Friday, June 8, 2012

The Barrow of the Dwarven Queen

As promised, this is the actual play report for Dungeon World Beta 2.3. I got together with four of my regular players, and we did a playtest. The play test report is structured in four parts: prep, character creation, actual play and feedback.

1. Prep

To prepare for the playtest, I read the complete beta version of the rulebook. Then I printed out the character booklets, which was not really fun without a duplex-capable printer. Additionally, I wrote index cards containing Always Say, Agenda, Principles, Moves, Dungeon Moves and First Session Goals. Writing those down did help me to focus on them. Also, I generated some ideas in my head:
  • The characters guard a caravan moving through an ancient wood.
  • They are attacked by gnolls.
  • The daughter of the caravan leader is abducted.
  • A gnoll emissary seeks to revive an ancient dwarven queen in her barrow.
  • The daughter is supposed to be the sacrifice.
Last but not least, I took the book "Names, the Story Game Name Project" with me and decided to use the Norse tables, because there are some cool sounding locations in there.

2. Character Creation

Character creation was rather fast. I think we required less than an hour to distribute the booklets, explain the moves and make decisions about the characters, including their bonds. The group consisted of:
  • Leena, a neutral female human bard with a lute gifted to her by Lord Sigurd (wants to write a ballad about Grimdrig, was trusted with a secret by Celion, and already had adventures with Durgar)
  • Celion, a neutral male elven ranger with a huge black worg (has guided Grimdrig before, wants to teach Leena about the wilderness)
  • Durgar, a good male dwarven cleric (wants to keep Grimdrig save)
  • Grimdrig, a good male dwarven fighter with an ancient heirloom axe (worries about Leena's ability to survive)

3. Actual Play

The group guarded a caravan travelling from Solaceburg to another town (not yet determined). The journey started five days ago and leads through the ancient and malevolent Dismal Forest (Skogurhörmulegur). The road was marked by dwarven waystones and overgrown barrows could be found here. With some questions we established that the caravan leader Sorensen was paying 10 coins to Grimdrig to act as his bodyguard, and 5 coins each to the other heroes. The caravan consisted of ten wagons and 20 other guards. The players insisted that the caravan also includes a small baggage train with whores. Their madame is a dwarf named Roshildur.

The caravan was attacked by gnolls. The adventurers beat them back, but Ingdis, the daughter of the caravan leader was abducted. During the combat Leena and Durgar ended up hiding under a wagon, and Celion and Grimdrig dispatched the enemies. Celion scattered his arrows when he tried to dodge an arrow. But oddly, he didn't care.

After the combat, Grimdrig followed a false lead into the forest followed by Durgar and Leena. Meanwhile, Celion discovered a trail left by the abductors of Ingdis. Apparently, a group of gnolls had managed to escape into the forest. Durgar talked to a stone that Leena had found on a dead gnoll. The stone was apparently taken from a barrow to the west. Later, they found that the trail was leading there as well.

Thanks to Leena remembering that dwarven barrows were marked by cobblestone alley running widdershins to the barrow, they weren't lost when the ranger lost track of the abductors. They went straight to the barrow. There, they were attacked by the guards, a gnoll tracker and a gnoll alpha. After defeating them, they examined the barrow.

The barrow was apparently build by the First Dwarves, an evil race banished deep underground by the modern dwarves eons ago. There, they degenerated into the race known as the derro or deep dwarves. The tomb belonged to a warrior queen. The ancient queens believed that they would be reborn as slime demons. Usually they were burried together with their still living goblin slaves.

The adventurers decided to enter the barrow. Grimdrig bashed down the door, and they entered into the first chamber. There, they were attacked by goblin skeletons. At the end of the battle, Durgar broke through the weakened ceiling. Leena tried to help him, but he simply vanished into the earth.

Durgar had fallen into the burial chamber of the dwarven queen. Outside he heard banging on the big iron doors sealing the chamber. While searching for an escape route, he was possessed by the restless spirit of the ancient queen.

Celion went outside the barrow, because he had to take care of some bodily functions (and the player had to leave early). But still that was a very good fit with his secret. Known only to Leena, Celion is not quite what "he" seems.

Leena found another weak spot in the entrance chamber, but when Grimdrig used his weight to break through, they found themselves outside the burial chamber, in the ante chamber where six gnolls were busy ramming the iron door with a large wooden log. The gnolls were supervised by a gnoll emissary. Flanking the door were two funeral biers with plate mail clad dwarves on them.

Leena tried to scare the gnolls, and it worked on half of them. The rest attacked. Grimdrig found himself face to face with the emissary. It was a tough fight. Grimdrig was seriously injured. As Leena healed him, she tumbled against a funeral bier and disturbed the resting dwarf. He and his comrade animated as draugr. He touched Leena, chilling her to the bone. Desperately, the bard was charming and open with them and told them that Grimdrig and she just wanted to leave the tomb. The draugr let them go. Leena took a book with her that belonged to the now dead emissary.

Outside, she again healed Grimdrig and felt her magic reverbrating into the tomb. Positive healing magic meeting negative undead energies. Then, Grimdrig and Leena tried to make sense out of the situation and dredged up their memories about the First Dwarves. They remembered that the good dwarves placed warding circles around the barrows, sealed the dead queens with cold iron doors and some even let themselves be burried inside the barrows to act as eternal guardians. Cold iron hurts demons.

Meanwhile, Durgar had regained his senses and searched the tomb for valuables. He deciphered the runes around the sarcophagus of the queen, extolling the warrior queen Tlanextli, wife to priest king Chimalpopoca. Rightly he guessed that the dire warning against opening the sarcophagus were meant to scare but didn't hold any real danger. But, alas, he wasn't able to open the sarcophagus.

Grimdrig went back inside the tomb, while Leena was reading the book. The book turned out to be the Fiasco Codex (the player of Leena is a huge fan of Fiasco). Inside the tomb, Grimdrig discovered that the draugr were apparently gone, their empty plate armor resting on the biers. When he examined the iron doors, he discovered a cleverly hidden mechanism allowing the doors to be unlocked. He unlocked the doors, went inside and said: "I am going closing the doors right behind me." This was the most shocking turn of events of the whole evening. The player was afraid that some sort of demon would get out. Everyone else at the table was surprised and shocked (including the GM). Now both Durgar and Grimdrig were locked inside the burial chamber.

Leena finished reading the Fiasco Codex and asked her question: "What is my greatest opportunity, right now?" I answered honestly: "Take the dwarven plate mail and leave." The plate armor was worth around 1000 coins. And I knew what had happened inside the tomb. Leena was neutral, so she followed the advice. Unfortunately, she could only take one suite. She was very surprised that the draugr were gone, but figured out that her healing magic had most likely ended the guardians.

Inside the tomb, Durgar asked Grimdrig to open the sarcophagus. Inside they found 160 coins, a silver short sword, canoptic jars and the mummified remains of the dead queen clad in a priceless suite of plate armor. When the sarcophagus was opened, Durgar was hit by green spores weakening him. In the end, they managed to dig themselves out of the hole that Durgar first broke through. But first they tried to open the doors from the inside. When Durgar wanted to help, his finger tips blackened and smoked as they touched the door.

Returning to the camp, Grimdrig was surrounded by the other caravan guards who admired the dwarven plate mail he brought back from the tomb (the armor of the second draugr). Durgar confronted Leena, figuring that she had left them to rot. Leena convincingly explained that she tried to get help, but everyone refused to go.

At that point we wrapped up the game and did the end of session move. No bonds were resolved, but Leena added a new bond with Durgar: "He doesn't trust me and for good reason." It just felt right to do that. Especially since Leena suspects that Durgar might be possessed.

4. Feedback

The feedback is very raw, very fresh and relatively unfiltered. I still hope it is useful.

GM Feedback:

  • The rules are an easy read and the advice is solid.
  • Some things in the rules are not explained. Notably, how to arrive at the dungeons from the fronts. This rather implicitly assumes that readers are familiar with D&D-type games. Also the b and w notations in the monster stat blocks are nowhere explained. I assume they mean "keep best" and "keep worst" - even though I haven't found a rule that says "keep worst".
  • The experience rule on page 15: "when you roll a miss (6-) and when you make the End of Session move." seems like a left over from earlier revisions. Because I think, you'll level up far too quickly if you use that rule.
  • The moves played surprisingly well. Sometimes I still needed help from the players to figure out hard bargains, ugly choices and worst outcomes.
  • I am positively surprised how much ground we covered in about 4 hours of game time.
  • I am also positively surprised about the way the action in the game developed. I am certain that using LotFP, ACKS or DCC would have yielded a very different gaming experience. Honestly, I think it would have been less exciting.
  • The Bend Bars/Lift Gates move really lets the fighter shine outside of combat.
  • The playbooks should have some sort of boxes in the gear section to mark off uses.

Player Feedback:

  • Leena asked me, why didn't use any of my moves. She knows Apocalypse World. I just went over my list of moves and pointed out were I used them. Turned out, I nearly used every one of them.
  • The Defy Danger move is way too harsh. It feels unbalanced with other moves in the 7-9 range. The worst outcomes, hard bargains and ugly choices feel far more punishing than simply failing. The players were kind of unanimous about that. Maybe consequences that are more clearly cut would help here. A sentiment which I share.
  • The Discern Realities move is too limiting in the 10+ range. The players felt that the listed questions are good ideas for the first question, but would prefer to be able to build on the information gained with the first question by asking free-form questions as 2nd and 3rd question.
  • Grimdrig felt that the Discern Realities and Spout Lore moves slow down the game. A feeling not shared by everyone.
  • Grimdrig was left with a very conflicting impression of the game. On the one hand, he liked that ideas about a fighter were working very good, but on the other hand he felt dissatisfied with the outcome and found the game very exhausting. Also, the storylines that are beginning to show don't hold any interest for him.
  • Again, Grimdrig thought that the descriptions of his actions don't really matter for the rules. But he kept comparing the game to Warhammer 3rd edition (he is GMing the Grunwald Lodge adventure).
  • Leena pointed out that the playbooks are missing a place to put your level!

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