Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Dungeon World Part 2 (The Rules)

If you think this is too long to read, here is the short of it:
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 of this series is here.

Part 3 A is here, part 3 B is here

Extensive Review Part 2 (Introduction)

I appreciate flexibility in a set of rules for a role playing game and if I take the time to read a whole book full of rules, I'd really like to be inspired by it. Not by some horrid game fiction (which I already hated on in part 1), but by examples what the rules can do and clever little ideas where I get to think "Yeah, I'd really like to have that on my character sheet/in my game ..." or "This would be perfect for a setting like ...".

It's like the difference between a board game and a role playing game. One needs to be confined and ritualized to achieve it's intended goal (which is fine and mostly doesn't need that much rules), the other one excels in giving rules that are more like a vehicle, with the players being free to choose their destinations and the way to get there (which usually goes with a more complex set of rules).

Dungeon World forces me to reconsider my position on this. At least as far as flexibility and complexity go. Actually, Dungeon World is, in my opinion, a very confined and ritualized version of a role playing game. Just not by restricting the action with a board, but by restricting it, say, in the mind ...

Colored (that is: better) version of an illustration from the book
(page 218)! [more of the same at the source]

Anyway, the Rules

See, it ain't much. Take the D&D trappings, strip them down to some of the terms (like the six ability scores, HP, spells and class names) and use a fast and easy system to resolve all possible situations: roll 2d6; everything 10+ is a win (sometimes with an additional advantage), 7-9 is a win associated with some sort of disadvantage and everything below that is a disaster (ability score/class/level modifiers do apply).

In the beginning it sounds very much like D&D (up to a 3d6 in a row character generation) and I started to ask myself where the difference might be. Turns out, it's not D&D at all the further one gets with reading. Your ability scores, for instance, will be used for 3 things: to generate a modifier, a characters HP (Con) and to get a better price for wares (-Cha). You won't need them anymore than this (which makes their use rather cosmetic). The rest is moves and tags and bonds.

This is where the whole thing starts to shine for me. Up until page 154 I really loved what this game proposed to do. It is very narrow in what it does and heavily structured, but I think I would have a blast playing this. So many fun ideas, like the "bonds" for instance (which give a group almost instantly opportunities for role playing) or how every ability score is associated with a move.

There are two sides to this, of course. Alignment is an example that might help illustrating how those are really nice, but also very constraining rules. After choosing a class, a player is confronted with a choice for up to 3 available alignments for that class. Every alignment is associated with a certain action that grants a character xp (neutral fighter: defeat worthy opponent, etc.). It has a nice effect on the game that fits the alignment, it's easy to remember and it pushes all the right buttons in offering xp for using it. It's also just the one thing you can do to express your alignment. Everything else is wasted breath, as the rules do not support it.

Character creation is the same. You'll end up with a very nice character, but the process of creating a character is very formulaic with very few choices (or just enough, that's a matter of perspective, I guess) and a very narrow understanding of what they mean in D&D.

All this is fast and easy to grasp. Perfect, it seems, for one-shots and conventions. This certainly emulates the feeling early D&D produces on the first 6 to 9 levels and converts every published module for D&D easily enough to consider using it to run, say, the Against the Giants-series (or whatever) ...

The GM section ain't that much, though, ...

I got a bit excited right there and already thought about using Dungeon World for the Red & Pleasant Land. Then I got to the DM section of the game and they started with restricting the DM the same way they restricted the player. It's just not that much fun. Instead of saying "The DM is always right!", they say "The agenda is always right!". The "agenda" is a set of rules a DM is to follow to make this thing work. They are:
  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens
This is divided in some principles and associated with some moves a DM is allowed to do. Seeing this as only advice might have some merit, but as they present it, it is set in stone. There is a chapter in the end with some ideas how to change those rules, but it falls short on the DM, basically saying that changing this will be too much work, if not impossible.

All this might be helpful for a beginner DM, but it also gives the impression that the game is always right. It's not the DM that decides how it's played, he's just a vehicle for the rules. I disagree with that and I really don't see where the fun for the DM is to referee this game. It couldn't be building a setting, because the third point of the agenda really forbids it and there are several passages in the book where they state that the game will "resist" attempts to avoid this part of the agenda.

"Game Master" is reduced to "Game Minion", I'd say.

Anyway, a DM is not to have his "own world". Let's go with that. It's something that emerges from play and the players are a huge part of this process. This has huge implications, to say the least. And it has definitely nothing to do with D&D, where the story emerges from the decisions made by the players (as in: the complete opposite to what DW proposes).

But wait! Turns out, it's not at all that dire and it takes about 30 pages ...

... until they start talking about Fronts and Steadings

I wouldn't say they lie to you with the agendas, but they go to great lengths to tell you that you have to follow "The Rules", especially when you're creating a world (which, following the third agenda, wouldn't amount to much, since the world is created during play ...). Then they go on about how to create a world in sketches, starting with some fronts. And that's some good stuff right there.

"Fronts" are exactly what you would expect: the front ends of campaigns the characters are aware of. They are like doomsday devices, ticking down as long the characters don't do anything against it, changing the world for the worse, should they come to pass.

"Steadings" are places the characters may rest, heal and buy stuff. A nice collection of ideas how to shortcut everything between adventures (same goes for travel, resource management, making camp, all that jazz). Those rules help not only facilitating those intermissions, but also produce a living environment for the players to interact with and form a nice narrative around it in the process. Without much fuss, I might add.

The Devil's in the Detail (Narrative Control and Combat)

So what are they trying to do here? The main focus of the game is the players. The world around them emerges as they discover it and a DM doesn't really need much more information than that. Sometimes they only see the tip of the iceberg and the DM has a sketch of the whole thing. Or they had only heard the name of another steading nearby and the DM already has all the data needed prepared. I can get behind this sort of thinking. It's actually not that far away from how I prepare my games, just more structured (which I can appreciate).

Seeing it like this means, in the end, that the narrative control is still with the DM. The rules don't "resist" attempts of a DM to enforce a story (nice try, guys), but they show how much is too much. And that's good advice for every DM in every role playing game. And to give the players an opportunity to help developing minor details of a setting, is good advice too (and something most DMs allow anyway, one way or another). But the context - the big picture, if you will - is still part of the DM's job, even in Dungeon World.

Combat is an odd bird, now. As far as the rules are concerned, aspects of a combat are just moves that help figuring out where the narrative goes. There are tactical elements to combat, but they are very limited and mostly related to a class (a fighter is good at killing stuff, of course), tags (what weapon exactly is used, etc.) and the situation (if the opponent is not aware of the attack, it's not combat, but just doing damage and if the enemy is too strong, it's only combat if the players find a way to harm it in an effective way). So combat is focused on enemies that fight back and can be defeated.

Depending on how serious you take the advice to ignore (or "re-interpret") damage that could kill a character (to keep the narrative going, etc.), you'll either have a game where fighting is like visiting town (read: part of a nice but harmless narrative) or a game as deadly and tactical as you like that still holds an engaging narrative (I'll take option number two, thank you very much).

The rest is with the dice. A character may, for instance, decide to reduce his ammunition (and still do his damage) when coming up with a result of 7 to 9 in his attack (so ammunition is a rather abstract resource that gets depleted as a result of the narrative, not something you count down as you use it ...). Or he decides to put himself into harms way instead (still doing his damage). So the result of the dice may decide movement (and other factors) instead of the simulative approach of our beloved, war-gaming-haunted D&D. I like this approach as an alternative, but it's still one more aspect that creates a significant distance to D&D (and friends).

Conclusion 2:

It's not all said and done yet. The third part of this review will shine a light on some other rules I really liked (Hirelings and travelling, for instance), as they beg to be hacked and stolen for ported to D&D. And I've written enough for today as it is.

Dungeon World is a mixed bag, but I've seen more I like than I dislike. I really don't care much for rules that protect players for the sake of a "story". I've seen that a lot in storyteller games (and ignored it every time). Death can be an interesting part of a narrative and the possibility of dying is an effective tool to produce tension in a game. That's how it should be, in my opinion.

What really makes me flinch, though, is when a set of rules tries to tell me it's mechanics are the game and the DM is just the vehicle to enforce them. That's just plain wrong and reduces the DM to being an entertainer.

There's also some redundancy (like a chapter about how to DM a first session and one chapter in the end about how to teach the game), the order they arranged the rules in is a bit screwed (especially in the second part of the book, Weapons and Equipment are a good example for this) and there are some contradictions (you either "play to find out" or you sketch a chain of events that still comes to pass, even if it's ignored, etc.). But those are minor quibbles, because it really ain't that complex a game.

That being said, I have yet to find a role playing game I could not misinterpret up to a point where it worked for me and I believe I could DM Dungeon World RAW. Again, the game is "rail-roading" a very specific way to emulate the fantasy tropes we all love and learned to associate with D&D. To explain it with a metaphor: if D&D is like driving a bike, than Dungeon World would be like driving a bike with training wheels. If you can dig that, it might just work for you. I'm certainly often enough in the mood to mix it with something fast and easy that gets the job done well ...

Anyone interested enough to check it out, but still hesitating because of the redundancies and contradictions and messed up order and the bloat (etc.) I wrote about, should give Truncheon World a look (thanks again to +Joel Bethell for pointing it out). It's basically the same text (minus the monsters, adding the barbarian class), but better arranged and only 128 pages (same format, by the way). The monsters can be found here (among other places, I'm sure).

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