The first time I heard anything about Dungeon World was during Gen Con 2013. I was having a conversation with Brian Cross, a fellow UC Irvine PhD and one of the brilliant minds behind Eclipse Phase, about the resurgence of “old school” tabletop RPGs when he asked me, “have you heard of this new game Dungeon World? It just won the ENnie award for best new rules…”
Brian ended up telling me a lot about Dungeon World that afternoon. By the end of our conversation I knew that Dungeon World was a “narrative style game” built on the Apocalypse Engine. As Brian was telling it, the guys at Sage Kobold Productions had made a narrative indie game that also managed to capture the feel and brutality of 1st and 2nd generation role-playing games like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and AD&D 2nd Edition.
Brian’s description of Dungeon World intrigued me, but just a bit. Despite the fact that Brian and I, just moments ago, had been discussing our shared admiration for White Wolf’s Changeling: The Dreaming and the Wraith: The Oblivion–two games that failed in large part because of what they require of players–I was more than a little put off by Dungeon World‘s “narrative” label.
I cannot tell you why I had, and still have to some extent, an aversion to narrative style RPGs. Maybe it is because I have gotten old, and as a consequence have some pretty entrenched ideas about the roles of players and GMs in RPGs. To clarify, I always try to approach GMing games as an exercise in collaborative fiction. While I come to the table with world, story, plot, and NPCs I expect that the actions of my players will take these things in directions I would never think to take them on my own. It is just that I expect the GM to be the ultimate arbiter of the world. In other words, my expectation is that players tell the GM what their character say and try to do, while the GM (and the dice) decide how the world reacts. Narrative role-playing games, on the other hand, buck this convention in that they provide players with much more power over the “what happens” portion of the game.
Plus, I was not sure whether or not I was up for an “old school” RPG. Do not get me wrong, I have a lot of fond memories of playing the original Dungeons & Dragons, AD&D, and AD&D 2nd Edition dating back to when it first picked up the hobby 20 years ago. Back in those days, the life expectancy of a player character was short. Very short. Almost every encounter that involved combat was a matter of life and death.
I remember one campaign that was six months long. At its conclusion my third level fighter was the only character left alive, and he stumbled out of the evil mage’s tower bleeding out. He had to trade the magic item that had been the goal of the entire campaign to representatives of the Mages’ Guild in exchange for medical treatment. When the next campaign started a month after the first one had ended, our GM allowed me to use the same character. Somehow I managed to get the character killed in the first 15 minutes of the new campaign when I failed the last of three consecutively more difficult saving throws versus death.
While there is something redeemable about the style of play–it’s worth doing once just to have crazy stories about senseless character deaths–I just was not sure how well an “old school” game like Dungeon World would go over with the Terrible Gamers crew. Let’s face it, a lot has changed about role-playing games over the last 20 years. Nowadays, games are far more character driven. Many games have character creation systems that invest players in their characters by ensuring that each character has a well-developed back story before the game begins. Even games that don’t explicitly do this often have an involved (time-consuming) character generation process where players spend hours selecting from lists of feats, traits, abilities and equipment.
The end result is, of course, that players become very attached to their characters. They expect that their characters will feature prominently in the story from the beginning of the campaign to the end. This means that their characters will not die, or if they do, character death will have some profound purpose in the story. How then will players who are used to more “contemporary” play styles handle a game where their characters can die because the groups thief missed a single trap?
Because of this I left my conversation with Brian Cross, and Gen Con 2013, curious about Dungeon World, but without any real motivation to give it a shot. Since August two things changed my mind. First, I never really forgot about Dungeon World. Every time I found myself having a conversation with someone about tabletop role-playing’s palpable “retro” trend or that trends associated games– Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Adventures Dark & Deep, Mazes & Minotaurs, etc.– I would bring up Dungeon World.
These conversations came up often enough that I slowly began to question whether or not I was doing Terrible Gamers a disservice with my reluctance to run a game of Dungeon World. After all, as an editor here part of my job is trying out new games. In fact, since I am currently the only person at Terrible Gamers who GMs games my willingness, or lack thereof, to run sessions with specific titles has a direct impact on the quality of information Terrible Gamers is able to provide to our readers.
This thought–that running Dungeon World is something that Terrible Gamers ought to do–would probably have been enough to eventually get a game going. Fortunately for us, this process was accelerated when I stumbled on The Walking Eye podcast. It is not very often that I find a role-playing actual play podcast that is both good and covers more than a single game system. The Walking Eye has both of these things going for it, plus they have multiple episodes dedicated to Dungeon World.
Listening to The Walking Eye’s Dungeon World episodes is what gave me the motivation I needed to run a Terrible Gamers‘ Dungeon World “campaign” sooner rather than later. The men and women over at The Walking Eye waylaid many of my fears about Dungeon World. By listening to others play Dungeon World I realized that the games narrative elements expanded rather than diminished a GMs ability to work with players in articulating a fictional world. Most importantly, The Walking Eye’s experience with Dungeon World showed me how much fun players were having using the Dungeon World system. All of this, despite the fact that terrible “old school” things befell the player characters. I was sold.
Shortly after discovering The Walking Eye (about two weeks ago) I downloaded the Dungeon World core rules from drivethroughRPG. In less than a week I was ready to go, and last Friday, November 15, 2013, Terrible Gamers ran its first Dungeon World session! So in the next couple of days you can expect our preliminary review of Dungeon World based on our experiences during that session. Stay tuned.