Tag Archives: Dungeon World

Test-driving Dungeon World

2015-09-26 11.25.53 dungeon world 640I finally got a chance to play Dungeon World on its own terms (as opposed to just reading and borrowing ideas for D&D). Other than myself and the GM, there were three other players, none of which had ever played a tabletop RPG before (but were familiar with the general idea and had experience with computer RPGs).

In addition to general play impressions, I was also particularly interested in seeing how long and complicated the character creation process would be. My previous experiences with powered by the apocalypse games have been Apocalypse World itself (a whole session, rather complicated) and Undying (a whole session, rather complicated). Since this game was explicitly pitched as a one-shot (or maybe a two-shot), clearly character creation would have to be less extensive, so I was curious if an AW lineage game could also do a more expedited intro naturally.

We had four PCs: druid, bard, paladin, and thief (that was me). As far as I know, the setting was mostly undetermined beforehand, with the exception of a few leading questions used for creating bonds and setting the stage. The main such question was a quest hook, something along the lines of: why does your character want to destroy the Chimaera-Hydra? The Paladin’s answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra had been gathering powerful holy books from many religions which were the key to some dark ritual. My (thief) answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra guarded a fabulous treasure which would allow me to get back my lover who had been tempted away by a rich man. There were lots of other leading questions that I forget right now, but it actually did not take very long. I think it was about 30 minutes.

2015-09-26 15.06.57 dungeon word map 640In addition to this collaborative world-building, we dynamically created the beginnings of a world map using post-its based on the setting questions. I think the GM had previously decided that the Chimaera-Hydra lair was in swampy woods (though that might also have been a result of a question that I am forgetting). The starting area was a trade route in the desert called the Crescent Road. To the south was the Sapphire Isles, which was the home of the druid PC and his order. I had stolen maps and other secrets from the druidic order to gain info about the Chimaera-Hydra, which the bard knew about but had not revealed to the druid PC. The paladin had been consulting with the druids about the theft of holy books when the thief was on the isles and at one point protected the thief (probably before meeting the druid PC, though I forget exactly how that went). The level of background ended up being just about perfect, and pretty much all the details were used in play, though I do not think we ever remembered to roll+bond.

The inhabitants of the Crescent Road were wolf-people and worshiped a wolf-god that was controlled by the druids from the isles. The thief was wanted by the druids so the fiction began in media res as we were trying to enter a city on the trade route. We eluded the guards, fled into the city, and lost ourselves in the crowd, though not before distracting the guards with a dramatic display of druid shape-changing. From there we needed to decide how to reach the swamp of the Chimaera-Hydra, which was south beyond the sea. The three obvious potential routes were to the southeast past a ruined temple of the paladin’s order (which I think was destroyed by the Chimaera-Hydra), south over the sea through the Crescent Isles (where the druidic order ruled), or southwest over the rich man’s estate. The rich man’s illegitimate son was a stableboy who died in mysterious circumstances and also happened to have been the bard’s past lover. (It turns out that if you put five gay guys around an RPG table and share narrative control, 90+ percent of the NPCs turn out to be gay guys.)

Clearly I was not interested in dealing with the druids again. We settled on going southwest through the estate, though not without the help of the thief loading the dice that we rolled to decide the direction after voting yielded an even split between southwest and southeast. The rich man turned out to be a wizard, his estate a flying castle, and his stables were filled with pegasi. My elf lover had somehow been brainwashed or something and once the wizard figured out who we were he attempted to snare us and summoned a fire medusa to kill us while we were trapped in the castle’s great hall.

The combat was smooth (though starting with such high HP always feels a bit strange to me since my reference level has become OD&D’s 1d6). Some highlights include the paladin trying to force the medusa’s gaze away by physically wrestling it and accidentally partially petrifying the bard, the druid rallying the dogs in the great hall as a pack, and the elf lover being totally turned to stone. After defeating the medusa and wizard we had to carry the statue with us since we did not trust him enough to de-petrify him immediately. As a side note, the polyhedral damage dice seem unnecessary (1d6+STR would sufficiently advantage martial classes). The extra game pieces introduce complexity that will likely only be appreciated by someone that takes pleasure from D&D allusions.

2015-09-26 13.42.48 dungeon world 640After the combat, the castle began to lurch sideways and lose buoyancy. (Apparently castles need live wizards to fly. Who knew?) So then we needed to decide whether we wanted to flee and save ourselves (leaving all the castle inhabitants to fend for themselves) or try to fix it. Lore Spouting by the bard (who had informal magical knowledge) revealed that there was probably some sort of magical device at top of the central tower. So we split up with the bard going after that and the rest of us heading to the stables for some pegasi to use as getaway cars. If we couldn’t fix the castle, we figured we could still fly away.

We managed to figure out the required ritual, which required bleeding all over it as a sacrifice of life energy. This also resulted in the duplication of the bard’s consciousness within the castle because the flying depended upon an animating spirit. (This was probably my favorite session development.) That is where the session ended. We didn’t reach the Chimaera-Hydra, but we did end in possession of a sentient mind-linked flying castle and with my disloyal lover reclaimed (though he happened to be made of stone). Details.

One aspect of play that I found somewhat surprising was how the rules facilitated archetypal thief behavior. I am not sure I find this completely positive, considering how disruptive such behavior can be in more traditional games where I tend to prefer teamwork, but I was impressed that the rules when followed had this result. For example, in addition to loading the dice to influence the group’s choice of path to the swamp, at one point when in the starting city, I was tempted to craft wolfsbane (clearly highly illegal in a settlement of wolf-people). I also got the party into trouble after trying to persuade a wolf-youth to become a druid zealot follower. I failed the roll+CHA and was chased over the rooftops by guards. Luckily they were less sanguine about an acrobatic four story drop than the thief and so we avoided a fight, but still. The thief is a trouble-maker.

As I understand it, ideally Dungeon World is intended to be entirely fiction-first, with mechanical resolution of moves always flowing from fictional actions and events. In practice, it seems almost impossible to do this with the Spout Lore and Discern Realities moves. Especially Spout Lore. I can see how Discern Realities could naturally follow from a narration such as searching an area, but Spout Lore is really more an improv trigger. Though the rules place the responsibility on the GM, in practice we handled it more collaboratively.

Overall it ran smoothly and the procedures seemed easy for the new players to understand. The collaborative world building and bonds could easily be overlaid on D&D for a referee that did not want to spend time in more detailed prep and seems lighter than many other procedural alternatives such as running a game of Microscope. It might be difficult to calibrate hazard clues and difficulty by improv, though I think it would be doable with practice (I have certainly improvised fair but deadly traps in OD&D before). An exploration game could possibly be done by roughly outlining some key spatial and structural relationships and then determining the interstices during play. This would allow a sense of impartiality beyond collaborative interchange (though that is a form of discovery as well). By default, the content included in Dungeon World seems to shift the tone and atmosphere toward D&D style fantasy. Resisting that would require extensive preparation (new classes, new moves, etc), though perhaps still not more than required for building settings and dungeons for traditional D&D.


Marching order and roles

Chaos party with marching order roles

Chaos party with marching order roles

Establishing a marching order in a videoconference game is a hassle. It always seems to take longer than it should, and then PCs in the middle or back are doing things which should often disturb the previous marching order, but practically speaking it’s just difficult to keep everything in mind along with everything else going on, such as describing the area, mapping on Twiddla, or checking off the passage of time.

Dungeon World has a formalized system for wilderness exploration which requires characters to take on different roles, the Undertake a Perilous Journey move. Specifically, characters can take on the trailblazer, scout, and quartermaster roles, which, respectively, improve speed, decrease the chance of being surprised, and decrease the number of rations consumed during the journey. Each PC that takes on one of those jobs makes the equivalent of a wisdom check (roll +WIS in DW parlance), and the result of that roll contributes to their given job.

A similar system could perhaps be used for abstracting marching order. Rather than worrying about exact order, just assign the key positions. Roles that I can think of are:

  • Scout: Assumed to travel beyond the light source, and report back periodically. Using a scout guarantees that the party will not be surprised from the front by visible dangers, though the scout risks being surprised.
  • Vanguard: protects the center of the group from melee. Up to two may take the vanguard role given 10′ hallways.
  • Second rank: may attack with reach weapons if the vanguard is in melee.
  • Torchbearer: you might want to double up on this role, as the light source is an obvious target for the minions of darkness.
  • Rearguard: function like the vanguard if the group is approached from behind.

So, rather than “give me a marching order,” instead: “who is scouting? who is vanguard?” And so forth. The actual order is not so important as long as the roles are filled. These roles can also carry some weight in more open spaces. For example, the vanguard could be assumed to intercept incoming melee combatants first, followed by the second rank, etc. PCs could of course override these default positions at any point, but I think a shared understanding about these roles might make abstract combat flow more smoothly, especially in games played over Google hangouts or similar technology.

I am also planning on including fields for these roles on my session record sheet. Such spaces could also double as session attendance (useful for things like handling treasure awards later).

Dungeon World weapons

The weapons system in Dungeon World is perhaps the best (for my purposes) that I have seen in any published RPG. It uses a tag-based system to distribute effects between the various weapons. Thus, they become distinctive while offering interesting trade-offs. Best of all, it looks like it could be dropped, unmodified, over a flat d6 or class-based damage system in D&D. Dungeon World itself assumes class-based damage.

It’s not perfect, as there are some items that are just plainly suboptimal other than cost (such as elven arrows versus normal arrows), and I’m never satisfied with cost being the main differentiator because it is not really much of an obstacle in a game about treasure hunters (DW is by assumption less coin-heavy than traditional D&D though, so maybe it works there).

Below I have reproduced the DW weapon rules, since Dungeon World is creative commons licensed. Hence the legitimacy of this cut-and-paste job. Thanks to Adam and Sage for making their work available in this way. In the published book, this material is on pages 324 through 326.

For other weapon systems that try to approach the problem similarly, see:

General Equipment Tags

These are general tags that can apply to just about any piece of gear. You’ll see them on armor, weapons or general adventuring tools. Applied: It’s only useful when carefully applied to a person or to something they eat or drink.

  • Awkward: It’s unwieldy and tough to use.
  • +Bonus: It modifies your effectiveness in a specified situation. It might be “+1 forward to spout lore” or “-1 ongoing to hack and slash.”
  • n coins: How much it costs to buy, normally. If the cost includes “-Charisma” a little negotiation subtracts the haggler’s Charisma score (not modifier) from the price.
  • Dangerous: It’s easy to get in trouble with it. If you interact with it without proper precautions the GM may freely invoke the consequences of your foolish actions.
  • Ration: It’s edible, more or less.
  • Requires: It’s only useful to certain people. If you don’t meet the requirements it works poorly, if at all.
  • Slow: It takes minutes or more to use.
  • Touch: It’s used by touching it to the target’s skin.
  • Two-handed: It takes two hands to use it effectively.
  • n weight: Count the listed amount against your Load. Something with no listed weight isn’t designed to be carried. 100 coins in standard denominations is 1 weight. The same value in gems or fine art may be lighter or heavier.
  • Worn: To use it, you have to be wearing it.
  • n Uses: It can only be used n times.


Weapons don’t kill monsters, people do. That’s why weapons in Dungeon World don’t have a listed damage. A weapon is useful primarily for its tags which describe what the weapon is useful for. A dagger is not useful because it does more or less damage than some other blade. It’s useful because it’s small and easy to strike with at close distance. A dagger in the hands of the wizard is not nearly so dangerous as one in the hands of a skilled fighter.

Weapon Tags

Weapons may have tags that are primarily there to help you describe them (like Rusty or Glowing) but these tags have a specific, mechanical effect.

  • n Ammo: It counts as ammunition for appropriate ranged weapons. The number indicated does not represent individual arrows or sling stones, but represents what you have left on hand.
  • Forceful: It can knock someone back a pace, maybe even off their feet.
  • +n Damage: It is particularly harmful to your enemies. When you deal damage, you add n to it.
  • Ignores Armor: Don’t subtract armor from the damage taken.
  • Messy: It does damage in a particularly destructive way, ripping people and things apart.
  • n Piercing: It goes right through armor. When you deal damage with n piercing, you subtract n from the enemy’s armor for that attack.
  • Precise: It rewards careful strikes. You use DEX to hack and slash with this weapon, not STR.
  • Reload: After you attack with it, it takes more than a moment to reset for another attack.
  • Stun: When you attack with it, it does stun damage instead of normal damage.
  • Thrown: Throw it at someone to hurt them. If you volley with this weapon, you can’t choose to mark off ammo on a 7–9; once you throw it, it’s gone until you can recover it.

Weapons have tags to indicate the range at which they are useful. Dungeon World doesn’t inflict penalties or grant bonuses for “optimal range” or the like, but if your weapon says Hand and an enemy is ten yards away, a player would have a hard time justifying using that weapon against him.

  • Hand: It’s useful for attacking something within your reach, no further.
  • Close: It’s useful for attacking something at arm’s reach plus a foot or two.
  • Reach: It’s useful for attacking something that’s several feet away— maybe as far as ten.
  • Near: It’s useful for attacking if you can see the whites of their eyes.
  • Far: It’s useful for attacking something in shouting distance.

Weapon List

The stats below are for typical items. There are, of course, variations. A dull long sword might be -1 damage instead while a masterwork dagger could be +1 damage. Consider the following to be stats for typical weapons of their type—a specific weapon could have different tags to represent its features.

Ragged Bow
near, 15 coins, 2 weight
Fine Bow
near, far, 60 coins, 2 weight
Hunter’s Bow
near, far, 100 coins, 1 weight
near, +1 damage, reload, 35 coins, 3 weight
Bundle of Arrows
3 ammo, 1 coin, 1 weight
Elven Arrows
4 ammo, 20 coins, 1 weight
Club, Shillelagh
close, 1 coin, 2 weight
close, two-handed, 1 coin, 1 weight
Dagger, Shiv, Knife
hand, 2 coins, 1 weight
Throwing Dagger
thrown, near, 1 coin, 0 weight
Short Sword, Axe, Warhammer, Mace
close, 8 coins, 1 weight
reach, thrown, near, 5 coins, 1 weight
Long Sword, Battle Axe, Flail
close, +1 damage, 15 coins, 2 weight
reach, +1 damage, two-handed, 9 coins, 2 weight
close, precise, 25 coins, 1 weight
Dueling Rapier
close, 1 piercing, precise, 50 coins, 2 weight

OD&D moves

Here are the rules for my dialect of OD&D, restated in Dungeon World* style moves.

  • Hack and slash: d20 attack roll, look up result by class on attack matrix
  • Volley: d20 attack roll with a ranged weapon, modified by dexterity
  • Defy danger: roll a saving throw as appropriate to the situation
  • Discern realities: X in 6 search roll, takes one exploration turn
  • Parley: 2d6 reaction roll, modified by charisma
  • Last breath: at 0 HP, save vs. death (success = unconscious, failure = death)
  • Encumbrance: take -1 per # of items beyond strength score to most rolls
  • Make camp: rest for a night; if uninterrupted, regain 1 HP
  • Undertake a perilous journey: roll wilderness random encounter checks
  • End of session: mark upkeep costs, roll for events
  • Level up: this is part of end of session for me
  • Carouse: spend treasure to get XP; this should happen prior to level up
  • Supply: other than standard purchases, thieves also have streetwise
  • Recover: re-roll hit dice (generally at the beginning of a session)
  • Recruit: 2d6 reaction roll modified by charisma and market supply
DW moves that don’t seem to have good equivalents:
  • Defend
  • Spout lore
  • Outstanding warrants
  • Bolster
I would like a more formalized system for defending, but so far all I have is that shield bearers grant a +1 AC bonus to their employer (I don’t think this particular house rule has stuck though). Some D&D referees use intelligence checks as a sort of spout lore move, but I tend to be more descriptive. Players tell me what they examine, and I provide details as appropriate. Outstanding warrants seems like a good way to ensure that actions have consequences, and I’m going to think more about how that might apply to D&D. Bolster allow PCs to get bonuses to certain kinds of actions by preparing during downtime. Not bad, but doesn’t seem necessary.
Encumbrance is an awkward fit for a move, but it does have system weight in both DW and OD&D, so it seems reasonable to include it in the list. The equivalent of the end of session move in my OD&D game really encompasses all of the downtime actions between sessions, including level up and carouse.
Now, I’m not claiming that “moves” are just a different way to talk about things that we already do. They actually do function differently. For one thing, Apocalypse World uses a single resolution system when it comes to dice (roll+STAT) while OD&D uses a plethora of resolution systems. But there is some correspondence between the two models, and probably far more than is often acknowledged by the two schools of play.
The game concept of moves in Apocalypse World is commonly misunderstood by old schoolers. Moves are not equivalent to actions or powers. They are not a menu of things to do. Instead, they represent when the rules kick in to resolve uncertainty “in the fiction” (to use the terminology popularized by AW).
* Apocalypse World (AW) and Dungeon World (DW) are used somewhat interchangeably.