You Should Try “Dungeon World”: A Dungeon-Punk Fantasy RPG Powered by the Apocalypse
If you like Dungeons and Dragons, but find yourself in need of something new (like I did), the perfect next game on your road to tabletop nirvana is probably Dungeon World.
I promised to start branching out and tell you guys about some other cool games with the central conceit being that just about every game has something buried in it that can improve our Dungeons and Dragons 5e game. In order to keep the transition from jarring, we’re going to begin this series of discussions with a game that has radically altered the way I play tabletop roleplaying games, but also managed to keep everything I loved about D&D in the mix. Dungeon World is an imminently familiar feeling game for anyone who owns polyhedral dice. It takes place in a fantasy world populated by Elves, Orcs, Dragons, and all the other bits of fantasy pastiche you’ve come to expect from a fantasy RPG. Or maybe it doesn’t.
Maybe the Elves died out ages ago, the Orcs are alien invaders who fell to earth in black sarcophagi smoldering with the heat of reentry, and the Dragons wisely rule the confederation of principalities as philosopher kings. Maybe Elves steal children, the Orcs safeguard knowledge, and the Dragons all mysteriously vanished a decade ago. We play to find out. That’s the tagline for all Powered by the Apocalypse games, and Dungeon World is no exception.
Unlike Dungeons and Dragons, there’s no implied setting, and the Dungeon Master does not have a unilateral stranglehold on the information economy of the game. Instead, the game is more conversational in tone. It evolves as a constant interplay between the DM and the players. The DM describes a situation, the players ask a question, the DM answers with another question, and on from there. It’s very collaborative, and it leads to a game that runs effortlessly, without stopping to adjudicate the rules. Even the rolling manages to be intuitive.
The core-mechanic for dice is going to come as something of a disappointment to the dice dragons, the polyhedral hoarders, and everyone who’s got a mixed Crown Royal bag of dice. Mostly, you’re going to need two d6s. Just about every time the dice come out, and that’s only when there’s a question of success or failure in an action, you’ll be rolling 2d6. Add your result to an appropriate stat (or not), and you’ve got your answer. 1-6 is a failure, 7-9 is a mixed success, and 10+ is a full success.
But here’s where it gets interesting. The granularity here is such that even a failure is interesting. If a challenge is presented, then it must be overcome with a move. Moves are triggered when a character states their intent. The DM will point out that it sounds like a move, and the character will agree and roll 2d6. If they roll a success, they do it, no problem. If they roll a mixed success, they do it but typically with a complication of some kind. If they fail, then the DM gets to make a move. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, DM moves shouldn’t be a huge revelation, but to briefly summarize, a DM gets a chance to reveal an unwelcome truth, put someone in a spot, show signs of an impending threat, or any number of those pesky DMly things that ratchet up the tension. Let’s look at an example.
DM: Rook the thief approaches a locked door in the Duke’s castle. It leads into the Duke’s private solar. Rook knows that he can find proof of the evil courtier’s treachery behind this door, but the heavy handle doesn’t budge even an inch when he puts his hand on it. What does Rook do?
Rook: I’m a thief, man. What do thieves do? I’ll reach into my beltpouch and pull out my lockpicks. Rook settles down on one knee, takes a look around, and then begins to pick the lock.
DM: It’s a pretty difficult lock, so you’ll probably need the tricks of the trade.
Rook: Yeah. Let’s see. Tricks of the Trade. “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.” With a DEX of 2, that’s…crap. 5. I think Rook has some trouble with the lock, that fourth tumbler just won’t stick and he’s getting frustrated.
DM: Yeah, I like that. So, what’s frustrated look like? You’re alone in this back hallway, how’s Rook looking on camera here?
Rook: I think Rook was a consummate professional about three minutes ago, but as that damn fourth tumbler won’t stick, he lets out a groan of frustration. “Gotta be kidding me. Front door wasn’t this hard to–“
DM: I think that’s when you look over your shoulder to check if the coast is clear and see the chambermaid who’s staring at you wide-eyed. She looks like she’s working herself up to a scream, but you’re wearing a dagger and she hasn’t quite decided whether or not alerting the guards is a death sentence for her. What do you do?
And on like that. Even though Rook failed, something interesting came of it. It wasn’t just “You fail. Do you want to try again? There’s no skill dogpiling like you’ll find in Dungeons and Dragons, because the situation has changed. Something categorically has happened because dice have hit the table and the story has evolved. There’s another challenge, a different narrative position, a new actor on the stage to interact with and navigate. Stories thrive on this because it creates drama.
That’s basically what Dungeon World is best at, when every die-roll is interesting it ratchets up drama and pushes engagement with the fiction. It’s spelled out in the game’s agenda:
- Portray a fantastic world
- Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
- Play to find out what happens
Come to think of it, that’s how a good Dungeons and Dragons game should operate as well.
What Can We Learn?
What I like about Dungeon World is that everything is evocative but vague enough to give great ideas and then get out of the way. There aren’t a lot of noodly bits that restrict the narrative or the game at large. Out of the box, characters are capable and their power-progression is less important than their narrative development. That opens up the early-game to deal with threats and calamities that level 1 PCs in Dungeons and Dragons might never contend with. What that basically means is that which monsters you pick, what kinds of encounters you build are not as important as the situations that you thrust your PCs into.
That’s an important lesson to take away. A lot of times, we get stuck in the goblin-stomping lower levels and it always feels a little samey. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s goblins or the undead. Rats. Lots of rats. But at the end of the day, the little squishy level 1 baddies are squishy level 1 baddies. This is because the narrative is stifled by the relative lack of diversity among low-level bad guys.
That’s actually completely false. It sometimes feels that way because low-level characters are fragile and we as Dungeon Masters (maybe I as a Dungeon Master) try and treat them gently until they’re level three and start stacking cool powers. The narrative hasn’t even gathered steam yet, and I don’t want to stack corpses of dead would-be heroes before the first act is over. Sue me. Dungeon World’s resilient starting characters meant I never needed to do that.
But this isn’t the section for things that I liked about the system. This is the part where I say what can be taken away and plugged into our next great D&D game. I think I can narrow that down to three big take-aways.
The DM Moves
I’ve covered this in its own article, but in brief, Dungeon World boils down all of the various things that Dungeon Masters should be doing to influence the trajectory of the game into about a dozen discrete moves. All of the complications, the twists and turns, the draining of resources, the environmental changes, the curses and poisons, the hitting of PCs right where it hurts the mosts, all of them are covered by these dozen maneuvers.
If you’re a veteran DM, you’re probably doing all of these things already, but seeing them in print and enumerated makes them look much less like a disorganized mash of narrative tools and much more like the toolbox of a master craftsman. Every tool has its own place, its label, and its usage case. It’s really rather beautiful.
I think, if I were to ever use a DM screen again, I’d probably print these DM moves and paste them onto the back of it, just as reminders. They get the juices flowing when the players look in my direction with that “and then what happens” look…
One of the things that grinds my gears about d20 systems like Dungeons and Dragons is that success and failure are binary states. Let me explain what I mean by that. If you were Rook trying to open that door up there and your DM told you that you didn’t pass the DC necessary to pop the lock, what would’ve happened? You’d have failed and either you’d have to try again, or maybe think of some other way to get into that door. If you succeed, it just opens. Both of those are fine, but one of them feels narratively satisfying for a given level of satisfaction. It’s cool to succeed, because we move on to the next challenge, the next plot point, the next adventure. It sucks to fail, because it stops the game’s momentum dead.
In Dungeon World, failure is still narratively and even mechanically interesting. Failure, and even mixed successes alter the truth of the Gameworld. You channeled the nature spirit and demanded it’s service, but with your mixed success, you have to choose between the effect you want, retaining control, and avoiding paying nature’s price. You can choose two. Something has to give.
Plus, you get experience by failing rolls. That’s right, failure is how you advance.
Undertake a Perilous Journey
This is a cool move.
When you travel through hostile territory, choose one member of the party to act as trailblazer, one to scout ahead, and one to be quartermaster (the same character cannot have two jobs). If you don’t have enough party members or choose not to assign a job, treat that job as if it had rolled a 6. Each character with a job to do rolls+Wis. On a 10+ the quartermaster reduces the number of rations required by one. On a 10+ the trailblazer reduces the amount of time it takes to reach your destination (the GM will say by how much). On a 10+ the scout will spot any trouble quick enough to let you get the drop on it. On a 7–9 each roles performs their job as expected: the normal number of rations are consumed, the journey takes about as long as expected, no one gets the drop on you but you don’t get the drop on them either.
A lot of people gloss over the travelogue in order to get to the dungeon and the treasure and XP therein, but that would make The Lord of the Rings a pretty short book. I’ve started having my players turn every journey into a skill challenge ala 4th edition, but this is a simple, elegant way to adjudicate travel that doesn’t necessarily gloss it over or bog it down.
Hand your players a role on the journey, ask them what their job on the trail is. You’ll be surprised what they argue about. Fiction unspools from moves like this, and that means that verisimilitude, the feeling that the Gameworld is real, increases. Overland travel starts to feel like a team effort rather than a montage.
I count that as a win.
What’s the Catch?
So, the biggest thing that I miss when I play Dungeon World is, oddly enough, the wargame that’s stapled onto the roleplaying game that is Dungeons and Dragons. I miss facing, and I miss reach, and I miss initiative. I miss saving throws and I miss free actions. Dungeon World is a cinematic powerhouse that’s oozing flavor and story.
But I miss tactical combat sometimes. With no initiative system, it’s very much up to the DM to keep the spotlight moving. It can feel frenetic and fast, but it can also leave some people in the dust as the bodies pile up and the wizard’s back there wondering if he’s going to get to cast or not. Personally, it’s a minor quibble, but for my Clubs and Tacticians, you’re going to notice that one of the big draws to Dungeons and Dragons is notable in its absence.
Oh, also, the monsters hit you when you miss. They deal their damage as a consequence to your failure or mixed success, not on their own initiative. If you are a DM who delights in the rolling of dice, you will be miffed to know that the players roll the dice. You adjudicate without. If that’s a deal-breaker, steer clear.
Dungeon World is a familiar feeling dip into fantasy roleplaying that runs on a light but powerful framework that exists to drive the narrative forward. Failure, success, or shades between, the fiction comes first as players and Dungeon Master engage in a conversation, playing to find out. It’s fast, fun, and the SRD is free to access.
If you don’t think it’s your cha-cha, there’s still more codified story-telling wisdom in the Gamemastering section of this book than most of the writer’s self-help books that I’ve read. I don’t think I’d expect any less from any game that describes itself in terms of “the fiction.”
If you find yourself in search of a game that is a little freer from the restrictions of a rigid simulationist wargame, something that places a little more emphasis on action and story rather than attacks of opportunity and skill-checks, you might give Dungeon World a look.
Dungeon World is a Fantasy Roleplaying game Powered by the Apocalypse, and created by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel. You can find out more here.