Dungeon World might be my new favorite pick-up game. This post is mostly me geeking about it, 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), 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).
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.
 And because I want in the Adventurers’ Guild.
 To NBP peeps: I recognize that this subtitle is apocryphal, but I don’t remember what we actually called it.
 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.