If you’ve been adventuring with the blog for awhile, you’ve heard me talk about Dungeon World. It’s the tabletop RPG that my gaming group played during the fall semester (I say semester because half of our group was still in college and measures time that way). It was my first time running the game and the first time playing it for all of my players. After we finished the last session, we sat down and talked about the game for a bit, discussing the aspects we liked and our overall enjoyment of the Dungeon World experience.
So for Tabletop Tuesday, I’m going to bring that discussion to the internet in the form of a Totally Subjective Review! For tabletop RPGs my four categories will be Rulebook and Supplies, Ease of Play, Gameplay, and Customization. For Dungeon World, my fifth category will be Philosophy. What the heck does that mean? You’ll have to read to find out!
Rulebook and Supplies
Tabletop Games don’t really have graphics to evaluate. After all, the world exists totally in the imagination of the players. But the one thing they do have to look at is the game’s rulebook, and for any tabletop it is important that the rulebook be easy to navigate and well-written. Of course, pretty pictures are certainly a plus as well.
I should preface this section with the fact that I purchased the PDF rulebook. While the physical rulebook would technically look the same, there are still differences and some things I say will not apply to the physical book. So use some critical thinking during this section.
Dungeon World delivers well in the former two but not so much in the latter. The artwork in the book isn’t bad, exactly, but it certainly isn’t great.
And no, it isn’t as bad as the Adventure Rules artwork, but I draw badly on purpose. It’s part of my quirky charm!
However, the rulebook for Dungeon World is very simple to read, and I found it quite easy to navigate. Everything is bookmarked – not just chapters, but subheadings beneath the chapters as well. This means that if you’re looking for a particular section, chances are there is a quick and easy bookmark you can click on to find it with ease.
As far as supplies go, character sheets come with the rulebook or can be downloaded online for free from the official Dungeon World website. I find this to be way easier than trying to print specific pages of the rulebook, so it is a provision that I appreciated. There are also a few character sheets not included in the main game that are free on the official site, plus some other supplements like a monster race expansion. Little things like this may not seem like much, but imagine if more video games offered totally free DLC. New classes and race options certainly expand the game, so take advantage of them!
As far as supplies for Dungeon World, you’re set as long as you have a classic set of RPG dice, as the game only uses d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. The main dice you’ll be rolling are the d6, as the core mechanic of the game involves rolling 2d6. So you’ll want a few extra of those lying around – time to break out the Yahtzee box!
So you need dice, the rules, character sheets, and pencils. If you’re the type that enjoys miniatures and maps, Dungeon World is compatible with these things but does not necessarily need them. The rulebook does recommend that you use graph paper or something similar to map out your game world as you play. I cannot comment on this method since my group did not try it (our game was set in England, so we used a map of the good ole UK).
Overall, Dungeon World has an easy-to-read rulebook and simple supplies. It’s very easy to pick up and pretty affordable too. It may not be super pretty, but it gets the job done, and for a tabletop that’s all that matters.
Ease of Play
For those new to the tabletop genre, 0r for those who only play in a setting where a very quick game is all that can take place, ease of play is an important factor in their tabletop decision. If it takes five hours to make characters and you only have six to play, chances are you won’t be interested in the tabletop. Luckily, Dungeon World is a narrrative-driven game, which means that the mechanical aspects of the game are easy to get past so that you can start actually enjoying the game.
Character creation is as long as you want it to be. For a quick one-off session at a convention, you can have a character ready in a matter of minutes. Each class sheet has a preset list of names, races, bonds, and equipment. Make your choices and BANG, you’re ready to go.
Of course, for a longer campaign, you may want to put in a little more thought. For my group, I created a questionnaire for gathering information about their backstories, where they got their equipment and learned their abilities, and what their opinions were on significant world events. Both approaches – the quick and the lengthy – are completely valid.
Now Dungeon World does not come with any pre-built sessions, so during a convention the GM will still have to create story and obstacles rather than just running through one provided in the rulebook. However, there are plenty of pre-generated monsters that you can use, so creating a scenario is just a matter of imagining the world that your players are exploring.
The rulebook actually provides a lot of help on this path. The first session of Dungeon World is intended to be very cooperative and to plunge players right into the action. It suggests starting in a dungeon or even embroiled in combat, and then working out the situation from there. Maybe the players are surrounded by goblins and trapped in a small chamber. How’d they get there? What were they looking for in the goblin halls? Answering questions like these allows you to create the scenario on the fly, perfect for a short game that won’t be part of a longer campaign.
The rules of the game are simple to understand, and all of the basic and special moves have sheets that outline how they work. If you’re playing with a group of people who have not played Dungeon World, explaining the game is a quick process. Just go over the list of basic moves, answer any questions they have on starting moves, and explain the core mechanic of the game. After a few minutes of discussion, they’ll be ready to go.
Dungeon World is a great game for new tabletop players and for one-off sessions, but still has things to offer for a long campaign and for experienced players. My group has played a number of tabletops and no one was turned off by the “ease” of Dungeon World.
It’s all well and good to talk about how easy Dungeon World is to set up and play. A game can be really easy to get started and quickly turn very boring. So how does the Dungeon World core mechanic work, and how does the gameplay feel?
Dungeon World is a Powered by the Apocalypse game. This means that it draws its core mechanic from Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker. And that core mechanic is this. Many actions in the game are resolved by moves. Moves describe what you want to do. For example, when you attack an enemy in melee, or when you consult your accumulated knowledge about something. These actions are moves, and moves generally require you to roll the dice. Whenever you roll, you roll 2d6 (that means two six-sided dice) and then add a modifier if appropriate. For example, if you’re attacking with a ranged weapon, you add your dexterity modifier. If you’re reading into a situation, you add your wisdom modifier.
Every roll in Dungeon World has three possible results. That means every check effectively has the same “difficulty class” (for those of you coming at this from Dungeons and Dragons). On a 10+, you do what you intended with little to no trouble. Things work out how you wanted. Awesome. On a 7-9, you get what you want at a cost. You’ll have to make a difficult decision, or perhaps put yourself in danger, or a complication will be thrown in along with your success. A 7-9 means that you basically do what you set out to do, but you’re going to have to sacrifice something to get it. On a 6-, you fail at your action AND SOMETHING HAPPENS. A 6- doesn’t mean “oh, you failed to pick the lock, so you all just stand there awkwardly.” It means “oh, you failed to pick the lock because an ogre just kicked the door open and sent you sprawling backward.” Or “you failed to pick the lock because you activated a trap, and a poisoned dart just jabbed you in the arm.” Failure doesn’t stall the game – it continues to push it forward. And it pushes you forward as a character as well, because every failure earns you an experience point.
And that’s the core mechanic. You say what you want to do – if your actions cause a move to occur, you roll the dice. Your roll decides how successful you are and keeps the action moving forward. It’s a simple system that applies to any situation from slashing to casting a spell to healing to having a debate. It’s quick to learn and easy to apply, but because the circumstances in the fictional world decide the stakes, each die roll still feels really important and unique.
The gameplay of Dungeon World is where the game really shines. There’s a huge question mark looming at the end of every die roll, and something a failed roll suddenly makes a very routine action into a crazy situation. To use a few examples from my campaign – a partial success that drew unwanted attention to a character caused the party to be attacked by a wild-man who wanted to kidnap and marry her; a failure on an information-gathering check just before bedtime in an inn caused an entire town to be ransacked by monsters; a poor roll while attacking town guards in a magical city sent two party members into a mystical labyrinth in an alternate dimension. Anything can happen in Dungeon World, and players may sometime feel like picking up the dice to roll them is too dangerous. It gives the decision to make moves weighty and significant, and sometimes players will do what they can to get out of making moves if they feel it will put the party in danger.
Now, here’s something important to note about the game. Dungeon World is designed to be a cooperative effort where adventure can come out of nowhere and where at any time a character’s situation can change, and that includes death. The very mechanics of Dungeon World resist the idea of a pre-scripted campaign with the same cast of characters throughout the story. Now my wife and I ran this game together, and we planned our story in advance – so far in advance that we had the story before we knew we were playing Dungeon World. There were times throughout the campaign that we found ourselves having to fight the mechanics of the game somewhat to keep our story on track. If you’re a GM who isn’t comfortable with the story being somewhat decided by the randomness of the dice – or if you’re a player who absolutely refuses to have a character die and create a new one – then Dungeon World may not be the game for you. The mechanics work very well with the philosophy of the game (more on that later), but if you try to play in a different way, this means that the mechanics will fight you. It’s something to be aware of before you pick Dungeon World up.
There are also a couple of game mechanics that I thought did not work well. Those are the alignment system and the bonds. The way alignment works, you choose your character’s alignment based on the class you are playing, and each alignment has a move associated with it. When you make these alignment moves – things like “leap into danger without a plan” or “destroy a symbol of civilization” or “show mercy to an enemy” – you get an experience point at the end of the session. But here’s the problem. Having a specific move that the character can make every session to get XP meant that my players were constantly trying to make their alignment moves in situations where it made no sense. Instead of roleplaying their entire alignment, they’d do one thing that lined up with it and then do whatever they wanted the rest of the session. Trying to meet the conditions of alignment moves became distracting and it didn’t gel with the fiction (ironically, something that the philosophy of Dungeon World feels very strongly about). We ended up removing alignment moves and instead rewarded players for staying true to their alignment throughout the session.
Bonds represent the connections between characters in the party. They are things like “so-and-so stole something from me” or “I want to learn about so-and-so’s job.” Players get XP points when these bonds are resolved, and resolution is a very loose term that basically means that the bond no longer applies to their relationship. Like the alignment moves, bonds gave my players very specific actions they were supposed to do for XP, and this made them behave in very erratic ways within the party in order to try and level up. In addition, even with the term “resolve” being so broad, there seemed to be certain bonds with no resolution in sight, which caused a lot of frustration. We ended up borrowing the Hx system from Apocalypse World, and that worked well for my group.
I’ve talked a lot about XP – why did my players want it so much? Well, leveling up in Dungeon World is how you gain new moves from your class. Without gaining levels, you’re stuck with the same three to five starting moves and the list of basic moves. And XP is a very precious resource. The only way to get it during a session is to fail (something that no one wants to do even with the XP point). The only other way to gain XP is at end of session, and at the most you can gain five. One for using your alignment, one for resolving a bond, one for making an important discovery, one for defeating a notable enemy, and one for looting a memorable treasure. This system of gaining XP (rather than gaining it for mindlessly killing monsters or completing quests) makes every XP opportunity count.
Overall, the gameplay of Dungeon World is a ton of fun. Many of my players expressed that this was the most fun they’d had playing a tabletop, and we found that the mechanics of the game made the final session a lot more impactful both in fun and in emotional response than in any other tabletop we’ve played before. The game mechanics work well together to create a fun experience that is always leading towards adventure.
When playing a tabletop game, players want to have the tools to make their character as uniquely their own as possible, and the GM wants to be able to take whatever his or her ideas are for the game world and create them in a satisfying way. For some tabletops, customization is built into the game mechanics. For others, you have to change the rules or hack the game. This section is all about how easy or difficult it is to customize Dungeon World.
For my campaign the setting was a blend of superhero, horror, post-apocalyptic, and fantasy (what?) and in order to facilitate that, I added quite a few features. One of the most significant changes I made was to the class system. I created superhero-inspired classes for each player, a process that was very cooperative from the first step. Players described what abilities were important to them and I created the moves and designed the level-ups for each class. This process is actually relatively simple, and the book offers some advice about creating custom moves. You just need a trigger and then the results of the different rolls. Using the game’s base moves as inspiration can be a huge help, but the book also offers advice on the typical effects of a move so you can create your own with ease.
Custom monster creation is included in the playbook as well, and the process is as easy as answering some questions about your monster. Is it solitary or does it fight in a group? Is it small, normal, or large? Are its weapons massive or subtle? Answering questions like these define the monster’s stats, and then your roleplaying as the GM defines the monster’s actions. After all, Dungeon World is driven primarily by the narrative, so the true essence of a monster is not its statistical total but the stuff that it does. Making monsters was very easy and a couple of times I was able to do it mid-session.
Now when it comes to character customization for the player, there are few options for that starting out. Every fighter starts out with the same starting moves, with only a few options for customization. However, the large selection of level-up moves allows two fighters (or clerics, or thieves, or whatever) to become progressively different as they develop. This is pretty reflective of Dungeon World as a whole. You don’t start out with some detailed backstory or incredible powers. The game is all about the adventures you have during play. Your characters will become more unique and more your own the more you play with them. So while player customization is not a strong part of the beginning of Dungeon World, it does grow with time.
Overall, the customization in Dungeon World is strong in most areas. As the GM, it is very easy to create custom content for your players. As a player, customization is weak in the early game but grows stronger as your character levels up and has more adventures.
I mentioned earlier that Dungeon World has a very powerful philosophy driving it, one that influences the mechanics and resists certain approaches to the game. The time has come to discuss that.
Dungeon World is a game driven by the narrative, or as the rulebook calls it, the fiction. The fiction comes first and supersedes anything else. The GM is encouraged to run the game fiction-first, and the mechanics of the game are designed in such a way that the fiction is prioritized. This is all a fancy way of saying that Dungeon World is designed to be run in a particular way, and not running it that way will actually cause some problems with the rules.
I already mentioned that when I approached the game with a specific narrative already planned out, the rules of the game resisted it. Monsters and villains are not designed to have a long lifespan, so villains who frequently reappear after majestically escaping don’t particularly work well. A set storyline is difficult to adhere to when a failed die roll (or a very successful one) can completely change the direction of the action.
Now this is not to say that a strong philosophy driving the game is a bad thing. Dungeon World is designed for a setting where the GM is a fan of the players’ characters, where adventure fills their lives, where the world is fantastic and always growing and changing. The game is designed to let fiction drive the players forward. Rules shouldn’t get in the way of a cool moment and shouldn’t make overcoming a powerful monster into an effortless task. Characters should really be putting their lives at risk because that’s what makes them matter more.
Personally, I love the philosophy that drives Dungeon World. I think it is a great approach to running a game and plan to run more games this way in the future. However, if you are the sort of GM or the sort of player who enjoys a story with a defined direction, who wants character death not to be a part of the campaign, or prefers balanced encounter levels, then Dungeon World may not be the game for you. It is good to be aware of what kind of game you want to play before you pick Dungeon World up, because the mechanics and the philosophy driving the game all work together to enforce a particular style of play.
Dungeon World is a fun game that is simple to pick up and play, and has many rewards for those who stick around for a long time. It’s easy to customize for the GM but it takes time for the players to create characters that are uniquely their own. The game has a fantasy setting designed for fantastic adventures. And while Dungeon World may not be great when a narrative style is not what you want, it is incredible as a narrative game and does what it set out to do fantastically. I highly recommend Dungeon World to fans of the tabletop fantasy genre.
Final Score: 6
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