Fiction Synopsis: Our heroes must break into a stronghold of apostate halfling paladins to take back blueprints for trap designs. Plans go awry when the same solar eclipse that allowed our heroes to sneak into the stronghold allows something more sinister to return as well.
The social sphere: This particular group's first D&D campaign had just finished a week or so prior, and we were trying to find a good compromise between the player's expectations (continuing with the setting and following up on loose threads from the campaign), with my own wanderlust as a GM. Of the larger group, 4 players attended this session.
Another factor at play was that the campaign had initially been set up as being super casual- we played on Saturday afternoons, and it was assumed that a portion of players would miss any given session. As we got deeper into the campaign, it started to look like we had a consistent roster, but winter holidays borked that trend fairly properly. They love doing that.
Attending players: Joseph, Doug, Steven, and Jo.
Absent players: Robert, Shelby, James, and Logan.
System: The system is an intentional pidgin of D&D 5E and Dungeon World, mixed with my own design sensibilities. This iteration favored Dungeon World mechanics, trading out 2d6 checks with a 1d20 and dividing tiers of success as 1-9: miss, 10-16: partial success, 17+: success. We mostly used Dungeon World basic moves, with me creating on-the-fly advanced moves based on specializations described by the players (Martial Arts, Disarm Traps, and Big Bada Boom).
Tone: Light-hearted satire with a touch of pulp heroism. Some mature topics.
Agendas and Analysis
Agenda 1: Smile for the camera
I've been recording audio for sessions for years- maybe even a decade- but this is only my second time recording video. Seeing myself move as well as talk is kinda cool from a self-critique position. It's already started shaping some of my GMing techniques.
I was concerned about the players feeling self-conscious. There's a screen at the far end of the table where I can see what the camera sees- usually a group shot of the table. To my surprise, the players acclimated to it to the point of almost ignoring it*. By the time the session began, it might as well have not been there except when I drew attention to it (I have it set up so I can project my notes onto it).
They became comfortable enough in front of the camera that I have waaaay more blackmail material than I ever expected to have.
*technical note: the monitor is at the opposite end of the table from me. It turns out that the player's attention was directed to my end of the table the vast majority of the time. Go figure, right?
Agenda 2: Pidgin System
The group has been playing D&D 5E with a few homebrew hacks. They've been patient with me as I've dipped my toes into Dungeon World. The result is kind of a bastardized mutt without any pretense of system purity. For example, instead of 2d6, we rolled 1d20; 1-9: miss, 10-16: partial, 17+ succes (the probabilities don't perfectly align, but close enough that it wasn't broken). That meant we got to keep 5E's rolling at advantage and disadvantage.
I'm more or less playing with system in an undisciplined fashion and seeing what parts I enjoy, which parts I might enjoy if I made a more dedicated study of them, and which parts I chafe at.
Agenda 3: Dungeon World moves as pedagogy?
Integrating Apocalypse World style move lists into gameplay fascinates me, especially how it scales with experience. To be entirely unforgiving, the structure of the moves are a bit like having to look up the rule in the handbook each time. But in practice, they don't feel like that. They're simple enough to navigate easily, but complex enough that pulling out the list feels like a part of play instead of an interruption of it. It also means that a person can sit down with no knowledge of the system other than the dice mechanic and be able to learn as they go. They don't have to read the rules because the rules will be presented to them as they're needed in an unobtrusive manner. That's cool. I want to explore it.
Agenda 4: Delicious failures
When a player rolled a partial success, the group got one coin. When a player rolled a full success, the group got two coins. When a player rolled a miss, they got nuthin'.
With group consensus, though, any player could spend five coins from the group pool to upgrade a roll by one category- from fail to partial, or partial to success. Or spend ten coins to go from a fail to a success.
I was really happy with how this played out. It seems like it's popular to reward failed rolls (example: in Dungeon World, you get an EXP for failed rolls). I find it far more interesting to keep failures unforgiving, but to give the players control of when they experience failures. As long as the group had at least 5 coins in reserve, failure was a choice. And I love that. It's a simple hack that turns otherwise arbitrary dice rolls into interesting choices; instead of randomly depriving player agency, they create opportunities for exerting it. Makes me squee.
Agenda 5: One-shot campaigns
One of the variables I'm playing with on the social and fictional strata is episodic one-shot campaigns. In this session, the characters witnessed the return of a powerful lich. In the next session, a different set of characters discovered the liches' phylactery. I'm hoping that long term play will be about introducing elements in far flung areas and then slowly bringing them together to solve the problems. Each session, the implied question is "what piece of the puzzle do y'all want to invent this time?"
Agenda 6: Homebrewing Moves
As we go, I'm watching for interesting moments where a player did something that could be translated into a move. In this session, Doug kept wanting to decapitate his enemies. Cool! I've written up a move so that when he plays that character again, he has a codified way of doing the thing he was excited about. Other moves so far include "Puppy Dog Eyes" and "Stone Cold Death Glare."
I really dig the idea of "the first time a character shows up, don't worry about abilities. We'll build the abilities to fit the things that emerged during play. Have fun, and we'll write your type of fun into the contract."
Agenda 7: Simple Relationship Maps
One thing that started to percolate in my mind in this session, and began blossoming in the one that followed, was a simplified relationship map. Instead of coming up with a full matrix of how each PC relates to each other PC, we pick one character that the others hook into. In this session, the de facto main PC was Yojimbo Valgrim (played by Steven). In the next, it was Kara (a stone-faced officer played by Joseph).
I'm curious if this is a dynamic that just has to emerge naturally- whoever rises to being the central character has to do it organically- or if it's something I can encourage with structure.
I've tentatively included the full session with most of the blackmail-worthy asides edited out. Some of the lewd humor ended up being central to setting development, so it stuck around. If it's taken down for any reason- we're still exploring player's comfort with these recordings- there's an excerpt here.