Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tommy's Take on Dungeon World

We're not complete strangers to the family of games spawned by Apocalypse World, with tremulus and Monster of the Week both taking Top Six selections in past years. So with that in mind, we'll now turn our sights towards the baby spawned by Apocalypse World and Dungeons & Dragons: Dungeon World!

DISCLAIMER: This review contains an affiliate link, which may provide me with store credit to RPGNow if used. No review copy was provided by the publisher.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This review specifically covers the PDF version, available now at RPGNow for $10. However, you can also go to the Dungeon World SRD to get the meat and potatoes of the game for free, in website format.

Per the Apocalypse World paradigm, Dungeon World is a player-facing, fiction-first RPG, designed to emulate the trappings made famous by Dungeons & Dragons. With that in mind, your Playbook options encompass a lot of D&D standards, but instead of having character classes you play The Bard, The Cleric, The Druid, The Fighter, The Paladin, The Ranger, The Thief or The Wizard. Characters have the classic spread of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, but are rated +3 to -3, like World Engine games. The resolution method is still the same as with World Engine games, rolling + stat, trying to get 10+. Failing that, you want a 7-9, which is essentially a "Yes, but...". A 6 or less, however, means you fail at your action (but you get to mark XP).

Interestingly, you use more than just the six sided dice used in most World Engine games, minus the 20 sided dice (though these are mostly used for damage). When the PC takes damage, they lose HP. They lose enough HP, they die. Now, this being D&D-inspired, dead characters can come back to life, though the GM is encourage to decide the hows and whys. Maybe it requires a dark pact with a pale skinned demon buried under a mountain...or maybe it's just a few thousand gold and the nearest temple, you decide.

Characters can change by gaining enough XP to Level Up, though if the group decides that a change should happen beforehand, it can. Again, fiction first. Leveling goes up to 10. At Level 11, you either retire, take on an apprentice (who levels up, but your main character doesn't), or start all over with a whole new class (ditching Class moves, but retaining everything else "core" to your character).

Your characters are linked to each other by Bonds, which aren't always necessarily positive bonds (your Paladin may not trust your Wizard, for instance). Each character also has an Alignment, on a five point scale (Good, Evil, Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral). This gives you certain guidelines you should follow (like following the letter of the law if you're Lawful. overthrowing tyrants if you're Chaotic, etc.) A simple but interesting Hireling system is also provided, essentially turning using a Hireling into a Move itself.

When creating a character, you pick your Class, then Race (based off of Class), and then assign an array of Ability Scores (16, 15, 13, 12, 9, 8) which gives a bonus or penalty (like Ability Scores in the d20 system). Pick your starting Moves, your Alignment (which gives a method of gaining XP as well), Gear, and at least one Bond (with another PC).

The Basic Moves are functionally similar to other World Engine games, though this game defines them as Hack and Slash (for most melee), Volley (for missile attacks), Defy Danger (the big catch-all action), Defend (generally Defending others, but sometimes yourself), Spout Lore (when you need to dig into your knowledge base), Discern Realities (when you need to scrutinize a situation), Parley (covering manipulation of others in all kinds of ways), and Aid or Interfere (when you need to lend a hand or make something harder to do). There's a whole slew of Special Moves as well, like Last Breath (when you're dying), Take Watch (when everyone else is trying to sleep), Carouse (for spending your tomb-raiding earnings), Recruit (because sometimes you need some help) and Outstanding Warrants (because sometimes you get into trouble).

The Class Options included in the core are all pretty unique:

The Bard: Either Elf or Human, the Bard can access his Bardic Lore or turn his performance in magic. Advanced Moves allow the Bard to drive enemies into attacking allies or become better duelists. Your character's Bonds may be that you were already singing another hero's praises (literally), or they may be the butt of your jokes.

Clerics: Dwarf or Human, Clerics can cast spells, get Divine Guidance and Turn Undead. Advanced Moves allow you to give someone a bonus on a Last Breath roll, or become a Martyr and empower your spells with the pain received from attacks. Your Bonds may include being suspicious of someone who has insulted your deity or maybe you have chosen to watch over them. Lots of spells are included, ranging from standards like Bless and Cure Light Wounds, up to insanely powerful abilities that force creatures to ask permission to approach you.

Druids: Druids can shapeshift into animal forms, and some Druids can learn to mimic other people. Some Advanced Moves let you see through an animal's eyes, while another (called Balance) will allow you to heal someone, but only if you have damaged someone first.

The Fighter: The Fighter gets a great D&D nod with the Bend Bars, Lift Gates Basic Move, and also gets a Signature Weapon. Advanced Moves let them add bonus damage to attacks, while Evil Eye can cause an enemy to freeze in fear of you, and Through Death's Eyes can let you determine who will live and who will die in the combat!

The Paladin: Paladins can Lay on Hands or issue orders with Divine authority, but are often sworn to Quests. They have enough grit that they can take debilities (applied to their Ability Scores) in lieu of actual damage, can focus on the destruction of a single enemy (having their damage against others penalized), and can be generally irritatingly perfect, as Paladins do. (Kidding, I love Paladins.)

The Ranger: The martial cousin to The Druid, The Ranger is a Tracker and friend to beasts. They can also disappear in natural surroundings, allow your animal companion to take a blow for you, or (and I love this) use the move Smaug's Belly, which increases the damage of your arrows if you know the target's weak spot.

The Thief: The Thief steals stuff. They can also disable traps and backstab and pretty much what Thieves do in D&D. Advanced Moves let you never be surprised, have Connections in the criminal underworld, learn to hurl melee weapons as ranged weapons, or escape from a tight situation.

The Wizard: You know what they do. But in addition to regular spell casting, they can also perform rituals (the GM simply sets the rules/costs/complications of the rituals). You can also be the Wise Wizard that advises others, cast counterspells, cover yourself in arcane energy for armor and more. Again, as with the Cleric, a lot of the old standards are here - Charm Person, Fireball, Magic Missile, Polymorph, Summon Monster, that sort of thing.

As with the other World Engine games, understanding the GM's role is really, really crucial. For one thing, World Engine games are the least railroady RPGs I have ever seen. Given the nature of the players' Moves, It is almost impossible to "railroad" or "plan a story", or so on. You set up situations (or Fronts), and they act and you react (because, sometimes, those Moves will spin things in a completely different direction, especially when the players are the ones getting to determine the outcome). While some of this covers the same ground as other World Engine games, Dungeon World does have a lot of "fantasy epic adventure" type advice as well.

Adventure/setting design is based on Fronts, with your Adventure Fronts linking together with your Campaign Front...like small arcs building to a larger, overarcing story. The book walks you through setting up and populating your Fronts, creating the Dangers that populate the Fronts, the Impending Dooms for each Danger, the Grim Portents, and the Stakes Questions (things that are relevant to the world at large, but that you aren't deciding right now, as GM, but are waiting to see what develops in gameplay).

The World Building chapter walks you through creating settlements (from Villages to Cities), and points out that the world should grow and change over time, perhaps due to the actions of the heroes. This is accomplished through a number of tags which focus on various features, such as Prosperity, Population and Defenses, as well as a number of catch-all tags (like Lawless, Safe, Arcane or Blight).

Being D&D inspired, clearly you're going to want a bestiary, and Dungeon World obliges, beginning with a walk through of how to make monsters (if for no other reason than because your favorite obscure D&D monster didn't make it in), before entering into an impressive list of already made creatures, grouped by the location they are likely to be found in.

Cavern Dwellers include Cloakers, Earth Elementals, Goblins and Otyughs. Swamp Denizens such as Trolls, Medusas, Hydras, Frog Men and Basilisks are all included, each with their own unique, famous abilities. Undead Legions include Liches, Mummies, Ghosts, Ghouls, Skeletons, Vampires and Zombies. The Dark Woods hold threats like Assassin Vines, Dryads, Centaurs, Elven Warriors and Treants. Ravenous Hordes encompass the likes of Gnolls, Orcs (more than a half dozen different types, too), and Tritons. Twisted Experiments cover the really weird stuff, like Chimeras, Bulettes, Golems and Owl Bears. The Lower Depths cover Deep Elves, Dragons and Minotaurs. Planar Powers cover the likes of Angels, Chain Devils (I love Kytons!), Djinns, Hellhounds and even the Tarrasque. Finally, Folk of the Realm includes a number of "normal" human NPC types.

The Gear section plays fast and loose with it, adding certain tags for weapons and such (like Plate Armor giving you 3 Armor, but being Clumsy, though certain Classes can ditch that tag, or a staff requiring two hands). Other gear is abstracted down, like Adventuring Gear giving you 5 uses while trying to do Adventuring Stuff like jam a spike into a door to trigger a trap or mark the walls with chalk, etc.

Several Magic Items are included, with an emphasis on "interesting" over "+1, +2, +3, etc"...like a sword that is insanely overpowered in the hands of a Paladin, but is Awkward to use in the hands of a non-Paladin. The Epoch Lens lets you look at an item and see who made it and where, the Flask of Breath is a weightless container full of air...eternally. Other items include a set of wings that are essentially Icarus' wings, a skull that can tell you who has it in for you, a key that only unlocks doors you aren't meant to be in, a silver hand that replaces lost limbs (and can harm creatures requiring silver to harm), and the classic vorpal sword.

More advice follows, this time on making your own Moves, which you will have to do, and a lot of times on the fly. Other topics included cover making Classes (which a lot of people are seemingly doing, if RPGNow's Dungeon World section is any indication), making Compendium Classes (think Prestige Classes), and more.

The book rounds out with a nice appendix on converting adventures (because, y'know, D&D), a random chart of 100 Instincts (to generate an NPC motivation on the fly), and a reprinted list of all the tags for quick reference, followed by an index.

WHAT WORKS: Holy smokes...talk about taking the World Engine and running with it. These guys clearly have a fondness for D&D tropes, because you don't write a 400 page book about emulating D&D tropes in a different game system without having some kind of fondness for it. Again, speaking from experience, the World Engine does work pretty well, so long as you're not afraid to improvise. The bestiary is impressive and covers a LOT of ground (not surprising, given the context of the game). Lots and lots of explanations.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: They may have updated it since then, but the PDF I've got had some clickable bookmarks and page numbers that went back to the first page instead of where they were supposed to go. This is still going to be an exhausting game if you can't improvise well (or your group just doesn't want to play along).

CONCLUSION: This is D&D for folks who don't want to play D&D. If you like the D&D tropes but want something lighter and more free flowing, this is a really good choice. If there's something that isn't quite clicking with the game, some folks made a Dungeon World Beginner's Guide as well that'll help you out. Given my experiences with tremulus, I'm inclined to consider Dungeon World for my group's eventual visit to Ravenloft, though part of me really just wants to go into an open setting and see what happens. It covers a TON of ground...before turning around and giving enough advice and examples for you to tinker with it however you need to in order to fill out the game you want to play. Adding it to the short list of games I want to get to the table sooner, rather than later.