - each of ours and his own!): the result is basically the same. Knelle would Scout Ahead: I had a quick convo with Throndir's player, establishing that - since Knelle was in familiar territory - it made sense for her to Scout, while Throndir - being more concerned with provisions than the non-food-consuming Druid - would Manage Provisions. @Manbearcat, I guess this could be used as an example of my "showing the way": in that convo I quickly pointed out that Lang, as Wizard with high Int should perhaps navigate (this also fitted her roll as actual leader of the group), while the Ranger and Druid should probably take care of Scout Ahead and Manage Provisions, with our high Wis. Everyone agreed (I think. I don't actually remember if the boys did or not!)

I chose as my 7-9 score result "you discern a beneficial aspect of the terrain" - "remembering" where the path of terra firma lay within the boggy terrain, me scooting under those raised roots, while the taller humans and elf did otherwise. This was why our navigator (also rolling a 7-9) received the Discovery result from the GM, with an added danger: the vines hanging down were recognizably dangerous - perhaps to Throndir and/or Knelle. The latter may have resulted from a Spout Lore roll Knelle made (not a Discern Realities roll: remember, we finished late and our memories were tired!) which brought up Acorax (My Spout Lore was, of course, another "show the way" move on my part, giving - hopefully subtle - examples of how to get answers along the way). The name of Acorax poppin up in Knelle's memory frightened her and caused her to urge the party onward away from this dark place, but...

The Discovery definitely led into a promising direction for the player of Lang - a strong storyteller herself, if not a seasoned roleplayer. She had previously been sitting back somewhat, using her telepathy to keep her guys in line a bit (e.g. reminders not to pee on the Druid, reminders to perhaps work with the nice Druid!), but now could expand upon her imagination, which our friendly GM could draw out with questions and comments, as aptly described in his above post.

In my memory, game play ended with Sven - against our admonition to take care - going ahead in his attempt to enter the tunnel and being stung by a vine. Or about to be! o_O
 
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darkbard

Hero
  • I would make a slight edit to @darkbard's description re the Perilous Journey move (it was late when we finished the session, and I had only my part specifically to keep track of, while GM @darkbard had six - each of ours and his own!): the result is basically the same. Knelle would Scout Ahead: I had a quick convo with Throndir's player, establishing that - since Knelle was in familiar territory - it made sense for her to Scout, while Throndir - being more concerned with provisions than the non-food-consuming Druid - would Manage Provisions. @Manbearcat, I guess this could be used as an example of my "showing the way": in that convo I quickly pointed out that Lang, as Wizard with high Int should perhaps navigate (this also fitted her roll as actual leader of the group), while the Ranger and Druid should probably take care of Scout Ahead and Manage Provisions, with our high Wis. Everyone agreed (I think. I don't actually remember if the boys did or not!)

I chose as my 7-9 score result "you discern a beneficial aspect of the terrain" - "remembering" where the path of terra firma lay within the boggy terrain, me scooting under those raised roots, while the taller humans and elf did otherwise. This was why our navigator (also rolling a 7-9) received the Discovery result from the GM, with an added danger: the vines hanging down were recognizably dangerous - perhaps to Throndir and/or Knelle. The latter may have resulted from a Spout Lore roll Knelle made (not a Discern Realities roll: remember, we finished late and our memories were tired!) which brought up Acorax (My Spout Lore was, of course, another "show the way" move on my part, giving - hopefully subtle - examples of how to get answers along the way). The name of Acorax poppin up in Knelle's memory frightened her and caused her to urge the party onward away from this dark place, but...

The Discovery definitely led into a promising direction for the player of Lang - a strong storyteller herself, if not a seasoned roleplayer. She had previously been sitting back somewhat, using her telepathy to keep her guys in line a bit (e.g. reminders not to pee on the Druid, reminders to perhaps work with the nice Druid!), but now could expand upon her imagination, which our friendly GM could draw out with questions and comments, as aptly described in his above post.

In my memory, game play ended with Sven - against our admonition to take care - going ahead in his attempt to enter the tunnel and being stung by a vine. Or about to be! o_O
@Nephis is, of course, correct in her recollection of the last moments of play. It's less than amusing to me how my memory has degraded in middle age, even from just a few days prior. In my hopefully unnecessary defense, we had a very active day Saturday; we were playing past my usual bedtime; and something about my retelling of the PJ wasn't sitting right with me, but I couldn't figure out exactly how to reconstruct the sequence of events, having already put in quite a bit of work on the recap as it was and tiring of thinking about it further.
 

darkbard

Hero
The Discovery conversation that the game ended upon was provocative. You definitely led a interesting conversation there. How did you feel about your GMing overall? My guess is that (a) you did quite well and (b) you did it confidently (that is an observation from how you are as a player…your playing shows the GM in you in various ways). How did DW help you with a group this size and of this experience where D&D would have created struggle in uptake/galvanizing creativity?
1. I was pretty pleased with my GMing overall. Sure, I forgot a few things (like the Fighter's Signature Weapon piercing through 2 of the lizardfolks' armor). But considering we had only one copy of the book (in my possession), with digital aids verboten for the evening, I don't think I struggled too much. I had forgotten that 15 year old boys will be 15 year old boys, though, and probably should have emphasized the cooperative nature of the PCs to counterbalance individual PC advocacy somewhat. I felt pretty confident going in, for these were completely inexperienced players, with little to no expectations, and they were super eager to play and learn, which facilitates confidence (he says, the former teacher in him shining through).

2. When my friend consulted me a few weeks back about possible ideas for RPGs to play with his family, I mentioned the 5E Starter Set begrudgingly, noting that so many of D&D's elements had entered the zeitgeist, and so his boys would have a passing familiarity with them. But I also know that D&D of any edition is pretty far along on the complexity scale and with many specialized rules not shared between classes, and with too much left to DM fiat, which works against the kind of cooperative storytelling game that interests me, especially with 5E's peeling back of 4E's AEDU structure. PbtA's streamlined Basic Moves and limited but focused and, I would argue, trope-enabling Playbook Moves seemed easier to me to teach in a few hours session. That DW shares the vast bulk of D&D's cultural material allows the game to partake of the best of both worlds. That the 2d6+ modifier resolution system stochastically produces mixed outcomes (in comparison with what is often a binary outcome in D&D) helped propel play via the snowballing nature of checks in the game, thus making for very few, if any, moments of indecision, awkward pauses (ht Craig Ferguson), or pressure on the GM to direct play in any meaningful way beyond turning the players' answers, characterizations, etc back to them via questions and so on.

ETA: I think DW's first session PC creation rules (especially Bonds) as a group plus shared world creation via the map contrast significantly with D&D's typical process of discrete PC creation and especially the world being the creation and sole purview of the DM. Sure, plenty of groups create PCs together and some DMs allow some player input to the world (usually as it pertains to their individual PC), but I speak here in generalities. I think DW's process offloaded much of the DM "burden" to the table as a shared process, and facilitated our getting on the same page (relatively) quickly.
 
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