There comes a point in the tabletop journey of many a gamemaster where they begin to feel the desire to experiment with the systems they have come to love. Tabletop games are great, but sometimes there’s a game mechanic that doesn’t quite fit the table and needs to be adjusted for the group. Other times you might simply want to add a little something that makes the world feel more your own. Regardless of the reason for the hack, house rules and homebrew content appears at most gaming tables, so I thought it could be a fun topic to discuss on this edition of Tabletop Tuesday.
Dungeon World is my favorite tabletop game (“WE KNOW!“) and as a result of the number of times I’ve played it, I have definitely incorporated some hacks into the game. Today’s post will go into each one, why I did it, and then whether or not that hack was successful in my experience. I’ll also order them from least-to-most invasive, as some of them took a lot more effort than others to pull off. We’ve got a lot of hacks to discuss, so let’s get started!
HACK #1: ELIMINATING ALIGNMENT MOVES
One of the first aspects of Dungeon World I found my players struggling with was the concept of alignment moves. Specifically, I was seeing that my players often “derailed” the session in order to pursue their alignment moves, going far out of their way in order to do things a specific way for experience points. One example I clearly remember is that I had a player whose alignment had to do with trapping innocent people – he would often drag out scenes by attempting to set traps for NPCs so he could get his alignment XP for the session. I felt like that was an issue at the table, so I decided to cut alignment moves from the game entirely – instead, characters earned XP simply for behaving like their alignment during the session. If they could point to at least one instance in which they represented their alignment, they earned the XP reward.
If you’re not already seeing the flawed reasoning behind this hack, allow me to point out my own mistaken thought process here: this “issue” wasn’t my player’s fault. It was mine. If his traps “derailed” the game, that’s because I wasn’t doing my job as the gamemaster and making soft and hard moves when appropriate. The intent of alignment moves is to prompt players to have their characters play out specific actions that add something interesting to the session in order to try to earn XP. A player who is trying to shoehorn her alignment move into every session just wants to level up her character and win the game – she’s playing the game right, not wrong.
Now all that being said, the hack itself didn’t have too huge of an impact on play. It simply made earning alignment XP a lot easier, which is more significant for some classes than it is for others. In my experience, characters whose alignment move is based on a social trigger are going to have a harder time earning that XP, so broadening things so they can receive their reward even when socially isolated (read: in a dungeon) could actually be helpful for them. In my experience, it basically made that experience point a free space, something everybody could get at the end of the session with little effort. If you want to take the focus off of alignment for your particular Dungeon World game, this hack can probably achieve that effect for you.
HACK #2: DOUBLE MOVES ON LEVEL UP
One of the mechanisms in Dungeon World that I wanted to explore in a different way even early on was the compendium class. This is an alternate class of sorts that characters can unlock in the fiction and then use to get different moves than the ones they learn from their base class. Compendium classes are very much meant to be alternate classes – something different but not inherently better than your normal class. Taking a compendium class is a lateral move. For my campaign setting at the time, one of the themes was that nothing in the game world went unchanged for very long. The act of being adventurers put the characters in danger of becoming twisted and monstrous. As such, I named the compendium classes monster classes and made a very simple hack: when a character with a monster class leveled up, they chose a new move from their base class AND the compendium class.
The idea here was very much that of a devil’s bargain: you get power in exchange for your humanity. Every monster class was designed with moves that made the characters a little more horrifying to look at or vile in some other meaningful way. As the monster character became more powerful, it also became harder to exist in normal society. My inspiration came a lot from the vampires in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Embracing monstrosity could lead to great power, but also at some very frustrating costs.
I kind of got what I wanted mechanically from this, but it didn’t really impact the game as much as I would have liked. Generally speaking in Dungeon World, gaining more moves is more about versatility than a raw increase in power. Sure, some advanced moves just give a bonus to damage dice or armor, but those are some of the most boring moves in the game. The moves that add meaningful new ways to interact with the world don’t necessarily make a character more powerful, so the monster characters in my party ultimately didn’t become “more powerful” than anyone else. I would have had to make more meaningful mechanical decisions than that, and even then, Dungeon World cares rather little about balance compared to similar fantasy RPGs. This can be a fun hack if you just want your players to have lots of moves so they can fully explore their base class and compendium class, but in my experience it didn’t make a massive difference in gameplay.
HACK #3: MIXING ALIGNMENT AND RACE MOVES
I already discussed alignment moves during our first hack, but until this point race moves weren’t something I had messed with. Racial moves allow for different manifestations of a particular class – an elf fighter, for example, is more likely to have high dexterity than a fighter of another race because their special ability gives them the precise tag. I liked this idea of playing the same class differently based on small but significant moves – it reminded me of the personal skills in Fire Emblem Fates, which can make two characters of the same class notably different and even change your strategies when using them. However, while I liked the mechanical application of racial moves, I was playing a campaign where fantasy races like elves, dwarves, and halflings didn’t exist in the game. I wanted to keep the mechanic and expand on it, so I attached it instead to the alignment mechanics.
Here’s how it worked: I changed the alignments to a more traditional D&D alignment where the characters had a rating on both the Law-Chaos scale and the Good-Evil scale. Each of the two alignments had a move associated with it that gave some kind of bonus or mild special ability when acting in a specific way. For example, a Good character might get a +1 bonus to armor when leaping into harm’s way for someone, while an Evil character might deal +2 damage when attacking someone who can’t retaliate. This pushes the character to take specific actions related to their alignment while also giving them a meaningful mechanical bonus for doing so.
This hack came from a combination of wanting to adapt the mechanics to the needs of my game world (no non-humans in the setting) while also addressing an aspect of the game I wanted to improve upon – although in this example “improve” refers to increasing the presence of a mechanic I really like as opposed to changing or removing a mechanic that I didn’t. I really liked how it turned out and my players did too – it accomplished the goal of motivating them to behave in specific ways by mechanical reinforcing the actions not just with the promise of XP, but with the promise of other bonuses too. If you’re comfortable making up your own “racial moves” for Dungeon World and tying them to the alignment system, I definitely recommend this hack for games without fantasy races involved.
HACK #4: COMBINING SIGNATURE WEAPONS AND ANIMAL COMPANIONS
“Uh, what did you just say?” Yeah, this hack is pretty specific and had everything to do with creating a particular setting for my game. The premise of the campaign was that the characters were students involved in an experiment around dimensional travel, thrown into a fantasy world to explore and research. Their guides in this unusual world were robots with an animal form for guidance and a weapon form for self-defense. This meant that each character in the game would have both an animal companion (and therefore all of the applicable moves surrounding that) and a signature weapon (and again, the moves to go with it). This was effectively creating a compendium class that every player character would have.
Choosing to play in this way definitely affected the characters in a number of ways. Everyone had to design their companions at the beginning of the game alongside their characters, choosing stats like ferocity, cunning, and instinct as well as choosing tags for the weapon form. As characters leveled up, their companions did too, and each level I allowed them to choose a move applicable to their companion as well as a move from their class list (similar to hack #2 above). Again, this caused the characters to become more versatile very quickly, but playtesting of this particular hack soon showed me that there wasn’t much advantage to combining these two mechanisms.
The biggest issue was that no character had much reason to switch back and forth between the forms. Characters whose fighting style demanded a weapon never changed their companion to its animal form – otherwise they’d be unarmed, or at least armed with a mechanically inferior weapon. Conversely, characters whose fighting power came from spells never had much reason to use the weapon and so instead constantly kept their animal companions around. Because I simply lumped two starting moves together rather than developing something new from the ground up, the hack didn’t work like I wanted. No one switched between the two forms and so basically characters had chosen either an animal buddy or a cool weapon at the beginning of the game. I don’t recommend doing a hack like this for your own game – if you have an idea for a cool new mechanism you want to add, building it from the ground up will help you to choose game mechanics that create the feeling you want.
HACK #5: CREATING A NEW CLASS
And here it is, the most ambitious hack I’ve tried for Dungeon World (and also the one I’ve done the most often). The game has eight base classes to get you started, and two special classes that you can pick up to add to your game. However, for those who are truly interested in advanced delving, creating an entirely new class for the game can be the ultimate challenge. In my case, I found myself creating classes for both of the reasons that have driven my hacks so far – either to include something my players felt was absent, or to mechanically establish something important to the setting.
I’ve covered my experiments with class creation in multiple ways here on Adventure Rules, from my process to the final product to reviewing a previously-finished class. What I perhaps have not covered in much detail is the most important part of any hack – playtesting. Incorporating custom content into a game can create situations where the balance is off. Sometimes a mechanic that you created for a game you’re playing is too powerful for the game’s normal balance. Sometimes it is too weak. Sometimes it does not fit smoothly with other game mechanics, making them irrelevant or negatively impacting how they function with the other rules. Anytime you decide to hack a game – particularly a hack as significant as creating an entirely new class – there’s going to have to be playtesting involved to work out the kinks.
In my experience, you’re going to want to talk to your players about this before making the custom class. It’s tough to lose aspects of your character that you were attached to or to suddenly have your favorite move become a little bit weaker. Surprising your player with these adjustments can feel hurtful, so you want to make sure they understand from their beginning that custom content is experimental and may need to be changed for the betterment of the group. When their specially-made class is hurting the rest of the table’s fun, something has to change. You only want to make custom classes when your players understand and consent to that possibly.
That’s it for me today, adventurers. I’ve done a lot of hacking in Dungeon World, but I’m curious if you have any experience with it. Have you created custom content for Dungeon World, or for any other RPG? How was that experience for you? Are you thinking of trying out any of the hacks in this post? Let me know in the comments below, and I hope the lessons I have learned from hacking will help you to have a positive experience with it yourself!