About four weeks ago I had the chance to finally play Dungeon World at a local games day. After reading so many comments about the game I wanted to give it a chance and see what all the excitement is about.
I should mention that the game master was very good and I would play in any game with him again. The following thoughts are about the rules, not his performance as game master. I'm writing this based on a brief reading of the free version of the rules, one four-hour play session, and other actual play comments I've read on blogs or G+.
DW strikes me as a game for people who want to like Dungeons & Dragons and want to play the game but have had bad experiences with D&D in the past, either with the mechanics, with bad players, with bad DMs -- the stereotypical "killer DM" -- or with railroad-y adventures, and the game is designed to prevent those problems from occurring.
What I like about traditional RPGs is that the outcome isn't so apparent, and anything could happen. The outcomes of Moves in DW (a mechanic first appearing in its parent system Apocalypse World) aren't always locked and static, but they do have only a narrow amount of room to interpret what happens. Depending on the die roll, one or more outcomes are provided by the Move and are played out in the game. I like the ability of the GM and players in a traditional RPG to interpret the dice vis-a-vis the current situation and decide what happens in that context. It does require an amount of trust between players and the GM, and it seems that DW and similar games are written for groups of players who do not have that trust, although this does make it easy for pick-up games at conventions.
As a result, DW has taken the high-trust mechanics of indie/story games and bolted it onto the frame of D&D. The problem then becomes one of choice. By codifying high-trust into the mechanics, rather than relying on it at the table between players, it loses the amount of freedom of action found in a traditional RPG.
If these types of high-trust mechanics are a necessary part of the gaming experience, they can be added and dropped into nearly any existing system. One method can be seen in FATE. Aspects in FATE provide the some of the same story background/genre emulation function as Moves in DW, with the added benefit of being fluid, without being rigidly locked into set choices and outcomes. Our group has drifted many story game ideas into our campaigns over the past ten years or so -- card-based resolution, greater player narrative control, action/fate/hero points, etc.
Like many other story games, DW runs under the principle of rules-as-written (RAW). Many
traditional gamers play by RAW, many do not. "If you are going to play
the game, use all the game's rules," is what I perceive from many story game rules.
Traditional gamers use the rules, but not always in the same way, and
not always all the rules presented, in more of a toolbox approach. In traditional games, "if it
doesn't seem right, make it up" is where the idea of "rulings, not rules" applies.
This is a case where there are two different play experience expectations. Scrabble and Words with Friends are both games using letters. Pictionary
and Win, Lose, or Draw are both games about drawing pictures. Monopoly
and The Game of Life are both games about "real world" finance, but each
of these are different play experiences. It's OK to choose to play chess, or Dungeon World, or Shadowrun, depending on what you want to accomplish.
Story games and traditional RPGs are not that far apart in what
they are trying to accomplish: the creation of a "storyline" through
play. What many story game systems try to do is use the mechanics to
shape and create the story, while traditional games use the mechanics to
create situations that allow "stories" to develop through emergent play. Where
the difference lies, in my limited experience with them, is in the idea that with story games, the stories
seem to be more preplanned and forced by their rules systems, where traditional games present
situations to be played through without a preconceived notion of where the story might go, independent of system.
None of this should suggest that I dislike DW; it seemed to work well,
and many players love it. Like any other game, it may not be right for
everyone. I thought there were some very clever ideas: using stat
modifiers for some actions (much like True20), and stat penalty conditions, for example. The Move for combat that incorporates a miss by the player with a hit by the opponent is interesting, and still something that I'm wrapping my trad-gamer mind around.
One of the commenters in a recent G+ discussion about DW made an important point -- and I wish I could remember who it was to give proper credit. This person said (paraphrasing) that all it would take to make DW work the way I might expect is to change a bit of the wording in the Moves, from "Choose one or two from this list" to "These are some suggested results:" Give some examples, and let the players make a decision on how to proceed based on their unique situation in-game.
And this is where DW really shines for me: as an introduction to roleplaying for brand-new players. It shows people who are new to tabletop gaming what a game can be like, and what they as players can do. A traditional RPG might advertise itself by saying "You can do anything!", which could be overwhelming to a new gamer. DW addresses this by showing players exactly what their characters can do and what the outcomes might be. I would like to see traditional RPG quickstart rules set up in the same way as DW, rather than the choose-your-own-adventure style sometimes seen in beginner sets. I also like the fast and easy way that characters can be created; again, ideal for pick-up games with new people and little or no preparation.
DW is billed as delivering an old-school gaming experience. I didn't fully have that impression from the short trial that I played, but I may have too little data to fully judge. As some players have discovered, going back to an earlier system can recapture that feeling. Even so, with all of the various role playing games now available, it's easier than ever to find that right play experience for you and your group.