Difference Between Keys & Highlighted Stats

Some discussion on my post yesterday about Dungeon World naturally went to talking about the advancement system. One of the proposed ideas on Story-Games is to use Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday. And as I read these ideas, I hear a discordant note. This post is my attempt to talk out my own thoughts, and why I hear that false note.[1]

Part of this comes from the Word of Vincent — saying that in Apocalypse World, highlighted stats are fashioned after Keys. People naturally read as “highlighted stats are Keys!” rather than “so, I was inspired by this idea, riffed on it, and made something new.” Thus, people are trying to shoehorn in an idea that doesn’t quite fit. To explain, let’s look at both.

What Are Keys?

Keys are an XP generating system where certain sets of actions, rather than accomplishments, get XP. They have a minor XP game, a significant XP gain, and what’s called a “buyoff”: a condition where you get a bunch of XP and ditch your Key. Clinton explains it in the TSoY open document. Let’s look at one of these keys:

Key of Glittering Gold: Your character loves wealth. Gain 1 XP every time you make a deal that favors you in wealth. Gain 2 XP every time you finish an adventure with more wealth than you started with. Gain 5 XP every time you double your wealth. Buyoff: Give away everything you own except what you can carry lightly.

So a character can get some XP when they wheel and deal, and even more XP when they seek fortune and succeed. Two paths for a Key, of two different rates, reinforces a sense that while this is a character’s agenda, it’s not just one-note.

The buyoff is interesting in TSoY, because it suggests a narrative arc. This character could go through an entire game as a greedy dude, sure, or at some pivotal moment he could snap, change, and give away everything he owns. It suggests creating a platform through play, and tilting it at a dramatic moment.

Two ways to engage the Key while keeping it, and one way to break it. Keeps the idea of Key engagement fresh rather than one-note, and gives you a reward for being done with that Key. It’s still one of the most celebrated mechanics in indieland — to where people try to fit it in where they don’t quite work.

It need not always be an action, either. In the Key of the Coward, you have:

Key of the Coward: Your character avoids combat like the plague. Gain 1 XP every time your character avoids a potentially dangerous situation. Gain 3 XP every time your character stops a combat using other means besides violence. Buyoff: Leap into combat with no hesitation.

Which pushes the idea of Keys as being “demonstrate this in the fiction” over “try this action.”

(Incidentally, Judd Karlman has a neat idea for his long-standing TSoY hack called Banners, which are a sort of Key that you place on yourself that other people do to you, like “The Banner of the Bullied Kid” where people get XP if they bully you. Hot stuff.)

What Are Highlighted Stats?

Highlighted stats are certain, chosen stats that when rolled for any reason give you XP. It doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, you get the XP.

Stats are highlighted by other people — the GM and another player typically, though I’ve seen random rolls. They then, ideally, push forward certain actions that other people want to see your character do.

In Apocalypse World, you generally have five classes of things to do, falling under five stats: being a Hard motherfucker with force and combat, being Cool under pressure and doing what’s needed under fire, being Hot and manipulating everyone around you, being Sharp and discovering things about the world that give you the edge you’ll need, and being Weird with the whack-ass strangeness that’s happened after the apocalypse.

So when a stat is highlighted, really a class of action is highlighted.

(There’s a bit of fiddle there were you can take options that shift one class of action to using a different stat under certain circumstances, which means you need to pay attention when highlighting stats that you’re actually highlighting the class of action you intend. Like, if my character uses Weird for manipulating people, and you highlight my crappy Hot not realizing that I don’t need to use my Hot to do that class of action, there could be a problem. On the other hand, if you know what you’re doing and you highlight my Hot, you’re saying you want to see me manipulate people and have a difficult time with it, which could also be cool. All things depending. A tangent, but I figure worth a mention.)

The Issue of Player Control

You pick your Keys. You pick when you buy off your Key. You pick the new Keys you buy.

Other people pick your highlighted stats. And they pick again after every session.

This is pretty significant. Highlighted stats are flags to people that they want you to see your character try certain things in the coming session. Keys are about you saying what your character is about. And while highlighted stats may have come from Keys, there are several steps of evolution there that makes then genetically incompatible. Homo sapiens Keyus can’t mate with Homo sapiens highlightus.[2]

Rewarding someone the broad strokes of available actions is far different from rewarding them for more specific character actions. Telling me you want me to be Sharp this session isn’t the same as telling me you want me to make deals that favor wealth. If my goal for a given session of play doesn’t match what I’m told I need to do to be more awesome — like if I just got off work and this time just exercise some badass fighting fiction — then that session of play is going to go flat either because I play how I wanted to or be rewarded. When then highlighting action is about broad strokes as in Apocalypse World, then you get that sweet marriage between player agenda and rewarded actions.

And if the solution is to make Keys generic rather than about specific actions, well, then they aren’t really Keys, are they? People are heavily drifting the Key concept in that S-G post, and those ideas would be better served by dropping the attachment to Keys (and the potential miscommunication therein).

Why I Don’t Think Keys Fit in Dungeon World

Dungeon World is pretty slim and speedy. Would adding another subsystem on top of that like Keys weigh it down? Maybe.

And would they really be Keys if they had one path of XP gain, and lacking a buyoff? Yet, if you include a buyoff, you change the economy of advancement and need more Keys to replace that with.

On top of that, are the actions driven by Keys compatible with the ideas of Dungeon World? If the Keys are “get rewarding for doing something other than adventuring and kicking ass as a party,” you’ve got a problem. Same problem you’d have if you put Keys in D&D. In fact, I would look at “would it break D&D” as a (albeit weak) litmus test, at least with regards to advancement.

Why I Don’t Think Highlighted Stats Fit in Dungeon World

The actions in the source game, Apocalypse World, are varied. You use Sharp to discover things, Hot to manipulate people, Hard to kill motherfuckers, etc. When you have two highlights, you have two out of five broad courses of action that reward you, even if you don’t want to do one or both them.

In Dungeon World, they’re split: Int & Wis discover things. Str & Dex both kill fuckers. So, what happens when you have Int & Wis highlighted? Or Str & Dex? Then you have just one course of action that rewards you.

Then there’s the point of the game. Apocalypse World is a complex, dangerous drama. By changing someone’s highlights, you’re signaling “hey, let’s see your character go in this direction during this segment of the drama.” That’s about celebrating doing something different. Dungeon World is pretty much the same thing day in and out: kill monsters, take their stuff. That style of game is about celebrating variations on doing the same thing.

What Would Fit in Dungeon World?

I don’t know. What’s Dungeon World about? What’s the thing we should be rewarding each other for? What are the actions and events that are worth triggering character change and evolution?

Start there.

Where would I start? Here’s my take: Dungeon World is about being bold.

– Ryan

[1] Which means my conclusions could be wrong, though I stand by my analysis of Keys & highlighted stats.

[2] File under “more terms I will never put into Google while safe search is off.” JUST IN CASE.


37 Responses to Difference Between Keys & Highlighted Stats

  1. tony dowler says:

    Woah! Yeah, I think you just hit something on the head with your characterization of Dungeon World. I don’t have an answer for the XP question either. However I will note that the alignment systems in DW works really, really well. It moves characters to do interesting (and often bold) things that they might not normally do. Often it’s something interesting they were on the verge of doing, but just needed a little boost. Could the alignment system somehow become the whole of XP in Dungeon World?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I don’t know if alignment would fit as the whole of it. For those alignments that are tangential to adventuring rather than supporting it, that disincentivizes adventuring. Like the Evil Cleric’s “disturb the dead” thing. So, maybe it could work, if it was heavily restructured. But I don’t think that would produce the same fun as what alignment does right now.

      – Ryan

  2. Carl Klutzke says:

    Being Bold is good, but I don’t think that’s all there is. In the one DW adventure I played in, we befriended the goblins (drugging them helped), and we sneaked around the epic battle between the kobolds and the lizardmen (IIRC). We did well and had a great time because we were Clever.

    Not that Cleverness and Boldness are mutually exclusive. Sometimes you have to be bold to act upon your clever plan (as Graham was when he put the drugs in the goblins’ food). I would just want to make sure that being clever didn’t cost you the opportunity to gain XP, because you didn’t boldly rush forth and kill things (especially if you were the thief or the wizard).

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Good point. I don’t mean to (though I can see where it looks like it) suggest that “bold” is “one note.” So, yeah, I’d boil it down to boldness & cleverness. Totally. \m/

      – Ryan

  3. Carl Rigney says:

    How about just getting XP any time you roll doubles? Encourages players to make moves, which increases the number of misses, which increases the fun for all.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      That might work for some people and some games, but utterly random XP would be an instant turn-off for me. Games like this should reward the action itself (or the results of), not fickle luck.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Though I do see the merit in potentially rewarding any action rather than a specific one, which might be more in keeping with the D&D vibe DW inherits. So maybe if that was not the main way of gaining XP, but one of, say, three or four pillars of advancement…


      – Ryan

  4. John Powell says:

    I like the (someone else’s) idea of getting XP for failed rolls in DW. That’s quick and easy, and takes a little of the sting of rolling 6-. It gives incentive to sometimes lead with your weakest stat. That’s cool.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    I’ve been puzzling over what exactly DW is actually about. The notion that being bold is the impetus hits pretty close to it. However, I think it goes a little further than that. Maybe something like, “perge sequar.” The concept that each player agrees to the support the “bold” actions of other others. It may be different for other people, but I think the core of the experience is pushing the envelope, together.

  6. Judd says:

    I agree that keys feel like a clunky addition.

    Yeah, DW is about being bold and I’d make an addition to that. DW is about being bold with your friends amidst cool magical shit.

    I feel like the secret is with Bonds, re-working those questions and making XP being about playing one’s alignment and being bold with one’s friends.

  7. Ian says:

    Eh, I have zero investment in the term ‘Keys’ and my list of ‘Dungeon Boldness’ is a drift (from a concept I’ve never experienced in play) in that there is no buyoff, yes. It’s just a term to me, a means of structuring a list of encouraged and rewarded behaviours that reflect (albeit with an ironic slant) my dungeoncrawl experience.

    What does being bold and clever in DW mean to you? Does it mean any of the things I listed out in the story-games thread?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Eh, I have zero investment in the term ‘Keys’ … It’s just a term to me

      *wince* Knowingly or carelessly misusing a term people in a community understand is pretty weak.

      – Ryan

  8. Ian says:

    Ouch. Can’t seem to reply to your last post, Ryan. I know I’m going to come off as a defensive ass here, but that’s the internet as a medium for you. :)

    That’s a reasonable sentiment, but I didn’t knowingly intend any such thing. Maybe carelessness, but I’d feel even that was a bit harsh- I thought I was pretty explicit throughout the thread and specific post that I don’t have any play experience with Keys and have never drafted any before and was asking for feedback. It is a thread on ‘Using Keys in Dungeon World’ after all, and that’s what I thought I was posting.

    Then along comes your blog post and makes me think that maybe what I’m looking for isn’t Keys at all, and 1. not having buyoffs and 2. the player not choosing them make what I wrote ‘not Keys’. Which is probably the sort of feedback I could use, and also a much more interesting line of conversation to focus on in terms of ‘what ARE we looking for’?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      (I keep my blog comment threads to two levels as an experiment. It was looking kinda bad at five levels, with thin, long comments. That’s why you can’t reply to second-level ones. I wish I had time to make it so the reply button was there anyway, so it was more intuitive. But anyway…)

      specific post that I don’t have any play experience with Keys and have never drafted any before and was asking for feedback

      If you’re going to talk about something you have no experience on, expect to get called to task. I did a lot when I was new to Story-Games. And that drove me to get a crapton of experience. Otherwise, expect people to give you the “your out of your element, Donnie” treatment. ;)

      To get to your other question: your advancement scheme doesn’t do it for me, either. The focus on specific action has the same issue as I mentioned above. I’m also starting to think that specific XP triggers work best in a game where the expectations for what you’ll do are broad. In DW, it’s narrower, so it gets hollow.

      Right now, based on this post & the comments, I’d try:
      * Alignment XP
      * Monster/Encounter XP — equal to level
      * Once per “scene/beat”, Failure XP — mark XP when you fail a roll

      I wouldn’t do anything with Bonds for XP, though a new thread on Story-Games has suggested the idea of acting on Bonds giving a +1 forward. In any case, the idea of a pillar of three or four ways to get XP, tied to the results of action rather than the actions themselves, feels more dungeon crawl-y than other schemes I’ve seen.

      – Ryan

  9. Ian says:

    I was feeling mostly either encouragement or indifference on the thread rather than censure, but thanks for the warning! I could have left my throwaway joke Key titles as precisely that, but one way to learn stuff is to try.

    I think there is something lacking with them, too- possibly you’ve hit on what I was fishing around for with my comments on ‘repeatability’. Following your thoughts about the focused nature of DW, a list of actions has to be very precisely calibrated. I guess I got caught up in trying to make a better mousetrap rather than asking if a list of actions was the right tool at all.

    This may also be why some Bonds or Alignments are much easier to bring into play at present, as in your Evil Cleric example. A player in my game (initially) threw away his Fighter playbook when I offered him a Last Breath bargain to switch to Good to Evil. Not because of any ethical or roleplaying reason specifically, but because I’d “chosen the worst one for XP.” He wound up taking the bargain after some table talk, the above reason came out later.

    +1 Forward is less permanent than XP as a Bond reward, but some oddities would remain-
    Some characters have more statements than others (a ‘balance’ consideration FWIW if it’s more than RP)
    I still think that Bonds in DW refers to two unrelated (after chargen) things, one or more relationship/backstory statements and a help/interfere modifier. But I may be alone on this one, so probably disregard. :)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I was feeling mostly either encouragement or indifference on the thread rather than censure,
      Doesn’t surprise me, given the thread & current fashions. :/

      And yeah, if the Bonds were to be mechanically used beyond “fill this in to create starting history”, they’d totally need to be reworked. When I was using them for Mythender (which I may still do), I had to make sure they focused on reasons you wouldn’t kill each other (as the only time Bonds are mechanically used are when you regretfully decide to kill each other.)

      – Ryan

  10. Ian says:

    From Good To Evil :)

  11. Mike Olson says:

    Divorcing XP from the six stats is a must, for the reasons you stated. The stats aren’t areas of proficiency or aptitude in DW — they’re pretty concrete things you can do. And oftentimes that ends up being so specific that it doesn’t encourage creative play.

    Personally, I like the idea of five ‘crawl-related themes that reward XP. Each player picks two for his character — or maybe one, and then another player picks the other. Either way. They’d be things like Treasure, Glory, Exploration, etc. Stuff that makes sense for the D&D sub-genre. Everyone picks from the same list, so you don’t have a big proliferation of themes that might detract from the game’s focus on dungeons and crawling therein.

    So when you roll dice and take a risk directly related to one of your themes, mark XP. Or maybe each would have a specific condition, a la alignment, that specifies how it gives you XP. (Of course, that’s starting to sound a bit more like Keys now….) But it’s gotta involve risk — or being bold, as you suggested. It can’t just be, y’know, “I get to mark XP because I opened a door and one of my themes is Exploration.”

    Truly what I want out of my old-school D&D is XP for treasure, but I understand that that doesn’t work quite so easily for Dungeon World characters, since the presence of treasure (or lack of it) is largely up to the GM, which takes away some player agency there. And I don’t really like “Mark XP when you Loot and find treasure,” because that just rewards rolling well (and also threatens to tilt the whole experience precipitously toward everyone just looting everything all the time).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Personally, I like the idea of five ‘crawl-related themes that reward XP. Each player picks two for his character — or maybe one, and then another player picks the other. Either way. They’d be things like Treasure, Glory, Exploration, etc. Stuff that makes sense for the D&D sub-genre. Everyone picks from the same list, so you don’t have a big proliferation of themes that might detract from the game’s focus on dungeons and crawling therein.

      If you can honestly tell me how that fulfills rewarding different action rather than just weaker/stronger motivations for the same action, you _might_ have something.

      But then we’re playing a game about the same action, so it falls apart again.

      – Ryan

    • Mike Olson says:

      Are we, though? If I mark XP for Exploration and you mark XP for Glory, aren’t those going to encourage different sorts of actions? I’m going to want to stick my neck out to discover something new; you’re going to want to do the same to strike the killing blow on that dragon. And neither of us is going to be as interested in the dragon’s gold as our buddy with the Treasure theme. These seem like different things to me.

      I dunno — I see it as encouraging types of behavior, but not specific actions. I freely acknowledge that there’s something in there that I’m just not getting, because I don’t get stuff all the time.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, flagging different behavior for the same action totally doesn’t do it for me. It doesn’t drive interesting play, and it tries to do something that isn’t a dungeon crawl adventure. For another game? Sure. For DW? Meh.

      – Ryan

    • Ian says:

      Do you really see just one action in DW? I agree it’s a focused theme game, but exploration/phat lewting/fighting/healbot/sneaking/problem solving are all actions within that theme.

      We may be using different terms. I agree the objective or desired result of most of these is slaying more monsters and taking their stuff. But you have to find them first. Then reach them. Then take their stuff. And keep your allies alive while they do all that.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I do. It’s all the same cycle of actions to achieve a goal…since DW is about a focused goal. AW is about “make your own goal.” Huge difference.

      Make your own goal + highlight methods = interesting. Doesn’t seem to fit with focused goal.

      – Ryan

    • Ian says:

      Make your own goal + highlight methods = interesting. Doesn’t seem to fit with focused goal.
      My thinking hasn’t arrived there quite yet. Certainly I’ve less design experience to base it off. Is the play space between ‘I want to see you defeat monsters with guile’ vs ‘with brute strength’ vs ‘I want to see you grubbing for treasure’ really too small to make meaningful differences?

      But, for the sake of argument, say we don’t reward some set or list of actions that lead towards this focused goal…
      So… method? Is that distinguishable from action? Style? Motive?
      Or are we just using results? Rewarding for having succeeded at the goal of killing monsters and taking stuff.

  12. Carl Klutzke says:

    Can I question the fundamental premise that XP are the right rewards for players doing what the game wants them to do? I’ve struggled with this for some time. If XP are cashed in to increase your character’s abilities, then the consequences of granting XP seem to be a likelihood of the player/character gaining XP at an increased rate in the future. Conversely, those players that aren’t gaining XP because they aren’t doing what the game wants them to do are, relatively speaking, becoming less effective, and thus even less likely to do what the game wants them to do. Is this the best way to engage those players?

    I get that character advancement and development are important. I get that rewards and incentives are important. But I’m not sure they should be linked.

    (And tying XP to accumulation of loot seems doubly problematic: you’re already getting new in-character resources, why add the additional reward of out-of-character resources as a result?)

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      A valid criticism, to be sure. Heather it fits or doesn’t in a game looking to recapture old school magic with fewer of the problems, well, there’s the rub.

      Not that I have an answer right away. Just that the concerns of DW are several rather than singular.

      – Ryan

    • JDCorley says:

      An apt comparison might be Smallville – in my ongoing game a player complained his character wasn’t gaining much effectiveness. We worked out that it’s because he keeps winning. If you want a character that advances in that game, you make one that struggles, gets in over their head, has bad tactics, pisses off his friends and falls for everything the enemy tries. If you want a character that achieves their goals and succeeds, even with some struggle, you will have a character that doesn’t advance much, if at all.

      My job as a GM in the game is (among other things) to come up with bad guys and consequences that are bad/terrible enough that people really want to defeat/avoid them. This means character growth hurts.

      I never played anything “old school” style, I came to D&D at the Red Box and played it like a Monty Python routine for most of 7th-8th grade, so I don’t know if this would work for DW, of course, but it seemed a comparison that might illuminate.

  13. Garret Narjes says:

    I just realized that a joke game-within-the-game I started in one of my groups may help give some inspiration. My dwarven barbarian was bored one day, so he started the Dwarven Door Game. You get one point for being the first person to open a door. You get one point for participating in a fight (lost if you leave the fight early). Whoever gets the most points, and survives, wins.

    This is usually played in my pathfinder games and almost always results in someone dying. I tell people stories about how all but one participant died… and they still want to play. Players who have lost more than one character to this game come back and want to risk it all for points that don’t matter in a game that no one remembers who won.

    • Carl Klutzke says:

      There’s some interesting commentary on human nature there: we’ll risk a lot for points that don’t matter.

    • Garret Narjes says:

      That’s definitely part of it. People are competitive and even the illusion of a competition can spur them on.

      I think partially Pathfinder play can be a little dull and monotonous, even when it’s “dangerous” for the characters. The Dwarven Door Game is basically Russian Roulette, except you don’t know how many chambers are loaded. It’s starts to tap into some excitement and fear not normally present, so people latch onto it.

      A “dungeon crawl” is often just that, a crawl. The Dwarven Door Game is a “dungeon sprint”.

  14. Could you reward the moves directly? Say, reward when a player uses “hack and slash”. Player could choose it, or another player could choose for you but you could also have the GM declare an adventure move that if any player uses they get XP. They could even introduce custom move for the players to really change up what the players are doing in the session.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I had that thought briefly, too, but it actually makes the problem worse by making characters even more one-note rather than adaptable and flexible.

      Relly, the fetishization of AW needs to get ditched if DW is going to be strong on it’s own. Yes, it came from AW. It deserves to be unshackled and be it’s own beautiful, awesome thing.

      – Ryan

  15. Sooo…if DW (and similar games) are about overcoming challenges what if the different types of XP were different types of challenges. One player might get XP for defeating monsters in combat, one for outwitting them, another for bypassing traps safely and then yet another for finding new and interesting locations. Not an exhaustive list, but an indication of what I’m thinkng of.

    It’s not without problems (a lot gets put in the hands of the DM for a start) but it has the virtue of emphasizing a broader variety of challenges and colourful situations.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      You may want to read my above comments. I’m tired of restating them. :)

      – Ryan

    • I read the comment you refer to. I feel my suggestion is subtly but significantly different. It does not prescribe a course of action toward the challenge (or it shouldn’t once written in a more formal form than a blog comment – I guess it should be overcoming monsters (period) not via combat or via non-violence) so it’s about the nature of the challenges overcome, not the types of activity.

      If you don’t see a difference, that’s cool. I do, obviously, but it may not be material.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      “Hmm. You know, an apple pie doesn’t work as a dessert with this meal. No fruit pie does.”

      “What about cherry pie?”

      “Did you read what I said?”

      “It’s different from apple!”

      – Ryan

  16. Carl Klutzke says:

    Any thoughts on Rob Donoghue’s blog post for today as it might apply to XP in DungeonWorld?