Referee’s Bookshelf: Dungeon World

I’d seen Dungeon World cited in discussions of Numenera as a game which also touches on Dungeons & Dragons-like stuff without having especially D&D-ish game mechanics and which delegates all dice-rolling to the players, so I decided to investigate it since it’s readable online for free.

It’s interesting stuff. I think it’s a somewhat more successful game than Numenera, but equally I don’t expect that I personally will ever have a use for it.

Specifically, I think what Dungeon World does best is to educate the reader in a style of running a game which a substantial number of experienced GMs are already practicing anyway, either because they’ve arrived at it over years of experience or simply learned it from another GM who already runs games in the same style or formulated it after extensive amounts of discussion with other GMs. This is more useful than it sounds; whilst to a large extent tabletop RPGs have managed to persist extraordinarily well in the lack of high-profile marketing efforts (more or less nobody with the possible exception of Wizards seems to bother trying to advertise outside of the RPG community, which is no way to grow your market) as an oral tradition handed down from gamer to gamer; a hell of a lot of GMs learn their craft by watching others doing it.

However, not everyone has a pool of experienced gamers to play with, or the time or inclination to read a bunch of online discourse on refereeing. The nice thing about Dungeon World is that it doesn’t require any of that. It gives specific, step-by-step guidance on setting up and running a game which, if you follow it, will support you just far enough to realise that you’re actually paddling in the deep end all by yourself – by which point, the structures of Dungeon World will stop being necessary.

Although it delegates all dice-rolling to players, I Dungeon World actually gives many more game mechanical tools to the GM. In particular you have the concept of “moves” – little bundles of game mechanics with clear causes arising from and effects acting on the in-game situation, which enunciate which rolls need to be made by the players and what happens if they succeed, fail, or get a success-with-consequences. The players have a set of basic moves, plus specialist moves unique to each character class, which they use in response to stuff that happens in the game, and likewise the GM has their own moves which they throw out in response to stuff the players do or other things that arise in gameplay.

To paraphrase a quote regularly attributed to Gary Gygax, the one thing Dungeon World doesn’t want to tell you is that you don’t actually need the moves at all. What moves are good for is the following:

  • Getting across the idea that the game boils down to a dialogue about the in-game situation (or as the designers like to call it, the “fiction” – fiction in the sense of simulation or scenario, rather than preplotted story).
  • Communicating the concept that just as some things the players do prompt a certain rules response, not everything needs to. There isn’t a move for every tiny little contingency under the sun and there doesn’t really need to be. (In fact, the rules specifically state that you should be looking to make a move whenever the players screw up, look to you to see what happens next, or if a really fun opportunity to use a move comes up – and if none of the above are the case, there’s no need to step in.)
  • On that note, the nice thing about the GM moves Dungeon World presents is that they tend to demand a response from the players and therefore keep the game moving, and that’s because they are meant to be tools to accomplish precisely that, so the moves structure reassures the GM that provided that things are happening and the session is ticking along they’re doing their job more or less right.
  • The moves system is quite nice at communicating the concept that if you don’t know how to handle a particular contingency, you can always resort to precedent and analogy to other situations. For instance, the “Defy Danger” move is used both when the PCs trudge through a burning hot desert without any water and when they leave themselves open to an attack of opportunity – they’re both situations when the PCs are in physical peril and try to survive by brazening their way past it, and are therefore broadly similar enough to be covered by the same move.

Of course, once a novice referee hits a certain point running this game it is probably going to dawn on them that actually, they don’t necessarily have to have a prewritten menu of moves at all – that they can make on-the-spot rulings on what to roll based on past precedent perfectly happily. At this point from the GM’s side of the screen the training wheels can come off and the GM can simply call for rolls as needed and devise consequences on the hoof, and all of a sudden you actually have a reasonably decent GM on your hands capable of rolling with whatever mad tangent the players zoom down. The Agenda which the game presents the referee with – the guiding principles which the designers advise that the game is optimised for playing under – emphasises this by strictly warning the referee not to declare the name of the move they’re using as they use it. If you’re already describing what is happening in the game in your own terms, calling for a roll, and then describing the outcome, then it would become tricky from the player’s side of the screen to tell when you were using the game’s provided moves, when you were using GM moves you had cooked up yourself using the game’s guidance, and when you had abandoned moves entirely.

Training wheels are also visible on the player side of the equation. Dan found the game’s insistence on providing a set list of names risible, but choosing a name from a short list does at least let you get past that speed bump quickly and get into the game. Likewise, the class setups demand a very specific set of relationships with the other characters, but this is also a quick, easy crutch for generating a character background which ties you into the party and advanced players can be allowed to spin their own without wrecking the game in the slightest. (To be fair to both Dan and the Dungeon World designers I should stress that the linked post consists mostly of Dan’s responses to ludicrously hyperbolic and unsupportable claims made by Dungeon World fans – claims so outlandish that when a Dungeon World designer popped in to visit the thread under discussion they more or less directly told them to “drop the shitty comparisons to other systems” – actually, to put cards on the table, that’s pretty much the post which sold me on looking into Dungeon World because the designers’ attitude that they weren’t out to “fix” or replace anything and they just wanted to produce a game they liked and make some beer money on the side, which is refreshingly unpretentious as far as RPG designers at any tier of the hobby go.)

The Agenda stuff is also the sort of thing which novices are likely to find very helpful but more experienced GMs might dismiss as unnecessary hand-holding, though in this case I think they serve a useful purpose above and beyond their role in training the referee. Being a game that arose from the story games scene (AKA the often goofy and over-earnest phoenix arising from the Forge’s ashes), Dungeon World is built from the ground up to support its declared agenda; unlike many actual story games developers Dungeon World‘s creators aren’t in love with their beautiful creative agenda to such an extent that they want the game to irreversibly and ruthlessly enforce it, and a useful appendix to Dungeon World gives the lowdown on how to adapt the game to suit different agendas (though it does note that changing some parts of the agenda is more difficult than changing others).

Moreover, the agenda of Dungeon World is quite successful at enunciating old school gaming philosophy – or rather, one variant of it, since there wasn’t actually one single cohesive old school back in the day – for actually, Dungeon World isn’t a hippie-tastic narrative sharing storygame after all so much as it’s an experiment in attaining a particular type of traditional RPG play through nontraditional mechanical avenues. At times this almost takes the form of teaching – or, if you are less charitable, tricking – storygamers to adopt a more old school approach. The whole “play to find out what happens” thing and emphasis on posing problems to the PCs without mandating specific solutions, for instance, hits on a point where the OSR and storygame/Forge movements are actually in agreement in contrast to White Wolfy “decide the climax of your campaign first” schools of gamemastering, but the way it is implemented follows a decidedly traditional “players run the PCs/GM runs everything else” style. (Other aspects of the Agenda seem universally sensible to me – “Be a fan of the characters” is a really neat enunciation of an aspect of GMing I hadn’t given much thought to but in retrospect seems crucial.)

The Agenda is most useful, though, as a user’s guide to the system; the developers have very much made a game which is designed to thrive if run according to the Agenda, rather than attempting the doomed, impossible task of crafting a system which is impervious to a referee who’s running the game in a manner which flies in the face of its design. It’s more training wheels, of course, but it occurs to me that almost all solid RPG rulebooks which succeed at presenting a game concept that beginners can pick up and run with and quickly become confident with (I’d include Vampire: the Masquerade/new World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, most versions of Dungeons & Dragons, the better editions of Traveller and precious little else in this) are basically a bunch of well-deployed training wheels, and from a certain perspective that’s what most RPG rules beyond your core resolution mechanic are at the end. The designers of Dungeon World seem to be acutely aware of that, which explains why it is a game I would recommend to folks who want to bolster their own confidence in their refereeing or learn to referee in this style if it is not what they are accustomed to, but equally don’t feel the need to use it myself.

6 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Dungeon World

  1. Very quick reply because it’s late: I was inspired by this plus some other episodes of theirs to check out The Walking Eye’s Dungeon World sessions, and they’re worth listening to if you want an impression of how the game might play. There’s probably others, these are just the ones I found first (and include some rules discussion and an interview with the designers).

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