Monday, March 7, 2016

The Morning After, A Review of Dungeon World

Okay, so I've been researching one of the "new" OSR games out there: Dungeon World (DW).  I first became interested in it from David Guyll's Points of Light blog where he posted about the Sundered World campaign setting (to be reviewed later) for DW.  At first I assumed it was another OSR clone game, perhaps like Swords & Wizardry with a few indie touches.  A bit more reading led to a mix of excitement and confusion.  I knew it was leading me on but it seemed like the sort of game I wanted to be led on by.  The free download materials on the DW site were intriguing but I just couldn't quite grasp how DMing was supposed to work.  Since I usually DM (and like it) this was a potential deal breaker.  Finally, I decided I'd just have to take the plunge and buy the darn thing.

At first Dungeon World lulls you into a false sense of security.  It is indeed an indie take on the earlier editions of D&D, more AD&D than OD&D.  You have the traditional six stats, eight classes (bard, cleric, druid, fighter, paladin, ranger, thief, wizard), and three races (human, elf, dwarf).  Stats come from placing an array (but there are optional rules if you wish to roll), then you pick your race and class.  The rules as written only allow one of each class per party but it's the first rule I'd toss.  It's a dick move.  Why force a player to play something they don't want when you can just print out another ranger or whatever? But I digress.  So far, so good

Then it starts showing you it's kinkier side by introducing the "move" concept.  There are basic moves, like Defy Danger (all saving throw types rolled into one) or Hack & Slash (make a melee attack).  There are Special Moves for leveling up, carousing, taking watch, etc.  And finally there are the many class moves unique to each class.  Basically these are like class abilities, spells, and feats blended into one mechanical concept.  The moves for each class cover the sorts of things you'd expect but with a few twists and surprises here and there.

Okay, so a little different but so far nothing your mom would disapprove of as long as you're home by dinner.  Then DW lures you into a conceptual back alley, by revealing that all moves are resolved not with a nice, clean-cut d20 roll but one of those slightly sketchy 2d6 rolls.  All rolls in DW (except damage) are 2d6, usually with an appropriate attribute modifier applied, and expressed like "roll + INT".  The basic rule is that on 10+ you succeed, on 7-9 you succeed but there is a downside, and on 6 or less you fail and often suffer a penalty.  Spellcasting is a real departure from D&D, this one most welcome, where if you roll 10+ you cast successfully but do not expend the spell.  It's bit odd, you say to yourself, but your dad's Traveler used 2d6 so no need to freak out or anything.

Then DW suddenly sticks a big needle into your neck to inject you with something called DM Moves, and tells you to stop struggling and relax.  After carefully explaining to your gullible face for many pages about how moves are where you call out the move you want to use and roll 2d6 modified, it explains that there are no rolls for DM moves.  What a fool you were to not see it coming.  If only you'd listened to your mom this time.  Essentially DM moves are all plot twists (including dealing out damage from attackers!?) which you throw at your players like anvils or banana peels to confound them.  These come in response to player actions and questions but also spark them.  DM moves are very generic, like "Put someone in a spot", "Separate them", or "Reveal an unwelcome truth".  Each of these generic moves is then briefly described in an equally generic way.  You start getting a bit light headed and disoriented from the lack of structure, but also a vague euphoria from a rush freedom you've never quite experienced before.

I rolled around in a daze for a while trying to grasp how DM moves really worked.  There were some guides and discussions here and there on line but they only helped things briefly swim into focus, like a friend slapping your face and yelling something like "cake pup" over and over.  Eventually I came to, all feverish and sweaty, and wasn't sure these were the same underwear I'd left the house in this morning.

To clear my head I moved on to the sections on monsters, which are grouped by general environment and delightfully simple in description.  Finally I stumbled into the very cool bit on Fronts.  Fronts are how to build the threats which drive the plot and in a neatly structured way.  After the bad trip brought on by the GM moves Fronts was like plunging one's head in a bucket of cold water and then sitting down in a diner for a big stack of pancakes.

Fronts are a really nice concept for building plots, both for adventures and for larger campaign elements.  There are Dangers, which have Impending Dooms, Grim Portents, a Cast, etc.  I think this is the best thing I've ever seen for showing someone how to put together adventures and campaigns. I almost forgot all about the puncture wound in the side of my neck from that earlier chapter I'd rather not talk about right now.  Along with the Fronts are rules for characterizing "steadings" which are the populated places in your campaign world.  These range in size from little villages to large cities.  Again, the concepts here are absolutely great and usable with any rules set.  For me the rules for fronts and steadings alone were worth the price of the book.

So the bottom line is that I enjoyed reading Dungeon World, will definitely be using the fronts and steading rules, and would like to try running a game with it.  I'm just still really not sure how the DM moves work in actual practice and I want my underwear back.

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