A few days ago, I ran a game of DungeonWorld for two of my friends. It went so well, and ended up feeling so much like a classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure, that I thought I would share the basics of the game with you. It’s somewhere between an actual play and a scenario description. I’ll put up an honest-to-goodness Dungeon-starter soon, and with a little creativity you should have an easy time converting it into your own single- or double-episode game.
We didn’t look too closely at the backstories of our heroes, but please allow me to introduce you to the adventures of Kate the thief and Jonah the ranger (and Jonah’s wolfhound, Erasmus), the loyal representatives of Duke Blackforest. What follows should allow you to live out their adventures for yourself, or change things slightly and experience the adventure anew with other people.
The Duchy of Blackforest is best known for the Blackforest itself; this massive woodland spreads for many miles, covering most of the County of Blackforest and even shrouding sections of the other counties of the Duchy of Blackforest with spurs and arms growing from the central body of the forest. People tell stories of all kinds about the place, but most of them agree on a few important details: the forest is dangerous, the forest is dark, and the forest is almost certainly home to monsters, spirits, and many wild animals. It is also well known that the trees are both larger and more densely packed together than they are in other forests. Even at high noon the floor of the forest lives in a shrouded twilight, and on all but the very brightest of days you would need torches if you were to travel through the woods without being nearly blind in the dark.
People are generally very careful about cutting trees from the Blackforest, making rituals of propitiation to satisfy the spirits which are believed to live within. They also engage in all sorts of careful behavior to make sure that they don’t cut down trees inhabited by spirits (perhaps done by marking prospective trees several months in advance, then only cutting down trees on which the marks remain). Nobody wants to disturb the angry spirits of Blackforest.
The Countess of Blackforest, vassal to Duke Blackforest, is in turn served by the Baroness Wintermark. The Barony of Wintermark lies entirely within the confines of the forest and includes part of a range of hills and cliffs that run through the center of the forest. The Barony of Wintermark also features Ironhold, a small mining town nestled in those hills, and Castle Wintermark, built overlooking the road that runs from Ironhold out through the Blackforest to the castle of Countess Blackforest.
Ironhold was first established because a fortunate adventurer found the presence of magical iron ore in the rocky hillsides nearby. Such ore was valuable enough to convince people to mine it despite being forced to live in the middle of the Blackforest. While the original seams of magical iron ore have given way to normal iron, the mine is well enough established by now that a town has sprung up nearby it and people continue to live and work there. It is rather out of the way, several days further into the forest from Castle Wintermark which is itself perhaps two weeks’ travel on narrow wood-shadowed roads from the seat of Countess Blackforest. There are a few fields and small gardens which have been eked out of the surrounding forest, and they currently are filled with winter crops. The few notable buildings in the center of the small town are the blacksmith’s shop, a dry goods / general store, a tavern, and the Headman’s house (which is otherwise unmarked). There is a second tavern near the mine’s head, called the Broken Shovel, which is both larger and less nice than the one in town.
Enough of the geography and location, let’s get on to the seed of the adventure itself:
Towns generally have a Headman (or Headmistress, perhaps). They are supposed to keep an eye on things, organize the militia, and represent the interests of the town to the local lord while representing the interests of the local lord to the town. Ironhold’s Headmen have been dying. Repeatedly.
Five Headmen in a row were killed before our heroes were dispatched by the Duke to figure out what was going on. The first three were in a chain of command, the fourth volunteered, and the fifth was appointed by the Baroness Wintermark from amongst the townsfolk. By the time that the heroes arrive in Ironhold, a sixth (a man-at-arms in the Baroness’ service) had been appointed and has already died. Every single one has reportedly been killed by animal attacks, out in the Blackforest. The first of the Headmen had held his post for several years, but most of the others lived anywhere from six months to a bit longer than a week. Rudger, the sixth and the exception, lasted a few days. The heroes learn of his existence at the same time that they learn of his death. Due to the fact that he died one or two days before they arrived, the Baroness almost certainly does not yet know that her man-at-arms is already dead.
Here’s an opportunity to alter the story: change what actually / supposedly killed the Headmen, and where, and you can play a totally different game.
The scene opens on our heroes standing in the snow at the site of Rudger’s death, some forty minutes’ hike outside the town and deep into the Blackforest. Though it is midday, they hold torches in order to see the details of the scene around them. One day’s light snowfall dusts the trampled snow and partly covers the frozen red snow where Rudger’s blood soaked in. Some blood has frozen where it spattered against several of the nearby trees.
In our game, the players determined that there was enough blood in the snow to make them think that Rudger had bled out almost entirely. They knew then that this had been no animal attack, since any animal would have eaten enough of the body to reduce how much blood was spilled. The tracks around the scene of his death were obscured by those of the villagers that came out to find him and bring him back, but on the edge of those Jonah found another set of lightly snowed-in tracks that led east, away from the scene.
The heroes followed, tracing the path until it came to a rockier and icier patch southeast of the town. Jonah was able to determine that the person who made the tracks was probably about six feet tall and fairly heavy, with decent boots. Kate, meanwhile, got the feeling that they were being watched and noticed a hint of movement out amongst the trees further to their east. They failed to catch the watcher, and with night approaching they returned to the town.
Once back in town, they hired a group of farmers to open the cairn in which Rudger had been buried. Upon examining his frozen corpse, they were able to determine that the wounds he had received were not caused by a wild animal. While Rudger had apparently worn a chainmail tunic, he had a long and low cut across his belly (his intestines had been stuffed back inside, presumably by whoever had buried him), and his left arm and left leg had been torn off. But there were no signs of parallel wounds that might be left by claws, and the wounds were remarkably clear cut, as though someone had used a hefty blade. Where his shoulder and thigh had been torn apart, the wound started with a cut and only ended in a tear, as though someone had made a cut to start the wound and then removed the limb by main force to simulate a wild animal attack.
Having found this, the heroes finally asked about where they might find Rudger’s personal effects. They were directed towards the Headman’s cabin, a rustic structure of logs that had been given the luxuries of a mud and stone fireplace and a wooden floor. A section of the ceiling is open to the small attic, and the heroes ascend to find Rudger’s sleeping pallet, spare sword and dagger, clothes, some miscellaneous equipment, and a moderately sized heavy chest.
Much of this may change depending on what you want to have happen in your game. In my game, I had decided that there was a conspiracy in the town, and over the next few scenes chose to have that conspiracy be a cult which worshipped a frightening god of disembowelment.
Kate set about searching for any traps on the chest. She found none, but did notice a loose bit of chinking in the wall behind the chest. Pulling the chinking out, she discovered a hollowed out hiding place which contained a scroll of parchment wrapped in a ribbon and a small amulet of disturbing design. The amulet resembled a chaotically knotted twist of intestines, and while it was not made of precious materials it would no doubt fetch a fair price simply on the basis of its fine craftsmanship (if anyone would buy something so distressing). It also caused anyone holding it to feel faintly nauseous.
The scroll was a letter, and its seal had been opened. The wax seal bore the imprint of the Baroness Wintermark’s crest, and the letter was fairly straightforward. It was addressed to Rudger, and officially appointed him Headman of Ironhold, charging him with sorting out the troubles which had beset the town. Kate then managed to notice the extremely thin and nearly transparent sheet of vellum which had been carefully lain over the letter’s script, rolled up inside it. Separating the sheet, she read the secret message.
Again, maybe this will show up in your game, maybe it won’t.
The message was written with a stylus without any ink, its block letters pressed into the sheet and invisible unless read at the proper angle away from the light. The contents were simple and brief, simply addressed to “R”: the headmen’s deaths are suspicious, some sort of outside involvement was suspected, and R should be careful because whoever has been killing headmen has allied themselves with others. This, of course, was showing signs of doom; the Baroness didn’t know who to trust, believed that the conspiracy in the town had to have backing from elsewhere, and thought that there might be involvement with magical or divine forces.
Then the heroes tried to open the chest, and Kate the thief failed her roll. As they lifted the lid, they found an odd metal form waiting for them, slowly unfolding itself to stand and face them. It looked like a toddler made of gleaming metal, with a strange swirling intestine-like pattern over its belly and arms stretched far too long for its size, leaving it with a gait more similar to a chimpanzee or gorilla. It was an iron golem, and they had awoken it.
A messy fight ensued, ending with our heroes victorious but thoroughly injured and the house nearly set alight. When they checked the chest once again, they found that the golem had been resting on several sheets of paper. They were notes taken by Rudger, mostly uninteresting or purposefully obscure and mundane. Only the last of the sheets, the one on top of the mess, mentioned anything of interest, suggesting that he had found something frightening and was leaving “this” and “the other piece” behind as evidence. Before going to sleep, the heroes made one last return to the tavern, doing their best to hide their wounds. There they tried to surreptitiously find out who the various cultists/conspirators were, and succeeded while simultaneously showing their hand.
The next day saw our heroes investigating the mine, following the lead of a miner that they didn’t think was associated with the cultists. While other miners toiled away elsewhere, they wandered down the abandoned shaft which had once been mined for magical ore. Jonah could see traces of recent passage, suggesting that the shaft was not truly abandoned. Their guide told them stories of people disappearing through walls and never returning, and of this set of shafts being abandoned long ago after the ore ran out and a horrific mass murder (involving disembowelment) was discovered in one of the lower chambers of the seam. Kate uncovered secret doors built into the walls of the long shaft, and as they reached a large cathedral like space at the bottom of the shaft, they could hear what sounded like the ringing of a smith’s hammer.
They split up to investigate and cover their retreat, and while Kate was trying to approach the forge in a tunnel at the far end of the chamber a group of cultists poured into the space, preparing to attack Jonah and the miner where they held the rearguard. A fight ensued, Kate was discovered by the smith before she could assassinate him, and they commenced a fighting retreat, chased by the smith’s magic, another iron toddler golem, and the cultists. Their miner companion died in the struggle.
From then on, our heroes did their best to rally the people of the village to their cause. They marked out the cultists and their catspaws, arresting them in the name of the Duke. A number were still at large, and the rest of the game involved trying to hunt them down and being ambushed in turn, fighting the last few cultists and their core group of dedicated priests and spellcasters.
Phew, I thought that this would go a little bit faster, and that this material would be a little easier to convert. My apologies for not making this a little more cohesive. I’ve been quite impressed with the Dungeon-starter materials I’ve seen elsewhere, so I’m going to formulate all this adventure material like one and put it up soon. Expect it on Wednesday!