Monday, December 24, 2012

Dungeon World Review

Gygaxian Goodness or Mazes and Monsters?


The newest foray into the fantasy dungeon crawler is Dungeon World, a game which emphasizes narrative flow and player participation for fast action and old-fashioned fun. It is based on Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, and Dungeon World carries on the design aesthetic and accessibility that its source provided. It has a few bumps and minor issues in the rules, but these are dwarfed by the originality and loyalty to the feel of the original Dungeons and Dragons.

In-depth Read-through

In terms of the overall structure, Dungeon World has a nice artful introduction. The opening text immediately impresses the aesthetics of the game and a notable focus on the unique character each class in Dungeons and Dragons. A simple one-column design and legible fonts provide a clean look, if a little sparing. We can see the influence of the role-playing game as party game style, reminiscent of titles like Fiasco, in the accessibility and brevity of the what is role-playing section. This continues in the basic play section, which outlines the mechanics of what makes Dungeon World work. This is a nicely written section, but is badly in need of the basic moves cheat sheet being moved right to the start, so that we have a depiction of the moves before laying out mechanics that depend on them strongly.

Dungeon World, like Apocalypse World before it, runs on a core mechanic of player-facing, player-guided rolls, with a GM painting the landscape, foes, and supporting characters just ahead of the players, as well as pasting together any gaps in the narrative. Moves are the basic unit in this rule system, a set of bins into which an action is categorized before dice start rolling. This is not unlike many other games, but the mechanic is player-facing, actions in the game are focused on the player characters rather than round-based with a lot of NPC actions.

Further, a player essentially knows what the roll result means, based on the move they took. This shifts a lot of the work off the GM once you have players used to the system. It also gives the players a lot more freedom to shape the narrative.

On this core framework Dungeon World layers on the flavor and combat mechanics needed to evoke the flavor of dungeon-crawling without a huge rules infrastructure to support it. Almost all of these add interesting flavor to the game, like the awesome henchman mechanic which can help with player absence, a fun camping move, or the flavor of classic spell-casting differences between classes. A few fall a little flat and seem to clash with the simple flavor, like Alignment or Encumbrance. I see that the idea with alignment was to emulate the source material, but it feels like the moral restriction clashes with the free choice aesthetic in the game, and allowing Evil PCs is perhaps more problematic as they can earn XP by clashing with other players. Encumbrance, similarly, seems out of place. Why are we tracking every piece of equipment when most of us house-ruled it away in most D&D editions? These could be easily fixed with some house rules, and perhaps this is just my personal taste, but a few rules seem like odd additions. Overall the flavor added by these secondary mechanics are evocative and fun.

On the GM side we have a ton of advice on how to run the game. This is quite helpful if you are not used to running as more of an improvisational GM. The GM section guides you on what to worry about and what to not sweat. There is also a nice list which tells the GM what their moves should be. In practice you might not need this at all, as many GMs do these things naturally, but it can be helpful if you are lost or hit a writer's block in the middle of a scene.
A nice structuring tool called Fronts is also described. A front builds up multiple tracks of unfolding events which come to a dramatic conclusion. Its a good solution for a GM if their players have a tendency to meander when given a lot of plot control. This is further supported with advice on campaign design and some neat rules for populating a campaign world as the players move to a larger and larger scale. Similarly, monster building is given a thorough treatment with an eye toward challenging the party. There is also a beefy section describing all the beasties, followed by the loot you might "liberate" from their corpses.

Finally, we close out with a few forward-thinking sections that really make this product. The first covers how to hack the system to do different things, everything from how to make a special set-piece to an adventure with unique moves to make on it, to creating brand new moves and even classes from scratch. It's neat to see the authors taking time to explain their ideas and design philosophy, and its a cool nod to its progenitor, Apocalypse World.
We also have several appendices to aid play, but I'll focus on adventure conversion. What long-time gamer doesn't have a favorite dungeon delving quest they'd love to scrabble through one more time? It's great to have a very explicit guide on what to use from the Dungeon World book, what to convert wholesale, and what to recast or omit. I think this is a good example of a small amount of extra work giving exactly what the fans want.

Overall, I recommend Dungeon World for a new take on a well-worn genre, good for a quick night of fun or a full-fledged revisiting of a classic dungeon adventure.

Note that this review reflects the full 410 page book, rather than the open license or demo versions.

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