A D&D Lover’s Guide to Other RPGs: “Dungeon World”

Dangerous Space Jail CoverI grew up on D&D. From my very first Basic box set (the blue box, discarded as trash by some AD&D-playing friends) to the newest release of 5e, D&D will always be my main game. Over the years, however, I have pushed my gaming groups to branch out and try other RPGs. From Stars Frontiers, Top Secret, and Call of Cthulhu in the early days, to any number of new and exciting RPGs in recent years, many great experiences await players in other games.

Yet some of the players in my gaming groups, then and now, have resisted those new experiences. The reasons for resistance range from the reasonable (“My time is limited, so I am going to play my favorite”), to the unreasonable (“People who play that game are weird”), to the ridiculous (“Funny dice are stupid”), to the sublime (“This is just like D&D but the rules/setting/feel/focus is slightly different”). While I will not argue with the reasons that people can’t or won’t try other games, I think it is instructive to at least point to other games, giving them a bit of time and consideration.

For my evaluation and discussion of these games, I want to be clear that my focus will be through a D&D-centric lens. I don’t do this to be unfair—it’s just one starting point to look at a game’s peculiarities, strengths, and charms. It is important to note that I understand there are different ways to play and enjoy D&D. When I make comparisons between D&D’s and other games’ play and flow, I am not losing sight of those different modes of D&D. I am simply working from the play assumptions that D&D in general makes, based on the rules as they are presented.

Dungeon World: Brought to You by the Apocalypse

The game I want to focus on in this article is Dungeon World, a fantasy-flavor of Apocalypse World RPG engine created by Vincent Baker. Dungeon World itself was designed by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel. It is no secret that Dungeon World was created as an homage to the earliest versions of D&D. From the six standard ability scores that range from 3-18, to the races and classes of the grand old game, Dungeon World makes no pretense at being anything but a hack of D&D.

My introduction to the game involved a couple of online games, where I got a taste for the game and its flow. I did not delve too deeply into the mechanics behind the game or the role that the GM takes during game play. When I was asked to edit a Dungeon World adventure called Dangerous Space Jail by new game design shop Encoded Designs, I took the opportunity to make myself intimately familiar with the rules, terminology, and philosophy of the game.

The initial pages of the Dungeon World book talk about the reasons behind the game: what are its goals and what feel is it trying to achieve? The goals are stated in a way that differ little from a generic D&D game: be heroes, face danger, gather treasure, etc. The means to achieve those goals through game play in Dungeon World are meant to be more conversational than in most D&D games. Those conversations might be between players, or between the player and the GM.

You Succeed, But…

One of the interesting aspects of Dungeon World is the task resolution mechanic for actions the characters take. These actions are generally taken by performing a “move,” a discrete action that is either general for all characters or specific to that character’s class. When the player takes a move and the outcome is not ensured, that player rolls 2d6 and adds a modifier to the roll, generally based on a character’s ability score. If the player’s modified roll is higher than 10, the move succeeds (and often the GM can give the player a means to succeed further for a potential risk). If the result is between 7 and 9, the move succeeds but there is a drawback or complication, decided either by the GM or the player, depending on the situation. If the result is 6 or less, the GM can step in and narrate the result (or if it is during a battle, the GM can have the enemies of the characters take a move of their own).

As you can see from the mechanic, the GM is on the hook to make a decision and guide the play no matter the result of the check. This decision could lean to the side of the mechanical (the GM tells the character to take damage or receive bonuses/penalties going forward) or to the side of the story (narrate something wonderful or terrible happening in the fiction of the game), but either way it is the GM’s prerogative, or even responsibility, to move things forward. By contrast, D&D can be much more binary in its conflict resolution. Good DMs often make things more interesting by giving players dilemmas and interesting choices, but these sorts of things are not baked into the rules as much as in Dungeon World.

A Lack of Initiative is Sometimes Good

Another strong aspect of Dungeon World—the one that probably gives D&D players pause—is the lack of strict initiative or rounds or turns in Dungeon World. Whatever makes sense in the fiction of the game is what happens in the mechanics of the game. One of the most interesting manifestations of this philosophy is that the monsters don’t get a “turn” in Dungeon World like they do in D&D. While a GM’s monster might instigate action in Dungeon World if the players hesitate in acting, they generally “take a turn” in combat as a direct result of a player’s failure or partial success.

This can lead to potentially awkward situations in the flow of the game, especially if a GM is more familiar with a D&D-centric initiative system. If the players are constantly rolling 10+ on their combat moves, it might feel to a GM like the monsters aren’t getting a chance to join in the fiction of the game, except as pincushions. Alternatively, if the characters are rolling 6- too often, a D&D-centric GM might feel a need to deal a lot of damage to the characters rather than using hard moves to add to the fiction’s depth and excitement. Even experienced GMs might take a while to feel comfortable with the open-ended nature of the soft and hard moves he or she can take.

The Game Outside the Dungeon

Another way that Dungeon World differs from a typical D&D game is in what happens outside the proverbial “dungeon,” when the characters are resting or having some downtime in a civilized areas. D&D has certainly had rules for downtime activities over its long and storied history. Dungeon World, however, codifies these rules more clearly and keeps them on the same platform as the moves that are made in combat. In fact, these out-of-the-dungeon activities are still called “moves” and have the same range of success and failure as running up to attack an orc with a sword.

For example, one of the moves available in the civilized areas in Dungeon World is called “carouse.” You want to spend some hard-earned coin and have a party after a triumphant return from the dragon’s lair? There’s a rule for that. And like the rule for hitting something with a sword, this rule is more in place to start and guide a conversation between the GM and the players than it is too dictate the results. Carouse well, you are going to make friends and hear important rumors. Carouse badly, and your life is going to be more complicated.

More out-of-the-dungeon moves are available to make your trip to town just as exciting, dangerous, and mysterious as the foray into the dungeon. Finding hirelings, researching an enemy creature, or even finding supplies are moves that could take the story in entirely different directions.

Final Analysis

While I only touched on some very basic concepts in the Dungeon World game, it is a much deeper and more robust game than what I have described. However, I can make some generalizations based on the basics I covered.

For players and GMs preferring a more conversational fantasy game, Dungeon World can be a viable alternative to D&D, if not superior in its conflict resolution mechanics. These mechanics don’t just facilitate a style where the GM can weave a fun fiction through game play—it is practically required.

There must also be a give and take between GM and player. The examples of play in the text of the Dungeon World book often show the GM making a decision, then show the player trying to negotiate a different outcome (or different check). Sometimes the GM agrees, sometimes not. But in that conversation, the story being told within the game becomes clearer.

For GMs and players used to the more focused conflict resolution system in D&D, where outcomes are firmly established by the rules, this type of play can be problematic. Even for the GMs who like to throw in a complication now and then during a D&D game, a firmer conflict resolution system carries a lot of narrative and mechanical weight in the game. The burden of constantly having to think of new and interesting ways to add complications to a game can weigh heavy. There are only so many times that a hero can be disarmed by an opponent or slip on a pool of blood in combat before complications turn from interesting and fun to boring and frustrating.

In all, I would suggest at least a few games of Dungeon World to those D&D players who often find themselves saying that the story of their games is more important than the mechanics. For D&D DMs, if you often find yourself challenging your players with complications that are not covered in the D&D rules, or if you love to have your players guide the narrative of the game with the actions they take, you should consider giving Dungeon World a try.

Comments

  1. I have some experience playing in Dungeon World. Dungeon World forces role-playing on you. I found it heavy handed and felt that I didn’t need the rules to enforce what I do anyway but other players really enjoyed it and, with D&D, admitted that they just degenerated into being roll-players. Some oddities that you didn’t mention are bonds (where you start with a complex series of role-playing relationships with other PCs) and experience (which is only gained by resolving bonds or failing a roll). You are right: the “succeed but..” mechanic gets tedious (for both the GM and the players) after a while and inevitably the GM needs to reuse partial failures. I missed the “objectivity” of D&D so, in Dungeon World games, a “successful adventure” didn’t feel as much like an accomplishment.

    • FYI, “experience (which is only gained by resolving bonds or failing a roll)” is not accurate. Check out the end of session move: killing monsters, taking their stuff, and exploring all get you XP. As does your alignment!

      • True. I forgot about that. I guess that resolving bonds and failing rolls really stood out in my memory and those other ways weren’t as memorable.

    • Shawn Merwin says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for taking the time to comment. I was going to talk about bonds and XP, but I cut them out for brevity’s sake. I do love the mechanic of getting XP for a 6- result. As Sage points out (and he might know at little about the game), XP is awarded for a number of things.

      In terms of bonds, I like that part of the game. The main reason I didn’t mention it is because in my own D&D games (other than the Living stuff I have worked on), I tend to actually use mechanics similar to bonds. So while it is a nice inclusion into the base mechanics of DW, I think enough RPG players have some experience with that in the RPG world. 5e D&D may even have something like it once the new PH or DMG is released.

  2. Thanks, Shawn! I picked up DW a little while back, and have been eyeing it closely for the past couple weeks, as I think it might be a good fit a campaign idea I have and also a good change of pace for my home group who have been bouncing back and forth between low-level 13th Age and Epic LFR. Do you have any recommendations for getting a group started with DW? They’re all experienced RPG players, so I’m considering just throwing them into the deep end with a low- or no-warning chargen + short adventure session.

    • Shawn Merwin says:

      Hi Chad! My very first session (played online) as a player was exactly what you are describing. I had never played DW or even read the rules–or anything about the game–and my GM basically just said, “Pick a class” and sent over the playbook for that class and the list of basic moves. The first part of the session was asking questions about how the game worked, and the second was playing. For most of us players, who were experienced gamers but not with DW, it took almost the whole session to come to terms with the differences between other RPGs and DW (many of which I highlight in the article).

      If you are so inclined, I would suggest picking up a copy of Dangerous Space Jail at DriveThruRPG (and thank you if you do) and give it a look. I think it’s a decent adventure for new players to cut their teeth on, since it is fairly self-contained and is made for convention play (but can be adapted for a longer campaign). The concept to keep driving home for new players (at least in my estimation) is that it is a game where you ALL play to find out what happens in the fiction of the game, not just the players. As soon as I got that difference–and that the moves in the game were story devices and not tactical manuevers–then it all started falling into place. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

      • Dangerous Space Jail is a good place to start. Like Shawn said it’s self contained, can be played in a single session, but has some spring boards for further adventures. It also has a lot of advice in the scenario for what was intended and how you can hack it to make it your own. In the fairness of transparency I had a hand in it’s creation having done the layout and some development.

  3. Great article Shawn! And not just for shining light on the RPG gem that is Dungeon World but for giving a concise primer on how the game relates to vanilla D&D gameplay.

    I don’t have a lot to add generally because you’ve covered the bases, but I will stack a comment on top of the Dan/Sage thread about XP and how it works in Dungeon World. Dan mentions that DW “forces” you to RP. I find that an interesting comment. I can’t speak to his opinion, but I think “forces” is not the best word. I would say it heavily incentivizes it and perhaps moreso, rewards it. I mention this in the context of Sages response that there is a move called “End of Session” that should get played after each gameplay session. It goes through a small list of baked in objectives. Did you achieve your characters goals? Did you achieve the general gameplay goals? Were your actions significant? And so on. Those goals and the XP you get for them are like gameplay guideposts. I think that if you look at that move specifically (and bonds and alignment goals more generally), you can know if DW is right for you or not. If you look at those goals and imagine completing them. If completing those objectives sounds like a fun game of D&D, then DW might be a great fit for you. If those goals seem arbitrary and don’t touch on the elements you want for your game, you may be better served with a different rule system. I’ve personally found DW to be a fantastic creation and I thank Sage and Adam quietly after every session. But I still love my traditional D&D and I’ve found more than a few gamers who do not adjust to the new style and play objectives that Dungeon World fosters.

    • I agree. I use the word, “force”, but it isn’t quite right. DW incentivizes players who don’t role play much with a specific game benefit (“cookie”) to perform certain role-playing-ish DW moves. In D&D, your PC can resolve bonds and carouse but it’s up to the GM and the plot to see if you get any game mechanic benefit for it. But, in DW, you get specific game mechanic benefits. In the DW game that I played in, for me, that aspect didn’t make the game better. Players would try to convince the group to judge his actions as a certain move just to get the “cookie” which didn’t improve the game. I’m not saying that DW is bad. It’s just that the “cookies” only improve the game if you have a certain type of player (e.g. a player who doesn’t role-play much, but given ideas and “cookies”, will role-play more without going overboard and becoming a move-crazy fiend).

      • Great comment Dan, Thanks! I’ll add one caveat to your statement to make it reflect my experiences.

        Change this: ” I’m not saying that DW is bad. It’s just that the “cookies” only improve the game if you have a certain type of player (e.g. a player who doesn’t role-play much, but given ideas and “cookies”, will role-play more without going overboard and becoming a move-crazy fiend).”

        To this: I’m not saying that DW is bad. It’s just that the “cookies” only improve the game if you have a certain type of player (e.g. a player who likes cookies).

        :)

        Basically, I agree with you. If the “cookies” of DW are not something you care for (or if your players simply try to manipulate the rules rather than manipulate the narrative), then you’ll soon realize that the game is pushing you in a certain direction as far as gameplay. However, if, like me, you were frequently trying to steer your D&D game in that direction already, they remove structure D20 barriers and replace them with fundamental building blocks that you can really make awesome games out of.

        That being said, I’m not sure DW will be a long term solution for my group. Our intention is to eventually move back to our 5E game once the full 5E experience is released to the wild.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Mad Wizard’s article on Critical Hits: A D&D Lover’s guide to DW […]

  2. […] awesome analyzation of Dungeon World by Shawn Merwin is up over on Critical Hits and we’re really enjoying the article. Putting […]

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