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Dungeon World – Actual Play (Part 1)

December 30, 2012

Dungeon World coverOver the Christmas period I like to take a complete break from the “day job” of writing for RPGs and fiction. As a passionate writer and gamer, that’s sometimes tricky – it’s hard to let a day go by without putting something down on paper – so this year I was especially chuffed to have discovered the new fantasy RPG Dungeon World on Christmas Eve. It’s a very modern game, based on the system which powers Apocalypse World, and plainly states that its aim is to replicate that “old school D&D feel” using a modern gaming ethos and more narrative mechanics. One of those mechanics is that the gamemaster makes no rolls whatsoever – every NPC action, and indeed every event in the campaign, is “triggered” by the results of player character actions. That’s a very cool concept, and reading the Dungeon World PDF (available for $10 from DriveThru) made me want to take the system out for a spin.

I heard about Dungeon World a week ago when Shane Ivey and John Marron were talking about their Dungeon World game which they’d played at John’s birthday. They’d run through the old AD&D classic module G1, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and by all accounts had a ball. Now, I’ve played through the whole GDQ series twice, once as a player and once as GM, but many, many years ago – and I’ve always had an itch to run it again. Shane and John got me thinking – hell, I could do the same thing! So I did…

Today was our second session on G1, and while we’re still learning the rules I thought I’d blog a kind of “first impressions and actual play” of how things went, to showcase this interesting system and also my own experiences learning and playing it. This is quite long, so it’ll be in two parts – this one, covering my first impressions and the first session of play, and a Part Two, covering session two and my observations and some attempts at evaluations. The first thing to say is how impressed I was at being able to play so quickly. I bought the game on Christmas Eve, played my first session on the 27th, and again today (the 30th). These days there are very few games which you can learn and play in just a couple of days – often they take a lot longer to get to grips with – but Dungeon World fitted so smoothly into that “Old School Fantasy Gaming” slot in my brain, that it just clicked. I’m also a big fan of systems like Fate and HeroQuest, and while Dungeon World isn’t directly comparable, it does make several significant nods to modern narrative systems, including a simple yet flexible mechanic which “unpacks” to drive the game’s narrative.

Before I begin the Actual Play, here’s the core mechanic: roll 2d6, and add your attribute modifier. Attributes are the same as D&D, and so (roughly) are the modifiers. If you get 10+, you succeed completely in your action (called a Move, although nothing specifically to do with movement); a 7-9 gets you a partial success, where the GM gets to pick a mildly disadvantageous counter-move (a soft move); and a 6 or less fails, with the GM picking a seriously disadvantageous counter-move (a hard move). The player actions are relatively limited: you can fight something, shoot at something, try and avoid danger, cast spells, investigate things, etc. They’re all attribute rolls; some Moves are specific to classes, some are available to everyone.

Here’s an example which highlights how the system works: let’s say you step into a 10′ by 10′ room and see a raging orc warrior. You charge at him, sword drawn, to skewer him through. That’s a Hack & Slash Move; roll 2d6 and add your Strength modifier (called “STR”). If you get 10+, you hit the orc and do damage. Fair enough. Now the neat bit: if you roll 7-9, you still hit, but so does the orc. You both take damage. If you roll 6 or less, you miss, and the orc hits, doing damage. See what happened? At no point did the GM roll: the counter-actions are a consequence of the player’s roll.

Now, in the above example, the GM didn’t have to have the orc damage the PC on the 7-9 and 6- results: she’s also allowed to select other GM Moves. These don’t have to have anything to do with the orc at all: in theory, the GM could have decided that, as her Move, something happened somewhere else in the dungeon which would cause the PCs trouble: maybe someone heard the fighting, or even a dragon suddenly decided to go and sit by the front door and wait for the PCs to leave. Generally the GM should tie her GM Move into the action that’s happening, but it’s not mandatory.

You’ll notice that in the above examples, everything’s very “dungeon-y”. That’s by design: Dungeon World aims to explicitly emulate old school D&D play, and I think it succeeds admirably. If you want to spend ages in a tower learning ancient languages or brewing potions, or engaging in courtly dance contests or scheming or questing to rise in your temple hierarchy, you might want to play something else: Dungeon World doesn’t provide explicit rules to cater for those occasions – it goes under the broad auspices of “roleplaying it out during play”, as we used to do during the old school White Box D&D days. But if you want to crawl through monster-infested dungeons, levelling up, checking for traps, fighting evil, and romping through a rip-roaring fantasy word, Dungeon World has a very tight design focus on doing just that – which is what attracted me. I love me some old school gaming, and I love me some modern RPG aesthetics. Dungeon World does both.

We created 5 characters to play. Dungeon World character generation is very quick, and leads to very clear representatives of the old school character classes: Fighters, Thieves, Wizards, Clerics, but also Druids, Bards, Paladins, Rangers. It takes 10-15 minutes to create characters, no more. The character sheets provided are more like worksheets; very helpful during character creation, but a bit cluttered for use during play. Assuming we continue our campaign, I’ll be designing cleaner character sheets for long-term play. I’ll also be considering how suited DW is for long-term play in my second post.

So, down to the Actual Play – at last!

G1 – Steading of the Hill Giant Chief – remember that? Back in the old school days, pretty much all dungeon modules for D&D / AD&D were sandboxes; a very loose plot, then a big map to explore and a metric ton of critters to slaughter. Awesome. I played Judges Guild City State / Wilderlands, so last week I set the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief in the Howling Hills northwest of the City State of the Invincible Overlord, and had Sir Huberic of Haghill be the patron sending the PCs into peril. Their mission, culled directly from the G1 intro: the hill giants have been raiding outlying villages. Find out why they’re doing this, send them a short sharp shock to dissuade them, and take whatever action is necessary. If you find out evidence of some evil conspiracy, report back.

Session 1 began with the PCs looking down at the Steading in the pouring rain at dusk. Everything damp, soaking; the steading a massive wooden fortress built by and for giants. The halfling thief, Felix Pook (nicknamed “Pook i’the Hood”) made a Discern Realities (WIS) Move to check out the exterior. He rolled a (7+1 = 8), a partial success: he got the description of the entrances, the sounds of raucous feasting deep inside, the presence of the gates and watchtower, but the partial success allowed me as GM to make the Put Someone in a Spot GM Move: I described the Dire Wolves in the stockade suddenly making a racket – Felix, what do you do?

Pook decided to make a Defy Danger Move using DEX to hide from the Dire Wolves’ attention. He rolled a (9+2 = 11), and slid himself up against the wall till the wolves went quiet and made sure no one had come out to look. He then snook back to the rest of the party and brought them down to the base of the watchtower, where he’d seen movement inside. Felix then climbed up the outside of the watchtower – another Defy Danger (DEX) Move – getting a major success. Inside, he saw a large metal hoop to be rung as an alarm, and a drunken hill giant dozing in the corner. He decided he wanted to tie up the alarm hoop to put it out of reach, then creep down and slit the hill giant’s throat. As GM, I decided that was yet another Defy Danger (DEX) Move – Felix rolled a (7+2 = 9), partial success! I decided that meant the alarm was disabled, but that in creeping across the floor, he’d woken the hill giant up! Felix – what do you do?

Pook i’the Hood threw one of his poisoned throwing daggers at the hill giant, a Volley Move using DEX, getting a (6+2 = 8) partial success. Out of the three disadvantages he could have selected for the partial success mild disadvantage, Felix’s player selected “You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by one”. This meant the first dagger missed, so Felix threw a second. It still hit, and did 8 points of damage; the hill giant’s 1 armour reduced that to 7, leaving him with 3 HP. I described the hill giant roaring with surprise, then lunging forwards to grab the halfling. Felix – what do you do?

Quick as lightning, Felix jumped out of the way, rolling a (3+2 = 5) failure! The hill giant’s foot caught Felix plumb in the chest, flinging him against the wall for 6 damage, reducing him to 13HP. At the same time, Felix’s player marked of an experience point for rolling the failure – a neat part of the Dungeon World rules. Felix – what do you do?

Felix drew his rapier and lunged for the hill giant. That’s a Hack & Slash Move, but using DEX because the rapier has a Precise tag (Hack & Slash is usually a STR Move). He rolled (10+2) 12, a complete success, and rolled 4 damage, killing the hill giant!

End of the fight. There’s no “combat system” per se in Dungeon World – there are no rounds, or initiative, fights happen as part of the narrative, which can take some getting used to. But this, our first DW fight, was a one-on-one, so everything was pretty straightforward. Pook then looked over the watchtower to his comrades waiting below, and beckoned them up.

Now was a slightly weird bit of play – reminiscent of old school, with the potential to get a bit tedious. Happily we drove through it quickly. Basically, the 4 other PCs wanted to get to the top of the watchtower. Dungeon World doesn’t have a “Say Yes or Roll the Dice” approach; if a situation is dangerous, you roll Defy Danger, and the result determines the narrative. So, we had 4 separate Defy Danger (DEX) Moves to see if they made it. We had 2 complete successes, 1 partial success, and 1 failure. The complete successes were no problem – the two characters climbed into the watchtower. For the partial success, I as GM had the option of offering a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice; I chose to use the GM Move Use up their Resources, and declared that the rope had worn through and had to be discarded for a new piece, using up 1 of their 5 uses of the Adventuring Gear. For the failure, that’s a hard move, and I chose to have the character fall for 1d6 damage. Then… um… I had the same character roll again. In retrospect, that was lame. Reading the rules again, I realise now that I could have had the failure mean that the character fell, took damage, and then climbed up successfully on the second attempt, or perhaps climbed up successfully the first time but fell part of the way and took damage. I took a lesson from that for the next time – as ever, narrating a lame result which basically blocks the narrative is to be avoided in any game. Failure should never make the game grind to a halt.

So – now the PCs were in the watchtower, and readying to creep down the stair. They found the vast wooden entrance hall, torchlit, with two single doors and a double door in the northern wall, and a “main entrance” to the outside in the east wall, flanked by two drunken sleeping hill giants! Sounds of roaring and drunken hill giant revelry come from behind the northern double doors. What do you do?

The PCs briefly thought about trying to kill the sleeping giants. In fact, their first idea was “we attack”, but I explained that “attacking” wasn’t a possible action here – the “opponents” were unconscious, so the stakes were that if the PCs couldn’t creep up and slit the hill giants’ throats, the hill giants would wake up, and maybe raise the alarm. Once they’d realised that, they decided to leave them asleep, for now – they didn’t want to risk detection this early. Instead they chose to go through the northwest door.

Now, G1 says the “giant doors” in the Steading are hard to open, requiring an “Open Doors” roll. I thought that might get old pretty quickly, but as I was learning the rules I’d try the Dungeon World equivalent, having Gramfive the Grim, the party’s fighter, make Bend Bars / Lift Gates Moves to open the big, heavy doors – a 2d6+STR roll. After all, it might be an opportunity to make lots of noise, use up adventurers’ gear (bent crowbars?), or even take damage (busted shoulder?). The first roll was a complete success, and the party went through to the corridor beyond.

The next few minutes was standard dungeon delving; exploring, checking out a couple of rooms, etc. At one point, in a giants’ armoury, Xiola Zenwaith, the elven wizard, tried to cast her Detect Magic cantrip, a Cast a Spell (INT) Move. She failed! For a moment I was a bit stumped. Sure, I knew that the roll likely meant she’d not detected any magic, but I also had a GM Move to make in reaction. I checked the list of GM Moves, and selected Show Signs of an Approaching Threat. I explained how the magic backfired, causing a sorcerous “flare” around Xiola which could probably be detected by anyone around who had any magical senses. Not a brilliant GM Move, but it allowed me to put some pressure to act on the PCs, and also allowed me to set things in motion elsewhere in the Steading.

At that point we ended the first session – we’d played for a couple of hours, which is about the length I like for “rules learning” sessions. We went through the End of Session Advanced Move, which apportioned XP to characters who’d fulfilled some of their Alignment or “Bond” (interpersonal) goals.

That’s all for this first post – check out Part Two for the AP of the second session and my opinions and observations from our first play sessions.

Hope you’re all having a great Christmas!

Sarah

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2013 3:47 am

    Hey there! I know this is somewhat off topic but I
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  2. January 19, 2013 5:49 pm

    this blog is so good i would come here every da

  3. kosovodad permalink
    December 31, 2012 4:17 am

    Good write up; I’m looking forward to the next part … Is there a way for me to see the web page in a different font, though? It’s really hard for my old eyes to read.

  4. Nathaniel permalink
    December 30, 2012 7:32 pm

    The only thing I’m not on board with yet is the HP totals in the game, so I’m basically sticking with the D&D Monster Manual Entries and just making up moves as I go.

    The Hill Giant in the DW book is a perfect example of mental disconnect I have with some of the game. It is listed with 10HP, lower than some PCs, and that even conflicts with the rules for conversions found on pg.386 of the DW rules, which if followed would give a Hill Giant 16HP. Your example of a Halfling Thief taking one out in a couple of moves enhances that disconnect from old school play in my mind.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the game, but I’m hybridizing it with the original D&D rules for the most part, converting on the fly as I used to do with C&C, to get the best of both worlds.

    • December 31, 2012 11:29 am

      I think I initially shared your opinion, Nathaniel – but so far I’ve been taking the same approach I used when learning radically new systems like HeroQuest 2 and Fate. I try and stick with the RAW, figuring the guys who’ve created and playtested the system have been through these issues and addressed them deep inside the mechanics. If they haven’t – well, the system probably isn’t polished enough for me to bother with. Sometimes, though, it’d be nice to have these things dealt with explicitly – I’ve found the Dungeon World forums *quite* useful in that respect, though you have to dig deep!

      The whole HP issue is a case in point. As I’m sure you know, in DW, a player can’t unilaterally decide to make a Hack & Slash Move, giving them a chance to do damage. They narrate what their character does, and that triggers an “appropriate” Move.

      With the hill giant, if the fighter says “I hit it with my sword”, the GM is quite justified in saying “the giant swings its club in a wide arc, roaring furiously. You can’t get close enough to land a blow – but the club’s hurtling towards your head – what do you do?” The Hack & Slash Move isn’t possible, therefore not triggered, and instead you’re suddenly needing to roll Defy Danger to avoid taking damage.

      So you change tack. “I’m going to heft my shield and sword and try and fend off the blows, getting in close enough to strike. It’s gonna hurt, but I might be able to do it!” Now your description triggers the Defy Danger Move, using your CON (it’s an endurance thing rather than agility, the way you’ve narrated it). If you fail, you can’t get close and take damage; if you partially succeed, you get close but take damage, etc.

      Let’s say you succeed – you can now narrate actually striking to hit that hill giant! You still might fail, but you could do damage. But, you’ve potentially already taken three lots of damage just to get close enough to try and land a blow! And, unless you roll a complete success, the hill giant’s probably going to try and push you back again (it has the “Forceful” tag, which produces knockback), forcing you to start over.

      Suddenly, the hill giant’s HP don’t mean so much. Your best bet might actually be to pepper it with arrows from a distance. Except it has the “catch missiles” and “throw missiles” Moves… In retrospect, the halfling’s encounter with the hill giant guard was narrated on the easy side, due to my inexperience with the system – although I think it was (quite accidentally) justifiable given the context (drunk hill giant just woken up, expert halfling in the shadows with poison throwing knives…) 😉

      I’m sure you’ve experienced all the above in your own play – but my point in writing it out longhand is that the actual Hit Points don’t have a one-to-one parity with their D&D counterparts. The conversion guide in the DW book suggests dividing D&D HP by 4 to give a rough DW equivalent – maybe that’s useful, I don’t have enough play experience to evaluate yet.

      What I’m finding is that the Monster Moves and Tags are *crucial* for working out how to narrate encounters – whether and if certain character Moves are appropriate, and how the monster can react when you make a GM Move. Those Monster Moves and Tags aren’t just window dressing – in fact, they’re *more* important than things like HP and Armour. So much so that personally I could use a *lot* more guidance on how to use them – although I am enjoying figuring it out! I did read on the forums that you can adjust the lethality of an encounter by varying the narration of the Moves and Tags, and I can grok that.

      The one thing I’m focussing on at the moment – for future DW sessions – is NPCs and Monsters using magic. I haven’t quite grokked how that works yet – whether they use spells, etc, or whether you annotate the Monster Moves with a list of possible spell-like effects. It’s a little like the Bestiary descriptions in HeroQuest – they give you as GM a list of possible counter-moves, so the wording is not only critical, but it actually provides you as GM a ready-made toolkit of Moves for that critter so that you don’t suddenly have to wing everything on the fly. All IMHO, of course. 🙂

      • Nathaniel permalink
        January 2, 2013 4:17 pm

        I think my old school brain is giving me a problem here. I’ve never been into narrative games, preferring a solid, if not too crunchy, base set of rules to work with (B/X for instance), and my groups are almost always against GM arbitrariness of any stripe. Doctor Who and Agon are about as narrative as we get. It’s the wargamer in us, I suppose.

  5. Brass Jester permalink
    December 30, 2012 5:44 pm

    Thanks for the write-up, Sarah. I’ve been wondering whether to give Dungeon World a try. Fro your write-up, it appears to have a more direct ‘steer’ for the GM as compared to, say, Everway, in which my imagination used to flag after a bit.

    • December 31, 2012 11:41 am

      Hi Brass Jester – hope you’re having a good Christmas! 😀

      I don’t know Everway, but I’d certainly say DW is very structured – the Player & GM Moves are very good for leading you through the narrative to-and-fro. There’s a fair bit of unlearning required – if you’ve played HeroQuest, etc, you’ll be familiar with the feeling 😉 – and quite a few things (HP, levels, etc) which *look* superficially similar to old school D&D on the surface, but in reality are quite different. If you’re at all interested in rules mechanics innovations and the process of cherry-picking from the more edgy indie games to include cool stuff in your own games, I’d certainly give it a whirl. 🙂

  6. December 30, 2012 4:11 pm

    Excellent write-up, Sarah. I look forward to Part 2.

  7. December 30, 2012 3:59 pm

    John Marron, of US, old Univ Fla grad? Or another gaming geek with same name?

    • December 31, 2012 11:30 am

      You know, Robert, I have *no* idea! I met John at GenCon the year before last – he’s certainly an American, so it’s possible! 🙂

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