Dungeon World? What’s that?

Dungeon World Logo

My first post was kind of a rant, which annoys me a little, but I just had to get it off my chest. Now it’s time to get serious. For a minute, at least.

If you read my introduction, you would most likely have noticed that this blog will mainly focus on Game Mastering and Dungeon World. A lot might not be familiar with the latter, so why not start off with a review?

What is Dungeon World?

Obviously, DW is a role-playing game, but it’s a game that is so different from what I’m used to play that it’s easier to explain what it is by what it’s not.

So, what isn’t Dungeon World? It is not a “physics emulator”. A lot of games try to achieve some sort of immersion by making the rules “realistic”. Dungeon Worlds doesn’t even try to do that. It tries to establish a platform for telling fantastic stories in a D&D inspired fantasy world, without the restrictions implied by a “realistic” rules set.

This utter disregard for realism even extends to your character. Your character is not at all defined by how good he is at specific tasks or what he can do. He has no “skills”. Rather, he is defined by how he can handle task differently than other people.

How does it work?

The base system is incredibly simple, yet it has enormous depth. Instead of having a lot of predefined things your character can do, the system gives you a short list of “Basic Moves” that encompasses everything your character could attempt.

A move has a simple syntax. It consists of a trigger, maybe a mechanic, and then an effect. The trigger is something that happens in the fiction, meaning something that your character does in the story. The mechanic, if there is one, is what roll you make. There is always an effect, but if a mechanic is present, the effect depends on a roll. If there is no mechanic, there is no roll.

When you roll dice, unless it’s for damage, you always roll 2d6 plus some stat bonus, your result being the sum. Your stats are the basic D&D Abilities; Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. There are three basic outcomes:

  • 6- : You get 1 XP, but the GM decides what happens (Also called “trouble”).
  • 7-9: You succeed, but with a compromise or cost. (A “partial success”)
  • 10+: You succeed with little trouble. (A “success”)

For an example of a move, Defy Danger:

When you act despite an imminent threat or suffer a calamity, say how you deal with it and roll. If you do it…
• …by powering through, +Str
• …by getting out of the way or acting fast, +Dex
• …by enduring, +Con
• …with quick thinking, +Int
• …through mental fortitude, +Wis
• …using charm and social grace, +Cha
✴On a 10+, you do what you set out to, the threat doesn’t come to bear. ✴On a 7–9, you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

Note that a 6- result is not a failure, it is merely “trouble”. The point is that outcomes are not binary, they are more than success vs. failure. Formally, when you roll 6- or 7-9, the GM makes a “GM move”. GM moves works like player moves, except there never is a mechanic, and they happen because the players rolled less than 10. The list of GM moves is actually only a formality.

After playing a while as a GM, you will notice that you don’t do anything different than what you are used to. When a the dwarf fighter charges an ogre and rolls 6-, the GM does what he always does; complicates the situation by picking the dwarf up, head first, and throws him into the cleric. This would be the “Deal Damage” GM move. The Fighter and the Cleric would take some damage.

The important thing to notice about Dungeon World is that all moves has a fictional effect. They always impact the fiction. If you try to confuse the orc guarding the cave entrance by fast talking to him, letting the others slip in unnoticed, then a success confuses him. A partial success might mean that he gets angry at you instead, maybe complicating your situation a bit, but you succeed at your goal; your friends will get in unnoticed.

How are the characters different?

As I said, the system emphasized how the characters can handle tasks differently. That’s where your class comes into play. Except for which die you roll for damage (d4, d6, d8 or d10), representing how dangerous your character is, and your bonus to HP (+4, +6, +8 and +10), represents how battle-hardened he is, a class mainly provides a list of Starting Moves related to your class. These moves often merely replace basic moves, when applicable. And example could be the Thief’s Tricks of the Trade move:

When you pick locks or pockets or disable traps, roll+DEX. ✴On a 10+, you do it, no problem. ✴On a 7–9, you still do it, but the GM will offer you two options between suspicion, danger, or cost.

This move replaces the need for rolling Defy Danger when picking locks and pockets. The benefit? The player gets a choice between two slightly worse outcomes on a partial success, instead of having to live with the GM’s decision. The GM should of course, as always, never abuse his power to make “non-options”; forcing the player to choose one option, by making the other option much worse, would be a pretty lousy way to handle.

Every time you “level up”, you get an additional move from your class’ “advanced moves” list. The Ranger could for example get the Camouflage move, allowing him to automatically remain undetected when standing still in natural surroundings. Yep, he can do this standing in front of the bush. He’s just that awesome at using camouflage.

That’s great, but how does it play?

I believe it plays well, but the traditional “failure vs. success” mindset derived from other games can make the transition very hard. The first time I played the system, I felt it overwhelmingly hard to find interesting outcomes for partial successes, and I almost consistently treated “trouble” results as failures.

The second game went better though, and we had a lot of fun “abusing” the freedom the system gave us. We didn’t need to look up monster stats, because the guidelines for monsters are so incredibly easy that I just winged them on the spot. The players had fun using their equipment, like Adventuring Gear that has five uses, each use letting you have some sort of useful equipment handy. “Good thing I remembered to bring my crowbar” was a nice and fun comment made by one of the players.

It is a great “free-styling” system. It motivates GM’s to come prepared, but without a plan, improvising on what the players do, but on the same time encourages him to give them the possibility of having awesome adventures, where everyone – including the GM – is amazed by the outcome. It is one of those systems that just makes you want to play the game over, and over, and over.


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About Undreren

I'm a university student from Denmark, currently taking my candidate degree in Mathematical-Economics. I have played pen & paper RPG's since 2004, but my interest for the phenomenon sparked about 3 years prior to that. I'm an amateur programmer and knows Java and Haskell as well as some rudimentary HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript.

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