Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dungeon World: Simple Tabletop RPG with a lot of Potential


One of my table top RPG groups played it's third session of Dungeon World the other night. We had a blast!

The local thieves guild, The Velvet Sash, forced us to enter a dungeon to get them a legendary ruby. If we didn't do it, the Guild would kill us. Kind of a fair deal when "there is no honor among thieves. . .."

The session satisfied my nostalgia for playing as a teenager with peers when I first played tabletop role playing games. Back then, we didn't know the rules and didn't have the sophistication to fully comprehend them. We tried learning "on the job."

We had our imaginations! With the toll that adult life takes on our emotional life and brains, imagination has become a scarce commodity.

I remember the first time I ever played this way. My character's village had been raided by orcs who kidnapped my family. I went on an epic cross country journey, seeking out the orc tribe and my family.

Playing by the rules, I wouldn't have made it past the first encounter. I don't remember details, but I recall enjoying the newness, discovering a strange new world and overcoming challenges I've never had any exposure to. I hadn't watched that many fantasy movies, but I'm sure people who had probably have a fun time emulating them with tabletop role playing.

I know I did with Dungeon World. The game satisfied the urge for adventure from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I have a hard time giving that movie a rave review, but it was a fun, romp of misadventures. It made me want to go home, invite one of my gaming groups over and get our game on.


This past game session captured that feeling. It also captured the essence of an Indiana Jones movie or Star Wars: A New Hope. Our party often found ourselves in over our heads, using our wits to solve a problem or running to survive.

I don't think we even won any combat. The enemies ended up being an obstacle in the middle of the room or chasing us because they were hungry.

Encounter one had us overwhelmed by fire beetles emerging from the cave floor. We jumped into a stream down a hole that we had no idea where it went. It ended up dropping us quite a height into an underground lake.

My halfling druid shape shifted into an otter to save an unconscious companion from drowning. A Cthulu-esque tentacle beast emerged, so we had to swim fast as we could to shore. I had to shape shift into a barracuda, so I could chew off one of the beast's tentacles to free another companion.

We entered an underground tower. The front entrance blended the features of a huge banquet hall and library. We set up camp for a good night's rest since half the party had come near to death.

Of course, someone on first watch fell for a classic trap. He pulled a book from a shelf, triggering a trapdoor opening from under his feet. We chased after him into a goblin lair. They had put him over a fire to roast. We saved his ass then escaped by going up an elevator on the other side of the room.

Somehow everyone survived the first part of the adventure and the rest of it. I won't get so much into those parts because they had more to do with problem solving than straight up hack & slash misadventure. If our game master (GM), Jeff Smith, ever wants to run another group through this adventure, I don't want to provide game breaking spoilers.

These type of events make great stories to tell. I also think they show what Dungeon World can do that Dungeon's & Dragons-based games can't do.

I used to think that a good GM could adapt any game to make it into the style of gameplay they want. They can, but why do so if they can purchase another game that already does. The only reason I can see a GM going to all that trouble is to release their own game system commercially.

Dungeon World has a simplicity to it that both provides an excellent intro to role playing games for beginners and encourages high adventure game play like many fantasy and science fiction movies many of us love.

I didn't much care for Dungeon World the first time we played. It felt too rules lite and generic.

Arguing over complicated rules, as this group has done a fair amount with Dungeon's & Dragons doesn't make for a fun night of gaming (I can often times be the main culprit). The cognitive load of remembering all the tricks and features for even just your character can take away from the game, too.

Nonetheless, characterization of characters, creatures and items doesn't affect game play much in Dungeon World. Even situational factors don't feel like they affect game play. Dice rolls needed to fail, succeed or get a mixed result on two six-sided dice doesn't change. Switching weapons doesn't change your character's range of damage.

Choices of equipment, tactics or anything like that not affecting game play make these types of choices feel pointless. These choices feel like they only change the description of how things occur, not the effectiveness of how they occur. Characters still have a lot of choice, but their agency feels stripped away to benefit the narrative.

This feeling lingers. After the last couple of sessions, though, seeing this feature as a vice has been tempered. Albeit, my halfling druid has used his shape shifting skills to avoid danger better than other characters and to change the flow of narrative. I had a good dose of agency.

Also, I think the GM had also adjusted the narrative. In the first session, we had engaged in a combat that had a more Dungeon's & Dragons feeling to it. Some monsters attacked a farm. We set our goal to defeat the monsters at all costs. Some cool features of the environment helped make game play more interesting, but Dungeon's & Dragons could accomplish the same thing.

The big feature that I think changes game play: the accumulation of experience points that can be used to improve your character's skills and abilities. Characters in Dungeon's & Dragons-based games get experience fastest by defeating enemies and monsters, mostly through combat. We often joke about awaking or resurrecting enemies just to kill them again for the experience points.

Back in the days of Advanced Dungeon's & Dragons, accumulating gold and magic items awarded experience points well. Selling magic items before returning to home base could generate even more experience through gold. That could make an interesting cost-benefit analysis for a character. These alternatives gave players options for how to approach the game rather than just resorting to hack and slash for most efficient level gaining.

Dungeon World flips the reward structure on its head, though. Characters most efficiently get experience by failing at dice rolls to accomplish things. Such things can include hitting a monster, finding a trap and avoiding danger. You make a mistake, you learn from it.

Experience can be gained in other ways. I don't have the most clarity on those approaches, though. I think they involve development of character and relationships with other characters.

The gaming group has discussed the positives and negatives of this approach. We've come up with supplementary ideas to address what are seen as demerits. Such as: a certain number of successes will provide as much experience as one failure.

Overall, though, I think the reward structure provides a satisfying balance. Yes, failure provides the most efficient way for min-maxing your character (which seems contradictary). Enough failure, however, will lead to character death or prevent the story from moving forward. Easy enough to make a new character but how to weave them into the game?

Story delay gets annoying and frustrating. That argument stands by itself.

Dungeon World has so much balance in character, enemy and monster combat statistics that it's deadly. All our characters have around twenty hit points. We all had come close to dying at least once during the night, though. Monsters, traps and tricks all took their toll on us.

The balance falls on EVERYONE having the same general chance for success, failure and mixed results on two six-sided dice. Some character attributes modify those rolls but not by much. 10+ is a success, 7-9 mixed result & 1-6 is a failure, I think it goes.

It doesn't help that armor acts only as damage reduction, not influencing a hit or miss. Most of our characters have a max armor of just 1. It helps, but when we get hit, we get hit.

Unlike in Dungeon's & Dragons-based games where characters and creatures can get power scaled to never getting damaged or always hitting weaker creatures. Enemies and obstacles have to constantly get scaled up to provide a challenge. It makes sense in a high fantasy/movie type of thing. We love to see the hero mowing down minions in epic fashion until they reach the big boss that provides a challenge.

At the same time, that power differentiation feels unsatisfying at times. Watching it on a movie screen can provide excitement and establish the power of characters. Playing through it, though, can feel like a lengthy churning slog that lacks some degree of realism and challenge.

Even by the end of that slog, the movie hero has gotten all smudged up, cut, bruised and those trevails play a large part in weakening them against the big bad. Why else would the huge, powerful big bad need those minions, anyway? If they're so powerful and invincible, why risk an army that could revolt and oust their leader. . .except that he's so powerful and invincible that he doesn't need them, so he can put down such a revolt.

Dungeon World returns that sense of danger while maintaining a high level of fantasy. Sure, the players can still face an underwhelming challenge that they defeat easy like a small patrol. On one hand, though, the game master has control of that and on the other, it's easy enough to get failure die rolls that could turn the tide along with the ingenuity of the enemies.

The players can turn the tide through their wit, too. If this last session indicates anything, they often have to.

Changing the reward structure and power balance this way changes the play dynamic. Having enemy and monster killing providing most efficient rewards gives the game tunnel vision (interesting moral philosophy discussion could be had here, too).

Dungeon World, on the other hand, elevates other goals. More often than not in the last session, the party tried to evade monsters or sneak through enemy ground. We wanted to accomplish our goal, but we didn't want to die foolishly. These slapdash efforts often ended up more exciting and fun than head on, rules laden combat to get more power.

Advancing the story proves more fun. I also like the idea that if we get frustrated with a problem, we don't fall back on entering combat to attain our goal. As Isaac Asimov has characters say in his Foundation series: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

Combat as the most useful resort also primes us players to not bother thinking of better solutions. We're just going to be entering combat, anyway, so why not just do it right away?

I see myself playing Dungeon's & Dragons-based games in the future. Pathfinder has become a favorite of mine. I feel like it blends the above gameplay elements better than the latest iterations of Dungeon's & Dragons. It also allows for characterization features that change the game and provides a little more agency. The power trip has its fun, too.

You won't find my arguing against playing Dungeon World based on the game system, though. It's fun. It makes a good gateway game to beginners. It allows for a more cognitively light game to provide the brain some rest.

I find myself wondering, though, if it's possible to find some other game sysem that blends the best of both systems I've mentioned. Can we have a system that doesn't use combat/domination as the primary reward system but also allows for more agency for characters by item, weapon, armor, feature, skill choices and the such?

Plenty of games out there. I think the answer to this question comes more down to me making the time and effort to finding them. Until then, these games have their fun sides and make for some fun game sessions.

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