Dungeon World Puts Narrative First

Dungeon World is having a very real, meaningful impact on how I look at games, and how I look at my game.

I’m a big believer in cross-product, system-neutral play, which is to say that I encourage everyone to steal from every game they own when building a campaign or creating an adventure. If the mechanical crunch doesn’t work, ignore it and take the story ideas or abstract rule concepts that you like. If flavor and genre don’t match, use the mechanical parts you like and just reskin the rest. I’ll use Pathfinder’s GameMastery Guide to roll up a random location for my World of Darkness game just as easily as I’ll repurpose the time travel rules from Transdimensional TMNT with a heaping serving of cosmic horror for my Great Race of Yith themed Call of Cthulhu mini-series.

No matter what, I’m always on the lookout for the next mechanical innovation to inspire my own homebrew campaign; last time is was Mouse Guard’s Trait system, and those are now being tempered by Dungeon World’s similar Tags and complications. I like this game enough to…already be thinking about how I could rebuild it from the ground up to suit my play style.

Here is the biggest problem I have with Dungeon World. Again, I can’t stress this enough, this game is great. I would play it right now, as it lies…but with that due caveat, I really dislike one of the core pillars of the game. Basic Moves. “Moves” are one of the core mechanics of Dungeon World, and you can think of them as If-Then statements, based on the roll of the dice.

The class Moves are a good place to start, since they map the most easily onto what d20 players will think of as “class features.” The key flavor difference is that Dungeon World has a middle ground between “success” and “failure” that is more… complicated.

Take the Thief’s “Tricks of the Trade,” their version of picking locks and disabling traps. Roll 2d6, add your Dexterity bonus. Ten or better, success. 6 or under, you fail. 7-9 is the sweet spot: “…you still do it, but the GM will offer you two options between suspicion, danger, or cost.” For specific class Moves, that’s great. It looks to me— this may be heresy to some OSR devotees— like the lessons of Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, taken to heart and stripped down to what works.

Dungeon World DruidBasic Moves are just too specific to be “basic,” for my taste. I’ll agree that “Hack and Slash” is something a lot of adventurers do, and I think in practice the Basic Moves probably work swell, but something about it rankles. I want the foundation of the system to be more elegant, cleaner. Maybe tied to the attributes; link each attribute to a few suggested boons and complications. I understand the argument that having loose rules for the monsters and stricter rules for the players makes sense, as the Game Master can make the calls but the players need more structure, but…

Frankly while I buy that for the Class Moves, I feel like Basic Moves just reduces the apparent options to players. You’ve given them hammers and now everything looks like a nail. The “Move” system is a little too tight around the collar for my taste, but that brings me to something I really like about the system: it encourages you to strip it down and rebuild it to suit your preferences. Wish that a member of any race could be a member of any class? Easy! Want to redefine how the game works at a deeper level? They’ve got guidance for that, too. I’m not alone in wanting to get my hands dirty; John Harper’s “World of Dungeons” retro rebuild of the game is on the same wave length and I’m sure I’ll find others.

Dungeon World equipmentThe orc warchief is blessed by both the orc one-eyes and the orc shamans, and bears the Iron Sword of Ages. The Cloak of Silent stars is a black and cosmic cape that lets you punch a lightning bolt to keep it from hitting you, using Strength instead of Dexterity, or charm the poison racing through your veins with honeyed words, substituting Charisma for Constitution. These little details hint at a campaign setting behind the logic of Dungeon World, but it doesn’t insist upon it, and they are left just…lying about, willy nilly. Sort of reminds me of Dark Souls, which told its story only through item descriptions and NPC dialogue without any clumsy exposition dump. Here’s this crazy, messed up world. Go!

Dungeon World characterDungeon World’s mantra is narrative comes before rules, and I think that’s why I like the very loose and abstract system for Tags and monsters more than the more concrete mechanics for Moves. I’m planning on using the “Fronts” from the Game Master’s section to try to plan some adventures and campaign arcs as well; it seems like it would gel very nicely to my current system of checklists and vignettes. On a fundamental level, the vision behind monsters and magic items are why I became so enchanted by this system: make no mistake, my critiques above are only because I’ve taken so much of this book to heart.

Too much to heart, if anything; I can’t stress this enough, don’t take my criticisms as complaints. Dungeon World is so good that I just had to pop the hood and start tinkering around, I had to get into the nuts and bolts of it rather than just take it as is. For a guy with a Game Masterly bent, that’s the greatest endorsement that I can give a game.

Dungeon World interior art by Emily DeLisle.

Mordicai Knode is thinking he’d probably play a Fighter and try to convince the GM to let him play a Deep Elf or an Orc & modify the Elf racial power to add either “messy” or “forceful,” respectively. Find him on Tumblr and Twitter!


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