XP: Dungeon World

14 Apr

Dungeon World is an upcoming AD&D hack of Apocalypse World. Currently it is in the beta playtest stage, so it is not a finished product. While this may seem like a somewhat negative review of the game, please keep that in mind. I think that this game shows lots of promise and I am genuinely excited to see what comes of it.


Damn near every gamer knows what D&D is. Damn near every gamer has opinions about it, too. For many gamers, D&D is a heart breaker. On one hand it was the gateway to the varied universe of role playing games. On the other, many of them have been dissatisfied with the D&D experience.

One of the reasons that Apocalypse World is so cool is that it internalizes a certain play style that removes the need to find or invent one on your own. When you is down for a game of Apocalypse World you know a lot about what the game will be like, about how you engage with the fiction and how you interact with the other players. In a game of D&D those details vary considerably, depending mostly on the playstyle of the DM and of the particular dynamics of the group as a whole.

Not to say that that varied experience is a bad thing, but it does involve some initial guess work. You take the play principles of Apocalypse World, throw in some high fantasy and D&D tropes and you have Dungeon World.

If you are happy with your D&D experience, as is, then Apocalypse World and Dungeon World probably aren’t for you. And that’s totally cool. Continue to have fun. But, if you are a part of that less than satisfied demographic you should really consider giving either of these games a try.

But for Apocalypse World it doesn’t end at the principles of play. This contractual style is encapsulated in the moves, which is the term for “how you get things done.” With the moves, what they say you accomplish, you accomplish. No fussing allowed. If you earned it, you got it.

This is a response to a certain kind of negative experience that has cropped up in D&D for decades. Let’s say you are fighting a tough opponent. You are getting your ass kicked. Finally, you score an awesome hit with a 19 on the d20. But then you discover that they are immune to your weapon, and that that awesome hit has no effect. Or, maybe you scored a critical hit but rolled a 1 on the damage.

In Apocalypse World the mechanics do not undermine a previous success. You earned it, you got it. This means that the players have a huge effect on the fiction and that the MC (Apocalypse World’s GM) is playing a sort of supporting role to the players and their contributions, as opposed to the other way around.

And that is hot.


Dungeon world takes a lot from Apocalypse World, and everything it borrows works well. It manages to provide that D&D feel without resistance from the mechanics. The game get’s out of your way. It allows you to explore the world at your own pace and in your own way.

Where Dungeon World falls flat is in the places where it deviates from Apocalypse World and draws too heavily from D&D.

Though it is a comparatively small issue compared to the others, rolling damage completely undermines the contractual form of the moves. I find this very disappointing, and to me it seems to take the wind of of the sails at the table. What puzzles me is that monsters deal a flat damage in the new edition (a good improvement, as having the monsters roll for damage has similar issues) and they took out HP growth at level up (another good improvement for a variety of reasons too numerous to detail here). Why the damage roll still exists is puzzling given the nature of these other changes and the design principles at work. It is flat out against the spirit of the game. And this is doubly confusing because Apocalypse World’s harm system was just fine. Allow the fighter to take a move to extend their harm track, or improve the harm of their weapon, or fight like a gang or something. Apocalypse World had all the answers to this. Why change it?

XP is another example. While the reduction of XP for level up was a good call, my instincts say that it still needs to be reduced further. That said, you mark XP when you fail a roll, which is another great addition, and it may go a long way to address my previous concern. Outside of that the procedure to mark experience between different alignment and classes is uneven. Some classes advance much faster than others. Alignment is a whole separate issue. Unfortunately, importing Apocalypse World’s solution would be underwhelming, as highlighting stats would be a trivial affair. But then, Apocalypse World’s stats are just more provocative and better represent the principles of play. The D&D ability scores are such an icon I’m not sure I could suggest removing them, though.

Speaking of alignment, what’s the point? The implementation takes such a back seat to the play that I have to wonder. Though it would be a very different game, I wonder what would happen if the ability scores were instead alignment? Use this when acting with good, that when acting with evil, and so on. But that is not Dungeon World. Not at all.

So now some things I like. The Last Breath move is all kinds of cool and I wish we had a chance to see it in play. It is pretty much the only mechanic that adds theme to the play and engages the players and the characters in a whole different dimension. Wonderful.

Though Apocalypse World introduced the retroactive moves and custom moves, these things save so much hassle (hassle that brings back some of the more frustrating memories of D&D) that I have an irrational love for them every time they come up. I mean seriously, can we not waste our time on unimportant details and just get back to the things we actually want to do?


As I mentioned, Dungeon World is a work in progress. Hopefully they will continue to hone the features of this game to better match the principles of play.

That said, Apocalypse World had a dozen or so playbook right out the gate. Dungeon World needs more playbooks if games are going to span many sessions. Right now it is almost a kind of BECMI dungeon crawl game (which is my favorite edition of D&D), but I think their ambition goes beyond that, and they will need more playbooks to pursue those ambitions.

There are a lot of things missing from the recent beta edition. Fronts, custom moves, guidelines for designing dungeons, adventures, magic items and monsters. But, the designers know this and those things should be hot off the stove soon enough.

In the end this produces a game that is much like AD&D, scratches the same itch, but provides a healthier social environment for play and a series of positive creative feedback loops that makes play more meaningful, more engaging and more of a group activity. Dungeon World re-lights the high fantasy roleplaying torch, and I for one am much more likely to loot some dungeons now that we have Dungeon World.


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