roleplaying games

After-action report: Dungeon World, July 10th

In addition to the finale of my Interface Zero game, I ran three one-shot games while down at the Beach. Two of them were classics, and I’ll be writing about them either together or separately later. The last one was new for me, and while I was very hesitant going in, it ended up being my favorite game of the three.

Tomb of Horrors is an infamous dungeon module written for the original Dungeons and Dragons game. Like many traditional dungeons it’s filled with mazes and secret passageways, but essentially all of the encounters in the dungeon are traps. There are no wandering monsters at all; the only combat in the module occurs if the party triggers a trap which lets out monsters, and those traps release a vile combination of the undead and demons. The dungeon is the pinnacle of oppositional GMing, designed to literally kill every character that goes through it. There’s even a note at the beginning that if your crafty wizard tries to pass through walls to avoid traps (not that difficult for some high-level characters) they incite the wrath of a large quantity of demons guarding the tomb. Every bad GM you’ve ever had trying to force you into playing the game a specific way was inspired by this infamous dungeon.

So, why oh why did I decide to run it? Two reasons. First, it’s been on the Beach Weekend goal list for years. We tried running a version edited for 4e the first year out, but only had time to write 1st level characters. First encounter out (the 4e version was modified to emphasize combat and de-emphasize puzzles and the like, much like the entire system was), we barely survived, packed up and went home. So when I was able to snag a copy of the 3.5 version (originally released in PDF form on Halloween 2005 as kind of fanservice) which was a straight port of the original, I asked the group if they wanted to play it. The result was unanimous.

I actually tried to set it up last year. No one was able to make a 3.5 character and level them up to 8 before the beach. So this year, I tried something very different, which was the second reason I decided to run it: I ran it in Dungeon World. Dungeon World emphasizes continuing momentum through consequences of actions. Compared to many standard D&D games it ends up feeling less epic, simply because no matter how powerful the characters are they always have some probability for things to go wrong, and for things to go after them. Compared to Tomb of Horrors, though, the reverse is true. Tomb of Horrors is most infamous for a series of traps (including, tellingly, the front door) which, if triggered, killed the character with no saving throw. No second chances. Played using Dungeon World mechanics, characters would not only always have that one last chance to escape with their lives, but if they did die they had one more chance (the “Last Breath” move) to return to their comrades. It meant I could play the dungeon hard, but have mechanics that kept the PCs from being completely powerless or frustrated.

I had read the module before playing, but not particularly well, and I ended up flipping through pages quite a bit. The party got split up as different characters went through teleport traps and ended up in different areas. Even as I prodded the characters away from some of the most unfair traps, the ones they did try to solve were still vexing, and progress was slow. Despite that, everyone had a ball. The traps themselves played as over-the-top rather than unfair, and switching between the different characters in different places let me see who was still puzzling things out and who was getting frustrated. There was even some combat, with an undead brain in a jar, several skeletons and a gargoyle showing up in different places.

We did not complete the dungeon…not even close. I saved the character sheets and promised that if everyone wanted to return to it, we would. The reaction was almost universally positive, and while part of that was the material in the module, I think a very large part of it was that I did not run the module as the rules intended. Hell, I didn’t even use the rules the rules intended.

In the end, I think it’s another win for the “Powered by the Apocalypse” column. Players like direct challenges and mechanical engagement, and the simpler it is for the GM to write them, the more of it they get. What could have been mired in constant spot checks, spell micro-management and needless character death was instead a romp that still conveyed the utter madness of the Tomb of Horrors (and I still killed a character or two) and left the players wanting more.

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