If you read Scott’s tale about our introduction to Dungeon World then you probably have a good idea of where this review is going. Terrible Gamers loves Dungeon World. We love it so much we are bringing you our initial review before our play test is complete. Do not worry too much about that though because Terrible Gamers has played Dungeon World quite a bit over the last week. What we have not gotten to is, in our opinion, confined to small details that could not impact Terrible Gamers‘ overall perception of Dungeon World. For example, our play testers have not yet had the opportunity to take every character class found in Dungeon World’s core rules to level V. We find it highly unlikely that a Dungeon World Cleric plays differently enough at level V when compared to level II that Terrible Gamers would stop thinking that Dungeon World is awesome. Nonetheless it is worth noting that our review was compiled while our play test of Dungeon World is ongoing. If our opinion changes as a result, which we highly doubt it will, our readers will be the first to know. Terrible Gamers first heard about Dungeon World while talking with Eclipse Phase designer Brian Cross during Gen Con 2013. At the time we did not know what to think about Dungeon World. Brian informed us that the game had just won an ENnie award for best new rules, and was an indie “narrative” game with an “old school” feel. While we trusted Brian’s opinion on Dungeon World–the game was great–we had reservations about the games labels. Narrative RPGs conjure up in our mind game systems that buck the traditional relationship between GMs and players that Terrible Gamers is used to. Being old and set in our ways, our general fear was that a game like Dungeon World might rob the GM of his role as the arbitrator of the game’s story. Nothing scenes, at least on the surface, to be scarier for GM that a game in which they are not allowed to respond to the actions of player characters. Added to this concern was Terrible Gamers uncertainty about whether or not our players could handle an “old school” RPG experience. It has been quite a while since anyone at Terrible Gamers has played in an RPG where multiple hours have not gone into character creation and back story development for player characters days or weeks before a campaign begins. How then would our players react to a game in which half the party dies because the thief failed to properly disarm trap? As it turns out our fears about Dungeon World were completely unfounded. Dungeon World is an amazing game that somehow manages to both encourage player participation in storytelling and give GMs narrative flexibility when it comes to determining the fate of player characters. What is more, the game’s designers have made the catastrophic “old school” elements of Dungeon World feels like a natural extension of game play. To put this another way, when playing Dungeon World players do not seem to fear the inevitable (and it is inevitable) demise of their characters— they embrace it. Dungeon World So how does Terrible Gamers justify its use of the label “amazing” when referring to Dungeon World? It’s all in the mechanics! At its core Dungeon World is a game that seamlessly integrates “indie” narrative elements and the type of order that players expect in more traditional RPGs. Dungeon World game mechanics are built around something called “moves.” Each move available to Dungeon World players, whether it’s a basic move or a class move, references narrative actions that are taken by characters in nearly every conceivable role-playing game. Everything from attacking a monster to checking an area for traps is covered by a move in Dungeon World. While playing Dungeon World the players are encouraged to describe their actions in detail. The GM then decides whether or not any of the descriptions invoke a “move.” In practice this means that players do the types of things with their characters that they would do in other RPGs, but more descriptively. What is described simply as “searching a room” in Dungeons & Dragons becomes “flipping through the books, checking to see if any of the furniture is moveable, etc.” in Dungeon World. When the GM decides a player has “made a move” a dice roll is made to determine how that move worked out for the player. This roll is a simple 2d6 added to a character’s relevant attribute bonuses. There are three possible outcomes whenever a player throws the dice: a roll of six or less means a character has failed to complete a “move,” a roll between seven and nine means that any “complicated” success, anything over 10 indicates a character succeeds in exactly the manner described by the player. Dungeon World really shines when player dice rolls fall into one of the first two categories. Roles that indicate either failure or success with a complication operate as points of narrative entry for the GM. These are the moments when the GM gets to utilize his very own set of GM “moves” to describe the results of character actions in the game world. GM moves in the Dungeon World are a lot like player moves in that the moves encompass nearly everything a GM might do in a role-playing game. Dungeon World is different from those “other” role-playing games because Dungeon World moves give GMs infinitely more narrative control. For example, when the dashing hero rolls a six while trying to stave in the skull of the Orc King, Dungeon World allows the GM to describe that failure. It could be that the GM decides the dashing hero in failing to connect creates an opening for his opponent; perhaps it means the dashing hero loses the grip on his blade; or it could just as easily mean that the dashing hero’s attack pushes the Orc King straight into the party’s Wizard. The way in which Dungeon World’s game mechanics focus the gaming experience on the collective articulation of a story, while still providing the feeling that the character sheets matter, is really what makes Dungeon World great. To put this another way, Dungeon World’s “move” system empowers both players and Game Masters by giving everyone around the table a reason to participate in the fiction. At the same time Dungeon World asks players to “roll the dice” at moments when experienced gamers subconsciously reach for their dice. It is precisely this interplay of storytelling—everyone enjoying being “in character”—and unobtrusive rules—roll whenever something is in doubt—that makes Dungeon World an awesome game to play. First Time Role-Player (Or GM)? Try Dungeon World! In addition to being awesome, super fun, and cool, Dungeon World is also a great tool. For those interested in making the transition from other types of gaming to role-playing, or for role-players interested in running their first game as a GM, look no further than Dungeon World. Terrible Gamers found that Dungeon World has two things that make it the most well suited game (that we know of) for those just coming into the hobby (or GMing)—its simplicity and it “move” mechanics. The simplicity and elegance of Dungeon World cannot be overstated. As Terrible Gamers pointed out earlier, the game itself relies almost exclusively on rolls of 2D6 plus a static number. What happens as a result of such rolls, while infinitely varied, is mechanically confined to three possible outcomes. In other words, unlike a lot of games, Dungeon World does not have the multiple sets of mechanics (or charts) that intimidate new players. More importantly though, Dungeon World has what no other game has—GM “moves.” Like we discussed earlier Dungeon World provides GMs with a list of codified “moves” to use in particular situations just as it does for players driving characters. What makes these moves a wonderful tool is there completeness. The designers of Dungeon World have literally built a game that tells GMs—in a not heavy handed sort of way—that it is okay for GMs to do the things that GMs have always been doing. For example, Dungeon World explains to GMs that failing a roll does not always mean the same thing. In one context it might mean that a monster does damage to a player, while in another it means the player is given inaccurate information, and in still another it will mean that the players consume more of their resources. Terrible Gamers is not exaggerating when we say that Dungeon World covers almost everything with GM moves. Even the campaign “rules” for Dungeon World help those new to GMing keep track of where there story is going by making keeping track of the potential consequences of player actions on the overall world part of the game mechanics. Hell, there are even some pretty damn good—and simple—rules that help GMs build the game world. Conclusion: If we have not communicated it to you already Terrible Gamers is in love with Dungeon World. While it is not a game that we would use to replace other games in our repertoire—sometimes you really want a super tactical experience—it is a game that has been added to that repertoire. Dungeon World somehow manages to be a narrative game that empowers everyone at the table, while still providing the sense that you are participating in, not making up out whole cloth, a story. In other words, Dungeon World is able to have rules which both give the game sense of order and open up a game’s narrative possibilities. On top of all that, Dungeon World, really does provide a framework through which people can enter either role-playing or GMing which is not intimidating. In fact, Dungeon World provides a codification to “the stuff GMs do,” which helps GMs understand what is involved in GMing (and gives them permission to do it!) As it turns out, Scott had nothing to fear. Our only regret is that we did not take Brian Cross’s advice. We should have checked out Dungeon World at Gen Con instead of waiting. (c) Scott Mills & Terrible Gamers 20013
Books 0 serves as an introduction to both the game mechanics and to the world of Shadows of Esteren. The game setting, as written, is not too different than it was described to Terrible Gamers by Clovis Fremont. Players are told that the driving forces behind Shadows of Esteren are the psychological struggles of player characters who find themselves in a dark foreboding world. Each character is pulled almost to (and sometimes just to) the point of mental collapse by competing interests, obligations, principles, and beliefs.
To mediate the internal struggles of the characters, Shadows of Estern offers a pretty simple system that starts with character creation . Character creation is linked to a semi-narrative ranking of how the character that a player is creating might go about solving everyday problems. Is the character imaginative? Does she empathize with the creatures and animals that she encounters? Is she dedicated to a set of beliefs or ideas? Or does she resort to violence when she does not get her way? The answers to these questions help to determine a character’s attributes.
Shadows of Esteren’s action resolution system is best described as a one dice system. Whenever a character attempts an action the player rolls one d10, the results of which are then added to a character’s attribute and/or skill scores. This sum is then compared to a number that corresponds with the difficulty of the task. Meeting or exceeding this difficulty score means that the character accomplishes what they had set out to do.
Book 0 of Shadows of Esteren also contains a set of three premade adventures and premade characters (should a group choose to use them) so that newly initiated players can jump right in. Terrible Gamers spent a lot of time reading through, though importantly not playing, these adventures. We like how the adventures give potential GMs all of the resources necessary to either present the story as it is written or to take the module “off of the tracks.” It is also nice to see that AGATE RPG (the French company behind Shadows of Esteren) includes recommendations to help the GM make the Shadows of Esteren adventure modules more immersive experiences.
These suggestions run the gamut from instructions on how to manage suspense to potential track selections for GMs who like to use music in their games. Terrible Gamers takes these recommendations to be in line with AGATE’s design philosophy. Shadows of Esteren is “built” to be more than just a game. It is a fantastic world that is built around a true multimedia experience. For instance, there is already a Shadows of Esteren musical score and plans for a novelization, as well as graphic novels.
While there is a lot to admire in Shadows of Esteren Book 0, both the game and the book are far from perfect. Terrible Gamers feels that Shadows of Esteren struggles at times with its own identity as a game. The game’s simple d10 game mechanic is a great example of this. While the mechanic is relatively easy to use–a single d10 roll is used for every task in the game–it fails at being “out of the way” enough to give the Shadows of Esteren a real narrative feel. This is because game, in addition to trying to be character driven, is also trying to capture the reality of life and death in a medieval setting.
Whenever the possibility exists for a character to meet with disaster, Shadows of Esteren checks to see whether or not that possibility transitions into actuality by requiring dice rolls. Even here, however, Shadows of Esteren does not quite capture the gritty grim dark feel of similar games (Warhammer Fantasy Role-play 1st and 2nd edition come to mind) already on the market. Maybe we are wrong, but we feel that one die roll game mechanics, at least ones that do not seamlessly tie in to the narrative structure of the game, make players feel more like victims of bad rolls than of the terrible reality of the game world.
Terrible Gamers noticed a number of other problems with Shadows of Esteren while reading through Book 0. The most glaring of these is the adventure modules. As we have already said, there are a lot of good things to say about Shadows of Esteren’s premade adventures. In fact, it is not the quality of the writing or the resources provided to potential GMs that are at issue. Instead, Shadows of Esteren’s game modules, at least those found in Book 0, suffered because they are far too complex for what they claim to be–a series of adventures suitable for novice GMs and players.
For example, Loch Varn, the very first adventure that appears in Shadows of Esteren Book 0, is supposed to be played as a series of disjointed out of sequence hallucinations and flashbacks scenes. It took Terrible Gamers a few read throughs of the module before we were fairly comfortable with how the story was supposed to play out. Even then, we are sure that, if we tried to run this module, things would not go as planned, and that there would be more than one instance where the GM would need to stop the action to be sure that the story was headed towards the “scripted” conclusion. Given this, we feel that the Loch Varen module is suitable only for experienced GMs. Players who are new to role-playing or GMing would be well advised, in the interests of both their sanity and enjoyment, to steer clear of this adventure.
We also are disapointed with Shadows of Esteren’s implementation of horror elements. Players are told that supernatural forces are at work in Esteren, and that these forces cause people to live in fear. Despite this, Shadows of Esteren explains that nobody knows the source or the motivations of the dark entities that prowl the night. This surprised Terrible Gamers because of the way that Shadows of Esteren’s design team tackled the struggle between three opposing understandings of the world present in their game.
It is one thing to want to leave the or elements of the game a mystery to the players, it is another thing entirely to suggest that, in this complex world with three well-defined ideologies, no one has come up with an explanation–right or wrong–for the ever present supernatural forces present in the world. We are really disappointed that Shadows of Esteren did not have competing, yet very detailed, explanations for the supernatural bits of the game.
Here is why: as examples the supernatural presence could be explained by those who follow the “old ways” as vengeful spirits of the land. Those tied to Esteren’s newest monotheistic faith could explain the paranormal as the presence of demons. And finally, those with a more scientific bent could explain the presence of the supernatural as illusion or as yet misunderstood natural phenomena. Nothing like this was present in Shadows of Esteren, and Terrible Gamers feels that the inclusion of competing explanations would actually add more of a sense of mystery and including no information at all.
Our last “criticisms” of Shadows of Esteren are minor, and in some ways it feels almost unfair to mention them at all. As we have mentioned Shadows of Esteren is being developed by a French design team and then translated into English. For the most part, the translation work is very good; however, there are some parts of the text that are a bit awkward. This awkwardness is not something that the detracts too much from the game, but it is noticeable enough to be worth a mention here. Terrible Gamers also gets the feel that Shadows of Esteren is a little cluttered at times with too many recommendations of “outside” materials related to the games genre.
Terrible Gamers does not want to give the impression that we do not like Shadows of Esteren. As we have said before, we really admire the intellectual scope of the game, and the passion with which the developers pursue the games core themes and concepts. It is also fair to say, that there is a lot of good stuff to be had in Shadows of Esteren Book 0. The game mechanics are simple and easy to learn, and a lot of thought and effort has been put in to giving players the resources needed to both play the game and to capture the “feel” of the game at each play session.
These things, however, need to be weighed against Shadows of Esteren’s negatives. As simple as the game mechanics are, they do not quite succeed at creating a game that is either gritty and realistic or narrative and character driven. In addition, players who are new to the role playing hobby need to be aware that the “introductory” adventures provided in Book 0 are overly complex, and probably difficult to run.
All of that being said, Shadows of Esteren must be doing something right. The game already has a large following and strong community in France and has gone through a number of successful kick starter campaigns aimed at launching the game in the English-speaking world. Not only that, but the genuine excitement and passion of both Shadows of Esteren’s designers and volunteers that Terrible Gamers witnessed during Gen Con 2013 cannot be dismissed.
So while, in our opinion, Shadows of Esteren is not quite “there” yet, Terrible Gamers thinks that this game has a lot of potential. We look forward to seeing the status of this game at next year’s Gen Con. You had better believe that the Shadows of Esteren booth will be one of Terrible Gamers first stops next year in Indianapolis.