GenCon 2012 – Dark Heart of the Wood

Dungeon World was in demand at Games on Demand at this year’s GenCon. I had the pleasure of running the game many times throughout the convention. Most of the time I just improv’d an adventure based on the way players answered questions during character creation, but a couple of times I used other adventure frameworks. One morning I decided to give Judd’s new minted “Dark Heart of the Wood” dungeon inspiration framework. This post recounts that session.

This account is based on a combination of my notes, and recollections from the event, and player responses are paraphrased accordingly. I hope that I did the original event justice. Enjoy!

“The Dark Heart is somewhere in the forest. Every great arcane event in history has touched on it and one of them likely created it. The scholars argue about the Dark Heart’s origins and in the general order of the events.

The adventurers begin mid-level, food is running low, and a few torches are left. They were hired by a small treasure town between the forest and the nearest duchy to find a group of younglings who fancied themselves delvers, heads filled with stories of gold and glory. These kids had no place entering the Dark Heart. They should have known their place, ransacked a broken wizard’s tower with a troll squatter or tried to kick a ghoul around in the barrow downs. They are in this mess somewhere. You get more money if they are alive but the townsfolk will understand if you bring back bodies to be interred in the family plots.”

Due to the time constrains of the two hour session format I decided to go with a thematic “single level” dungeon. The inspirations for the dungeon were “Wizarding Wars” and “Blood War.” I asked the cleric a series of questions about the Blood Wars, and we ended up with the following:

“These corridors were built upon the site where the archangel Luke was overrun when a war of the heavens and hell spilled over into the mortal world. What would have been a decisive turning point in the war turned into inner turmoil as the armies of devils and demons fought to consume the essence of Luke and his followers…”

The fallout was considered “lost to history” and we followed up with questions to the wizard about the Wizarding Wars:

“Thousands of years ago during a routine excavation of some ruins the Arcane Archeological Society happened upon a great find. An ancient complex has been built around a tremendous pool of power. They had no idea this power was pooled from the aftermath of the Blood Wars.

It did not take long before the wizards discovered that they could tap into this virtually limitless pool of power. Members of the society began to draw the power into themselves, and things were good for a while. New wonders were being created never thought possible before, but it did not take long before the demonic taint of the power turned hearts.

The battles waged on for years, and the world still has wounds that are only now beginning to heal. Eventually the cost of power was determined to be too great, a truce was struck, and the nexus sealed away.”

I had the bard explain how the Dark Heart became open to the world once again.

“Nothing is perfect. People are flawed, and no matter how pure their intentions disaster always looms.

One of the wizards left a crack in the seal, fearing that one day the power may be needed so he could not justify completely sealing it away. Over the years, magical energy flowed forcing the small opening more and more, like water working a crack in stone over the ages.”

We jumped into the dungeon with the adventurers on their search for the missing youths. The opening scene began midway through a battle with a group of cultists who were performing a ritual in the summoning room.

The adventurers made short work of the cultists who did not put up any form of resistance, instead remaining focused on their ritual. I asked the cleric why they killed the cultists. He explained that he had recognized their summoning ritual, and that if they did not stop it an unspeakable ancient horror would be unleashed upon the world. I then asked if they had successfully stopped it.

After a brief pause he responded, “No.” At that time the room came alive reacting to the ritual. The perimeter of the room began to spin, sealing all the doors in and out of the room. The thief acted quickly, finding a hidden trigger that opened a hidden passageway. The cleric urged everyone to run through the secret door, because they did not have enough time to figure out how to open the sealed doors. The wizard said he would draw upon the power of this place to cover their tracks, and hopefully bind this creature to this room. As the secret door closed the wizard caught a glimpse of the creature, which he described as “teeth, claws, and sorrow.”

After a short walk the group found themselves in room of mirrors. The room was shaped like a hexagon, where each corner was instead a mirror that went from floor to ceiling. Upon inspecting the room they discovered that they could not determine where they had come from, or where they were going. The fighter was the first to notice the reflecting pool in the center of the room.

After poking and prodding the pool they determined that it was about an inch deep, and was magical. The exact nature of the magic was unknown. When asked by the wizard how he could determine the nature of the magic, I answered, “I think you know the answer to that.” The wizard responded, “I have to touch it, don’t I?” To which I responded, “of course!”

The rest of the group warned him against such an action. For a while the group started into taking a closer look at the other mirrors in the room, taking care not to interact with any of them. When no one was looking, the wizard walked backed to the reflecting pool, and touched it with the tip of his index finger.

The pool immediately reacted by flowing over his body like living quicksilver encasing him completely. The fighter heard the wizards muffled screams in time to watch the water seemingly dissolve the wizard and pull him into the pool. Being the fearless hero that he was, the fighter immediately jumped into the pool to try to save the wizard. His heroism was rewarded by slamming into the cold stone at the bottom of the pool, the water doing nothing more than making him damp.

I asked the cleric what happened to the wizard, he said he didn’t know, but the magic of the pool seemed to be gone. The group spent a while discussing how best to proceed.

The wizard recomposed in the same pose, his finger just barely touching the water. There was a moment of disappointment from the wizard, until he realized he was alone. He was in the reflecting room, but his fellow adventurers were gone. When he stood, the reflection of the pool melted away, and while he could still see the room, he could also see his friends. It was like he was on the other side of the mirror. He attempted for a while to communicate with the others, but determined it was a fruitless endeavor. The wizard began to inspect the room, and quickly discovered that some of the mirrors were missing.

Thanks to the magic of metagaming the rest of the players immediately began to inspect the “false” mirrors on their side. The thief ran into trouble the first while inspecting one for traps. Wicked arms with piercing claws reached out from the mirror grapping the thief and pulling him towards the mirror. Rather than share the fate of the wizard he attacked the arms, and they shattered like glass.

After a few minutes exploring the other mirrors, the fighter determined that the “trapped” mirror may be their only chance, so he ran into it, allowing himself to be consumed. The fighter’s fate was not that of the wizard. He found himself in a dark room met by the stench of decay and the sound of motion. Frantically he tried to light a torch, succeeding in time to see the beast coming down upon him. The demonic creature appeared to be akin to a grizzly bear with is skin ripped off. The beast locked the fighter in a powerful embrace, and bit down hard against his helm. Without missing a beat he fighter hugged the creature back, shattering some of its rips forcing it to recoil and drop the fighter.

Meanwhile, the wizard had discovered that the mirrors in the room resonated at different frequencies. He figured that they likely needed to be activated in a specific order to trigger…something. The wizard began the task of hitting mirrors.

A wave of guilt and frustration passed over the cleric and he reluctantly followed the fighter into the beast’s lair, unaware of what lie on the other side of the mirror. The cleric joined the fighter in a desperate battle against the beast. When he discovered the severity of the fighters wounds he petitioned his god for aid, but his pleas fell upon deaf ears.

The thief and the bard partook in a spirited debate about how to proceed. Ultimately, the bard decided to follow the others while the thief insisted he could figure a way out of the room. In the beast’s chamber the bard saw her allies beaten and broken locked battle with the demon. She sang songs of glory to inspire her comrades drawing the beast’s ire upon herself. The brief moment of respite gave the cleric and fighter an opportunity to overtake the beast and end it once and for all.

The wizard attempted to figure out the resonances of the mirrors, the thief searched for hidden triggers, while the rest tried to figure out how to exit the beast’s chamber. The thief began to get disturbed by his reflection in the mirrors that he swore were moving on their own in his peripheral visions. With a swig from his flask he stepped through the mirror.

Moments later, the wizard solved the puzzle, and pool drained away as a bottom dropped into a staircase descending to another level.

It did not take long before the thief discovered a pair of triggers in the beast’s chamber. One of the switches would open the way back to the reflection room, and the other would mean certain death to the one that flipped it. While the rest of the group was preparing to draw straws the fighter grabbed the cleric’s mace and said, “I have an idea” while slamming the mace into the wall between switches. The force of the blow was so great that it knocked the fighter backwards as the wall gave way. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” the fighter said nursing his newly broken arm.

The wizard made his way down to the great library. The aisles went on for miles, filled with books of ancient and lost knowledge. It was overwhelming. Upon inspecting a few shelves the wizard discovered that the books did not appear to be placed in any specific order it all just seemed random. He asked if there was a card catalog, or some kind of index system. I told him that there did not appear to be. He asked how anyone was supposed to find anything, so I asked how he would organize a giant library for wizards.

The wizard closed his eyes and let a little of the room’s power flow into him. With that trace amount he opened his “second sight,” the way wizards do to see the magical metaphor for the physical world. From this perspective, what appeared to be chaos was now ordered. Explicit organizational structures were everywhere. The more startling aspect was the book imp staring impatiently as him.

The imp spoke an ancient dialect, but the wizard knew just enough to get by. He asked the imp about the organization of the complex, and was answered by “holographic” projections detailing the layout, much of which deviated or was lost to time. Even though the diagram was complete, there were sections of the complex that did not appear to connect to anything else. He asked the imp how to access some of the different wings. A large portal circle lit up not far away.

The rest of the group spent a little while widening the hole struck by the fighter so they could get back into the reflection room. They immediately discovered the reflection pool had been replaced by a staircase descending into the dungeon, so they descended. Before long they happened upon their long lost wizard standing outside a teleportation circle attempting to translate its inscriptions.

There was a discussion between the party members, and the wizard explained that he was trying to figure out where the teleportation circle went, and how it corresponded to the diagram of the complex he had seen. When he asked what he managed to translate I offered the following:

  • Tomb
  • Barracks
  • Prison
  • Holy Site
  • Library
  • Monument to the Event
  • Food Storage of some kind
  • ?????

Everyone figured that the prison was a good place to start looking for the youths, so they all got inside the circle, and the wizard sent them there.

If the library was large, it was nothing compared to the prisons. I asked the wizard why they would need such a large prison, he responded that during the wizard wars it was not uncommon to hold the inhabitance of entire metropolitan centers hostage.

Without thinking the bard immediately called out to the youths. She was quickly silenced by the rest of the party. The grouped strained against the silence to hear hostile intent. After a few moments they heard nearly unperceivable cries for help. The bard smiled broadly.

The group carefully made their way through the seemingly abandoned prison complex. They followed the pleas for help. The adventurers entered a cell block that had cages suspended from chains near the ceiling between the rows of cells some 100 feet up in the air. They made their way up, level by level discomforted by the lack of opposition.

As they approached the cages on the tenth level, the thief spotted a control panel he figured was used to control the cage mechanism, but it appeared to be missing a component. The cleric said, “We are not alone.” Showing more bravery than before the thief agreed to scout ahead, looking for hidden adversaries. He found only one. Looking through a small crack in an adjacent cell he saw a massive creature, looking like a mix between a feral boar and Minotaur. This new abomination was waiting patiently. Two things stood out about the creature. First, it had the missing component for the control panel. Second, it had an enormous meat cleaver the size of the cleric.

The thief returned to the group to inform them of his findings. The cleric and the fighter worked out a plan to bait the creature out of the room, where they would attempt to force the creature off the cat walk. The bard walked out ahead, attempting to look like an easy target. The creature came out of the cell quickly at her. The cleric and the fighter went low and high to trip up the creature and force it over the ledge. The plan went off almost perfectly. The creature had grabbed a piece of the fighter, just enough to pull him over. The fighter cut off the hand of the beast, but was not able to find purchase with his broken arm.

The bard grabbed her rope, threw one end to the cleric, and leapt off the cat walk after the fighter. The cleric tied his side onto a rail. The fighter grabbed the rope with his good arm, and the bard on to him. Despite a few bumps and bruises the group was no worse for wear after the ordeal. After regaining their wits they went back down to the ground level in order to recover the component from the creature’s corpse. What was not splattered or broken on the creature was impaled upon the cleaver.

With the bloody cog they returned to the control panel. After studying it for a few minutes the thief determined that there were six possible outcomes based on the configured on the panel.

  • raised to the ceiling (current state)
  • lowered to the ground
  • release a trap down below panel
  • release the cages
  • ?????
  • ?????

He attempted to employ the configuration to lower the cages. Immediately after committing he realized his mistake. The system was about to release the cages. But, he had a fraction of a moment to make a correction. He could make a tweak that would trigger the correct action, but it would also release the platform he was standing on almost guaranteeing his own death.

Without hesitation the thief said, “I let them fall.”

The cages all dropped into a free fall, the bard attempted to act but the cleric held her back, saying, “There is nothing you could do.” The group then began the sorrowful taste of scraping the remains of the children into bags to be returned to their families.

As the group returned to the teleportation circle the wizard understood the meaning of the last rune: entryway. The group returned to the entrance of the complex. The wizard called upon the tainted power of the place to fold the entrance in upon itself, hopefully saving all others a similar fate to that of the youths.

The group returned to the village and returned the youths’ remains. Unable to face the truth of the situation the adventurers had agreed to lie to the villagers about the particulars of how the youths died. The villagers thanked them, and appreciated the effort to grant them this closure.

The cleric remained in the village to hold vigil during the village’s mourning period. The bard began to compose a poem about the adventure. The wizard began suffering from his exposure to the taint of the dungeon’s power. The fighter rested while his arm mended itself. And, the thief moved on to the next score.

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