At some point in the future, I’m planning on running another West Marches-style campaign. I’ve been a part of one before: run using the Dungeon World system, with a bunch of other GMs, for our local University roleplaying club, we called it Living Dungeon World. That would make my upcoming1 campaign Living Dungeon World 2.0.
If you’re hoping for a detailed post on the finished product of LDW2, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Instead, this is a short list of changes I’m planning on making, and notes on the process as a whole.
Premise: a hopeful corpse
Stock fantasy2 is dead like disco. In fact, the first major change we made to Living Dungeon World in the 1.0 days was to port it from the standard Dungeon World to a somewhat more flavourful setting.
The first thing I thought about, when I started considering version 2 of Living Dungeon World, was what sort of world I wanted to run this thing in. Ideally, I wanted something:
- that was different enough from stock fantasy to feel new and refreshing
- that was still accessible to newbies
- that still allowed the players the normal West Marches-style stories of exploration, discovery, and overcoming obstacles.
About the same time, I stumbled across the computer game Hyper Light Drifter – or, more specifically, its bone-chilling retro-styled introduction, and immediately I knew I wanted to play in this world.3
And that’s when I settled on the premise of Living Dungeon World 2.0, which goes something like this:
Civilisation collapsed some time ago. The so-called civilised races are gone. The planet that birthed them has been rendered uninhabitable. We are the ones who follow those races. We live in the tiny self-contained habitats the lost races built, connected by forgotten magics and faulty technology.
The party, obviously, consists of members of these new races. They venture forth into unexplored habitats, trying to reclaim land, recover lost artefacts, and discover the secrets of the lost races. It’s like a mashup of Numenera, classic Sword and Sorcery, and Alasdair Reynolds’ Rust Belt.
I’ve played through a few systems since our first run at Living Dungeon World, but I’m still pretty happy with Dungeon World as a system for this sort of game. It’s easy to pick up, adventures are super-simple to prep (unlike some systems I could name), and it has plenty of hooks for customisation. That’s important, because customising is one thing I want to do.
A more interesting set of species
The first thing to go is the set of standard fantasy races. I understand why Dungeon World’s races are set up like they are, but for anything other than stock fantasy, it’s limiting.4
Making a bunch of new playable species for the players is its own challenge, but a lot of the effort is purely fictional, rather than mechanical. These species have their own attached mechanics, however:
Each species has a set of six or so species moves. Three of these are basic moves, available to characters of all levels; three are advanced moves, only available to characters of level six or above. Whenever a character levels up, they may take a move from their class list, or they may alternatively take a move from their species list. In addition, each character gets one of the species moves at character creation, mimicking the current DW racial moves.
Species are defined not just by their characteristics, but by their tendancies and foibles. A certain species’ culture might lean towards being fatalistic, or renowned for their arts, or preoccupied with status. That’s not to say that every member of the species follows this stereotype, but it’s a defining feature, a yardstick by which you’ll be measured against, whether you want to be or not.
Each species has a set of four possible keys. These keys replace the old alignment moves, and trigger slightly differently (see below). Importantly: two of these keys reinforce sterotypes about the species, while two of these keys subvert stereotypes about them.
For example: The Kynn are a people known both for their sense of personal honour, and a brand of fatalism that might seem pessimistic or even depressive to outsiders. Two of the four keys for Kynn characters are:
Fatalist: hit this key when you discover a clear portent of death, chaos, or failure.
Something to Prove: hit this key when you achieve something previously believe impossible, or avert something previously believed inevitable.
Dungeon World usually allows you to select an alignment from a list. Along with that alignment, you’ll get a special end-of-session move that will net you experience if you fulfil its conditions. These moves are great for reinforcing old-school D&D ideas about alignment and its role in the game world, but a bit limiting otherwise.
In LDW2, I plan on replacing experience moves with keys. Keys work pretty much the same way as experience moves, but:
- You get two of them
- You pick from one global list (+4 species/culture-specific keys) rather than a class-specific list
I’m currently torn between having players mark experience at the end of the session, as they do now, and having them mark their keys as soon as they fulfil the requirement in the middle of the game (and just limiting them to hitting each key once per session). Functionally these are very similar; however, I’m interested in seeing whether players will be more motivated to hit their keys if there’s an immediate action they get to take as a result - even if it’s as simple as checking a box.
The list of available keys is reflective of characters’ varied motivations in exploring the wilderness. The plan is to make them varied enough that people can pick keys they feel reflect their character, and applicable enough that players can push towards their keys in most sessions.
There’s plenty of other cool mechanics that previous systems have built around keys (variable XP key triggers and Lady Blackbird’s buyoffs come immediately to mind), but I feel that too much crunch surrounding them will detract from the main feature of the campaign, which should be exploration, combat, and solving puzzles.
There’s a few things I’ll be codifying and making explicit for LDW2 that, well, they’re not part of DW’s core rules per se, but they’re still worth discussing.
Travel and time
Dungeon World’s Undertake a Perilous Journey move is a great abstraction of travel through the wilderness: it takes what once was a gruelling hex-crawl and turns it into three quick dice-rolls, with a variety of interesting outcomes.
For a West Marches-style game, however, travel and exploration are kind of important: enough so that it’s worth adding more rules around wilderness travel.
I’m going to be building my map using a ten-mile hex grid. This is a somewhat arbitrary number, but it means that a party should be able to cross one rough terrain hex in a day. The rule of thumb right now is:
- Easy terrain (grasslands, gentle hills, light forest): 3 hexes/day
- Moderate terrain (moderate forest, hills): 2 hexes/day
- Rough terrain (foothills, heavy forest): 1 hex/day
- Very rough terrain (swamps, mountains): probably 0.5 hexes/day
Roads will probably make moderate terrain easy, or rough terrain moderate, or very rough terrain rough. More importantly, they’ll give you some sort of landmark to follow (attempting to travel using dead reckoning will likely put you at a disadvantage to your trailblazing roll).
I’m hoping that I can put something interesting in each hex: a lot of these will be populated “just in time”, so I don’t have to spawn five hundred encounters at the start of the campaign. I would like to have some sort of “you stumble across the hex feature” check for travel, but I’m not sure what form it will take yet. Of course, if you’re actively looking for something in a hex, I suspect you’ll automatically come across it.
Monsters and combat
The main way we make monsters more powerful in Dungeon World is through the fiction. Consider the almost canonical example of the 16 hp dragon:
We’ve all played ages of video games and ‘classic’ RPGs (with the classic fantasy tropes) where we’re taught that fighting the monster is a matter of just doing enough papercuts that it falls down while living long enough to do so (the WoW or Final Fantasy model).
But in Tolkien Smaug wasted a village, killed thousands, but was killed by a single arrow placed correctly in a missing scale.
Making monsters more challenging by upping their hit points and damage – the only two quantitative measures of their power – is considered a bit gauche, and at high levels those numbers will become ridiculous.
The problem is that fictionally powerful monsters, while great for the narrative, are difficult to reliably scale. This is a bit of a problem when we consider the idea of danger gradients in a West Marches game:
When I was creating the game map I marked each region with a specific encounter level (EL) to gauge the kind of threats that were normal there. The logical pattern was a rising gradient of danger: the farther you get from the safety of town, the more dangerous the land became.
In other words: the different “biomes” of your West Marches campaign should reliably provide threats of different levels (and, as the characters level, they should be able to venture further and further into the more dangerous sections of the map). That’s tricky to model when a lot of your monsters’ abilities (i.e. moves, special qualities) are qualitative.
There’s another issue I have with scaling combat in Dungeon World: by default, the players are an incredibly active party in combat, and they’re always rolling against a standard target number. Once you’ve got, say, your Strength and Dexterity up to +2 or +3, you’ve got a pretty good (42% or 58% respectively) chance of rolling a 10+ on any Hack and Slash or strength/agility-related Defy Danger move the GM throws at you. Sure, the GM can make sure every aggressive move requires rolling to Defy Danger, or just start throwing hard moves at you from the get-go, but I can’t help but feel these are – well, almost a manifestation of GM fiat. After all, it’s not that the rules say I can use a hard move against you: I just feel the narrative demands it. This is fine in a game whose main focus is grand epic story-telling, or one party of heroes fighting the odds; in a campaign more about strategy, about providing different-level encounters in different areas, though, it feels like the rules are not quite adequate. Almost like we have a conflict of agendas.5
I’m not sure of how to fix this yet. Obviously, I can just try to adapt my play-style to the area in question, and it’s easy enough to give more dangerous monsters more dangerous moves (we do this anyway in the process of creating monsters). I’m also hoping that the encounters can be more than just toe-to-toe slugfests, giving different monsters different weaknesses, strengths, or even having them be invulnerable unless you “solve the problem” correctly. One advantage here: Dungeon World characters are naturally pretty resiliant, allowing them to fail without all perishing in the attempt.
And, at this stage, hypothetical ↩
By which I mean the standard post-Tolkein D&D of dwarves and elves, goblins and orcs, wizards and fighters, potions of healing and +1 swords. ↩
For what it’s worth, I’m actually incredibly bad at Hyper Light Drifter – I’m just not great at twitch-heavy games, and this feels like the epitome of twitch-heavy games. Which is a crying shame. ↩
It’s interesting to see Pathfinder 2.0 start the shift away from fantasy tropes like races as well. D&D and its bretheren have been gradually shifting away from “classical” (i.e. “ripped from Tolkein”) heroes for some time now, but this taxonomic change feels like a great chance to stir things up. ↩
Spoiler alert: that’s exactly why this mismatch exists. ↩