Thursday 27 February 2014

World of Dirty Dungeons

"World of Dirty Dungeons" blew my mind tonight. Our usual GM was out with a fractured shin. I was fresh off a weekend of West Marches-style World of Dungeons, so I volunteered to GM. I had nothing planned, though, so I figured this was as good a time as any to try out John Wick's "dirty dungeons".  So glad we did!

World of Dungeons + Dirty Dungeons

Really fascinating session.  To recap, dirty dungeons has the players create the scenario (we assume their characters have researched it during their downtime). In my off-the-cuff WoD adaptation, for every minor threat they added +1 to a party pool of one-time bonuses. For every major threat they got +2.  Players can draw up to +2 from the pool for any die roll.

For every five minutes they spend discussing, however, I get to place one major twist - their information is out of date, dangerously inaccurate in some way, or an unknown threat lurks within.

Mike suggested I come up with a title for the adventure, and I announced it was called 'Against the Fungus Queen' to groans all around, but in ten minutes the players had enthusiastically laid out an abandoned mansion surrounded by a stone wall, swarming with fungus men, atop a catacomb that leads to a magical lake where one can find the bizarre alien intelligence of the fungus queen.

Running a dirty dungeon was really strange for me - I was going through my usual cold sweats internally, trying to manage pacing, and really struggling because I didn't actually write this damned adventure!

In the aftermath, however, I learned that the players were actually quite engaged, despite this.  As invariably happens when people make things themselves, they're immediately hooked by it.  While I was thinking that the mansion's cellar was a bit of a slow point, the players already knew (via their session planning) that they still had to face the fungus queen's personal guards who milk the deathcaps for poisons,  the dangers of the underground watercourse they'd named, plus the queen herself. This was a suspenseful breather while they girded themselves for anticipated dangers, not a slow point! It's weirdly like DIY foreshadowing.

The other surprise is that I initially felt constrained by the fact that they only spent ten minutes planning, since that gave me only two twists.  Turns out I needn't have worried - welding all their ideas into a coherent situation (which took me about 15 minutes after they were done) gave me so much latitude, and the players themselves had already contributed ten points worth of dangers. This adventure was no slouch before I even got started!

In play, the players got about halfway through the stuff they'd designed.  WoD characters are not durable at level one, it's very much like B/X in that regard.  

I've gotta say it's terrifying as a longtime BW GM to roll d6 damage against someone who's only got d6 hit points.

Still, slow-moving fungal zombies can be managed until you get trapped underground, and a confined stairwell eventually claimed the life of Stephen's hatchet-wielding thief. It was a gross, inglorious death, but nods all around affirmed this was how we were going to play.

Dirty Dungeons also doesn't feel collaboratively "spongy" - once the players have had their input, the dungeon quickly coalesces into a place that feels totally under GM control, a place of unyielding walls and tangible dangers.  (I believe that one of the fundamental ingredients of tangibility is resistance.)  That was a surprise for me.

In practice, it feels like I'm getting something for free - I get weird ideas to make an interesting dungeon out of, I get license to make it my own and render it as an tangible, dangerous place, but the players are engaged to a degree that's normally only possible through deft GMing.

So, now my mind is boiling over with all manner of ideas - this totally feels like a suitable platform on which to inject a lot of stuff that I've been yearning for, namely "geographic advancement". I will write more about this in the weeks to come!

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