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October 10
2013

Tabletopping: Dungeon World

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“You hear a howl, followed shortly by two others. Within moments, you see them: a trio of worg, horrific canine beasts, with two goblins riding on each. The front goblins are wielding wicked swords. The ones in back brandish bows. They are charging towards you, malice in their eyes. What do you do?” That’s the dreaded moment. “What do you do?” is the most important question in Dungeon World, a tabletop RPG that mixes dungeon crawling and storytelling. It’s a pointed question, one that spurs the players into action. It demands an answer, and it demands one immediately. “The ogre swings the huge, gnarled trunk at you. What do you do?” There isn’t a simple answer. Dodge out of the way? Try to brute force your way past the attack, exposing the creature? Perhaps you have a spell prepared for this situation. Though maybe you’re just going to get smacked. Or you dodge away only to put yourself into an even worse situation. That’s life in Dungeon World, and sometimes life can be brutally short.

Sage Kobold Productions’ Dungeon World was a Kickstarter success back in June of 2012, receiving 2071% of its original $4,000 goal. With 2,455 backers, it was massively popular. It came out in November, 2012 to critical acclaim, winning the Golden Geek RPG of the Year award for 2012, as well as netting several other awards, including an ENnie for Best Rules. The game itself is a “Powered by the Apocalypse” title, using the Apocalypse World system as its foundation. It transforms the post-apocalyptic setting of Apocalypse World to medieval fantasy, but still offers the same amount of brutality and hard choices.

The book itself is very smartly produced. The physical book is a softcover (though I’ve been using a PDF). It’s written in a very conversational, darkly humorous tone which makes for an easy read. It’s laid out in the usual way: player stuff in the front, Game Master stuff in the back. The supplements included are great as well. Character sheets for each class (called playbooks) are included, as well as cheat sheets for general and special moves (we’ll go over those later) and a cheat sheet just for the GM.

Yes, yes, I hear you say. But how does it play? Glad you asked! A couple of weeks ago, I asked a few friends to come over and play a session together. For the evening, I was joined by Ben, Kirk, Noah, Rick, and Scott. None of us had played Dungeon World—though most of us have at least played tabletop RPGs before—so it would be a testament to the system to see if we understood, comprehended, and, most importantly, had fun with it.

First things first: character creation! As I said before, rather than having a generic character sheet that can be tailored to each potential option, each class has a playbook: two sheets that give you all the information you’ll ever need for a specific class. The base book offers the usual Dungeons & Dragons fair: Bards, Fighters, Rogues, Wizards, etc. As you can see, the playbook also tells you how to make a character. “Put these ability scores in each spot!” “Add this number and your Constitution for your health!” It’s all very easy, and within minutes, my group each had a character ready to go.

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One thing I really enjoyed about the playbooks is not only do you choose sweeping things about your character like their alignment and skills, but it gives you little touches to choose from as well, like what kind of hair they have, how their body looks, what clothes they wear. These details help to flesh out your character and get you thinking about their personality in addition to their abilities.

So, we had a party. Ben played as El’Inle, an Elven Druid who tried to protect his home domain as much as possible. Kirk played as Celion, an Elf Ranger, with his bear companion Kuma. Noah played a Human Wizard named Yuri, who wielded necromantic powers, was Russian for some reason, and was awfully grumpy. Scott played Zadkiel, a fanatical Dwarven Cleric whose worshipped god was the government itself. Finally, Rick decided to play as a Human Rogue named Gershwin, the very definition of a British fop.

The story I set up would be very familiar to fans of the Avernum series of RPGs by Spiderweb Software. The tyrannical empire (who Scott happily named “Tyran”) was a fan of banishing its criminals and undesirables to a forsaken place called the Cavern, a literal dungeon world (see what I did there?). Needless to say, the players had for one reason or another fallen into that group, at which point I prompted them as to why. Each player hemmed and hawed about their character’s fate, offering up some great suggestions for their fate. The characters, exiles banished to the Cavern, had to fight their way through goblins and worse on their quest to establishing a foothold and figuring out just what the Cavern was.

Conflict resolution in Dungeon World is quite simple. Roll 2d6 (two six-sided dice) and add the appropriate stat modifier. A 6 or lower is a failure. A 10 or higher is a success, and a 7-9 is a success with a consequence, and where the game shines. You see, each action a character can make is called a “move.” Moves can be basic, like Hack and Slash, which allows a character to wade into melee and trade blows with a monster, or Defy Danger, used to extricate oneself from sticky situations, or they can be class specific. Rolling a 10 or higher on Defy Danger lets you avoid the situation entirely. Rolling a 7-9, however, lets you avoid what you were trying to avoid, but “the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.” For example, at one point in the adventure a raging demon lurched towards the group of Zadkiel, Yuri, and Celion, meaty fist bearing down on them. Zadkiel attempted to Defy Danger with his Constitution, trying to absorb the blow with his body. He rolls a 7 and I, as the GM, offer him a hard bargain. I tell Zadkiel’s player, Scott, that Zadkiel can either go flying by the smack, taking no damage, but opening up Yuri and Celion to attack, or stay where he is and getting wounded. Scott swallows hard, weighing his options.

This is a fantastic method of conflict resolution, as it means the GM is never rolling dice. There is no “to hit” or “Armor Class” in Dungeon World. If a character gets hit, it’s as a consequence of the player rolling a 7-9 on Hack and Slash, by failing a Defy Danger, or by a myriad of other options. There is no initiative order, either. The flow of combat is controlled by the GM. He turns from player to player, dictating what is happening and grilling the players on how they react. One character dodges out of the way of the rampaging worg, but now it’s heading towards someone else! Focus switches to them; what do they do? It makes for a fast and loose system which makes the game feel more action-packed and intense than other, more dice-heavy games.

In a few whirlwind hours, our group had put together a world, built characters, and run a small adventure as the players strove to prove themselves to a small rebel outpost in the Cavern. Tired (it was already midnight by the time we had ended) but happy, the game came to a close, and I asked each player to share their thoughts. I asked them to give what they liked and didn’t like about the system, and add a memorable moment.

Ben felt that D&D 4th Edition felt overly complicated compared to Dungeon World’s simplicity. He liked that the playbooks didn’t just help one build a character, but also provided guidelines on how to play a certain class effectively. He also appreciated the ease in selecting moves to perform and making choices in the game world. He thought the experience system was on the confusing side (basically, a character gains experience from rolling a 6 or lower, as well as certain roleplaying actions. A couple players complained about the XP system, so this may have been a failing on my part as the GM as well). He also didn’t feel like the Druid’s main mechanic, shape shifting, didn’t have a large enough effect on his character. His most memorable thing was something I did not go over, which were Bonds. Another option chosen when building a character, Bonds are formed with other characters, establishing rapport and history with others before the game has even begun. For instance, Gershwin decided to fill in the Bond “_____ and I have a con running” with Yuri. Rick came up with the idea that Yuri and Gershwin were running an exorcism racket, which caused them both to be exiled. Ben applauded the Bond system, saying it really jump started the role-playing process.

This was Kirk’s first time playing a tabletop RPG, so I was very interested in how the experience went for him. He started by saying that he built a character for Pathfinder once, and found the process confusing, so he was impressed by Dungeon World’s simplicity. He was very happy with the game and said he really wanted to play more and explore the more complex options that opened up once his character started gaining levels. Overall, he thought it was a very easy system to learn and he enjoyed it a lot. The only downside he could think of was that he thought he could have used more skills to play with at the outset of the game. His memorable moments were when he got to role-play as his character and assist the group.

Noah liked playing as the Wizard. He felt like he had a lot of free-form choices and was able to use his spells as much as needed (you can lose the casting of a spell, but it’s only a consequence of rolling a 7-9). He loved the idea of consequences that implicitly followed one’s actions. He liked the utility his spells provided. He was also confused about the XP system, however. His most memorable moment was when Zadkiel, the party’s Cleric, attempted to commune with a stone door and glean its secrets (Zadkiel was most definitely the party’s comedy relief).

Rick started off by saying that he enjoyed the way the dice were used with consequences following your actions and thought the consequences were fair and supported the story. He liked the general lack of stats. He loved the variety of storytelling and how it could be cinematic. He liked the ease in creating a character, but also enjoyed the unique touches that made a character truly the player’s. He also enjoyed the openness of choices available to a player. However, he found the XP system strange as well. His most memorable moments were the crazy acrobatic feats he could pull off as a Rogue, and he loved the British fop/grumpy Russian Necromancer team he had formed with Yuri.

Scott, like others, really enjoyed the system of consequences. He also enjoyed Dungeon World’s overall simplicity and thought it would be a great system to teach to players that were completely new to tabletop RPGs. He thought the classes all seemed pretty balanced as well, compared to other games who suffered from “caster supremacy.” On the flip side, he thought some of the Bonds presented didn’t make a whole lot of sense. His most memorable moment was using Defy Danger to stand still and let boulders smash into him, taking no damage in the process.

As for myself? I pretty much agree with everyone else. Dungeon World is a simple system on the surface, but there is a huge amount of potential for telling an action-packed and involved story. The mechanics are there to help the story, not the other way around, and this system is clearly a product of love. I also agree that I think it would be an excellent way to get into tabletop RPGs in general. It’s very easy to learn and quick to get started.

If you’re interested in Dungeon World, you should definitely check it out. The rules are available for free here. If you enjoy the game, however, you should definitely consider buying a PDF or physical copy of the rules from Sage Kobold’s website. They are both very cheap ($10 for the PDF and $25 for the book), and I think this system’s designers should definitely be rewarded for their hard work. Like I said before, this is a labor of love, through and through.

Next time: Fate Core!

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About Bryce Duzan

Bryce has lived in sunny San Francisco (or "sunny" San Francisco if you actually live there) for the past four and a half years. He studied Theater at San Francisco State, and spends most of his time playing games, whether they are in a video or board form. He hopes to write plays and sip finely-crafted cocktails from a golden chalice for a living someday, but until then will settle for just trying to make people think...or at least laugh.

3 Responses

  1. Very nice review! I have played once the game and I liked so much!
    I’m planing to play again next weekend with the brazilian version of the book.

  2. avatar o kiraan says:

    My current game is a DW game and it’s the best DnD game I’ve ever played. And I’m running it.

  3. avatar Patrick Strouse says:

    Awesome! I’ve had my eyes on Dungeon World for a long while and you touched on a lot of points here that drew me to it. It’s a wild system for any GM to play since they now have so much liberty to focus on the players and not worry about whether they have a balanced encounter or if they’ve got all the modifiers for their Big Bad. Glad to see some tabletop getting some attention on this site as well!

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