Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World
by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel
Sage Kobold Productions
Powered by the Apocalypse World engine
Rating: ★★★★★

I highly approve of Dungeon World.  And by highly, I do mean this has replaced Pathfinder and D&D as my game of choice for running stories set in a non-modern fantasy setting.  I make no secret of my lack of interest towards Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition and Next.  While I am certain the two games have a lot of fun to be found in them, I simply feel they are games that clearly have a target market in mind:  one which I am not part of.  While I might have wonderful memories of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as well as fond thoughts of stories which we explored using Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 if not Paizo's Pathfinder, I always found it a struggle to help new players get into the games given their massive compendium of rules, errata and  balance issues.  While I'm the kind of GM who does not mind having godlike player characters mingling with mortal human player characters, when it came to the two system I used to use for fantasy games, the need for balance was imperative given the crunch of its system.   Dungeon World takes the BEST of those game worlds, and serves it in a dish with just enough rules to make it fun without making it tedious.  And even more awesome, provides it in a way that you can literally start gaming with fully-made characters within ten minutes of sitting down and telling your players what the game will be.

Dungeon World has made the concept of trying a fantasy role-playing game a modular, easy-to-dive-into-without-any-prepwork experience.  And that, my dear readers, is an incredible accomplishment that cannot be overlooked.

So, tell us how the game works?
Okay, in Dungeon World, you have your standard fantasy character classes: the Bard, the Cleric, the Druid, the Fighter, the Paladin, the Ranger, the Thief, and the Wizard, and you have one of the players being the GM (the "Dungeon Master" if this were a D&D game).    As mentioned in the book's first few pages, in Dungeon World the objective is to have the characters do amazing things and struggle together, because the world still has so many places to explore.  With the focus on having fun as a group, the game presents things with very simple rules, and while the jargon might seem confusing at first, once you get the hang of the very basic system things very quickly fall into place and become one of the easiest things in the world to learn.

Dungeon World still retains the expected fantasy game Stats of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. But rather than over-complicate things with random dice rolls for stat generation or point buy systems, you simply choose from a small set of scores to assign to the six stats.    The game uses two six-sided dice which are rolled and added together with one of the Stats to determine the result of one's action.  And the results range from three possible kinds of results:  A roll of 10 or higher is the Best Outcome.  A roll of 7 to 9 is Good Outcome (which always comes with either a compromise or a cost).  A roll of 6 or lower means trouble, but in return for the troubles you will have to face, you get a point of XP.  So that roll + X is the main system of the entire game in a nutshell.  While there are other smaller systems (such as hold, when you Defend someone, and forward, which means it applies to the next roll) in the game, you've pretty much learned the main necessary rule to do any moves in the game.

Yes, this means right now, you my dear reader, can already PLAY a Dungeon World game.  Amazing, ain't it?

Character Creation?
Now, unlike most games where you roll up stats first, then choose to allocate points or skills, then by the end have a character, in Dungeon World, you start character creation by choosing a playkit.  In this game, a playkit is a character sheet for a specific role in the game (such as a bard, or a thief, as mentioned earlier) that you would like to play.  Every playkit of the game has been wonderfully designed to be extremely easy to dive into and use given all the necessary systems of that character type are already in the sheet and all you have to actually do is mark the appropriate box to show that you have "unlocked" a selected power.  The game gives very cool options in each playkit, showing how an Elven Bard differs from a Human Bard, for example.  The sheets already contain a list of Gear you would have and even list options for names, and appearance details to choose from to flesh out your concept with the least of fuss.  While these options can be interpreted to limit customization (if one chooses to insist that "if its not written, you cannot do it" which I think is foolish), I felt they allowed the game to become user-friendly to the point that a person who has never tried a game before can look at it and quickly grasp how the sheet will work and be filled up.  And that, I feel is an incredible achievement to accomplish for a game intended to make role-playing an accessible hobby to more people.

The game's main book can sound confusing to some gamers, because it presents what are called Moves for the players to use and for the GM as well to utilize.  While players have a selection of Basic Moves (which represent things any character can do, such as Hack and Slash which means to attack with a melee weapon, Volley, which means to attack with a ranged weapon, Parley, and the like) players also have Special Moves (to represent actions taken typically outside of scenes that interact with others, such as setting camping, travelling.. this even includes actions done when the game ends such as calculating XP at the end of a session and levelling up) and Moves based on the class they have selected.  The class related moves are divided to two types: Starting (which represent the basic training and abilities one gets by being of that class, such as a Druid's ability to Shapeshift, a Thief's ability to locate and disarm traps) and Advanced (which represent later moves that you can learn as you increase your levels).  All these moves are part of your Playkits, making them character sheets that double as your reference notes for anything you might want to do in the game.  Once again, a genius move in making the game accessible!

Much Less Clutter, they say?
The game throws away a lot of the clutter which overly complicated Dungeons and Dragons-type of fantasy games, such as Feats, Initiative, varied rules for tactical positions, grappling, and even varied target numbers to hit opponents and Challenge Ratings to "maintain balance."  Instead, the game highlight game fiction, a term which might also confuse people, but basically means for the GM to make rulings which was seems appropriate and dramatically logical in the scene.  Given the very generous helping of monsters to choose from (150 from my count), the GM has a very good variety of challenges to throw at his players for a fun romp of an adventure.

Yes, you read that right.  No Initiative.  Because in Dungeon World, battles do not have initiative, nor number of actions.  Instead, everything happens as if the "fiction" of the scene was being written that very moment.  The GM acts like a camera, zooming through the battlefield and choosing what events matter, highlighting the moment when the Wizard turns to see an Ogre crashing towards him.  As the Wizard player announces his plan to cast a spell, the focus shifts to the Ranger who is overheard and leaps atop the Ogre to fire a number of arrows into its head.  The idea is, the GM helps direct the players to the events of the battle that are key as it unfolds, and these events always have one or another player character, if not their enemies or goal, at the center of that spotlight.    This embrace of the game fiction is very important because it is fully supported by the Dungeon World's key system:  Whenever the players roll less than 10, the GM get's to use his moves to make the battle more engaging, and more deadly in an exciting way.    As the Ranger, in the example above, unleashes his arrows, the player of the Ranger rolls a seven, meaning a Good result with either a compromise or cost.  The GM can then describe that the attack enrages the Ogre, and in its rage, it runs wildly towards the Wizard, who also happens to be ready to cast a spell.  The Ranger must choose:  remain on the Ogre, but risk getting caught in the Wizard's spell, or to leap away, and be safe, but leave the Wizard to handle the Ogre alone.   The system helps generate the drama, and the players are all engaged.

How does XP work?
Well, each playkit has a set of incomplete sentences which are called Bonds.  For example, the Paladin's Bonds are written as follows:
(blank's) misguided behavior endagers their very soul!
(blank) has stood by me in battle and can be trusted completely.
I respect the beliefs of (blank) but hope they will someday see the true way.
(blank) is a brave soul, I have much to learn from them.
Each blank is to be filled with the name of one of the other player characters in the game, and these immediately create a sense of connection with the others in the game.  These also, when "resolved" in a way you feel appropriate, are cashed in as XP in the end of the game session.  Other than through bonds, failing rolls also nets the character XP, suggesting they learn more from their mistakes.  Once a character as 7+level XP points, they can take the Level Up move during a downtime scene.

Okay, it sounds pretty cool.  Tell me one thing I will feel very odd about the game though.
Well, given how the playkits are the characters' major roles, each kit has a set damage die that is rolled whenever they succeed in an attack.  So it does not matter if the Fighter uses a dagger, or a broadsword, or if the Wizard punched the monster or used his spear, they roll the same damage dice.  While this can be jarring for some, giving the feeling that weapons are irrelevant, I felt it simply was a reminder that ultimately, these characters are good at what they are meant to do well, and are not so good in things they aren't meant to do well.  And that damage die represents that.  A fighter, for example, will always be deadly when it comes to combat regardless of what weapon he wields.  Likewise, a wizard, even if trained with a blade, will never be as good as a fighter holding one.  And that makes sense for me as far as in-game fiction is concerned.

Rating Breakdown:Concept: I love it!  I can't wait to see more games developed for this (and I've joined some friends in supporting the Kickstarter for an upcoming Dungeon World expansion book called Inverse World.) and I do hope to someday be able to try the original game that developed the system, Apocalypse World.
Crunch: Light enough to be extremely easy to teach, without feeling too light that it doesn't matter.  Getting used to the 10+, 7-9. 6.. system might confuse some, and challenge other GMs but once you get the swing of things, the system really makes you look at how games are approached in a cool way.
Layout: Beautiful.  Absolutely beautiful.  I wish I had an actual copy of the book (and I believe I am to get one soon since my friends ordered a copy).
My favorite part: Coming up with things whenever a 7-9 is rolled.  It is just crazy fun seeing players know they have to choose among the options and take what is coming to them, given it is something they chose themselves.
What I wish was better: The way the rules were explained.  Admittedly, I had trouble with this when I first tried reading the book.  I have a lot to owe this link for helping me grasp the game better.

Special thank you to Erich who got me to try running this system.
You have changed my view on fantasy games in a great way, my friend.

Dive into a whole-new yet familiar way of exploring dungeons today.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...