A lesson from the Gen Con dungeon crawl playtest

One of the morning sessions in the First Exposure hall with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Delve! (as I’m currently referring to it) had a great moment that I wanted to share, because it’s at the core of what I want the game to accomplish. It was a completely spontaneous decision, but it was so neat that I had to write it into the gamemaster’s guide as soon as I got back to the computer.

One of the players, selecting the Knight, immediately started digging into interesting descriptive details about his character. He created a “steel angel” theme, describing how his armor had two metal wing-like plates on the back: one was a sword, albeit a strange-looking one, while the other was his shield. I leapt in, GM reflexes cued up, and did a “yes, and”: the gauntlets of the armor had strips of magnetite running down the back and magnet clamps holding the wings on the back. In a tight situation, the Knight could quick-draw by just slapping the magnet gauntlets back against the wings and then drawing them forward. The player, and everyone else at the table, immediately lit up, rolling with the idea.

It was a minor detail, but it ended up spiraling out into the whole session. It suggested a world with a certain amount of technological savvy, and so in conjunction with the other lead questions at the start of the session, I started riffing details as the dungeon developed about how it started out rather naturally cavernous but became more advanced as the party went deeper. When they hit the game-changer, they encountered a mechanical guardian construct. The twist wasn’t the machine itself: it was that, when it selected the Knight to attack, it immediately broke off combat, saying something cryptic about ‘the harbinger’s arrival’ and departing deeper into the complex.

The plot that was developing during this short session so engaged the players – because they all had some kind of hook into what was going on – that they started filling in the gaps and sketching out a rough idea for what kind of setting it inhabited as they walked from the table afterward. I had started going in one direction based on the answer to a different lead question, but the other detail reacted in an unpredictable and fruitful way with it, and pareidolia set in: because all details are true, the imaginations of all of the players had to dig in to reconcile them.

As a result, the current playtest version makes more explicit mention of the validity of player-created details (so long as they don’t interfere with the Big Three – which one of the lead answers actually almost did!). What it doesn’t do, but which this article points to, is the implied “fruitful void,” to steal Vincent Baker’s term, of what comes out of accepting and empowering the contribution of every player to the story cumulatively.