We had our first actual play contact with SWvM last night and it was interesting and difficult! I haven’t burned my brain this hard since the last time we ran Burning Empires.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of how our session played out, I want to talk a little about prep.
I’ve read in a few places that SWvM is exceptionally prep-heavy, and whoever said that was not kidding. I’ve had a month since we sat down to make characters to fill out some important details, which is a good thing because I needed it! If I was focused, I could have done it in a week, maybe scattered across 3-4 evenings at an hour apiece.
How did I spend that time? Mostly thinking through how the five fronts interconnect and looking for opportunities. I very much feel like this is a skill you get good at; the next time I set this up (maybe as a one-shot at NewMexicon next month?) it’ll be quite a lot easier. But this first time through, I got pretty deep in the weeds of just what all the SWvM book provides, what it doesn’t provide, and getting creative about both the genre and Johnstone’s take on it.
I came at setup with a long campaign in mind, a fully integrated setting experience. What I didn’t want to do was get the players in the mindset that all they needed to do was line up a certain set of rolls, to just reduce the whole thing to a mechanical exercise. I started by looking over all the dangers present in the beatable fronts — in our case, Interstellar Travel, The Spice, and Religion — and picking out dangers that looked interesting. I wanted there to be one urgent, easy to hit right-now danger, but I also wanted to be able to turn on slower-burn aspects of the story. So that meant thinking about all the implications of actual prophetic drugs, for example, w/r/t an imperial government, teleportation, various religions, and secret police. That’s just one of many dangers I picked out as interesting. But I feel like it’s important to foreshadow that stuff, you know?
What I didn’t do, and totally should have, was come up with sets of NPCs, all statted out, for things I knew were going to happen. The Hostile Transport Guild’s hunters, as one small example. I’m not super-fluent with the monster choices present in Dungeon World or Adventures on Dungeon Planet, and I think you need to be to be able to find some good values.
We started out with Space Wurm and the Lover hanging out in The Mountain, the seat of the empire’s power and kind of a Forbidden City type place. The Transport Guild’s representative arrives and announces that, because Space Wurm has been holding Guild navigators’ families hostage, they will no longer be transporting imperial armies around the galaxy. And if the families aren’t released by a certain time, they’d stop shipping food to the capital world (which is overbuilt and can’t feed itself).
Pretty great start and Space Wurm felt immediately resentful and defensive. There was some parleying and threatening and, later, a fight between the Lover and Space Wurm (the Lover belongs to the same posthuman tribe as the navigators). Eventually Space Wurm took to the airwaves to call on his adoring population to rise up against those who would starve them. So now there are temple burnings, lynchings, hate crimes of all sorts being enacted in his name.
I have no idea how long the player will be able to maintain this villainy! Space Wurm is such a douchebag!
Meanwhile, Moonicorn and the Other are in mid-transit between worlds when the announcement goes throughout the vessel that any military personnel aboard the ship will be dropped off and will not be transported anywhere else. Well, due to the magic of Discern Realities, it turns out most of the ship’s crew is army, headed out to deal with spice claim jumpers on a mining world. They try to mutiny, and discover the ship is alive and listening and spaces a few soldiers to make a point.
There were a few other scenes but that’s the basic outline of our three hour session.
Several things came together that made this a tough game for me to run:
1) The Space Wurm and Moonicorn storylines kind of require, at first, that they be shown in very different contexts. Space Wurm is safe and powerful, Moonicorn is on the ground actively rebelling. That meant long stretches of time where half my players were just listening. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world! But keeping everyone split up like that is something I need to keep an eye on.
2) I’m not nearly as well practiced in running Dungeon World as I am with, say, Sagas of the Icelanders or even straight up Apocalypse World. I know conceptually that there need to be a much higher frequency of rolls, mostly to juice advancement, but that’s not where my habits lie.
3) A lot of the new playbooks’ moves really just modify OG DW moves. For example, Moonicorn’s Full of Grace modifies all of Moonicorn’s other moves! It’s like a contextual filter that might pull in a whole other minigame with several other decisions. I like it, it’s a cool move, but it’s novel. All the playbooks have stuff like that — not moves, exactly, but modifiers to how moves work. They look like they have their own fictional triggers but it’s more like additional context to triggers on other moves. You might be Defying Danger while being Full of Grace, for example. The Lover’s Heartstrings move is another example — not exactly its own move, more a set of additional incentives to do what the Lover wants them to do. Or Space Wurm’s Bargaining, which modifies Parley. Lots of looking back and forth between several sheets of paper, piecing together interesting plays.
4) The moves didn’t move the fiction forward as much as I was expecting, but I’m 90% sure that’s because everyone’s still low on the learning curve. I was a little bummed there weren’t enough XPs earned the first session to unlock a new move, because novelty is awesome, but OTOH I’m okay with everyone learning their way around the basics for a session.
All this adds up to some things I need to figure out:
Space Wurm’s move scale is big and narrative, which means he’s not making a lot of DW-scale moves at this point. That’s going to be hard on his advancement, but then again he’s already astonishingly powerful. This is actually kind of true across all playbooks: the original DW moves are blow-by-blow in a way that SWvM moves aren’t. That’s an interesting tension, and occasionally frustrating.
Some of the moves — Revolution Now! specifically, but others as well — definitely have a learning curve to figure out how best to deploy them. The triggers and their outcomes sometimes are hard to match up.
I think that’s probably it, honestly. It’ll all get worked out.
The setting is crazy and amazing and far richer, earlier than pretty much anything I’ve run in a long time. The questions are evocative and provocative and very interesting.
I think once we’ve got a few sessions and some real momentum, the “winning” bit of the game will get more interesting. Right now, Moonicorn has no idea how to stop the Guild’s assassins and Space Wurm has no idea how to get his balls out of the Guild’s vice long enough to take control.
Happily, the “secondary” characters — the Other and the Lover — have gotten maybe more screen time than SW and M themselves. I heard some concerns that they’d feel like bit actors and they’re not, I don’t think.
The love triangle business between Space Wurm, Moonicorn and the Lover is surprisingly effective. Can’t wait to see what goes down when Moonicorn and the Lover get together, after she watched SW give the green light to genociding her people.
The Other is super interesting and weird and kind of a lot of work to get engaged with things. Some of that is the player, and some is just the extreme weirdness of the character. But I adore the Alienation economy (and Moonicorn’s Integrity!), especially when her Alienation popped and violence erupted.