Dear GM Diary: Dungeon World Session Zero

Dear GM Diary,

I think I must have the coolest, most patient friends in the world. I think this because I just edited about 3 hours of audio where I got to listen to them being the coolest, most patient friends in the world as they played a game with me I barely know how to play myself.

If you haven’t listened to Episode 0 of our Dungeon World Podcast, that’s what I’ll be talking about here so you may want to do that first. Even if you don’t that’s fine. Episode 0 was about 40% world building 50% game play mechanics practice through a one shot, and 20% doing what I do best and winging it (I always give 110%). Here I intend to re-hash what the game is about, what the players are about, and what tips I’ve learned. Partially because I know that’s what I’m interested in when listening to real-play podcasts, and partially because I hope believe it will be helpful to me as a Game Master (GM) to look back over what we did. Let’s start from the beginning.

Why Dungeon World/ My GM History

I knew I wanted to try dungeon world for myself after stumbling upon the awesome podcast Friends at The Table (F@tt for short, bless them). I talk about them a lot all over the place so I won’t go into it too hard, but basically they are a group of friends who play ttrpgs and do great. They also have one of the most interesting dynamics I’ve ever heard. Their GM is very cinematic and the players lean into that pretty heavily, but it never stops what they’re doing from being a game. They still laugh and goof, but the players and the GM all have 100% trust in each other to take the story where it needs to go.

As a new gm, I’ve already fallen before into the trap of railroading my characters by setting up scenes instead of situations. I imagined epic or funny conversations and tried to set up ways to make it happen like some sort of omnipotent friend puppeteer. But for better or worse I could never force my friends to naturally stumble into precisely the situations that I imagined and still have them be playing a fun game.
As I played more with my friends and listened to some great real-play podcasts I found that the best solution was actually super simple: I had to trust that the people I was playing with would take us somewhere great all on their own. As a GM I’m not there to tell a story of my own invention, I’m there to watch the story they tell. I just give them some props with which to do so.

Not to say that this is an easy out to take. It’s a lot of trust to put in players to make narrative based decisions in what at the end of the day is a game. I’ve had my own players who decide that they want to deliberately throw off the GM just to see if they can. Not to say that can’t be part of the fun or a great way to flex some creative muscles but I’m pretty tired almost all the time, so finding myself two people who were willing to give me that suspension of disbelief and take the nudges I give them was kind of a necessity. Alex and Celia could absolutely ignore the (sometimes literal) railroads I offer them, but bless their hearts they know enough to realize that running away from where I’ve prepared is really only going to get them some lower quality adventures.

For three people who trust each other in games as much as we do, Dungeon World is pretty much the perfect system. It uses a Powered By The Apocalypse (PBtA) system re-skinned by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel. Players roll two six sided die (2d6), anything 6 or below is a failure 7 to 9 is a “mixed success” and 10 or higher is a “full success”. Players have modifiers on their character sheets and various situations can end up giving them bonuses or minuses on their rolls, but all in all it’s a very streamlined system that helps keep role playing moving forward at a pretty nice clip. I’d highly recommend it to anyone, especially if you’re new to ttrpgs and want something a little less math heavy to start.

My Job/Game 0 Prep

Session zero is a critical part of ttrpgs that I absolutely ignored the first time I ever GMd. Learn from my mistakes. Always do session zero. Session zero is where all of the critical world building and tone setting goes. For this game of dungeon world it meant talking about what kind of setting we wanted, what I expected from Celia and Alex as players, and what they could expect from me as a GM. Skipping session zero in the past is what got me into situations where players and myself were frustrated because we hadn’t laid down groundwork of what to expect from the game.

Alex and I had already talked about how much we love urban fantasy. It’s a great setting and one I think is vastly underappreciated. I would actually love to eventually try to play a game that is true “urban” fantasy, but upon retrospect this one did get just a little out of hand. Celia and Alex haven’t really called me out quite yet on the fact that I use urban fantasy as shorthand for “I’m not going to make any sort of consistent technological time-frame” and I appreciate that. I could try to justify the kitchen sink of settings, clothing, and electronics I throw at them through some sort of fantasy-based logic “if they had magic they would never need to invent cars they could just drive magic carriages forever!!!” but the honest to god truth is that I just really like me some good aesthetic.

When it comes to game-prep influences a personal favorite of mine and one we mention in the episode is Studio Ghibli. I’ve always been a huge sucker for how the worlds feel very bright and colorful but also very “lived in”. Ghibli films seldom have a definitive time frame in them but they still feel like a place you could go and visit, with a whole world happening just off screen.

Kingsbury, Howl’s Moving Castle

Even with a general setting decided upon, I still had a pretty big ask of my players. In the world Celia Alex and I were playing in, I requested we try to avoid conflict arising from social issues in our world.

Literally the Section I’m Most Nervous to Explain. Social Issues and Fantasy Earth

Oh man, oh man. Look. The world is kind of a shitty place sometimes. There’s so many awful things people who are viewed as “different” have to deal with. There are so many people who’s lives and experiences are ignored or invalidated. Some of the best media forms take a hard critical look at the way the world is: putting it to a microscope and dissecting it carefully piece by piece. People in stigmatized positions have written and shared their stories and created amazing pieces of work out of their experience.

We are not that. Alex Celia and I are so fortunate in the lives we lead! To be white and cis in the world means we haven’t experienced quite a bit of suffering that is out there. We can’t give the stories of things we haven’t experienced the accuracy or justice they deserve and there is a lot of excellent media addressing social issues by the people who experience those issues. So I requested of my players that we try to imagine a world where strife came from elsewhere. There are plenty of sources of conflict in the world without us having to resort to telling other people’s stories for them.

That being said! Not being able to tell the stories of those with different experiences than us is no reason not to include diversity in what we do! podcasts get a bit of an easy out with appearances. I tend to only describe characters using the broadest of descriptors this is in part to allow myself to keep the pace moving, but also a conscious decision. The characters look like whatever we imagine them to, and when I do add specific descriptors I aspire to use them as a tool to include diversity in our game where I can.

I already fucked up too! In my very first set of NPCs I intentionally included both a non-binary character (GR-48, the golem/robot companion of the players) and a character with a physical disability (Nahara Anderson’s leg). A pat on the back is what I gave myself, good job remembering to include them! And then we spent a whole game accidentally mis-gendering GR and while editing, I realized I had made the only non-binary character also the only non-human character. Wowza.

I’m not going to give up though. I’d like to believe that intentionally including diversity is at least a step in the right direction, and that hopefully I can continue to learn and grow as I get more practice and research in. For now my challenge to myself and my players is just that we do our best, correct our mistakes as we go, and strive to make our story an inclusive one.

The easier social issue for me to talk about is the one I’m involved in. I’ve asked Celia and Alex to try to play this as a world where gender was a non-issue. This is because I’m literally sick of it being an issue. In stories, in life, in anywhere. I’m a pretty big proponent of “it’s super dumb to think a fantasy world would have sexism that mirrors ours” and I’m sticking to my guns on that one.

Gameplay For the Session

I was definitely feeling a bit of a rush this session! I had prepared us an enemy I wanted them to fight and as I mentioned about a million paragraphs ago, having such a concrete expectation as a GM generally only ends in tears. Celia and Alex are good sports about the pretty heavy railroading I did though, and it ended up working out ok for a mechanics trial. We got just about one of everything out of the way.

The best advice I ever heard about failures is that they should be more fun and interesting for characters than successes are and I’m going to try to up the ante on Alex and Celia’s failed rolls in the future. I personally have started liking asking players how they think their characters failed because it keeps me from the pitfall of accidentally mis-characterizing on behalf of my players and honestly, they usually have better ideas than me! Not to knock my own GMing too hard, there’s just a lot of balls in the air for any GM at different points in time so anything that lightens the load a little really helps keep the old brain-pan in order.

It’s long enough after the session that I can admit this now, I totally forgot Volker (Alex) had a move that fucked up metal things! And I’ll tell you what my old instincts almost got in the way on that one “oh no it’s too big/ not that kind of metal/ living/ whatever ” but doing some sort of ass-pull that stops my players from being super extra cool would have been the opposite of helpful and I’m glad I went the way I did. Players have fun when they get to do cool things! Where past Kiersten might have fretted over if that conflict was “too easy” now I just I hope I can get something in for Celia too. (Or more accurately, I cant wait for Celia to bust out a move that catches me off guard as well).

It was RIGHT THERE the whole time…

My Hopes and Goals

Starting our next session I’ve prepared a more long term campaign for Alex and Celia. Set at a Magical College with some missing students it offers a chance for mystery, adventure, more varied NPC interaction, and some stealthiness. Or maybe they’ll burn the whole joint down! The scariest part about DMing TTRPGs is also what makes them so fun. I have no idea what Celia and Alex are going to do, and that means they’ll probably surprise and delight me the whole way through.

I’m really really going to try to play this one without caving into the need for combat every session. I love combat, and making monsters is super fun, but in my previous games I’ve definitely shoehorned it in where it didn’t belong just because I thought it was necessary and now that I’ve spent more time as a player myself I’ve realized that a combat free session doesn’t necessarily have to be a boring one.

I had some music in our first episode! I’m not sorry, but maybe I should be. Editing music it was a bit of a bigger task than I gave it credit to, and I’m not even one of those renaissance pod-casters who records their own. (for anyone wondering, Youtube has a full music library of royalty free songs for use. Check it out! It’s super cool.) I still intend on using music in the future, but I’m going to strive to polish that up a bit. I found loops and endings the hardest, when nothing is scripted we can’t exactly line it up perfect every time.

I downloaded this one just in case. Don’t worry about it!

I’ve already got a pretty sizable cast of characters at the ready and I’ll be honest, that REALLY makes me nervous. I love making them so much but a voice actor I am not and the concept of trying to keep them clear for my players is literally terrifying to me. I wake in a cold sweat after a terrible nightmare where I was forced to do 14 different European accents and all I could manage was a half-assed English and a Scottish so bad I wouldn’t blame Liam Neeson if he personally come to my house to strangle me as punishment.
Can we real talk? If you’ve made it this far in the article we’re pretty close by now right? I’m so majorly full of regret and dread over GR48’s voice. “A robot” I thought “That’ll be easy, I can just use my same voice but make the inflections weird and not use contractions.”The robot voice is NOT easy I am NOT ok with it and it WILL change every episode until I can get my house in order. Aw man. GR how could you do this to me?

I’m still going to be working to add diversity with care and purposeful intent. First character on the board was a non-binary human, and I’m trying to keep in mind just how easy it was to fall into bad habits that I didn’t even know I had. I’m trying to balance not being too hard on myself as I continue to try my best, but also acknowledging that these are big issues and I should treat them with care. I hope that comes through.


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