Dusting off my Tools

Back in the heyday of the Fudge community, I delighted in other people’s hacks, but almost never used them as is. I would absolutely use the ideas in them to improve my own (and give credit) but using hacks as written just never worked for me. And I was not alone in this – the community was full of hackers who handled things the same way, so the community embraced this sort of behavior.

As I start dipping my feet in the larger Dungeon World community, I feel much the same way. Lots of great stuff out there, not a lot I’m inclined to use as written. And while that’s a comfortable space for me, I’m still trying to get a feel for the community norms and how acceptable it is.[1] I lay this all out here because as I present the Dungeon World hacks I’m fiddling with, I hope it is clear that it’s done with love. In my mind, there is no criticism implicit in a hack, only celebration.

I also am aware that the bits I get out of Dungeon World are absolutely not the bits that others get from it, so please also accept the implicit acknowledgment that I’m hacking for me and my table, and sharing it only in case someone finds it useful.

Anyway, I’m looking at playbooks. As I noted yesterday, we are running out of unique playbooks in the Mappers/Navigators campaign, so in addition to casting a wider net for third party playbooks that I like[2] I’m looking at writing some. I approach this gingerly because it is clearly very easy to make a kind of lame playbook and, more subtly, easy to make a playbook that works for no one else but you and yours. So I started thinking.

Now, a thing I find interesting about Dungeon World (and most other -World games) is that the playbooks and moves are, effectively, a pitch. They are making a case. Dungeon World’s basic moves are basically an assertion that an adventurer should be able to[3]:

  • Fight
  • Survive dangerous situations
  • Know useful things
  • Get a sense of the situation
  • Negotiate

The basic moves are that explanation converted into mechanics.[4]. And more, that “An X should be able to Y” model extends into the playbooks as a refinement of that list. So, for example, a fighter should:

  • Fight really well
  • Have a cool weapon
  • Bend Bars and Lift Gates
  • Wear heavy armor

Excepting Fight really well (which is reflected with the large damage die) those bullets translate directly to the fighter moves. You can pretty trivially do this exercise with every class, and that is a big part of why the classes work so well. And the model extends into advanced moves, which basically add “An X can Y” to the sentence – it adds bullets that a member of the class might have.

Breaking it down into a list like that also reveals assumptions. Not that assumptions are bad in this case, but you want to know what they are. Specifically, it highlights that the DW classes are expressing existing ideas. They leverage broad ideas of what the classes should be like. That bullet point list up there isn’t true for every fighter ever, but it’s true enough to form a baseline.

That matters because when you create anew playbook, you have two paths to follow: You can leverage an existing idea, or create new one. Those are two things you don’t want to handle the same way.

Leverage an existing idea depends upon there already being a concept (and implicit list) not yet represented by the classes. So if, for example, you grabbed a D&D nerd and asked them what a Monk should be able to do, you’d probably get a list like:

  • Badass unarmed Kung Fu
  • Fight Without Armor
  • Do cool meditative stuff
  • Resist Poisons, diseases, other weirdness
  • Block arrows

Individual lists may vary, but that list could pretty easily be turned into a move list for a Monk class, if one were so inclined. That leverages existing ideas about what a monk is.[5] If you can, leveraging is totally the way to go. It has more buy in from the get go, and you have a clear, non-mechanical reference to draw on to answer your questions as you design.

If you need to create an idea, you have a tougher row to how, because you need to build that underlying idea before you build the mechanics. If the idea is weak, then the mechanics will feel like a hodge-podge, and that means you need to make the idea compelling. How to make an idea compelling is a whole topic of its own[6], but the key is to make it make sense. The “X should Y” test seems useful to me in this regard because it forces you to articulate the fictional logic before you start playing with the mechanics.

And, of course, the real dirty trick is that if you can create something that makes enough sense, then you are effectively leveraging it. Behold, the wonders of communication!

Anyway, that is my baseline I’m going to use to start building my first playbook, starting tomorrow.

  1. To get very nerdy, I feel like there’s a strong streak of gift culture in the community, which is a WONDERFUL thing in terms of creativity and sharing, but it makes me hesitant to be seen as rejecting people’s gifts.  ↩

  2. Technically, this is GM authoritarianism at work, as I am acting as a gatekeeper of these things. But practically, if a player came to me with a playbook, I’d absolutely talk about it. And even more practically, I’m the GM because I’m the one dumb enough to buy and read all the other playbooks in the first place.  ↩

  3. Also to carouse, travel, level up and so on, but I’m leaving those out for simplicity’s sake, just as I am alignment and other stuff. The model I’m discussing extends to those too, it just takes a lot longer to explain if I have to touch every element on the sheet.  ↩

  4. And this is a reason that some -World ports are trickier than others. That list of basic actions is robust, but not applicable to every genre. This is actually where the secondary basic moves (like carouse) become so important.  ↩

  5. It may seem like the Barbarian is a ideal example of this, but it’s a bit more interesting than that. The barbarian list should include “Berserker rage!” and “Hate Magic!” more prominently but rather than using the D&D barbarian as a starting point, a different idea (Conan, et al) was leveraged.  ↩

  6. One freebie, though: Names matter. If you say to me a shadow mage can craft weapons out of shadow, step between shadows and blend into darkness, then I totally get that. If you tell me what an Irkithian Adept can do, I am probably just going to nod and slip away quietly.  ↩

2 thoughts on “Dusting off my Tools

  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    If you say to me a shadow mage can craft weapons out of shadow, step between shadows and blend into darkness, then I totally get that. If you tell me what an Irkithian Adept can do, I am probably just going to nod and slip away quietly.

    The Irkithian Adept thing is the specificity of a background in, say, 13th Age, not for a general playbook. An individual player character can call himself that, but having that as the name of a playbook doesn’t work.

    1. June Shores

      This is true.

      This also brings up another point: a specifically defined thing in a setting does not make a good class. You make a class toward an archetype and that archetype informs the setting.

      Which isn’t to say that a class can’t get specific about the setting. My own Princess class says some very specific things about the setting that it’s dropped into — it introduces explicit power struggles, elements of pastoral play, and in later advanced moves, a strong focus on community bonds into a game about adventurers in dangerous situation. By including the Princess (or The Fighter, or The Winter Mage, etc) you are saying specific things about the setting that you’re playing in. However, those specifics are almost all things that the PC does.

      You don’t build a setting into a Dungeon World class. You build questions about the setting into it. Which is, I think, a big part of making a class compelling.


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