Review: Dungeon World

I’ve been introduced to a new game recently, Dungeon World, and to be entirely honest I think it’s the first game I’ve played in the last few years for which I have nothing but praise. All credit for introducing this game to me goes to my friend Mike, my usual supplier of arcane and obscure indie games (or at least games that seem arcane and obscure to me, until he points me in their direction of the internet).

For me Dungeon World is my new primary fantasy adventure game. If anyone mentions to me that they want to play a fantasy game or a dungeon crawl, Dungeon World is my new go to game. Hell, I’m tempted to use it for almost any game that lends itself to a group of adventurers who fit into classes or archetypes, with some modification of course.

It’s beautifully simple; first each class has a character sheet with everything you need to know to create or play the character printed on it, including your hit dice, the numbers you can allocate to which attributes, everything. It’s all on there. No trawling through books for spells or special abilities; people pick their class and make their character, and it’s all done in about 15 minutes flat.

But the things that really make Dungeon World my new system of choice and future life partner are still to come. Firstly, the sheet that the players fill in prompts them to make characters beyond the numbers and abilities they are choosing. It asks them to pick a build, and a style and a look, which means that those players who would normally just put the numbers on their sheet and give no thought to how their characters would act or appear are prompted to go that extra step and inject some real life and personality into their characters.

The second gem hidden at the heart of this system, something which I feel is really unique, is that it gives just as much support and page-space to the GM as it does to the players. Obviously most games have pages of rules which allow the GM to run the game, but often it’s the equivalent of handing someone a toolbox and asking them to build a shelving unit, but without any instructions as to how to go about doing this. Obviously, some people know how to do this from scratch anyway, and that’s fine for them, but Dungeon World provides the GM with his own rules and systems to go about building their world and running their game.

With regards to world building it provides sheets to fill in for GMs to use in planning their adventures, but put together in a similar way as the player sheets to encourage you to create a world, challenges and antagonists, but without just assuming you would know how to pull a story out of nowhere and put it together in a manner that plays well, which is an assumption I think too many games make.

Actually running the game is a very strange experience for an old school GM, but one that I now wish all games would embrace. Initially any encounter generally sparks off in one of your already created set-pieces, which you are prompted to create using the world building system mentioned above. These set-pieces have built in consequences for player actions, and built in antagonists and challenges, but all built in by the GM when they put the campaign together. Furthermore GM/NPC actions are generally only taken as a result of player actions. The bad guys don’t get their own initiative, they react only in response to player’s actions. Sure, if they lie in ambush or initiate a combat, the antagonists might make the initial attack, but there’s no roll to see if they hit the players. It’s the players who defy danger, and their roll decides whether they succeeded, failed or somewhere in the middle, and prompt the GM to make a further action.

To people who’ve been playing roleplaying games for a long time, it seems a strange system, but even to an experienced GM the dance of action and consequence between players and the games master really take a lot of weight off of your shoulders. You’re not single handedly running the whole universe like some kind of massively powerful next generation console; you’re simply sitting at the helm of the adventure, tugging levers occasionally and pressing the odd button, to prompt the machine that is Dungeon World to further adventure.

In short I cannot recommend this system enough; at its core it has something for everyone. It’s ideal for brand new players, as it’s one of the simplest games to pick up and play I’ve ever seen, while still having enough depth and complexity to fund sessions and sessions of play. It’s also well placed for introducing players who have only played more “crunchy” systems, such as any of the Dungeons and Dragons games, to games where narrative is more important that the powers written on your sheet. It carries over just enough elements from classic roleplaying games to avoid looking like a totally free-form adventure system, but isn’t constrained by any of the same issues that I find drag games like that into the dirt, bickering about weapon ranges and base attack bonuses. Finally, I think it’s a breath of fresh air for any GM; it puts some of the onus of running a game back on the players, leaving you free to really enjoy the adventure, which I feel is a feature lacking from most other games out there. Classically as a GM you tend to think of yourself as “running” a game for your players; I think Dungeon World is one of the few games in which the GM can really say he’s playing as well.

Dungeon World can be found at http://www.dungeon-world.com and I heartily recommend checking it out.

Review: Shards of the Exalted Dream

Shards of the Exalted Dream, or just Shards, as it has come to be known, has been out for a week or so now, and I’ve read enough of it that I think I’m just about able to pass some form of comment on it. For those of you who don’t know, Shards of the Exalted Dream is a new book from White Wolf in their Exalted line, and it presents a number of new and different ways to approach and play Exalted. There are four alternate settings in the book, one of which encloses and entirely separate system, and there are also a lot of new rules in there for doing different things with your Exalted game; it includes rules for guns and driving, with charms and artifact cars, motorbikes and guns to compliment.

As described by Drive Thru RPG

The world of Exalted has been reflected in the minds and stories of players across the world for over a decade. Now the mirror shatters, and White Wolf presents a collection of unique new visions of Exalted, shards of imagination to take your games through alternate realities, twisted histories, new genres, and even to the stars. In addition to re-imaginings of the classic setting, this book also contains a plethora of new rules to support those visions, or for enterprising Storytellers to use to create their own new takes on Exalted. What worlds will you forge from your dreams?

I’ve browsed most of the book, and read pretty thoroughly through most sections, and I have to say I am impressed. Gunstar Autochthonia is the first setting, in which the Exalted lost their war with the Primordials, and as a result they were forced to flee Creation en masse, using Autochthon as a mighty spaceship, which, over the last 10,000 years, they have rebuilt into a mighty warship known as the Gunstar. This setting draws from a number of different sources but the one that struck me as the strongest influence was Battlestar Galactica; the feeling of being constantly pursued across what is a largely unknown void by powerful enemies that, if conflict occurs, you can only really hope to hold off until you can flee really reminds me of the recent series. And I have to say, that’s something I like.

The next setting is Burn Legend (a name I always feel like someone should be yelling in a deep voice as your press the “Start” button on a games loading screen), and is basically the RPG version of a 90s action film or fighting manga. This setting is the one that diverges most from “vanilla” Exalted. It’s set in the real world, or at least the Burn Legend version, where your characters, powerful martial artists running the span from mere heroic mortals who know american wrestling and muai thai, to shapeshifting Okami and demonic Yama Kings who harness supernatural powers in their martial arts. This section is lacking somewhat in exactly what you would do in a game where everyone is a badass martial artist, but it still seems like a lot of fun. The elemental martial arts styles in particular, taking clear influence from Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra’s elemental bending (going so far as to call themselves elemental binding…), really draw my eye. I’m not sure a whole campaign of this is in the cards, but I can imagine some memorably one-offs being spawned. It’s a very streamlined system, with 3 main stats, a list of your techniques and then just backgrounds to resolve everything else, and combat comes down to playing cards to activate your martial techniques, some of which auto-defeat other kinds, but others calling for roll-offs. I’m hoping that this will mean the combat plays fast and furious, but I’d be worried that it could get bogged down in mechanics and card-choosing. If you’re interested in taking a look for yourself, see this link for the technique cards free to download from Drive Thru RPG.