A Dungeon World XP Experiment

At Big Bad Con, I was hanging out with the LA Quartet — Andrew Linstrom, Colin Jessup, Hamish Cameron, Morgan Ellis — and we were about to play a wacky little hack of Dungeon World run by Colin. We’ve been talking off and on, in person and online, about the XP issue with Dungeon World. When that came up in this game, well, here’s roughly the exchange:

Colin: So, highlighting. I was thinking the “highest/lowest” stat way.

Hamish: Man, I fucking hate that.

Me: Meh, it’s not like highlighting works anyway.

Colin/Others: Well, I think it can.

Me: [wanting to get back to the game] Well, fuck it, let’s try this…

I took a piece of paper and wrote down six things. I handed it to him, saying “Stats don’t work. Folks who talk about highlighting decision points or different phases of an adventure don’t get it. Let’s just do this and move on.”

Colin’s face lit up. On that piece of paper, I wrote:

  • Attack
  • Stunt
  • Defend
  • Discover
  • Converse
  • Aid/Interfere

I wasn’t sure if it’d work, but it was closer to Apocalypse World’s feel, in that each stat has a vibe to it, and in DW that gets muddled.

Attack covers moves that intend to damage someone else: Hack and Slash, Volley, wizard spells, whatever. Doesn’t matter with what.

Stunt covers doing crazy shit in order to actively survive or gain position…in other words, Defy Danger.

Defend covers keeping others from harm as well as coping with grievous sitautions: Defend, Saving Throw, healing moves, etc.

Discover covers moves that add information, like Spout Lore or Discern Realities. The Cleric’s move that ask questions of the dead also works, etc.

Converse covers interpersonal actions, like Parley.

Aid/Interfere covers doing an Aid or Interfere move with another PC.

(Initially, I didn’t write down “Aid/Interfere” until toward the end of the session. And really, I just wrote down “Aid.” The “/Interfere” part came as I thought about it later.)

It was a decision that we could do, and it was quick. We went around the table, introduced ourselves, and the someone else per DW rules picked a highlight.

Andrew played a psychic minister who could project walls of force[1]. His moves to create walls of force that have hold to project others was a Defend move, so I was all over highlighting his Defend. His Attack was also highlighted.

Hamish played a swarm of cats that…fuck, I can’t remember all of his badassitude, but he was pretty cool. I will always forever treasure my relationship with Meow Mix. Because he could split off into different places and he had decent Wisdom, someone highlighted his Discover. His Attack was also highlighted, I think.

Morgan was playing a giant demolition robot, and we were joking about the Converse highlight, saying “Who the fuck would want to highlight Converse?” Colin laughed, so after someone highlighted his Attack, Colin said “Yeah, I totally want to see you as a giant robot try to talk your way through. Converse.” (There was totally an implicit “…motherfucker there.”)

I was playing a fucking gargoyle — a seismic hawkoid — named Church. I had a plasma rifle in the 40 Watt range, and I was all about using my Death From Above move. They wanted to see me fly and get all aerial crazy, so my Stunt was highlighted. As was my Attack. We all had Attack highlighted.


We took a moment and pondered that we were suddenly shifting to more AW-esque language. “I want to see you do X, so I highlight Y.” That language felt lacking in DW. Already, we’re jazzed because I know that folks want me to get all tricked out-crazy with Defying Danger at every turn. Morgan internalized Converse to mean that his robot was “a robot of the people,” and he kept trying Parley when we faced down other robots. “My brothers! Let us not fight!” (His CHA was shit, so it didn’t really work, but it was pretty fucking memorable.)

There’s something about highlighting parallel intent that makes it work.

Parallel: things that we can all do at the same given moment. Part of the issue with some other suggestions is that they weren’t parallel — if you could only highlight something like “I get treasure,” and I have “I hit a thing” highlighted, these aren’t parallel.

Intent: saying “I want you to use a stat” is not inspiring language. Saying “I want to see you do X” is. By communicating & pushing forward that, you charge the engine of the game. In AW, intent & stat are intertwined. Here, they aren’t, since multiple stats can serve the same intent and a stat can serve dramatically different intents.

And it sung, not despite but because of the highlighting. The game was amazing. Andrew’s psychic preacher was Defending, my gargoyle was charging forward with one of Meow Mix on my shoulder to spot things, and Morgan’s robot was regretfully punching out his brothers in sheet metal after they failed to see the wisdom of his words. We were doing what we all wanted to see, and getting juice for it.

We ran a short adventure, maybe a couple hours. By the end of it, we were all at or just about to hit Level 2, within 2 XP of each other. Parallelism at work, baby. We walked away thinking that this had promise to it. It was natural to highlight Attack this session, but I think that’s in line with the whole “highlighting the core stat the first time” thing. I haven’t had a chance to try this since, and I don’t know how well it’ll work out in multi-session play. But that’s what further play is for, and this idea warrants it.

(And yes, I’m willing to say that I was wrote to entirely dismiss Highlighting in DW. Though, looking out of the box is what sparked the experiment in the first place, so there’s always fruit in that.)

I look forward to seeing what the LA Quartet do with this. And I’ll be running Dungeon World on this Sunday at the EndGame Mini-con, and I’ll be using this there.

– Ryan

[1] Why, did I just reveal something? Perhaps I did…


28 Responses to A Dungeon World XP Experiment

  1. Hamish says:

    For those following along at home, my cat swarm had the psychic ability to sense a small distance into the future.

    I’ve been wondering about how well some of this maps onto DW. Conversing in particular may need to be broadened?

    I also think it’s worth noting that the “Saying “I want to see you do X”” part of the system is what we had been doing in DW (and AW) all along, and we then translated that into a stat to highlight. This system cuts out the middle man and I love cutting middle men. Out. Cutting out, middle men.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Well, while we were using a hack, that was just a series of color & custom moves. The base was the solid DW moves, and that’s mostly what we used.

      I think there’s also something to using action highlighting in dungeon adventure design. “Oh, shit, someone highlighted Converse? I’d better make sure that can happen.” My gut says that conversing might be narrow enough — either people will make use of it, like Colin, or they won’t and it won’t happen. But my gut could be wrong.

      And yeah, I think something gets lost when you have the one step removed. You might say “I want to see you be a badass archer, so highlight Dex” but then you’re in a situation where you can’t volley and so doing Hack and Slash (an action with the same mechanical effect but cutting out the reward cycle) feels like a disappointment. And it leads to that blind spot where you focus on the stat rather than on that initial intent once you get into the thick of play.

      – Ryan

  2. Jerry says:

    This worked well in Companions too, but I like your language for assisting the players in finding the right highlight move themselves. Gonna steal that!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      You know me and language design… :)

      – Ryan

    • Jerry says:

      Oh, and I also made help (but not hinder) a highlighted move for everyone, as it feels themely.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      You doing that is what gave me the idea for it. Maybe testing will show to take out “interfere,” but I’ll leave it in for now, for parity.

      – Ryan

  3. Colin says:

    Morgan played the Giant Robot :)

    The really neat thing about this XP method was that everyone leveled within a move or 2 of each other at basically the same time. That is something I have never seen before in AW or DW.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Right! Gah, Morgan. I recall doing that once while we were at Lanesplitter, too.

      And yeah, I think for the DW experience, parity on leveling is good. You can get away without that in AW.

      – Ryan

  4. Carl Klutzke says:

    I love the “I want to see you do X” idea.

    And I’m very amused by the “swarm of cats” character, because it reminds me of the flock of ravens I played in a particularly enjoyable Amber one-shot.

    But I’m not sure what you mean by parallelism. Can you elaborate?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Parallelism, which I just threw out there as a word in this post, is my way of trying to communicate the idea that advancement in an adventure game should be able to happen for everyone at the same time. That if we’re both in a moment together — a scene, action beat whatever — and we can both possibly gain XP, then we’re parallel. Even if it’s a stretch, if it’s possible then it’s still parallel. If we’re in a moment together and only one of us can do so — like if we’re attacking a foe, because, you know, FOE!, and I get XP for attacking but you get XP for looting bodies, that’s not parallel. It _might_ have parity, in that I get XP now and you get XP when there’s a body to loot, that’s no parallel.

      The reason that’s a problem is that creates a lopsided play relationship. It stops feeling like “our scene” or “our game” and feels like “your scene” or “my game,” because that focus is difficult to ignore.

      Now, when that’s a design intent and it’s executed well, right on. But most people throwing out ideas for DW (which is awesome, because that’s how good ideas happen) aren’t seeing the necessity of parallelism in adventure game design.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Incidentally, drama-focused games, by contrast, don’t need parallelism. Some might even be better without it.

      – Ryan

  5. Jeffrey says:

    So…maybe what should be done is replacing the stats with the actions.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Nah, that goes away from the classic feel. And that potentially breaks something that does actually work. At least, I’m pretty sure at that point I’d check out.

      Part of the charm of adventure games is how different approaches can yield the same results. There’s a different feel to me having a high STR and you have a high DEX, even though they’re both a high ATTACK! rating.

      If they were to get squished together, then DW would be a flat note.

      – Ryan

  6. Colin says:


    I want to make out with this post. It really articulates something I like to see in games.

    • ryan says:

      I know, right? This post helped me crystalize that. And going forward it’s another tool in my belt for game analysis.

      – Ryan

  7. Ryan Macklin says:

    It occurs to me that due to the adventure/team nature of Dungeon World, this idea is configurable at the adventure level. Like:

    * This adventure auto-highlights Attack. Players choose the second highlight per standard.
    * This adventure highlights Attack & Stunt.
    * Converse is off the table for this adventure.

    And of course, configurable at the table. Which is why I’m not as concerned that Defend & Converse feel slimmer if an adventure is all about killing orcs and taking their stuff — it means those things won’t be highlighted. Or, if they are, then the GM’s job is to have the adventure align with that.

    So rather than seeing it as a bug, I see it as an interesting configuration point. (One that apparently was eating my brain while I was trying to sleep.)

    – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      Configuring adventures is a good idea. Incidentally, having played a couple of defensive characters, I don’t think defend is thin at all.

      [Maybe we need a seventh category, camping ;)]

  8. Carl Klutzke says:

    I’ll concede that it’s an option, but in most cases this would really tick me off. Part of what I love about roleplaying is solving problems in creative ways: if only specific options are rewarded, then I’d feel straitjacketed. I don’t mind being told that my creative idea will be very difficult and unlikely to succeed, or finding out that it has hideous unforeseen consequences, but being told I don’t get XP for it feels about the same as the GM just saying “That won’t work.”

    Come to think of it, using previous terms, this is the adventure designer’s way of saying “I don’t want to see you do X.” And just looking at that statement creates in me a perverse urge to do X, even if I wouldn’t have considered it before.

    Your mileage may vary. Maybe this could be used to encourage creative problem solving, by auto-highlighting Converse for a diplomatic mission, or taking Attack off the table for an infiltration mission. But this is my knee-jerk reaction.

  9. Colin says:

    There is also a sweet spot in which each player has both a fighty skill (attack, defend, stunt) and a non fighty skill (discover, converse, aid and stunt). That way regardless of the encounter the player has a way to plug in and grab EXP, and often and incentive to start non fighty and then escalate to that.

    Hamish – camping should be in the weaksauce category for turtles :P

    Though seriously, setting up camp and making the roll is totally Aiding or Defend based on the circumstances.

    • Hamish says:

      My worry about converse was sparked by Andrew’s game on Thursday. If someone had had converse highlighted, it would have been a total dud in that adventure, and discover would still be a goldmine.

  10. Colin says:

    I think with Converse highlighted it may have been a different dungeon, specially with one of us pushing to talk to all the undead and shapechanged clerics.

  11. Colin says:

    Though as I think more on it, there may be an something between the naturally occuring opportunities presented to hit a highlight and a player creating or driving towards a chance to hit the highlight. Converse sits more in that space than any of the others.

  12. Ryan Macklin says:

    So, here’s my take: Dungeon World is about “We” where as Apocalypse World is about “I” (which could because about “we” is the individuals decide that for themselves). Thus, highlighting takes on a new dimension.

    It’s the job of the GM to either police the highlighting or make the highlighting relevant. That’s because of the “we” factor. In AW, you can create your own situations, because of the “I” factor.

    That means this falls in the realm of text design rather than mechanics design. Advice text.

    This is all about stabbing & bashing! Whether it’s an orc, dragon, or your father, if someone has Attack highlighted, make sure your adventure has some fights!
    If your adventure doesn’t have any fight action, disallow Attack highlighting.
    Attack Moves: Hack and Slash, Volley, etc.

    This is all about acrobatics and dangerous moves and high-flying action! Whether it’s a raging inferno, living & hungry forest, or foes facing you down with arrows, if someone has Stunt highlighted, make sure your adventure has some treacherous action!
    If your adventure doesn’t have any peril in it, disallow Stunt highlighting.
    Stunt Moves: Defy Danger, etc.

    This is all about protecting your fellow party members & NPCs and coping with the torment you tend to take. If someone has Defend highlighted, make sure there are plenty of opportunities for them to protect others.
    If there is no reason the party needs protecting, disallow Defend higlighting.
    Defend Moves: Defend, Saving Throw, etc.

    This is all about discovering things about the immediate situation, other characters, and the world. If someone has Discover highlighted…well, frankly this is the one that doesn’t require the GM to prep extra.
    If there’s no reason the party needs information, what the hell.
    Discover moves: Spout Lore, Discern Realities, etc.

    This is all about interacting with people to get information, get your way or understand what’s going on with people. If someone has Converse highlighted, involve plenty of intelligent NPCs (some of them people they might also fight)!
    If there’s no one the party would actually interact with beyond themselves, disallow Converse highlighting.
    Converse Moves: Parley, Carouse [if there was a move to read a person, that would totally be here and not in Discover]

    This is all about helping your party (or hindering them), working with or against their actions. If someone has Aid/Interfere highlighted, don’t worry about it — they’ll cover that on their own!
    This should always be allowed, except perhaps on the first session. Wait a session before putting Aid on.
    Special: If you don’t want the “Interfere” part, you as a group can ditch that.
    Aid/Interfere moves: Aid/Interfere

    * Do the healing moves fall until Defend or Aid/Interfere?
    * Does “loot” fall until Discovery, or is it a highlight-less move?
    * Same with “make camp”?
    * What about “order hirelings?” Does that fall until whatever move you’re asking them to make? That’s where I’m looking.
    * And “Undertake a Perilous Journey”? Or is that moveless?

    – Ryan

    • Carl Klutzke says:

      (I haven’t actually read DW or AW, so I may not know what the hell I’m talking about here. But based on what has been said so far…)

      Loot seems like its own reward. If XP is about incentivizing awesome things, then highlighting loot seems redundant.

      Defend is about making sure others remain in a state in which they can do their own awesome things. Aid is about giving others a boost to perform their own awesomeness more effectively. So healing seems more like Defend.

      Is Make Camp a sort of awesome thing you want to incentivize?

      Ordering Hirelings doesn’t seem like awesomeness to be incentivized. If the hirelings do something awesome, the GM did it, which isn’t as exciting as when a player did it. On the other hand, if we want to see the PC be an inspiring leader and pull out a Henry the Fifth speech, maybe that’s Aid or Converse.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      You’ll want to play DW. There’s a dynamic going on here that is unobvious.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And I would call that required follow-up reading for those interested in the idea.

      Also, damnit I didn’t mean to anon the comment on your post. Sorry!

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      I hope I contributed some small amount of added value.

      (Given you manually sign your comments as well, it’s not a problem!)