Freebooters on the Frontier 2e playtest update

This past week I completed another edit of the basic rules for the 2nd edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to recreate my personal experience of playing OD&D in 1978 with new-school mechanics. Along with this revision, I made a pass at the culture and settlement generation process which I’ve been envisioning for a while, which I will discuss at greater length below. The page design on these parts feels close to final, and over the next few weeks I’ll be updating the other playtest files (Beasts & Booty, Plumb the Depths, playbooks, etc.) to match. If you want to check any of this stuff out, feel free to download and take the game for a spin yourself. Here are the current playtest files. Be warned that these are just the essential rules, with no explanation;  you’ll need to know how Dungeon World or other PbtA games work in order to make sense of it all. I’d love to hear what you think.

Placeholder cover

Even as I recognize that the culture and settlement generation stuff takes Freebooters a big step away from its previous, minimalist iteration, I’m excited by the possibilities, both for creating interesting content on the fly and for facilitating prep between sessions.

Applying the “nested” approach to regional notation and organization that I introduced in The Perilous Wilds to cultures, settlements, factions, and NPCs may seem like an obvious move, but it took me a while to get there. The big shift in this case is how the alignment and values of a prevailing culture may affect its subordinate parts, and the way in which those parts interact to generate hooks and dramatic possibilities all on their own. The best way to illustrate what I mean is to create a culture, settlement, faction, and NPCs here from scratch. You can follow along using the current draft.

First, I choose Albanian as the linguistic basis for naming things in this incipient culture, and because I want it to be one of the main human cultures in my campaign I don’t roll for a random originating species.

A roll of 6 on the Cultural Alignment table gives me neutral—this means that any settlement, faction, or individual who represents the culture’s ruling authority will also be neutral, and skews the alignment of non-authority entities toward neutral. While reducing a vast spectrum of worldviews to the 5 alignments seems simplistic, the interaction between those various entities creates a lot of nuance and unexpected texture. Alignment serves as a quick and broad summary of a worldview, but a given entity (culture, settlement, faction, or individual NPC) becomes complex and interesting thanks to its context and constituent parts. Coupled with the fact that in the latest update to the basic rules a PC can shift alignment at the end of a game session, the 5-alignment system has become much more flexible than it would at first appear.

Two rolls on the neutral column of the Values table give me a 3“balance” and a 12“roll 1d10 on chaotic.” Rolling 1d10 on the chaotic column gives me “celebration.” Noting balance and celebration as the culture’s core values, I move on to Cultural Profile and roll 8, 6, 5, 7: its sizable (possessing 3 features), enjoys a comfortable economy, has a capable military, and a resigned overall populace. For the 3 Cultural Features I get “renowned terrain (woodland/jungle),” “renowned faction (revolutionary/subversive),” and “signature tradition (public space).”

Time to take a moment to step back and look for connections. The picture comes together pretty quickly: this culture developed in a jungle environment, and although it may cover several regions of varying terrain, the primary terrain is jungle. What is it about the jungle that makes it such a well-known aspect of the place? I’m going to say that its incredibly lush, often shrouded in mist due to the humidity, and in possession of some truly gigantic trees.

Considering “balance” and “celebration” in relation to the signature tradition involving “public space,” I decide that every settlement of size is built in a ring around a central greenspace or commons where jungle flora is allowed to thrive. These common areas are considered vital to the balance between civilization and the wilderness, and serve as sites for ritual celebrations of this balance. I want a name for these spaces, and look up how “green heart” translates into Albanian: zemra jeshile. Let’s shorten that to “heart:” zemër.

The last thing to consider is that this land is also renowned for a revolutionary or subversive faction. Perhaps the society-wide emphasis on balance has created an economic system where material wealth is redistributed according to the individual needs of the citizens, but a revolutionary faction has arisen with the goal of concentrating wealth in the hands of the most “worthy.” Although their long-term goal might be to overthrow the government, in the near term they are simply seizing wealth by force; a growing army of bandits with political aspirations. Let’s call them the Golden Hands.

Great, I have a loose overall idea of how this culture operates. I can embellish and expand upon it as I wish as the campaign progresses, but right now the idea of a jungle civilization with ring-shaped settlements and a revolutionary army of gold-hungry guerillas is a good visual to work with. Time to give this kingdom a name. How does “Land of Balance” translate? Tokë e bilancit. Too long. I shorten it to Bilancit.

Next, just for fun, I’ll create a settlement within this culture. On the Settlement Size table I roll a hamlet, and using the column for Bilancit’s prevailing alignment of neutral on the Settlement Alignment table, I roll a 3: lawful. So this small community differs from the overall culture by placing more emphasis on law and order. Rolling 1 feature and 1 problem on the Hamlet tables, I get “noted landmark (statue/shrine/menhir)” and “shortage (water).” I don’t even have a map on which to place Bilancit yet, but these rolls make me decide that some part of the kingdom is desert, and this community resides there. Perhaps it grew up next to an oasis, the water supply of which has diminished in recent times and limited the settlement’s growth. The landmark is a shrine to a lawful god in the Bilancit pantheon, to whom the locals pay homage in hopes that the water will flow freely once again. This place needs a name, maybe “Law-Water,” or “Oasis,” or “Dry Spring.” Ligji i Ujit, Oazë, or Pranverë të Thatë. I like the first one, but choose to compress it to “Ligujit.”

I want to know more about the people of Ligujit. Who are they? What is their relation to the Bilancit values of balance and celebration? A hamlet is comprised of just a handful of dwellings, so I decide that all of its residents together comprise a faction, and they look to a single leader. The rules state that the lead authority of a settlement shares the settlement’s alignment, so I know this person is lawful. Starting with this leader, I roll up the four most prominent inhabitants of Ligujit. Rolling NPCs is straightforward except when it comes to alignmentin this case, I’ll roll everyone’s alignment (except the leader) on the lawful column of the NPC Alignment table. I generate all of their names using the Albanian name generator at the amazing Fantasy Name Generators site, and interpret occupation rolls according to the context (e.g., the result “innkeeper/tavernkeeper becomes “cantina proprietor”).

FACTION: Hamlet of Ligujit (lawful)

Miror Ciftja (cantina proprietor; lawful (loyalty); leader; disciplined, courteous, reckless; notable chin, ponderous, charismatic, paranoid)

Tonja Hamiti (desert guide; evil (fear); aggressive, antagonistic, wrathful; squints, notable clothing, traumatized, rebel)

Nanda Mujushi (religious zealot; chaotic (disruption); fair, antagonistic, obsessive; doughy, imposing, taciturn, cultist)

Enid Aliu (cartographer; neutral (luck); bold, wasteful; missing teeth, tall, reclusive, fugitive).

And from these four I can spin the drama of the desert hamlet of Ligujit. Poor Miror must be barely holding the place together, given that two of the three next most prominent residents are an evil rebel and a chaotic cultist. No wonder he’s paranoid! Tonja is fed up with having to share the money she earns for her guide work with the rest of Ligujit and yearns to join the Golden Hands, but she’s going to try to scare the locals out of their valuables before cutting out. The sleepy-looking, apparently harmless Nanda secretly worships one of the Bilancit gods of chaos, and is plotting to destroy the shrine that stands at the edge of the oasis pool. Enid the mapmaker is the only person of note Miror might be able to call upon if the situation worsens, and even then he might take some convincing.

Out of a series of random rolls,  I’ve easily worked up a portrait of Ligujit. When the PCs pass through, they might just camp out for a night before moving on. But if they need the services of a guide and/or mapmaker as they search for ruins in the sands, they may end up learning more about this place. And if they wake up one day to find the shrine toppled and the freshwater spring reduced to a trickle, they’ll have a special kind of problem on their hands.

So that’s an example of how generating the various nested components of a culture can result in a matrix rich with possibility. I’m pretty happy with the basic procedure and the way the various parts relate; I just need to add a few sections (pantheon generation!) and refine the contents of some of these tables.

Sense of Place

I’ve always loved dramatic narratives that unfold in a mundane context, because of the way the believable little details of a familiar place make it all seem so much more possible. The suburban development still under construction in E.T.; the motels, diners, and gas stations that populate the second season of Fargo; the Pacific Northwest as depicted in My Own Private Idaho. Many of the more memorable one-shots I’ve run were set in real-world locales, where specific aspects of an actual place and time give everything a certain verisimilitude. Among those were a session of Bootleggers that played out over the smuggling corridor between Quebec and Providence, RI during Prohibition, and a game of Spirit of ’77 set in Atlantic City during the age of disco.

In early December of 2018 I ran a session of PSI*RUN, Meguey Baker’s excellent game about renegade psychics, and—hoping to conjure that sense of drama juxtaposed against the mundane—employed a method I’ve used a couple of times now. PSI*RUN always starts with a crash, where the vehicle transporting the imprisoned, amnesiac PCs takes a spill from which the PCs can escape, thus beginning their adventure.

While everyone was thinking about their characters during setup, I opened Google Earth on my laptop and zoomed in to a random spot in Montana. I chose Montana because I grew up there, and I wanted some of that wide-open highway feel you get in the eastern part of the state. I quickly found a stretch of US-12 that fit the bill, and used that as a starting point. Sometimes, if I find a specific image or detail that captures the vibe of a place, I’ll show it to the players, but usually I describe what I see and let them build the scene in their minds. In this case, I had decided it was the middle of winter, so I kept the image to myself and described the snowy landscape and blizzard conditions as they climbed out of the burning wreckage of the prison van.

The first scene ended with one of the PCs taking over the consciousness of a passerby and driving everyone to the nearest small town in her commandeered Honda Civic. I followed US-12 south to Interstate 94, then east until I hit the next small town: Rosebud, Montana. I zoomed in for a closer look:

Rosebud, Montana.

The PC who had possessed the 19-year-old driver had all of her memories and knowledge, and decided that she lived in Rosebud, so the group sought shelter at her parents’ house. In Google Earth, I dropped the little orange person onto the map and spent a few seconds looking around from the street-level view until I found a likely home:

From there, the middle and final acts of the game played out, with me using the Google Earth street view to describe details and aspects of the physical environment that either added color to the proceedings or directly impacted their tactical decision-making as their pursuers closed in. It was a fun game, made all the more memorable by using real-world reference points.

During the Steam Winter Sale last week I picked up Far Cry 5, because I enjoy open-world exploration in video games and have become increasingly impressed by the ability of developers like Ubisoft to create rich environments. For triple-A titles like Far Cry, dozens of people work together to craft the assets and design the maps, refining every corner of vast virtual spaces down to the placement of an oil can on a workbench. Most impressive from this perspective to me so far have been the worlds of Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. which attempt to recreate the worlds of ancient Egypt and Greece, respectively. There’s a lot for tabletop GMs to learn from the way those two games depict landscape and human settlements in particular, but that’s a subject for another post.

After playing Far Cry 5 for a while, I noticed the “arcade” option that allows you to play on maps created by other users, and spent a few hours dabbling with those, appreciating the enormous range of contributions from seasoned level designers to what I can only presume to be 11-year-old psychopaths (or average American boys, take your pick) who cover their maps with impaled corpses and lakes of blood. And then I made the mistake of opening the map editor myself.

I’m a die-hard worldbuilder. Since I first played D&D in 1978, I’ve left a wake of fantasy geographies, half-baked fictional pantheons, and unfinished treatises on imaginary cultures. I can’t resist the pull of a blank map. So when I opened up the Fary Cry 5 editor, I fell right into it. The game happens to be set in Montana, where I lived until the age of 10, so without even thinking I started to recreate Rosebud.

For someone who spent 22 years of his life trying to imagine what Weimar Berlin was like, it’s been a fascinating exercise. I’m always telling my students at the Center for Cartoon Studies that drawing from life is a way of understanding the world, and in this virtual space I’m engaged in the same activity—paying attention to the way a utility pole leans to one side, how many derelict automobiles a person can cram into a side yard, the shape of a mud puddle. I find these mundane details, juxtaposed by design and happenstance, endlessly fascinating.

In my experience, if you—as a writer, artist, or GM—can create a believable environment, any moment of incidental action or high drama that unfolds in that space has a greater resonance. Details arranged properly can make an imaginary place feel right in the experience of the reader, observer, or player, helping them to inhabit and remember that place, however briefly. In a 3D virtual space like Far Cry, a a lot of time and effort needs to go into creating those details, but in a tabletop RPG you can create the effect with a few well-chosen words. I’ll post more about how I try to do that in the future.

FREE STUFF: Here are some play sheets I made for the session of PSI*RUN described above. The pdf may look messed up if you open it in a web browser, but should look fine if you download it and open it manually.

Freebooting on the Frontier [3]

The first entry in this series can be found here.

“The Three-Headed Horror,” I think to myself, “Just how bad is that, exactly?”

To the inhabitants of Threshport, it’s the worst thing around, but according to my players, it’s known for snatching children, not attacking full-grown adults. So I decide that it’s Solitary, Large, and Cautious, and then I refer to the “Monster Maker” sidebar in The Perilous Wilds—just a compressed rewrite of the monster-making rules in the core Dungeon World rules—to guide me:

I quickly jot down the essentials, but I don’t give it any moves, since with improvised monsters I like to just let moves emerge through play.

Three-Headed Horror
Solitary, Large, Cautious
Damage Three beaks b[3d10+1] (reach)
HP 16   Armor 2
Special Quality Winged

I tell them that some time in the mid-afternoon, still pushing through the jungle, they hear the beating of mighty wings behind them. “What do you do?”

Everyone describes taking cover except one player, who asks, “How much of a forest canopy is there?” and since I have no ready answer, I ask in return, “How much would you like there to be?”

“A lot.”

“Okay, let’s see if you Get Lucky.”

Get Lucky
When you hope things will go your way, roll +LUC: on a 10+, they do, this time; on a 7-9, they do, but there’s a tradeoff—ask the Judge what; on a 6-, DO NOT mark XP, and you get the opposite of what you hoped for.

I love this move because I can go to it whenever I find myself hesitating to answer a player’s question about a situation. If I have a clear mental image, or I’ve already made a decision about the object of the question, I run with that; but if it’s totally up in the air, I’ll ask them to Get Lucky and riff on the result. In this case, the player rolled a 10+, so yes: plenty of tree cover, “You look behind and see the upper limbs of the tallest trees waving as something really big swoops over them, in your direction.”

So everybody tries to hide. And I ask Rowe, the character with the lowest Dexterity, to Make a Saving Throw with Dexterity.

Make a Saving Throw
When you act or react in the face of danger, roll…

…+STR to use sheer muscle
…+DEX to use speed and agility
…+CON to resist or endure
…+INT to think fast or focus
…+WIS to perceive or intuit
…+CHA to charm your way out
…+LUC to close your eyes and pray

On a 10+, you do it, as well as one could hope; on a 7-9, you do it, but there’s a catch—the Judge will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

(Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty much just Defy Danger, I know. Forgive a guy his nostalgia for nomenclature)

I only ask Rowe to make the roll because in this kind of situation—a bunch of characters doing the same thing and hoping for a positive result—I think it’s most efficient and satisfying to have the responsibility fall to the least competent character. It might be different if people were describing ways in which they were helping one another, but in this case it’s five green adventurers abjectly diving and hiding. Every person for themself.

Rowe rolls a 7, and I tell him that as the Horror sweeps across the treetops directly overhead, and everyone is showered in loose branches and leaves, there’s a moment when the beating of its massive wings parts the canopy and one if its three great eyes stares right down at him. The three heads together let out a tripartite screech that makes the characters’ blood run cold  (I try to imitate a sort of a Godzilla chorus), but the thing continues on its way. I’ve decided what the creature’s going to do, but from their perspective it’s not stopping, and soon the sound of its beating wings fades.

Everyone gets up and moves cautiously ahead, until the tree cover ends in an open expanse of tall grass, rolling down and away from them to the east. Selina and Cóldor break right, skirting the treeline, while Elorfindra, Rowe, and Ogethas decide to head left. A moment later, the Horror drops down from the sky into the open area, facing them. All three heads let out a deafening shriek, each twisting on a long neck to scan the jungle with a great golden eye.

Once again, everyone takes cover, and once again I ask Rowe to Make a Saving Throw with DEX in order to avoid being seen. He gets another partial success, and I tell him that as he presses his sweaty, large body into a bed of ferns, a red snake about the length of his arm slides out of the foliage and onto his back. Ogethas, in cover behind a wide-boled tree nearby with bow in hand, puts two fingers on an arrow in her quiver.

“What do you do?”

“In a whisper I say, ‘welcome, friend in nature, make yourself at home,’ and put off as many good vibes as I can manage in my panicked state.”

“Make a Saving Throw with Charisma.”

He rolls a 12. The snake slips off his back and into his shoulder bag, and Ogethas shakes her head in a combination of consternation and disbelief. The Horror lets out another shriek in three-part disharmony. Everybody hold position, stock-still.

I had decided for myself that if they didn’t do anything stupid at this point, the monster would take off and continue on its way, But then Elorfindra, thinking either that it would be good to draw the Horror’s attention away from the rest of the group, or just trying to save her own ass, makes a break for it, running directly back into the jungle the way they had come. The Horror notices, all three eyes locking onto the movement, and launches itself heavily into the air to give chase above the treetops. Inexplicably, Cóldor gets up and runs after the elf Cleric.

I say inexplicably, because at the time I could see no logical reason why either of the elves would do what they did in this situation, but a moment later I realized they were both acting directly on the “Reckless” character trait. And boy does Cóldor follow through: he runs to the largest nearby tree and begins scaling it as fast as he can, with the intent of attacking the monster in hand-to-hand combat. Ogethas, Rowe, and Selina look on in disbelief, certain that he’s going to die. Elorfindra peels back around in a wide circle toward the tree—not running away after all.

The Horror sees Cóldor climbing the tree and slows to a hover, beating its massive wings above the canopy and sending all manner of fruit, dead branches, and foliage showering to the ground. It rises and dips, eyeing him through the branches, looking for an opportunity to lunge. He describes his intent to get as high as he can and then jump onto the monster.

At that moment, Elorfindra arrives at the base of the tree, draws her shortbow, takes aim at one of the great eyes as it peers through a break in the branches, and lets fly.

Shoot or Throw
When you attack a target with a ranged weapon, roll +DEX: on a 10+, you inflict damage; on a 7-9, you inflict damage after resolving 1 of your choice:

* Mark off 1 ammo
* You have to move to get the shot, worsening your position
* Just winged ’em—roll damage twice and use the lower roll
* You attract unwanted attention

She rolls a 10, then 1d6 for damage and gets a 6. I don’t subtract the Horror’s Armor value because its eye was the target, and a large one at that. The arrow disappears into it and the thing recoils in deafening agony, pulling back from the treetops. I glance at the tags I had hurriedly assigned and note Cautious. I describe the Three-Headed Horror reeling away and flapping ponderously into the distance, its cries echoing through the jungle. I make a mental note that the creature will return one day.

Everyone regroups, and words are had with Cóldor regarding his stupidity. He ignores them and dismisses the monster as a coward. This would be the first of many occasions when Coldor’s recklessness would invite danger, to often hilarious effect.

Freebooting on the Frontier [2]

My last entry recounted the first hour of a three-hour session, and this one covers only about the next half-hour of actual play time.

After everyone equips themselves to satisfaction, they assemble at Threshport’s gate and set off into the Red Jungle, in the direction of the Pit of the Giant. The island is largely unexplored, with no other settlements besides Threshport, so there are no established roads pretty much any way you head will take you into the wilderness.

Time to put the Perilous Wilds rules into play. We had already established that the Pit was about a day’s journey on foot, and they were clearly headed into untamed wilderness, so their actions trigger the Undertake a Perilous Journey move, which has been altered from the Dungeon World original to read:

Undertake a Perilous Journey
When you travel through dangerous lands, indicate the course you want to take on the map, and ask the GM how far you should be able to get before needing to Make Camp. If you’re exploring with no set destination, indicate which direction you go. Then, choose one member of the party to Scout Ahead, and one to Navigate, resolving those moves in that order.

I ask them who’s going to Scout Ahead and Elorfindra the elf Cleric nominates herself. No one objects, so we go to the move:
Scout Ahead
When you take point and look for anything out of the ordinary, roll +WIS: on a 10+, choose 2 from the list below; on a 7-9, choose 1.

* You get the drop on whatever lies ahead
* You discern a beneficial aspect of the terrain—shortcut, shelter, or tactical advantage (describe it)
* You make a Discovery (ask the GM)
* You see sign of a nearby Danger —ask the GM what it is, and what it signifies
She rolls a 7, +0 for her WIS for a 7, and chooses 1 from the list: “You make a Discovery (ask the GM).” If they were traveling through a prepared region I might look through my notes for a pre-planned Discovery, but the point of this session is to make most stuff up as we play, so I go to the Discovery tables in The Perilous Wilds.
These tables are designed to generate prompts for the GM to build on, not to spell out things in detail. The Discovery tables fit onto one 8.5″ x 11″ page spread:
These days I ask my players to do all the rolling, and the Discovery and Danger tables use 12-sided dice, so when we sit down to play I make sure everyone has a d12 on hand. I’ve found the quickest way to generate numbers for these tables in play is to ask them each to roll a d12, then tell me the numbers one at a time until I get a result. This can feel weird at first, as there is a pause while the results are determined and interpreted, but it gets faster and smoother with practice.
The first three d12 rolls in this instance are 9, 3, and 6, which gives me Structure > Infrastructure > “road.” Under “Infrastructure,” it says I can roll to see whoever built the road it using 1d4+4 on the Creature table, and the result in that case gives me “human.”
As an aside, I should note that all of this die-rolling goes relatively quickly; asking for rolls, referencing the tables, interpreting the result, and describing what they see takes about 20-30 seconds.

The job of the GM is to interpret the prompt in context, which in this case is a humid jungle on an unexplored island. So, I’m thinking, if there’s a road on an unexplored island, it must be an ancient road built by some past human inhabitants. I tell Elorfindra that while everyone is taking a midday break in a clearing, she notices an unnatural shape in the undergrowth. She pulls away the ferns and grass to reveal a weathered stone pylon, about waist-high, and encased in fine green moss. She scrapes away some of the moss to find that the pylon is completely covered in runic symbols, worn down to the point of being barely perceptible.

Selina the Magic-User comes over to see what the elf has discovered. She examines the runes to see if any of them look familiar, which triggers the Recall move (Freebooters on the Frontier‘s rejiggered version of Spout Lore):

Recall
When you seek the answer to a question by drawing upon your accumulated knowledge, say why you might know the answer to that particular question. If the Judge buys it, roll +INT: on a 10+, the Judge will give you a complete and truthful answer; on a 7-9, the Judge will give you an answer, but you won’t know it’s true until you put it to the test. If the Judge doesn’t buy how you might know the answer, it turns out you don’t know much about the subject.

I ask her why she might know the answer, and she cites her years of studying both history and magical texts. I buy it. She rolls: 9, +2 for her INT modifier = 11. I tell her that most of the runes have been obliterated by the passage of time, but she can make out one that repeats—a stylized sheaf of grain that represents the deity Dalia.

In the course of making stuff up on the spot, I’m always looking for ways to connect things. At the beginning of this session, we established that Dalia is the Goddess of Life, and that there was an earlier and ill-fated colonial presence on the island. As they investigate the pylon and what it might signify, I’m pulling things together in my head: an ancient road, marked by the sign of the Goddess of Life. What does it mean?

Elorfindra starts looking for further archaeological evidence, describing how she stands at the pylon and scans the surrounding area, looking for more. So she triggers Perceive:

Perceive
When you pay close attention to a person, place or thing, roll +WIS: on a 10+, hold 3; on a 7-9, hold 1. Spend your hold 1-for-1 to ask the Judge questions about the object of your attention, either now or later. But ask carefully; if there’s no way you could reasonably know the answer, the Judge will just tell you you don’t notice anything unusual.

She gets a 7 and for her question asks me of there’s anything else of obvious human construction in the vicinity. I decide there is and tell her that she finds another pylon, just like the first, about 50 yards away to the southwest. She and Selina scrape off some of the moss together and find the same markings, the only recognizable one being the mark of Dalia.

This puts me in an interesting spot. At first I had been thinking the pylon was a milestone on an ancient highway, but now I’ve said there’s another one only 50 yards way. So something else is going on here, but what? I’ll have some time to think about it, because before the halfling and elf can start searching the undergrowth in earnest, the others insist on setting out, in the interest of reaching the Pit before nightfall.

Since the initial Scout Ahead move resulted in a Discovery that led to a brief break in the journey, I say they need to Undertake a Perilous Journey again for the next leg. It’s been noticed at this point that Selina has the best WIS modifier (+1), so she is urged to take point. Unfortunately, she rolls a 5, +1, for a 6. She marks XP, but I get to make a GM move (or Judge move, in FotF parlance). After a moment’s hesitation, I decide to go ahead and throw a Danger at them. I could roll one up, but I’m going to go with one we’ve already established—the Three-Headed Horror.

Will they survive contact with the creature the locals fear above all others?

Freebooting on the Frontier [1]

Well, my intentions to post regularly here were derailed by the launch and management of my latest Kickstarter campaign. To my delight, it was a rousing success, and thanks to the money raised I’ll be able to produce and print The Perilous Wilds, an overland adventure supplement for Dungeon World, along with a whole bunch of other fun things.

Among those things is a Dungeon World hack called Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to map the feeling of playing old school D&D in the late 1970s and early 1980s onto the *World system. It’s a highly subjective reinterpretation, based on both my personal memories of that time and my more recent love affair with the DCC RPG. Much like Funnel World, a stretch goal from my previous Kickstarter campaign, Freebooters has taken on a life of its own.

About a month ago my game group wrapped up an epic campaign based on a different Dungeon World hack, so the timing was right to begin playtesting The Perilous Wilds and Freebooters in earnest, on a weekly basis. And since the game content is being generated mostly on the fly, I thought it might be of interest to record our experiences here.

Characters in Freebooters are generated almost entirely at random, with only a few decisions points. This is a game about making the most of what the dice give you, and trying to survive and get rich in a brutal world.

Here’s what the dice gave us in the first session:

Elorfindra, Evil female elf Cleric of Diador, God of Death.
Appearance: shaved head, shining eyes
Traits: self-pitying, mad, reckless
Strength 5 (-2); Dexterity 10 (0); Constitution 8 (-1); Intelligence 12 (0); Wisdom 11 (0); Charisma 13 (+1); Luck 12 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 4; Load 6
Gear: Holy symbol (polished black stone sphere), short bow, quiver of arrows, chainmail, healing potion, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

Cóldor, Evil male elf Fighter
Appearance: squint, large hands
Traits: egotistical, impatient, reckless
Strength 16 (+2); Dexterity 13 (+1); Constitution 7 (-1); Intelligence 10 (0); Wisdom 7 (-1); Charisma 10 (0); Luck 9 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 7; Load 11
Gear: Billhook (favored weapon), leather armor, shield, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

Selina, Good female halfling Magic-User
Appearance: aged, hairless
Traits: benevolent, disciplined, courteous
Strength 8 (-1); Dexterity 14 (+1); Constitution 9 (0); Intelligence 16 (+2); Wisdom 13 (+1); Charisma 13 (+1); Luck 16 (+2)
Armor: 0; HP 1; Load 4
Gear: Arcane orb, spellbook, dagger, spell components (3), rations (5)
Spells: Blood of Omnipotent Perception, Ulana’s Delicate Knowledge

Rowe, Good male human Magic-User
Appearance: notable nose (piggy), strange marks
Traits: curious, loving, generous
Strength 11 (0); Dexterity 9 (0); Constitution 13 (+1); Intelligence 16 (+2); Wisdom 11 (0); Charisma 11 (0); Luck 3 (-3)
Armor: 0; HP 4; Load 4
Gear: Arcane orb, spellbook, bag of books (5), healing potion, rations (5)
Spells: Zace’s Globe of Blood, Cynjobulon’s Venom Guide

Ogethas, Neutral female human Fighter
Appearance: dark skin, clear-eyed
Traits: dependable, boastful
Strength 10 (0); Dexterity 16 (+2); Constitution 12 (0); Intelligence 9 (0); Wisdom 9 (0); Charisma 9 (0); Luck 12 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 8; Load 10
Gear: Longbow (favored weapon), quiver of arrows, chainmail, healing potion, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

After everyone rolled up their characters, I put a “terra incognita” island map in the middle of the table (from Mad Vandel’s Map Pack, another stretch goal that collects a bunch of unlabeled and blank maps by Josephe Vandel), told the players that they were new arrivals at a colonial port town on this unexplored island, and asked them what sort of climate the island might have. They agreed it was tropical, a generally hot and humid place.

Before getting into the game we needed to set the stage a bit, so I passed the map around the table and asked each player to add stuff to it, based on specific questions. First the port town, which they named “Threshport.” I asked them to roll some dice to determine the town’s tags, and we got Prosperity Moderate, Population Booming, Defenses Watch, then Lawless, and Blight (which reduced Booming to Growing). I added Trade (capital city), because that’s the whole reason the port exists, and I asked them what was up with the blight. They told me there’s a local disease called the Dimming that causes a certain segment of the population to lose their sight.

Then, players added regions and sites of interest to the map, the names of which they could choose themselves or roll up on the tables provided for that purpose in The Perilous Wilds. Everyone decided to roll instead of choose.

Twice around the table and we had this:

As they added stuff, I asked them what was notable about each addition, and took notes for future reference:

Devil’s Quagmire: no birds
The Dark Peaks: totally unexplored
God’s Sound: every 1,000 years this peninsula rises from the sea
Sands of Despair: a desert that drains all hope
The Shifting Forest: there’s an oasis at its center
Pit of the Giant: vaguely footprint-shaped, something’s down there
Sword Keep: first colonial outpost, overrun many years ago by thorakians (savage termite-folk)
The Circle: a barren circular patch delineated by ancient standing stones
The Gate: a ruin of mystical origin, from which someone recently retrieved an indecipherable book

Then I asked them what local creature the locals feared most, and they told me it was the “Three-Headed Horror,” a giant hawk monster with three heads, a single huge eye on each.

The last thing I asked them about was their base of operations in town. Where did they meet, and where do they gather to make plans? In the great open courtyard of the local temple to Dalia, the Goddess of Life, where free food is distributed to new arrivals and the needy.

We started play in the courtyard, discussing their first foray into the wilderness. Everyone agreed that the Pit of the Giant, being only a day’s march away through the jungle, was an ideal first venture.

Next time I’ll recap their journey to the Pit.

A One-Shot of Whiskey

For a while after our Spawn of Azathoth campaign came to an untimely end, our entertainment on game night consisted of a series of games that could be played in a single evening. At some point in my exploration of the indie RPG scene, I had put together a “one-shot survival kit,” a plastic tub containing a bunch of rules-light stuff that I can pull out at a moment’s notice.

This kit contained Fiasco, Carolina Death CrawlPowers for Good, In a Wicked Age, Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a binder of one-page dungeons, and a bunch of games from One Seven Design. One Seven is John Harper, a prolific designer of RPGs that crouch, ready to pounce, at the intersection of brevity and beauty.

Mr. Harper is so prolific, and his designs cover such a tantalizing gamut of genres, that I eventually gave them their own kit box. I have to say that a plastic storage tub fails to do them justice, though—what they really want is their own spinner rack or vending machine.

Usually on a one-shot night I pull a bunch of stuff out and ask everyone what they feel like playing, and usually no one has any strong opinion, so I’ve gotten in the habit of just running anything I feel excited about in order to sidestep the “I dunno, what do you guys want to play?” dilemma. Luckily, my players trust me not to be self-indulgent, and I try to live up to that trust by giving a lot of thought and consideration to what they might enjoy before I throw something new at them.

On that first Lovecraft-free game night, I was still in a 1930s sort of mood, and John Harper had just put out Bootleggers: Smuggling Run via his terrific Patreon. So I printed it out, brushed up on my Prohibition history, and prepped a quick-ref GM aid for myself (I only used a handful of the items on this thing, but it gave me a sense of security and helped ground my improvisation). That night there wouldn’t be a menu of games to choose from; we would sit down and play something I had pre-selected. But I wanted to get them into the mood, so at the last minute before I left the house I dug up an old steel flask, filled it with bourbon, and tossed that in my backpack too.

In Bootleggers, the players are the eponymous smugglers, small-timers at first, striving against the law and rival forces to hit the big time without ending up in the big house (or bleeding out on the curb). Character and gang advancement happens when the PCs rack up enough “scores,” which are rated according to the number of cases of booze they can smuggle or steal. It’s a concrete, perfectly thematic way to track experience that feels great in play, pushing the same buttons as the gold-as-XP approach in old-school D&D.

But the best thing about booze-as-XP, as we soon discovered, is that it’s fragile: a car crash or hail of bullets—not to mention a G-Man with a fire axe—can wipe out your precious cargo. So not only do you have to get the goods from point A to point B in order to level up, you need to make sure the maximum possible number of cases or barrels survive the trip. This ended up being my single favorite aspect of the game, because of the way it forced the PCs to behave in situations where their score-in-the-making was under physical threat.

After gang and character creation, which made for a nice transition into the milieu of the game, I set the scene: it’s a chilly November night and the four of them are split between a sedan and a flatbed pickup, pulling into the back lot of a distillery on the St. Lawrence, just outside of Montreal. They’re antsy after the 10-hour trip from Providence, and anxious about their first score. One of them has a cousin who works at the distillery, and arrangements have been made to cross his palm with U.S. currency in exchange for enough barrels of Canadian whiskey to fill the flatbed. They’re expected to knock shave-and-a-haircut on the loading dock door to announce their arrival, and that the coast is clear. They stop just inside the parking lot gate, and the two guys in the sedan get out to confer with those in the truck

At this point I pull out the flask, unscrew the lid, and hand it to player on my left, saying, “You pass around the flask one last time.” There’s a pause, and they all exchange glances, but none of them says anything. And then they pass it, taking swigs one after another, until it comes back around to me and I screw the lid back on. I had brought the flask on impulse, not sure what I was going to do with it, but it ended up being the perfect thing to set the mood and mark our crossing of the threshold of play. That none my friends batted an eye at this potentially awkward stunt reminds me how lucky I am to get to play with them on a weekly basis.

When the barrels were half-loaded, thugs dispatched by the Prohibition King of Providence showed up, and the ensuing shootout played out like the Victory Motel scene in L.A. Confidential, only with less SMG and more knife.

It was among the most intense and gratifying fights I’ve experienced in an RPG, with every die roll honored, the lives of the PCs very much a stake, and all of them surviving, miraculously, unscathed. When the smoke cleared, someone asked for the flask again and described his character trying to steady his hands before taking a swig. The flask went around the table one more time.

They made it across the border safely via back roads, but in the hours of driving between Quebec and southern Vermont the shootout had been reported and investigated, and American authorities notified. So they encountered a roadblock on Interstate 91, just a few miles from the real-world building where we were playing. From there things tipped into one long, intensifying downward spiral.

Half the gang met their end in a shootout with state police on a moving train, while the other half limped back to Providence with only 2 of their original 8 barrels still intact (they had crashed the flatbed, and managed to get only 2 barrels into another truck, hijacked from a dairy farm). I house-ruled that each barrel was worth 2 cases, which for a Level 1 gang gave them a total of 2 scores.

Realizing that they would need 4 more scores to reach Level 2 (and knowing this was a one-shot), they described mourning the loss of their friends, abandoning their life of crime, and drowning their sorrows in the fruits of their ill-advised efforts.

All in all, Bootleggers provided the best one-shot experience we’ve had to date. One side effect of that is that it made me want to run a full-fledged Bootleggers campaign some day; another is that I am super-excited for John Harper’s next big project, Blades in the Dark, which will be launching on Kickstarter in March.

Thanks for the good times, John! Looking forward to more.

Between Then and Now – Part 1

I hadn’t written anything here in over a year until yesterday, but my gaming life has been full in that time, and some of it worth sharing. So I want to take a few posts to quickly cover what my players and I have been up to.

The last games I recorded here were Pathfinder-to-Dungeon-World campaign I ran for a year and a half, and a play-by-post game of a Dungeon World hack. For the Pathfinder game, I used the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which I chose after reading many reviews of the various Paizo offerings. After about a year of getting increasingly annoyed with the extreme fiddliness and tedium of the Pathfinder rules, I managed to sidestep GM burnout by converting everything to Dungeon World. It worked great for a few months, but then some members of the group moved away and the campaign came to an ignominious end.

Those of us that remained then started the classic Spawn of Azathoth campaign for Call of Cthulhu, using the Trail of Cthulhu rules.

One of the many excellent props available from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Again, I had done my homework: read the reviews, read discussions of the system’s pros and cons on RPGGeek, listened to some actual play podcasts. But despite my due diligence, I became annoyed and disenchanted with ToC pretty quickly in play—to me at the time it seemed like a codification and commercialization of what could have just as easily been a single, solid essay of GM advice. More crucially, the rules felt neither intuitive nor immersive, which made it feel like they were getting in the way when I wanted them to be falling back.

Providence, Rhode Island circa 1937 

Now, it’s clear that thousands of people play and enjoy Trail of Cthulhu, and that Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws are super-smart, good guys with tons of experience who are not by any stretch trying to pull a Cthulhu cash-in (as one listen to their superlative podcast will prove). In retrospect, I see that my personal sensibility and encountering the system at the wrong time combined to thwart my enjoyment.

A small part of the old white-guy supporting cast.

Unfortunately, that “wrong time” appears to extend from the point I first played Dungeon World (or more accurately, Adventures on Dungeon Planet) into the foreseeable future. Because once Vincent Baker showed me that parallel *World, I didn’t want to go back. Or, to use a different and even less clear metaphor, when someone hands you a knife, you want to cut everything up into poetry.

A selection of unspeakable excerpts, still awaiting discovery.

In practical terms, this meant that after three sessions of our Cthulhu game I yanked it into that other *World, just like I had done with our Pathfinder campaign before. You can read my rough and overcooked version of the rules here. I’ve learned a lot since then, but it was a part of my learning process, and it did the job at the time; the campaign ran for another five highly entertaining sessions.

Visionary. Frightening. Kind of a mess.

Ultimately, real life reared up again and some of our group left town, so we abandoned the characters at an observatory in Montana. Which is just as well, because after reading and rereading the published campaign material, I ended up feeling that Spawn of Azathoth was kind of a mess in terms of its internal logic. Ahead of its time in many respects, but ultimately too dependent on coincidence and an incoherent plot to give me satisfaction without a lot of extra work on my part.

My day job is teaching how to write and draw comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies, one of the great side benefits of which is an annual influx of geeks who have either played RPGs before, or have always wanted to try. This means there is no shortage of players for my games, but turnover is high, so it’s proven hard to play a campaign to completion. However, without skipping a beat we had another full table the week after our leap into Lovecraft ended, and for a while we played a bunch of shorter stuff.

In Part 2 I’ll write about what we did after Cthulhu.

What do you do, after Cthulhu,
After Cthulhu, what do you do?
Stare into the Void for eons on end,
Hoping Shub-Niggurath will wgah’nagl fhtagn

Let’s make it official

When I started this blog as a way to share the excitement and fun I was experiencing with my weekly game group, I chose a name that was evocative of the kinds of adventures we were playing at the time. When I ended up writing and kickstarting one such adventure myself, it seemed only natural that I should use the same name for my publishing venture.

To date, as “Lampblack & Brimstone,” I have put out two small books, currently available on DriveThruRPG:

      

And I’m planning more. The next one will be called Perilous Journeys, and it’ll be a rules supplement for Dungeon Worldmy current game of choice, and the one that inspired me to make my own stuff in the first place.

When the kickstarter for Servants of the Cinder Queen closed, I sent out a survey to all of the project’s backers, asking them to vote on what sort of thing they’d like me to write next, and “wilderness adventure” won out by a large margin. So I asked the Dungeon World Google+ community what they would like to see in such a book, combined a bunch of suggestions with my own ideas, and dug in. A couple of months later, what I initially envisioned as a humble 32-page saddle-stitched booklet has turned into a 72-page book that will need to be squarebound. At least it’ll still be digest-size…

If you’re curious about the form this project is taking, I’ve been posting previews of the various sections here.

This is all just to give some background to my reviving of this blog. On top of all the other things I have going on, producing Servants and Funnel World took me away from maintaining this space, but this is where I want to consolidate all of my RPG interests. My hope is to continue using this blog as a place to record thoughts about my experiences as a GM, which are swiftly becoming inseparable from my publishing efforts. I have to playtest everything, after all!

So: here’s hoping I can post something interesting at least once a week, and make the visit worth your time!

Dungeon World Under the Microscope

Our weekly Pathfinder-to-Dungeon World game continues apace, but that is not enough! I must have more Dungeon World! That feeling started back in July, when I was just starting to get into DW and was looking for ways to cram more play into my life. In my constant daydreaming about DW, it occurred to me that it might be cool to play a game of Ben Robbins’ Microscopewhich I had been wanting to try after backing the kickstarter campaign for his next game, Kingdomand use the resulting world as a setting for a Dungeon World campaign. I came up with the idea independently, but of course it turned out I was by no means the first person to do so.

So I knew that I wanted to experiment with combining the two games, but I don’t have enough free time each week to fold a second multi-hour rpg session into my life, so I decided to run it as a “play-by-forum” game at brokenforum, one of the handful of gaming boards I frequent. In a play-by-forum game, you don’t have to adhere to a tight schedule (we’ve averaged a post roughly once a day per participant since we began), and players can check in when they have a spare moment here or there. It was open invite, and I capped it at four players. Once we had our group, I started a thread for the Microscope game, and about two months later we had our setting. You can read the original thread here, or just skip to the summary via the Google doc I set up to record our history. As we went along, I started to pull together a Pinterest board of visual reference so we would have a foundation upon which to build our common understanding of the world.

After we had a rough outline of our world’s history, we chose a period in which our game would be set. I threw together a list of potential classes, and each player chose one to play. The idea was to have the race and class options evolve out of our setting, and then adapt them to Dungeon World, customizing as we went. DW is eminently flexible, as the profusion of hacks and mods for the system can attest, so with a little tinkering we were up and ready to run. We ended up with four characters who ran the gamut of customization levels, from a Telani Preserver who hews pretty close to the stock DW Druid, to a Wik Deadspeaker, a class we created pretty much from scratch. All of the resulting character sheets are viewable here.

I had it in my head when I started the game that I would make character portraits for the players as a way to get them further invested in the game, and as a little reward for taking the time to indulge in the experiment. So before we could start play I needed to whip those up. I’ve enjoyed drawing rpg character portraits since the 80s, when I would often spend more time developing a campaign than my high school buddies and I would spend playing, so it was fun for me to do, especially as a way to take a break from the sort of drawing I do for the comic book that comprises one of my day jobs.

So here are the four characters, as developed from scratch to final colored portraits:

Kalil Ru’Hana, Wik Deadspeaker

Tek’Utl, Telani Preserver

Saul Odelo, Archivist Finder

Amulus, Searcher Scout

We started playing the game proper last week, and it’s been a lot of fun so far. Two great things I’ve discovered about GMing a PbF game are that I can post images to supplement the story if I feel like it; and I have more time to consider how the story is going to unfold. What a PbF game lacks in terms of excitement and off-the-cuff improvisation, it makes up for by allowing you the time to think things through. And that leads to a different kind of story, less theatrical and more like a book being read one page at a time.

If you’re curious about how the adventures of these four intrepid souls will play out, you can follow the thread here.

Pathfinding in a Dungeon World

Apologies to the three of you who read the first two installments of my session reports of Adventure on a Dungeon Planet — the scant few free minutes I have to do things like write blog entries about RPGs are easily eclipsed by any number of other things that can suddenly seem more important. To wit, most of my spare time over the past month has been spent adapting my 1.5-year-old Pathfinder campaign to Dungeon World. Since we had our first DW session of the adapted campaign last night, I thought it would be a good time to post about the whole process.

For several years I ran a weekly boardgame night at the school where I teach, introducing the youth of today to tabletop fare like Cosmic Encounter,  Battlestar Galactica and Fiasco, among many, many others (including a prototype of my own design). This was a great way for me to both get to know some of my students outside of class, and to play games on a regular basis. Twice in the past we took detours into RPGs, once to run through G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief using AD&D rules, and once to start Masks of Nyarlathotep using Call of Cthulhu rules. Although everyone had a great time in both cases, neither lasted more than six sessions due to the usual reasons: people moving away, persistent scheduling difficulty, etc.

Several years after the Call of Cthulhu game ended, some time in early 2012, a group of five students expressed interest in playing an RPG (specifically, they said they wanted to “play D&D”). Three of them had played computer RPGs but had never played a “real” one, and there are few things I love more than introducing new folks to tabletop roleplaying, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity. And because I have difficulty doing things in half-measures, I couldn’t just run a one-off adventure using rules I already knew. I decided to look into recent versions of D&D, and ended up going with D&D 3.5 as embodied by the Pathfinder system. I did a fair amount of research before I took the plunge, reading about how Pathfinder rules had been extensively playtested, and I was impressed by the sheer quantity of polished product that was available. Due to time constraints and a desire to minimize prep work, I decided to go with a published “Adventure Path,” which is essentially an entire campaign that plays out over six 96-page modules/chapters, taking characters from level 1 to level 15. The best-reviewed of the many available Adventure Paths was Kingmaker, which is designed more as a “sandbox” than a linear narrative, and includes rules for the PCs to found and develop their own kingdom in a wilderness.

The initial group consisted of a Half-Elf Druid, Halfling Monk, Gnome Sorceror, Half-Orc Rogue, and Human Fighter. Everyone fell hook, line, and sinker into the game, and for about the first year of roughly weekly meetings we had a great time. Eventually, though, rules fatigue started to plague me. The Pathfinder rules are so detailed, filled with so many specifics and exceptions, that even though we were constantly looking stuff up online or in hardcopy, we were always discovering new little wrinkles that called into question things we had done in a previous session. Now, I have no problem just moving on from the fact that, for instance, the “color spray” spell that stunned a shambling mound the last time we played actually would not have affected it at allbecause, of course, shambling mounds have plant traits, which make them immune to charms, compulsions, morale effects, patterns, phantasms, paralysis, poison, polymorph, sleep, and stunbut the regularity with which we missed this or that tiny but important twist on an existing rule led me to feel like we were constantly in danger of getting things wrong. And the Pathfinder rules create a kind of feedback loop with that feeling, because they try to encompass every eventuality and possibility. For every unexpected situation that arises, for every in-game action the PCs want to take, there is likely a rule that describes it. So you have to hunt it down, and make sure you’re getting it right, because sometimes the life of a PC might hang in the balance. On top of this, the kingdom-building rules included in the second Kingmaker chapter are dry to the point of being boring, overly-complicated, and don’t appear to have been playtested much, if at all. Over time, although everyone continued to enjoy themselves, my job as GM began to feel oppressive and exhausting.

On off nights, when we were short players, we sidestepped into the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which I had heard about through a friend. DCC RPG was a tonic to merefreshing, exciting, and even relaxing, thanks to rules that rely heavily on GM fiat. The experience took me back to that sense of possibility I felt playing D&D when I first discovered it in 1979, and the desire to document those super-fun sessions (which you can read starting here) led me to create this blog.

Now, of course, I am totally free to employ GM fiat in a Pathfinder game, and throughout our campaign I have done so. But the rules themselves, in their attempt to mechanically model every narrative detail, hamper and discourage it. When situations are “hard-coded” and searchable online, my players can look them up on their iphones and point out that any given ruling I make might be “wrong” according to the official rules. They do it to be helpful, not because they’re jerks, and they willingly go along with whatever my final ruling is, but the mere existence of those rules out there creates the niggling feeling in all of us that, again, even if we move on, we did something wrong.

Playing the DCC RPG coincided with investigating the “story game” community, which I had been doing already thanks to my interest in Jason Morningstar’s terrific game Fiasco, and a kickstarted comic book project that grew out of that interest. Within that community I quickly learned of a little game called Dungeon World, which in short order replaced the DCC RPG as the off-night game for my group. I was only able to write up two sessions of our initial experience, but not for lack of joy. Dungeon World proved just as thrilling and fun as the DCC RPG, but whereas adapting our Pathfinder campaign to the latter was inconceivable, DW is so eminently flexible that the possibility of adaptation immediately occupied all of my gaming brain cells. After more than a year, my players were fully invested in Kingmaker, but I was at the end of my rope with the system, so I was looking for a way to make all of us happy. Adapt to survive!

So that’s what I did. I consulted the Dungeon World Tavern Google+ community, and read as many hacks of the DW rules as I could find to see how other people had altered the rules to suit their needs. I built a custom playbook for each of my six players (the Halfling Monk had moved on, replaced by a Dwarf Rogue, and we had gained a Catfolk Ranger), translating the Druid and Sorceror’s Pathfinder spells into DW parlance, then doing the same for their gear and magic items. I experimented with adapting Pathfinder’s equipment pricing to DW, but realized it would be too much of a chore since I was working with a published campaign, and would have to convert too much stuff, so I decided to stick with the equipment costs of Pathfinder.

Without exception, the characters ended up feeling like cooler characters, instead of the aggregations of stats and abilities that makes Pathfinder feel closer to a computer RPG than a tabletop RPG. The alignment moves and bonds in particularbecause of the way they allow you to earn XPreally help the characters feel tied to their world and companions. You can see a sample converted character sheet, the Druid’s, here.

Next, I had to adapt the kingdom building rules. It was a bit daunting, but I was so unhappy with the kingdom building as it was that I needed to get my hands dirty and see if I could make it more enjoyable. Here’s what I ended up with. It’s far more involved than anything in DW, and is still too dry, but it’s a start. We need to see it in action before making more tweaks, and ultimately I want to make it mesh with DW’s steading rules. Right now it’s still somewhere in between.

The final step of conversion, and the part that will be ongoing, is converting Kingmaker’s NPCs, monsters, and magic items. This part is relatively easy on a case-by-case basis, thanks to DW‘s elegant and open approach to the “stat block” problem, but all told it’s still a lot of stuff. Based on what I’ve converted so far, I expect that I will probably need to devote an hour or so a week on this stuff, although it is fairly easy to do on the fly.

So I did the conversion work, but I wanted to kick off the first DW session in styleboth to sell my players on it and to get them re-energized about playingso I took the opportunity to make the campaign more my own.

The first thing I did was remake the campaign map in a style that I liked. Pathfinder’s maps are fine examples of digital cartography, but they resemble satellite photos more than maps of fantastic lands. Really, they do nothing to spark the imagination. So I looked back to some of my favorite RPG maps, those that Pete Fenlon drew for Middle Earth Role Playing back in the 80s, such as this:

Here’s what the map for the fist two chapters in the Kingmaker Adventure Path looks like:

And here, after far too much fiddling with Illustrator and Photoshop, is what our revised campaign map looks like:

Next, I reworked the map of the home settlement that the PCs had founded and built up over the course of two years of in-game time. The previous map I had made looked like this:

And here it is after I added the stuff they built in recent months:

My last “marketing” move was to put together some portraits for the major NPCs the players had come to know. I usually like my NPCs to live in the collective imagination, but the cast of secondary and tertiary characters has grown so large that attaching visuals to them helps me keep them organized, and gives me a concrete starting point when I find myself having to roleplay one of them unexpectedly. And because I’ve done so much similar work for my boardgame over the years, I can throw together these portraits pretty quickly.

Now, I feel compelled to point out at this point that all of this prep work is somewhat antithetical to the Dungeon World philosophy as presented in the core rules. DW is a game designed to be played with little to no prep; it fosters the idea of world creation on the fly, as an ongoing collaboration between the players and the GM, something to be brought to life in the moment at the table, not bought off the shelf. This is one of its greatest strengths, and unfortunately our greatest loss in the translation of Kingmaker. If it were my choice to make alone, I might throw Pathfinder completely out the window and start a new campaign from scratch, hewing to the DW philosophy. At this point I’ve run several shorter adventures that way, and they rank among the most fun I have ever had running an RPG. But I have my players to consider, and if this transition works, the DW rules stand a chance of breathing new life into the world of Kingmaker.

As I mentioned at the start of this long post, I ran the first session last night. I handed out the custom playbooks and explained what was different, the main point I emphasized being, “Don’t worry about the mechanics, just put yourself in the story and think about what your character would do. Leave the mechanics to me.” Then, we picked up where we had left off at the previous session.

A cursed, ravening owlbear assaulted their settlement, and they fought it off with much derring-do. They tried to track it to its lair, but got drawn in a different direction when they caught wind of possible bandit activity on their frontier. They searched for a rabble-rousing bard who had been stirring up unrest among their subjects, following a lead on his whereabouts to a dead-and, and then fought off a shambling mound that assaulted their camp at night. The session ended with their return to Freagol, their home steading.

The whole time I was anxious, not least of all because I had done so much prep work. It was ultimately fine with me if they decided they didn’t like it and wanted to go back to Pathfinder, but I hoped that my work would help them see what I saw in Dungeon World. The fights went about three times faster than the same fights would have taken in Pathfinder, but I worried that people were feeling shorted on the opportunity to act; I discovered that juggling six players in DW can be a challenge. By the end of the session, I was so insecure about the way things had gone that I was convinced that they had not had a good time. So to give them the easy out, I said, “So, if you guys want, we can totally go back to Pathfinder next week. I would be totally fine with that.”

All at once, they said something to the effect of , “No way, this was awesome!”

And I heaved a sigh of relief.

Earlier, when the cursed owlbear attacked their town, the PCs confronted it atop a watchtower. Wounded and near death, the creature wanted to flee. An idea popped into my head, and I said, “The owlbear turns and leaps from the parapet, back toward the forest from which it first emerged.”

Everyone was shocked. “It’s jumping off the thirty-foot-high tower?!”

“Right as it jumps, it spreads its feathery arms and you see the vestigal owl wings reaching from either side of its ribcage to its elbows. Miraculously, the wings catch enough air to allow it to glide, slowing the hurtling descent of its massive weight toward the ground.”

“What? Owlbears can’t fly!”

There was a pause as I considered the relative truth of this assertion.

“Fuck that. We’re in Dungeon World now.”

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Addendum: I’ve had a few requests for the rest of the custom playbooks. You can see pdfs of them here: Mitharrna the Half-Elf Woodswarden (Druid/Ranger), Kervantes the Human Loremaster (Fighter/Wizard), Mawgrah the Half-Orc Poisoner (Thief), Bilabous the Demonborn Gnome Sorceror, Professor Bismuth the Dwarf Rogue Alchemist (Thief), and Nadara the Catfolk Ranger.