Session Zero


Another week, another canceled session. No one's fault, really. We've each been the missing player at least once. We all have other things going on: work, family, travel, social lives, other hobbies. I'm not going to bore you with the details to a story you already know.

So when this week's session fell apart, I made a suggestion. Next time, instead of cancelling when one player can't make it, maybe we play pick-up. We could just pause our ongoing campaign, and whoever is available can play something fast, lightweight and self-contained for that week's session. Throwaway characters. Procedural scenarios. The indie scene suffers no lack of games geared for quick-and-dirty, single-session play.

Not a new idea, I'm sure. Pick-up-and-play is a popular conceit in the indie scene. The trick to playing pick-up is having everything arranged so that making the transition at a moment's notice is easy. A go-bag for one-shots.

So now I'm sorting out what I'll need. First of all, some games. This seems like a perfect opportunity to introduce DURF into the rotation. Possibly Cairn, too — though… do we need two medieval fantasy options? Maybe for switching tones, one breezy, the other grim. Yokai Hunters Society is a strong candidate. FIST for something modern? Sci-fi? Something with cowboys? I'm sure I'll find more.

What else? Watabou's One Page Dungeon Generator simplifies things immensely, so let's keep a folder of those on hand. There are literally hundreds of tables for rolling up enemies and loot — though, I'll probably cobble together my own, for aesthetic reasons. is an essential resource for quickly spinning up a YHS scenario. I can keep a notebook of prompts, toss-off characters and random details that occur to me, or that I find floating about in the culture. The aim is to have a liberal mix of ready-made elements that I can draw from the moment they're needed.

At some point, I'll have my players make up some back-pocket characters — just a bundle of stats and character traits that they can whip out any time there's a pick-up game. Moorcockian Eternal Champion types that (with a little conversion) recur throughout the settings of our little pick-up game multiverse. No point in burdening them with the demands of a character arc. They're out for adventure, or blood, or treasure. That's good enough; now cut to the chase.

Most of all, we've got to keep the stakes low. Nothing carries over into the following session. Sure, the heroes can die, but go ahead, revive them the next time we play. A little plot can be fun — but only a little. And coherence? That's for long campaigns. The epic saga will still be there, ready to pick back up when everyone's at the table. Maybe next week.

#DURF #Cairn #YokaiHuntersSociety #pickupgame

My group's UVG campaign is ongoing, and I've been reading through another system in anticipation of what we'll try next (more on that later), but I had an out-of-town weekend lined up, so I decided to take a break from both of those and bring along a much smaller-scale game for a quick read-over: Emiel Boven's DURF.

What initially drew me in was Boven's tone and art, particularly on “Lair of the Gobbler,” an introductory “dungeon module” released alongside ver. 2.0 of the core game. Having now read through both, I'm toying with the idea of running DURF between long campaigns of other games. There's a breeziness to the style that makes it appealing as a palate cleanser, and the rules lend themselves to running fast-paced, single-session adventures. The core rules provide virtually no procedures for play outside of dungeon-crawling, and at 12 A5-sized pages, even the dungeon-crawling is comparatively bare bones.

Hit Dice may be the most interesting detail of the system. (D&D also has a Hit Dice procedure, used mostly for character creation and downtime activity. This is different.) Rather than track diminishing HP until it reaches zero, characters add up their wounds and attempt to roll over that number with their HD. Given that a failing throw results in death, you could understand Hit Dice as simulating the odds that any given wound will be fatal — minimum 1:6 for a newly created character. Boven lists “risky combat” as one of the elements he designed around, but if a random chance of dying on the first hit seems like a touch too risky, there are caveats. Characters take no damage until they've exhausted any Armor points their equipment grants. Characters can add Buffs to their rolls at the cost of Stress. And GMs can give the option of rolling a saving throw.

Hit Dice also stand in for the traditional character levels: Accumulate 1,000 times as much XP as your current HD and you add another die to your character's pool, up to 12, progressively lowering the odds that any given wound will prove fatal. Advancement also allows characters to increment their attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower) or learn a news spell, but that's about as far as character-building goes. The emphasis stays narrowly focused on the action.

In fact, the core DURF book spells out practically nothing of a world beyond some weapons and spells, mostly in the conventional mold of medieval fantasy. “Lair of the Gobbler” expands the setting a bit, but the module is so self-contained that you likely won't catch tell of borgles and rootkin without it, and may not ever encounter them again. There are a few references to the setting beyond the dungeon where the action takes place — just enough to frame that action, really — and virtually no explicit opportunities to play them anyway. The writing and illustrations evoke the broader genre with a cartoonishness that's more playful than smirking. As a result, the humor avoids self-deprecation. This, is seems to say, is all in the service of fun.

That I find all of this appealing might seem a little odd, given the frustrations I've expressed about Dungeon World. It's easy to make too much of the similarities between the two games. Both are presented as high fantasy dungeon-crawls. But DW is over-designed for the sort of quick-and-dirty adventuring DURF affords. Its more extensive rule set and DM guidance is geared toward supporting collaborative world-building and elaborating characters with complex narrative relationships. I'm willing to stick with DW because the promise of that sort of play exerts a strong appeal. My frustrations with it stem from how little the setting helps distinguish it from a narrative space that feels somewhat gerrymandered.

DURF, by contrast, charts a very streamlined trajectory toward swords-and-sorcery, one not characterized by all of that scaffolding for holding up emergent narrative. It invites players to play fast and loose within the tropes of high fantasy goofiness, and is very direct in how it goes about fostering that.

#DURF #DungeonWorld