RPG.LAB REPORT: DUNGEON WORLD
I’m going to say it up front: Dungeon World was my favorite RPG LAB to date with no visible runner up. I had heard a lot about Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (the game from which Dungeon World takes its entire mechanical basis) over the last few years and had pretty much written it off as an overly rules-lite storytelling game with a lot of controversial art and themes. I figured it was a post-apocalyptic hype game that had been artificially elevated to hipster grandiosity on no real merit of its own.
I was entirely wrong. Dungeon World may very well have permanently changed my view of role-playing. As a consequence of this, this lab report is going to be a little bit unusual because we didn’t really have a setting for the game until we started playing.
Dungeon World is a low-prep fantasy RPG with all the tropes you know and love from bog-standard fantasy RPGs. The big difference is that the game is a quid pro quo interrogation that occurs between the GM and the players and the players with each other. There are no rounds, turns or scenes per se. The entire thing unfolds as a result of questions that beg for more detail and story.
So character generation in Dungeon World is great. I love it for several reasons.
First, character generation is incredibly fast. Character sheets are class specific and have all of the relevant information for that character for the entirety of their adventuring career. Your name, appearance, race, alignment, stats and special abilities are all the result of quick selection from your sheet. This does two things I like, it speeds up character generation and it prevents the “against type” and “unique snowflake” brand of player from wasting everyone’s time with the tiresome nuances of their personal adolescent power fantasy. That being said, in my new home game I’ve found that aesthetic restrictions are a VERY GOOD THING for Dungeon World. It points the characters at a specific tone for the game so that it doesn’t uncontrollably sprawl into D&D kitchen sink nonsense.
“I enjoyed [character generation], it was very simple, and it does something very unique (in my limited experience) in the RPG world. It allows you to create your character through gameplay, not through your character sheet. Many systems tout flexible character systems that allow you to ‘build the character you want to play’, through the use of skills, aspects, traits, etc. Since Dungeon World has such a simple action system (more on that later), you really just take your simple character and apply personality. So the coolest thing is, you are not limited at ALL by your character, which is extremely liberating. And extremely FUN.”
“I found the character creation to be very simple, but still interestingly complex when it comes to forming a character. I particularly liked the bonds between party members. It made the group feel more like a team and less like a group of random murder hobos. I found myself more interested in the other characters and what they were doing. How would they react to each other.”
As I mentioned before, we did not have a setting before the game started. It sort of fell out of the story of the characters. As one of the PCs was a Druid that had selected “The Stinking Mire” as her home turf, we started the game there. It eventually became clear that the Stinking Mire was a frogman infested swamp with an ancient, effluvia-weeping toad demon at the center of it that spews corruption into the environment creating all sorts of horrible mutants and evil monsters to come into being. We also found out that there was a town at the edge of the mire called Braggart’s Folly which was run by a scumbag crime boss by the name of Otto Seven-Fingers. Although the town’s economy is visibly based on trade and peat-farming, ultimately it’s a hub for swamp cults and bayou thugs that create some cool problems for our heroes. Especially the peasant-manned poison cult built around the furious spirit of an undead hydra.
It’s very important to note that this setting unfolded from a single check mark on the Druid’s character sheet and dozens of questions asked by the GM and the players. Braggart’s Folly happened after the first session when I asked the PCs where they wanted to go. They said “The nearest town” to which I responded “what’s it called?”, “what’s it like?”, “how does it survive?”, “who’s in charge?”, etc.
“I feel that the setting is very open for all kinds of potential. You need to have the right kind of players because they are such an important part of building the setting. Players can create the town or city they come from during a session and have that mean something more than a line on the character sheet.”
“It’s a hard question to answer, since it’s basically open-ended versus a designed setting like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Golarion. With that said, I like the gaming principle of embracing the player’s design input – it changes the game flow more towards improv, which is a fun change.”
As I mentioned before, Dungeon World is “Powered by the Apocalypse” – the engine first implemented in D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. This is the same engine found in Dungeon World, World Wide Wrestling RPG, Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches, Evil Hat’s Monster of the Week, Sagas of the Icelanders, and MonsterHearts. Given this wild array of settings hinted at in this pile of games, it is safe to say that the Apocalypse engine is pretty freaking versatile.
The engine is based upon the idea of Moves. Moves swing back and forth between player and GM like a pendulum in an endless play of back and forth. Player’s control all the dice (even monster damage) and have an enormous amount of control over the way they engage with the game. Your turn happens when you have something cool you want to do. You then roll a die to determine the outcome – on a success you get your cake and eat it, on a partial success you get something of what you wanted, and on a failure the GM gets to get a little mean and creative and the character gets an experience point (because you only learn from your mistakes!). If you don’t want to do anything, you just sit there and wait until you are inspired or until the GM decides you need some poking to instigate involvement.
Beyond this basic mechanic, there are tons of simple systems for organizing and growing your campaign by way of heavily storied magic items, guidelines for locations and NPCs, and something called a front (like “All Quite on the Western Front”) which helps organize the inspired material you and your players have generated for meaningful future use.
“The Apocalypse World System is perfect for this type of Fantasy RPG. The rules are simple and straightforward. Everything is accomplished with moves that just move along the action you want to happen. It doesn’t get so bogged down in the minutiae of rules and how something can’t happen because of this penalty or needing that feat. I particularly liked earning advanced moves instead of having to go through a complicated leveling process. It leaves more time for the story.”
“As I outlined in my previous answers, Dungeon World affords players unprecedented options by removing some key game structures (especially from a GM’s perspective) and replacing them with an invitation to cooperatively create. From a player’s perspective, it’s interesting characters inhabiting an interesting world, doing interesting things. I think it’s phenomenal, and at the same time can be a very risky endeavor, if the players are not engaged or willing to experiment with the game’s fiction.”
I cannot say enough to praise this game. If you ever see me circling the racks and have questions about Dungeon World or the basics of any of the other games Powered by the Apocalypse, just hit me up and I’ll be happy to gab with you about it.
I had an absolute blast and I think the five players that joined me this month did as well. It is a rare occasion that when I am done running a game for RPG LAB that I am immediately inspired to start running a home game immediately. In fact, it’s unheard of. Except in the case of Dungeon World.
“I’ve never delved much into fantasy settings, but this one had me reconsidering the genre. It seemed to cover every aspect. The material on the website provided some useful expansions of what was in the book. The Apocalypse World System seems to suit fantasy well, but I can’t imagine it lending itself to extended campaigns. At least in the beginning, leveling up seem to happen pretty quick and the complication of the advanced moves to story seems like it would negatively impact a long story arc. As a player, I’d have liked to explore a greater variety of moves and how to apply them. The final session, to me, was incredibly useful. Joel and I often run each other in games, and hearing how to use this system from a GMing standpoint was awesome. Especially to hear it from so many different people.”
“I was very happy with RPG lab, George’s willingness to stop at key “Scenic Vista” points along the way and explain the mechanics was very effective at explaining what is a very new and unique (to me, at least) way of approaching gameplay. I felt that our post-mortem session examining the month’s game was very interesting, and gave us an opportunity to ask questions and deliver feedback about gameplay, as well as giving us an opportunity to ask YOU about any challenges and your experience RUNNING the game.”