Monday, December 22, 2014

Game Stories: Dungeon World

Surprise! I'm not just talking about board games in this series! As I write up these posts, I know that I don't want to stray from my RPG roots, and those roots are what this post is about. So welcome to Dungeon World, a game about something that I call "pulp fantasy", filled with larger-than-life heroes and villains in a fantastical setting. It's the Powered by the Apocalypse game which is the most widely-known in the RPG community, for good reason--it's a really fun game that riffs off of familiar fantasy adventuring with style.


Dungeon World is all about fantasy heroes getting into and out of trouble while exploring a world filled with interesting things. You create characters, get into a situation, and improvise from there. It's a very tight setup that makes use of smart mechanical choices to drive the story forward. When the dice hit the table, things happen, propelling you into the action. How does it work?

Because Dungeon World is a roleplaying game, it has less constraint than a board game, and so relies on the players and a Gamemaster to tell its narrative. It's more flexible, but that also means that it has to have very particular design that directs everyone in particular ways.

Plot In, Plot Out
The root of Dungeon World, since it's a hack of Apocalypse World, is called a "move". You can break a move down into some very simple terms; most moves follow a very precise formula, with a few exceptions.

"When you do something dangerous, roll 2d6. On a 10+, you do the thing. On a 7-9, you do the thing but there's a catch. On a 6-, everything goes sideways."

The party starts when a character does something worthy of a move, such as "acting despite an imminent threat" or "attacking an enemy in melee". (There's a list of moves, each with their own trigger: you Discern Realities when you closely study a person/situation, you Spout Lore when you consult your knowledge about something, and so on.) When they do, they roll the dice and see what the move says to do. Every move starts with an action, and gives an action as the result. Probably the most noteworthy part of the "move" structure is that it doesn't allow for null results--anything you do is either good, mixed, or actively bad.

This means that the story tends to snowball pretty easily. If you punch a goblin in a fight and get a 6-, you might get tossed over the side of the ship, and now you need to find a way to get up! Maybe you manage to roll a 7-9 as you get up, and get back to the railing only to find that you've drawn the attention of the pirates who are attacking your ship! Now what do you do? It's a system that's very adept at throwing characters out of the frying pan and into the fire. Dungeon World is a game of taking risks and getting into trouble, then finding a way out.

Always Asking Questions
There's a lot of question-asking in Dungeon World. Two of the basic moves (Spout Lore and Discern Realities) involve questioning--Spout Lore is itself a question that the player asks the GM (that is, "what do I know about this?"), and Discern Realities lists questions that you can ask about your current situation. And where there's questions...there's answers. This does something very particular, because every answer establishes something about the world, and the game encourages you to establish permanent things about the world. As players Spout Lore, the mythology of the world gets filled in more and more, for example.

The game also advises the Gamemaster to ask questions and build on those answers: "Part of playing to find out what happens is explicitly not knowing everything, and being curious. If you don’t know something, or you don’t have an idea, ask the players and use what they say." I've applied this to character creation, as well--when players are creating characters, I make a point of asking them about the reasons behind their choices. "Where did you get your signature weapon?" "Who taught you that magical technique?" "How long have you had your animal companion?" Often, the answer to that question will lead to another question.

With a good Gamemaster, the various questions being asked and the answers given can begin to converge, building a realer, more interesting world than before. The Gamemaster is encouraged to bring this fantastical world to life, giving it color, texture, and breadth. Dungeon World is a game of exploring the world and discovering new things about it.

New Experiences
One last mechanism that drives play is advancement. Moves spur the moment-to-moment action, questions build the world and the current scene, and the experience point mechanics are the glue that handles the long-term parts of the adventuring. Experience points are what you can spend in order to give your character new advancements, like special moves or the ability to master more magic. You earn experience points in a few ways, and they serve as an incentive for engaging in the story of the game.

  • Whenever you roll a 6- (and thus, when something bad happens), you get an experience point. You learn from your dismal failures, and it's also an incentive to try risky things! Since risky things are what propel the action forward, this is a great way to keep the action moving.
  • You have Bonds with other characters, and when you finish a session of play, you choose a bond which has been explored thoroughly and needs to move on. For example, maybe "I swore to protect Twigg from his enemies," but now Twigg has shown that he is more than capable of holding his own. You'd get an experience point for the evolution of that relationship. This is a great way to make sure that character dynamics are still...dynamic
  • There are a few "achievements" that each give everyone in the group an experience point: discovering something new/important about the world, facing a notable enemy, and looting a memorable treasure. They're a smaller reward at the end, but they reinforce the important parts of Dungeon World: finding stuff, facing great foes, and discovering marvelous treasures!

Earning experience points can be seen as an incentive, or it can be seen as a way of pacing the story: the more the characters do, the faster they change and grow. And since the growth of characters often means a growth in the world, this keeps building the story upwards and forwards. Dungeon World is a game of heroes changing as they learn about the world and about themselves.