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One Shot Review: Dungeon World

Do you like everything about Dungeons & Dragons, but hate twenty-sided dice? Then have I got a game for you! I recently broke my "forever GM" streak by playing in a game of Dungeon World. I see DW as an attempt to take the setting and feel of old school D&D, but give it a rules overhaul that makes a game that is easier to play and focuses more on narrative and inter-party relationships.

Many tabletop gamers are familiar with D&D's core mechanic. With all the other rules stripped away, D&D comes down to this: when you wish to perform an action where the outcome is uncertain, you roll a twenty-sided die and add relevant modifiers. If you get equal to or higher than a number set by the dungeon master, you succeed.

In Dungeon World and other "Powered by the Apocalypse" games, the core mechanic looks similar, but flips things on its head a bit. When you wish to perform an action where the outcome is uncertain, you roll two six-sided dice added together and add relevant modifiers. 2-6 is an outright failure, 7-9 is success with a cost, and 10 or higher is a complete success.

I appreciate how this system creates heroes who are capable of doing heroic things. Even a starting character will have a 5 out of 6 (83%) chance of some sort of success when doing something they are good at (with a +2 in that ability). Many rolls described as "failure" in other game systems can be more fun if ruled by the game master as success with a cost— a "yes and"— rather than a straight "no."

The important thing to note here is that the game master doesn't set the difficulty of an action. A 10 is always a success, no matter what; there's no need to look up an armor class or difficulty class. Maybe it's the twenty years of D&D brainwashing speaking, but I have a hard time coming to terms with this. Bullseyeing a womp rat is harder than hitting a bantha and could depend on a lot of other factors. In the one session I played in, our game master did declare one action particularly difficult and gave a -1 penalty to the dice roll. This feels okay, maybe even necessary, but like it goes against the core mechanic of PbtA games.

I'd describe Dungeon World as rules-light, especially against the standard of fifth edition D&D. And I appreciate that. While I'll probably never get sick of playing plebeian D&D, I prefer systems that are more flexible with their (lack of) rules, and allot more decision-making to the players and game master. This lets you focus more on the story of the game, rather than the game of the story.

DW does have some rules that feel oddly mechanical and broke my immersion a few times. For instance, my Thief peeked into a cave. The GM had me roll a "discern reality" check and I got to ask him several rather specific questions, which took me out of the moment and made it feel more like a game.

There's a lot in the game that is easy to under-appreciate in only one session. Bonds between characters are a big part of Dungeon World, and something that I've heard of lots of people grafting onto their D&D games as well. It may take several more sessions and updates to my characters bonds for me to truly see the benefits of DW bonds.

I'm also a bit on the fence on the experience points system. In DW, you get a point of experience every time you fail a roll with 6 or under. I like that this speaks to how you improve at things in real life, encourages players to take big risks, and also cushions the blow of a cold streak of rolling. This definitely incentivizes players to constantly do things, which is good, but I wonder how this works with people who prefer to go along for the ride and "wait their turn." I've played other roleplaying games with tons of people who really enjoy the game, but aren't really into speaking up. They may end up making fewer roles, and therefore progress more slowly.

As mentioned, I haven't run a game of Dungeon World as a game master, but from skimming over the rules, as well as reading through the original game, Apocalypse World, I can tell you that they both have some great advice that can be applied to running any RPG. In fact, I've had a hard time staying focused on writing this review because I keep getting distracted applying the "fronts" system to one of my current D&D campaigns.

I've brought up Dungeons & Dragons a lot here, but you really can't help it when talking about Dungeon World. It's greatest weakness and it's greatest strength is its similarity to D&D. Wikipedia lists seventeen other Powered by the Apocalypse games that are definitely not set in the same sort of world as D&D. It feels like a wasted opportunity to leave the D&D game mechanics, only to cling to elves and wizards.

For this reason, I'm not planning on running my own Dungeon World campaign any time soon. I'd rather leave the dungeons behind and try a completely different genre if I was going to try a different rules set. I believe that medieval fantasy works great for combat, so D&D's robust combat rules are perfect for that kind of game. I do encourage people to check out the Dungeon World rulebook though, both to support indie designers, and to grab some great ideas that you can apply to any game, whether that's D&D, Fate, or anything else.

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