Sunday, April 21, 2013

Actual Play: Dungeon World Siege of Citadel

Actual Play: Dungeon World

My face to face group had decided to try Dungeon World. I'm writing something of an Actual Play and a playtest review from my experiences in the first two session. I'm not too positive about it thus far, and that negativity will probably creep into this write-up.

What Is It

Dungeon World is a narrativist, rules-vague, fantasy role-playing game with old-school trappings. By narrativist, I mean it is explicitly focused on creating a story, and uses a loose set of definitions of time, space,  and action in order to focus on the drama of the action instead of worrying about game balance or an attempt to simulate reality. By old school trappings, I mean it uses the most traditional of D&D roles, such as woodsland ranger and bookish wizard, and the traditional D&D races: dwarf, elf, halfling, and human. By rules-vague, I mean that it's a big book, with lots of specific rules that are vaguely worded and unclear.

One of the big concepts in Dungeon World is that the GM doesn't roll any dice and only reacts to character actions. I haven't really read the GM section of the book, so I'm not really sure how this works. As little as I understand it, whenever a PC has a failure or a partial failure on action, the GM selects from a list of moves that ratchet up the danger for the PCs. Since the basic mechanic is 2d6 plus a modifier of -1 to 3 and a full success only occurs on a 10 or more, the GM generally has lots of opportunity to select a move to worsen the situation. 

Another big concept is there are very few situational modifiers. I think this is a nod towards rules-light gaming, but it has the weird effect that there's no such thing as a simple task: scrambling up a 6' fence while running from dogs is as likely or unlikely to succeed as scrambling up a vertical 30' wall while running from demons. Instead of variability, there's supposed to be variable risk/reward: getting bit by a few dogs is less worse than getting bit by a bunch of demons.

The Story Thus Far

We started with three PCs: Thaddeus, a human paladin (of no particular god, because while paladins have to be Lawful and Good, they don't apparently have to worship anyone, as far we could tell, because the rules are vague); Robin, a halfling rogue; and Hawthorn, a human cultist cleric of Sucellus, the god of secrets. We were joined in the second session by Florian, a human spoony bard because all bards in Dungeon World are spoony.

The PCs were at a festival on the island of Citadel, hanging out in a temple at midnight, when something happened outside. Going out to explore, they were attacked by ghouls (turned after a lot of failures) and Sucellus instructed Hawthorn to signal the fleet blockading the island off-shore. The PCs soon discovered that the island had shifted in time about 4 weeks and been taken over by powerful, evil elementals. They worked their way down to lighthouse, got beat up by said elementals, and used the signal light to send semaphore messages to the fleet. The fleet requested the PCs get a magic mirror from the Sterling house, which would allow faster communication.

Robin had experience with the Sterlings, having helped their daughter elope some years in the past (and looting the place in the confusion). The PCs snuck up the house, broke in, fought another thief, and tried to get into the Sterlings' magically warded treasure chamber. After repeated failures, they attracted the attention of the evil elementals, who started knocking the house down and encouraged the PCs to just tunnel through the walls. The PCs broke into the vault, stole the mirror and some coin, and then fled through some hidden tunnels into the hills.

Eventually they used the magic mirror to conflict the fleet, and got a little more information: the festival had been intended to bind a powerful elemental spirit to the island's defense, and apparently had been reversed. More information was probably located in the magic academies' vaults beneath the hill. The PCs then proceeded to explore the halls, trying to find something more. At the end of the session, the PCs had found some magic loot and possibly one of the vaults, but nothing definite.

What Do I Like So Far

Uh... the nice thing about narrativist games is that time and space are vague. You can have a combat that last for "a couple of minutes" and is resolved with only a few die rolls. That vagueness lets PCs experiment more and do more cool things: climbing up a wall and jumping onto the neck of a low-flying dragon is a perfectly reasonable thing when the game is freed from the bounds of yards and rounds and seconds and maneuvers (while in GURPS, that kind of action takes 2 minutes of game-time to resolve in a combat that's over in 7 game seconds, so no one does it).

The "indifferent success" mechanic is interested, and it'd be really great if it were applied consistently and well. For instance, a PC throw a big party, and picks all 3 of the following options on a 10+ and 1 of them on a 7+: befriends a useful NPC, or hears rumors of an opportunity, or gains useful information, or doesn't get into special trouble of some kind. That's an interesting set of choices.

What Don't I Like So Far

A lot of the specifics of the indifferent success mechanics don't mesh well together. The standard melee combat action damages both the PC and the monster on an indifferent success, so it isn't unreasonable for a PC to accumulate 3d6 damage in the course of a single combat. Magical healing either can't be repeated or attracts attention on an indifferent success, and only heals 1d8 in either case (and definitely attracts monsters on failure). So using magical healing after a fight has a very high chance of bringing another round of monsters for more damage before it actually heals the damage from the previous encounter. That's very discouraging. If combat were less deadly, or healing more reliable or more powerful, it'd be tolerable. But as it is, our party's cleric and paladin don't want to try healing unless we absolutely have to. The risk is too high for the minimal reward.

I also don't like the general vagueness of the rules. The rule book runs 360 pages plus appendices, and at that point I don't think it's crazy that we shouldn't be having a debate as to whether paladins need to have gods or not. I'm not saying that you can't get a lot of rules debates (or constant failure, or worthless healing) out of Moldvay Basic D&D, but Moldvay is 64 pages. If you're going to vague, at least be concise.

We're still moving up the learning curve, and maybe I'l like the game in a few more sessions. Our second session was mostly better than our first, at least. But thus far, Dungeon World seems like a good concept poorly executed.


  1. Glad I'm not the only one nonplussed with the new vague systems that seem to be coming out every other day anymore. Reading through RuneQuest 6 now, and just discovered that most spells duration is "one scene" and almost fell out of my chair.

  2. Actually, I think "one scene" as a duration is perfectly acceptable (harking back to Moldvay Basic, for example, where a spell with a duration of 1 turn would last for 1 combat and a little before but not through to another combat).

    I object more to things like "On a 7–9, you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice" when none of those options are clearly defined or explained elsewhere in the rules.

    1. Yeah, that's definitely brutal for someone coming from a game where things tend to be at least well explained if not explicit. Very OSR, though, if my reading is any indication - rules == bad; rulings == good.

    2. Well, the title of the blog is "No School Grognard" for a reason...

      And again, Moldvay Basic is 64 pages with another 8 pages of DM advice in Keep on the Borderlands, and covers just about everything that Dungeon World does. At 5x the length, DW has plenty of space to fully define key concepts. It just doesn't, and that annoys me.

    3. Pretty much agreed. Played a couple of sessions now and some of the formulations for key actions are really making me as GM shoehorn stuff in on a minute by minute basis.

  3. Maybe they use meteoric bandages. ;-)