My Dungeon World Stumbling Block

So, I have been working on a post-dungeonworld Fantasy Heartbreaker for no good reason other than it sometimes demands to be written. We’ll see if it gets to a finished state or just peters out, but it’s proving an interesting exercise, and it produced an interesting tangent.

I was discussing this with some friends yesterday, and the topic came up of why Dungeon World does not sit quite right with me. Now, I recognize it’s a great game, but it always is a bit of a rough experience for me, for reasons I still struggle with. Part of it is that the struts of the system are so visible that I can’t really unsee them, and I don’t know if that will ever be solvable, but the other issue is one I’ve felt and said, but have had a hard time getting past instinctive.

Basically, I assert this: the *World system is a tool that improves your gaming, but it has a point of optimum return which is higher than any other such system I can think of, but is (like all such tools) lower than the maximum possible. It’s silly to assign numbers to fun, but for purposes of argument, let’s say that I feel that DW helps push you up to 85% maximum fun, but then creates a drag as you get past 85%.

(I realize that’s a contentious assertion, especially since no one ever thinks their game is only 85% (or less) fun, and that is the inherent flaw of using numbers to illustrate this, so please just accept that it’s a flawed example to express an idea, not some kind of absolute truth.)

In any case, while that’s easy to assert, I have struggled with crystallizing a concrete example of why it is so, and I think I’ve hit on it, or at least enough to put forward a hypothesis.

And this is it: Dungeon World makes you game better as long as the mixed results in the text are as good or better than what you would come up with on the fly.

Obviously those mixed results are not the ONLY thing in DW – there’s the structure of the language and all that comes with that, but those are not things I need to reference. I’m zeroing in to the mixed result thing because I feel like it’s really an essential driver[1], and because the way moves are written is genuinely brilliant in teaching you how to adjudicate such things.

I’m going to turn this over in my head for a bit – I’m not sure it will stand, but for the moment, it feels like it’s the piece I’ve been missing in my thinking.[2]

  1. Yes, you can invent extra mixed results, just as you can invent new moves on the fly. But if you’ve internalized it to that point, then it’s a technique, not a game. And that’s awesome. I could absolutely play an ad hoc game with Risus character sheets and Dungeon World resolution where every roll is a move created on the fly. But that would be something very different (in large part because the resolution really isn’t the only part of Dungeon World.  ↩

  2. Also, if you think that this is a condemnation of the *World system rather than an acknowledgement of something freaking brilliant, then you need to spend some time trying to build structures that make play better. It’s really, really hard.  ↩

10 thoughts on “My Dungeon World Stumbling Block

  1. Lenny

    One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had about Dungeon World is with a guy who said, “I understand this design, but frankly, I don’t need it. I already know how to do all the stuff it’s trying to teach me to do.” There’s something to that assertion, I think, even if it misses some of the emergent complexities in the design.

    1. Veles

      I used to be this person! For a long while I was absolutely confused as to why the *W games were so incredibly popular. Now I’ve come to recognize the added quality of playing these games is that it makes the entire group think about the game on the same level.

      I can (and have!) run games like Over the Edge in a *W mode before (both before AW ever existed and more intentionally afterwards) but it feels different to me than a game in which every player is aware of the principles of the game, and engages in the fiction through the conceit of moves.

      To be fair, I still don’t need DW or any game part of that genealogy but it’s fun and it’s a different kind of fun from just GMing the way I always have.

  2. Lenny

    Also, for me, the biggest value add in 7-9 is when it’s player facing, asking them to choose between mutually exclusive, non-optimal choices. That’s a special kind of magic, right there, and doesn’t have any overlap with the moves where the GM makes up a hard bargain or complication.

  3. Mark Richardson

    I’d agree that the more interesting results are the usually ones that are informed by a non-optimal player choice first and foremost, ie 7-9.

    This is something I’m playing around with in my own design Headspace, where the players have more non-optimal choice in 6- instead of GM fiat. This seems to move all the traditional “GM soft” moves to player control and reserve the “hard” moves for GM responses. I’m curious how you (Rob) felt the play test of my game at Dreamation was with regards to your typical *World experiences in good/bad.

  4. Alan

    I think part of * World’s magic is that it acts like a personal coach. I don’t think there is anything Dungeon World or Apocalyse World had to tell me as a GM that I didn’t know. But like proper maintence to my car, doing my taxes, or excercising, it’s easy to forgot to actually do it. The * World games get in your face and say, “Really! Do these things! Or you’re not playing right!” in a way that your average GM advice section does. The moves work to encouage you down the right path, making it harder to return to old habits. I think a big chunk of why Dungeon World got a fire under our group is because it forced me out of deep and comfortable ruts.

  5. Cam Banks

    It’s also true that you tend to play with:
    1. Incredibly expressive and/or improv-friendly players
    2. People who have played lots of games that rely on coming up with stuff on the fly, such as Fate

    And, you are one of those GMs who likes to have full authority and god-like agency, with a trust implicit between you and the players that you won’t screw them over and if you do you’ll toss them some kind of benefit. I don’t think you’re really into games that hamstring or constrain the GM, I think that’s not your bag. And you certainly don’t seem to like games that provide lists of outcomes a la DW/AW. 🙂

    I mean, come on, given our pedigree with Amber it’s amazing we even use dice any more.

  6. Mark Diaz Truman

    Interesting! I agree. Mostly. But not really at all. Let me explain. 😀

    You have a few premises here that I agree with:

    1) *World games have structures of play that constrain choices for both the GM and players (implicit)
    2) One of those important structures is the mixed result (7-9) choices.
    3) The game works (i.e. makes for good play) when the mixed results as given are better than the mixed results are better than the options you would come up with on the fly.

    I think all that’s right and proper and good, and I’m not about to disagree with any of it.

    There are a few things I’m going to leave aside here because I’m sure you have already thought of them:

    1) You can write custom moves whenever you want. Seriously. If attacking a dragon is a move rather than Hack and Slash, you can do that and still be playing DW as written. There’s no stopping you from creating a move for every instance in which you think you can improve play.
    2) As Cam points out, you play with a lot of expressive people and other people aren’t so expressive, etc, etc.
    3) Many moves (Defy Danger, Parley, etc) make intentional room for a certain amount of flexibility that balances the text as written with whatever you come up with on the fly. (Confirming premise #3, in fact.)

    So where’s my real disagreement? I think it lies in your fourth implicit premise, which from your footnotes I understand we are not to take too seriously:

    4) Many times, I (Rob) have ideas that I think are better than the mixed results as written.

    I’m sure you have some great examples of this, which I’d love for us to talk about directly, but I definitely felt this when I first started running AW. In Go Aggro for example, I was confused at the list of 7-9 results, thinking that it should be some lesser version of the 10+ result instead of a completely different flow of choices. But it’s not precisely because I have a tendency to take the game into new directions, to cheat as the game drifts. The move fixes the fiction, tightens it and makes it stick.

    Fate does the opposite of this. Fate is all about the expansive, the growing push of new ideas and new concepts instead of the slow grind of the fiction. You want to add mages to this hard-boiled police procedural? Go for it! Want to introduce a new character as part of the major cost? Yup! Do it up! Fate’s weight is in the character sheets, the way that the drama lives in individuals who are much more “real” than any of the systems that surround them.

    But in *World games, each move is like a little correction back toward the fiction as written. That last 15% of fun? That’s an illusion. A comforting lie. It doesn’t exist. It’s a function of our hope for a greener pasture that’s not really there. The moves push you back toward the fiction instead of letting you avoid it by opting out of the mixed results that the game demands.

  7. John Harper

    I agree with Mark.

    Also, this post is extra interesting for me in that it highlights (again) how our gamer brains are so different, Rob. I love FATE, for instance, but it definitely sits in that “85% fun” space for me (even though I hate that numerical phrasing, I totally understand what you’re getting at). The AW style is where my 100% fun is.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *