Thursday, August 18, 2022

Dungeon World

 Maybe oil and water do mix. Dungeon World (Latorra & Koebel) tries to have it both ways, by being a totally off-the-rails, genre driven Powered by the Apocalypse game, while also capturing the feeling of an old-school, graph-paper-mapped AD&D dungeon crawl. And it mostly works. You've got a "hack and slash" move and a "defy danger" move and all social interaction is covered by the "parley" move and a couple of sensory and knowledge moves, and that is pretty much all you need to do a conversation-based dungeon crawl.

It does feel a little weird to me to go from abstract traits like "hard" and "weird" to the nominally concrete Dungeons and Dragons stats (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, etc), but I do like that each is given a single move to stake out its niche (plus you can use any stat to "Defy Danger," based on the circumstances). It's very clean. "Volleying" is what you do with Dexterity, "Spouting Lore" with Intelligence, and so on. It really helps you stake out a character niche early. I wouldn't quite say it solves the "dump stat" problem, in that casters are still tied to their main casting stat and everyone else needs high Strength or Dexterity (a Bard needs a good Charisma to be a good Bard, but if they don't also have good physical attributes, they're going to struggle as a general adventurer). 

The stat modifiers don't seem like much, but given the way that dice work, even a small modifier is going to have a profound effect. You're trying to hit a seven or higher on 2d6, which means the difference between a +0 and a +3 is 7 in 12 vs 11 in 12. Given the character creation rules, a +3 modifier is unlikely (you have to use the optional random stat generation and roll an 18 on 3d6), but a +2 with a modifier from magic, equipment, or cooperation is going to happen almost all the time. Let's call it "niche protection" and then decline to speculate on which niches will wind up being most valuable. 

Oh, okay, maybe a little speculation. Dungeon World is strongly opposed to pre-planned stories and elaborate worldbuilding, which is entirely in keeping with its Powered by the Apocalypse heritage, but at the expense of missing out on an important part of its D&D ancestry. Like, there are horror stories of DMs who were too inflexibly attached to their precious plot or worldbuilding and thereby made the players miserable with a lack of choices, but . . . a lot of players like the feeling of a solid world to push back against, the security of knowing that the manticore was always in the basement and it wasn't just a blank space waiting to be established by cross chatter at the table. You can't thwart the GM's dastardly schemes if the GM isn't allowed to scheme dastardly.

I wouldn't call this a flaw, though. Just a potential conflict of preferences. Dungeon World should work well with groups that embrace shared ownership of the setting, that don't mind the GM "Playing to find out what happens." In fact, I suspect Dungeon World might be a good gateway to acclimating players to that style of roleplaying, because it's probably at least a half-step closer to traditional than Apocalypse World itself. It has Character Classes instead of Playbooks and almost all of the Class-specific Moves wind up modelling character powers rather than genre tropes. There are things like the Paladin's Quest ability or the Wizard's ritual casting, which are versatile beyond the bounds of something the character should be aware of ("Ritual effects are always possible" with the GM's only role to assign a cost/establish side-effects, which is . . . not in keeping with the traditional D&D power curve), but the game largely cleaves to the "character abilities are character abilities" level of abstraction. 

Also, while excessive GM preparation is gently discouraged, the book actually gives you most of the tools you need to do it - there's a full bestiary, for example. I'd say that the book mostly encourages low-prep by the expedient of playing fast and loose with things like environmental damage and traversal. All you really have to do in these situations is eyeball a damage level and call for a defy danger roll. Despite the protestations in the "Advanced Delving" chapter that "if you're not playing to find out what happens, you'll have to resist the moves at every step," I haven't seen much that is outside the bounds of standard-issue player-character chaos. If you're a GM that runs standard D&D flexibly enough to count for unlikely successes/failures on your PCs' skill checks, attacks, and savings throws then you'll probably be able to accommodate your prepared stories and campaign worlds to Dungeon World's paradigm.

Overall, I'd call Dungeon World "largely successful." It's a very gentle introduction to improv-style gameplay and even moreso than old D&D, it's easy for a player to join the game without knowing the rules. The thing it wants players to do (describe what they're doing in the context of the fiction, not which move they're calling on to do it) could allow a group of complete newbies to just wait for the GM to tell them when and what to roll, making it an attractive entry point to the hobby as a whole (I actually think it might be more difficult for experienced players to unlearn a more traditional engagement with the mechanics). Its only real flaw, in my mind, is that it cleaves to a very particular brand of fantasy (basically 70s and 80s D&D) that mainly appeals precisely to the people who would get the least use out of it ("I want to play a paladin, but I'm looking for a rule-system that limits me to humans-only, and I don't want an AD&D clone" said no one).  I could definitely see myself running a Dungeon World campaign, but I'd be more inclined if it were versatile enough to handle something like Planescape or Spelljammer.

Ukss Contribution: The monster and magic item sections were very good, though. Technically, I'm spoiled for choice, though a lot of the entries were things cribbed from the d20 SRD like Ankhegs or the Bag of Holding. So the thing I'm going to pick is going to relate to the one consistently idiosyncratic bit of worldbuilding the book has - the personification of Death as a specific individual with authority over who lives and who dies. This is reflected in the rules for when you die - when you roll 10+ on the "Last Breath" move, the GM, in the guise of Death may offer you a bargain to allow you to continue playing your character (the example is that you can go on living, but may never see the sun again). It's also reflected in the magic item section, with the Lamented Memento.

It is a preserved lock of hair, said to belong to a girl who fell in love with Death after repeated near-death experiences and whoever holds it automatically gets that 10+ result when they die. A neat, evocative item in a system that is otherwise averse to setting specificity.

1 comment:

  1. I've been following your blog for a bit and was to be honest a little horrified to see what you'd think of DW (as my views as one of the authors have evolved over time), but this was a solid fair and interesting review. Thank you!