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Dungeon World

Started by Cramulus, March 26, 2019, 06:14:57 PM

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I just started a Dungeon World group, and so far, I'm loving it.

Dungeon World is derived from D&D, so a lot of its components look the same. You have a character, with a class, race, alignment... you've got XP, levels, ability scores...

D&D is a game where the Dungeon Master presents all this prepared content and then you fight / talk / solve your way through it.

In Dungeon World, everybody is collaborating on the story. One of the firm rules for DMs is that you don't prepare an adventure for the first session; you adlib an adventure based on everybodys' character concepts. As people make characters and develop their relationships, an exciting moment will begin to take shape. The game begins at this moment.

PCs Fill in the Blanks

The GM is encouraged to "leave blank space" and "play to find out what happens", creating a lot of the setting and story by adlibbing with the players. You can suggest setting elements that you want to include, but everybody shares responsibility for the overall direction and details.

For example, as people are making characters, I (the GM) ask "What stopped you from climbing up the sky chain last time?" Somebody might say "Giant evil birds", or "a toxic cloud", or "ninjas on flying carpets". I write down whatever they say. As they climb the sky chain, they will have to face this obstacle.

Whose Turn Is It, Anyways?

Another big departure from D&D is that there are no turns or initiative in combat. In D&D, outside of combat, the game is more like a conversation.. people talk when they want their character to do something ,and there's a natural back and forth between the PCs and the DM. In Dungeon World, combat is like this too. There's no limit to how much you can do at one time--that's kind of like asking, in a fight scene in a movie, how much can one character do at a time?

The PCs take actions, and the GM responds to those actions. This means that when you attack a monster, the monster sometimes gets a chance to respond. When you attack, if you roll poorly, the monster counter attacks or puts you in a bad spot. The GM constantly tosses the "focus" around to other characters at the table to make sure everyone's engaged.

Roll Up For the Mystery Tour

In D&D, a die roll will either result in a pass or fail. In Dungeon World, there are three outcomes -- pass, fail, and the fun one: pass with consequences. These consequences are pretty open ended. Maybe you pass-with-consequences on a die roll to cast a spell - as a result, maybe the spell also hits an ally, or maybe you got the monster's attention and he charges straight for you. Then the GM tosses the focus to another player - you see the monster charging at the wizard, about to rip her apart. What do you do? That player now has to choose between the action they were working on, or saving their friend.

A Night at the Improv

Dungeon World has a lot of open-ended prompts that you get to adlib your way through. For example, the wizard in my group has a bag with five books in it. We don't know what those books are, but he can name them as he pulls them out of the bag. The troll is about to attack, so he reaches in and pulls out a Troll Language Phrasebook. (he writes the book title down in his inventory, and marks off one of his five random books). Now he has an opportunity to talk to the troll, which didn't exist before that clever idea.

Like the Dan Harmon version of D&D

I find that Dungeon World feels a lot like those D&D podcasts where the rules are kinda in the background and everybody is just riffing on each other. Consequently, the session I played felt much sillier than my average D&D game, (I mean, one of the area's wandering monsters turned out to be mountain penguins... wrap your head around that) but everybody was laughing the whole time, riffing on each other and 1-upping each other's ideas.

You can tell that Dungeon World was written by people that really love D&D, but are kinda bored with the mechanical rules-driven nature of it. By opening up the story so that everybody is contributing, it feels like a very different kind of story. At the end of the day, it's not about this performance that the GM puts on for the PCs, but about what everybody is bringing to the table to share.


I think i may want to give this a try soon.. is it more or less taxing on the GM? On one hand, the story seems to be more driven by the players but at the same time, the GM seems to require a certain degree of flexibility.


It requires the DM to be a little more alert and responsive than D&D, because you can't just fall back on your prep like you do in D&D. That being said, it's easier than it sounds.

You don't have a big secret map full of rooms and NPCs that you're revealing one chunk at a time. You might have some bullet points about stuff that might happen, and an NPC concept written down. But when does that happen? when does the NPC show up? when it feels right.

Let me outline my session a bit, maybe it will clarify things. I used an adventure starter called The Sky Chain. Check out the 2-page PDF. You'll notice a few things...

1. Most of the text is just images and ideas you can work in at your own pace.
2. The adventure begins by asking the PCs a few questions which orients them towards the session's concept... but doesn't give any specifics

In my first session, we had three players (well, four, but one of them had to bow out early due to a chronic pain issue). A wizard, a fighter, and a druid.

The fighter came up with their name first, so I asked him "What kind of fighter are you? a mercenary, a knight, a bounty hunter, a gladiator? etc" - he said that he was a wandering do-gooder, rolling from town to town solving problems and then living in the rewards. He said that he was here to protect the innocent and the adorable. On his character sheet, next to "eyes", he filled in the blank with "kawaii", so he has big anime eyes and wants to protect cute forest creatures. Perfect.

So I asked him "what are you protecting these cute animals from?" and he said that there was this band of evil poachers - weirdly organized, something mysterious about them. But they have been overhunting and skinning sacred animals. Following a prompt on the adventure starter, I asked him "How did you feel when you found out the poachers had set their sights on the World Owls?" He said that pissed him off! He's gotta stop them!

I asked the fighter if there are any dangerous animals amongst those he protects. He randomly came up with these carniverous penguins that people call "ice darts". The penguins have sharp, needle-like beaks. They make a KREEE noise as they toboggan down the mountain, lancing things with their beaks and then eating them. I scribble all of this down, it's perfect to use later.

Next, the druid... the druid asked the fighter what kind of animals he protects, and they eventually decided that they're in a mountainous tundra landscape. So the druid's preffered animal form is a mighty and near-extinct polar bear. Maybe those poachers have been tracking him, looking for that valuable polar bear pelt. I asked the druid, "Who from your past disappeared up the sky chain, and what were they looking for?" He said that when he was a young boy, he followed his cousin up this holy mountain, but couldn't complete the journey. The cousin made it to the summit and climbed the sky chain, seeking some type of wisdom about the local fauna. But never returned. I wrote down the cousin's name. I mentioned to the druid that it sounds like the cousin must have been seeking wisdom from those World Owls he's heard of. Oooohh...

Next, the wizard.. the player wanted to play a condescending nincompoop who has spent his whole life studying books and therefore feels he's smarter than everybody, but has no worldly experience. Damn, that's a perfect wizard concept. At some point his mentor ("Archwizard Stan", because sometimes a normal name is funnier than a fantasy name) told him he needed to come down out of his ivory tower and bring some info back to their library. Apparently there is some inconsequential academic debate that needs to be settled. I told him that Stan suggested he query the World Owls about this.

So we've got the adventure setup now. With only a few questions, we've established that the PCs are looking for the sky chain at the summit of this holy mountain, so they can climb up it, and meet the World Owls. They need to protect the owls from poachers, but also ask them some questions. Maybe the druid's cousin is up there.

A little more setup

I asked the party "As you climb the massive chain that extends into the sky, what measures are you taking to prevent a fall?"

  • The Druid says that's easy, if I'm falling, I'll just turn into an owl.
  • The fighter says he's skilled at climbing mountains using his climbing axe - the links of the chain are big enough that he can grab onto them with the axe's hook.
  • The wizard says he's been working on a usage of his Unseen Servant spell. When he's falling, he'll try to conjure the unseen servant beneath him to grab him and slow his fall.

On my Dungeon Starter page, I've got a spell listed, "Gentle Descent", essentially a slow fall spell. What the wizard is doing sounds like it's close to that, so I tell him that Stan wants him to test out his theory by jumping off a high place and then casting Unseen Servant, see if it works. So the wizard jumps off his wizard tower, and <rolls dice> falls flat on his ass. The spell didn't work, and he needs a week of recovery for his broken ass. (this takes place before the adventure, so no damage was marked or anything)

Archwizard Stan says "yeah, that didn't work. You're going to need to find a Place of Power and do a ritual to bring the pieces of this spell together." The wizard nods - now he's got his own little goal.

I ask the druid "You said you live on this holy mountain... what's special about it? what fantastic feature does it have? when people come here, what are they impressed by?"

he mentions that there's this crystal cave halfway up the mountain. It leads to this chamber where the light comes in from the outside, refracted through crystals. If you're there at sunset, the room is filled with rainbows.

I told the wizard "that's definitely a place of power, Stan says you should check it out".

The Map

I draw a little mountain on an index card, with a chain leading up to the sky. I and write "The mountain summit" on it.

Next to it, I put down another index card, with a little sketch of the rainbow room. I write "the heart of the mountain" and put it near the first card.

I ask the players "can you see your village from here?" --- and they say yes, once we get up past the treeline, we can see our village miles and miles away. So I make an index card that says "the treeline" and put it beneath the mountain card. Then another card says "The village|", and that's below the treeline.

So the map basically looks like this:

[The Summit / Sky Chain]
[The Treeline]  ---------- [The heart of the mountain]
[The Village]

Scene One

I tell the players they're just getting past the treeline, when they hear a noise --- KREE!!!

Ice Darts are barreling down the mountain right for them! What do you do?

I'll talk about the combat next. But hopefully this gives you the sense of how, with only a few leading questions, this adventure grew organically out of everybody's questions and ideas.


Been running Dungeon World again. It's really fun!

I've learned to begin the session with some questions that suggest what this session will be about. I basically trick the PCs into coming up with the dangers and obstacles and point towards a climax. For example, we've been playing in a Conan style sword & sorcery game....

The PCs are midway through the desert, heading back from this ruined city where they were hunting for lost relics and treasures. There's also a guy (who they ripped off) trying to track them down with a group of mercenaries, so he can take back his treasure map.

I ask them "When you crossed the desert for the first time, what kinds of things were you worried about? Like, what's out there in the desert that you took great pains to avoid?"

Someone said "quick sand", and I said "Hm, maybe something less stationary", and someone else said "Elementals!" Bingo.

A few follow-up questions later, we've established that these elementals appear to be like huge boulders (but aren't), and they have all this magical chaos around them, including a sandstorm. They aren't a single element (ie "earth elemental", "fire elemental"), these entities are a conflux of elemental energy.

So I asked: How did you avoid the elementals the first time?

They said: We had this magial compass which points to whatever natural phenomenon is also drawing in the elementals. So we just avoid where it points, and keep our eyes out for sandstorms.

I said: What happened to your compass, why can't you use it on the way back?

They said: We must have dropped it during the chase with the cockatrices! Shit, now are have to be real careful...

So the session is about navigating the mesa labyrinth, avoiding the guy who's been following them, and also avoiding the elementals. During the session, it's easy to throw out little challenges and story elements relating to that. If they get lost in the labyrinth, I can turn up the pressure by describing them getting glimpses of a party following them, or the incoming sandstorm. I force them to make difficult decisions (one road will take you near where the others are looking for you, the other road leads into the sandstorm...).

Eventually, we had a climax scene that involved all these plot elements at once -- they're fighting the elemental while escaping the other humans, trying to keep oriented while inside of a sandstorm... It was really exciting, and part of what made it so cool is that as the DM, even I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't PLAN this session, we all created it together.

Doktor Howl

This sounds amazing, but I don't think it would work for my group.

That being said, it would work really, really well using the Savage Worlds rule set.
Molon Lube


Oh yeah, I want to talk about the elemental a little more, since it was actually very interesting.

During the pre-play chat, I asked the barbarian, "what did your tribe teach you about elementals?" He said that they are seen as ancestor spirits, always watching and testing us. When the weather is bad, people assume it's the ancestors disapproving of something.

Then I asked the druid - what do the elves teach you about elementals? He said that Elves regard them as demons. That they are not to be spoken with, they only desire our destruction.

Then I asked the rogue - what did the guilds teach you about elementals? He said that the guilds use captured elementals as training tools, to teach apprentices how to navigate different kinds of terrain. But he believes there is always a contoller nearby, some summoner who calls the shots. Maybe that's not true out there in the wild, but he's never seen an elemental without a controller.

Fascinating - so the elemental is either an ancestor, a demon, or an automaton... I decided that all three are true, and that I will leave all of my descriptions ambiguous so that I don't favor one or the other.

In one of the first scenes of the session, the PCs are walking along this canyon which, centuries ago, was a riverbed. The barbarian describes how he takes interest in this one particular rock with an interesting pattern on it. Throughout the session, he casually mentions how he's kicking it along the road, tossing it up and catching it, etc. It seemed like this arbitrary little piece of characterization.

At the very end of the session, they're one step ahead of the people chasing them, while fighting this really dangerous elemental entity.. the sandstorm is rising, everybody is about to eat it. The elemental speaks to them telepathically, taunting them... to the barbarian, in the voice of the ancestors, to the druid, in the voice of a demon, to the rogue, in the voice of a machine...

As a desperate final move, the barbarian pulls out his favorite rock and throws it at the elemental.

And since our time for the evening was almost over, and they had already done a ton of damage to the elemental, I decided that this should work. I mean, it's just a rock, but for some reason it's been on-stage an awful lot. It seems like the kind of detail that a screenwriter hides in the beginning of a movie so it can payoff in the final scene. So the rock contacts the elemental and there's this huge explosion - the elemental is destroyed, but everybody is unconscious (and begins the next session captured).

What was so special about that rock, anyway? Well it turns out that the barbarian's ancestors, who are always watching, guided his hand to pick that one particular rock. It was a special rock, I guess. He didn't even know it, but they're always watching out for him. So in the Barbarian's personal story (which is about proving himself and taking on challenges so he can return to his tribe as a warrior), this becomes a neat little story about trusting his intuition and allowing himself to be guided by his ancestors. I award him XP for this great narrative conclusion.

It's one of those things that worked really well at our session, but you couldn't PLAN something like that. It only works because the game explicitly throws out the "board game elements" that are in the foreground of D&D. It's not really about tactics, or doing enough points of damage to a creature, it's about visualizing the fantasy movie scene, and following each other's fantasy movie logic. After 10 years of playing D&D with this specific group of people, it's a breath of fresh air.


So, I'd mentioned combat... one of the chief differences between Dungeon World and D&D is that Dungeon World bypasses the tactical / "board-game" elements in favor of narrative elements. D&D can be a very tactical game - you have to understand the rules and your abilities and devise strategies based on how they interact. There is a procedure to combat, and it's not exactly intuitive.

If you've ever run D&D for a newbie, you know what I mean. You say something like "The orc thrusts at you with his spear" and the newbie says "I duck out of the way!", and you then have to explain that he doesn't actually have to say that--it's assumed by the abstraction that is Armor Class and to-hit rolls. Or the newbie will say "I aim at it's legs to slow it down", but giving the creature a leg injury doesn't really make sense when according to the rules, you are either completely capable (with 1+ hp) or completely unconscious (with 0 hps).

And D&D books always give the advice that you should describe your attacks, helping us visualize what's happening - but combat inevitably becomes reduced to "I hit AC 17 and deal 10 damage'. The way you describe your attack is just fluff, it's not really relevant to the physics of the attack.

Dungeon World, on the other hand, says "if our goal is to tell exciting shared stories, and play through dramatic scenes, sometimes the mechanics & board game elements are actually at odds with that".

Let me give an example of combat....

Two characters, Bronto (a barbarian) and Locke (a thief), are facing an NPC named Brox. Brox is a big burly guy who has a thick black beard, a big tower shield, and has a huge two-handed sword in one hand, resting on his shoulder.

I begin the fight by making a "soft move", one that presents an impending danger that the PCs must respond to. I narrate that Brox holds the shield at his side, takes three big steps forward, and swings his sword in a broad arc at shoulder level. Because he's swinging it in one hand, he doesn't have a lot of control of the weapon, but it has a lot of force and momentum. What do you do?

Locke says "I'm going to duck under the sword and roll forward, trying to get inside of Brox's range".
Bronto says "I block it with the haft of my axe."

I tell Locke to roll Defy Danger using Dexterity. He rolls 2d6 and adds 2, and gets a 9 - that's a "mixed result" - He succeeds at his goal, but at a cost. I tell him "as you duck under the sword, you sense your backpack sticking out right in the sword's path -- you have a choice, you can either go lower, and end up prone, or you can let the sword clip your backpack on the way in." Locke has some delicate potions and stuff in his backpack, so he decides to hit the ground hard. I tell him he's lying prone at Brox's feet. He's avoided damage, but is not in a great position to attack.

Next, we're going to resolve Bronto's block. I ask him to roll Defy Danger using Strength or Dexterity. He chooses Strength and rolls a 10. Success! Brox's attack rings against the metal haft of his battle axe.

Locke asks me "how far away from Brox am I?" and I say he's close - the roll put Locke into "close" range. ("range" in dungeon world is not an exact science -- the ranges are Close, Near, Far, and Long. Brox's Axe can attack Near, but not Close. So Locke says he's gonna try to somersault between Brox's legs while pulling out a dagger that he can use to fight at close range. Brox will respond by trying to bring his tower shield down HARD, trying to bash Locke with its bottom edge. I tell Locke to Defy Danger roll using Dex. Locke rolls and gets a 6, a failure. This means he is bLocked by the shield and pinned to the ground. (mechanically, the Failure allows me to make a 'move'. I choose the move "put someone in a spot")

I say to Bronto - you have hopped out of reach, but see Locke pinned to the ground by the tower shield - looks like Brox is about to thrust his sword down at Locke's chest - what do you do??

Bronto has a choice to make - should he defend Locke, or capitalize on the opportunity to make an attack? he decides to defend his friend. He says "I rush forward, trying to knock the sword aside with my axe". I tell Bronto to roll Defend + Dex (because he's using a "quick move"). Bronto scores a 7 on Defend, which lets him choose one option from a list - he chooses the option "reduce the damage by half". The sword thrusts down at Locke's chest, but Bronto's axe knocks it to the side, just grazing Locke's shoulder. I roll 6 damage, and so Locke only takes 3.

Bronto says "So if Brox is pinning Locke to the ground with the shield, he's not moving it around.. I want to try stepping to Brox's side and swinging my axe at him with a downward chop." I say that Brox will try to lift the shield off Locke's chest to angle it towards the incoming swing.

Bronto rolls Hack and Slash + Strength, and gets a 9, "Success with a cost". I tell Bronto that his hit lands (roll damage!) but Brox simultaneously bashed him with his shield - Brox's shoulder is wounded by the axe, but Bronto is going to take 4 damage too.

Locke says "So the shield is off my chest... I want to kip up to my feet, get in close, and try to stab Brox in the stomach with the dagger I pulled." I tell Locke to roll Hack & Slash + Dexterity. He gets a 10 a success! He rolls his d8 damage and Brox staggers backwards, blood running down his belly.

I'm going to make a move now -- I say that Brox drops his sword (Locke is too close for it to be effective), and is going to try to pull Locke into a headlock. Locke rolls Defy Danger + Strength and gets a 5---a failure! Now Brox has his arm around Locke's neck. No damage has taken place, but Locke can feel his neck being squeezed. Brox pivots so that Locke is in between him and Bronto. Bronto, what do you do??

Bronto says it's time to Go Big or Go Home - he's gonna make another downward chop at Brox's head. I warn him - Locke's head is right there, if you miss, you're probably gonna hit your friend. Bronto hesitates. Locke pipes up to say he's not gonna try to escape, he's just gonna keep stabbing Brox in the stomach. He rolls Hack & Slash and gets a 7, another success with a cost. I let Locke roll damage again, but Locke also takes a few damage and is now Out of Breath (taking a -1 penalty to constitution rolls until he's caught his breath). Locke rolls 6 damage, which is enough to take out Brox -- the warrior releases Locke as he falls to the ground, coughing up blood and dying.

Sorry that was so longwinded! But as you can see -- the idea is that every move has a description "in the fiction", and you must respond to that fiction when you describe your next move. There's no turns or initiative, we just try to make everything follow logically. When the PCs fail or get mixed results, the DM gets to make moves. The moves aren't always to deal damage! Sometimes the move is to show the downside of a weapon or class, to separate the party, or to put somebody in a spot.

How tough is Brox? It really depends on how I narrate it. If I emphasize that he's good with the tower shield, then you have to figure out how your character would mitigate that in order to make an attack. A lot of the above fight was more about positioning than trading blows and dealing damage. In fact, you can even run Dungeon World without damage, choosing to let the NPCs die when it "is appropriate". I could dial up Brox's difficulty by making him make more aggressive moves, or imposing heavier consequences when PCs act against him. There's no 'action economy' like in D&D - just like in an action movie.

One other key feature here is that the DM doesn't roll dice (except for damage, but you can also let the PCs do that). I don't roll an attack for Brox. I ask the PCs to make a Defy Danger (ie avoid damage) roll. This is also part of the game of positioning and verbal cat & mouse which is Dungeon World combat.

This style also means that most NPCs don't need a ton of hit points. Dungon World players will point out Smaugh, from The Hobbit -- that dragon might have only had like 16 hit points, but you never really get a chance to hit him. His scales turn aside weapons. His breath, tail, and claws prevents people from getting in close anyway. But Smaugh was killed by a single arrow. The challenge was finding out about the missing scale, getting the info to the archer, and then getting the archer into the right position to actually shoot Smaugh in the heart. D&D mechanics can't really handle that situation.


lol I know that last post was a wall of text, sorry for that. Describing how the game actually works is hard to do via text.

The next session is our campaign climax -- all the threads have come together at once for an exciting season finale. I wanted to share the premise of the session and some custom moves I brewed up.

► The Dragon Malachite has been summoned, and is attacking the city. If the dragon can consume 'royal blood', then the gate will open and Ianna the Apocalypse Dragon will return and enslave everyone.

► Just as the dragon attack began, the rogue spotted his nemesis, and made eye contact. Eye contact means the duel is initiated.. it could last all day, and will be played out through stealth and ambushes, hit and run maneuvers. The nemesis has a demon arm, and if he touches you, it drains some of your soul.

► The Barbarian has spent his pile of treasure to hire a small army of mercenaries, who he's been training in the desert just outside the city walls. What their role in this terrible day is, no one yet knows.

Here are my custom moves for this session:

Thwart the Nemesis's Ambush
The Rogue can recognize "this is the perfect time for my nemesis to strike", and roll + Wisdom.
On a 10: Pick 3 from this list
On a 7-9: Pick 2 from this list
On a 6-: he gets the drop on you

→ You aren't distracted
→ You aren't blindsided by the attack
→ You have an escape route
→ You may counterattack

If the Demon-Arm Touches You, roll + any stat
10+: No additional effect
7-9: That stat is debilitated
6-: That stat is debilitated and you are stunned.

If you are touched too many times, a part of your soul is missing... That part of you is now within the demon arm. It's possible that to recover your spirit, you'll need to sever your own arm and attach the demon arm.

The Mercenaries
The Barbarian only just recruited this army, so he doesn't have their respect yet. He gains 1 Hold for doing any of the following in view of the mercs:
→ Inspire them with a speech
→ Inspire them with a deed
→ Protect a mercenary
→ Capture loot

The Barbarian can spend the Hold as a bonus to his Command the Troops roll --
When he wants the troops to execute a complicated or risky plan, Roll + Cha..
On a 10+: Pick 3
On a 7-9: Pick 1
on a 6-: the plan is poorly executed.

→ They are motivated (+1 forward)
→ They are well-positioned
→ They follow all orders

To me, one of the challenging things is how to bring all the big elements on stage and make sure nobody's left out. But by phrasing them as player-moves, it gives the players authority to bring their army or their nemesis on stage while I can mentally focus on the dragon attack.

Because in this scenario, I am probably not concocting a big plan about how the nemesis sneak-attacks the rogue... if there's a good opportunity, I'll spring an attack on him, but for the most part, I think it's triggered by him going "Oh shit, building is on fire, it would be awful if he attacked right now... I get ready just in case".