Posted by : David Guyll June 25, 2015

I was originally tapped to write an article on "why I love Dungeon World".

The problem is that I don't really "love" Dungeon World.

Don't get me wrong: I certainly like it well enough that it’s what I've primarily been running and playing for the past few years—plus write and publish a bunch of content for it—but it has its flaws, and it's certainly not for everyone. In fact, early on I wasn’t even sure I was going to keep playing it: it took some reading, discussion, playing, and more reading before I think I kind of “got it”.

But, this isn't my first role-playing game. It's not even my first dungeon-crawler. It hasn't been out very long, and even if it was an older game we haven't been playing it for very long, so there's no sense of nostalgia or whatever. I've generally enjoyed most sessions, but I think that has everything to do with the GM and players involved, and nothing to do with the actual rules or game's implied "style".

So this is going to be more akin to a pseudo-review: I'll tell you what it is, what I like and don't like about it, and at the end hopefully you'll have a better idea as to whether it'll be a good fit for you and/or your group.

What is Dungeon World?
The high concept of Dungeon World is an older edition of Dungeons & Dragons, say 1st or maybe 2nd Edition, but played using Apocalypse World’s mechanics (commonly referred to as Powered by the Apocalypse, or PbtA for short). This means that it's also a "story game", though I'm not sure what that means (or at least how it differs meaningfully from other role-playing games).

For better or worse most of the "traditional" elements are still there: you’ve got hit points, fighters largely revolve around hitting things, all clerics turn undead (regardless as to which god you worship), thieves exclusively check for traps, both clerics and wizards operate on something similar to pseudo-Vancian magic (though you don't always "forget" your spells), gorgons are called medusas, and so on.

What I really like about Dungeon World is its simplicity. Not just in regards to the mechanics, but also the characters and even just running the game in general.

The Mechanics
Essentially how the game works is that when you want to do something, you roll 2d6 and add a modifier, usually something in the range of -1 to +3. Instead of trying to meet-or-beat a target number based on the difficulty of a task (as is the case with more recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons), the game determines success and failure using static ranges. Taking it straight from the book:

  • 10+: You do it with little trouble
  • 7-9: You do it, but with complications or trouble
  • 6-: The GM says what happens and you mark XP

I’ll talk about the negative aspects in more depth below, but out of everything about the game it's the move results that are likely to bother you the most (perhaps followed by the writing). Partially because the game doesn’t stick to those definitions (I can’t think of any official move that imposes any trouble on a 10+, ditto for many 7-9’s), partially because the 7-9 and miss results (in particular the latter) are largely up to the GM to figure out.

For example, you don't just swing at an ogre and miss. You swing, miss, and then the GM hits you with something. Could be damage, a shattered shield, a lost sword, or any combination of the above. The results could even change from miss to miss: there doesn't have to be any consistency.

Speaking of consistency, I want to mention that I like the game's mechanical consistency: you don’t roll a d6 for one thing, a d10 for another, a d20 for a third, and a d100 (or d%) for yet something else: it’s always 2d6+mod. You also don’t want to roll high for some things and low for others: higher is always better.

Another bit of consistency is that the players always roll the dice, whether they’re trying to stab something or avoid getting a face full of axe. If they take damage then they’re also supposed to roll the damage, though there’s frankly nothing wrong with the GM doing it.

The Characters
The entirety of what every "official" character class—aside from the cleric and wizard because of their spells—starts with and can acquire usually fits on both sides of a single sheet of paper. I'm not even saying it in the sense that you can easily record everything on your sheet (you actually can't). I mean, if you have the bard’s character sheet, then as long as you don't take a multiclassing move you don’t need to look at the bard section in the book at all: everything is on the sheet.

When you make a character, you grab a character sheet, fill in your name and stats, check off some boxes, write someone's name in at least one bond, and you're good to go. When you level up? Just bump up one stat by a point and check off one of the advanced moves on the back. You the player only really needs to reference the book for basic and special moves that don't get used much, and maybe equipment.

This has the added effect of mitigating character death: just grab another sheet, check some boxes and you’re back in the game as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

The Game
By default, prepping and running the game is very minimalist. The GM is encouraged to, among other things, draw maps but leave plenty of blanks (on both world and dungeon maps), ask the players questions about the world in order to help flesh it out (both at the start and as you go along), and play to find out what happens (as opposed to planning an adventure or campaign in advance).

The first session involves a fair amount of worldbuilding, as the players make their characters, establish bonds with each other, ask the GM questions, and answer those addressed to them (which can include questions that the GM simply flips back on them). Again, you aren’t “supposed” to come to the table with an established campaign (or even a complete map). That’s what the first session is for: to set the foundation for the setting, and figure out where the campaign might go.

Ultimately this suits my GMing style just fine, which is basically “make a bunch of shit up as I go along”. What makes it even better is the book essentially tells you to outsource some of this to your players: in addition to making the GM’s job easier, I think that having the players collaborate on the world makes them feel more invested in the campaign. So, win-win.

The Bad(ish)
If you don’t wanna hear all of this, skip to the conclusion. Otherwise, buckle in.

First things first, there’s a kind of unofficial beginner’s guide for the game. I know it doesn’t speak well for the game to tell you to also read a third-party guide, but there it is. If, after reading the Dungeon World book you find it confusing, read the beginner's guide. Hell, you might just want to do it anyway: it's not very long, and it'll save you time rummaging through a bunch of other sites looking for tips and examples.

Second, the moves. As I said above, if you’re going to have problems with this game it’s probably going to have something to do with when and how you trigger various moves, and how you interpret the results (especially when it comes to 7-9 and misses).

Sometimes you'll think up a meaningful consequence that makes perfect sense right away, sometimes the game will grind to a halt while you try to figure something out, like if you cast a spell and draw unwelcome attention while out in an empty field. I've had a few players suggest "marking" failures and spending them later, but there have been some instances where we just had to shrug, come up with a largely inconsequential consequence, and move on with the actual game.

Some moves are contradicted by the book, like Hack and Slash and Backstab. The book says that if you attack someone and they aren’t expecting it, you either deal your damage or just kill them outright (GM’s call). Fast forward to the thief’s Backstab move, which tells you that when you attack a surprised or defenseless enemy, you can either deal your damage or roll to get some extras. So, which is it?

Then there are moves that anyone should be able to reasonably attempt, like the fighter’s Bend Bars, Lift Gates and the thief’s Trap Expert, but the book provides no basic or special move alternatives, or even any advice on how to handle such instances. In these cases you’ll have to come up with your own custom move to handle them. While the book offers some advice on custom moves, it's not terribly useful.

Finally, there’s the druid’s Shapechange move: you can use it to essentially hold 1-3 automatic successes (depends on your roll), allowing you to reliably do things that other classes would have to roll for. A recurring example I could find was turning into a dinosaur and instantly crushing or ripping apart your enemies, or just smashing through obstacles, both things that a fighter would have to roll for.

Somewhat related to the game is its community. I haven’t been a "part" of it for a while, so I’ll just say that every gaming community has its authoritarians, one-true-wayers, so-called experts, and their hangers-on, and Dungeon World is no exception. The difference is that it’s comparatively smaller than, say, the Dungeons & Dragons community, which means they unfortunately stand out all the more.

The Conclusion
This isn't a game I'd recommend lightly. The only reason I got into it was because I was trying out non-4th Edition D&D games while waiting to see what 5th Edition was going to turn into, and eventually I kind of just stuck with it.

If you like Dungeons & Dragons (or at least dungeon crawler games), simple-yet-flexible characters, simple and consistent rules, and don’t mind the players getting to provide input on the world and sometimes determining the consequences for their actions, having to houserule/add your own rules in order to make certain things work, reading a second, smaller book in order to get a better handle on how the game’s “supposed” to work, and not rolling dice at all if you’re the GM, there’s a decent chance you’ll like this game.

Really the biggest hurdle is learning how to manage soft and hard moves, which will probably take a few sessions, browsing some forums, and/or reading the aforementioned unofficial guide. But once you get your feet wet and your hands dirty, it’ll ideally get better. Personally I've taken to using the rules as a d20 alternative, ignoring a decent chunk of the book and just running it the way I've always ran my D&D games, and it's worked out really well to that effect.

All that said, the rules are available online for free, so you can always check it out before dropping any cash on it (though the pdf is pretty cheap).

The Announcements
The Swashbuckler is out! This is our take on a melee type character that relies more on grace and wits than a big-ass sword and heavy armor. It boasts a new character sheet layout, some extra moves, and new bits of gear and magic items.

We've updated our All of the Playbooks Bundle,to include The Swashbuckler. We've also added a Rogues Gallery bundle if you just want The Bard, The Pirate, and The Swashbuckler, and an Adventuring Party bundle if you want all of our more "normal" selection of playbooks.

Our Dungeon World GM Screen is also out. Still waiting on the proofs from DriveThru, but anyone that buys the pdf version from now until the print version is ready will get a discount link. That way you won't have to pay more in order to try it out sooner than later. They're good to go!

It looks like the next class we'll be doing is The Golem. Personally I was hoping for The Rakshasa or The Fighter, but the people—over a hundred voters this time—have spoken. We're working on it with John Kramer, which means the end result will have two separate classes, as well as a bunch of other content that people have come to expect from us.

In A Sundered World news, the promo adventure and comic are both nearly done. Just sent the adventure out to backers for closed feedback. Assuming they have no problems with it, I'll just need to do finish the art and a bit of text. Melissa is toiling away coloring the comic, after which that will be done.

Finally, the crew from Mythoard have graciously allowed us to put up Lichfield for public consumption at the start of next month. So if you missed out on it, you won't have to wait until October to get it!

{ 2 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. Good article, I was nodding as I read it.

    But that swashbuckler! The cover illo looks like a slightly pudgy kid in bulky armor a size too large, who doesn't quite know what to do with that big ass sword. It's actually a nice pic with a realism rarely seen in game art (which usually resembles yet another tedious competition where all the sexy ripped models are vying for the best zoolander "blue steel" look), but it doesn't exactly make me think "grace and wits."

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    1. Glad you like the article!

      Where were you when we asked for an art critique? :-P (Seriously, over on Google we always do an open call for feedback on our stuff!)

      I'm glad you at least like the quality. When it comes to the gear, we try to go with a more...not sure I'd say "realistic" look, but maybe sensible or normal? I checked out other swashbuckler illustrations for inspiration, but SOOO many didn't look properly dressed for dungeon crawling.

      Anywho, we're doing closed feedback on The Golem: hit me up on G+ and I'll add you to the thread so you can check out THAT cover.

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