Design Notes: The Lazy DM, Dungeon World, & Zweihänder


After some conversation tonight, I thought I'd share a few resources that I'm using for my upcoming Zweihänder campaign, "The Corruption of Saint Barberra." In an effort to cite my betters, I'm going to keep this to the point.

Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast, Out of the Abyss

Sly Flourish, aka Mike Shea, has written two books on the topic of running lightly prepared, highly dynamic RPG games. His first resource, The Lazy Dungeon Master (available here), kept Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 in mind while his second, The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master (pre-order available here) reflects on the insights of D&D 5, Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, and the explosive growth of streaming and related material. That said, they are system generic resources and quick reads.

Recently, Sly Flourish shared this great post about employing his framework from The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master (informed by Apocalypse World's game master advice) to craft a campaign from level one to level twenty around the hyena-like monstrous humanoids gnolls and their demon prince Yeenoghu. And it sounds incredible. The Hunger begins was inspired by reading Volo's Guide to Monsters and this gruesome daydream:

Reading the section on gnolls in Volo's Guide got my head spinning around the idea of a full level 1 to 20 fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign built around gnolls. I had in my head an image of a hyena twitching in the remains of a half-digested corpse of a villager (gory, I know). As the characters watch in horror, the hyena starts to twist and break like the best scene in American Werewolf in London. The party witnesses the full transformation (or maybe partial transformation if they decide to blast it to pieces before it finishes) of a hyena into a gnoll. (source)

I love this. And reading this blog post encouraged me to dive into my PDF of Return for my own campaign. I've also dabbled in Apocalypse World and some of Dungeon World, though I find the pop culture science-fiction/fantasy themed Monster of the Week the most approachable of the widely published "Powered by the Apocalypse" rulesets. However, many of the notions Shea refers to are laid out in the hilariously fun Apocalypse World rulebook. (The game has rules for special powers earned following sex, for crying out loud.)

All of this focuses on minimal preparation with maximum in-game fluidity.

(((Minor spoilers ahead for the campaign I'm working on!)))

Image source: Zweihänder: Grim & Perilous RPG

And so we come back to the Corruption of Saint Barberra. What's the hook? Keep it simple and punchy. How about, "Halt the corruption growing beneath the Nunnery of St. Barberra." This gives us key information and framing. To flesh this out, we identify six truths of the game world. Here's what I've drafted.

  1. The Village of Piran is a washed out mining town in mountainous wilderness connected to Grantham along the Moonshine Pass.

  2. Many people came to the region for its promise of silver and sale with the miners.

  3. St. Barberra of Anthem and now the sisters of her Order look over the region, tending to the sick and troubled.

  4. Darkness stirs beneath the region, seeping upward.

  5. The land around Piran has grown sick, its people plagued by troubles, the crops hollow and flavorless, and the wilderness has become thick with monsters.

  6. The old silver mines around Piran are where the land is closest to this Darkness.

Quick, snappy lines. You can compare these with Shea's own for the Hunger. We then identify the Fronts. These are the motivators and movers of the campaign. Without the activity of the player characters, these are what would make all the choices for the populace. I'm leaving some stuff out and I encourage you to check out Shea's own for more detail, and especially Return for more detailed guidance, but here is the short of it:

  • The Manufactory of the Well-Meaning Burgomeister Dalwin Kanto

  • Goal: Burgomeister Kant aims to create a manufactory for ceramics in Piran, reviving industry and bringing about new life in the region. He unknowingly will spread the corruption to Grantham and beyond if he succeeds.

  • This will first be revealed by Leil Turba, a craftsperson assigned to harvesting the clay from Hickory Lake. Turba will rave through the streets of Piran and is delivered to the Nunnery for treatment.

  • The Alabaster Cult within the Nunnery of Saint Barberra

  • Goal: Employ heretical Magicks to raise Saint Barberra and bring about a wave of divine purification to the blighted land. While they believe the Magick is derived from the White Lady of the Shield, in truth they are whispered by the Infant of the Mother of Monsters. (For more on the faith and mythos of the world, check out this post with rough draft notes.)

  • This will be revealed when the writings of the Girl accused of Witchery who was sent to the Nunnery are smuggled out by a disbelieving novice sister.

  • The Toad, the Subtle Maw of the Mother of Monsters

  • Goal: To be divined...

  • The Beastmen of the wilderness festoon effigies of a bloated toad through the woods leads to a rain of frogs and toads upon the Village of Piran, inspiring anxiety and violence among the villagers.

In my own situation, the agents of chaos are both blatant and subtle. The well-meaning burgomeister will spread subtle corruption to the nearby commercial hub in an effort to bring wealth for his beleaguered people. The Sisters of Saint Barberra seek a purification of the tainted land (itself polluted by the mining and smelting of the silver). Meanwhile the forces of utter chaos grow from outside and below, as well.

More importantly, there is pressure, there is action. The world is dangerous and something must be done. It is up to the players to act and sculpt the story as forces greater than they follow their own goals. It is important that the dangers of a gaming world feel active and volatile, that they are progressing along their own pace so that the action or inaction of the characters has an impact. Choices matter. And pushing characters to their limits, taking the costly choice, and risking madness or mutation become particularly meaningful when those threats press in from just beyond the tavern's walls.

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