Hey, adventurers! It’s Tabletop Tuesday again, and this time around I thought I’d do something a little different.
One of my favorite tabletop RPG games is Dungeon World, a fantasy game that is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). What the heck does that mean? Put simply, this game borrows features from the game Apocalypse World. Saying a game is PbtA generally means that it borrowed these specific features:
– The core game mechanic is a 2d6 +something roll with three tiers of success: 10+ represents true success, 7-9 represents success with a cost, and 6- represents failure.
– The actions you take in-game are expressed as moves, which include the specific action that triggers the move and then the results of success, partial success, and failure.
– The game encourages the creation of custom content and is user-friendly to those who wish to create custom content for their game.
As a Powered by the Apocalypse game, Dungeon World makes it easy for folks to create their own moves and even entire classes. That’s a feature I’ve been taking advantage of since the beginning
Still, just because the game encourages you to make your own stuff doesn’t mean you’ll be instantly good at it, and an important skill for creating custom content is understanding how that content can be flawed. So today, I thought it would be fun to give you all some insight into my process for editing a class that I have created. That’s right – I’m constructively critiquing my own ideas right here in front of you.
First, a little background. I call this class “The Aberration,” and it is based on comic book characters such as The Hulk, the Abomination, and the Thing. The idea was to capture the essence of this huge, uncontrollable rage monster trapped in a fragile body. It was designed with the needs of that specific campaign in mind, and catered to the specific desires of the player who would be playing the character. The goal of this exercise is to take this class and generalize it into something that can be utilized alongside the core playbooks, and also to better represent the duality of monster and humanity.
First let’s take a look at the top of the first page of the character sheet. Does it seem like something is missing? For those who have played Dungeon World, it certainly should. Where are the Name and Look options for new players?! Remember, I was creating this sheet for a specific player. I encouraged my group to fill the blank spaces with character bios and their description. However, that won’t fly when placing this with other Dungeon World playbooks, so that’ll need to be fixed.
As far as the Damage and Max HP, I am going to stick with those values: d4 damage and 4 + Constitution max hp. Why? Because these stats represent the combat prowess of the Aberration in their squishy, normal form. Guys like Bruce Banner or Dr. Jekyll aren’t exactly physically imposing, and they aren’t combat experts. We’re going mild-mannered here, and from a fantasy perspective that means combat stats akin to a wizard. Still, we definitely need to fix this top section, so let’s add some name options and look options.
Look at all that nice text filling in the blank space! Now you’ll notice in the name categories that other than human names, we still don’t have familiar Dungeon World elements here. What the heck are demons and angels doing in the name section? That’ll be addressed in more detail in the race section coming up; for now, just know that at character creation, you’ll choose a name from two categories.
Nothing too crazy going on with the look category. I figured that these types of characters have three main aesthetics: seemingly put-together, losing it, and totally gone. The elements provided here help to convey that through the character’s appearance.
Now let’s look at Alignment and Race. We’re already seeing some issues here: once again, a section is completely blank! And once again, this is because I encouraged my players to fill in their own alignment. I had also done away with alignment moves, as they were having a hard time grasping these. However, it’s an important part of the game that I’m going to have to work back in to make this playbook usable for other people. We also have backgrounds instead of races here, which isn’t a huge issue (other Dungeon World hacks use background instead), but for Dungeon World we really need to make sure that this is a race section. Of course, I have my own twist in mind for that! Let’s try a little something here…
I’ve added alignment moves back in, and I felt that the most appropriate alignments for this sort of character would be Good, Neutral, and Evil. A Good character of this type will likely want to control the monster and reduce collateral damage, but will unleash it against true evil. Conversely, an Evil character might embrace the monster, wanting to use that for more often and take advantage of its power to get what they want. Meanwhile, someone Neutral likely fears the monster’s power and will seek never to let it free. Then with the Race section, we now see why there were Demon and Angel race names in the section above – those are options for the race of the monstrous being inside of the human body. I chose moves that I felt best reflected the idea of each creature type. In a relationship where the monster within is some type of twisted, animalistic beast, the reason behind transformation is likely self defense, so once the danger has passed it will be easier for such a character to come back to their senses. Demons are all about bargains and exchange of power, so I felt a “you scratch my back I scratch yours” kind of move suited them. And with angels, I was kind of drawn to the idea of the angelic being caring for the body of its host – hence the healing when changing back from monster form.
We see at least two potential moves in these sections – the Monster Form itself and the ability to Calm Down. We’ll go into those in more detail in a minute. The Starting Moves of a Dungeon World class are the meat and potatoes. They are essential to making the class unique. These are the moves that define how the class operates. As such, they need to be unique and they need to define the “core mechanic” for the class. Here’s what the starting moves looked like in the original version:
There’s a lot to dissect here, but let’s take a minute to look at the general overview of all of these moves. The first thing you might notice is that all of these moves are intended for the character’s monster form. While I definitely made an error by not specifying that in the description of moves like Thunderclap, Titanic Leap, and Bull Rush, every one of these moves either relates to the monster form or can only be used in monster form. Now this was requested by the original player – he wanted the focus of the class to be on the monstrous identity. However, with characters like The Hulk or Ghost Rider or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there’s a duality that is necessary to the character. Bruce Banner has something to offer that the Hulk does not, and vice versa. So in this updated version of the class, I want to be sure to include at least one move that is exclusive to the human form and perhaps one move that is exclusive to the monster form (though that form’s main role will likely be combat). There has to be a reason, as the player, to want to transform back and forth. So let’s be sure to include one.
Now I want to take a moment also to look at the key to transformation in my original version of the move: Rage. As long as the character possesses Rage, he or she will be in monster form. Rage is obtained by taking a certain amount of damage; specifically, 25% of the character’s maximum HP. If you’re scratching your head at that, I don’t blame you – finding percentages of HP in Dungeon World is not something that’s incorporated in the base game, and as a mechanic it’s frustrating. We discovered this in play as well – what exactly constitutes 25%? Do you round down or up? When I originally designed this move, I was thinking mechanics-first. “For the character to enter a super-powerful form that excels in combat, how much damage should they have to take first?” What I should have been doing is thinking fiction first: “what causes the characters from whom I am drawing inspiration to transform?” The answer is pain, yes, but there are other factors as well. When I design the new transformation move, I need to be sure to include the fact that other things can initiate the transformation, and that any amount of pain can be enough to get it started.
So let’s think about it. What kind of things cause these sorts of characters to transform? With monsters like werewolves, there’s natural phenomenon – a full moon forces the transformation whether the person wants to change or not. With the Hulk, there’s pain both physical and emotional, as well as the strong emotion of anger. Ghost Rider transforms in the presence of demons or as a reaction to someone particular evil, so we could say that the transformation is a reaction to proximity to a specific alignment. In the video game Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, Emil’s transformations occur during combat, or when his alternate form feels it needs to be in control. Since every person who plays the Aberration might be drawn to different interpretations of the monster form, this move needs to allow for different methods of transformation. Maybe when you design the character, you pick 2 triggers that can cause the character to transform.
This brings us to something else that’s different from interpretation to interpretation of this type of character: what the monster form is capable of. The Hulk is destructive and indestructible, Ghost Rider gains superpowers, werewolves gain speed and animalistic qualities, Emil undergoes a personality change – there are a lot of ways to embody a character’s monster form. So in addition to having options when it comes to what triggers the transformation, we also need to have options when it comes to what the transformation actually does. I really like the Ranger’s animal companion for this – you can select specific tags that define what kind of qualities and weaknesses the companion possesses, and there are different stat blocks you select from that give you more/less tags in different categories. These stats are then factored with yours when the animal companion does something. A system like that, where the monster form has its own stats to work with, and selects descriptive tags based on what type of monster you’re looking at, is something that’s built into the base game and seems like a good fit for this class. So let’s experiment with that idea a little bit and see what we can come up with.
The Animal Companion move utilizes four stats: Ferocity, Armor, Cunning, and Instinct. Ferocity affects combat ability, allowing the animal companion to increase the ranger’s damage or to endure blows for the ranger. Armor does what it always does, reducing the damage taken from attacks. Cunning represents special skills or areas of training, and also benefits the ranger when using moves like Hunt and Track or Discern Realities. Finally, Instinct represents the number of weaknesses that the animal companion has. Ferocity, Cunning, and Instinct all have a selection of tags to choose from, and your score in that stat determines the number of tags selected.
When designing your animal companion for the ranger class, you can choose from four different stat blocks that each has different rankings in Ferocity, Armor, Cunning, and Instinct. I envision the same approach for this class, with each combination representing a typical approach to the monster form. The Hulk, for example, would likely have high rankings in Ferocity and Armor, but low Cunning and high Instinct (which means more disadvantages to the transformation). Emil’s alternate form doesn’t transform his body but his personality, so that sort of transformation might have unimpressive Ferocity and Armor, but instead feature a high Cunning and a low Instinct score. Meanwhile, a character like Ghost Rider probably has a more balanced build, not overly favoring Ferocity, Armor, or Cunning but having useful scores in all three. Now whereas the animal companions simply add these stats to their masters when taking action, the monster form relies solely on these stats and therefore the scores will probably be a bit higher than what the animal companions have. But is the animal companion idea really gonna be what we need here? Let’s look at that move in more detail.
Now that I take a closer look at this, I am definitely starting to see some potential flaws. While the strength and training tags definitely seem to be moving in the right direction, they don’t all necessarily fit and there’s a lot of options that could be left out here. How would you use these to describe Ghost Rider, for example? Or to describe a character whose transformation is largely mental rather than physical?
This is where move design really gets tricky. You can find a concept that seems like it’ll work, and then when you really dissect it you’re not quite accomplishing what you want. That’s the sensation I experienced the first time with the Rage mechanic; it wasn’t necessarily meeting my standards, but I needed to pump it out quick so my player could actually, you know, play the game. In this situation I am not limited by a similar time crunch. As such, I can take a break and come back to this concept when I have more concrete ideas.
With that in mind, we’re going to bring an end to this session of editing a Dungeon World class. I’m going to look at some other Powered by the Apocalypse stuff and see if I can’t harvest ideas from that, and maybe think a little harder about just how many kinds of “alternate identity” characters I can realistically fit into one concept. If you enjoyed seeing this kind of behind-the-scenes work, please let me know and I will gladly bring this segment back. We might look at another class entirely before we revisit the Aberration, but we can definitely come back to this one if folks are interested. Also let me know if you’re interested in seeing a new class built from the ground up, because I’d be willing to include that sort of thing as well.
Thanks so much for reading and I hope that this look into my process is beneficial for you in some way. Let me know if you’re interested in seeing similar content in the future, and be sure to come back next week for another Tabletop Tuesday!