Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: Dungeon World Part 3 A (Exuberant Converting)

Started writing the third part and it went on and on (and took an eternity ...), so I had to split it. Sorry about that, but I want to do both systems justice and there is a lot to say. So if it's too long to read and you didn't see the other parts yet, 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 and part 3 B is here.

Extensive Review Part 3 A (Introduction)

This is the first part where I try to dissect Dungeon World and offer it's parts for free. In other words, in this part I'll describe how I intend to use the game and part 3 B will be about what I would house-rule (impossible!), what I intent to borrow for my personal Frankenclone of D&D (insolent!) and why I believe that D&D could really benefit from Dungeon World the way Dungeon World benefits from D&D (outrageous!).

Took me some time to wrap my head around this one. It was way more complex than I'd have liked (I have seen several posts/etc. online where people state conversion from one game to another was a breeze and I have to say, well ... they are all lies). Here now is the first half of the third part of this series. If there's anything else I can come up with or found online or problems I see (or whatever), it will be either in this post or in the second half (short of a play-report, that won't happen until after Christmas).

Let's get to the gutting ...

Dungeon World RAW 

I can't imagine using this for a campaign. As I wrote in part 2 (I think?), the game does a stellar job emulating D&D up to what would amount to the levels 6 to 9, but that's not enough for me. Or at least, that's not D&D for me, as there's also a domain game and an epic-level game as a big (but often neglected) part of D&D that I'd like to explore in the future.

I know, I know, some would say Dungeon World is not D&D, so a campaign in DW would be something completely different than a campaign in D&D and that might be (to some degree) right. If you where talking about the rules of the game. Not so much when you talk about the result of the game (which is the narrative that is left after the game is finished, for those wondering ...). And here, DW falls short. After level 10 the game is over. So (arguably) a campaign in Dungeon World stops when the D&D Rules Cyclopedia merely finished the introduction (didn't Gygax say somewhere that character development is something that happens on the first 6 levels of a character's existence?).

Where it should work, though, is emulating some of the classic modules that have been collecting some dust on my shelf by now. I decided to make a test run with the first level of Rappan Athuk (first print-run, back then it was still 3E), because I know the piece and re-reading it should be a breeze. It's also a beautiful dungeon and meat-grinder in D&D and I'm curious how it translates to Dungeon World.

In this context, I'd use the game RAW.

Dungeon World Conversion (Intermission)

The Dungeon World Conversion Rules make it sound quite easy: (1) reduce the map to the necessary information (2) create/copy all the monsters (3) a list and notes of magic items (4) write down NPCs and Organisations (5) structure all that by using fronts/dangers/etc. (6) repeat. Turns out, it's not that easy. First obstacle: navigating the book is a pain in the arse (Cave Rat lists "swarm" as a tag and no such thing exists; thought the text implied "aggression" was a tag and was wrong; could go on). And the funny thing is, for a game that's called "Dungeon World", there's quite the lack of rules how to DM dungeons. Also, don't get me started about fronts in an dungeon environment ...

It didn't take me long to realize that converting a huge dungeon like Rappan Athuk came with it's very own sets of difficulties. For one, there's a lot of crunch and specific fluff in the original books, but the biggest problem is regarding it's deadliness. There are no light decisions in this. Done wrong, it's either a fast way to kill the players or way to easy for them. Finding that sweet spot in between might be hard for someone new to the game. As stated in the introduction, it took me some time to wrap my brain around this one.

So the main problem (in my opinion, anyway) is that converting anything from another system to Dungeon World will not only warrant a deep understanding of the rules, but also an understanding of what's happening and how it translates to Dungeon World as a game. In other words, a DM needs to see how a module is supposed to work (express itself?) at the table when using the original system and then needs to decide how that could be done in DW. I'll show how tricky this can be with an example how I would kick off a Rappan Athuk Campaign with Dungeon World.

Dungeon World (First Session) vs. Rappan Athuk (Ground Level)

Let's quote part of the chapter about how to run a first session in Dungeon World:
"Start the session with a group of player characters (maybe all of them) in a tense situation. Use anything that demands action: outside the entrance to a dungeon, ambushed in a fetid swamp, peeking through the crack in a door at the orc guards, or being sentenced before King Levus. Ask questions right away—“who is leading the ambush against you?” or “what did you do to make King Levus so mad?” If the situation stems directly from the characters and your questions, all the better." [digital source]
Semantics first. The whole book is written like this, by the way. But that's not the main focus here. The first thing I'd like to point out is that this shows how much influence the players really have regarding the world and the session, which all in all amounts to ZERO. Yes, you got that right, I think the players influence on the adventure and a campaign as a whole is not at all affecting the DM's preparations.

The DM decides where to put the players. They are in the middle of the action (which needs to be prepared) and all the moving parts are already in motion and labeled (fronts, dangers, individual monsters). What are the players allowed to decide? Why they are hunted and by whom. BIG decisions right there. I'm joking, of course. In the best of cases this is just rhetoric, but taken at face value it's trying to substantiate the illusion that an adventure is about the why and the who, instead of the how.

Let me elaborate. I'll try and keep it short ... The main impulse in the example above is that King Levus has some beef with the characters. The question for the players is not "Who is King Levus?" but "Why is he so mad?". See the difference in the quality of the questions allowed? To put it a bit different, if the DM is allowed to ask the questions as he sees fit, he'd be quite stupid to not limit and manipulate the possible answers by governing the questions he will ask. Dungeon World gives a DM tools to manipulate the outcome of a situation on a semantic level instead of by a set of rules.

I'm not quite sure if I like this or not. It makes things way easier for a DM, though.

Back to converting Rappan Athuk (this will contain minor spoilers). Getting them directly into a tense situation will mean they already arrived at the entrance and the surroundings decided to act against them. Okay, this cuts down the whole bit about gathering information and getting there, as it is reduced to a part of the Flavor Text introducing the players to the campaign. Again, I take what is already there (a few rumors about the dungeon, a description of them arriving there and what it looks like) and ask them some "unimportant" questions like why they went there and what they are feeling about this etc., etc..

So far, so good. But it's action they want and it's what they should get. But where to start? The Ground Level of RA is a rat-infested graveyard with some mean Gargoyles, a well and 3 mausoleums. Way too much room for the players to navigate. If I put them under attack in the open, they are most likely to retreat and start with a new approach under their conditions. There also are several ways to get into RA, but DW is not about exploring the surroundings, it's about exploring the narrative. If I want them in there, I need to put them in there, which leads to me deciding which entrance they chose and how they entered.

Won't happen ... [source]
Close, but no cigar! [source]
This, again, reduces the whole Ground Level to Flavor Text (that's a lot by now) and puts them into the mausoleum, which is the entrance to Level 1.

And a death trap.

It's where things get complicated. Using D&D it's the players' skill that decides how and where they enter the dungeon. Not only in general, it's every aspect of the rules that either helps or hinders how well they do in getting there at almost every step. If and how they enter the Mausoleum has decided the fate of many groups. Lots of decisions, many mistakes to make. All that needs to get hand-waved at this point if I want to use Rappan Athuk with Dungeon World rules. At this point I'd call it a castration, not a conversion ...

Anyway, on we go. I decide they didn't find the key to the mausoleum. If they had free access, it wouldn't put them on the spot. Because, if I led them to this point in the narrative and describe a mausoleum with no obvious entry to a dungeon as the starting point to enter the dungeon, they will do two things: (1) they'll check the sarcophagus (which could at least trigger an encounter) and (2) check for secret doors (which would make them find exactly that).

Using DW means using moves, which would mean the thief would use the Trap Expert move and the rest would follow with the basic move Discern Reality. In both cases a success would make (1) somewhat unlikely to happen, which leads to them just finding a secret door to the dungeon without meeting any resistance.

This cannot happen.

No key for the players means they forced their entry. Which triggers the death trap: the ground will start to move upwards and will meet the ceiling in 5 minutes. The secret door will be blocked after one minute. The entrance will be blocked instantly (the door moves inwards) and the sarcophagus would allow enough room for 3 small characters, but there is a mean skeleton in there that gets animated as soon as someone does as much as lifting the lid. And fight would make discovering and opening the secret door more unlikely.

That should do the trick, I suppose.

But still, there are at least 4 moves the characters could use to get out of there quite easy. A roll of 7 or better with 2d6 will save those hides (which has a ridiculously high success rate, considering the bell curve results), so it's not really a challenge. If they disturb the skeleton, they really might die right there (with a good chance that up to 3 players manage to survive the encounter by getting into that sarcophagus somehow ... the trap would reset after two days). Still, most likely too easy.  And I'm talking level 1 characters here, not no less than six characters of at least level 3 (or higher) when using 3E D&D.

When I started doing the converting, my first thought when reaching this point was "And all that thought and consideration was just for one room ...". Yeah, I could go on like this. The level of detail needed when converting this is, if done right, excessive.

The first level, for instance, has one very intelligent and dangerous monster the characters can't fight directly, many, many rats and the holes (and tunnels) in the walls to match them. The rats, in turn, work for some wererats that protect the stairs to the second level (which makes them very well informed and prepared ...). A priest from a lower level comes on a regular basis to check on some of the traps (there are at least 3 of those) and the random encounter table also indicates some ghouls/ghasts and gelatinous cubes. To make this work properly, a DM needs to know how the deeper levels might interact with level 1 and how fronts could be used to explain it.

Conclusion 3 A:

As I stated above, if I where to do this in a way that I end up with something that at least resembles the original and works somewhat like that massive and evil dungeon, it would be a lot of work. I'll leave it at that. Maybe converting Rappan Athuk to Dungeon World would be a nice exercise for another series of posts in the future, but for now this is more than enough to get a first impression (I hope).

Is it worth the effort? Hard to say. Contrary to my initial impression, Dungeon World seems not really suitable for conversions from other systems. It can be done, but if a DM wants to catch what an adventure did in the original system, he really needs to put in the work to get it done. And that on a level of detail that goes way beyond what the source had to offer. And having to navigate the book was frustrating, so that's not good.

I'm still waiting for my copy of The Red & Pleasant Land. Maybe a sandbox might agree better with what Dungeon World does. And I have to say, it helped me getting a new perspective on what dungeons can be in the game. Details do matter and how they translate from the system to the narrative at the table is worth pondering on. Dungeon World did encourage this and it is potentially useful in all fantasy role playing games.

But more on that in Part 3 B.

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