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February 13, 2013

Dungeon World – The Good Old Days, Only Better

by Michael Langlois

I try to be vigilant, I really do, but I missed the Kickstarter for this bad boy last summer.  Which was a real shame, because it’s exactly the kind of thing I like.  Fortunately, the circle of nerds that I call friends have sharp eyes and grasping claws, and succeeded where I failed.  We managed to sit down to a game last night, but before I get into that, let me give you a quick idea of what Dungeon World is and why it matters.

Remember playing D&D back in the day, when you were a Cheeto-stained, soda-addled young person, giddy with the thrill of role playing for the first time?  Some of you might have gotten into the hobby a different way, but for most, this was the rite of passage into the world of tabletop RPGs.  And it was amazing.

The best part was that we touched the rules only lightly, and mostly as a way to measure success or failure of an action.  It was about shouting and laughing and standing up brandishing a pencil like a sword and cracking the group up with your bold refusal to let the Lich of Unending Smugness get away with his plan to eat the sun.  It was about participating in the story, with just enough support from the rules to make it a game, to have success mean something because the rules allowed failure to enter the narrative.

Fast forward to now.  Pen and paper RPGs have gotten much, much more sophisticated over the years.  And don’t get me wrong, they can be fun as hell.  But they lack the spontaneous freedom of those early days.  They often boast sourcebooks hundreds of pages long, with tons of tables and skills and conditional actions.  What you gain in realistic simulation, you lose in freedom.  And the required level of commitment from a group of friends to dig into one of these can be high.

Enter Dungeon World.  It plays exactly like those old high school sessions, because it’s designed from the ground up for that breezy, story-first type of session.  It’s a breath of fresh air.  There’s almost nothing the players need to know to get started outside of character creation, which is as simple and straightforward as sticking a dagger in a goblin.  It borrows a few bits and pieces from old school D&D-type games with the attribute system and marries them to the narrative elements from more modern games, like the FATE system.  And it does so in a way that’s effortless to get into and play.

We sat down with zero knowledge of the system (except for the GM), and in about 15 minutes were guarding a merchant on the road to a distant city.  In that fifteen minutes, four people created characters from scratch, and had a blast doing it.  Here’s mine as an example, Strom the Bard.  He’s kind of an idiot:

Strom Theramin

Human Bard

Not a particularly handsome man, Strom makes up for it by overspending on clothes and grooming himself past the point of sanity or good taste.  He smells FANTASTIC.


HP: 19

Base Damage: D6

XP: 2

Str: 9, +0

Dex: 12, +0

Con: 13, +1

Wis: 8,-1

Int: 15, +1

Cha: 16, +2

 Alignment: Chaotic “Spur others to significant and unplanned decisive action.”

Bardic Lore: Bestiary of Creatures Unusual

 Weave Performance into Spell

  • ·Heal 1d8 damage (Soothing Ballad of Virgin Silken Thighs)
  • ·+1d4 forward to damage (Poetic Justice)
  • ·Their mind is shaken clear of one enchantment (Clarion of the Third Eye)
  • ·The next time someone successfully assists the target with aid, they get +2 instead of +1 (Rondel of Brotherly Love)

 Inventory (Load Max: 18, Current Load: 2 )

(0) A fine lute named Caroline

(0) Ostentatious Clothes

(2) Dueling Rapier (close, precise)

(0) 3 gold

As you can see, there’s not much to it.  Just enough to hang a character on, not so much that it bogs things down.  Pretty perfect, in my opinion.  The whole system works this way.  There’s a lot of innovative stuff in there, but it never gets in the way of the story, and in fact, contains a lot to help it along.

One example is the success system.  Most attempts to do things are decided by rolling 2D6 and adding the appropriate attribute modifier (so, playing a song for Strom would be 2D6 +2, since that’s charisma based).  10 or better and things worked out exactly as planned.  Less than that, and you might succeed, but you’re also going to get an unintended consequence at the same time.  Or you might fail, causing hilarity to ensue.  Unlike a lot of other systems, its not just a failure to accomplish your task and that’s the end of it.

For example, Strom tried to strike a pose and play a rousing song to give someone a bonus to assist.  He succeeded, but also made himself a target of a nearby archer at the same time.  Could you do that without the roll?  Sure.  But it’s awesome to have the prompt, and the chance to pull it off without a hitch.

To sum up: it’s frigging great.  We had a blast in no time flat, and the system stayed out of our way.  It was just like the Before Times, only better.  Also, it’s cheap.  Like ten bucks cheap.  There’s zero reason for you not to grab a copy and try it out.

If you want to hear a bit about the game from the designers, here’s a panel they did at PAX 2012.  They’re smart guys, and they made a heck of a game.

Read more from Blog Posts, Gaming

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