Dungeon World: Balancing Fiction And Function

I ran a very short lived campaign quite a while back, where the characters were wandering through a desert and dealing with Lovecraftian cults and monsters (because most of my adventures involve something Lovcraftian in some capacity).

During the first session the players brought up various third-party classes, some of which I'm sure they regret purchasing. Now there are plenty of terribly designed third-party classes out there, but two stood out the most.

The first apparently allows you to instantly kill anything so long as you take a specific "background" and advanced move at 2nd-level: you spend a point of currency to wait for them to fall asleep, let their guard down, or otherwise become defenseless/helpless, and then use the advanced move to instantly turn them to dust.

Now you might think there's a chance you can fail, but any result on said advanced move turns them to dust, even a miss. The only way something bad can happen is if you specifically choose for something bad to happen (two options are benefits, the third prevents a situation from happening which might not even be possible), or maybe if you roll a miss (the GM can at least try to figure out something bad), but that's only after your target is literally dusted.

And that's just if you want to kill something. Using just the background and starting moves, it's possible to easily escape nearly any calamity you could imagine, or achieve nearly any goal you want with no risk: you just spend the currency (which you then immediately regain), and keep doing it until the danger has passed or you've escaped from it.

Something else I noticed was that, in addition to numerous fictional contradictions, you can also, again based on a single background choice, move anywhere you want before anyone can react, constantly notice things to your advantage, and always defy danger using your best stat (whether or not it makes any fucking sense at all).

(Another criticism was that said class, as well as related ones feel like they were all made purely for money. Given the overall poor quality and experiences "interacting" with said creator, this is a sentiment I agree with.)

The other class has a starting move that lets you, among other things, transform other creatures or put them to sleep at the start of the game. You have to roll, but the miss just makes you choose something from a list, and the person knows that you did something (which will probably not matter once they're a harmless animal or asleep).

Run into a dragon? Use the move and turn them into a fish, or put it to sleep and stab it in the head. If it wakes up, just use the move again. The only restriction is that you have to spend a sort of currency, and you regain said currency whenever you're exposed to something, or do something you're not supposed to.

Just pick something commonplace (like, I dunno, iron, which is pretty mythologically appropriate for said class), and just have a character expose it to you whenever you need the currency. Alternatively, you can also tell a lie or break a simple oath (neither of which carries any inherent penalties or consequences).

After several years of designing Dungeon World content, especially classes, I’m only kind of surprised by this sort of thing, as something that I've heard before is that the game just "doesn't care" about balance, or that balance isn't as important as it is in other games (like, say, Dungeons & Dragons).

I disagree. To be clear, when I say balance I'm not just talking numbers and niche protection. Both are related and important (and easy to get right with minimal if any playtesting), but a third facet to consider is, for lack of a better term, "fictional" or “narrative” balance.

Think moves like the bard's Unforgettable Face, which lets you decide if you've met someone before and take +1 against them, or the thief's Wealth and Taste, which lets you flash around something and choose who wants it (and will do anything to get it). These moves bug me, but at least they're tamer than the shit mentioned above.

I don’t think moves need to be perfectly balanced against each other. I don’t even think they can, as not all games are the same, some players are more creative than others, and some GMs are more relaxed in their interpretations/rulings. But, there’s a pretty big gap between having to actually roll to try track and creatures, and being able to construct entire houses, instantly, with no roll, at 1st-fucking-level.

Of course I have no idea if this sort of thing is being done intentionally or accidentally, though I suspect in many cases it's the latter: I could definitely see some creators trying to get their classes to better stand out by giving them moves that grant lots of narrative control, "cool powers", and/or just let them do certain things with little to no cost or even risk.

When You Want To Do Better...
When Melissa and I design a class or moves, we don't adhere to tradition (like how all clerics have Turn Undead), or start with a catchphrase first and shoehorn the move into it later (the immolator's Sick Burn, and another class's Rags to Riches). We also don't create moves that are so easily abusable, especially without any kind of strategy or drawbacks, or impose fictional absolutes that might defy reason.

We start with the fiction/lore/narrative/whatever you want to call it, designing the move so that it does whatever it needs to do. Then we look at other classes to best ensure that the move works/makes sense, but that all the moves taken as a whole doesn't overshadow another class in the process, or let players do utterly insane things, like flee from virtually anything or instantly kill people no matter what they roll (if they even have to roll).

If it does, we tweak it until we find a middle ground in the "fiction" and function.

For example, during our research phase for The Oni we found that they can turn invisible, though we were never sure what their limits were, if any: could they just turn invisible and rip people apart? Maybe, and I'm sure there are would-be designers out there that wouldn't hesitate to permit that, but frankly without some limitation or drawback that's just too damned good.

A wizard can cast invisibility at 1st-level, but it ends as soon as you attack, and the wizard can't cast any other spells while it's in effect. That set a good benchmark, and while we tinkered around with a roll-and-hold move (roll+CHA to gain 1-3 hold that you spend to do other things), in the end we went with this:

When you turn invisible to the naked eye, roll+CHA. ✴On a 7+, you can walk about without revealing your presence, and take -1 ongoing until you end the effect. ✴On a 7-9, choose 1.
  • You are only invisible when you are not moving.
  • You are spotted before you turn invisible, or something else betrays your presence.
  • You take -1 ongoing to use mienai until you make camp.

If you attack someone, the effect immediately ends. Note that you can still be heard and smelled, and anything you touch or pick up does not become invisible.

You can only turn yourself invisible, you can't move very quickly, you're -1 ongoing to everything while you're invisible, and when you get a 7-9 there are additional problems that can crop up.

So, in a party with both an oni and a wizard, the wizard's invisibility spell can still have a use: you can drop it on someone else, they can move quickly about, and they can do everything normally. If you get a 7-9, you can opt to just lose the spell for the day.

A second example was waaay back when Melissa was writing The Pirate. One of the moves for one of the two included compendium classes allowed you to make a roll, and depending on the result could cause people to flee or surrender to you.

During feedback, a player stated that they didn't like it, because as written you could scare off or force anyone to surrender to you with one roll, whether a rank-and-file guard, a renown champion, a devoted priest, or even a dragon. We fixed it by having it cause one of several things to occur, but the GM got to choose what and who it applied to.

In this way the move was still useful, but the chances of something hilariously absurd, like a dragon surrendering to you for no good reason other than a lucky roll, were minimized.

After only a couple hours of design and writing, The Swordmage is good to go. If you want a solid fighter/wizard hybrid with twenty-five advanced moves to choose from (in addition to some other extras), pick it up.

Grave Goods is the latest magic item compilation in our 10+ Treasures line. If you want nearly 30 undead-themed magic items, some monsters, and advice on how to make your own, pick it up!

Lichfield is available for public consumption. If you want a concise adventure with a Silent Hill feel, be sure to check it out!

Primordial Machine is also out, so if you want to catch a glimpse of A Sundered World, now's your chance!

Finally, we've updated If These Stones Could Scream.


  1. man those classes you mentioned sound aweful

    1. @Chris: Oh they are. Maria also mentioned the Collector from Inverse World, but I forgot to include it: apparently you can use it to essentially gain infinite cash.

    2. Because you can just acquire and sell an infinite amount of things that you just "find"?

    3. Basically, yeah. There's a LOT of problems with Inverse World, though, from the derivative setting to nonsense/contrary content (like airships being rare and expensive, but a Captain can always get one for about 220 coins).

  2. In my book, "The Dark Age of Enya," the main character and hero, Xandr, kills a very large red dragon with one blow from his sword. He does it by dropping down from a cave ceiling, and using the force of the fall to plunge the sword through the dragon's skull. Naturally, I wanted to make him into a character, but a one hit kill would not fly in an RPG world. I think this is where the dice come into play. In a story, there are no numeric quantifiers, so you can pretty much make up any power you want, bound by the numbers. Whose to say that when Xandr jumped from the ceiling he didn't roll a natural '20'?

    1. @Nick: Specifically this article pertains to Dungeon World, which doesn't include "crit" effects (some moves do something on a 12+, but never a "instant kill" or double damage type thing). Specifically, in this article I'm talking classes that at 1st- or 2nd-level are capable of some insanely game-breaking abilities.

      Books are different from games: in something like Dungeons & Dragons, if someone fell from a ceiling to drive a sword into a dragon's head, even if I let them get an automatic crit, EVEN if they rolled maximum damage on said crit, it still wouldn't be enough to kill a dragon in one hit.

      A 1st-level fighter wielding a greatsword, with a Strength of 16 deals 2d6+3 damage, or 15 on a max. At maxed out double damage, he can kill a wyrmling white dragon: even a very young will survive with 15 hit points to spare.

      I had a 14th-level fighter, armed with a +3 greatsword, and all the "standard" fighter feats. I think his damage was 2d6+14 when not buffed in some other way. His best hope would be to kill that very young dragon in one hit.

    2. This is not Dungeon World, but in D&D I have a house rule of 3 natural 20s in a row and whatever you hit is dead, one hit.

      Had a 5th level barbarian fighter drop a full-grown adult dragon, one hit. Ice pick to the eye, right through to the brain.

    3. @glenn: I've heard of that rule before! The odds of rolling three nat 20's are, what, 1 in 8,000? Sounds a LOT better than "I do this thing that I can do ALL he time, and that guy dies no matter what".

    4. Yes indeed. I've only had to invoke it 3 times in 20+ years gaming. First was an archer, dead-eying a griffon in flight (shot through the heart). Third was mentioned above. And last but not least, a first level wizard with a dagger ganking an illithid. Every time, it was beautiful.

  3. One of the odd things about Dungeon World is the split between fictional strength and mechanical strength. Just started my first DW game, and one of my friends was wanting to play a Dragon Knight. Mechanically, the class seems pretty balanced, but the fictional strength of having a full on dragon as your companion just seemed too insane for my tastes. To my way of thinking, everywhere that character went, the first reaction would be "HOLY SHIT! DRAGON!" and the fiction of that alone would overshadow the rest of the group, even if mechanically the character was on par with the bard (sadly, our bard player chose the base book version and not David and Melissa's) and barbarian.
    The importance of fictional strength is odd...and vexing in some ways. Like, the thief. As written, the class is little more than a delivery system for poisons with some trap bypassing thrown in. All the things that make the class 'thiefy' are handwaved into 'the fiction'. For me, it is probably the worst of the base classes, and yet oddly, one with the least discussion of hacking and improving it.

    1. @John: I think Dungeon World in general could have used some playtesting. The thief for me is one of the best classes, and thereby the worst: you can basically use DEX, your best stat, for EVERYTHING.

      Dodging? DEX. Hack and slash? Just get a precise weapon and you can use DEX. Volley? DEX (and go with halfling for +2 damage). Looking for traps? DEX! The only thing I ever really did in the game that DIDN'T rely on DEX was discern realities.

      That's a huge gripe with DW for me: the "fictional strength" is so dependent on player and GM interpretation. Plus, the book doesn't even stick with "the fiction" and/or the creator's own advice in many cases. It's no wonder that someone else had to write a beginner's guide. :-P

    2. I am curious as to why no one has ever taken the DW rules and made a serious rewrite addressing all those issues. Its creative commons so you could basically get away with it.

    3. @Victor: I considered it many months ago, thinking of something closer to AW in terms of mechanics (characters only have 6 or so harm they can take, deal 1-3 damage, etc), but more recently I've realized how much I dislike how much of the game relies on GM fiat.

      Take the 16 hit point dragon thing: it's bullshit. First, the dragon would have at least 20 hit points, likely 24 (solitary+huge+one of the +4 HP options), but what makes it really bullshit is that the encounter is only "hard" due to the GM hammering the characters with lots of moves.

      In a typical game, the fighter would basically defy danger to get up close, and hack away at the dragon, killing it in about 2-3 hits (depending on level: a 3rd-level fighter could take it out pretty quickly).

      It's basically Tucker's Kobolds all over again, where the GM makes the kobolds "super scary" because he gives them an insane amount of advantage over the characters. 9_9

    4. Yeah, there's nothing 'written' that makes the dragon that scary. So it ends up being totally up to the GM to make it scary, assuming he/she thinks it is supposed to be. The stuff I've seen about making that 16 HP dragon frightening and dangerous could just as easily be applied to making kobolds frightening and dangerous.

      I've loved playing it at cons,and I think that the startup is probably the games ultimate strength. Now that I'm running it, it feels quite a bit like I'm running one of my old homebrews where most everything was 'winging it'.

    5. @John: I think any monster in the "right" situation can be deadly. Also, if you really go overboard with the soft/hard moves, then monsters can be far deadlier than they ought to be.

      The startup is nice. I'm aiming for a game that can get going quickly, and is pretty simple mechanically. One game is nearing completion, and my next is d20-based.

      I also feel the same thing, because I was doing much of what I do with DW back when I ran 4E. That's kind of what it feels like: 4E, just without initiative. The downside is that the soft/hard moves bog things down.


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