Manifestos in His Majesty the Worm

Don't tell the FBI, but I love a good manifesto. When setting out to create His Majesty the Worm, I wanted to clearly articulate 1) what the game was about, 2) what the players do, and 3) what the GM should do. To this end, I've written three manifestos. They've changed a bit over the five years of development and playtest, but the original vision is still here. 

The Game Manifesto

His Majesty the Worm's design principles aim to make dungeon exploration fun. It forefronts what might otherwise be fringe rules for food, light, and time, and shines the spotlight on the visceral experience of the dungeon crawl.                             

The Scaling Underworld

This is not a game of balanced encounters. GMs don’t have to make experience point banks and dole out appropriate levels of monsters or treasure. Adventurers should find themselves alone in a large, daunting, dangerous, and fantastic world. There’s no expectation that the players are ever in a “level appropriate” place. A sleeping dragon might be an unbeatable guardian for a beginning party, and must be snuck past. A somewhat more experienced guild might try and defeat the dragon to win the treasure he sleeps on. Either way, the dragon provides some type of challenge for the adventurers, whether they are fresh or veterans.

The game—and the character sheet—are actually pretty simple. There are few numbers and not a lot of special powers or abilities. Players should feel empowered to experiment and take risks, with all the rewards and consequences that that entails. There are no “spot checks”—only players describing where and how they’re searching. There are no “disarm trap” skills—only players describing how they move the knife across the tripwire or tap their ten-foot pole ahead of them.

The (Demi) Human Experience

This game focuses on a character's personal experience while exploring the mythic underworld.

Players have the option of portraying fantastic characters. However, the game is designed to make these characters feel real through a persistent focus on basic "human" needs. Player characters will become cold, drunk, hungry, horny, stressed, happy, hurt, etc. This allows players to immerse themselves in the experience of their character.

The essential "meta-currency" of the game are the Bonds the player characters share with each other. When you role-play with your guild mates, you charge these Bonds. You then spend these charges to recover from the mental and physical hurts you accumulate from your dungeon delvings.

Rulings, Not Rules

Ultimately, no rule system completely encapsulates every possibility of player action—and that’s the fun of RPGs! There are fringe cases, strange situations, and unconsidered possibilities that inevitably arise during play. Having a GM be able to arbitrate these situations is one of the advantages of tabletop games compared to other game forms. As such, these rules are presented as resources with the expectation that there will be ample homebrewing and hacking.

When unexpected questions arise, GMs can adapt the rules to fit the situation at hand. When that situation comes up frequently, the GM and the table can collaborate on turning that ruling into a more hard-and-fast rule. And, when hard-and-fast rules seem to fail the tests of common sense, verisimilitude, and fun, it’s the GM’s responsibility to make calls that change the rules for the better.


A fair bit of His Majesty the Worm is whimsy. This is an RPG that knows it’s an RPG. You play adventurers who know they are adventurers. It is playful with its tropes. It’s unpretentious. During a game, both players and GMs will deconstruct and reconstruct common dungeon delving tropes. This should be fun. This should be delightful.

The Deadly Underworld

Ultimately, this game is about exploring the Underworld. As such, there are no character abilities that mitigate the essential dangers of the dungeon. The perils of the Underworld are omnipresent dangers, no matter how famous and accomplished the adventurers become.

  • Darkness is always dangerous. No player character possesses darkvision.
  • Rations and torches are always precious. There are no "conjure food" spells, and the arts that sorcerers have to conjure light are dangerous. Being bereft of light or food means death.
  • Traps must always be navigated. There are no "perception" or "disarm" skills. Each trap is a unique puzzle to be solved.
  • Combat is always deadly. Healing is laborious, requiring that the adventurers undertake a Camp phase. Adventurers draw their swords at their own peril.

The Player’s Manifesto

An RPG is simply an exchange of questions and answers between the players and the GM. These questions and answers can have nuance and texture. When playing His Majesty the Worm, this manifesto will help you to have the appropriate conversations with your GM.

Be Careful, Be Fierce

You don’t start out a hero. The only thing between you and a salivating dragon’s jaws are a few status effects unchecked on your character sheet. You should never expect the world around you to be fair. You’re not in a tutorial level; your character is journeying through a mythological Underworld that wants your character to stay forever and ever. Keeping your character alive requires caution and thoughtfulness.

Encountering a dragon is different when you’re character is inexperienced versus when they’re experienced. At first, the focus might be stealth—how much gold can you get away with before the dragon notices you? After you’ve built up your strength, you might feel confident enough to engage in combat with the dragon. But don’t fight fair. Make sure you choose the battleground. Ambush the dragon. Drop a rock on its head.

And when the going gets tough don’t be afraid to cut your losses and run away.

Engage Each Other

The most essential stats on your character sheet aren't your talents or motifs. The most essential stats are your Bonds with your guild mates.

The economy of charging Bonds during the Crawl and spending them during Camp is essential to the flow of His Majesty the Worm. As such, make sure you're thinking of ways to engage other players.

  • Play to lift other characters up. When you see an opportunity for another character to shine, take a step back. Share each other's burdens. Revel in each other's successes.
  • Be respectful and considerate. If you want to explore a particular story, engage with your fellow players to make sure they're comfortable with the themes that you're exploring. Don't be "that guy." Read the goddamn room.
  • Let your relationships grow and change. Every session or two, touch base with another player. Discuss how your characters feel about each other in light of your most recent experiences. Have rivals become allies? Have allies become best friends? Have best friends become lovers?
  • Be funny in character. Be serious in character. Think in character. Stay in character.

Engage the World

You don’t have to talk in a silly voice or wear a costume[1]. You do, however, have to interact with the fiction of the world in a logical way.

The essential way you have to interact with the fictional world is to ask questions. By engaging your GM in a give-and-take, you make the game real. The game world is layered. By asking questions, you begin to understand its bounds.

There are no abilities on your character sheet that give you the sort of insight that asking questions will provide. You have no “Perception score.” If you’re looking for a trap, pour water on the ground and see if you can find any trap doors. If you’re looking for a secret door, tap on the walls and listen for something hollow.

The game is about you using your real-life thinking brain to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and figure things out. There are no stats or powers that are going to help you solve the essential issues.

Solve Problems Orthogonally

You should be trying to make your GM say: “I didn’t even think of that.”

In an RPG, you can do anything. That’s the appeal! When you’re playing a computer game, you can only do the things the game designer programmed in. They anticipated you moving left, right, and down. Going up is out of the question. Not so in a tabletop game.

Most problems aren’t solved by fighting them. People can be reasoned with. Monsters can be placated. Traps can be avoided. Monsters can be led into traps. People can be sold the monster’s guts.

Don’t expect to “use” your talents and motifs to solve a problem. The abilities and items you have listed are just tools—and they’re only one of the many tools in your arsenal. Think outside of your character sheet.

Embrace the Chaos

Part of the game is skill. Part of the game is chance. Sometimes, you can’t be careful or fierce enough to avoid a test of fate. And when fate isn’t on your side, you have to embrace it. Having something bad happen does not mean that you’ve made a mistake. It’s just part of the game.

It is easy to create a new character. This is on purpose. If your character dies, throw yourself into the next one. If your character completes their quest, be excited to retire them.

Games without consequences have no teeth. How boring would it be if you knew you would never fail and never die? The essential gimmick of question/answer with the GM would be boring: “How will your character succeed today?” Thus, love the chaos.

[1] But you can. I won’t stop you.

The GM's Manifesto

A game is all about decisions. That is essentially what every game is, whether it's a traditional game like poker, or a boardgame, or an RPG.

A role-playing game’s “play” happens via discussion. The GM describes things, the players asks questions, the GM elaborates, the players describes things, the GM asks questions, the players elaborate, and the process repeats. It’s a back and forth—asking questions and answering them. During this exchange, the GM and the players make decisions. This is what’s fun about RPGs.

Create meaningful exploration

Decisions in an RPG should be interesting not arbitrary. It is essential that, during the Crawl, the GM provides meaningful choices so that exploration is fun and engaging.

An empty hallway with two branching paths doesn’t give the players enough information to make an informed or interesting choice. A coin flip could determine the "best" way to go. However, you could put Cant graffiti on the walls of the right path that reads: "Undead ahead! Do not enter! Turn back! All is lost!" If the players listen at the left path, they could hear the distinctively peacock-esque cry of the cockatrice. Now the players have information to make a decision: would they rather face a basilisk or the undead? What are they most prepared for? Could they lure the undead towards the basilisk?

Broadcast dangers. Hide treasures behind clues that make players feel clever. Create meaningful choices so that your players can make informed decisions.                                         

Create engaging personas

Both the Underworld and the City should be full of memorable characters with their own interesting motivations.

In the same way that dungeon dangers should be broadcast, so should a GM character’s likes, dislikes, wants, and needs. By clearly showing what a character’s personality is, players will be given opportunities to roleplay meaningfully.

The Underworld is deadly enough that not every single denizen needs to be hostile. The initial Disposition rules make sure that players have a fair shake when encountering new characters (p. XX). Give players opportunities to gather information, make unlikely allies, and take part in faction intrigue.

Engage the senses

Meaningful exploration only works when the players have a good sense of what is going on. Players need the GM to tell them as much information as possible about the environment they are acting within. GMs should paint pictures with their descriptions, actually sketch out rooms when mental pictures are difficult to conjure, and be vivid about all five senses. GMs should not leave out any salient details about things that players can see, hear, feel, or smell.

Speak generously

The GM must act in good faith to the players. GMs should not fall into the trap of thinking that doling out half-secrets and hints are interesting. Information sharing games are only fun when information is actually shared. Maybe the information comes with a price (“You’re not sure if the dragon is truly sleeping or only faking it. You’ll have to move closer to get a better look at him…”), but when it comes time to pay the piper, GMs should give the players as much information as he can. “Gotcha” moments are not fun.

This is particularly true when players bid lore. If you accept a lore bid, you have a social obligation to speak generously to the player and give as much information as is appropriate.

Be a fair arbiter   

Let player decisions carry weight.

Frontload the fiction of the game world. That is to say, what “makes sense” comes before the rules. If the players come up with ideas that should work, you don’t even need to touch the cards. The players’ plan can simply work.

At the same time, don’t pull punches. Victories are only valuable if defeat is a real possibility. You are neither the players’ antagonist nor the players’ friend. One of your roles is to be a neutral interpreter of the physics of the imaginary world.

There are random elements. Interpret them judiciously. As much as possible, make the mechanics visible. Say what you’re doing, what you’re testing fate for, and what the results will be.

As the GM, you can give difficult situations to the players with no idea how to solve them yourself. The players will surprise you with their ingenuity and problem-solving skills. When they come up with something surprising and cool, let it work. 

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