Dungeon World or How I Learned to Stop Rolling and Love the Story

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Image courtesy of Lydia (CC BY 2.0)

I think the biggest revelation I’ve had recently, in terms of my understanding of roleplaying games at least, has come from playing Dungeon World. Dungeon World a game a friend of mine introduced me to a year or so ago, as a fast and furious replacement for some of the more standard and in-depth sword & sorcery style games (I’m looking at you Dungeons and Dragons). At first I was skeptical, but it quickly won me over through its simplicity, variety and also the way in which it pushed much of the heavy lifting of GMing back into the hands of the players.

Dungeon World encourages an experience in which the players really have as much responsibility for “running” the game as the GM does, and, as a person who had a run of being forever-GM for a long time, this deeply appealed to me. However, this isn’t a post about how much I love Dungeon World. What I’m going into today is the only substantial hiccup I ever encountered when running Dungeon World, and which almost had me discarding the game entirely; the question of when to make the players actually roll dice.

Dungeon World turns the normal roleplaying game experience on its head in a lot of ways; it often seems a lot like a case of convergent evolution, producing something that looks a lot like D&D, but plays completely differently. One of the ways it does this is by providing a list of “moves” players can perform, with predetermined, but with room to be interpreted, results, determined by the roll of the dice. Often these results, even the negative ones, are really just an impetus for the player or GM to make something interesting happen, with the most common result of most rolls being something along the lines of “you succeed, but then this happens”, with the “this” being left up to the GM to determine.

This might seem odd to a lot of more experienced roleplayers, as the standard definition of a roleplaying game tends to be that it is a game in which you can do anything you can imagine. A list of standard moves would seem to fly right in the face of this concept. Since the dawn of time roleplaying games have tended to follow a similar pattern, regardless of the dice used; the player states what they intend to do, the GM applies a difficulty to the task, and the player tries to roll high enough to achieve this.

In most games I’ve been part of, this mechanic is extended to almost everything a character does. Arm wrestle a guy? Sure, DC12 Strength check please. Bartering with a salesman? Okay, DC15 Diplomacy check to get a good price. We’re all familiar with this, right?  If it isn’t 100% guaranteed to succeed, you’ve got to pass a check to do it.

This is where Dungeon World threw me. In one of my sessions, a player decided to leap a fence. He wasn’t doing it to get away from an enemy or to reach an objective; he just wanted to be a bad-ass and walking around to the gate seemed like the chump’s way to get to the other side. Standard adventurer fair, right? So, assured that the game would be prepared to deal with this, I looked to the list of prescribed moves. None of them fit the task.

Defy Danger? Well, it wasn’t a high fence and there was no pending threat; the player was just doing it for fun and to look cool.

Discern Realities? There was no challenge to gauge how high the fence was, and there were no hidden traps to notice.

I was really struggling. My GM lizard-brain told me that the player should be making a check if he wanted to do this action; in reality such an action would contain some chance of failure and maybe even injury.  I’d normally call for a Strength or Athletics check without even thinking about it.  Sure the check would be easy, but the player would still have to make the roll. Dungeon World didn’t give me that option, and that’s when it clicked for me.

Dungeon World is a system that only wants you to get into mechanics when the outcome could affect the story. If my player were leaping a chasm, there would be a good chance he could injure himself or drop an item into the gap, and so a Defy Danger check could well have been called for, but only to see how such a dangerous act would affect the ongoing story.  On the other hand, if said chasm was simply a tidbit of description in the party’s travel through a twisting underground labyrinth, the players can simply describe how they crossed the chasm.  At the end of the day, your story requires the players to be on the other side of the chasm, so why make an issue of it, unless it’s meant to be pivotal to your plot?

Dungeon World is prompting you to run a game where the dice are rolled only when deciding something important to the ongoing narrative; where a mighty beast needs to be slain or evaded, a dire truth needs to be revealed, or a mayor persuaded to rally the townfolk to their home’s defence.  It reveals to you that making your heroes roll to perform mundane feats makes the whole game more mundane, and sword and sorcery is not the genre for the mundane.

This adjustment in thinking is achieved in two ways.  Firstly, the game only provides moves for interesting actions; it’s implicitly telling you that anything not listed in the moves is probably not something that you need to roll dice over.  Decide the outcome by other means.  Look at the characters, does it seem like something they could just do?  Consider whether a success or a failure is really going to make a difference to your game, or is it just going to slow everything down?  Let roleplay win the day, and allow your players to talk you around with interesting actions and dialogue.

Secondly, the game rewards failure.  This is one of my favourite features, since it means a roll’s outcome can never be bad; either you succeed by some measure, or your character is rewarded with XP. You learn from your mistakes.  This also has the interesting effect of rendering frequent rolls disproportionately beneficial to the players.  If you’re asking the party to roll for over and over again, to complete relatively mundane tasks, every failure is another point of XP; to look at it another way, the game is asking you, before calling for a roll, to consider whether a character would learn something meaningful from a failure.  If they wouldn’t, they probably don’t need a roll.  They are the heroes after all.

Dungeon World is also a game which is comfortable trusting the GM to determine when it’s not worth rolling because something can’t happen.  What’s that, you’re attacking the dragon unarmed?  Well, that’s just not enough to hurt it.  Unfortunately, even with the best of luck, your fists just aren’t going to cut it; this dragon is tougher than that.  Draw your epic longsword?  Come up with a daring maneuver to topple some heavy crates onto your foe?  Parlay with the beast to distract it from its rampage?  Now we’re talking.

This isn’t to say Dungeon World is a game in which the players can never attack a dragon barehanded; instead it’s to say that it’s a game where the GM is trusted to set the terms of their story.

The lesson I learned from Dungeon World is that, as a GM, it’s up to me to facilitate my players, without holding the game up.  Let them be the big heroes the character sheet says they should be, and only let chance into the equation when the fate of the world (or at least the player’s world) really does hang in the balance.  And that it’s also okay to sometimes say no, if it serves your story.