Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Game Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World Cover
Art by Nate Marcel
©2012 Koebel & LaTorra

Authors: Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel
Publisher: Save Kobold, Burning Wheel
Marketplace: Amazon
Engine: Powered by the Apocalypse 

This is one that has been on my shelf over a year waiting for review. 

Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel is a game that attempts to hybridize traditional role-playing games with the more modern story game style of play by adapting traditional Dungeons & Dragons who run on the Powered by the Apocalypse Engine.

For those not familiar with PbtA, the engine works like this:

All possible actions that may occur during The narrative of play are funneled into moves: subsystems with lists of possible outcomes.

When a chance for failure occurs the GM states which move the players are using, and calls for a roll 

Rolls are universally done using 2d6 with relatively small modifiers between the range -4 to +4. Although, modifiers beyond +/- 2 are extremely rare. 

If the die roll is six or lower, the characters action fails and the GM determines the outcome based on the situation. On a result of seven to nine, the player character gains a conditional success. The move being used often offers several possible outcomes that the player is invited to choose from. On a ten or higher they roll is a complete success.

For example, firing a bow and arrow would be the Volley move: roll 2d6 plus a bonus from a character's dexterity, and on a 6- it's a miss. On 10+ the attack hits. On a 7-9, the attack hits but the player must choose between wasting additional ammunition, putting themselves in a dangerous position, or doing reduced damage.

In some cases, a list of possible outcomes are put forward, and a player may choose only one if they roll a 7-9, or three of the possible outcomes on a 10+. For example: the Carousing move lists befriending a useful NPC, hearing rumors of an opportunity, getting useful information, and avoiding being entangled, and sorcelled, or tricked. On a 7-9 player characters may choose only one of those for possibilities - likely the one that avoids getting their character harmed. On a 10 or higher, the characters may choose three of them.

Many of the general moves are thoroughly broad. Defy Danger, for example, can cover a broad range of action stunts and saving throws in other role-playing games. Hack and Slash replaces all forms of melee combat, etc. Character classes primarily add additional moves to the menu of options for a given character.

Aside from this component of the engine, PbtA games come with a very different philosophy of play. They try to minimize the role of the GM:

Firstly by using the moves to reduce the need for adjudication. 

Secondly, they give players far greater agency than just the scope of their characters actions. When a character fails a hs a conditional success, they choose their own complicateion, if they fail, they have some say over how they fail. 

Thirdly, dungeon world encourages a style of gmming that is far more collaborative than you find in traditional role-playing games. A dungeon master is encouraged to set aside a significant amount of world building and planning to on the fly question and answer challenges during the game. 

For Example: if a player chooses to play a wizard character, they are asked several questions about how magic works, rather than leaving it up to the GM. If a player character chooses to play a halfling, the GM is encouraged to let the player tell the GM what halflings are like, rather than the GM making decisions. Players creating clerics would likely describe their deity, determine if it is the only one worshiped in the region by good civilized people, and describe some of their rites and beliefs as part of the in game world building.

The GM themselves are also constrained to a list of diceless GM moves. Some are general, and some are situational. For example, monsters have a list of moves that are only triggered when player characters fail a roll against them. A sahuagin for example, can bite off a character's limb as a move, but only when a player character does something to trigger it, like attempting to fight the sahogan in combat.

Combat and action sequences are hyper-compressed. An entire round of exchange of attacks and parties are always covered in a single combat roll. Whether the player or the monster Hits will depend on whether the player rolls a failure, a qualified success or a complete success. On an utter failure, the monster gets to hit the PC or use its special abilities. On a qualified success the player can choose to be hit, or have some other misfortune happen as they hit the enemy, and on a complete success the player hits the monster with no retaliation.

Monsters are therefore defined by a list of abstract moves along with a hit point total, and a set of tags describing how they behave that occasionally offer a small plus one bonus where particularly applicable.

Dungeon World offers several innovations that are unique to both traditional fantasy role-playing games and Powered by the Apocalypse games. Its biggest innovation is a system called fronts, wherein the GM describes a series of threats occurring in the background of the campaign, and how and when they will evolve, and systematizes it into a series of GM moves.

Overall, Dungeon World is a fairly innovative system, it offers something akin to an osr experience, while still bringing some of the culture of collaboration  from Storygames aboard.


What I Loved

Race/ Class / Alignment Combos

When generating a character, class is chosen first. Once you've chosen your class, you make choices of alignment and race based on that class. So, for example, if you choose to be a ranger, you have a choice of a human ranger or an elf ranger. Each of which comes with a different special ability that captures the flavor of the race class combo. A ranger with the human power knows how to conserve food, and never needs to expend rations in civilized areas. An elf ranger has a knack for traveling the deep wilderness.

Alignment works in a similar fashion. You're offered alignment choices based on your class, and these give you actions you can undertake to earn experience that are an expression of how that character would engage in that alignment.

For Example, good wizards gain experience points when they use their magic to help others. Evil wizards gain experience points when they terrorize others. Only alignments particularly relevant to the class are presented. Fighters are given the choice between good, neutral, or evil, with role-playing challenges for each. Paladins are given a choice between lawful and good has being the more important component of their alignment with lawful paladins being vengeful agents of justice and good paladins being protectors of the weak. Rangers to choose between chaotic good or neutral, etc. 

Players are encouraged to come up with their own alignment or race abilities if they don't find what they like for a class, (with GM approval.) The optional barbarian class assumes the player character is of an unusual and rare race, and focuses on a unique superstition and custom for that race.

This is a really interesting way of handling things,. Players theoretically have the freedom to play any combo they like, but classic class race combos used in Dungeons & Dragons are baked into the game for simplicity's sake. And it is the intersection of a character's race and profession that defines unique abilities, not just the characters race.


Fronts

Fronts are a systematization of a method of campaign planning I have been using on and off most of my life. One that you see in other valuable sources like Tracy Hickman's XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery.

The idea is that certain threats are on the move and mounting in the background, even if the players are not aware of them. Over time, these threats will cross the players' paths as adventure hooks in the form of hints, events, and encounters. If the players grab hold of one of these hooks, they learn about the threat, and can take action before it's too late.

If the player characters ignore the unfolding hints about the danger, then the next time they have an opportunity to uncover what's going on, they will find it far worse. Eventually, if the players do nothing, some disaster can occur from the unattended threat.

Dungeon World has a structure for writing these out that helps clarify them to the GM and integrate them into the campaign very effectively. I borrowed this structure and modified it using depletion dice a while back, and have found it an excellent way of creating tension in the campaign, whike also in empowering the players to choose to react to the events or not.

I don't think it is right for every campaign. For an open sandbox it offers only a little value. But if your players want a game where there's intrigue, high heroism, or the backdrop of a war, this is an excellent tool. 


Initiative Free

Because Dungeon World is  a storygame, it is focused far more on the flow of the narrative then structure of play. One of the ways this really is apparent is that it does not use any sort of initiative system. Instead it offers tips for the GM about when to call on each individual player to declare actions in a way that makes the narrative flow.

Before GMS who play almost entirely old school games this can be quite a departure. It can either be confounding or enlightening. 


Player-Facing

I love player facing systems. Placing the dice purely in the players hands removes the possibility of an adversarial relationship between the GM and player. It also removes the temptation to fudge dice. The players get what they get with the dice rules, and because the dice are falling out of their hands, they have no reason to feel that the game is unfair even when things are going poorly.


Learning Through Failure

What are the quite brilliant mechanics of Dungeon World is the system of learning through failure. Each time a player rolls under six on a move, they gain one experience point. Experience points are otherwise gained by role-playing ones alignment, and fulfilling role-playing prompts based on the relationships between the PCs. Ultimately, real people learn more from failure than they do success. And so in that way I find it a more realistic system. I also find that gaining The experience point is a consolation for a failed role that often helps the players appreciate the beauty of their PCS failing.


Last Breath Mechanic

When a character sits on death's door in, rather than a series of death saves, or a countdown, the player makes a single Last Breath. The roll is unmodified, making total success unlikely. On a total success, the character recovers with some injuries. On a complete failure, the character dies. On a mitigated success, the character is contacted by a supernatural being and offered a devil's bargain for their return to the world of the living. They must accept a quest, or restriction to return to the world. Many of which will be dark and dangerous tasks. The next time the character rolls a qualified success on a Last Breath move, if they have failed to keep up their end of their bargain, they will not be offered the same bargain, and will die for good.

This is a really cool and evocative system that makes the first time a character comes to the vergr of death a compelling experience. And the bargain will give the GM a great deal of leeway to shape and direct the campaign... If the player accepts the bargain.


Growth Points

Moves Are Needlessly Constraining

Earlier this year I planned and ran a one-shot of a game called Down and Out in Dredgeburg. Another Powered by the Apocalypse game created by one of my favorite fantasy artists, Skullfungus.

Down and out in Dredgeburg throws the moves out. It leaves it up to the GM to adjudicate what a qualified success looks like based on the logic and conditions of the narrative. For which it offers a small amount of guidance. Overall, I found the play experience of Down and out in Dredgeburg very enjoyable.

Dungeon World cleves closer to the original Apocalypse World design, having mountains of moves with lists of possible outcomes or possible conditional success outcomes. This is designed to restrict the GM and how they run the game to control the player experience. 

The game even encourages the GM to have one or more copies of the moves list available at the table for reference because they are designed to control the flow of the game. I personally found that they encourage the players to spend a lot more time looking at the rule book and arguing over the rules than anything else. The game attempts to mitigate that by suggesting that players never name the action they wish to undertake, having the GM identify the move when it is being made. I didn't find that helped much.

Overall, it actually made the game feel a little more forced and get the DM thinking more about the rules than the narrative when things are moving quickly, whereas Down and Out in Dredgeburg's move-free approach flowed much more readily.


Tags Are Surprisingly Fiddly

Things like armor and weapons, monsters, and communities are differentiated by a set of tags. These tags offer small bonuses if they suit the narrative conditions. For example, a town with a thriving tag might offer a bonus to player characters seeking to find certain goods in it. 

As characters deal damage based on their class, weapon tags often serve to differentiate between different weapons. A flail, might have an intimidating tag, where is a sword might have a light tag. And so in situations where one is trying to intimidate with a flail, or in which one is trying to move around in the busy space with a sword, those tags might grant a bonus.

This leads to a fairly sizable collection of little modifiers each with their own mechanical ramifications being listed in the back of the book in a dictionary of tags. I found this fiddly and required a lot of page flipping without actually adding an awful lot to the play experience of the game.


Designed to Imitate D&D - Not Fantasy

Dungeon World is a curious beast insofar as it is trying specifically to imitate Dungeons & Dragons, not a broader sword and sorcery or fantasy experience. The class race combos are designed to imitate archetypal Dungeons & Dragons characters, not archetypal characters from fantasy. In effect, this game is trying to be a PbtA alternative to a D&D, or one where a player could grab an AD&D character and have a different kind of experience with them without a lot of conversion work.

If you want to create a fantasy or swords and sorcery experience that doesn't quite fit the mold of Grayhawk or forgotten Realms, Dungeon World doesn't have the same flexibility that even Dungeons & Dragons itself does.

Sage LaTorra, one of the games developers has mentioned working on a Dungeon World second edition that would correct this. However, a scandal around his co-developer, Adam Koebel has indefinitely stalled any further development on Dungeon World. A living, community-made game, Dungeon World 2 is curated on a fan forum. 


The Collaborative Play Structure can be Jarring 

I'm going to post a video with an example of play with developer Adam Koebel here

The question-and-response interchange where the Canon of the game, even the reality of the setting are constantly in flux both from the GMs and the players' inputs can be a bit jarring. Dungeon Masters who are he used to understanding their role as someone who builds a world for players to experience will quickly find that most of their usual planning tools and techniques are useless. Things such as the pantheon of the setting, the cultures present, even the nature of the monsters will rapidly change based on player, rather than gm GM. The GM role in Dungeon World is far more reactionary, to the point where a lot of session planning will feel completely futile.

Players who are looking for immersion in a world that they are visiting will likewise find that their immersion is constantly interrupted by the demands of the GM to have them make up elements of the game. Player Agency far exceeds the scope of the character. 

Dungeon World is not the virtual reality experience that Dungeons & Dragons is. It really is more about building a collaborative story then experiencing another reality. You will not get the same in character immersion or the same sense of exploration out of it. It is designed to give you a very different reward.

The moves structure makes it very difficult for the GM to take more control and run it as if it were a game of Dungeons & Dragons, even if he/she chooses to. 

This is a matter of that fundamental divide I've talked about between story games and traditional role-playing games. You simply are not going to get a role-playing experience out of Dungeon World. You are going to get a story game experience. It's there to create something very different. It's resemblance to Dungeons & Dragons can make it feel like a bit of a trojan horse to a player not expecting that difference. As I've experienced with my own players' dissatisfaction with the game.


Conclusions

Dungeon World is the game I desperately wanted to like but couldn't. And like Fate Core, it's a game my players have roundly rejected because of its difference to traditional rpgs. They want a virtual reality experience, which Dungeon World simply does not deliver.

As it is, it sits on my shelf, and occasionally gets brought down for its fronts and halfway decent settlement planning tools, both of which are worth hacking.

If your group is into TTRPGs to craft a story instead of being interested in escaping to other worlds, they might enjoy his alternative. It is a well-designed game that definitely gives the players a lot of say in how the game turns out. 

4 comments:

  1. This is the game DM's play together. That's how it felt to me.

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    1. I like that! It is a good way to understand the whole Storygame ethos.

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  2. I love me some 2d6 mechanics, it feels nice in the hand and gives a good curve. Mazerats, Tiny Dungeon, and Dungeon World all have a nice 2d6 system.

    For my noobs, however, I went with the stripped down d20 system. Noobs see the funky dice and get excited. Hell, so do I. It's also nice to introduce them to the roll the d20, add a bonus and beat a number, system.

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    1. Those polyhedral do create a sense of wonder in kids the first time they see them, which helps put people in a liminal space for the game.

      But a simple game using one kind of die just can't be beat for simplicity. Tiny Dungeon 2e is definitely a favorite. I love Alpha Blue's engine, too... But definitely not a game for kids. Or even many grown-ups

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