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Dungeon World: One of The Worst Things I Have Done to my Players in an RPG

by on March 4, 2019

I’ve been running role-playing games over a couple of decades now, through numerous editions of games and the group itself has undergone several Ship of Theseus style changes during this time. I have stories from my first year of role-playing and from this year, but sometimes one just sticks out to you. Sit back, relax, this is a long one and I’ll take a little bit of time getting there, but I feel it needs to be done.

I’m going to tell you about Grimestone, something in a Dungeon World game I ran. This was something great and horrible and almost like a confessional, I feel a need to share this story. You may want to use it in some of your games, you may want to pour judgement and if you’re from my role-playing group, you probably have stories which you think are the worst things I’ve done to the group. I still remember my ill thought out Total Party Kill in Legend of the Five Rings, where two players died and I realised with half the group dead I could either carry on with a ton of loose plot threads or kill them all and transition to the spirit world for a bit. I did that and they returned to Rokugan a few years later in a kind of Alias Season Three plot kind of way. I know I’ve still not been forgiven for that.

Anyway, Dungeon World. Back to that. I’ll give you a little bit of an explanation to set things up.

My default Dungeon World setting started as Leviathan, where a fantasy world made by my group and I had a reality-eating sky whale looming over it. It followed through, ate that reality and what came afterwards was the new Dungeon World world I currently run games in; Exodus. This was actually borne out of me losing the original map (since found) and deciding to start something new instead.

A billion people left the world of Leviathan through a gigantic gem and landed in a new world without human, elf or dwarf life. For a thousand years they lived in a city so large it was actually divided out into 64 smaller cities (now 52 due to various catastrophes). I ran one campaign in The Emerald District, which I’ve written up fully here [LINK>>>DUNGEON WORLD CAMPAIGN]. Bit by bit that group left apart from two players, so when I picked up Dungeon World again I moved it to a new location.

Verdant is the breadbasket of Exodus. It’s where most of the cities get their food from and instead of a walled city, it’s a gigantic area filled with towns, villages and mainly farms. The group were all people from around Verdant and helped sketch out what the place was like.

The region had a little backstory to it. The neighbouring elf city was ruined by a dark entity known as Rath, The Antigod. It turned the best knights of Verdant into its servants and the boss monsters of the campaign (the players controlled them in a prelude, helping craft their enemies). The Order of the Yellow Rose was disbanded after almost all of their number were killed or converted. The elves were left without a home and Rath was banished back to whatever hell-realm spewed him out.

The group’s hometown was Cauldron, a market town which meant a lot of passing trade. The group had made a deal with the Blackstone Sentinels, some mountain guards who come down to Cauldron to party and restock on supplies. One of the sentinels, Borht, had lost his brother Brennan. Borht was a large, loud drunk and his brother was a larger, louder drunk. He’d gone out to a village in south Verdant called Grimestone, hearing of heroic deeds to do. Then he never came back. Borht assumed he’d been there on a bender for the last few years and tasked the group with bringing him back. Oh, and Borht was played by Brian Blessed because really someone should always be played by Brian Blessed.

I should introduce you to the group.

Lee played Corvan Blackwell, a human traveller and guide. He’d saved Aredhel, the remaining elf noble who hadn’t been transformed into a monster by Rath. He learnt the ways of the elves and their magic. He also had a spear called Durendhell, which he channelled his magic through. Vinnie played Sylo Bravich, a drunk-fighting elven monk. Basically, he wanted an ‘Elf Jackie Chan’, who had since abandoned the ways of his people and lived in Caudron in a tree in the centre of town. He used a large drinking gourd as a magic item, filled with holy water from sacred sites all around Verdant.

Mark played Sir Grifford, a human knight who was a former member of the Order of the Yellow Rose. Because we were using Class Warfare we could make any kind of classes and Mark decided ‘vampire paladin’ was the build he wanted. This established that vampires weren’t really a thing in the world, but he fit most of the characteristics of them with a curse which took place after his order was corrupted and destroyed.

Wade played Norvan Smileshine, a dwarf crime lord who ran things in Cauldron’s slums. He had a bunch of underlings, a great eye with a crossbow and had been through the failed dwarven invasion of Verdant several decades ago. He was a spy for a general and abandoned his post but used his old supply lines to smuggle items through the city.

The group had only been together for a short time, although they had known of one another for years. They travelled down to where Verdant and the swamp-city of Leechwood collided. This was where the path to Grimestone was. They stopped off at Kingstree, where the town guard seemed to mainly be the larger children, as well as professionals who volunteered their services. Where was the guard? Well, they had almost all gone to Grimestone to help with the effort there. Apparently, something was going pretty badly there and all of the able-bodied men and women from Kingstree and other nearby outposts had gone to help. None returned.

They travelled through the swamp on foot, eventually bumping into a spindly elf called Silver. I’ve mentioned Silver in my RPG a Day blog posts. He’s always been a bad piece of work. He promised that he could bring them to Grimestone with the tone of a man who definitely knew more than he was letting on. The village itself was on a long, raised square of stone and earth, keeping the ground safe from the swamp and the things living inside it. There were four massive stone pillars which stood at each corner of the village. Inside, the buildings were all built up and pressing into each other. Rotted wood had been used and re-used over and over. The tavern and old farmhouses from outside of town had been torn apart and brought inside to make extra lodgings. The ruins of a castle stood at the centre of the town. The stones had been taken apart and used in all the other buildings, leaving a few foundations and a wall which contained the well, with a strange tree growing over it. Verdant had a magical tree in most of their towns and this was no different. Apparently, it kept the well water pure and allowed fruit to grow on the trees. The water in the swamp, the animals living in it and the plants around there were all poisonous, limiting the supplies to that one grove and anything passers-by brought in.

The people there looked tired, malnourished and desperate. Silver introduced the group to the mayor and accepted a strange item made from carved wood, which apparently was his way out of town. Silver laughed and fled without looking back. Again, that was a bit odd, and the group weren’t really clear what was going on. They started to look around the town. Brennan was in the ruins of the tavern, wounded after an attack. He had also been sober for well over a decade, which he wasn’t keen on. Aredhel was also there, which startled Corvan. He knew she was doing outreach to the wider parts of Verdant but not where she’d been for the last few months.

The group were beginning to try and piece things together, possibly having not figured out yet or simply not vocalised that I’d made a mistake with Brennan and how he’d apparently been there for A LOT longer than he’d originally said. Sylo went out of town, wandered the perimeter, but reappeared on the other side of town, somehow. They met Kinsey, a non-binary priest who had given up on their god and now led a kind of nihilist cult, explaining to the group that they should be consuming the poisoned water from the swamp. Norvan heard a weird shadow inside Kinsey’s hut and realised there was something awful inside, fuelling this nihilism. He decided to destroy the hut, which horrified a bunch of the people but before they could react, the situation changed. They were interrupted by the sound of alarms and the townsfolk bursting into action. There were lizardmen running through the swamp, out of the strange purple mist which hung, cloyingly, in the air outside of Grimestone. The group fought back the lizardmen with an energy and vigour which the people of the town lacked. It was glorious and they went to celebrate. Time was running short at the table, so we closed out there and had a few weeks off for the Christmas period.

I wrote ‘Love Letters’ to the group. This is a practice which I love. You write to each character, explaining a few things and asking a few questions about what happens during the downtime. This way sometimes you can cover the things which go on when the player characters are alone, or when they are doing things which aren’t so focal to the main plot. This time, however, I used it for a slightly grimmer purpose.

My love letters explained to all of them that they finished their celebrations and went back to the people of Grimestone. Then a few hours later, there was another attack. And another. Every 3-4 hours the town would come under attack. The group would be given barely enough time to heal and then would be attacked again. It was exhausting and taxed their supplies. The attempts to leave the town always brought people back again.

The first question my love letters asked was when did each character lose any hope that they were going to leave. Not if, but when. Was it days, weeks, months or years? The more they held out, the worse state their characters would be in. Now if I’d said ‘does your character lose hope?’ the players would have the instinct to say they don’t. You point a problem at players along with a bunch of other things and they’ll hit their heads against the problem until they’re bloody, especially in heroic fantasy. So that was off the table. They had all given up. They made friends among the people of Grimestone and were given the names of several people, as well as questions which asked them to make new people.

Norvan had made a life for himself with Aredhel, in the healer’s tent. He mainly remained there and scouted when possible. He trained up two youths, Milo and Greta, in the ways of his people. Aredhel had confided in him that the elf-magic she had was fading the longer she was there. She’d been in Grimestone for about five years so far and while it was a terrible place, it meant that she wouldn’t be forced into an arranged marriage with one of the few Elven nobles left alive. At the same time, if she didn’t go there, her magic wouldn’t recuperate. It was a small, sad life they lived, but it was still a life. Appearance-wise he was getting more thin and Elven, but not in a healthy way.

Sir Grifford took on an apprentice, a squire. He hadn’t meant to, but Yakub kept going out and helping. To his shame, Grifford lost him out in the swamp and he never came back. Grifford’s vampiric aspects had changed over the decades he’d been there, making him more gaunt and pale. His hair had mostly gone and his flesh had a green tint from feeding on the lizardmen.

Sylo kept searching, but more out of habit and a way of getting away from people than anything else. He found Silver’s body deep in the woods, with several vines feeding on his remains, but didn’t tell anyone. One day in his travels he was at the edge of the swamp, roughly near where it looped back on itself. He saw a young adventurer all Final Fantasy’d out with a giant sword. He’d heard tales of the town of Grimestone and how it needed adventurers. With great anger and sorrow, Sylo turned the kid away. He was desperate to make sure no one else felt into this trap, even though several had over the years even after the player characters had arrived.

Norvan was given a pretty difficult choice. He’d destroyed the home of a creature of shadow. This thing was like the player characters, it had been trapped in Grimestone for years. It was originally a Knight of the Yellow Rose and the entity it had became fed on misery. It felt an incredible wellspring of despair and was drawn in. Either he could let the creature reclaim the people it had been separated from, or he could become its new host. He chose the latter option and shut himself in a small cabin which was now filled with shadows. It spoke to him day after day of the horrors in the swamp. It demanded more despair and kept him on the edge of life. Kinsey helped where they could but acted as more of an enabler at times. The cabin was at the edge of the swamp, so he was able to shot bolts out of the windows at attackers, then get his minions to bring back not only the bolts but any useful parts of the lizardmen.

We started the session with the group now aware of their situation. They all had debilities, they all had suffered for decades in the swamp. They had lives, loved ones, rivalries and this was their home now. Originally I planned for part two to be the finale, but it became more of a slice of life in this desperate town. Milo went missing and that caused Corvan to get Sir Grifford and go hunting for him. The lizardmen were also experiencing this endless time in the swamp, but it was somehow making them smarter. They were beginning to gain knowledge of the tactics the group used and adapt to them. There were weird spiral patterns they were carving into themselves, too. Sylo identified them as the holy symbol of Gatt, the god of nightmares.

The second session ended with the group starting to break through the world and seeing a different Grimestone, one where the purple mist was gone, replaced with the green and grey of a rotting town in a swamp. The houses were mostly the same, but not quite. The group were walking through the town, surrounded by bodies of everyone in Grimestone, all pierced with barbed vines which pulsed gently as they fed. Some of the people who had been there the longest (approximately thirty years prior to the group’s arrival, according to them). Then they saw themselves…

The group woke in this Grimestone. It was still a horrifying place and when they tried to detach the people, the vines started constricting and looked like they would probably be fatal if removed. There were phantoms of everyone in Grimestone wandering through the town, living out the lives they had been in before, for decades. They needed to stop this and free the townsfolk. They followed the vines to the well and the tree. The vines went into the well, deep, deep into the ground. The water in the spring around the tree and the well looked stagnant, corrupted. They realised they’d been drinking the water all that time. Or at least they thought they had. They pushed back the tree and saw that the well led down into the ground, into some kind of cave. Whatever was doing this lived down there.

The final session turned into a bit more of a dungeon crawl, as much as I ever do those. They descended into the well and found the ruins of a church which had sunk into the swamp. The church was half-submerged and desecrated. More symbols of Gatt covered the walls and the ancient tapestries. The vines went into the stagnant water and through the bricks into the dungeon. The group explored the church and found an underwater tunnel leading… somewhere. They risked to venture further and found a massive cave filled with items stolen from the town over several years. It was a strange collection which had been thoroughly picked through. The surface of the dungeon was unpleasant, soft and fleshy with a strange pulse to it when characters felt it. There were long tubes overhead with what looked like humanoid-sized eggs passing through them. My descriptions tended to involve words like ‘fleshy’ and ‘birthing’ way too much in the dungeon.

The group fought some lizardmen who were patrolling the caves and advanced, even fighting some who were learning how to use a ballista. The ballista chamber had an unholy symbol made from the bones and parts of local animals which the group left in case anything bad happened. The symbol looked like the face of some kind of angler fish. The chamber acted as a thoroughfare from deeper into the dungeon to the place the group came from, but also to a dark room with organic noises and crying.

Norvan went into the darkness, slipped on the slick, fleshy surface and fell into a pit filled with lizardmen. They didn’t attack and as Norvan’s eyes began to adapt to the darkness, he realised they were mutated, with some features which were human, elven or dwarven. Worse, these aspects were familiar. One of them had Aredhel’s eyes, another had part of Norvan’s beard, a voice which sounded like his. They grasped and clawed at him, the few with vocal chords begging for death. They knew they were fated for something much, much worse if they were kept alive.

Norvan was helped out of the pit and afterwards poured oil into the pit before setting light to it. The rest of the group were already working out how to traverse a really fragile section of hallway which had thin skin as a floor. The next chamber was massive, with several human-sized sphincters lining one wall. There were a handful of lizardmen, including some who looked like they were mutated with Brennan, making them huge. The group fought them, then investigated the sphincters. They spewed out lizardmen intermittently, from chambers which were flooding them with the memories and genetics of the captives. There was a way out, barred with human bones, but the group realised they couldn’t let everything remain as it was. The townsfolk of Grimestone were still trapped in their endless nightmare and there was a set of fleshy steps leading into darkness.

The air was warm, moist and unpleasant as they walked into the dark. Several lizardmen who looked like Sir Grifford stood guard, evidently defective compared to the other lizardmen due to the vampire genetics, but still really powerful at combatants. The group fought them and tried to make their way deeper. The bottom chamber was a massive circular room with a wall made out of writhing tendrils. As the group got closer, the tendrils parted and a gigantic anglerfish head burst through, breathing out a sweet-smelling pink-purple mist. This was the Beloved of Gatt. People who got too close found themselves back in the dream of Grimestone, living the endless grim life, with loved ones to be invested in but also relentless horror from the lizardmen. They wouldn’t want to go, despite their suffering.

The Beloved of Gatt had been here for some time, using Grimestone as a lure for heroes. It had enough power to transform the area around the town into a nightmare realm where time acted differently. It existed both in and out of dreams at the same time. The group’s experiences had been real but were slightly outside of reality. Their bodies had been attached to the tendrils in order for the Beloved to feed and to start warping the lizardmen. It wanted them to learn, to adapt and eventually take on the genetic makeup of the best heroes the land could offer. Once they knew enough, they could swarm over Verdant and Exodus, consuming everything for their lord. The shadow creature who had been tormenting Norvan was drawn to Grimestone like a moth, then was trapped inside the nightmare.

Speaking of the shadow creature, Norvan decided to try and speak to it. The many defective Norvan lizardmen who were being fed to Gatt have been mutated wrong because of it, as they weren’t built to take on the genetics of both Norvan and the creature. Norvan summoned the shadow creature forth and with it in control, dived into the mouth of the Beloved of Gatt. It receded into the wall of fleshy tendrils and the group realised they needed to get out as soon as possible.

The lizardmen who were mutated with the essence of each of the characters and the people of Grimestone started falling apart as their bodies became incapable of holding themselves together. The lizardmen guarding the way out were reverting to their original animalistic natures instead of the semi-sentient lives they’d lived under Gatt’s guidance. The hills around the swamp trembled, convulsed and collapsed inwards as the group fled to safety. Such as their safety could be in the swamp.

They recognised the landscape after a decade or so of wandering through it, of fighting monsters in it. Grimestone stood as they had left it, but covered in dead tendrils and vines covering bodies. Aside from the scars from being attached to the Beloved of Gatt and malnutrition, they were exactly as they were when they entered the swamp. Corvan ran through the vines and the bodies, looking for Aredhel. She was there, still plugged into the dying tendrils, so he cut her loose. She looked worse off than the party, despite only having been there a month or two before them. Most of the people of Grimestone had been there longer and were in a far worse state. Lord Whittam was the first to have been claimed by the creature and was a skeleton covered in a thin layer of flesh. His body had been kept alive for a decade as the Beloved of Gatt fed on him. The same with most of the populace. The group found the husk of Brennan, still in the armour of the Blackstone Sentinels, which they took to return to Borht. The dozen or so people who had survived were all in fragile states and Corvan did his best to heal them while Aredhel was in no state to do so herself. He found Milo and Greta among the living and tended to their wounds. Sir Grifford ran into the swamp with no explanation until he returned with Yakub. He should have been dead, but he’d been in the swamp, kept alive and being fed on, transformed into a vampire by Sir Grifford. Judging by everything around them, they had only been trapped in Grimestone a week, despite the decade of horrific experiences they’d suffered.

Norvan stumbled over a hill and towards the group, strangely cleansed of the Beloved of Gatt and the creature who’d lived inside him. It was a gift from the creature, who’d found a new host, a better host than a dwarf who was being used as food to a demon. Somewhere under the earth, an anglerfish demon was now possessed by a creature who fed on despair. It was a perfect match and would be a problem for another day. Norvan found Kensie and took their holy symbol in order to return it to their home.

The players split into two in order to finish their quest, with half of them racing back to the Blackstone Sentinels before they went back to their mountain. The others found a cart and transported the survivors to Kingstree where they could recover. On the road out, they found Silver, who was in a similar state to the others. He explained that he thought he’d died, which matched how Yakub spoke of his experiences.

The group left Grimestone scarred from their experiences, even though ultimately the damage only game to a few hit points. Their hope had been taken away. Their potential, their quests. It had left them changed. Throughout the campaign, there were moments where they found either other survivors or signs of people they’d met in Grimestone. Even with Silver, who was a total piece of shit, there was a level of camaraderie. They’d all been through something awful together and they’d survived.

Personally, I feel this was one of the worst things I’ve done to characters in my time as a GM, however, I’m sure there are several more which happened before and after this. To my brother, it’s ‘The Thing That Never Happened’ which took away his shadow. To several of the old In-Fighters, it’s the TPK in Legend of the Five Rings. For the players here, it could easily be the Cthulhu Dark game I ran recently. I love the subjectivity of it all.

I’ll possibly do this again. I’m doing fewer reports of long seasons, but I needed to get this out of my system. I was impressed and horrified at what had happened, at the existential dread and the long scars this brought to every player character and supporting character who experienced it for the rest of the game.

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