Dungeon World Prep Part 1: First Session
In this series of articles I’ll be describing how I prepare and run Dungeon World campaigns. That doesn’t mean this is the only or right way to do this, and you should do what works for you. However, I do hope you can find something useful to take away for your own games, and please feel free to share your own experience, as I love to steal- I mean, learn from other GMs.
Before the first session, I do nothing.
Well, mostly nothing. I may glance over some monsters stats as I think about what form the murderous impulse in my belly feels like (goblin? fey archer? mob with pitchforks and torches?) and I’ll bookmark the Steading tags so I can create a town or city on the fly. But when prepping for a brand new Dungeon World campaign, I let the players tell me what we’re working with.
In the last campaign I ran, the Ranger and the Wizard lived in the town of White Cross, so named for the giant stone monuments half a day’s ride in the hills. The players decided the town was a mixed human and elven settlement that specialized in finely crafted wooden items like bows and shields. There was a saw mill, a marketplace where outsiders came to trade, and the rest was mainly artisans and residential space. The town was bordered on the north by a dark forest and surrounded by a fast-rushing river that powered the mill and provided some protection. There was only one main road into town with a bridge spanning the river. To the south was the endless water as well as the steppes the Barbarian would hail from.
All of that came from asking my players questions, like what kind of resources the town had an excess of and what they did with it. None of it was premeditated, although the name of White Cross had caught my eye as I skimmed the text. A lot of real cities and towns are named for local features and landscape oddities, so it seemed logical that there would be some kind of cross around there somewhere. I picked the forest because I liked the monsters for that environment the best, and a spooky woods would give us some material to work with. The players supplied the rest as I drew a map of their town.
Next, we followed the characters around on their daily routine a bit. We discovered that the Ranger had an industrious existence in a little cabin of her own crafting bows and arrows, her cougar familiar being all the company she usually needed. The Wizard was always ducking his sleazy landlord to whom he owed some back rent and spent a lot of his time on the roof of his boarding house getting high on questionable substances and reading. The Barbarian rode into town and laid waste to the local store of meat skewers and ale. Soon they all met up, and there were antics. Psychedelic mushrooms were eaten, maidens wooed, lies told, and all I did was listen to my players and give them some NPCs to rub up against. There was plenty of drama, but no actual fighting, and everyone was having a good time.
Then the action lagged, or someone rolled a failure, and it was time for something foreboding to happen. I like to give the players some time to get to know each other’s characters, but go too long without an outside threat and they lose focus, get confused as to what they should do or what their goal is. In one-shots I dump players directly into a perilous situation, but we were planning on having these characters hang around for a while, so I went for a softer touch. I didn’t have a big bad planned yet, but what are heroes without something to fight? They need some epic destiny to grind themselves on to get rid of all that easy living and reveal the hero within. That’s what Dungeon World is all about. You can hit on farmers’ daughters and drink ale in the inn all day long, but we’re at this table to do the cool shit.
I had told them earlier that the Ranger’s familiar was getting weird vibes from the forest, but now there was a brilliant light coming from the stone monument in the hills. This is the Show Signs of an Approaching Threat move. This tension made the characters feel their backs were exposed with threats hinted at in two different directions, and I let them choose which to address. They went to the hill and met an NPC riding a giant eagle who gave them the usual vague warnings of upcoming evil and evaded really answering their questions before booking it. The characters decided to spend the night there and one of them failed their Watch roll, so I told them they saw a bright red flame brightening the night back the way they had come. The characters scrambled to a hilltop in time to see the town of White Cross burning, and that’s where I ended the session.
So all of that came out of what the players told me, or what they rolled, or what followed fantasy convention. What I mean by that is the NPC warning them of danger can’t just tell them what the big bad is or how to defeat it or there’s no heroic quest for the characters to go on, no transformation into the Good Guys Who Save the World. It’s like if Frodo had taken the eagles all the way to Mount Doom - a cheat, no story. So instead the NPC gave her warning and flew off, which gives her the option to return later on if they need help.
I could figure out what had sacked the town before the next session, and the players had some emotional stakes to play with. But let’s look at this part a little closer. What if the characters hadn’t failed a roll? Would the town still have burned?
The roll told me whether or not the characters noticed what was happening and when. The town started burning while the were talking to the NPC on the eagle, and she had noticed. It’s why the NPC left. She figured there wasn’t much either she or the characters could do other than get themselves killed, so she flew off to deliver her warning to the next town. This is what the Think Offscreen GM principle means to me. Once the characters decided to investigate the light in the hills, the lurking danger in the forest was going to burn down the town no matter what. The only question was whether the characters would notice while it was happening or if they’d walk into its ashes in the morning. And at no time did I know what they would do.
So I went into the session with some vague thoughts and, before it was done, burned a thriving, happy symbol of human-elven peace to the ground because of the Think Dangerous principle. I killed the NPC the Barbarian was flirting with for the same reason, and had the sleazy landlord steal his horse to flee town because of the Use Up Their Resources move. The players now had an agenda - Vengeance! - and an united front against an enemy. So now I had to figure out who and what that was.
Next I’ll be addressing how I create Fronts and tied all this together. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments, feel free to leave them below!