Recently, one of the groups I play in started a Dungeon World campaign. With a few sessions under our belts, I can say for sure that I love this game with an excitement that I have not had since my days of playing Basic D&D. After talking to the other players and the GM about it, there are a number of things that Dungeon World does right. They are things that any GM could be doing…should be doing in their games. To keep me from having too much of a fanboy tizzy, I picked just three things for today.

Origins in the Apocalypse

I was not surprised that I was going to love Dungeon World, when I first backed the Kickstarter. After all, a few years ago you all asked me to review Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker – the genetic precursor to Dungeon World. At that time, I went on about what great GMing advice the game contained, and how that advice was universally applicable and not a feature of AW.

Three Things You Can Do In Your Game

I did not want to write a review about Dungeon World. Instead I wanted to highlight a few concepts that the game gets right, which it explicitly states in its rules, and explain how you can translate those into other systems and campaigns to bring some of that DW goodness to your own table. Here are my top three:

Make Skill Checks Interesting

I have a pet peeve when it comes to how many games handle skill checks. I dislike systems where a skill check has only one interesting outcome (most often passing). In Dungeon World, a check is made by rolling 2d6 and adding an attribute modifier (and on occasion a situation modifier). If your roll is 10+, you succeed with exactly what you intended to do. If your roll is 7-9, you succeed but often at a slight cost. At 6 or less, you get an experience point, the GM decides your outcome, and the GM gets to make something happen from their list of moves. In this case of “failure”, the GM could let you succeed while using one of their other moves to effect another part of the scene.

Example: Caldor the fighter swings at the goblin and the attack roll is a 6. The GM decides that Caldor hits, but the attack is so loud that the Ogre down the hall hears the commotion and comes to investigate (DW move: Show signs of an approaching threat).

As a player, when you roll for something every part of the roll is interesting. You almost don’t care what you roll, because you know something is going to happen. Contrast that with a Spot check in a d20 game to find a clue.

Example: Caldor the fighter looks around the room. He has 10 ranks in Spot and a Wisdom of 14; +14 to the roll. The GM has set a DC of 20 to find the clue. Caldor needs a 6 or better and rolls…clunk…a 1, for a total of 15. Sorry, no clue.

Putting It In Your Game: I talk a lot more about this in a past article, but here are some quick tips for making skill checks more interesting:

  • Only require checks when it’s interesting to the story, otherwise say yes and move on.
  • Make checks with interesting outcomes for both passing and failing.
  • Re-define failure. Rather than just say no, failure can be success with a consequence.

Play to Find Out What Happens

In Dungeon World, the GM is told to never script the outcome of a scene, encounter, or adventure. The GM is told never to presume what the characters will do and to follow through with the consequences of the players actions. This lets the game unfold in an organic fashion, which is as revealing to the players as it is to the GM.

This concept traces its lineage from Dungeon World to Apocalypse World and back to Dogs In The Vineyard, so it is by no means a new concept. Though in modern game design, this concept is not always stated and encouraged, let alone placed directly into the rules of a game. You see a lack of this in many published adventures which script the story by having the outcomes of scenes mostly predetermined, and leaving how many resources (hit points, spells, ammo, etc) are consumed along the way as the variable portion.

Putting It In Your Game: The good part is that many GM’s informally adopt this style at some point in their GMing career. If you have not yet tried this, then the way to do this is to set up scenes, but never think about how the scene will end. Mentally prepare yourself to deal with that part at the table. If your ad lib skills are not quite there, then jot down a few notes for the most likely outcomes (pass, fail, avoid, etc). Then when considering the transition from scene to scene, don’t make each scene dependent on one outcome from the scene before, instead leave your options open. Consider the following example:

Predetermined: The players must defeat the ogre to reach the lost library.

Open Ended: If the players have not dealt with the ogre when they reach the library, then the ogre will find the characters as they explore the library.

In these two sentences, the predetermined design forces the players to defeat the ogre before getting to the library. The Open Ended approach gives the players freedom on dealing with the ogre (or not) and the consequences if they don’t deal with it first.

Begin and end with the fiction

Dungeon World encourages the GM to let the rules of the game take a backseat to the narrative of the game. The rules only come into play when the narrative of the game states something that falls under the rules of the game. When that happens dice are rolled, the rules are consulted, and then the outcome determined. Once the outcome is known it is described as part of the narrative and play continues.

It sounds intuitive, but few other games are as explicit about this form of play, and many games and gamers are guilty of violating this. Here are some examples that I have heard from my own games:

  • “Can I make a perception check to see if there is anything around?”
  • “I…” (roll dice) “hit…” (roll dice) “…for 15 damage.”
  • “You pass your Streetwise check, and find out the Crimson Daggers are a doomsday cult”.

In all those cases the players and GM were just stating what they were doing mechanically, and not describing how they were looking around the room, how they landed that attack, or who they were going to talk to for more information.

Putting This Into Your Game: This one is easy to install in your game. Start by taking an index card and writing on it “Begin and End With The Fiction” and put it out on your gaming table. Then as you play, when someone (including yourself) starts by talking about the mechanics of the game, ask the person to describe what happens first, then deal with the mechanics, and then conclude by describing the outcome. This is a learned skill, and if repeated enough times it will become a habit for your group.

Marsha…Marsha…Marsha

I am sure by now you are sick of me talking about Dungeon World, but it is a game that has a great lineage and gets a lot of things right. If you have not played or run it yet, I encourage you to give it a try. What Dungeon World does better than many games is that it’s rules create a style of play that puts the focus on the role and not the roll.

Dungeon World as a game may not be for everyone, but there are a lot of gems of good GMing that can be cribbed and incorporated into your game to make it more exciting.

Will any of these techniques fit into your game? Do you currently use any of the techniques mentioned above in your gaming? How did you develop these techniques? Have you taken anything else from Dungeon World?

If you want to hear more about my group’s experiences with Dungeon World, check out Episode 56 of Misdirect Mark.

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.



19 Responses to 3 Things Dungeon World Is Doing That Should Be In Your Game

  1. After getting some feedback recently that was almost exactly your second point, I have been rethinking a lot of my adventure design ideas. My first shot at writing one up went on drivethrustuff, and has been positively received, but a fair few people were saying that even though it was pretty open, it was still a “go there, do that” adventure at heart. My next shot will be different.

    I’ll be setting up the seeds of a place, and then allowing the freedom to fully explore it in a way that makes sense to the players. If it works, I’ll be back here to show off my success…

    • There is a distinction between a “go there, do that” adventure, and a sandbox setting. A true sandbox book I have a hard time classifying as an adventure, simply because there is no real purpose – just things to do… which, to me, is a well written setting.

      If you meant to write an outline of a task that needed heroes to complete it, then you succeeded. If that’s either what you like to write, and/or what your idea deals with, then do so.

      I respectfully disagree with people who feel any ‘mono-task/singular outcome’ adventure is too railroading to be enjoyable; some groups prefer those stories. For my current, group, for example, I stay away from compelte sandbox sessions – they are far too easily distracted, and then become frusterated and the campaign self-destructs. My current players enjoy their semi-confined choices, in order to feel they’ve accomplished something every week.

  2. I am in the process of reading the Fate Core book, and I have to say that they do a great job talking about making skill checks interesting. There is some excellent advice in that chapter about setting up checks, difficulty of checks, etc.

    Good stuff.

    • On thing about FATE: never roll the dice unless both success and failure would be interesting. Otherwise, do the one that is the interesting one.

      As for the other two, I put my NPCs on centre stage, so the other issues seldom come up.

  3. The hardest two things for me are transitioning from mechanics based to story based (your examples hit me right on target), and getting the players to describe what happens on a complication or even a failure. So hard for me to let go of the narrative, but so rewarding when the players enhance the fiction far beyond what I could.

    I love the easy prep and the fronts for story design. Since I can never predict, much less script what my group might do, I am OK with the modular front design of Dungeon World.

    The two resources that really got me going with Dungeon World are the Beginners Guide from the forums and a “module” called Thornburg.

    Thanks for your article.

  4. Dungeon World is canned awesome. It’s infected two of my gaming groups; it’s the game everyone wants to play.

    You can read Dungeon World online for free. Armed with that and the character sheets you can get started immediately, for free. I would also recommend the also free “Dungeon World Guide,” which clarifies things that I didn’t find clear from the main rules.

    Of course, the paid book is quite nice, and the paid PDFs were a pleasure to read on my tablet.

  5. The “Begin and End With The Fiction” part is what Dresden Files RPG is all about, but boy did my players fight me on doing it.

    wookieedaddiee talks of finding it hard to let go of the narrative responsibility, but I was looking forward to doing just that. For once everyone would work on the story and as a result I would have half the work to do, only…

    Good ideas are all well and good, but does anyone have any good ideas for getting the players to see that they *are* good ideas?

    Great article, Phil.

  6. Several interesting things that fall out of “Begin and End With The Fiction.” One is that you shouldn’t go looking for mechanical “moves” to make, you should be working within the fiction, which may lead to making a mechanical move. From that you arrive at, “just because it’s important doesn’t mean it’s a move.” Is the monster not paying attention, perhaps because it’s busy masticating the wizard? Then it’s not “Hack and Slash,” you don’t need to make a check, you just do damage as you drive your spear into its back. Or as I saw online, if you cut a sleeping person’s throat, there is no dice rolling, there is no move, they just die.

  7. I was also a backer of the DW kickstarter and though I have read it, I have not yet had the chance to play it.

    Something I’ve really been trying to do more of in the past few years is ‘success with consequences’ for failing a skill check. Though I feel I’m getting better at it, the real difficulty is overcoming years of ‘failure is failure’ mindset that so many games have ingrained into me. It also depends on whether or not I can come up with a ‘success with consequences’ scenario that is interesting beyond mere failure. DW provides a good starting point, but I like to expand beyond that by creating my own consequences.

    I actually put a post it note in front of me when I GM with “IS IT IMPORTANT” written on it to remind me of what to consider before asking for a skill check. Otherwise I tend to fall back on bad habits.

  8. Really great ideas!

    I totally missed the DW KS project. Though, there have been a fair number of other KS projects that I have NOT missed, and my cashflow is such that maybe I Should have missed more!

    I think that the second suggestion is likely the one that most people have gravitated towards themselves over the years. The skill checks though, brilliant idea! Ive seen some system somewhere where it was similar, but more of a degrees of success, rather than touching on the failure portion. I can see using that for sure.

  9. Though I have not yet had a chance to play DungeonWorld (i hope to soon), I’ve been learning to integrate these aspects into my GMing via MouseGuard:

    Skill Checks: Failures lead to success with a Condition, or a Failure that leads to a Complication within the narrative. Success or Fail, the game always moves Forward.

    Play to find out what happens: I’ve learned quickly not to pre-plan the next session. After the Players Turn, anything might happen.

    Begin & End with the Fiction: when Players want to HELP or AID others, they cannot just say “I give you a +1″, they have to describe what they’re doing, and how it helps before they give that bonus, merely having the skill is not enough, it has to make sense in the Fiction. This quickly gets everyone at the table thinking about the Fiction First.

  10. In play, DW often feels like a “stakes-setting” game, in which you establish what’s at stake before you roll. But one which gives really helpful, useful guidelines on what the stakes should be.

    It’s been written that every move is really just a specific variant of the open-ended Defy Danger. My new conspiracy theory is that every move really exists just to train you in good ways to handle Defy Danger. Once that’s internalized, Defy Danger becomes the only move you ever need in any RPG.

  11. Another thought: Phil, I agree that “Begin and end with the fiction” is one of the most important things Dungeon World does, but not for quite the reasons you state.

    I don’t think the DW rules discourage mechanical thinking any more than any other game. If the players are aware of the rules, they’ll make decisions based on them, consciously or not. For example, if Hack & Slash is clearly the best move in a given situation, it’s natural for the player describe something that is clearly Hack & Slash, even if it’s not the most fun or interesting move.

    Instead, I think the benefit of phrasing everything as move is that it’s a brilliant way to get through the mechanics quickly and painlessly and back to the story:
    Start with the fiction: Each move begins with a “When…” clause that tells you literally when to use it. Other games are very open-ended and in can be very confusing as to which rule applies to a situation.
    End with the fiction: (You mention this but I think it bears elaboration) Each move has very specific outcomes that usually tie right back to the story in interesting ways. That is to say, while the outcome may be mechanical (take +1 forward, lose 6 hit points, etc) it’s often not (make a promise, get “put in a spot,” etc) and yet is still a meaningful outcome.

    So to me “begin and end with the fiction” isn’t so much about the rules encouraging a particular mindset as it is about the rules getting out of the way and letting the story be paramount, and yet in a fashion that is much more helpful than most “rules-light” games. It’s a narrative game without being a Narrative game.

  12. I love the idea of the index card with “Begin and End with the Fiction.”

    For the most part, because I run an online game, I hate dealing with the mechanics any more than I absolutely must. Dice rolling and mechanics discussion slow everything down to a crawl.

    I look forward to any more gems you can pull from DW.

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