Ask Angry: Changing Plots, Dungeon World, and Reskinning

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Dillon, a Son of a Bitch asks,

What if, either because they guessed it or are just joking about it, your players talk about an upcoming plot line, twist, scenario, etc. long before you’ve reached that point? Do you keep on course? Do you try and change it into something unexpected?

Let me answer your question with a question. Imagine you’re filling out a sudoku puzzle in a magazine. And the creator of the puzzle is watching you through binoculars. I know that’s creepy. It’s just hypothetical. And he realizes you’re on track to solve the puzzle very easily. You’re just flying along. So, he suddenly runs in, slaps your hand away, changes a few of the numbers in the puzzle, punches you in the throat, and runs away.

I think you see what I’m getting at. It doesn’t matter how far in advance the players see it coming. It doesn’t matter if they see it because of a joke or because they really figured it out. When the twist comes up and it’s exactly what they anticipated, that feels like a victory. Because THEY figured it out (or stumbled into it because it’s a good punch line).

I can throw out a thousand other analogies, but don’t do this. They didn’t RUIN the surprise for themselves, they WON. To players, WINNING is better than BEING SURPRISED. That’s why it’s a GAME.

Robus asks:

I’ve been reading up on Dungeon World combat and its narrative flow seems really appealing. So much so that I’d like to home brew a system that retains the PCs abilities but allows me to narrate D&D combat in dungeon world style. What I’m worried about is breaking the balance and either making things too hard or too easy. My initial guess is to map a roll of 10-15 into the dungeon world 7-9 range. >15 the PC succeeds in its attack or defense. 10-15 the player succeeds with complication.

Do you think this would work? Is there a better method?

Yes. There is a better method. It’s called JUST PLAY DUNGEON WORLD. I mean, at a certain point, you’re just being sort of bullheaded. If you like what Dungeon World does, play Dungeon World. If you like D&D, play D&D. But the thing is, they don’t work well together. And here’s why.

Every move in Dungeon World is designed with the in-inbuilt assumption that the action is risky or costly and the dice will determine whether you get what you wanted or you pay for it. That’s the balancing factor. You can make this attack, but you’re going to expose yourself to damage. You can cast this spell, but there’s a chance it’ll cause you a problem later. You can try to recall lore about this monster, but if you do, you could end up getting hurt. Notice how DW doesn’t have any limited resources. Even the “Vancian” thing of “forgetting spells” is keyed off of failing on actions.

D&D is built more directly on a resource expenditure approach. Taking an action generally can’t hurt you, but you always expend a resource. You use an action in combat. You use up time. You use up ammunition. You use up supplies. You use up a spell slot. Whatever. No matter what happens, the action will cost you something and the only thing the dice determine is whether you wasted the resources or got what you wanted. Thus, all abilities are balanced based on the types of resources they use. This requires an action. That requires a bonus action. This weapon requires two hands. That spell requires a fifth level spell slot. This thing can only be used once between rests. And so on. You always know what the downside is in D&D, that is to say, you know what you have to pay. But there’s all sorts of different types of resources built into the game.

The point is, it’s not just the dice rolling system that makes it work. It’s also the structure of the moves and the GM countermoves. If you want to try to Frankenstein them together, go to town. But it’s not something I would do. In the end, the games give very different experiences and there’s major differences in how the games are structured on a narrative level.

But if you try it anyway, good luck! I hope it succeeds! Because f$&%ing around and experimenting is important. Don’t let me dissuade you. It’s just that you’re wandering off the map and into “here there be dragons” territory in my book.

Felcat Asks:

In the past you’ve denigrated re-skinning monsters. I was curious how you feel about “re-skinning” in that a monster retains its basic “ecological” position, but undergoes a cosmetic change.

Example, in a setting using Anthropomorphic races in place of standard D&D races, I wanted to change the various goblin races (Goblin, Hobgoblin, Bugbear) to an animal race. I even had a mind to make Orcs into a Badger race!

Do you think this would be a useful conservation of work, or just a lazy short cut?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: you don’t need my permission to run your game any wrong way you want. I literally do not give a s$&% what you do. And I’m not going to steal your DM screen and kick you out of the International Secret Game Master Cabal if you don’t do the things I tell you to do. And you don’t need my approval or even my respect. It’s your game. Do your thing.

And if all you want from me is validation, then you don’t have it. But you don’t need it. My validation is worthless. Everyone’s validation is worthless. Only your validation matters and you should get over that.

But if you want my genuine opinion, read on. If you can handle it. But you might not like it.

Reskinning, to me, seems like an utter waste of potential. Especially here. It seems like you have a particular vision of a world in mind. And that’s really cool. GMs should have visions. It’s much more fun to run a world that comes from your heart and soul. But, me, personally? I’d feel a little unsatisfied with taking a cool vision and then just treating it like a coat of paint to be slapped over existing content.

Take badgers, for example. Badgers are fascinating animals. I mean, I’ll hand it to you, the orcs “Aggressive” ability actually does mirror a badger’s ability to cover distance in short bursts very quickly. But badgers also burrow. And they can lock their jaws in a vice grip. And some can spray a stinging, stinky musk in defense. Hell, a five minute read of the Wikipedia page also reveals medieval legends about badgers teaming up to dig complex burrows using tools. Charging is the least interesting thing that badgers can do. And, on top of that, there’s the famous honey badger vs. snake thing. Does your world have snake people? How do they interact?

You see, that’s where my objection to reskinning really comes from. I look at the idea of badger people and say “I don’t know much about badgers, let me check that out” and I discover clamping jaws and anal stink and legends about badger miners. And that s$&% gets me excited. I’m like “my world needs badger people.” And then someone turns around and says “well, I just used orc stats,” and I die a little inside.

Look, I know making original stuff is a lot of work and I know people don’t always have the time. I’ve taken my shortcuts too. Because I am busy as hell and don’t have the time to do all of the crap I want to do and realize all the visions and still work and maintain a living space and poop and do all the things I have to do in a day and have time to run games and maintain a website. I get all that. And if that’s ultimately your situation, do what you gotta do. Because you have to be practical first. It doesn’t work any other way.

So, really, my disdain for reskinning comes first and foremost from my irrational belief that you – whoever you are – can do better.

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen;
The saddest are these: ‘it might have been!’”
– Maud Muller by John Greenleaf Whittier.

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12 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Changing Plots, Dungeon World, and Reskinning

  1. Thanks for the answer Angry, and I’ve actually been regretting the question since the “speed up combat” article. That’s going to give me the dynamism I was seeing in DW combat without having to venture into dragon territory!

  2. I’ve been trying to figure out what people like so much about Apocalypse World and its variants, and this answer gives me another piece towards that: Giving turn order over to DM fiat seemed like nothing but a flaw to me because it takes structure away, but there’s something even more fundamental going on with how you just don’t get a reliable source of resources in the form of actions. FATE made much more sense to me because it’s still resource-based, where an action is worth an aspect or a fate point. When moves are inherently risky, being the person doing something isn’t a strict upside, as the worst-case goes from “wasting your chance to advance” to “actively sabotaging your interests”.
    That “Dungeon World Guide” pdf which is supposed to explain how this works infuriated me because it played up how the DM has plenty of freedom on how to depict threats and apply failure and how it was so amazing and innovative to have this ruleset where players have no idea what will happen when they do anything. Maybe closing with the archers will get you automatically hit, maybe you get a chance to dodge, maybe they don’t see you because you had a hard time getting here and deserve some pity, how does the DM feel today? Perhaps in the moment a player gets to choose whether they try to grab the falling idol or push the cultist grabbing at it over the edge, but I don’t see how you can plan when any course of action is at the whim of someone who can add or subtract steps at will without reason. There doesn’t seem to be anything written down ahead of time to be overcome fairly on its own merits. I compare it to a D&D combat where the DM decides how many hit points each monster has only after they feel the monster has been hit ‘enough’. I should probably look at adventure modules to see what the game looks like rather than the operating system.
    I guess you just need to have a really solid shared base of understanding about how the game world works for any of these systems to start making sense. Also, immense trust in the DM to interpret the ‘game fiction’ in any way remotely similar to how you read it. Perhaps I’m just too scarred from playing pretend games as a child with people that make infinity-plus-one whatevers to stop anything you do. I need the underlying rules system to describe what really happens in the game world because I don’t trust anyone to have any shared understanding otherwise.

    • That’s not actually how Dungeon World works; a PC us never asked to do something without knowing the potential consequences. And they are encouraged to >discuss< things with the GM. Because the game is a conversation. What no one knows is what the results of that action will be.

      "I charge the archers!"
      "they're a really long way off, that's just going to get you shot."
      "What if I dodge from boulder to boulder? You said the ground here is really rocky and strewn with big stones."
      "That sounds like it might work. Defy danger with dexterity?"
      "If I'm just relying on speed instead of trying to evade, can I use strength?"
      "Seems reasonable. Go for it."

      I remain a little confused by the people who are so untrusting of their friends that they feel like they can't discuss things with the GM to get on the same page and understand what the situation is.

      • The confusion is mutual. I guess a less emotionally-charged version of my complaint is that I expect the rules to help establish what counts as a fair challenge, and the fluidity Dungeon World and other AW systems provides for action resolution runs counter to this expectation. Anything you face is as hard as the DM and players agree on, which pushes that game design work on you.
        It really is a fundamentally different system, less like a game you play in and more like a game you create as you go. If that excites you, it’s doing its job. If it concerns you, it isn’t for you.

    • Neither Dungeon World nor D&D protects against individuals taking temporary narrative control of the game and adding or changing aspects that might conflict with your expectations. To protect yourself from abuse of discretion, you have to fully define the system, as is the goal for example with Pathfinder. That’s fine, if that’s what you enjoy. But there is plenty of fun to be had in rpg systems that rely on human judgment and discretion – you just have to make sure not to play with a$$&*les.

      • “don’t play with a$$&*les” is pretty much a requirement for a good game experience regardless of system. No game system can keep a jerk from ruining everyone’s fun.

        • If you are playing chess with a jerk, at least they have to follow the exact mechanical rules or you aren’t playing chess anymore. D&D/DW/RPGs are bizarre forms of self-consumed performance art with vague rulesets more or less dependent on well-exercised discretion and creative control by the DM.

          The more you limit and define the system, the more protected you are from abuse of discretion, but the further you move away from this crazy thing that we all like and have a hard time defining.

    • Nope the GM in Dungeon World cant willy nilly decide what happens just because, the rules of DW specifically state that everything has to be fiction led. It makes sense that if you fictinally said between the srchers and you is no cover your going to get hit.

      I like DW combat because it feels cinematic and its all about the important part of combat, the narrative going around it. A lot of times d&d focuses on just boring positioning because of its turn based structure. DW i feel is a bit more dynamic and it totally is easier to cut from combat to the gm saying ok i don’t think there is any more danger here you win.

    • Maybe I’m confused, but I thought FATE doesn’t have an action economy either. Aspects/fate points only come in to play when you are boosting actions, but the DM/players still decide together who is acting next?

      • Default rules are that the initiative order is based on the notice skill.

        There is an action economy but not a resource management system to fate. Also aspects come up more than when invoked/compelled as they are true facts so “hiding behind a boulder” means you shouldn’t be shot by an archer until you choose to leave cover.

  3. I have the opposite question that your first email had: what to do when the PCs get fixated on something so much that they can’t let it go, even though it was never really a thing in the first place.

    Like “OMG I think I know about the monster behind all this!” and then they bring up how big a deal that is every 20 minutes… and they’re dead wrong. I’ve changed plots to make use of/not disappoint all of the climactic build-up they’re doing for themselves, but it still feels awkward.

    • I’ve had a similar experience. After exploring some flooded caverns and fighting the native fish people and completing their objective and basically doing all they came there to do, the players decided to hop in to an unexplored corridor which leads to the natives’s village. I wanted to keep the story going so when they snuck to the entrance I described a huge cavern filled with tons of fish people with one of them giving a speech. The players immediately interpreted it as “oh crap, they think we’re from the village outside and they’re preparing to attack it in masses! At the end of the session I sighed and got the fish people stats out of the proverbial used garbage and started working on a big battle scene involving the village.

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