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My Dungeon World Experience at NBP8

Dungeon World coverDungeon World might be my new favorite pick-up game. This post is mostly me geeking about it[1], followed by some thoughts on the system. (I tweeted a bit ago that it’s got the best writing I’ve seen out of indieland since Chronica Feudalis & Fiasco. And I’ve been looking forward to playing it since I read it.)

I finally played it at Nerdly Beach Party VIII (The Search For More Gaming)[2], GMed by Hamish Cameron and played alongside the fantastic Will Huggins (of the Actual People, Actual Play podcast) and Garret Narjes. Hamish talks about it a bit on his LiveJournal. I have this thing for playing Halflings like they’re badass ex-Mossad types, so I grabbed the Fighter class and checked Halfling. (I played a second game of it the following morning with the same character, GMed by Andrew “Pipesmith” Linstrom, but I’ll keep my AP to the first game.)

I named him Ben. Ben didn’t need a fucking elaborate name. He’s just Ben the Fighter. Will played Galadiir the WIZARD!!!! and Garret played Thorndir the Ranger. Both of them elves. Fucking elves.

Ben didn’t make a big deal about how he’s one of the chosen people. He and Thorndir talked about the spirits of nature, to which Ben shrugged. You know, hey, one true G-d. His mace, Exodus, was forever blood-stained when he used it to slay his brother during one of the many Halfling Civil Wars — the endless wars being why he left the Halfling kingdoms in search of glory and, possibly, redemption.

The adventure took place in The Shallow Sea (or as Ben said, “We just fucking call it ‘The Sea’). There were some human settlements on stilted platforms.

Over the course of events, Ben made his foes fear him. He fought off fishmen, and chased after them as they fled — “There is no escape!” He found some strange golden gauntlets that he put on. They found an evil sorcerer that was tapping into a demon-rock in one of the settlements, so he did what any self-respecting sellsword does when dealing with evil magic: jump into the water and knock his house down. (The “Bend Bars, Lift Gates” move.) The wizard and his spearmen met their doom, during which Galadiir decided to commune with the damned rock demon.

More stuff happened with interplay, Ben helping the humans who were just subjected to this tyranny rebuild their homes, giving them some of my gold because, man, orphans. And while the two elves were debating the ethics or tapping into a bound demon, storms came in, and a dragon-turtle was about to get up in our business. Uncomfortable with this, Ben decided to Bend Bars, Lift Gates again to smash the rock open. Both times I used this, I picked the “Nothing of value is damaged” option from the list (which I’ll talk about below).

Turns out Ben unleashed a water demon just as the dragon-turtle was about to fight us. Thorndir parleyed with the dragon-turtle to attack the water demon rather than us. It did…after it bit into Thorndir’s arm and tossed him aside. The fight wasn’t going well for the dragon-turtle, so we jumped into the fray — Ben literally, as he kept doing his halfling “I’m going to jump up and punt you with the head of Exodus” thing.

So, funny thing. When you roll for Hack and Slash, and you get a strong hit, you have two options: hit and take no damage, or increase your damage by two and take damage. I did a strong hit with this move, and rolled well. I thought “what the hell, I’ll take damage. Suck it, water demon!”

Apparently the water demon was pretty high level, so Ben, a second level Fighter with 17 hit points, took 16 damage. He lost his mace in the water. This was Not Good Times. The rest continued to attack, and when Ben got up, he grabbed a nearby spear, used his wounds to coat it in blood (since wielding a weapon soaked in Halfling blood is kinda his thing), and threw it at the water demon’s face. BAM! Dead water demon.

They nursed the dragon-turtle back to health, got some demon-tainted water for the wizard, and Ben proclaimed himself Ben Demonslayer. Still, he had far to go before he earned the redemption he sought.

What I think of Dungeon World After Playing It

What I Dig

I like Dungeon World overall. The feel is fun. It takes some of the good ideas in Apocalypse World and sets it in a fun environment.

Unlike in D&D, the sense of leveling not increasing static competency (i.e. raising bonuses) is interesting. Coupled with the fact that the target numbers don’t change either — you’re just rolling the same skill and hoping for a 10+, settling for a 7-9, dreading a 6- — it means you have a very different feel on scale.

In D&D, if I’m fighting a level 1 kobold as a level 1 dude, that’s something serious. If, over the course of my adventures, I get to level four and fight some level 1 kobolds, it’ll be a cakewalk. There’s something neat about the idea that as time goes on and you accumulate power the threats of the past as lessened. Likely my character won’t often run into such threats, but that there’s a real sense of scale shift is key to the reward of D&D, even if the DM never explores that. The players know, and that’s often enough.

That doesn’t seem like that’ll happen in DW. As you advance in DW, you get more hit points, and another option (which may or may not increase one aspect of your competence, and often instead broadens it). Thus scale doesn’t change like in D&D. What seems to be “level” is how hard a monster can hit, how many hits it can soak, how many hits you can soak, and additional moves.

So your level 1 kobold has the same chance of fucking you up as a level 8 water demon — it’s all based on how well you roll on your attacks. Whether the hit is cause for immediate concern is what changes. Thus when you’re of higher level, those kobolds are going to hit you — unlike in D&D. But that also meant my level 2 fighter could take on and hope to match the level 8 (if I heard Hamish’s mutterings right) water demon, and win.

Very different feel for something that shares the same conceptual space. The above isn’t a criticism (unless what you’re looking for is D&D, in which case I guess it is).

Bend Bars, Be Confused

I dug the Bend Bars, Lift Gates fighter move, though both times I used it were very aggressive. Ben, a neutral fighter, still didn’t want to fuck with the lives of innocent people. (Civil wars show you the true horror or metahumanity and all that.) Hamish & I had a quick conversation both times I said “I pick ‘Nothing of value is damaged.”

“But you’re knocking over a fucking housing block into the sea.” “Yes, and in a way that won’t take long to repair. Because, civilians. And strong hit.”

He rolled with it, and we knocked the housing into the sea, knocking the wizard in it around and prone but preserving what I wanted. Still something “of value” was damaged — that was the point. Just not damaged worse than I wanted.

When I broke the rock containing the demon, I again picked that. “I really don’t think that works. You’re smashing a rock containing a demon.” “You said this could be explosive (per the Spout Lore I rolled beforehand). And I’m of value. So I don’t get damaged.” He nodded and rolled with it. Was it in the spirit of the move? We’re not sure, but we kept going.

What I Disliked

The two things I really didn’t care for were advancement and the antagonistic bonds. Advancement is something they’re working on, but the stat highlighting doesn’t do for DW what it does for AW — AW is a bit of a drama, where highlighting Hot means “I want to see you secure and manipulate people in this episode.” DW being a party adventure game, that’s weak. And, honestly, I’m not sure why saying “you get XP for killing shit” is a bad option for a D&D riff.

I quickly ratcheted up the experience with my Hack and Slash stat highlighted and one of the information-generating moves highlighted (Discern Realities). Will’s wizard did similar, since Spout Lore and I Cast Magic Missile In Your Face are both linked to the same highlighted stat. Garret had DEX & STR highlighted, so him firing arrows was good for him, but his information gathering (which he was good at) didn’t help him like it helped Will & I. So he was a good 10 XP down midway through the game.

During a break, I told him and Hamish “Dude, I want to see Thorndir be all ranger-wise and see shit we don’t. Move the STR highlight to WIS.” They both were cool with the change, while expressing dissatisfaction with that part of the game. DW is a game about having a job, and the highlighting system from AW doesn’t jive with it. That said, I know Adam & Sage are working on that.

But what I very much dislike are the antagonist bonds. It’s a huge turn-off for me. In a game where the conceit is “let’s go adventure,” I don’t want baked-in reasons to say “fuck these guys, I’ll find other people.” I accepted it because I had some decent players around me that didn’t needle the “Ben is the subject of my experiments” or “Dodge stole from me and I know about it” stuff, but I could also see where I would just check out of the game if that became an issue. I suspect some people dig those, but I’d like to see more options for bonds to where the players at the table aren’t mechanically penalized if they avoid the antagonistic bonds (and thus be worse off at helping each other[3]).

Those two pieces I didn’t like, but overall I really, really dug it. Enough to play again the next morning. Enough to have some plotting with Colin Jessup for Big Bad Con. And since one of those is being worked on, and the other is easy for me to just edit myself if I care to, those two sticking points will be smoothed over in time.

– Ryan

[1] And because I want in the Adventurers’ Guild.

[2] To NBP peeps: I recognize that this subtitle is apocryphal, but I don’t remember what we actually called it.

[3] Speaking of, I didn’t see a lot of helping each other in the game. Hmm. Something I should think about, with respect to my own play. It could be that the D&D mindset has to be retrained in that regard.

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36 Responses to My Dungeon World Experience at NBP8

  1. Ryan Macklin says:

    Oh, and I love Alignment as a way of getting XP. Hamish also experimented with bonds as an XP generator, which emphasized how much I don’t like them as antagonistic bits and showed some clunk in executing that — as that’s the one place where the action taken is nebulous rather than concrete, and everything in DW where you get XP feels concrete.

    – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Another thought, about XP in DW:

      XP rewards tend to scale as time goes on. Ideally (and made more concrete in 4/e) the same amount of time & relative effort adventuring = a level. 10 level 1 fights make you level 2. 10 level 2 fights make you level 3, etc.

      That’s not the case with DW’s progression. Everything else is more or less close-to-baseline, but XP needs constantly increase.

      Whether that’s good or bad depends on your cup of tea, but it does make the velocity of character change feel different than D&D.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And yet another thought, since I’m using replies to myself…

      The fact that there isn’t a great difference between levels means that having a party that’s has people one or two levels different isn’t the clusterfuck that it can be in D&D. Sure, you’ve had some new options and more hit points, but the scale doesn’t change.

      Which is another interesting thing that I want to chew on some more.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Re: Bend Bars, Be Confused: Talking with John Harper today about the problem I had, he reminded me of this post about moves & player responsibility. Which brought up that the issue with my DW game & Bend Bars, Lift Gates was addressed by “on 7-9, GM picks one…” just like as a saving throw.

      Granted, there’s implicit social rules like “if I don’t like something as a player, maybe I could call bullshit” or whatever. It does make it a different move, and forces you to telegraph your intent rather than leave it open because the dice could tell you to say something different about yourself.

      Something to think about.

      – Ryan

  2. Ryan Macklin says:

    And I do have one comment about the book versus play.

    In the book, I wanted to see a little bit of a write-up about humans, dwarves, etc. — a sense of the platform and what I could expect, and thus riff off of, in Dungeon World. (And a sense of what’s there.)

    In play, I put my foot down about all halfling “stereotypes.” There were vast cities & kingdoms, wars, bloodshed, all that shit. Civilized barbarism that creates fierce fighters.

    I’m not sure how I feel about what I wanted in the text versus what I got to do in play. Still chewing on that.

    – Ryan

  3. Fiction first, Hamish would not have been out of bounds just denying you the “nothing is damaged” option. I’d say “If you don’t want to damage it, do something that doesn’t damage it” assuming we’d established that the platform houses were indeed valuable.

    I’ve run DW half a zillion times now as an intro one-shot, and what I see with antagonistic bonds is that they either form the core of a mutually fun relationship or they are roundly ignored. Also, players can choose to avoid them initially for the most part if they find a little PVP uncool.

    I agree advancement can use some work. I typically run one-shots at 5XP/level, straight up, so PCs are fireballs of hyper-competence and constantly leveling up, which is pure fun. As GM I also make sure their key stat is highlighted – again, one-shot. If their buddy doesn’t highlight it I do. Interestingly, I find alignment XP much rarer to hit than stat highlight XP.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I guess what I’d like to see are two sets of bonds: “Happy” and “Stabby”. That way, the play can be tailored. Because taking stabby bonds and then ignoring them is pretty weak, like ignoring the parts you don’t like about D&D (like encumbrance rules).

      I’m not sure I entirely buy the “fiction first” angle. It’s cyclical. If my intent is to show that Ben doesn’t give a fuck, then not taking it in a player choice that should remain as much as my intent to show that he does. And I see those moves as “And here are my options for what I can inject into the fiction.” (Though he did call bullshit on me picking “quietly” for destroying the demon rock, to which I said “Yeah, that is.”)

      The XP highlight we did was key stat & roll a d6. Randomly benefitted me, screwed Garret, didn’t affect Will.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And yeah, I didn’t see alignment highlighting done much either. I love the idea, and would like to see it rewarded more, maybe. Like, 2 XP or something (depending on how advancement gets changed).

      – Ryan

  4. Jeremiah says:

    I’ve played 4 sessions now (2 one-shots at GenCon and 2 sessions into a 3 session adventure over Google+ hangouts). I really have a great time playing it. There’s something about DW that makes me feel like a teenager sitting in an under-lit room sitting around a table drinking Mt. Dew and eating junk food with friends.

    Anyhow, yeah, highlighting and bonds don’t quite feel right to me, but I have a hard time nailing down why or what to do to fix it. I know for sure I’d like to see more ways for bonds to change in play. There’s the end of session stuff, but I like that there are moves in AW that can affect HX. Something like that in DW would be nice.

  5. Hamish says:

    The main reason I was asking questions about the “nothing breaks” option is that it’s always fun when stuff breaks. I am 100% sure that the way we played it was within the spirit and letter of the rules (although I think the main reason for that option being there is for bashing chests open and breaking treasure).

    I always keep an eye on XP, but I need to keep a better eye on stats and point threats at highlighted stats. I started doing that a bit too late for Throndir.

    And yes, the Water Demon was level 8. Having seen fighters in action from both sides of the screen, they’re more able to handle single higher level monsters (albeit with halved hp in this case) sufficiently to allow the rest of the party to help with the beat-down.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hamish,

      Yeah, I think you’re hitting a bit on why I don’t like closing off options on moves. Fiction-first, I crashed into pillar holding one corner of the nousing block up. We rolled and negotiated options. Then fiction-after, we saw the results of those options.

      That said, I think there’s an implied “justify your choices” in those moves. And in this case, I did. (And didn’t in the “I smash the demon rock quietly,” which we threw out because of the lack of justification.)

      – Ryan

    • John Harper says:

      The rule is: if a choice doesn’t make sense, don’t pick it.

      Sounds like you had borderline cases but you adjusted things so they made sense. Seems right to me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      John,

      Could you tell me where in the book that is? I’m curious to read how it’s stated.

      – Ryan

    • John Harper says:

      Heh, actually, I don’t have a copy of the Red Book. :) They all sold before I grabbed one.

      I’ll have to get the PDF from Sage and do a search. I know that’s the rule in AW, and I’m pretty sure it’s in DW, but possibly written a different way.

  6. John Powell says:

    I’ve played a half-dozen or so games of Dungeon World, and I have to say it is a great game to play with a great DM. However when the DM is off or the players don’t get it, then it doesn’t deliver the fun for me.

    You know what delivers what I love about D&D? The Wrath of Ashardalon board game. The two times I played it at GPNW it provided a fun dungeon crawl challenge, during which I could socialize with new friends and old. No prep, no DM – just exploring the dungeon, killing monsters, and taking their stuff.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      However when the DM is off or the players don’t get it, then it doesn’t deliver the fun for me.

      Is that a criticism of the game? Isn’t that pretty much true of any game?

      What is it that you mean to say here? Is mastery an issue?

      – Ryan

  7. John Powell says:

    Yes, I believe it is a mastery issue. I think that it is a harder game to DM than many other forms of D&D. DMs who haven’t run DW or AW, or just don’t have a natural feel for DW, don’t run it well and there lies misery for the players.

    Without an understanding of how DW is supposed to be fiction first and last, the DMs I have in mind went for an adversarial approach to the mechanics that made me as a player feel like I and the other players were being punished for making bad rolls. Not our characters. Us.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      John,

      Okay. So, what could be done about that? Where did the game’s text fall down on these issues?

      (FYI, honest question. I want to explore more of this thought.)

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      FWIW, the GM is specifically told not to play adversarially in the game text (Red Book p.71). It is relatively buried in a paragraph though, so I can see how someone might not notice it if they’re not having it constantly reinforced by forum and blog discussion. This seems to be a problem that story games can have: important (vital, even) rules mentioned once with the assumption that the GM is reading every word of the book carefully.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hamish,

      Yeah. AW is far worse with that. I’ve seen that happen a little bit with DW, and with a bit of disorganization on the player’s side with options.

      Is there a DW GM book like AW has for MCs?

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      Ryan,

      There’s no separate book. Red Book has a ~10pp. chapter on Adventures. I haven’t compared it to what’s in the AG playtest doc.

      Does AW have a separate MC book? Are you referring to the MC chapters in the main book?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hamish,

      Bah, my language-fail. I meant playbook, like the MC tri-fold.

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      I don’t think so. I think there are just the player playbooks and the basic moves playbook.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hamish,

      It could use a GM sheet/trifold.

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      Ryan,

      From your fingers to Sage & Adam’s eyes!

  8. Mike Olson says:

    I want to try tying XP to treasure. To me, that, more than monster-killing, is an important part of the old-school D&D experience I’d want to replicate. I’m not opposed to XP for monsters as well, but I’d want it to take a backseat to treasure-derived XP.

    I’ve only played DW a couple times and run it once, but I think there’s only been one player I’ve come across who may have used antagonistic bonds in a way that threatened to derail the game. I also recognize I’m probably lucky in this regard.

    Actually, part of it’s probably down to a self-selection factor: I’d think that most people who are even aware of Dungeon World wouldn’t be into using bonds in a disruptive manner anyway. Like Jason said, they’re usually either used constructively or ignored. (Which doesn’t mean they’re not a problem, of course.)

  9. Jeffrey says:

    You may want to take a look at a similar discussion going at story games. It’s addressing possible replacements for stat highlighting and advancement paths:

    http://story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=15141&page=1

    Actually, there have been a few good conversations about DW going on their lately.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, I’ve been keeping up on it. I don’t think any of those have really hit the mark. And in general, I think people go to Keys as a solution too early without actually understanding them as a construct.

      I’m looking forward to what Adam & Sage put forward in the time to come.

      – Ryan

    • Jeffrey says:

      In this conversation we’re using keys to discuss how DW advancement works in order to bring the different mechanisms under a unified framework for evaluation. DW already uses keys, but they are treated like something different. I believe this is the source of the advancement problem.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yes, I’m aware.

      – Ryan

  10. Garret Narjes says:

    For me I think part of the problem was our session of Marksmanship and Coitus. It was high energy, then we had lunch and I was a little slow in the head after that. I felt much better in the evening session once I was slightly drunk. I was into the game and enjoyed it, but it took me a moment to keep catching up to you guys and that had a downward spiral effect on my character.

    I didn’t really dig the Rangers bonds much. Doubling up on you guys, they just felt strange to me. I could have rearranged them and been even more confused.

    Actually, I was left kind of meh feeling about the Ranger in general. I probably could have made better picks for a couple things, but very little of his custom moves came up. His alignments felt like specific reactions to specific situations. I’d be more interested in them coloring specific reactions to broad categories of situations.

    I had a good time though. I definitely want to try it again sometime.

  11. Ian says:

    Mike, I tried ‘When you recover a Treasure, mark XP.’ on Tuesday. My initial impression is that as written, it was too much in the GMs hands. It felt like the players don’t have much agency in whether they find Treasure or not (though I may be overlooking something from the Loot move) and so is not ideal.

    I’ve run the game twice, and I felt that there was more ‘wow’ in the initial Temple of Ungu session than in this restart (3 of the same 4 players). This one felt a little flat in comparison- my prep consisted of picking a Microdungeon map that seemed iconic and that was it. I agree the GM needs to be on his game for DW, and my GMing instincts are still very rusty. That, and I was clearly missing the Morningstar Magic. :)

    I ran from the Adventurers Guild playtest this time, and absolutely missed the First Session and GM sheets. (Not that I’ve run AW). I think I need the principles, dungeon moves and so on in front of me at least until I get a better handle on them.

    • Mike Olson says:

      Mike, I tried ‘When you recover a Treasure, mark XP.’ on Tuesday. My initial impression is that as written, it was too much in the GMs hands. It felt like the players don’t have much agency in whether they find Treasure or not (though I may be overlooking something from the Loot move) and so is not ideal.

      Yeah, that’s what I would’ve expected, which is why I don’t know how I’d want it to work. The Loot Move was a suggested solution on story-games.com, and that seems to make sense on the face of it, but I dunno. A big part of this, again, is that my experience with the game is falling short of my enthusiasm for it, so I hesitate to implement any significant changes just yet.

      It may just be that this particular facet of classic D&D just doesn’t work in DW, loathe as I am to admit it.

  12. Ian says:

    To follow- in the thread Jeffrey mentions there is talk about using Keys instead- I propose that a Key of Greed (rather than the Key of Treasure) at least puts the agency back in player hands, even if opportunities are still controlled by the GM- so still not perhaps ideal.

  13. WillH says:

    I think there needs to be more alignment options. It’s been my experience that if you’re excited by an alignment it’s a license to print XP. If you’re not then it just never comes up.

    I think one problem with the stat highlights for XP is the information moves (INT and WIS) are fun to fail. That just generates bad information and more hijinks ensue. When you fail Hack n Slash or Defy Danger (STR and DEX) you get hurt. So characters with low STR and DEX are not likely to seek out opportunities to roll them, even if it gets them experience. CON and CHA do not seem to come up very much at all, so a highlight there basically means you will get less XP.

    As for helping, it’s not clear how that works when you use bonds for XP. Do you still add the number of bonds you have with the character to their roll? I had the impression that XP was instead of the bonus.

    • Hamish says:

      You’re right about XP, although sometimes you can be excited about the alignment but it requires GM input to fulfill, so it’s not a license to print XP in those cases.

      CON can come up every fight with lots of defending, but that leads to an odd dynamic where fights draaaaaaag if too many people have CON highlighted (or people are hitting on “protect X” bonds). I thought a CHA-focused character might be able to milk CHA for XP better, but it’s hard, even with ordering hirelings a lot (as I did in Andrew’s game) I was a lot slower than my usual hack n slash fighter.

      When I use bonds-for-XP, all the usual bond rules apply, so roll+bonds to aid/interfere. The bonds-for-XP rules are my own experiment, they’re not in any current rule set. Everything else in my game was by-the-book (as I understand it).