Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Grim World + Love Letters & Extra Life Thanks

Last Saturday I ran Grim World as a "pre-Halloween" one-shot game, which was a lot of fun and a few caveats. I'll provide a review below, but my biggest caveat was I put out a large invitation to 10+ players, thinking, as I often do, that I'd be lucky to get the four players I'd need to run... Instead, and much to my surprise, I ended up with 8 players (and 7 PCs, since there was some question if the 8th player would be able to attend so he shared a playbook with his GF) and as I always do when I run really large groups of players, I felt like I didn't do the best job of giving each PC a shot in the spotlight and let things get a little more chaotic and bogged down than I liked. But that's all on me and not on the players.

Speaking of, thanks to the incredible generosity of the players, Christy and I managed to raise $135 for Extra Life between the two of us.  I'm now over 75% to my goal (as of 10/28/2015) and if any of the players from the Grim World game want to go back and retroactively ask for any of the rewards I was offering, you certainly can. If you are a regular reader of the blog and haven't pitched in any support for the Extra Life campaign yet, we're nearing the end, with a little over two weeks left, so I hope you'll consider a donation, even if it's just $5.

Click here to skip the Grim World Review and go straight to my further thoughts on Love Letters...

First a review of Grim World, which is designed as a supplement for both Dungeon World and Fate. I've never run, played or read Fate, so I won't comment at all on the Fate material included, other to say that it appears to largely mirror the DW material, with each playbook (class) written up for both systems, monster stats for each, et cetera.

The Great:

  • The Classes:
    • Grim World adds 7 new classes, and I got to see each one in play. They pull off a tricky feat in that they each feel distinct, iconic and separate from the Dungeon World playbooks. Neither the Battlemaster, Skirmisher or Slayer feels like a slightly off Fighter or Ranger (or Thief even), but instead feel like their own unique take on a warrior archetype. Similarly the Channeler, Necromancer, Shaman and Templar don't feel at all like the Cleric, Druid or Wizard playbooks. They all also fit the tone of the book, being darker than standard fantasy, but also not humorless the way "grimdark" can often be. For example, the Necromancer has a hexed body part that can be detached, like an eye that can see even in a different location than the necromancer or... a toe... they can eat... to regain HP that then grows back...
    • Each playbook has its own mechanics which are well done, well balanced and interesting...but... and this is my one caveat with the classes, none of them are simple. They do add additional resource tracking that isn't present in any Dungeon World base class. For example, the Slayer has Thirst which causes debilities but can be used in place of STR/DEX for attacks or other rolls. The Slayer gains Thirst when they have a failed (6 or lower) roll and goes back to zero Thirst when they slay a creature, providing a mechanism to reward low rolls and simulate a "bloodthirstiness", but it does mean that the player has to track that. Similarly, the spellcasters often have Control points they have to track, the Battlemaster tracks gambit points they get for having bonded allies take damage and so on, all of which fit their playbooks well, but also add extra complexity and resource management for players.
    • Overall, the classes are excellent, they're all intriguing, full of great moves and interesting mechanics and a great "advanced" option compared to standard Dungeon World classes.
  • Fronts/Arcs
    • Fronts are one of the hardest things for an Apocalypse World MC/Dungeon World GM to grok, in my experience, and in particular I don't find the Dungeon World "Sample Front" very inspiring or informative, unfortunately. 
    • Grim World has 8 fronts, laid out in easy to understand single page summaries. I used the first, "A Tale of Two Towns" as the plot for my one shot and it worked fantastically. As I design new fronts for games, the Grim World fronts will be in my mind.

The Alright:

  • Species
    • Dungeon World only provides a few race options on each playbook, so a Cleric gets to choose between Human and Dwarf, a Thief between Halfling and Human and the racial movies are on the character sheet.
    • Grim World gives 15 species, many of whom are interesting and evocative, Dhampir (half-vampire) and Boag (bullywug), some which are good, Tusker and Firbolg, and some that fall flat (Dwarf... As a Dwarf all other dwarves are trusted allies which falls flat against the Dhampir drinking blood for healing or the Boag snatching tiny items with their tongue, or the Centaur whose ability to get an additional benefit on high rolls on Undertake a Perilous Journey checks seems decidedly unsexy compared to Elves getting a unique and powerful magical artifact.
    • While each Grim World playbook looks more or less equally interesting, the 15 races are not so well balanced and with so many options I can imagine player paralysis. To get around that, I gave players 3 race options for each of the playbooks to weed out uninteresting races (sorry dwarves) and to keep my players from getting bogged down in trying to decide which of 15 races sounded interesting/had the coolest power.
  • Death Moves
    • Each of the seven Grim World playbooks has it's own death move, so a Necromancer calls up an army of the dead to avenge their own death or a Battlemaster reveals their Grand Plan which changes the course of the battle and probably the war.
    • Unfortunately, the Death Moves are much more interesting and monumental in an ongoing campaign, as opposed to the One Shot I was running. For instance, the Shaman's death results in a powerful totem being made that contains their soul, which isn't a great option for a one-shot.
    • I also found the Generic Death moves and Dungeon World Base Classes Death Moves less intriguing (Final Will and Testament? Really?)

The Disappointing:

  • GM Advice
    • I'm a big fan of "How to GM" sections in RPG books. Even if I never ran Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, Numenera or 13th Age again, the "How to GM" or "How to Run this Game" sections would still inform the other games I did run, so it was disappointing that Grim World didn't contain more of this material.
    • There's a page (a single page) of running Grim World for Dungeon World and Fate Core each, four pages on Grim Locations and Land of the Dead Locations, eight pages of Fronts, a page on The Hunt, a plot organization you could use, one page on making Cursed items and two pages on hacking Dungeon World and Fate together.Yes, there's also lots of cursed magic items and a bunch of monsters, but those sections don't tell you much about running the game. So really, under 20 pages on running the game out of 170+
    • The upside is that if you're familiar with running Dungeon World (or, I assume, Fate Core) you can easily run Grim World, but I would have liked more on how they saw the GM Agenda and Principles through the lens of Grim World. They did provide three additional GM Principles, but I would have liked a recap of the 12 originals and how they saw them working in Grim World as opposed to Dungeon World.
    • TL;DR, because I'm such a big fan of GM orientated material I wish there would have been more... But this might not be as big an issue for others.

Final Thoughts on Grim World...

For Dungeon World GMs, Grim World is definitely worth buying. You get a set of great example Fronts, 7 new classes, 15 new (or different takes on) races, Cursed Magic Items, monsters with a horror/Lovecraftian flavor. I assume that it'd also be approximately as good for Fate Core GMs, but I don't know Fate Core enough to say for certain. I'd like to try running Grim World again, for at least a 4-6 session run, to see how the more advanced resource management aspects of the playbooks work out over the long run and because I think the Death Moves would have much more impact on a longer game. For a GM who doesn't run a lot of Dungeon World, it's probably less of a great investment, especially as it seems that a lot of the best stuff doesn't get to shine as much in a one shot.

More Love for Love Letters

I've written before on Adapting Apocalypse World "Love Letters" for Numenera (or any system, really...) and a little of why I love them, but writing them up for three games recently has solidified my love and I want to share it with the world.

What do I mean when I say Love Letter?

  • In the format of an Epistle, as opposed to a dry background information sheet. I mean, duh. 
  • Provides a player choice, whether coupled with a mechanical element or not.
    • So, for Powered by the Apocalypse games it's easy to include a roll the player needs to make that determines the number of choices they get.
    • For other games, this can be more difficult, which is why I left that off my Numenera Love Letters and off my recent 5e-ish D&D Shattered World love letters. 
    • Even without a mechanical check, there is still a choice provided, perhaps as to what clue/knowledge a player wants their PC to follow up on or perhaps a set of consquences to choose as a result of earlier choices... Though, now that I'm codifying this, I'm realizing that I didn't consistently provide choices in my Shattered World Love Letters because I'm a bad DM and I should feel bad. Next time.
  • Is a single page at most.
    • I gave my Grim World players two sheets, but the second sheet wasn't as much a Love Letter as much as it was their racial options since those aren't on the Grim World playboook character sheets the way they are on Dungeon World character sheets.
    • It's easy to keep track of and reference a single page and to quickly scan it and locate what you need, once you start having multiple pages then you lose time to paper shuffling. Something I know well as GM who is often shuffles through lots of papers (again, I'm a bad GM and I should feel bad).

Love Letters for One-Shot Games

I realized that I've actually done this more than I realized before, just not so formally, as I remembered my Planescape one-shot late last year...
Since part of the plot involved figuring out some mysteries, I gave each PC three contacts, each described by a sentence. This worked out really well because the players could glance at the background sheet I provided and quickly figure out who their PC might know who could assist instead of trying to come up with a way to solve the mystery from scratch without much context.
Basically, I made a love letter, but didn't quite call it that or provide the structure of a letter. 

So, why are Love Letters great for One-shot games?

  • They're great for quickly setting up character knowledge. You can tell a player what their character should know and perhaps some motivation.
  • They allow you to give options or have initial rolls. This is one of the big things I am trying to take from the Apocalypse World Love Letter format, that there is a roll the player makes that determines their choices or there are at least a choice they can make. I think this makes them feel less like dry background summaries and more like a chance for the player to start making character choices.
  • They're good reference docs. If an important NPC is named in the letter, it's quick and easy for the player to locate that again and you don't have to rely on the player remembering or taking notes.
  • They let you foreshadow or set up Macguffins easily.
So, for example, for my recent Grim World one shot, I decided the PCs would be working together to find the Knife River hoard and started off the letter with that information and three possible artifact Macguffins that would give the PC a reason to be looking for the hoard.

Then the second part of the letter, I set up the initial situation of the game, that they had gone to where the hoard should have been, according to their map, and instead of finding a treasure guarded by a hydra, they found a corpse and scattered clues. This let me set up the initial scenario without having to go through it in play.

Then instead of setting up the mystery and having the session devolve into every PC goes someplace else to have individual clue gathering scenes, I arbitrarily picked one of the two nearby towns for each PC and gave the player a roll to see if they got 2 clues (10+), 1 clue (7-9) or 1 clue plus a complication (6 or lower) and three clue topics. This way I (A) got all that clue hunting done before the 'real' start of play, (B) could have every PC have at least 1 clue and (C) got to do a ton of foreshadowing since even if they didn't choose a clue option to follow up on, they would still be aware of that being an avenue for later investigation...

This was an immense help to getting the game started as instead of the players getting to the cave, doing a ton of investigation there, spending more time discussing how to proceed with the investigation and then running 4-8 individual scenes as each player tried to follow up a clue I could just start with all the PCs gathering back together to go over what they learned and starting from there. In a one-shot with limited time, I think this was an incredible time saver.

Here's what I came up with... Grim World Love Letters

Love Letters for Ongoing Games

The other games I've written love letters for recently have been my ongoing Shattered World game and my Planarch Codex game, but I haven't run the Shattered World game yet, so I'm going to talk about the Planarch Codex letters instead.

Why I like Love Letters for Ongoing Games

  • It lets you get everyone on the same page, so to speak. For my Planarch Codex game, I'd run two sessions before this one, with only 1 PC that was in both sessions and to further complicate things, that player had to leave early during that second session, so there wasn't a lot of party overlap. The love letter let me set everyone up again as a group of Freebooters cleaning out the Wizard tower they'd gotten in the first session and let me establish that the PCs who started in the second session were helping out with that to give them a reason to be there.
  • They let you fast forward in time. This helped explain what the PCs who'd been in the first session, but not the second, had been doing in that time.
  • They're great for Worldbuilding. There's not a ton of setting information for the City of Dis from the Planarch Codex, the way there is for the Forgotten Realms or even Sigil from Planescape, so I was able to allude to groups or NPCs in my love letters to make the world feel larger for the PCs. And even if there was a ton of information out there, the one page format provides a quick way for players to know what's important now instead of digging through dozens and dozens of sourcebooks...
  • They let you provide additional rules, new items, et cetra. 
    • I've been unhappy with the Summoning magic rules of World of Dungeons 1979, not sure if I just didn't quite Grok them or what, but they seemed both under and over powered.
    • Reading Grim World and seeing the Control mechanic they use for several spellcasters inspired me to adapt and simplify that for World Of Dungeons 1979 and then it was easy to include in the Love Letter for that affected PC.

So as an example of Love Letters for an ongoing game, here's the Love Letters I wrote for my 3rd Planarch Codex session.

Expect more Love for Love Letters here in the future, as they are a GM technique I'm thoroughly infatuated with.

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