So, if you read this blog, you might recall a post I wrote a while back about Adventurer Conqueror King System, in which I sang it’s praises, while simultaneously lamenting that the OSR has not availed itself of re-imagining the classic games of yesteryear. Rather, they’ve mostly contented themselves with cloning them, or nearly so. ACKS was a standout in that regard, as it did more than just clone a previous edition. It did a great job of rethinking some of the assumptions of elder versions of classic RPGs, in particular, the end game and class structure. It embraced certain old school elements while pushing the design in a new direction. To save you the trouble of reading my previous comments again, here is the exact quote:
“I’ve always looked at retro-clones with the angle that I’d like to see not just a clone, but an actual modernization of the systems of the past.”
Well, Adventurer Conqueror King System is now joined by a new ruleset which I’ve just read and really enjoyed. It’s called Dungeon World.
Dungeon World is a new system by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel with heavy influences from another system called Apocalypse World. I’m not familiar with that system, but it seems they used it as a baseline by which they designed Dungeon World. And I’m glad they did. Not only does Dungeon World attempt to do precisely what I wanted new systems to do, (modernize the game while adhering to certain aesthetics the early editions evoked), but they do it with a game that is a blast to play. I can say that with confidence, even though I’ve only run one session of Dungeon World. The reason being, that the game is pretty much written to play like how I’m already running my regular D&D game, at least big parts of it. Let me explain.
My main group is currently more than 2 years deep in a 4E D&D campaign. We’ve taken some breaks along the way and we’ve enjoyed some Pathfinder, Castles & Crusades and even ran through The Ghost Tower of Inverness using the 2E rules. But each time we’ve found our way back to playing 4E. While it has it’s flaws, it seems to be the system that is most versatile and satisfying to the very diverse group at my table. From a 12 year old boy and his 14 year old sister with no previous D&D experience, to a 40+ veteran who likes nothing more than to pour cold water on the lofty plans of his DM. From a story gamer who prefers to negotiate rather than fight to a throaty gamer who enjoys when his character wears or integrates trophies of the kill into his garb. For better or worse, 4E has become our game of choice.
Well, anyone familiar with the system will know that 4E rules weight skews heavily towards combat. This is intentional. Part of the design goal of 4E was to compartmentalize the rules, with deep elaborate combat resolution handled mostly by mechanics in one box and simple and freeform non-combat resolution by ability and skill checks nicely in the other. To that end, the 4E designers nobly attempted to design a framework for using those rules, called The Skill Challenge. I think I would be understating it to say those rules were a smashing failure. Not perhaps an unqualified failure though, because the existence of the skill system and the poor implementation of the skill challenge necessitated the creation of a better system by DMs the world over.
This leads us to Dungeon World. Dungeon World is a complete system designed to do exactly what I ended up hacking 4E Skill Challenges to do. That is, to present the players with an exciting open ended situation that they could meet with any ideas that made sense within the story, or as Dungeon World refers to, “within the fiction”. I would then interpret their answers based on the available skill list and set a DC for the roll. The results would never be binary. The roll would always cause something to happen. The higher or lower it was would simply move the needle towards good or bad.
Using this tactic created a great opportunity for me, a person who enjoys letting the dice tell the story. I love doing this because then I never know what will happen either. I would create problems without a solution because I wanted to experience the game just as the players did, not knowing the outcome in advance. This is a core tenet of Dungeon World, “To play to find out what happens”. Also, I loved to see my players use their characters to do awesome and amazing things. I created a reward system for “awesome” whenever a player would have a creative idea or solution to a problem that made the story better, more interesting or even just more entertaining. They would get an awesome card to spend when it was appropriate. Dungeon World achieves the same purpose by teaching the DM to “Be a fan of the characters” and by introducing a system of “hold” that can be spent to do cool story related things, allowing the players to influence the narrative on a more fundamental level.
Similarly, the system advocates “leaving things blank” so that the players and GM can fill in the missing pieces during play. This is probably one step beyond what I was even doing. I’d always let the players push the narrative and influence it heavily but it wasn’t so entrenched a concept for me that it was part of my prep. When it was happening in my games, it was often overwriting something I had ready, rather than filling in something I had left blank intentionally. Brilliant.
Lastly, and this is one of the most exciting and, from my experience, modern concepts: Gaining experience for failure. They say good decisions come from Wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience. And experience comes from bad decisions. This is the core concept behind one of Dungeon Worlds experience gaining methods. You can gain experience in other ways, but you always gain experience on a failed roll. When you try something and it leads to bad things, your character is learning, getting better and more able to make good decisions next time. I love this idea. I can’t wait to see how it results in play and where it takes the narrative.
So those are my initial thoughts and impressions of Dungeon World. I can’t wait to take it for a more in depth spin. It really seems like it’s gaining support via online communities and I’m reading all sorts of great buzz for it on forums dedicated to other games. They really have an interesting system here. Kudos to Adam and Sage. My hat is off to them.