Have you ever had a favorite? Maybe a favorite flavor of a food you enjoy, like ice cream. Or maybe a favorite movie, the movie you like the most out of all the movies you’ve ever seen. Perhaps you are particularly nuanced and have favorites within favorites – the best individual book out of the series of books that puts all other book series to shame, for example. I’ll give you a minute to think about whether you’ve had a favorite or not.
“Ian, as opening hooks for your articles go, this one is kind of patronizing.”
Okay, okay, so we all have favorites. For me, when it comes to the category of tabletop RPGs, no other game comes close to the medieval fantasy game Dungeon World. I first discovered it roughly three years ago when researching the ammo mechanics of various RPGs in order to steal one for a game of Mutants and Masterminds I was planning to run. I stumbled upon an article talking about many features of Dungeon World (of which ammo was only one of many) and immediately fell in love with the concept. Even before touching the dice, this game seemed completely perfect.
To help you get an understanding of why Dungeon World seemed SO magical, you have to know where I was coming from. I’d been playing tabletop RPGs for around two years at that point and most of my experience was with Mutants and Masterminds. M&M is a d20 superhero game with a ton of customization options, but bogged down with some mechanical issues that I was having a hard time moving past. Combat felt slow due in part to the initiative system but even more due to the way that damage works. Whenever a player rolls high enough on a d20 to hit, the defender rolls another d20 as a “toughness check” to avoid damage. If that roll is a success, the hit doesn’t matter – the defending character doesn’t take any damage and the attacker effectively wasted their turn. Battles felt like a long exchange of weak passes until somebody suddenly got a critical hit that changed the game.
Additionally, while for villains getting knocked out tended to signal defeat, for the players there was almost no danger in M&M. It’s so difficult to get knocked out of combat if there’s a healer on the team, half of the characters have regeneration, and getting knocked out still doesn’t really do any lasting harm – it takes a concentrated effort to kill anybody, an effort that as the GM feels almost cruel because of how focused on one person you have to be. There’s little natural lethality to the mechanics, no narrative pressure – and at the time, I wanted to create a setting that was part fantasy, part survival horror. Nothing about M&M promised the level of danger that I wanted.
At the same time, I didn’t want to swing all the way in the other direction to Dungeons and Dragons. That was the most recent game I had played and although I know this is kind of a blasphemous thing for an avid roleplayer to say, I don’t enjoy D&D at all. It feels totally ancient – no character customization, rigid mechanics, and frustrating degrees of minuscule details to track were all huge turnoffs for me. Because those were the only games I really knew at that time, my plan was to run Mutants and Masterminds but to hijack mechanics from less familiar games that would maybe address the issues I was having. Great plan, right?
When I found Dungeon World, it seemed to solve every issue I was having with other games. It had the setting and the level of danger of Dungeons and Dragons but fewer mechanisms to learn. The narrative-focus took away things like initiative that felt like inhibitions in combat, and the fail-forward system allows for even bad rolls to keep the game moving forward. Dungeon World appeared to be a game that could not slow down, and I loved the idea of it immediately. I pitched it to my group and they embraced it, and that led to my first campaign of the game.
Now obviously since I started this whole thing off with an irritating paragraph about favorites, playing the game only cemented what I was already feeling just from reading about it: this game is everything I want in an RPG. Dungeon World appeals exactly to my specific tastes as a gamemaster. The GM moves feel intuitive, the mechanisms are flexible and create fun stories at the table, and rarely does it feel like the game itself “gets in the way” of what I want to accomplish in the way that other games did.
In spite of all this, though, in spite of my love for Dungeon World, there’s a little something else you already know if you’re reading this article. It’s probably the first thing you read – the title. “Second Edition” implies that the first edition is not enough. It suggests flaws or, at the very least, omissions from the original product that need to be addressed. As much as I love Dungeon World, four campaigns have taught me that there are things about the game I would love to see addressed not just by my own house rules but by the creators of the game. So let’s put an end to this 900 word introduction and finally get to the good stuff!
The goal of Dungeon World from a design perspective is to provide classic D&D dungeon-looting murder-adventures in the style of Apocalypse World. While it would be an oversimplification to describe it as exclusively a child of those two games, it is easy to see the trappings of both if you are at all familiar with them. Alignment is a holdover from Dungeons and Dragons, one that even those just barely educated about tabletop RPG culture can still recognize. While you won’t see characters who are “chaotic good” or “lawful evil” in this game, the terms lawful, chaotic, neutral, good, and evil are all used to describe the alignment of Dungeon World characters.
Based on the class you choose at character creation, you have a choice of two or three different alignments that each describe a specific action. Something like “spurn the party to unplanned action” or “defeat a personally-significant foe.” If you do the thing, at the end of the session you get XP. It’s a simple way to reward roleplaying your character’s personality and to encourage players to take specific actions related to the alignment they chose for their character. However, in my experience alignment has been somewhat flawed in play.
My biggest issue with alignment is that it can mislead players into taking actions that make no narrative sense. This is a trap I find myself falling into as a player – if I want XP, I am going to venture as out of my way as I have to in order to fulfill my alignment condition. When I run the game, I see my players do this same thing. Those who are mechanically motivated – and this is a roleplaying game, so they should be motivated by the mechanisms – will want to do their action every single session in order to level up faster. But some of these actions are so oddly specific that crafting a scenario that will consistently offer the opportunity to pursue it feels impossible.
My current character, for example, is a Robin Hood type who is motivated by giving financially to those who are impoverished. This isn’t generally a problem when we’re in a town, but sometimes we’ll get knee-deep into dungeon delves that take entire sessions to complete. The longer we’re away from civilization, the more I lose out on experience because there are no poor people for me to give money to. Using one of the examples above, the woman whose alignment demands her to defeat a personally significant foe is going to have to seriously expand her definition of “personally-significant” or otherwise give up on maximizing her XP gain.
Now I’ve dealt with this in the past by removing specific alignment conditions and just having a general reward for alignments – perform a significant action that is in-line with your alignment during the session, get an XP. The thing is, taking this approach brought a second problem to the forefront: rewarding players for roleplaying their alignment rewards them for always acting the same. That feels rather lame because you end up with characters who never develop an arc or change significantly during the narrative. Each session, they’ll do the same thing they have always done because acting that way is the thing that gets them XP for the session. It doesn’t encourage growth (fictionally, anyway) and it creates a stagnant routine for the party.
I think what I would like to see for alignment is something similar to the traits and instincts in Burning Wheel. When your alignment complicates your adventure, that’s the point you get to mark experience for it. When showing mercy to the goblin king causes the local village to resent you, that’s worth something. When releasing the farmer’s beasts of burden in the name of freedom causes a family to go hungry, that tells us something about your character. This allows the character to keep their alignment (which does matter mechanically because of certain spells and the thief move Flexible Morals) while making the XP reward for alignment a little more dynamic.
Race is an issue where the fantasy genre is still very much behind the times. Not only in the sense that most fantasy stories exclusively feature white characters, but also in the sense that the races of fantasy settings are painfully monocultural. All elves are tall, slim, elegant, and aloof. All dwarves are stocky bearded blacksmiths who want to smash in heads with an axe. All goblins are petty underlings, all orcs are barbaric nomads, all halflings just want to smoke while they garden, and the list goes on. Fantasy stories encourage racial bias like nobody’s business and unfortunately Dungeon World doesn’t do too much to fight against that.
Race in Dungeon World is another holdover from D&D, but where alignment can probably be salvaged, there’s not much you can do with race to make it more tasteful except to flat out eliminate it as a mechanical feature. Let players choose characters of any race for their class, and don’t connect that race mechanically to a specific set of benefits for that class. Allow race to go the way of gender and let it be an aesthetic choice rather than one that affects the rules of the game.
I want to be clear here that I am not trying to accuse the creators of Dungeon World of being racist. One of the two creators of the game, Adam Koebel, has stated online before that race is the first thing he’d fix about Dungeon World if he could go back in time and do it all again. I don’t think even Dungeons and Dragons is intentionally built in a racist way. But we have to understand that profiling someone’s abilities based on their racial identity is a dangerous thing. It’s important to look at games critically and understand where they could be harmful, even unintentionally so. Playing a game that constantly permits you to murder sentient creatures just because they look different or have a different culture than you is a sticky idea when you get right down to it. So we have to be aware of that and make responsible choices.
In Dungeon World, the mechanical reward you gain for the race you choose is a small beneficial ability related to your class. The easiest way I can think of to get around this is to replace the mechanical aspects of race with a subclass option. Sure, Erdrick is a fighter, but he’s a brawler whereas Elywynn is a fencer. Erdrick gets to reroll damage rolls once per session because of his fighting prowess, while Elywynn chooses a class of weapons to be precise when wielding them. You still accomplish the same thing that the racial bonus did – differentiating between two possible versions of one character type. But you do so in a way that does not shove all the people of one race into a single identity box.
Leveling up is a big part of many an RPG, particularly when it comes to fantasy dungeon crawl type stuff. Dungeon World’s current method is that when your character gains XP equal to their current level +7, the character levels up. Upon leveling, you can add one point to the stat of your choice and choose one move from the advanced move page of your character sheet. Advanced moves are different based on the class that you choose, allowing you to become a better version of the thing that you already are by gaining new skills or improving upon existing ones.
Advancement as it is now in Dungeon World isn’t necessarily bad. But I think it could be improved by adding in some more elements of Apocalypse World in order to expand upon the possibilities a little bit. One thing that I think is very cool about Apocalypse World is that, once your character has marked a certain number of improvements, they gain the ability to advance the basic moves of the game. This makes it so that the moves are even more effective on a 12+, giving you distinct advantages that surpass the results of a normal success. While this is a possibility currently in Dungeon World, most classes can only advance one specific basic move and it isn’t always 100% intuitive. Rangers and wizards, in particular, are rather backward in this regard, each one able to advance a basic move that is better suited on the other class (Spout Lore and Discern Realities, respectively).
There are other advanced options for improvements that I would love to port in from Apocalypse World. In the current Dungeon World campaign I am playing in, my character is a ranger. However, the lack of emphasis on natural environments and monsters in our game, along with her role as the party’s stealth expert, have led the narrative in a direction where she’d make more sense as a thief. She even may have the opportunity to join the game’s Thief Guild equivalent soon, and that would be a fantastic time to purchase a class change as a level-up improvement. I could keep the most important aspects of her ranger-ness and then begin her journey as a thief. Or, if I didn’t want to embrace a full-blown class change, at the very least I could “choose a move from another playbook” to get useful thief abilities like sneak attacks, handling poisons, or lockpicking.
Multiclassing is a possibility in the world of Dungeons and Dragons as well, but in Dungeon World this possibility is limited to only a couple of advanced moves that allow you take a move from another class. These advanced moves are present only on certain classes (primarily the fighter and the bard), and some of them may only allow you to take moves from a very specific class (like the druid only being able to learn moves from the ranger class). These options are limiting and box your character into a creative corner in a way that feels unfit for Dungeon World – there’s a lot of freedom in this game, so this specific restriction seems out-of-place from a mechanical standpoint.
The last thing I would change is less of a mechanical change and more of a writing change for the rulebook itself. There are certain mechanics in Dungeon World as written that I now enjoy but did not think worked very well at first. Earlier in my Dungeon World career, I even might have house-ruled these things due to a lack of understanding. I am speaking specifically of bonds (the connections between characters in the party which are used to gain XP) and fronts (a method of organizing the threats against the party and the timeline in which they might move).
The bonds that form at character creation I understood right away. They provide a way to link your characters together in a mechanically meaningful way. What I struggled with was when a bond was considered to be resolved, and how to write a new bond between two characters. Bond resolution I gained a better understanding of by reading on RPG forums like Reddit how other people handled them. Once I understood that resolution could mean “prove false,” “prove so true it doesn’t need to be stated,” or even “prove to be uninteresting,” it was easier for me to find ways to resolve them. When it came to writing new bonds, having a better understanding of one of the games that inspired them (Burning Wheel) assisted me in sharpening my craft. By thinking of bonds as a belief that you write about another character, I was able to create more interesting bonds with clearer resolutions and greater narrative potential.
Fronts sounded cool to me when I started planning my first Dungeon World game but they never felt quite right in practice. It always seemed as if my players had no control over the grim portents, or that they skipped them entirely and just dealt with the front immediately. I wasn’t sure how to maneuver fronts and sometimes it felt like making strong choices with a front would railroad my players. What it took for me to grasp them was a better understanding of how they work in their parent game, Apocalypse World. The real key to understanding fronts is not in the grim portents or countdown clocks or whatever – it’s in the threats and the stakes questions. What makes a front threatening is the goal it wishes to accomplish, and what makes it compelling is the unknown outcome of the front accomplishing that goal. I felt a strong desire in the beginning to answer the stakes questions for myself, but fronts only work when you leave the stakes questions open-ended for the players to discover the answers in play. A front is quite literally just the GM figuring out what questions would be interesting to find answers to and creating a setting that allows those questions to be explored.
These concepts are explained to some degree in the text of Dungeon World itself, but the way they are written out there lacks clarity and I didn’t quite understand on the first go-around. I needed to see these concepts in action or hear the perspective of those more experienced before it really registered with me what I was seeing. I think it would be fantastic to have more concrete examples of how bonds and fronts are intended to operate within the rulebook. Explain the beliefs connection with Burning Wheel, talk in detail about how to ask engaging stakes questions – these sorts of things can make parts of the game that could be trickier for new players a lot clearer and easier to understand.
Dungeon World is a fantastic game, and ultimately while I may have things “wrong” with it, it is still my favorite RPG at the table so far. Having a second edition to refine the more problematic concepts would take a great game and make it even greater. Ultimately, I understand that the creators of Dungeon World don’t feel motivated to create a second edition and prefer to let the fans create their own new content for the game. So it seems like these rules will be eternally relegated to house rules at my table.
Now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers. Do you have any experience with Dungeon World? What would you add or subtract for a second edition of the game? Let me know in the comments below and thanks for reading!
Have you seen the ongoing Worlds of Adventure project? It might have some of those changes you are looking for.
I haven’t heard of that, no, I’ll have to go check it out!