Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts on the Dungeon World RPG

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.


Derek Stoelting said...

I have not made it very far into the DW book and I likely won't. I find the writing to be stilted and forced to a point where I feel the author is pushing his version of the rules and anti-traditional rpg game thoughts at me.*

I think the structure appears to attempt to do what you suggest, making it a possible good choice to provide new gamers with a potential positive experience. Yet, there are better written, better layed out books, that accomplish that with a system I enjoy more than that within DW.

*And that's why I haven't posted anything on it.

Trey said...

Good review, Steve. One question though: You seem to be saying the "Moves" obviated some of the need for trust between GM and player, but then go on to talk about story gamer mechanics that require high trust between GM and player. So do you feel DW requires less trust between GM and players or more than trad D&D?

Kaiju said...

@Trey - It appears to require less trust up front because the trust is baked into the rules. The system itself makes the trusted space.

My thought here is that it tries to prevent the possibility of a DM saying "here's a trap that you can't get past", or "rocks fall, everyone dies", or "30 orcs attack you". I don't remember ever playing with people who did such things (close, but not so extreme).

Derek Stoelting said...

I'm going to counterpoint with something I have not yet seen discussed. I'm not a worldly man, so I may have missed the conversation.

Is this then not reverse role railroading? As in, forcing the GM to run the game in a specific style?

Emerson Harris said...

I'm confused about your post regarding trust. My read-through and understanding of the game indicates there needs to be a lot _more_ trust in the GM, since the GM has far more authority than they do in other games (my experiences consisting mostly of HERO, GURPS, FATE, 4E, 3.X, and Savage Worlds - so that's where my comparisons are coming from). Most of the moves involve a lot of trust, I think.

Additionally, while I haven't played it (just picked it up, rolling it out soon to my group), there seems to be a lot of room for table interpretation, moreso than in more static systems like D&D. You roll 7-9, the GM "puts you in a spot." Maybe you swung weakly, maybe you swung well but the orc's shield was exactly where it needed to be and through you off balance, maybe the goblin archer's arrow through you off balance. I would genuinely be interested to hear more about how you find the game's moved to be more "narrow" than any given version of D&D.

@Derek: That's unfortunate - the Dungeon World book was probably the most fun I've had just reading a rules book in fifteen years of gaming. I'm sorry you had a subpar experience.

You are right about the reverse-railroading, to some sense. _All_ games include a sense of style for the GM (you can't play 4E with unbalanced encounters without hacking the system or the social contract, for example), and DW is definitely built on an idea that the game world grows organically and that the player's are big-damn-heroes. Changing that does require some tweaking, but based on my conversations on the forums, it doesn't appear undoable, it just involves playing with the default expectations of the rules.