I 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.
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.