My online role-playing group and I recently wrapped up a dozen or so session campaign of Dungeon World. Dungeon World is considered a “Powered By The Apocalypse” RPG, which has been a popular style of game over the last decade. This post is an attempt to summarize my thoughts on the system, comparing it and contrasting it with more traditional RPGs.
What Is Dungeon World and Powered By The Apocalypse
I kept seeing recommendations for “Powered By The Apocalypse” (PbtA) style RPGs and, despite purchasing and reading a number of the systems, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. I’ve played, and usually run, a large number of different systems over the years, so it was strange that this was such an inscrutable concept.
Eventually, the way I’ve made sense of it, is that PbtA has much more of a narrative focus. Rather than trying to simulate the situation in the game, it abstracts it and is less concerned with accurately modeling what’s happening and more concerned with moving the narrative along with a degree of randomness thrown in. The central mechanic is that players use “Moves” which typically involve rolling two six-sided dice and adding the numbers together. If they add to 10, 11, or 12, the move is successful. If it is 7, 8, or 9 it’s a mixed success, and they accomplish what they were trying to do, with a complication. On a 2,3,4,5,6 it’s a miss, which doesn’t NECESSARILY mean a failure, but it usually means trouble. There are *SOME* modifiers based on the character and the situation, but there will usually be FAR fewer than in games like Dungeons and Dragons.
Rather than rolling to determine the outcome of specific actions (such as swinging a sword or throwing a grappling hook), Moves are more abstracted (like an exchange of blows during combat or preparing a grappling hook and taking a number of attempts before catching it on where you were trying to throw it). Rolling a miss when trying to pick a lock doesn’t necessarily indicate failure, but instead perhaps guards stumble upon the thief and must be dealt with.
Generally, players would dictate what happened in terms of their character’s actions (e.g. I talk to the barmaid, I open the chest, I drink my healing potion), the GM dictates what happens in the world around them (e.g. a farmer runs down the main street of town screaming, a storm begins brewing on the horizon, the party comes across a cave entrance). The moves capture moments of uncertainty, which are resolved randomly by a dice roll.
The other element of the system is that the story and world-building are far more collaborative. Rather than the person running the game (GM) having complete control, often players will be given the chance to describe the situation. If the party goes looking for a sage in a town they have recently arrived in, the GM might ask one of the players to describe the sage and his or her shop. This is usually based on the class, so perhaps the Wizard would answer questions about magic in the world, while the Cleric or Paladin would answer questions about the gods.
Dungeon World was created by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra to create an experience that was similar to playing Dungeon and Dragons, but using PbtA, a far more modern system. There has been some controversy around the game and its creators in recent years, but this didn’t bother me or my group.
What I Liked
I really liked the narrative focus on the game and found that it moved quickly and was understandable to the players. Players in the group who didn’t have much experience with role-playing games quickly understood what was happening and how to play.
It was less stressful running games when I knew that I could turn parts of the game development over to the players. Oftentimes, when I’m running a traditional D&D game, players will ask questions I don’t have backstory prepared for (like about a particular guard’s family) and it can be hard to come up with anything on the spot. It was nice to be able to turn this back on them and say “what *IS* this guard’s family like?”
It was interesting to shift the meaning of dice rolls, once I finally understood what was happening. The simple roll (always 2d6, sometimes with a modified) which always had the same meaning was also helpful and useful.
What I Didn’t Like
Part of the game is the GM needs to decide what complications occur and how “hard” they are. Attacking a dragon (hack and slash move) could, on a miss, result in the warrior losing his grip on his sword. Alternatively, it could result in the dragon biting off his arm, permanently maiming him. It’s up to the GM to calibrate this on the fly.
With the wrong group, I could see this leading to arguments where munchkin players would cry that the GM’s move was too hard.
The game gives a couple of pieces of general guidance. First, it recommends that you always defer to the fiction. If dragons are fearsome, overwhelming adversaries, then harsh consequences on a miss are reasonable. If the world teams with dragons who are slain wholesale, then slight consequences on a miss are reasonable. Second, it recommends the GM “think dangerously”, creating a world teeming with adversity and danger. In hindsight, I think I often pulled my punches on moves, which is why Dungeon World provides this advice – the game will be more fun if it’s kept dangerous.
Because the narrative is shared, there is the potential for different “tones”. Some members of the group will be more serious, while others will be more silly. This can lead to strange juxtapositions – for example, a fearsome gangster with a henchman named “Mr. Farts”.
I’d highly recommend role-players give Dungeon World a try! It expands your conception of what RPGs are like and gives some new ideas and tools that you can incorporate in other systems and games.