Session Zero


If you like quest stories like Gawain and the Green Knight or the Grail cycle, then you may want to check out the new tool I've published on my itch page. Follow the Bones is a set of supplementary rules and tables for generating weird and surprising quests in a medieval fantasy forest. It's suitable for group play, but also useful as a way of generating unexpected encounters and scenes in a solo game.

Some design notes: I've been kicking a prototype of Follow the Bones around the NSR Discord server for a few months now, where I hacked it together as a setting builder for Yochai Gal's Cairn. The current version of Cairn has a very lightly implied setting, and I cooked up Follow the Bones as a procedure for rounding out those suggestions, without being too definite about the greater world of the game. That said, the NPCs and items mentioned in the prompts are statless, so there's no reason you couldn't also use it to supplement other fantasy games, like Trophy or Dungeon World.

The idea was simply to use randomly combined impressions, selected by rolling several four-sided dice, to evoke scenes and situations. As the imagery accumulates, the outline of a plot may begin to take shape. That's strung together along a journey narrative — you've set out to find a specific cairn in the Wood — which gives the succession of scenes a loose kind of coherence. If you're acquainted with the weird literature of medieval fairy tales and legend, the way that these incidents compound upon one another and reflect back onto the significance of your character's quest should feel familiar.

The Forests of Another Name jam seemed like a good occasion to give the whole thing a final polish. A few other entries have already been submitted, and I know of at least a half-dozen other designers and artists who are working on more, so if you enjoy Cairn, be sure to check that out.

#FollowTheBones #Cairn #SymbolicCity #itch #Trophy #DungeonWorld #gamejam

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

Reading through Perilous Wilds and Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I've started to form some ideas for how to address my frustrations with Dungeon World. One way role-playing games express the character of their respective worlds is through encounters. The party is given an opportunity to engage with some other person or creature. Sometimes, the subject of the encounter is a proper noun, like the principle antagonist of a written adventure. Others times, we're dealing with common nouns, the conventional fodder of the setting or scenario, usually summoned up by rolling a die and consulting a table.

It's the potential of those tables that I find interesting. As noted previously, my goal is to inject more specificity into the game world. The proper nouns might seems like the most obvious vehicle for that. They talk. They recur. They follow their own agendas and have names that conjure fictitious languages. They're better developed qua character — or, at least, they should be. But it occurs to me that you can do just as much worldbuilding by designing thoughtful tables for random encounters. Indeed, table design may even be better for worldbuilding.

For my purposes, what's left off is almost as important as what's included. The DW rulebook includes a catalog of monsters. A GM could very easily number the entries and use the section as a table for rolling random encounters. It's even sorted by environment. But the list is a hodgepodge of elements, compiled mostly from the greatest hits of other RPG settings. Each on its own may deliver that small jolt of enthusiasm we demand from genre adventures, but all thrown together they're a hodgepodge. Rather than a thematically cohesive world, what they suggest is, well, Dungeons & Dragons, and since this is not D&D, it often feels generic. Throwing in bespoke creatures is one way to assert an identity, but unless it's accompanied by a process of winnowing away the vestiges of other games, that identity is apt to get lost.

Just as importantly, building the world this way goes a long way toward preserving the flexibility of a game like DW. Yes, I'm talking about prepping stock creatures for encounters, but because they're the common nouns of the game world, they can be deployed randomly, as part of the process where you “play to find out what happens.”

#DungeonWorld #worldbuilding

My group has recently wrapped up a high fantasy campaign, our first time using Dungeon World. It was rocky in most of the ways that the first time using an unfamiliar system will tend to be rocky. Those hitches get ironed out with practice. But there were also dissatisfactions that have more to do, I reckon, with Dungeon World itself. Now that we've moved on to a different game for a while, I'm actively looking for ways to address them the next time we circle back to DW.

The tricky part, I realize, is that I want two things that, though not quite diametrically opposed, tend to pull in different directions. One is flexibility. The other is specificity.

A major strength of DW is the way it fosters improvisation. A GM is free, of course, to prep as much material as they'd like ahead of time, and in our initial campaign I spent an appreciable amount of time each week doing just that. But the core rules are distinctly tooled for building out a world through play. Why would I eschew that? High fantasy games are numerous enough that there's little point in sticking to one if you're not going to lean into the features that distinguish it. So choosing a different game the next time we want to play high fantasy is an option, but I enjoy the way DW plays. Part of that is its flexibility, and I want to preserve that quality.

The specificity I want has to do with setting. As I understand it, DW was designed to make the conventions of old-school high fantasy games playable in the newer style ushered in by Apocalypse World. The game's setting is generic out of fidelity to those conventions. It defines some character classes and includes a bestiary, but to the degree that DW presents a broader world, it does so mostly by gesturing toward the familiar. All of which is fine, but lends itself very easily to a generality that, by tasting a bit like everything, ends up having no distinct flavor of which to speak. Maybe I've been spoiled by Ultraviolet Grasslands, but what I'd like is for DW to present a world that asserts some identity of its own.

The major options offered by the game for fleshing out its setting are to either “convert” material from other games, or elaborate your own. The first has limited appeal. Converting D&D modules wouldn't really address my complaint, of course. Converting a more idiosyncratic setting might, but at least for comparison's sake, I'd rather run the more specific setting by its own ruleset at least once or twice.

So that leaves devising a completely new setting and gearing it to work with DW. The trick is to get it to do that without undermining the strength of either.