Monday, August 14, 2023

HIS MAJESTY THE WORM Deep Dive - Speedbumps

Every time I make an announcement about His Majesty the Worm, I declare we are getting close. Then a year goes by. Then I make another announcement. Then another year.

But this time I mean it. We are getting close to print. 

What is His Majesty the Worm? It is a new-school game with old-school sensibilities: the classic megadungeon experience given fresh life through a focus on the  mundanities and small moments of daily life inside the dungeon. 

In the lead up to actually having the book in stores, I'll be doing a series of deep dive blog posts, where I drill into the different parts of the game, wax philosophical about design choices, and talk about my experiences playing it for the past seven years.


I have a bad memory. GMing is composed of tasks that have a certain cognitive load. Sometimes, while running trad games, I forget a rule detail. "Oh, wait, you were supposed to have disadvantage on that roll since the goblin is higher than you," or "Oh shoot, I forgot that the skeleton is actually immune to necrotic damage. He wouldn't have died from that last blast, huh."

To reduce the number of plates I have spinning while running His Majesty the Worm, the game has procedures that frame the freeform conversations of play. I think about them like speedbumps. Rules that say: Slow down. Don't forget this.

Speedbumps include things like:

  • At the beginning of every game, a chosen player reminds the table about what happened last time. They receive a free point of Resolve for doing this chore. 
  • At the beginning of every Challenge round, the GM reframes the scene, stating what combatants are in which zone, who's doing what, what the players can see, etc.
  • There's a step to confirm that players have tents or bedrolls while sleeping, or else become Stressed.

I talked about this on Twitter with Errant designer Ava Islam. She captured some takeaways in her blog, here. 

To sum up:

"...Consider the role of memory, especially in terms of the cognitive overload demanded of the GM, when designing your rules. Some rules are designed to be fringe and referenced only when needed, but for the core design, think about ways of making sure the rule will actually get remembered at the table."

Basically, the flow of the game has touchpoints that I use to make sure that we all know the current state of things and what's coming next. In play, these procedures makes for a smoother experience that I really enjoy.

Let's dive into two specific examples: Fame and Morale.


In His Majesty the Worm, players are adventurers in an adventuring guild. Players share a guild sheet, which tracks the stats of the entire party. One of the guild's stats is fame

What is fame?

Fame is the likelihood of whether or not an NPC has heard of the guild, rated 0-5. If their fame is 0, nobody has ever heard of them. If their rating is 5, everybody has heard of them.

How do you track this stat?

I will forget to hand out fame if it was up to GM fiat. Therefore, there is a procedure to set a guild's current fame score when we need it most (just in time resolution): when the guild begins the City Phase.

When the guild enters the City and pays their taxes, the City Phase procedures ask the players to tally their noteworthy deeds and erase the oldest deed from their guild sheet.

Noteworthy deeds are a running list of cool shit the guild has done. Defeating dungeon lords, finding new paths to new levels, curing the petrified people in the basilisk's lair, etc. The guild's fame equals the number of noteworthy deeds on their guild sheet.

Sidenote: Because the game is focused on dungeon crawling, the players are disincentivized to spend time in the City. Because the City Phase obliges you to erase one of your noteworthy deeds, your fame trends down if you come back too frequently without noteworthy deeds.

What does it do?

Fame isn't necessarily good or bad. If the guild's actions are cruel and violent, it's more like infamous. It's just a "Yeah, I've heard of you." When the players encounter NPCs, the roleplaying exchange is framed by whether or not the NPC knows of the guild's exploits. "Yeah, I heard of you. You betrayed the Steel-clad Snakes, I hear. Why should I do you a favor?"

This is the basic way fame is used. But there are some niche uses for it too. 

This brings me to my next point...


Intelligent creatures do not want to fight to the death. When the going gets tough, they will fallback, retreat, trigger traps, cast the big spells, and try to end the combat. 

When I am running games, I will forget this because there's a lot of stuff going on during combat. Thus, I put in a speedbump by shifting the responsibility from the GM to the players.

In His Majesty the Worm, Morale is a player-facing mechanic (sorta). Let me explain.


In the Challenge Phase, every player has a hand of cards. They can take actions by spending cards. One action they can take is "Banter." 

When a player Banters, they intimidate, belittle, or taunt an enemy. They add the card's value and (on their turn) their Wands attribute to this action. The target number for the Banter action is an enemy's Morale. 

Here's what the book says about Morale:

Morale is a way to track how confident and self-assured the GM’s characters are in stressful situations. Adventurers don't need to track a Morale rating—it is only for the GM’s characters.

During Challenges, the Banter action is used to affect an enemy’s Disposition. Your Banter value must exceed an enemy’s Morale to successfully change their Disposition. Unlike  Initiative, Morale isn’t determined by cards, but by the situation at hand as determined by the GM.

When Banter is used, the GM makes an assessment of the enemy’s current confidence to determine their Morale. As the battle progresses, the GM should reassess their characters’ Morale score.

Morale is a sliding scale from 8-20, with some common bonuses and penalties to help the GM set the target number. Basically, the GM just walks through a quick checklist: Is 50% of the foe's fighting force down? Is the enemy commander down? Does the guild have a high enough fame for the foes to have heard of them? 

More famous guilds will find their Banter actions are more successful more often because their reputation proceeds them.

Want to learn more about His Majesty the Worm?

If this sounds interesting and you'd like to check the game out, please sign up for the mailing list in the sidebar of the blog. I will email you to tell you when the game is ready for purchase. 

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