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A Dungeon World Experience

Two weeks ago we played Dungeon World. I was looking forward to it, but more from a system experimentation point of view before I went into it. Having played the first session I’m liking my character and I’m really getting into it.

There is a lot to be frustrated about with respect to Dungeon World and most of these are related to the basic D&D inspired elements of the game, compounded by the way the game tunnels you down limited selections rather than interesting choices. This is also very much like old Red Box D&D. The fact classes can only be certain races. The fact your character has to conform to a limited set of descriptions. The very set abilities you gain over each level. Even your relationship with every other character is the same every time you play a class. As per the game’s traditional influences it also doesn’t define in anyway who your character is remaining firmly in the territory of defining what they can do. In truth, a core of this proscriptive approach you could ignore, but we went with the set-up as is.

The mistake would be to not look past these elements, as even if you’re not into the old school D&D experience, the game takes those ideas and builds on them to create something more interesting and exciting. It strips away the blandness of old school systems and sprinkles in modern ideas to make each roll of the dice an interesting choice.

I like how the core six stats are used, they basically run like approaches in Fate Accelerated. The stats define how you are doing something which is decided through defining the fiction first. An example from the game being: are your trying to get through the decaying engine room via deftly dodging and weaving between the fire and hot steam (Dex) or bulldozing through (Con)? You might have also been able to argue your fiendish intelligence is calculating all the timings (Doctor Who style)? Like approaches they are also the primary and only mechanism through which you exercise your ‘skill’. While it’s tempting to try and use the highest stat the fiction does have to match and sometimes the choices are interesting between utilising different stats in terms of their fictional effect and consequences. In Dungeon World’s case it’s balanced out even more through the mechanic of gaining experiencing through failure. So, if you can make the fiction match then you’re just being character defining and if you can’t, forcing you to use a lower stat, well you’ll get an experience point should you fail.

The core mechanic of rolling 2D6 utilises a success, success but and failure mechanic. The fact the GM can make a move on failure makes failure interesting but it’s only a more formalised way of setting stakes. Failure should always be interesting, Dungeon World does well to religiously encode it. I guess I like it not because it’s present but because that’s what a GM should be doing. In a way, the fact Dungeon World is viewed as unique for doing this seems to be more a testament to the erosion of the GM as providing interesting challenge and fiction in reaction to player choice and the roll of the dice. I’m all for that, so I like it. Occasionally, I shake my head at what’s labelled GM fiat these days.

The stripped back nature of the system and the present of the experience benny also makes failure something the player is more likely to accept. It also ensures the success, success but and failure dial isn’t lost in any noise. This isn’t a system in which a player can spend resources to boost rolls out from failure through success but and into success. The dice fall where they fall. Personally, I’m not someone who needs this simplicity or the reward to roll with the failures, the reward in narrative and character defining moments, is enough. I realise though that action, consequence and then new narrative (character change, etc) aren’t reward enough for all so the Dungeon World approach is a good one.

The game has some oddities such as it being an exercise in continually using the discern reality move, which is an encoded way for the players to get the GM to reveal stuff rather than it being left to fiat. It also happens to be based on Wisdom so you obviously need a Cleric to wonder around playing investigator.

You know what I also liked? Structure and control. Note this isn’t necessarily about control being in anyone’s hands, just the fact there is order and control. While this exists in other systems, somehow across a myriad versions of Fate with a sprinkle of Cortex+ this has got lost in the group. Since Dungeon World is a distinct break from such systems in that it’s quite different it has afforded a reset on the principles of such games even if the elements are similar (such as success but, etc).

The players have distinct moves they can make to prosecute their agency in the game. The GM also has distinct moves but they’re less known to me. It’s also quite clear, as I understand it, that the mode of the game is less about the players making things up whole cloth and more about using moves to learn what the GM ‘knows’. While this seems to be quite strict, the clear structure is good. I’m fine with shared authorship, but I tend to like the controls and tools in the game for it to be used (and again, not necessarily about who has them, just the clarity). You either do it through a social contract alone or you have structured rules but the half-assed middle ground is irritating (and has proved to be annoying in previous games).

Ultimately, other than a very enjoyable game, I’m looking to get something else out of Dungeon World. The playing of a simple game that clearly sets in place the habits of fiction first, approach-based play and using success and success but all together on a regular basis. The foundations of many a ‘trindie’ game, the mix of ‘traditional’ and ‘indie’ I tend to like. This might have some advantages for games based on similar principles down the line. Habits. Common languages. That’s how I see it.

About Ian O'Rourke

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