Initial Reactions to Dungeon World

Last night, at five minutes ’til midnight, I bought the .pdf version of the Dungeon World Basic game. I think it’s the only version available at this point, but could be wrong. Late this morning I received an email from one of the authors with download instructions, and in a few minutes I had a copy on my hard drive. I skimmed it briefly, but had to wait to sink my teeth into the text.

The wait is over.

I’ve spent an hour reading the rules, which are extremely simple. Instead of a proper review, which this certainly deserves, I’ll just spout my first impressions. Boiled down to the essence of  “old school D&D”, Dungeon World simplifies everything: combat, classes, levels, challenges, races, gold, encumbrance, all of it. Cleric, Fighter, Thief, Wizard, it’s all there but without the years of strap-on complexities that Wizards of the Coast has added.

Task resolution is based on the roll of two six-sided dice (2d6) plus a small modifier. 10+ means a great success and 7-9 means a partial or weak success. 6 and under fails. Lately I’ve been gaming with my 12-year-old son and his friends, and simple is better. Not that they can’t handle complex rules, they play 2nd Edition AD&D every Saturday, but simple rules mean more time playing and less time figuring out how the game world works. 2d6 + x vs. 7+ is pretty simple, almost elegant. Before I sing its praises, however, I should see how it works in play.

Many of the rules for individual classes are explained on the character sheet, which I think is a nice way of explaining the game to new players. Only the cleric player needs to know how the cleric’s special powers work. Each class has just enough options to embrace the nuances of that class, please those familiar with other games’ incarnations of the class, and avoid being cumbersome. There are a handful of spells for the wizard to choose from, not 30 to 50.

The densest  material was in the Game Mastering section, perhaps where such material should be. Like many recent independent rpgs, Dungeon World focuses on the concepts of play, things like joint narrative, player contracts, GM motivations. Honestly, I need to read this again before I pass judgement. I don’t much care for the new-age, touchy-feely, out-of-character-at-the-table aspects of contemporary role-playing games. Many such indie games, which are savagely popular to the rpg-buying public, step outside the fantasy reality of themselves and discuss the gaming aspects of the game in a manner that I think breaks the fabric of the constructed fantasy. “This is how we tell a story.” I’m digressing. Dungeon World spends several pages doing this. Some of it is good advice and some of it it tiring.

One piece of it is brilliant, and I want to hug it. The authors tell the Game Master NOT to make a plot when penning an adventure for his players, but to make a dynamic environment and throw the players in the middle of it. This I like. Make a “location in motion” is damn good advice. It reminds me of Unknown Armies and its cleverness in designing NPCs. In Unknown Armies, there are no good guys and bad guys (others might disagree with me), but characters with motivations that conflict with the motivations of other NPCs and with the player characters. This I like. In writing “The Champion’s Portion” for Tales of Mythic Europe, I created two characters who wanted to use the same resource in two different, opposed ways.  One wanted to exploit the resource for personal gain, while the other wanted to maintain the resource, which in turn benefited her. The player characters get sucked into this relationship and its consequences.

A “location in motion” is sound advice and something I can use.  That alone makes me want to design Dungeon World adventures, that is if I can grasp and manage the other ingredients: agenda, principles, and moves. The authors write that playing the included adventure will help new GMs design their own adventures. I’ll take their advice. I’ll round up some 12-year-olds this weekend and have at “The Bloodstone Idol”. The authors have made the players’ job delightfully easy, with simple rules, boiled down character classes, and limited moves that describe a variety of options. I’m less sure if they have made the GM’s job easy. Not that I want an easy job, but I want an understandable job. Will Agenda, Principles, and Moves pay off for me?

Time will tell. I’ll report back after the weekend.

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