Dungeon World: The Review

Written by Christopher Bishop

Dungeon World is a tabletop role-playing game created by authors Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel.  The game is ran on the same engine as the Apocalypse World setting.  At first glance or flip-through you will find many of the standard conventions that one sees in a more D20-themed fantasy game.  However just reading the first chapter quickly abolishes any similarities pretty fast.  This IS NOT your father’s D&D game, but instead a weird fusion of D&D themes with a more free-form role-playing structure.  So let’s dive in and find out what makes this game different than the thousands of other tabletop role-playing systems out there.

First off, most games try to gently hold your hand and walk you through a brief explanation of gaming terms and statistics.  Dungeon World does not.  The next convention most games aspire to, ESPECIALLY if it’s a book meant for both players and GMs alike, is how to create a character.  Creating a character is sort of like that first date with someone who you’ve just met and really like.  You hold hands, you roll dice, you slot them down on a piece of paper even though you’re a little nervous, and in the end, even though you feel awkward about it, you have something to look back fondly on (and you look forward to more dates.)  Dungeon World instead decides to dive right into the core mechanic behind their system with none of the gentle hand-holding, which frankly threw off 8 of the 13 folks at the gaming table here.  Dungeon World is going for third base without so much as a handshake.

The Dungeon World mechanic is a 2d6 roll known as a move.  You roll 2d6 and than add a modifier based off your attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) which is a value from +1 to +3.  If you roll a 10+ that means great success at what you are attempting, while a roll of 7-9 means you still succeed but the quality of success is usually pretty pathetic (reduction in damage, or monster gets to attack you, only get a partial truth. A roll of 6 or less is pretty much the same as rolling a 1 in standard D20 games.  Bad things are about to occur, but for whatever reason you get a mark of xp for having a crappy roll. Here is the problem with the system early on.  The authors intend for you not to roll stats for your characters (though they do give the option) but instead pick from 16,15,13,12,9,8 as your starting attributes and assign them as you wish for the class you are trying to play.  Here is where the system runs into its first hurdle.

Based on minds far greater than mine, I reference a document from Caltech.   In this document, it examines probabilities for rolling 2d6.  If you look at the chart, the most likely number to come up is a 7 with a 16.667% chance.  If you use the standard array the game wants you to use, the highest statistic bonus you will gain is +2.  This means starting characters by-and-large will find themselves at best in the 7-9 area for most of their rolls at 1st level.  In a playtest of the system itself, our players rolled one 10+ move during the entire 4-hour session; a disheartening experience for them.

The game eschews any kind of standard combat mechanic, as EVERY action is a move.  Even mundane actions such as talking to a bartender, setting up a camp for the night, resting, all of these actions are moves, requiring a dice roll to determine success.  So while the game tries to present episodic flow between combat, keeping players in a more narrative mindset, it still takes commonplace actions and devolves them back into dice rolls.

When you finally get to the character creation section on page 49 of the book, having sifted through tons of terms that honestly feel a little confusing, you’re greeted to the next boggling part of the layout.  You get a 4-page section on character creation, which is fairly plain text, and then the book dumps you back into roughly 26 pages of more information on moves for players.  So instead of presenting the class options we glide into more mechanics.  Mechanics that basically spell out the same theme 10+ (GOOD) 7-9 (sort of okay) 6 or less (well at least I got xp when something almost kills me) over and over again.

Character creation is not so much creation as selection.  You pick the class you want, selecting from options of whatever races are allowed to be that class. Then you select options for your name and your looks. Your damage is predetermined by your class not your weapon type, and you place your stats from the array they have already given you.

By this point my players were already getting mad.

Player comments follow:
Why do I have to take this name?
Why can’t I do different damage based on the weapon? That is stupid.
Why is my cleric getting a wizard spell because he is a human?

One of our players actually left the chat room over the equipment section, where once again you don’t look at a list and spend your meager gold.  You pick from a few options, and that’s what you get.  Everything is done through preset options, which any GM could make more of, sure, but why should they have to?  Do their looks really matter in the grand scheme of the game?  Or can the players decide if they want to have something other than sharp eyes, kind eyes or sad eyes and role-play around that as it comes up?

Our players were ultimately not very excited about their characters in the end.  You are expected to do character creation during your first session.  Players are suppose to discuss among themselves what they choose to be, so there is no duplication (if possible) for more diverse game-play.  Characters at the end of creation are suppose to write up bonds.  A bond is sort of a written role-play event planned by the players in advance of a session to dictate relationships between their companions and themselves.  Bonds can be as simple as Hycorax the elven druid is often the butt of jokes from Durga the dwarven cleric.  During the course of the game session, players are required to play out this bond and resolve it.  If they have done so, by the end of the gaming session, they get to mark one xp.  Literally that just means the cleric gets 1 xp for being a butthole to the poor druid.  This bond mechanic is sort of entertaining and I do believe worth data-mining into your own game if you feel role-play has become stale between your party members.

The spells lists are most of the common types universal to d20 fantasy games, though their effects are often spelled out in the moves lingo.  For instance, mirror image creates a mirror image of the caster but its effect is that if you are attacked, you roll a d6 and on a result of 4, 5, or 6 the attack strikes your image instead of you.  Most of the spells have fairly simply outcomes, aside from the summoning spells where your summoned monsters or creatures come with a bevy of options dependent upon the randomness of your d6 dice rolls.  Spellcasters consider spell casting a move, on a 10+ glorious magic as you intended, on a 7-9 you might get the spell off (it is still kind of confusing as to what constitutes it going off and seems largely left up to the GM’s discretion which feels a little heavy-handed) and 6 or less where you might as well grab your ankles but hey at least you get xp, right?

The GM section largely outlines how the GM is suppose to run a game. No surprise there.  It does however devolve into even more moves.  The dungeon has moves, the monsters have moves, and the GM is expected to constantly be watching for players to say certain trigger words that cause a move to occur.  GM’s are supposed to be guided by principles and an agenda. This section truly drills it in that you’re supposed to be both open and willing to wing it based on the moves being done, but at the same time be well-prepared with a set course in mind for the adventure.  Well, which is it? Are we casting the magical GM spell of wing it or are we painstakingly crafting an environment with lots of preparation.  The GM section seems to stumble back-and-forth on itself, between wanting an established fiction and just picking random options (then selling the outcome.)  Most GM’s probably have more than enough experience to make choices without needing a chart of options, but in game terms its encouraged to make selected moves while not announcing what that move is to the players.  Granted, most of us do not announce we’re rolling for random encounter (or surprise) but the players hear dice rolling behind the screen, so they know what’s going on.

The monster section adds to the confusion by not being sorted into alphabetical order. Instead, monsters are divided by settings.  Which makes trying to find that orc or goblin a chore until you have numerous settings memorized.  The GM is supposed to loosely make a map with lots of blanks on it, choose a setting type to populate it with monsters, but then hang on the players words and thoughts for fleshing it out.  This devolved into me giving the intro blurb to my players followed by a lot of silence as they tried to figure out what their options were.  The next 4 hours were spent prodding them to make decisions or use moves to advance story line.

In summary, Dungeon World offers a far different play style than most traditional d20 games.  It has aspects which seem vaguely familiar, with moves very reminiscent of 4th edition D&D’s encounter, daily and at-will powers, and a simple mechanic used over and over again to resolve everything.  The book layout is confusing although the art does shine on many of the pages.  The writing style is clear and concise, but towards the end it begins to feel like you are reading a self empowerment book for GMing rather than a game manual.  There are many aspects and noteworthy ideas worth data-mining into your own game, and for that reason alone I would recommend picking up the PDF. As for the game itself, it really feels like a system everyone at the table has to be on board with, or it just won’t work.  If you like free-form games which are light on structure that feel more like a JRPG translated to table top, than Dungeon World just might be for you.