Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: Dungeon World Part 3 B (Exalted Tinkering and Looting)

Still true, if it's too long to read, here's the whole thing in a nutshell:
Dungeon World delivers a fast and elegant set of rules to play a (very!) scripted D&D-themed role playing game. If you think this is D&D, you'd be wrong. It's another game (Apocalypse World) wearing a mask that looks like D&D. But anyway, D&D could be played like this and a Dungeon Master could learn a lot by reading (and understanding) Dungeon World. Or just loot what he can carry and be better for it ...
Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 A is here.

Extensive Review Part 3 B (Introduction)

Here I go again. This time it really is the final installment of this series of posts. I'll write a few words about how I'd house-rule Dungeon World and talk about some ideas how parts of DW could be salvaged and used in another game. Still a lot, but Dungeon World offers a lot, so that's just fair.

In closing I'll give my overall impression of Dungeon World and an outlook what I intent to do with it in the future.

Another colored illustration (b/w in the DW book) [source]

House-Ruling Dungeon World

There is a chapter in Dungeon World on how to alter those rules called Advanced Delving. In it you get told how to build new moves and how to change aspects of the rules to adapt them to a different campaign. I don't like this chapter, as it mostly tells me what I can't or shouldn't do, most of the time using empty phrases to explain why it shouldn't be changed. An inexperienced DM will be intimidated by this and that's just wrong.

If you tinker with a game and it breaks, you've learned a far more valuable lesson than by learning how to obey the system. A Game Master is not the slave of the system he uses and if a set of rules tries to tell me otherwise, it gets the finger. Then it gets tinkered with until it breaks and what is left gets looted ... Anyway, let's be constructive about this.

The first thing I'd drop would be the 2d6 (plus bonuses). Every move a character makes will be at least partially successful with a result of 7. The bell curve results of 2d6 will make it very likely that this comes to pass and every bonus a character might be able to add will make this already-too-easy-to-reach result even more probable. I don't like those chances.

So I'd either change it to a d12 or think about how to alter this in connection with a character's level:
  • levels 1 and 2 = 1d8 (make them work for the success)
  • levels 3 to 5 = 1d10 (should work most of the time)
  • levels 6 to 8 = 1d12 (by now they are experienced adventurers)
  • levels 9 and 10 = 2d6 (very unlikely to fail at anything)
This would make beginning characters somewhat weaker and keeps a linear distribution of results up to a level where it is just another small boon for already powerful characters. No such thing is mentioned in the rules as an alternative. It's not even touched.

The next thing I'd probably change is "Be a fan of the characters." I know, they write this can't be done without destroying the game, but I'd rather "be a fan of the players" and make the deaths of characters a bit more likely (and less hard on the players).

That's all I got, though. More ideas maybe after giving Dungeon World a few runs at the table.

Dungeon World in D&D

By now I've read often enough that D&D and Dungeon World as games couldn't be further away from each other. And that's somewhat true. But both system will also result in a very similar gaming experience. Not only because of some overlapping terminology (which certainly helps), but also for using the same tropes. A Dungeon World player and a D&D player could talk shop and understand each other easily without the need to explain the rules (in most cases, anyway).

And this is what makes me believe that parts of the rules in Dungeon World could almost with no effort fall into the cracks the D&D rules offer. For one thing, Dungeon World is not that intrusive. The system itself is fast and easy and most of the narrative tools could really improve any game for a DM.

Another reason would be the modular nature of most role playing games. There is no part of the rules in D&D that couldn't be changed or altered. It has been done often enough, even between editions. Those are the "cracks" I'm talking about.

Take the DW rules for henchmen, for instance (can be found here, but you need to scroll down a bit, in the book it's on the pages 34 - 37). They are defined by 3 scores: skill,cost and loyalty. A hireling may have one or more skills that will help the characters one way or another. Where the hireling comes from determines how high his skills are (a village will give a DM less points to distribute than a city, etc.). A cost might be money, but might as well be "The Thrill of Victory" or "Fame and Glory". Loyalty changes according to how they are treated and if their costs are met. Reaction roll is 2d6 + loyalty. Easy as that.

Example (Priest):
Priests are the lower ranking clergy of a religion, performing minor offices and regular sacraments. While not granted spells themselves, they are able to call upon their deity for minor aid. 
Ministry—When you make camp with a priest if you would normally heal you heal +skill HP. 
First Aid—When a priest staunches your wounds heal 2×skill HP. You take -1 forward as their healing is painful and distracting.
You could take that as it is or change a bit to reflect that characters on higher levels have more hp, but as it is, it won't be more than what would be given anyway under the described situations. It's good as it is. Using those rules gives a DM an elegant little system to handle hirelings in the game.

Same goes for travel and making camp (read about the special moves in this chapter to get an impression). Many good ideas to keep the focus on the adventure and not just narrate the interludes, but give them some significant randomness with just one roll.

Or take the bonds (here, pretty much in the middle of this page):
Bonds are what make you a party of adventurers, not just a random assortment of people. They’re the feelings, thoughts, and shared history that tie you together. You will always have at least one bond, and you’ll often have more. Each bond is a simple statement that relates your character to another player character. Your class gives you a few to start with, you’ll replace your starting bonds and gain new ones through play. 
Resolving Bonds 
At the end of each session you may resolve one bond. Resolution of a bond depends on both you and the player of the character you share the bond with: you suggest that the bond has been resolved and, if they agree, it is. When you resolve a bond, you get to mark XP .
A character's bonds to illustrate (Thief):
I stole something from _______________.
_______________ has my back when things go wrong.
_______________ knows incriminating details about me.
_______________ and I have a con running.
I'd maybe give 50-100 xp per level for a resolved bond. Easy cut and paste job, works for all games that not already have something similar (which means most D&D variants). It's just a minor narrative twist, but it should help enriching a game.

But the true gems are in the GM section, especially the chapters about building fronts and building a world are full of genius. With this alone a DM gets everything he needs to build a structured living and breathing environment for the characters to roam. The ideas how settlements interact, grow, etc. are inspired.

Most of the things a DM can do in Dungeon World will also work in other games. In most cases enhancing the gaming experience, too.

Final Conclusion:

Dungeon World is a good game with some seriously brilliant ideas in between. It captures the feel of the older editions of D&D (and 5E?) mostly by using the terminology, tropes and mimicking the character creation process (3d6 per ability score, etc.). The game does a good job in emulating all that into a narrative that will in almost all aspects mirror that of a game of D&D, although it takes a very different (and easier) road to get there. In my opinion a good game for a DM to have for those moments when you are in the mood for some D&D fantasy role playing, but too lazy to prepare a game of D&D.

The strong focus on the narrative while playing it is weakness and strength at the same time. Depending on your skill as a DM it might be a breeze to referee this game, but the very structured and ritualized set of rules gives just the illusion of freedom (especially regarding the players) for what is in reality a very restricted and scripted game. Again, it works very well to produce the feeling that you are playing D&D and if you are in the mood to take it easy, this is a good way to get it done.

Parts of the game are easily enough ported into other games. Here, again, helps the narrative focus of the game. So many nice ideas for aspects of D&D that either just get narrated or are burdened by clumsy subsystems and in a game that's for free, it's almost a crime not to read it at least for that reason.

Two of the main problems I have with Dungeon World are the rhetoric and the presentation. Some of the arguments they make how this game is supposed to be played reduce the DM in my opinion to an entertainer, just channeling the awesome ideas someone else had. Game Minion, not Game Master, as I wrote in part 2. It's bad and not something a beginning DM should start with. And the presentation (in the printed version, anyway) makes it worse, as this book is just too hard to navigate and impractical to use at the table. A changed order of topics and some serious editing would have been in order with this one. Both weigh heavy on an otherwise excellent system and make for a very bad first impression. In that regard, I don't believe it suitable for newbies to the hobby.

To sum it up, I'd say, go and read Dungeon World, if you haven't done so already. I believe there's a lot to gain from it. Buy the book, if you want to support the creative talent behind those rules. But don't expect more than an artifact. Avoid the pdf or get Truncheon World for free (a shorter edit of the same text with an additional class and another order of chapters). And don't let them tell you that you are not allowed to do with this as you please.

I will definitely give this baby a spin or two, maybe I'll even write a bit more about it as soon as inspiration hits. And I hope bits and pieces of this huge load of text (way too much, I know) helped getting you all some ideas about Dungeon World and what it could be used for. If you read all or part of this, I hope you found at least some enjoyment in this series of posts about Dungeon World.


  1. I'm rather confused by your assertion that the game is both heavily scripted and something that can be run while you are being lazy. In my mind the majority of work comes from the desire to script the game and reinforces this scripting. For example if you know the players are going to face a unique monster next session you can spend a good hour or two statting the thing, coming up with ways they could interact with it and it's reactions and so forth. This sunk cost then makes it more difficult to deal with the party doing unexpected things. Work reinforces scripting and vice versa unless the work is done carefully.

    Relatedly I'm having trouble with the idea that the questions asked are leading because they are limiting. The idea seems to be to focus the story towards an adventure. "Who is King Levus?" Doesn't neccesserily build up to an adventure, "Why is the king angry at you?" will lead to an adventure, but the DM has no way of knowing what adventure it'll be, there is no script to follow. Also it encourages the players to build the character of the NPC through action rather than description. "The king is angry at us because we are wanted criminals who have been disturbing the peace and have finally been captured" leads to a very different adventure and a very different king to "The king is angry because we were messangers to a duke who were supposed to give him the message that would lure him into a trap, only somehow the duke knew what we were thinking and refused to take the message. Now the king has been denied his revenge and wants to take it out on us." Or "We were supposed to be guarding the young heir but he's dissapeared, the king wants us to get her back or there will be consequences." Just asking that question a GM doesn't know what answer they'll get and therefore what sort of game they're going to run, that seems like a lot of control in the players' hands to me, it's jsut that the control is focussed, because asking someone a specific question gets better and more interesting results than asking them a general one. Especially if they have little information to draw on. And since the fronts and such are invisible to the player there's nothing saying you can't change a front if the answers players give happen to make more interesting ones avaliable.

    I totally agree that porting dungeons over to dungeon world isn't going to work. Traditional dungeons rely on the GM being in control of reality, it doesn't work if a player can just decide there's a secret door to where they want to be.

    Unfortunately I also disagree on the PC death and dice rolls thing. Being a fan of the characters to me means that you should realise that they're an important part fo the story, they can still die, but they should not die meaninglessly, and should die in keeping with the tone of the story being told. So random death traps are out narratively interesting deaths like famous last stands, I thought I'd killed him but he shot me in the back and so forth are in.

    Similarly the world dice rolling engine isn't interested in success or failure so much as complication. Yeah, a seven plus is a success, but it invariably brings something else into the story that makes you regret rolling that dice. In terms of the dungeon you were converting, rolling a seven is like finding the key then choosing the door with the death trap behind it, it ups the stakes AND moves the story on.

    Sorry for the essay, I shouldn't have held it in so long. :p

    1. First of all: thanks for reading all this and commenting in detail. There is no need to be sorry about it, this is a good thing.

      Now for your arguments. When I talk about "scripted" I don't necessarily mean the preparation a DM does before a game, but more the wiggle room the system leaves for all those involved (player and DM) during the game. Alignment was one example I gave in the review, but there is way more. It's what I meant when I wrote the game is ritualized to an extent that no other outcome other than a D&D-esque gaming experience will be possible. They actually bring examples what you have to do if you want even a slight change in sub-genres. That's also how I came to the conclusion that you can go easy on the preparation. Just by using the mechanics the game provides it emulates that old-school feeling they talk about on the homepage. I think, as far as this goes we talk about different things.

      We don't need to agree on what I try to say about the use of semantics in Dungeon World, but let me put it this way: the questions you ask as a DM will limit the decisions available for the players. I really believe that the answer to the question "how" is far more important than the answer to "who". The players weren't asked by whom they are hunted and even if they were asked that, they sure were not asked how strong the opposition is or what their weak spots are. Or where the treasure should be. Or what magic item they found. Or where, as you put it, the secret door is. You see, there are questions that are left for the DM to answer. And I believe those are the questions that count. Anything else is just allowing the players some minor influence. As a DM (and I believe this to be true for all role playing games) you can't always know everything. There is always a need to improvise and getting inspiration from the players is no new idea, it's just DW again with ritualizing it on a verbal level. In every other game I'd just let the players brainstorm a bit and listen to them digging their own graves (by giving their ideas an evil twist or two, if I'm really out of ammunition ...).

      About the die rolls: I like the idea of a partial success, but DW goes (again, in my opinion) way to far with this. I was a bit tame on the math in the review, but here we go. A level 1 character can get without much trouble a bonus of +4, right? A high ability score, some help from a friend, stuff like that. This means only a die roll of 2 will have him fail and a partial success with the results 3, 4 and 5. Taking the possible numbers alone will result in a more than 50 % chance of a total success, but we are talking bell curve results (actually it's a triangle when using only two dice, but anyway), which means the results 6, 7 and 8 are most likely. In the end, the chance to be successful in DW is already with the beginning levels extremely high (about 85 %, if I'm not mistaken). I really don't like those odds. But what I proposed does not negate the possibility of a partial success, it's just a bit harder to achieve (which is not really a disadvantage, since a player gets xp every time he fails). So what you say is still there, just not as easy.

      As for player vs. character, if you interpret it the way you do, we are not that far away from each other in our approach, but it sure is not what's in the rules, because they state at least once that the characters should be the holy cows and death should be avoided as often as possible. Being the fan of the players just produces a healthy distance and the players tend to care more than enough about their characters, so that's covered.

      I hope this helps a bit understanding what I tried to say in the review. If not, please feel free to point out my mistakes. I like a good argument and if I didn't get it right and this helps me getting DW a bit more, all the better.

    2. I'm not sure they're so much mistakes as differences in philosphy, now I've recieved most of my knowledge of the world systems second hand so that should be taken into account to.

      I think the crux of the issue is centred on the... tightness of the game design. (you call it scripting) dungeon world is scripted to run like what the designer sees as an archetypal high fantasy game. This is by design. The system can and should be modded to run different types of game but it must be kept in mind that Dungeon World was designed by first asking the question, what things do we want the players adn dunegon master to do? All world systems are focussed on encouraging a certain pattern of behaviour.

      That said, I don't see the questions as limiting. But I'm just going to repeat what you already said back at you, a specific question leads to an answer much more focussed on giving direction to the narrative, especially if that question is why. Furthermore the how is less important in dungeon world, especially if it's how the NPCs do things- as the GM is usually reactive. Yes the GM can start the PCs off being ambushed, but unless the PCs make use of their moves the ambush can do nothing. And what if the players don't think being ambushed is an interesting part of the story? You ask them the question "Who is ambushing you?" and they reply "Oh it's a robber baron, but it's a mistake, we've got nothing to steal and were in fact intending on joining him." I guess what I'm trying to say is the questions (as well as the moves) are DW's way of allowing players to leverage limited power in order to game the system (the narrative) the way they want it. In DnD the limited power the players have is all situated in the character, this is not so in DW.

      I totally agree with you about +4 on die rolls, I was having this conversation with someone who has more experience with World systems a while ago and he informed me that Apocolypse World had a +3 cap to any roll, which I assumed applied to DW to. That said I enjoyed playing with characters with +4 in certain moves, as it created a particular dynamic and personality for those characters, and they were fairly easy to derail if needed by using the narrative to bring about siatuations that could not be solved with that subset of moves.

    3. About the how and the why: I do not believe that players should be allowed to get this sort of "get-out-of-jail-free" card like you describe it. It's in my opinion the difference between framing a game (the DM) and contributing to said frame (the players). If the players get to decide everything (or talk their way out of everything) and only the dice are able to produce problems (which, using the game like you described, could also be argued about ...), you don't need a DM anymore. Role playing games like this do exist, I'm sure, but it didn't occur to me that DW was among them. Thinking about it now, I guess it could be played like that.

      I also think an example of what I mean with "how" might help to illustrate my point further. Let's assume that the DM puts the players in a dangerous situation like an ambush and the DM asks the players who it is (by the way, everything after the ", but ..." in your example above would have been the answer to another question and I as a DM would have ignored it and told the players that they are not to tell me about the motivation of the opposition, especially not to minimize a threat I just formulated, they have to use moves and dice to get there) ... anyway, I ask "who" and the players tell me it's that robber baron above. What a DM is now to formulate is the strength of this threat (could be 2 men, could be 20, could be full of hp, could be drunk, etc.). The DM also informs the players about the general layout of the surroundings, offers a complex situation the players can use to their advantage or have their problems with. All this is regarding the "how the world manifests for the players" not "why" or "who". And I really believe it to be a question more important. If you leave that to the players, the game will just be telling stories to each other, the narrative won't have any surprises, no tension and no punch what so ever.

      Anyway, it's like you say, very different philosophies. I guess I would DM a very different game compared to the DM you seem to have and I appreciate the different perspective.

      Also: Happy New Year! :)

  2. Happy new years!

    You're right, the answer to the above question was incorrect. How about "Two drunk teenagers?" Or "Twenty hardened and experienced robbers" or "a dragon" (Though I'm not sure the specific number of adverseries really matters). You've caught me on a good point though, DW is reminicient of a DMless game in terms of narrative. The DM adds the spice and the discipline as DW really breaks down if the dice get rolled to often. Bear in mind that the complexity of the situation is less important in terms of mechanics as the solution will always lie in a move.

    That said, the fundemental disalignment in philosophies are showing a bit strongly here. As honestly the most tension I've felt roleplaying have been in games where the narrative is cooperative (everyone has an equal share in the narrative) I find that knowing someone at the table knows what's coming next diminishes tension. The idea that the situation has been designed diminishes tension. On the other hand players who share control of the narrative are often given the tools to be more vicious when bringing out the unexpected, nothing tends to go the way any one person at the table imagined it would, peopel narrate things which surprise themselves and/or punch them right back into the gutter.

    I enjoy and appreciate both ways of gaming and I believe that DW straddles an uncomfortable line between the two, you see, it NEEDs a good GM, and you're right. The GM does have to be interested in watching a show rather than presenting one however they also need to be ready to stick their oar in at any opportunity to make a player regret their decisions, one could say that the GM is very much the force of consequence in the game.

    It's been nice chatting about this, it's helped me get some of my thoughts on games and what I enjoy about them in order. I'm still not a hundred percent clear on how and why questions though, as I do believe whatever question you ask, so long as it does not limit the answer to a finite set of possibilities pretty much gives the answerer free reign as well as a structure to excercise that power in. Also let me be perfectly clear, the "robber baron we want to join" answer is not a get out of jail free card, it's the start to a set up for something different, a statement of "this is the game we want to play."


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