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Dungeon World or How I Learned to Stop Rolling and Love the Story

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Image courtesy of Lydia (CC BY 2.0)

I think the biggest revelation I’ve had recently, in terms of my understanding of roleplaying games at least, has come from playing Dungeon World. Dungeon World a game a friend of mine introduced me to a year or so ago, as a fast and furious replacement for some of the more standard and in-depth sword & sorcery style games (I’m looking at you Dungeons and Dragons). At first I was skeptical, but it quickly won me over through its simplicity, variety and also the way in which it pushed much of the heavy lifting of GMing back into the hands of the players.

Dungeon World encourages an experience in which the players really have as much responsibility for “running” the game as the GM does, and, as a person who had a run of being forever-GM for a long time, this deeply appealed to me. However, this isn’t a post about how much I love Dungeon World. What I’m going into today is the only substantial hiccup I ever encountered when running Dungeon World, and which almost had me discarding the game entirely; the question of when to make the players actually roll dice.

Dungeon World turns the normal roleplaying game experience on its head in a lot of ways; it often seems a lot like a case of convergent evolution, producing something that looks a lot like D&D, but plays completely differently. One of the ways it does this is by providing a list of “moves” players can perform, with predetermined, but with room to be interpreted, results, determined by the roll of the dice. Often these results, even the negative ones, are really just an impetus for the player or GM to make something interesting happen, with the most common result of most rolls being something along the lines of “you succeed, but then this happens”, with the “this” being left up to the GM to determine.

This might seem odd to a lot of more experienced roleplayers, as the standard definition of a roleplaying game tends to be that it is a game in which you can do anything you can imagine. A list of standard moves would seem to fly right in the face of this concept. Since the dawn of time roleplaying games have tended to follow a similar pattern, regardless of the dice used; the player states what they intend to do, the GM applies a difficulty to the task, and the player tries to roll high enough to achieve this.

In most games I’ve been part of, this mechanic is extended to almost everything a character does. Arm wrestle a guy? Sure, DC12 Strength check please. Bartering with a salesman? Okay, DC15 Diplomacy check to get a good price. We’re all familiar with this, right?  If it isn’t 100% guaranteed to succeed, you’ve got to pass a check to do it.

This is where Dungeon World threw me. In one of my sessions, a player decided to leap a fence. He wasn’t doing it to get away from an enemy or to reach an objective; he just wanted to be a bad-ass and walking around to the gate seemed like the chump’s way to get to the other side. Standard adventurer fair, right? So, assured that the game would be prepared to deal with this, I looked to the list of prescribed moves. None of them fit the task.

Defy Danger? Well, it wasn’t a high fence and there was no pending threat; the player was just doing it for fun and to look cool.

Discern Realities? There was no challenge to gauge how high the fence was, and there were no hidden traps to notice.

I was really struggling. My GM lizard-brain told me that the player should be making a check if he wanted to do this action; in reality such an action would contain some chance of failure and maybe even injury.  I’d normally call for a Strength or Athletics check without even thinking about it.  Sure the check would be easy, but the player would still have to make the roll. Dungeon World didn’t give me that option, and that’s when it clicked for me.

Dungeon World is a system that only wants you to get into mechanics when the outcome could affect the story. If my player were leaping a chasm, there would be a good chance he could injure himself or drop an item into the gap, and so a Defy Danger check could well have been called for, but only to see how such a dangerous act would affect the ongoing story.  On the other hand, if said chasm was simply a tidbit of description in the party’s travel through a twisting underground labyrinth, the players can simply describe how they crossed the chasm.  At the end of the day, your story requires the players to be on the other side of the chasm, so why make an issue of it, unless it’s meant to be pivotal to your plot?

Dungeon World is prompting you to run a game where the dice are rolled only when deciding something important to the ongoing narrative; where a mighty beast needs to be slain or evaded, a dire truth needs to be revealed, or a mayor persuaded to rally the townfolk to their home’s defence.  It reveals to you that making your heroes roll to perform mundane feats makes the whole game more mundane, and sword and sorcery is not the genre for the mundane.

This adjustment in thinking is achieved in two ways.  Firstly, the game only provides moves for interesting actions; it’s implicitly telling you that anything not listed in the moves is probably not something that you need to roll dice over.  Decide the outcome by other means.  Look at the characters, does it seem like something they could just do?  Consider whether a success or a failure is really going to make a difference to your game, or is it just going to slow everything down?  Let roleplay win the day, and allow your players to talk you around with interesting actions and dialogue.

Secondly, the game rewards failure.  This is one of my favourite features, since it means a roll’s outcome can never be bad; either you succeed by some measure, or your character is rewarded with XP. You learn from your mistakes.  This also has the interesting effect of rendering frequent rolls disproportionately beneficial to the players.  If you’re asking the party to roll for over and over again, to complete relatively mundane tasks, every failure is another point of XP; to look at it another way, the game is asking you, before calling for a roll, to consider whether a character would learn something meaningful from a failure.  If they wouldn’t, they probably don’t need a roll.  They are the heroes after all.

Dungeon World is also a game which is comfortable trusting the GM to determine when it’s not worth rolling because something can’t happen.  What’s that, you’re attacking the dragon unarmed?  Well, that’s just not enough to hurt it.  Unfortunately, even with the best of luck, your fists just aren’t going to cut it; this dragon is tougher than that.  Draw your epic longsword?  Come up with a daring maneuver to topple some heavy crates onto your foe?  Parlay with the beast to distract it from its rampage?  Now we’re talking.

This isn’t to say Dungeon World is a game in which the players can never attack a dragon barehanded; instead it’s to say that it’s a game where the GM is trusted to set the terms of their story.

The lesson I learned from Dungeon World is that, as a GM, it’s up to me to facilitate my players, without holding the game up.  Let them be the big heroes the character sheet says they should be, and only let chance into the equation when the fate of the world (or at least the player’s world) really does hang in the balance.  And that it’s also okay to sometimes say no, if it serves your story.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

This poster looks about as computer-edited as the film itself.
This poster looks about as computer-edited as the film itself.

Okay, so having just seen this film a few hours ago, I wanted to post a couple of impressions I came away with.  Please be aware of potential spoilers.

  1. Distance and scale in this film seemed wildly out of whack.  More orcs than were at Helm’s Deep seemed to be available for this conflict, but 13 dwarves can make a difference?  A little confusing.  What’s that, Bilbo’s at Erebor?  Now he’s at Dale?  Back at Erebor again?  Oh, and now he’s gone to meet Thorin on the mountaintop.  Well, good thing that battle’s still going on.
  2. Excessive use of CGI.  I know this has been a major concern for me in the Hobbit films, when compared with the amount of physical effects used in Lord of the Rings, but Battle of the Five Armies had some especially egregious examples.  Excessively airbrushed Legolas jumping off falling blocks in mid-air like a mid 2000’s platformer game; a host of identical computer generated wood-elves running around in the background of any shot of Gandalf and Bilbo; also, I hope you like ever-shiny CGI gold that never looks quite right, because there sure will be a lot of it, just like last time.  If you’re going to have a treasure horde that is bigger than all the gold that exists on Earth (no really, look it up), then please make sure it looks like actual gold.
  3. Padded out plot.  I still feel like the Hobbit films would have made a single film of decent length, or at the very least two films.  I cannot shake the impression that every film has at least 30 minutes of material included just to pad it out.  This film includes such highlights as an entire storyline with Alfrid Lickspittle, otherwise known as the Master of Laketown’s weird Wormtongue-light assistant, that basically goes no-where and has no conclusion or real comeuppance for an incredibly annoying character.  His story could really have been sorted with a 3 minute scene ending in some form of humiliation, but alas, it was not to be.  I think Peter Jackson has some strange obsession with these frustrating characters.  This film also shows how pointless it was to introduce Bolg in the last film, only for Azog (of Defiling fame) to once again become lead villain in this film.  Yet another wasted scene.

Just a few observations, hastily typed up after watching.  Let me know whether you agree or not in the comments!


Between a rock and a hard place

Recently I’ve encountered a number of games, both as a player and as a GM, that have really made me think about the nature of game construction, more specifically how far games should go in providing frameworks that encourage players to take certain actions, the best way to go about doing it and whether they should do it at all.  I’ll try and explain what I mean.

At a most basic level a roleplaying game can be described as a series of rules which allow people to play in an alternate world through their characters.  The purpose of these rules or mechanics is to dictate what can or cannot be done; that’s pretty much the way I have always thought about the way roleplaying games operate.  They system functions as a restriction on imagination; in a game played entirely in the mind the rules induce challenge into a scenario, they tell the players they have to roll a certain number on a die to hit an enemy or leap a gap and stop the whole thing devolving into the equivalent of the classic playground “I hit you/No you didn’t” back and forth that occurs when multiple people’s imagined excellence clashes.  I always considered them necessary to allow the hobby to be a game, and not simply friends sitting around and jiving about what would be cool to imagine (which is fine and dandy, but isn’t really an RPG).

It has occurred to me recently, however, that this understanding fundamentally ignores the first part of that description; mechanics dictate what can be done in a game, as well as forbidding players from running riot.  They provide an example to the players of the kind of actions expected of their characters, and what niches their characters can fill.  This is something I don’t think I ever considered until I started playing/running less mechanically heavy games, but now is at the core of what I think about when I start to put a game together.  When I ran Exalted, I never worried that people might struggle to envision what their characters could do, because 90% of the mechanics in that game are rules which provide examples, in the form of charms or other powers, of abilities the characters have or actions they can take in game. On the other hand when I’ve come to run Dungeon World recently, or my own cut-down version of Exalted which completely removed charms as a mechanic, the most common issue I’ve run across is players being at a loss to understand what their characters are able to do.  The lack of restrictions means that there’s nothing to tell them what actions their characters can take.

This seems inexplicable to me, at least at first glance.  The focus of these games is that players should generally be allowed to do anything that seems right (see: awesome), only rolling for a resolution when presented with a real challenge.  They shouldn’t be bogged down with a list of specific moves and techniques which are the be all and end all of their abilities, they should be doing what seems in character, whether or not it was thought of by the game designers in the first place.  These more freeform games, by their very nature, lack a lot of the structures used by other games to tell players what they can’t do, but this missing game architecture is what throws some of my players through a loop.  They want their games to list the things they can’t do and tell them the specific things they can do, because otherwise they feel like they’re at a loss as to what their character is capable of.  It’s a case of crippling indecision; if you can do anything, how do you decide what you should do?

I struggle to understand this position; if anything I always over-think my characters and feel like I’m brimming over with cool ideas that I only wish weren’t held back by the dots/numbers on my sheet.  I rarely feel the characters I build are awesome enough to really represent what I envision.  I’m trying to describe an iconic character with roleplaying rules; I’m never left with enough points to really make my character as good as he seems.  This probably leads me to more and more to love narrative games, where the character’s influence comes more from the storytelling than the mechanics.

So this brings me back, very vaguely, to my original title.  This is my rock and a hard place, my struggle to find the perfect balance.  I’m stuck between, on the one hand, systems replete with rules and mechanics that detail every possible action and exclude any other functions (without GM intervention of course), and more freeform games that encourage players to do whatever they think right for their characters, but that inevitably leave some people dumbfounded as to what they think that should be.

Unfortunately it’s a conundrum I’m not completely sure how to solve.


Welcome to the New Old School

Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR
Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR

My Dungeons and Dragons experience started in the first year of my university experience (some time in 2007, if I remember correctly), with me being invited to play in a D&D 3.5 game.  I’d played Exalted for years, but I was completely uninitiated into the wider world of roleplaying games.  One of my high school friends had simply asked me along to try this roleplaying thing, and I’d been hooked.  Of course, I’d seen D&D in shops and the like, but when I did buy a starter set and took it home, it seemed completely alien.

As a person who had only ever played one roleplaying game, it seemed incredible to me that other games would have so vastly different and, seemingly, more complex rules.  So I put any interest in Dwarves, Elves, Fighters and Rogues to the back of my mind, and stuck with Exalted, until late 2007, of course.

I’d been searching for a roleplaying game group to get into to get my gaming fix, and this was the only one accepting new players, so I went along and got stuck in.  I can’t say I loved my first experience with Dungeons and Dragons, but it certainly piqued my interest, and within a few weeks I had my own PHB and was exploring all the various character options and how the mechanics worked.  Discovering a new game is always fun.

Regardless, the above is all just a rather roundabout way of explaining that, as far as Dungeons and Dragons goes, I came late to the game.  3.5 always seemed old school to me, and in truth, and I never had any interest in delving backwards into D&D history.  4th was more to my liking than 3.5 ever was, and from there I’ve found other games that do a better job of hitting my fantasy adventure button (see Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Dungeon World).

However, this changed once again when a friend who now lives quite some distance away invited me to play in a game with him over IRC, another thing that I hadn’t done in quite some time.  I used to use it quite a bit to discuss roleplaying games when I was at home and the only other people to discuss such things with in person were the people in my weekly game.  Talking your master plan over with your players tends to take some of the suspense out of it.  So when my friend mentioned the idea of playing a game over IRC, I was pretty interested.  I think if he’d asked me 4 years ago, before I graduated and all my spare time became devoured by the unwelcome beast that is employment, I would have turned him down.  Why play online with people I barely know, when I could simply call a few friends and arrange a game?  I think having 8+ hours of any weekday devoured by work has changed my perspective regarding this though, and I was actually quite excited at the prospect.

When he finally told me what we’d be playing, I was somewhat taken aback.  Dungeons and Dragons, the 1981 Moldvay edition, is at least how he described it to me.  This friend of mine has always had a penchant for more old school and brutal gaming, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised, but as I said earlier, this kind of gaming didn’t really appeal to me.  The idea of having multiple characters, because it’s pretty much accepted that one of them is going to die, or at the very least having henchmen/hirelings, not to back you up or provide skills you don’t have, but instead to either act as an ablative meat-shield, or to once again step up when your character inevitably takes one for the team, doesn’t exactly thrill me.  Wizards with 1 spell per day, rolled randomly.  Having to make a serious choice between food or a weapon.  It all pretty much sucked the life out of it for me.

But I’d like to think I’m not one to let a friend down, so defiantly I showed my face, or nickname at least, in the chat and set about creating a character, a necessarily brutally short process.  We rolled stats, slotted them in the order which we’d rolled them and then picked a class that made as good a use of them as we could.  As concepts grew, I found myself growing fond of my character, a burly but smart fighter from the cities, come to a small town as a hired sword to aid some adventurer’s raid a sorcerer’s castle.  The fondness worried me.  Every time someone spoke of long term plans for the adventure, it was pretty much assumed that one, if not all of us, would be dead at that point, replaced with a henchman or hireling who inherited their mission, and their share of the treasure.

It was as alien a game to now me as D&D 3.5 was to me back then in 2007.  Few of the concepts I held true about roleplaying games seemed to exist.  This wasn’t about the characters or the story, it was about the adventure as a mechanical device.  There was little in the way of great heroes or deeds.  We were more like a group of thugs seeking to raid a historical landmark.

I should have been dismayed and left disappointed.  Not so.  I actually enjoyed myself a great deal  The game’s lack of mechanical complexity in many areas was filled in by players interacting with each other and the landscape, and while I was certainly fond of my character, the knowledge that I could easily throw another one together in as long as it took to roll 3d6 six times and pick a class cheered me up considerably.  And if I didn’t like that character, I doubt he’d exactly last long either.

We paid a boatman to row us to a mysterious isle and disembarked on a beach adjoining a mighty castle, with a small hut and a chapel built on the sands.  Accosted by three cultists in robes carrying maces we had our first encounter.  And our first character died.  Our cleric, spell-less and who started with 2 hit points was blundgeoned to death by a crazed cultist in short order, which was something of a shock to me, but it only added to the game; we went onwards speaking the name of “Flock-Father Ignatius” as a deceased friend.  So we had 3 maces, procured from our dead enemies, and we found an ambiguous magic sword in their hut, which I, as the burly fighter, claimed for myself.  Then we went inside.

That was, by and large, our first session, and in the end, I was pretty excited about the whole thing.  I think there’s a certain joy in playing something completely new, that you don’t know enough about to be able to spend hours planning your character, or at least that’s simple enough that there’s really no planning to be done, and I think some of my enjoyment came from the fact that my first character was a pretty good one, I rolled well across the board for my stats and I ended up playing a Fighter, which is something I’ve been interested in doing for a while (I’m jonesing for some sword and board action).  I survived and I prospered, and there was something exciting about that.  The game felt less safe and I felt better for succeeding in spite of the danger.  How I would have felt had it been my character who had rolled poorly for his health and died in the first encounter, I don’t know.  I like to think I would smiled and carried on, but in reality, I think that I might have gritted my teeth and felt rather chagrined about the matter.

This isn’t really a review of Moldvay D&D, or even a send up (or down) of the session that I played in; although both were very much enjoyable, I don’t feel I have enough of a grasp on either to talk about their quality.  Instead I think I’m really just being a proponent of trying something new once in a while, even if the thing itself is something now quite old.  Getting stuck in a rut in anything, even the things you do in your free time that you enjoy can really be a death sentence.  If you’ve made it all this way to the end of this post, then I commend you and would ask you to do one thing that I think would make your last 10 or so minutes of reading worthwhile and go and find yourself a new game, or at least a game that is new to you.  Gather some friends, whether in reality or digitally, and delve into something you haven’t done before.  Even if you never play it again, I don’t think you’ll come away without having learned something.


Review: Justice League: War

Cover art copyright Warner Home Video.
Cover art copyright Warner Home Video.

I just finished watching Justice League: War, and I thought I’d post up a few comments about it.

Let me first say that while I am a big comics nerd, my love for comics generally lies with Marvel, so I haven’t read a great many DC comics, with the exception of big stand-alone titles, such as Batman: Year One, Superman: Red Son, Kingdom Come, etc…; I find DC’s monthly fare to be pretty substandard, but they tend to do iconic stories about their heroes very well, and they’re often a joy to read. DC does well when it paints in broad strokes and tells me about the characters that I care about doing interesting and different stuff.  I want to see Batman, Superman and the rest of the big names in DC pushed to their limit or doing incredible things, not just going through their weekly routine of fighting villains and bumping into 2nd and 3rd string characters who I really don’t understand or care about.

It’s for this reason I’m often so enamoured with the DC animated/cinematic universes, despite not following the characters anywhere near as closely as I do Marvel’s.  These offerings tend to either be new takes on existing material, in an attempt to pull in a new audience, something which I always find interesting to watch, or a rendering of an iconic past story, which is generally where I feel the Justice League and their ilk get interesting.

So, that said, I was excited to watch Justice League: War, knowing pretty much nothing about it, other than it was the latest DC Animated Original Movies offering, which is normally enough to make me want to watch it.  As the plot started to spin up, I was surprised to find that I had actually encountered this storyline before, and after a quick wiki, I found that Justice League: War is based on the New 52’s Justice League: Origins storyline, which I had read a couple of issues of back when it came out.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the comics when I read them, but I was happy to condense them into an hour or so of animated fun.

If there’s one phrase that I feel fully encapsulates Justice League: War it’s “hit and miss”.  Some characters were artfully portrayed, most specifically Batman and Green Lantern, who had some real character development throughout the film and some good banter in the beginning which really hooked me in.  Wonder Woman as well was pretty excellent; although her character doesn’t progress through much of an arc, she’s one of the most entertaining characters in the film.   Cyborg was interesting, but the film maybe lingered on him a bit too much.  His concept is pretty simple, and I felt that time could have been better used for rounding out other characters a little more.

Other members of the League were pretty uninspiring; Flash became pretty much boiled down to “fast-guy”, which I guess he is, but I would have liked to have known anything about him as a character.  As it stands, he just shows up, runs fast, and pings a few lines off of Green Lantern.  Shazam/Captain Marvel (they never call him the latter in the film) was also a weird one; he’s probably my number 1 DC hero, and I want him included in as many things as I can, but given that they gave almost no time to explaining what he was or how his powers worked, or anything really, he was pretty uninspiring, especially in a film that also has Superman as a main character.  I guess Shazam’s powers are pretty much 90% throwing balls of lightning around now?

The worst offender was in fact Superman himself.  If there’s one thing that’s important across any iteration of Superman, it’s that he be a “boyscout”, that he is essentially trying to be a nice guy.  He doesn’t always have to know how to do that, or what the right thing to do is in every situation, but he has to be trying to be the best he can be; he’s not smart, he’s just a good guy.  I would say that this film (or perhaps just Superman post New 52, I’m not 100% sure since I can’t say I’ve kept up with it) does the worst job of portraying Superman than any I’ve seen.  I’ve read and listened to a lot of commentary around Man of Steel, and a lot of people comment there about the destruction caused and people who die, and also the ending, but in that film, those things happen because he is trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t know how to do it, or what it is, at least not all the time.  In Justice League: War, Superman is just a cocky asshole; we’re introduced to him by having him beat the tar out of Green Lantern and Batman, without a word really traded between them, and he just continues to punch and destroy throughout the whole film, only pausing to try and get into Wonder Woman’s pants, like some popped-collar frat boy who just happened to come from Krypton.  I’ve never seen a portrayal of Superman that strays further from what I feel he should be.

There were definitely some cool scenes in this film, and I would recommend that anyone who likes the Justice League or just superhero films in general give it a watch.  Some of the final battle stuff with Darkseid is pretty excellent, but once again, he is a character who gets almost no explanation; we just have to accept that he really wants to take over Earth.  He has no connection with any of the other characters and almost no dialogue, and because of this, I don’t really feel he has much of a presence in the film.  He could be any other really strong villain.

Finally, I would say that, like a lot of offerings that include a significant team of DC superheroes, it begins to feel pretty awkward pretty quickly whenever Batman gets involved in a big fight.  We all know he’s an incredible guy. with some incredible skills, but this film tends to treat him as much the same as any of the other heroes in terms of the action.  It goes so far as to make it pretty explicit that the other heroes are shocked he’s just a guy in a cape, but he can apparently punch out Parademons with the best of them.  Maybe I’m being picky, but I think it’s fine for Batman to accept he’s outclassed in a straight up fight against certain enemies, and be thinking of a way to win without having to punch a 10 foot tall armoured space monster.

All in all, I would say Justice League: War is good, but with some really glaring problems that seriously impact on my enjoyment of it, and when compared to some of the other recent DC animated works, such as Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, really starts to show its flaws.


Plot Hooks

I had a conversation with my fiance last night; we were talking about a game of Exalted she had been running for a few friends and I, since a month or so before Christmas.  She’s never been confident in running games, so I tend to push her into trying to GM, as I think she can do it (and quite selfishly, it lets me play in more games…), and we’re now at the conclusion of her Exalted storyline.

I think this is probably the first time she’s had an opportunity to actually finish a game properly.  That isn’t to say we haven’t played entire story arcs in her games before, but this is the first time I think she’s hit that GM-wall of uninspiration (is that a word… spellcheck says no, but I like it) at just the right time to be able to end a game at a satisfying point.  In other games she’s run, we’ve finished a story arc, and they’ve always been fun, but we’ve always tended to lurch straight into another story, and it’s at that point she loses momentum, which is something I think anyone who has GMed a game can understand.  There can be any number of reasons for this situation, but that’s really the subject of another post, but suffice to say it looks like we might get to the end of our Exalted storyline and be able to leave the game there, which is, I feel, always more satisfying as a conclusion than leaving your characters in weird limbo, never knowing what the end of the story was to be.

And, to be honest, I’m quite proud of her for it.  I tend towards the latter fate, with most of my campaigns unceremoniously ending when I run out of ideas, get bored with the setting, or more likely get excited about something new.  So it seems that, with the main plot of her story as she set it out, she has about 1 session or less of material to go through before the story really comes to a close.  We save a town, stole some cool stuff right from under a scary badguy’s nose and killed their chief lieutenant; pretty fun stuff.  The issue that faces her now is that there are a couple of other plot hooks brought up in the campaign, and she’s um’ing and ah’ing about how to close them off.  She doesn’t really want to run any more of this game, but she feels that if we don’t resolve the outstanding issues, the series will go unfinished.

I could see where she was coming from, and I understood her point of view, but when she brought these points up, it very rapidly occured to me that I actually liked the idea of leaving some stuff unresolved.  Sure, I didn’t want to skip this last session and never see our characters conclude their epic adventure, but I also didn’t feel it was necessary for us to wander around the world addressing every last little dilemma or issue that had arisen.  I was happy with the idea that we’d done good, we’d get our rewards and then, in some mystical nonexistant future, our brave heroes would deal with what came next.  It seemed the proper way to end the adventure, knowing that there was always another one around the corner.

And then I concluded that maybe that’s something that I miss from my games.  I tend to try and make sure everything I include is a piece of plot to be used, or something essential to the story, like a Sherlock Holmes plot.  Every single object I describe ends up being some kind of chekov’s gun (yes, I know I’m using that reference slightly wrong, but you get my point).  However, when I consider this last adventure, I feel I very much like the unresolved issues; they give the feeling of a wider world.  Not every problem is for the players to solve, and certainly not right now.

So that’s my advice to take forward; leave some puzzles unsolved, some stories unresolved, some stones unturned.  You might find you like it.


Writing a Book

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do with my life is be a writer. You wouldn’t know it looking at the path my life has taken up until this point, but it’s something I always come back to, something I always find myself considering and bemoaning my failure to achieve.

I think the primary reason for this is because writing is something I feel I can do. Writing isn’t like drawing or sports or maths or any number of the other things that I know I can’t do, but wish that I could learn; writing is something that I know in my core I’m capable of, and that I enjoy doing.

And so I return to it time after time and think to myself

“You know what, I should take a crack at writing a novel! I could actually do that. Maybe it wouldn’t be the best, maybe it wouldn’t even be publishable, but I think it would at least be something I could be proud of.”

I put the proverbial pen to paper, or more realistically fingers to keyboard, and then I realise I’m not sure I have anything to write about, which is the part that really worries me.

I always get the impression that great writers are people who really have a story to tell, that they have an idea burning away inside them their whole lives until they suddenly discover a keyboard or something and then it all just comes flying out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means implying professional writers don’t do work, I don’t think it all just comes easy to them. I know they slave away tied to their writing for months or even years, crafting a whole book or even series of books out of their initial idea, and I have the most incredible respect for them. But that’s the part that I always find problematic. Where do they get that initial idea from?

Is it something they’re born with? Do they have a story inside them just desperate to be put on the page? Or are they just creative powerhouses, who can pull great stories from the world around them that inspires them? Or are they more like me (or at least were they once), just people who enjoy the craft and kept hammering away at it until something finally stuck?

To be entirely honest I really wish I knew. I’d like to know whether, in order to actually be a writer, you have to be the kind of person that ideas just pour out of, or whether, at least for some, the finding of the initial idea itself is as tough as making forging it into a whole novel.


Review: Dungeon World

I’ve been introduced to a new game recently, Dungeon World, and to be entirely honest I think it’s the first game I’ve played in the last few years for which I have nothing but praise. All credit for introducing this game to me goes to my friend Mike, my usual supplier of arcane and obscure indie games (or at least games that seem arcane and obscure to me, until he points me in their direction of the internet).

For me Dungeon World is my new primary fantasy adventure game. If anyone mentions to me that they want to play a fantasy game or a dungeon crawl, Dungeon World is my new go to game. Hell, I’m tempted to use it for almost any game that lends itself to a group of adventurers who fit into classes or archetypes, with some modification of course.

It’s beautifully simple; first each class has a character sheet with everything you need to know to create or play the character printed on it, including your hit dice, the numbers you can allocate to which attributes, everything. It’s all on there. No trawling through books for spells or special abilities; people pick their class and make their character, and it’s all done in about 15 minutes flat.

But the things that really make Dungeon World my new system of choice and future life partner are still to come. Firstly, the sheet that the players fill in prompts them to make characters beyond the numbers and abilities they are choosing. It asks them to pick a build, and a style and a look, which means that those players who would normally just put the numbers on their sheet and give no thought to how their characters would act or appear are prompted to go that extra step and inject some real life and personality into their characters.

The second gem hidden at the heart of this system, something which I feel is really unique, is that it gives just as much support and page-space to the GM as it does to the players. Obviously most games have pages of rules which allow the GM to run the game, but often it’s the equivalent of handing someone a toolbox and asking them to build a shelving unit, but without any instructions as to how to go about doing this. Obviously, some people know how to do this from scratch anyway, and that’s fine for them, but Dungeon World provides the GM with his own rules and systems to go about building their world and running their game.

With regards to world building it provides sheets to fill in for GMs to use in planning their adventures, but put together in a similar way as the player sheets to encourage you to create a world, challenges and antagonists, but without just assuming you would know how to pull a story out of nowhere and put it together in a manner that plays well, which is an assumption I think too many games make.

Actually running the game is a very strange experience for an old school GM, but one that I now wish all games would embrace. Initially any encounter generally sparks off in one of your already created set-pieces, which you are prompted to create using the world building system mentioned above. These set-pieces have built in consequences for player actions, and built in antagonists and challenges, but all built in by the GM when they put the campaign together. Furthermore GM/NPC actions are generally only taken as a result of player actions. The bad guys don’t get their own initiative, they react only in response to player’s actions. Sure, if they lie in ambush or initiate a combat, the antagonists might make the initial attack, but there’s no roll to see if they hit the players. It’s the players who defy danger, and their roll decides whether they succeeded, failed or somewhere in the middle, and prompt the GM to make a further action.

To people who’ve been playing roleplaying games for a long time, it seems a strange system, but even to an experienced GM the dance of action and consequence between players and the games master really take a lot of weight off of your shoulders. You’re not single handedly running the whole universe like some kind of massively powerful next generation console; you’re simply sitting at the helm of the adventure, tugging levers occasionally and pressing the odd button, to prompt the machine that is Dungeon World to further adventure.

In short I cannot recommend this system enough; at its core it has something for everyone. It’s ideal for brand new players, as it’s one of the simplest games to pick up and play I’ve ever seen, while still having enough depth and complexity to fund sessions and sessions of play. It’s also well placed for introducing players who have only played more “crunchy” systems, such as any of the Dungeons and Dragons games, to games where narrative is more important that the powers written on your sheet. It carries over just enough elements from classic roleplaying games to avoid looking like a totally free-form adventure system, but isn’t constrained by any of the same issues that I find drag games like that into the dirt, bickering about weapon ranges and base attack bonuses. Finally, I think it’s a breath of fresh air for any GM; it puts some of the onus of running a game back on the players, leaving you free to really enjoy the adventure, which I feel is a feature lacking from most other games out there. Classically as a GM you tend to think of yourself as “running” a game for your players; I think Dungeon World is one of the few games in which the GM can really say he’s playing as well.

Dungeon World can be found at and I heartily recommend checking it out.



I’ve made a new year’s resolution. I’m going to start writing again.

I pretty much stopped writing a good few months ago now, I think for a number of reasons. I was generally on a low, not really enjoying my work situation, which makes it really hard to come home and write, and I’ve also found that I’ve been a little uninspired with the games I’ve been playing recently. I don’t know why, they’ve been good games, I’ve certainly got no complaints.

Regardless, I’ve made a resolution; I’m going to refocus myself and dedicate some time, ideally each week, to at least posting up a new blog on here. I’ve dragged an old laptop out of storage, installed a brand new, stripped down OS to try and avoid distractions and to allow me to write somewhere other than in the front of my main screen (I tend to get easily distracted), and I’m thinking of revitalising the site a little bit as well.

So anyway, in short, watch this space for more posts.