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Antagonist Bonds and Toxicity in Dungeon World

I was reading over some of the changes to Dungeon World sheets last night, and I came to a weird conclusion:

Dungeon World doesn’t want players like me.

That’s totally fair. So I’ll talk about that a bit. (And this is going to get ranty, which is probably best explained in the footnote.)

[Edit: The comments are awesome. And often saner, because it took a bit for me to calm down from the emotional element involved.]

To be fair, I had that reaction months ago when I heard that bonds became the XP mine. I shrugged, knowing the sort of play I have sen bonds produce, and stopped playing DW at conventions.

Ah, I have to back up a bit.

See, I play DW at conventions. Most of my play of any game is that, one-shot meetings, mini-cons, things like that. So I’m playing with potentially random people. When I’ve played DW, it’s been with the same character, Ben Demonslayer, my Jewish halfling fighter. Because of that, I’m nearly always the target of the Cleric’s “I’ll convert you” bond[1]. I fucking hate that, because I can’t tell of the person I don’t know is either able to make that interesting or is looking for an excuse to be a cockbite.

And I’m really, really tired of the latter.

These bonds existed in the first version. But now they can’t just be ignored, because they’re incentivized. You can choose not to take a “dick bond”, but then your character is slightly less able to help or hinder her comrades (because bonds add to that roll) and have fewer points of growth, as bonds are an XP generator. The first part was always there. With the addition of the second part, I now see this:

If I’m going to play in a convention game, I can fully expect dick behavior, because the DM will explain that the game rewards playing to your bonds.

And this isn’t hypothetical. I have seen dick behavior from bonds played out.

I could still play with my friends, and may from time to time, because bonds aside, Dungeon World is pretty fun. And even though I helped come up with the BBC Highlighting method, I think I like the XP change in DW — it’s seems slower, paced, and steady. I can dig that.

And I can even dig the non-hateful bonds. But encouragement combined with a desire for back story means almost always that every bond is filled in.

The other somewhat interesting point is that if I, as a cleric, want to play a cleric of a god that doesn’t want to convert — because subverting tropes can be its own fun — then I’m mechanically a weaker character and have fewer points of growth. This has some implied setting: the gods of DW are only strong if they are push their followers to proselytize and crusade. The fictional fallout of taking three bonds rather than four.

Here’s a list of the dick bonds in 2.3 that I see:

  • Bard: _______________ is often the butt of my jokes.
  • Cleric: I am working on converting _______________ to my faith.
  • Fighter: _______________ owes me their life, whether they admit it or not. (I have seen so much damned pointless bickering around this one. Dear fuck.)
  • Paladin: _______________ ‘ s misguided behavior endangers their very soul!
  • Thief: I stole something from _______________. (Though, it’s not as bad as previous worded, if memory serves.)

I’m glad to see that the wizard’s most dickish one has been stricken.

Now, I do love, at times, playing antagonistic characters. But when I’m going to engage in that, I’m going to engage in a game that’s about that, not where that’s a near-vestigial aside. Games like Fiasco, Smallville, or Lady Blackbird.

And I could bring this up if I play DW again, but the thought of bringing that up Every. Single. Time I play is wearisome.

I find this interesting, because it’s a change in a game. I first really enjoyed DW, and this change makes me stand far clear of it, as if it’s toxic fallout.

– Ryan

[1] If I harp on that one, it’s because I cannot see that as anything but a vile, inhuman act of hatred. I’ve had people try to convert me hours after my grandmother’s funeral. It’s disgusting, and it’s something I keep having to see when I play DW. Which is part of why I stopped playing & running it. So the game involves a gigantic trigger for me, pretty much equivalent to me as some class having a bond about murder or sexual violence.

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52 Responses to Antagonist Bonds and Toxicity in Dungeon World

  1. Adam Koebel says:

    There’s some good stuff here – I can see how antagonistic bonds might not work for you (especially some of the more personally problematic ones).

    I’m a little confused about XP and bonds in this case, because players only get XP when resolving a bond. One time, when it’s no longer relevant, important or you’ve evolved beyond it. If you’re looking at bonds as an XP generation machine, arguably, you’re going to want to change those bonds as soon as possible, every session.

    I know you’ve not been able to look at the current rule-set. Would you be willing to post a follow-up once you’ve had a chance to more fully examine the way bonds work, now? (If the follow up is just “nope, still hate ’em” obviously that’s fine, too, I’m just curious if isolation is an element)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Adam,

      I have. The step 12 on character choice is still the same: pick from the list. I have read through the bond progression bits, and here’s my take-away:

      * I have to deal with the bullshit until they’re “resolved”. Joy.
      * This doesn’t apply to convention games, only long-term games. Joy.

      Your changes effectively don’t apply to me and how I get to play.

      When talking about XP & Bonds, what you said is what I meant. I saw that in the moves sheet. The more I wrote this post, the angrier I got, so I got sloppy.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I mean, if there was a tool that I could use to say “hey, the game gives us this other option, can we use that instead? I can’t stand antagonism in my four-hours-with-strangers con game where we have not yet established rapport”, I would probably be happy, because they I could point to something within the game rather than outside of it.

      – Ryan

    • Adam Koebel says:

      We never really wrote Bonds with convention or one-shot play in mind, so in that case you’re bang on. You can’t resolve a Bond in single-session play. It’d be a remarkably easy hack (and something that, if we haven’t written it into the Advanced Delving chapter, we will) to just say “use the advice in chapter XX to write your own bonds” instead of saying “pick from the list”.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      We’re sort-of saying the same thing, sort-of not. In January, I wrote about how I did that last time I played:
      http://ryanmacklin.com/2012/01/cheating-on-dw-bonds/

      But that’s on me, and that’s about my rewriting. What I’m talking about is what’s inflicted upon me, and asking others the burden of being creative on the spot when normally there’s just a list to start with.

      Though, the permissive language in the rules text & on the class sheet would be awesome. (Note that in con games, you cannot expect players to have read the book, so they’ll miss that. And a GM with a lot to deal with in helping establish rapport will sometimes miss explaining things not pointed out in front of them on character sheets.)

      If you want, we could talk a fuckton more about DW in con games. Also, the LA crowd that does Living Dungeon World would have a lot to say.

      – Ryan

    • Adam Koebel says:

      You know, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a “Playing With Strangers” section to encompass more than just Bonds, but ways to get the most out of Dungeon World in a one-shot environment.

      Definitely food for thought.

    • Hamish says:

      I think the divergence between the core rules and BBC XP is in no small part to the fact that we mostly play at cons. I’ve probably run DW 20 times, of which 3 or 4 have been a continuing game. I’ve played maybe 10 times, probably 5 of those in one continuing game (my first DW experience). I love games like TSoY where you get XP for playing your character and improve in play. I fell in love with DW when it was in that family.

      But this is a bit of a tangent.

  2. Mike Olson says:

    For Living Dungeon World, we offer some additional bonds beyond the ones listed in the playbooks, and we also don’t give XP for playing to or resolving them. They’re treated more like they are in Monster of the Week — grist for the roleplaying mill, but with no mechanical incentive to play to them. But it should also be noted that our games focus much more on action and adventure than interpersonal conflicts. Statham & Sorcery. It’s not Aid/Interfere — it’s just Aid. Interfering is what the monsters do. And our XP reward system is still basically BBC XP.

  3. Sage says:

    Interesting thoughts, Ryan. And you actually made me realize the real XP goldmine: don’t take any Bonds and aid as often as possible. You’ll be rolling +0, so failure is certainly an option. On a miss, you get xp! On a hit, you help the team! Awesome all around.

    That particular goldmine only bothers me a tiny bit, in that you’re not using teh cool Bonds. But the rest of it is fantastic: you’re doing more stuff, getting in more trouble, and doing more for you allies.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Well, you do have to take one Bond. ;) (I just re-read everything on Bonds in the book, so I couldn’t help the playful jab.

      – Ryan

  4. That’s disappointing to hear, Ryan. I haven’t had a chance to test out DW with the bond-based XP mechanic yet, but tying XP to resolving bonds was my idea originally, I think (http://apocalypse-world.com/forums/index.php?topic=1848.0 – though it’s possible it was already in the works at that point, Adam or Sage can clarify). My notion was to allow the treasure trove of storylets on peoples’ sheets to drive the overall story onwards in a tangible way and incentivize their change over time, as letting players do the heavy lifting for me fits my lazy MCing style. Having said that, perhaps that much emphasis on character relationships is not suitable in a dungeon crawling game, or at least not for you.

    I’d posit, though, that perhaps it’s not the mechanic of bringing bonds to the forefront through incentives that’s a problem, but either the notion of bonds themselves, or the specific phrasing of some problematic bonds? After all, if the bonds don’t add anything, they shouldn’t be there – and if it’s just a handful of bonds that irk you, perhaps they could be rewritten to be less prone to dickishness?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mikael,

      My rather-ranty point, attempted to be make clear by the title, was the nature of those bonds and not the mechanics.

      – Ryan

    • Ah, gotcha. I feel less defensive already, thanks! ;)

      I think Adam’s notion of a “Playing with Strangers” chapter with optional rule mods is gold, personally. I love the more antagonistic bonds myself, but definitely only with players I trust.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mikael,

      With people I trust, I could have an honest lines/veils thing. Like if someone said “Ryan, could we do the thing where I try converting your character. I know I’m going to fail because you’ll shut me down, but I want to use that failure for something…” — then I might be “Okay, I’ll try that.”

      – Ryan

  5. Sage says:

    So here’s why those Bonds exist:

    First off, because people are interesting and messy and they sometimes have bones to pick, even with those they like.

    Second, because I don’t see some of them as setting off dick behavior. “_ owes me their life, admit it or not” just doesn’t sound like something that’ll drive arguments to me, so I’d love to hear what these arguments were. Every character that hasn’t admitted it that I’ve seen has left it as “well, I’m too proud to admit it…”

    Third, because they’re interesting. The Thief who stole from their companion but is still with them, what’s up with that? If the Thief really wants to steal from them, why didn’t he rob them blind and leave? If it was just that one thing, why was it important? Did they give it back? Do they know? (Interestingly this bond tends to get used a lot on the Cleric and tends to lead to a cool odd-couple relationship. A lot of “I caught him stealing, which he wasn’t expecting, and we realized we were better off together.”)

    Last, because we’ve had the default assumption that you’re playing with adults who don’t have to be told not to be dicks to each other. Or, hey, even children who don’t have to be told to play nice. That may not be a reasonable assumption, but so far it’s been born out by every session I’ve run from home games with close friends to Games on Demand at Gencon.

    Finally, if you don’t like them, change them. Be the change you want to see. There are already rules in the game for writing new bonds!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sage,

      I gotta say that at this point, you don’t seem to be listening. And as far as for being the change I want, I have been.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments. I’ll keep away from DW.

      – Ryan

    • Sage says:

      That’s fine, Ryan, but I’m not sure why I can’t explain why those choices were made? I was hoping we could compare the ups and downs to them.

      I’m totally willing to change things. I just want to understand more of what this is, since I’ve never seen it. It’s almost impossible to fix something that I haven’t seen break.

      You call out the “_______________ owes me their life, whether they admit it or not” Bond for pointless arguments, and I asked for more context. What are these people arguing over? The truth of the statement? Admitting it?

      I’m trying to share why the game is the way it is, just as you shared why the game shouldn’t be that way. Let’s compare those and see if there isn’t some way of making a DW you’ll enjoy that also fulfills the things we want Bonds to do.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sage,

      Ah, okay, I’m not reading charitably. I could talk about that, but I need to walk away first. This brought up a lot of harsh shit that I need to clear from before I can be a decent human being about it.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sage,

      Now that I’m chiller, I can say that (and have in emails between us) that bonds-as-written are either passive or distracting in convention play. Setting aside my person bias against That One Particular Bond, others in the LDW crew (Hamish, Colin, Mike Olson) are making points I was ill-equipped to make earlier.

      I get what function they can serve. But they don’t always serve that function. Environment is a big deal.

      Now, here’s a thought: what if such things were deliberately chosen, rather than automatically prescribed. Then the group is flagging deliberately “guys, I want this sort of awesome in our game” rather than it being something that some folks like, some folks hate, some folks ignore.

      If it was an option — removing the concept of a default, and saying “here are two methods; pick one for your game” — then that’s something. Maybe that’s now DW. But I point it out as a general design concept because flagging certain play is, well, generally kick-ass.

      – Ryan

  6. A precis of what I’ve taken from Ryan’s post:

    * There are many environments in which people play. Sometimes you know your fellow players, other times you don’t, and not just at cons. New players in regular groups will have the same experience.

    * You don’t know what someone else might find upsetting or aggravating, yet the bonds system potentially allows you to force another player’s character into that situation. Other bonds can be annoying even if they don’t involve your character directly, eg the “long con”.

    * Mechanical incentives exacerbate these two issues.

    I find these compelling, personally. A system in which a joint back-story is built is a fantastic tool, but having a way to opt-in rather than requiring players to say that something makes them uncomfortable and opt-out would be preferable.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rob,

      Yeah. And what I got from Sage’s response above was, essentially, “I like them. I don’t see your problem. Suck it up and fix it yourself.”

      The latter is a fine answer when you’re fixing it once. It’s shit when you’re fixing it twelve times.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      It would be one thing if I was saying something like “Why do we have to have toxic relationships in our Fiasco games?” That’s the core of the game. Such a thing is an aside in a dungeon crawl, not required. It’s a spice, season to taste.

      Instead, the game says “no, the spice is part of the recipe, and if you don’t like it go have an awkward conversation with strangers. Or don’t play.”

      As a player, that’s a bummer, and I chose the latter. As a designer, thought, it’s hard not to see that as being blind to dynamics other than your own.

      – Ryan

  7. Colin says:

    One of my biggest sticking points with having antagonistic bonds in this game is that there are no mechanics or tools for playing out these bonds beyond just RP. As a result any sort of PVP or conflict between the players just becomes an argument until one of the players relents or the GM distracts them with a move. So it always feels weird and out of place when it crops up.

    More often than not I have seen players be either uncomfortable with the bonds or just ignore them, both in con games and the campaign I ran at home. At best they are something referenced in banter while exploring the Dungeon, at worse a distraction from the reason we are all playing – to explore a dungeon and have a perilous adventure. No one wants a Cleric withholding healing unless the Thief converts, yet I have had that happen multiple times.

    I have never really agreed with the idea that the focus of DW is conflict between the party, the game has always worked best when it was about the adventure and dungeon. There is more than enough conflict and drama to be had from that without adding in antagonistic relationships, though it is great when that emerges from play without being baked in to the premise.

    As a house rule we have been playing without any starting bonds, then when you want to aid someone you can “reveal a bond in play” this can be either something relevant to the dungeon or your backstory. This way the players develop into a party and bonds are less conflict points and more a list of why they are together. We also ditched the EXP for resolving them, instead they are replaced as new things become relevant and you choose to reveal a new one so that they evolve.

    – Colin

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Colin,

      This also makes sense in our Living Dungeon World project, since every session starters with redoing bonds, since you have a different PC group. Squashing starting bonds entirely helps speed up initial play, and recording them as made seems like a cool chronicle of your adventures with various peeps.

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      Bonds is where DW emulates D&D too well. Clerics withholding healing to non-believing PCs? Thieves stealing from the party? Those are classic D&D moves, but they’re dysfunctional. And in DW they’re strengthened by being on the character sheet, right in front of your eyes, and incentivised by XP.

      Some of them can be mitigated by good GM questions (“You stole his sword (holy symbol/spellbook/etc? So why didn’t the Fighter (Cleric/Wizard) kill you when you stole his most beloved possession and livelihood?”), but while that’s great at the table, it’s not something you can count on in the design, IMO.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I have said for some time now that DW emulates D&D culture to an amazing degree, including the amount of rules drifting that goes on due to dissatisfying play. Look at how people approached dealing with that with 1st & 2nd ed.

      – Ryan

    • Sage says:

      The focus of DW isn’t, by the book, on party conflict. Those bonds are seasoning (great analogy!). I’ve also referred to them as icing on the cake. A Cleric who withholds healing is really just screwing himself. Good luck surviving the poison needle trap now!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sage,

      I have never found using dickery to combat dickery to solve anything. Having the DM do a hard move down the road because a player is doing something like that kills more games than it helps.

      – Ryan

    • Colin says:

      Sage,

      The game lists 3 reasons to play DW: to do amazing things, to see them play off each other, and because the world has so much to explore. Further to see them play of each other specifically mentions bickering and the party splitting up.

      That plus the EXP rewards for resolving bonds and by playing your alignment which often will place the characters in conflict with each other tells me that interparty conflict is a signifigent portion of the game.

      If that is not so, then it may need to be more clearer.

      – Colin

    • Sage says:

      Yes, for sure. But let’s put that in perspective:

      First off, it’s listed as the second reason, not the primary reason. Even then, they key (bolded) bit is “play off each other” which IS important. The Bonds will make you interact with each other, which is intentional. It certainly doesn’t have to be conflict, though.

      Then, bickering is listed as the alternative to getting along just fine. On top of that, I’d draw a line between bickering (as in Ghostbusters or Indiana Jones) and drama-ridden conflict.

      The last bit, yeah, could use some rewording. Good thing we just hired an editor.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I hope your editor has a strong developmental editing background. These aren’t copyediting issues.

      (But I hope that for every game editor. This is not specific to DW.)

      – Ryan

    • @Colin:
      Can you say a little more about the details of “reveal a bond in play”?

      In my experience (playing: 2 games with friends in NZ, 2 at a con; running: 8-10 sessions with regular gaming group), bonds have never played a big part. Systematically we never use assist/interfere, the XP for bonds doesn’t really matter when using BBC, and we’ve never had total dick moves for bonds, but neither have bonds played a big part in the story.

      An opt-in possibility, based on Hamish’s “The Sprawl”:
      Each player, in turn, describes an adventure or quest that they went on before the first session, or between in-game adventures. The next player then describes what role they took in that quest, or why they decided not to take part given the opportunity. Other players may also opt to describe their parts in the quest.

    • Sage says:

      Adam and I have just reworded that bit to make it clear where priorities lie and accent the positive:

      Second, to see them struggle together: to gather as a party despite their differences and stand as a united front against their foes or to argue over treasure, debate battle plans, and join in righteous celebration over a victory hard-won.

      As to our editor, he’s a professional editor with a very strong background in developmental editing. We wouldn’t be working with him otherwise.

    • Mike Olson says:

      FWIW, we used these emergent bonds for Living Dungeon World this past weekend, and they worked a treat. There was one point of confusion — when your next adventure doesn’t involve anyone you already have a bond with, what governs how many new bonds you get to establish? — but it was so specific to our format that I’m not sure it’s really a “problem,” per se.

  8. Hamish says:

    My worst DW experience was with bonds. I was a fighter and the thief took the bond “I have stolen something of ____” and said that they stole my signature weapon. Total dick move. The GM allowed it (nothing in the rules about it, I guess) and then everyone seemed surprised when I spent the first 15 minutes of the game getting the sword back. It too so long because I didn’t want to begin the one-off by killing a PC.

    • Mike Olson says:

      Something similar happened to me the first time I played DW. I was the Paladin, and the thing the Thief stole from me was some inlaid silver filigree on my fancy-ass sword while I was blind from an umber hulk’s gaze. At first I was annoyed about it, because it felt like it immediately made my character the party buffoon. Pretty soon I just said “Fuck it — con game” and moved on, but still.

    • Sage says:

      It probably needs to be said, but a Bond can’t contradict the created character. Whatever the Thief stole wasn’t part of one of your moves unless you agree.

    • Hamish says:

      Yeah, that needs to be in the rules. Moreover, you need to expand that to explicitly cover stealing a signature weapon because “a Bond can’t contradict the created character” doesn’t seem to cover that possibility.

  9. Jeffrey says:

    I stopped using bonds so long ago I kind of forgot they were part of the game. I dropped them because I had a paladin kill another party member in three consecutive games each with different people. Once because the player playing the palidin was being a dick, and the other two because other players were being a dick to the paladin until he got fed up with it.

  10. What if you opted into another player’s starting bonds? Say each player reads aloud his starting bonds, and the other players volunteer in. Then the GM asks questions to make sure everyone’s cool and on the same page. In the event of a tie, the player offering the bond picks.

    FIGHTER: “I worry about the possibility of BLANK to survive in the dungeon.”
    WIZARD: “Ooh, me! I’m a fresh-faced, willowy elf-person. It’d make sense that I’d be the subject of that kind of pity from Mr. Plate-Packer over there.”
    GM: “How does that sound, Fighter? Anything to add?”
    FIGHTER: “Totally. Plus, I lost someone important to me when their magic failed to save them a long time ago.”
    THIEF: “DUDE.”
    GM: “Who?”
    FIGHTER: “Let’s find out in play.”
    GM: “DUDE.”
    *group high-fives, moves on to next bond*

    This could add more time to session set-up, but I think the increased investment in each other’s players makes it worth investigating.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Andrew,

      That could be interesting, yeah. I wouldn’t do it in a con game — bonds are already a long-enough time sink. But at home, yeah.

      Also, your comment makes me realize some more implied things in bonds. Like the Cleric bond suggests that the part doesn’t all worship the same god.

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      Totally.

      I’d do that in con games too. I find that the relatively small amount of time time put into bonds as it stands is well worth it; an extra couple of minutes wouldn’t bother me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hamish,

      Give it a try this weekend, let us know how it goes?

      – Ryan

    • Hamish says:

      *Double-take* But my con is next weekend and how do you know about that?

      Oh, Gamex!

      I won’t be there; I’m in NZ. Mike, Jessie and Vernon are sailing the LDW ship this time. I’ll try it out if I end up running any DW at Buckets of Dice in Christchurch next weekend though. I’m going to try to run The Sprawl in all four sessions though, so it might not happen.

    • Mike Olson says:

      We can give that a shot, sure. It’ll be marginally easier in terms of prep than doing blank-slate bonds — we can just print the playbooks as-is (as-are?).

    • iserith says:

      Nice one. I really want to try out this opt-in method. I don’t really have a problem with bonds as-is, but the method you propose sounds like a winner to me.

      I’m running or playing in no less than 3 Dungeon World games this weekend so I’ll report back when I’m no longer hungover.

    • iserith says:

      Tried using the opt-in method a couple times over the weekend. I’m not sure it was any better in practice. It definitely sounded good in my head though.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Could you talk about what did happen at your table? Reactions? How people took to it?

      – Ryan

    • iserith says:

      Sure. We tried it in two games. Two players and a GM, my buddy was a fighter, I was a thief. I started throwing bonds out there. He immediately latched onto me having stolen something from him and so I asked him what it was. That inspired him to say it was keys like a janitor would have because he established previously that his character had once worked for the wizard whose tower we were raiding. (Adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “Tower of the Elephant.”) Anyway, that led to the discussion as to whether he knew about what I did or not or why I’d steal something from him and stick around. I actually don’t remember the answer because we were halfway into a bottle of Gentleman Jack at that point. But I do remember that I established I gave the keys to the local thieves guild to pay them off as I was freelancing on their turf. (Chiv Palmer don’t pay to ply his trade.) We found those keys later on the body of Tarsus, a thief that had infiltrated the tower just before us, and died to a giant spider. Neat. The fighter ones, being fairly innocuous compared to the thief’s (as you point out), weren’t terribly memorable in our exchange.

      I’ll have to jog my memory some more on the other game and get back to you. I think there was a mixing of rum and aguardiente going on. Anyway, my view of this was that this opt-in method didn’t change a whole lot of the interactions during the bonding phase of character creation. Not for our group anyway, who tends to take everything in stride as we’ve played together a long time. Adversarial bonds are actually fun for us to play out. I think this is better tested in a convention game to determine whether it’s a better option or not.