Interpreting Dungeon World’s Classes for Renaissance Fantasy

After finally finishing a nearly yearlong campaign of City of Mist – in which we only played five sessions because adult life is terrible – last weekend my group of roleplaying buddies sat down to discuss what we wanted to do next. We went over the games available to us, the kinds of mechanics they had and the sorts of the stories they could tell, and finally brought it down to a secret vote. The group chose the fantasy roleplaying game Dungeon World, and from there we began to talk about what kind of Dungeon World experience everyone was interested in.

It had been a long day. We’d already played the finale session of City of Mist as well as playing a few party games together. Evening set in as we talked and many were ready to call it a day. On top of that, two of our players are brand new to RPGs and sometimes had difficulty putting into words the ideas they wanted to convey. My questions were too open ended to facilitate discussions in these conditions, so finally with a frustrated sigh I wrote down a few words on the sheet of scrap paper in front of me: medieval fantasy versus Renaissance fantasy. The majority of the players chose the Renaissance era over the dark ages, at which point we began to discuss other matters of interest such as gods, politics, emerging sciences, etc.

The Renaissance is an era of history following the medieval dark ages in which a renewed interest in classical art and philosophy defined the times. As the political power of the church weakened and interest in natural science and mathematics re-surged after ages of stagnation, the European world began to change. This was the era of da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli, a world very different from the stereotypical fantasy setting that Dungeon World assumes. As the gears began to turn in my mind, I thought first of the eight character classes in the game, and how they might be impacted by their portrayal in a different era of history. I decided to do some research to expand my knowledge of the Renaissance in order to help me re-contextualize these playbooks for my upcoming campaign.

A note about interpretation of history: I’m analyzing the Renaissance from the lens of a white American, and my understanding is defined strongly by the education I received in high school and college on the subject of this period of history. While the Renaissance may represent enlightenment in some ways, it is also a period of time when European colonialism led explorers to cause great harm to the indigenous people of other lands. I’d like in the future to do an article about diversity in this time period to help me have a better understanding of other perspectives – for now, though, forgive me if this article seems overly optimistic about this era of history. I welcome any comments correcting or otherwise educating me about anything I share today.

Young Knight in a Landscape by Vittore Carpaccio
Young Knight in a Landscape, Vittore Carpaccio

THE FIGHTER
Research into the military history around the Renaissance era quickly corrected some misconceptions I had around how warfare worked, particularly firearms. I thought of effective firearms as something further out in the future, but preliminary firearms apparently hit the European battlefields as early as 1415 (easily 100 years before the part of the Renaissance I am looking at emulating). Now plate armor would still be used against firearms for many more years, but the presence of guns on the battlefield means that fighters may not be the impenetrable walls that they are typically perceived as in medieval fantasy.

As a result of this, Dungeon World’s elven fighter and their dexterity-based melee attacks may be more viable than the typical armored fighter. Such a character might be a nobleman or noblewoman who competes in the tournament scene, therefore having a style which is more performative than practical. Focusing on dexterity as an offensive and defensive stat allows such a character to potentially have better scores in intelligence and charisma, reflecting their noble training and education. Their signature weapon could be one handed down through their family line, a relic of the middle ages well-kept for the modern era.

My research on mercenaries of the Renaissance era led me to the German landsknecht, pikemen who came to be preferred over the Swiss mercenaries during the late 15th century. Landsknecht specialized in pikes and defensive pike formations, so I imagine such a mercenary fighter as dwarven, their impressive constitution making their Defend move even more effective. A spear with the reach tag as their signature weapon could allow them to defend persons or points with great effectiveness. Another possibility for a mercenary character would be the doppelsöldner, an veteran of the landsknecht who could break enemy pike formations using a powerful two-handed zweihänder. Now that signature weapon would really make a fighter stand out, and probably feature some tags for increasing the damage dealt in combat.

Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice by Valentin de Boulogne
Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice, Valentin de Boulogne

THE THIEF
The thief character type is one already quite suited to the Renaissance simply because the class very much relies on the “gentleman thief” archetype. True thievery is often less elaborate and sensational as it appears to be in the stories. The most common thieves likely appeared as beggars, or robbed coaches as highwaymen. Pirates, though, open a really interesting new direction for the thief class, one perhaps more fitting with the abilities demonstrated within the playbook. And it’s not as if all thief lore is simple and boring. After all, the article linked above briefly mentions a school for thieves in the area of Billingsgate, along with the title the young thieves could earn by proving their ability to snatch a purse.

Pirates during the Renaissance had multiple origins. Some were naval soldiers who found themselves unemployed at the end of their war. Others were privateers, mercenaries on privately-owned vessels who were hired by governments to rob the boats of other nations. A halfling thief of this type could be such a privateer – halfling thieves deal extra damage with ranged weapons, making them the ideal wielders of the early firearms popular at the time. The advanced move Shoot First, which allows the thief to attack first when enemies get the drop on her, would be quite valuable as a pirate. Underdog makes a lot of sense as well, giving her a boost in armor when facing multiple enemies on a much larger pirate vessel.

A major tool of the thief class in Dungeon World is poison. Not only do thieves have a starting move dedicated to poison, but they have multiple advanced moves which expand the variety and potency of their poisons. Since poison was an oft-used political weapon of the Medici family, perhaps a Dungeon World thief in this era could serve a similarly-powerful house. Such a thief is more likely to be politically motivated rather than motivated by treasure, but the idea of an assassin fits very well with the archetype and the thief has some built-in moves to help preserve their secrecy, such as the alignment obscuring move Flexible Morals.

The School of Athens by Raphael
The School of Athens, Raphael

THE WIZARD
Dungeon World wizards are very much in the vein of Merlin – tower dwelling intellectuals who work their magic using arcane words and exotic components. I imagine that in Renaissance fantasy, the increased appreciation for intellectual pursuits such as science and philosophy has allowed wizards to move down from their towers and to collaborate with other wizards, greatly expanding their craft. Wizards are the scientists of the new world, though those who specialize in the darker magics may still be ostracized by society at large.

Dungeon World’s wizard class already has quite a few moves that fit quite nicely with the concept of a philosopher-wizard. Fount of Knowledge gives a bonus when Spouting Lore about a subject know one else knows. Know-It-All gives the wizard XP for convincing party members to follow his advice. Logical allows the wizard to analyze his surroundings using logic and reason rather than emotional empathy, replacing the wisdom stat with intelligence when Discerning Realities. Choosing the human race allows this character to even have magic from the cleric spell list, expanding the character’s knowledge even further. All of these abilities work together to create a brilliant character whose insatiable desire for knowledge allows them to instruct and influence others while learning about the world around them.

Playing more into the wizard’s spellcasting abilities creates a picture of a wizard out in the field, a scientist seeking to learn about the natural world through the use of her spells and intellectual understanding. An elf wizard in particular can always cast Detect Magic as a cantrip, a simple spell she never has to make special preparations for. This allows her to be constantly aware of where magic might be found, and once she locates a magical item she can use the advanced move Enchanter to study it and learn of its properties. The Ritual starting move allows her to create magical items of her owns, and at higher levels she can use Self-Powered to create her own places of power in order to perform rituals anywhere in the world, greatly expanding her scientific opportunities.

The Virgin Mary in Prayer by Albrecht Durer
The Virgin Mary in Prayer, Albrecht Durer

THE CLERIC
The religious authority of the Catholic church dominated the dark ages, and to say this evaporated completely during the Renaissance would be foolish. The influence of the church was still very much felt, and many of the scholars exploring classical ideals strove to do so in a way that complimented popular interpretation of scripture. However, a significant shift was occurring during the time of the Renaissance, a Reformation that divided the church and would most certainly have an impact on what it means to be a cleric in the setting of Dungeon World. A note: the Renaissance is primarily an Italian phenomenon and the Reformation was heavily resisted in Italy, so having any influence of it present in this Dungeon World setting is a bit of GM cut-and-pasting.

A cleric influenced by the Reformation might be considered cultish and insular in terms of Dungeon World, not being part of the established religious order. Such a cleric would specialize in the learning of secrets – this could pair well with the human race option which expands the cleric’s knowledge to include a single wizard spell. The leaders of the Reformation believed that Scripture alone should be considered the word of God, rejecting the belief that the pope and longstanding church traditions should be considered equally sacred. With this came the idea that direct communication with God is both something possible and desirable – a cleric of this mind could take the Orison for Guidance advanced move in order to glean knowledge directly from their goddess. The Divine Intervention move, which allows the cleric to spend hold in order to have their goddess manifest a protective barrier, would also fit such a character.

Moving away from the Reformation and back to the Renaissance, the return of classical ideals meant that some once again began to study and appreciate the gods of Greece and Rome. Perhaps a cleric in this Dungeon World is one who rejects the prevailing cultural religion in favor of a more ancient one. The dwarf racial ability which allows the cleric to speak with stone as a level-zero spell supports the ability to gain ancient knowledge from long forgotten eras. This type of cleric might lean harder into the spellcasting aspects of the class, taking moves such as Empower and Penitent to strengthen their spells and increase the chances of casting them well, respectively. Such a cleric might petition their gods using more direct means such as trial by combat in contrast to the empty sacrifices of the modern church.

Jagd bei Nacht by Paolo Uccello
Jagb bei Nacht, Paolo Uccello

THE RANGER
At first glance the Renaissance may not seem to be the era of the ranger. When I think of the resurgence of classical art and philosophy, my mind locks in on bustling city-states with a rising merchant class. The woods and their navigators seem far away from all of this change, but in reality rangers would still have significant and unique roles to play in this sort of fantasy world. European roads were rough going during this era, so a quality trailblazer capable of dealing with highwaymen would have great value to travelers. A ranger’s animal companion also offers a lot of interesting options for this character type – while a merchant trapper or a nobleman hunter are obvious choices for the ranger archetype, have you ever considered a ranger who worked for the postal service?

As literacy grew and the art of letter-writing became more greatly appreciated, the need to communicate long-distance led to the formation of postal services in many European countries. A ranger with a horse animal companion with 2 ferocity and 2 cunning could have a horse which is fast and tireless that is trained to labor and travel. The ranger’s abilities to follow trails, watch for danger, and survive in the wilds would compliment the constant travel and protect her against the dangers of the road. Such a ranger would fit well into many different group types – consider a messenger for a military adventuring party, or a university courier carrying correspondence between many philosopher-wizards. An elven ranger with the Follow Me advanced move would be excellent at this, getting a guaranteed 10+ on two of the three necessary roles for the Undertake a Perilous Journey move.

Someone wanting to play a more traditional ranger character might wish to play a human nobleman, one who hunts for sport with a hawk or a greyhound by his side. Hunt is certainly one of the skills the ranger can purchase for their animal companion using their Cunning stat, and many ranger moves support a hunter archetype. The starting move Hunt and Track allows the ranger to follow the trail of their prey, and Camouflage allows the ranger to stay hidden when keeping still in natural surroundings. Familiar Prey allows the ranger to use their superior wisdom stat to Spout Lore about monsters instead of the intelligence stat, and at higher levels the advanced form can even reveal additional information in the form of a free question which the GM must answer.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Boticcelli
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Boticcelli

THE DRUID
The druid’s place in a Renaissance fantasy is interesting to consider. Like the ranger, it’s easy to consider the druid to be obsolete in the world of city-states, their focus on enlightenment, and the political machinations that come with it. However, when looking at the Renaissance as a revival of classical thought, it may very well be that there is a resurgence of druids after a long period of persecution by the prevailing religious authorities. As mankind once again gives great consideration to nature both scientifically and philosophically, the opportunity for humans, elves, and halflings to once again learn the ways of the druid comes knocking once again. I also like the idea of using a setting where sea travel is prevalent to finally give the druid some opportunities to explore aquatic transformations.

In my Dungeon World experience, the ocean rarely plays any part in the campaign and the only clear choice for druid characters is to use The Great Forest as their Land (and by extension, elf as their race option). But in a world where pirates and naval battles abound, choosing The Open Sea or the Sapphire Islands as a Land for your druid feels a lot more viable. Halfling druids add to this the ability to sing the songs of stream and brook, working watery magic that increases the healing their allies receive when resting. An oceanic druid might have the Elemental Mastery move to bring water under her control, and later on might learn Weather Weaver in order to keep the winds calm while out on the open sea. A shapeshifter who becomes a whale, a shark, a dolphin, or a tortoise feels like a fresh take on a class that often turned out quite archetypal at my table in the past.

Of course, some of my new players who have never played Dungeon World before may very well love the idea of the classic druid, and an elf whose home is the Great Forest fits in quite nicely with the revival of classical ideals. Inspired by artistic depictions of ancient nymphs standing with wildlife of all kinds in wooded glades, this druid may have known nothing of nature in his early years but now strives to gain knowledge of what his people used to believe before years of subjugation by the church. This sort of druid may lean harder into the spiritual side of the class, taking moves such as Communion of the Whispers or Thing-Talker in order to speak to the spirits of the land or those hidden away in the inanimate natural forces of the world.

 

Joan of Arc on Horseback
Joan of Arc on Horseback, Artist Unknown

THE PALADIN
The holy warrior of the gods still has a clear place in the Renaissance era – although the Crusades ended long ago, the church still has a purpose for men of the sword who swear fealty to the authority of religion. Inquisitors regularly punished enemies of the church, and in an age where scientists were pushing boundaries and the Reformation caused “heretics” to appear even within the flock, those inquisitors were kept quite busy. While Dungeon World’s paladin is always a champion of goodness and law, there’s great potential for the dark side of these characters to come into the limelight too. After all, an obsession with law teeters dangerously close to tyranny.

As interest in the old gods boils to the surface and they are referenced in the work of many artists, perhaps those gods once again begin choosing holy warriors to come into their service. The paladin of an ancient god may be deemed a blackguard by the reigning church, but they know they serve the true way. Such a paladin may have Divine Favor, which grants them cleric spells and greatly enhances their versatility. Moves like Smite and Holy Protection give him greater power when on a quest for his ancient god, and Exterminatus allows him to deal crippling blows against an enemy whom he has sworn to defeat. This sort of paladin may get on well with clerics or druids who are also in service to the old gods.

An interesting choice for a Renaissance paladin is one sworn not to fight the enemies outside of the church, but those inside. The starting move I Am The Law gives this paladin great authority to issue orders to others, and her religious authority can expand even more with moves like Voice of Authority, Setup Strike, and Charge! These allow her to lead from the rear or from the front, barking effective orders to her hirings or charging in first and creating opportunities with her melee attacks. This character could work well as a servant of the pope hunting down Reformation clerics within the flock, or as a Reformed paladin who seeks to purge the corruption out of the current religious leaders by force.

Boy Playing a Recorder by Hendrick ter Brugghen
Boy Playing a Recorder, Hendrick ter Brugghen

THE BARD
Out of all of the classes in Dungeon World, it is the bard which comes out of the box ready-made for a Renaissance character. After all, is not the bard a Renaissance man? Educated, charismatic, trained with the blade, and possessing the ability to take moves from other classes, the bard captures the spirit of the period in many ways. Most of all, though, the bard is an artist, embracing the classical tales and ways long before the rest of the society caught up. This means there are plenty of fun ways to handle a Renaissance bard in the context of Dungeon World.

Few in the Renaissance era were positioned to pick up all of the bard’s many skills quite like the nobility, a group with privileged access to education and the leisure time to practice skills unrelated to labor such as archery and music. A noble human bard always has a friend wherever they may travel, and their extra training in fencing and diplomacy allows them to learn advanced moves such as Bamboozle or Duelist’s Parry to improve their Parley or their armor, respectively. Of course, the cutthroat world of nobility also justifies taking Devious at higher levels, as a bard of this upbringing is just as interested in how he can use people as he is in how he can help them.

The bard is unique in that it is the only Dungeon World class which can have the full selection of wizard and cleric spells at its disposal early in the game. Such a bard probably started as a religious scholar first, so perhaps her Bardic Knowledge is focused on Gods and Their Servants. Once she multiclassed to learn cleric spells, she could then move her studies into the realm of science and natural philosophy to add wizard spells to her repertoire. Her elven curiosity pushes her to constantly ask questions about the new places she events, and her ever-expanding knowledge could give her An Ear for Magic down the line, allowing her to recognize the spells she hears other people casting.

Overall, while Dungeon World is built for a medieval, dark ages fantasy setting, re-imagining the world to allow for Renaissance technology and ideals is not a difficult leap to make. It gives an interesting new context to some of the classes that for me as the GM, makes them more exciting to think about. I’m looking forward to expanding my knowledge of the time period to help me create an intriguing new fantasy world for my players, and I hope that the unique characters they bring to the table will make this new take on Dungeon World the most fun I’ve had with the game yet.

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