Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I'm Beginning To Doubt Your Commitment To Killing Space Dracula (More about Dungeon World)

EDIT: Getting Reddit trackbacks. Tl;DR--I wrote Red & Pleasant Land, Vornheim and half of Maze of the Blue Medusa. Dungeon World is not my bag--it is too easy and the system makes all the parts of games I like trivial because co-authorship gets in the way puzzle set-ups and things like that (a Rubik's cube is easier if you helped build it). I do not recommend using it for anything I write because my game stuff emphasizes the exact kind of problem solving DW is meant to elide.  If you have questions about my game please leave a comment on my blog--I'll read it and answer, it will be way less confusing than asking 300,000 people on Reddit. If you are a condescending storygamer who thinks anyone who doesn't like your games just doesn't understand them, please get in touch, I will listen carefully explain the mistakes you made to you

Fuck Space Dracula, ok?

Last summer he killed my 4e Gamma World guy with his Draculasers and now he's back again in this Dungeon World playtest trying to kill my paladin, Axl the Claw.

It's not easy.

My paladin always lied (he tried to trick the space draculas into fighting the aliens, didn't work), Reynaldo's paladin always told the truth (he had an oath or something). That really confused the space draculas.

Then we met the devil but we didn't fight him, I just confused him talking about real estate while this pangolin attacked the ceiling. Also there was a math wizard. Trust me it was fun.

Anyway: Dungeon World...

Which Batch?

No matter who's GMing or who is playing, all D&Dlike games that I've played in feel similar enough that you forget what system you're using, especially when you aren't in combat. In the last year I've played DCC, LOTFP, WFRPG, Rolemaster, 4e, Swords & Wizardry, Petal Throne, Castles and Crusades, Basic, OSRIC, 3e, 0e, Stormbringer, NGR, Runequest, AD&D and Labyrinth Lord and I'd put all those experiences in this "D&Dlike" category. At least when I'm playing them  with the people I play with.

And no matter who is GMing or playing, all the following storygamey games felt different from the D&Dlikes but also felt very similar to each other in practice: Over The Edge, Marvel Heroic RPG, Dread, S/Lay With Me, FATE, the 3 quickie story games I wrote (STACK, the superhero one, and another one I never blogged up) and Burning Wheel.

So now does Dungeon World, a game that bills itself as "A Game With Modern Rules & Old School Style" more resemble that first batch of games--the D&Ds and D&Dlikes--or that second batch, the storygamey games?

When we played it--definitely the second batch. It's got rules and ability scores and whole lists of spells and details and looks very D&Dlike on paper, but in practice it felt like a totally open-ended, do whatever, whenever game.

Characteristics of the "second batch" games when I play them:

-They feel really "easy". Both to solve the problems the character has in the game and to think up the kind of textured narrative explanations that these games run on.

-The tenor of the game is extremely dependent on the relative levels of seriousness and extroversion of the players involved. One or two loud serious players can make the game serious, one or two loud silly players can make the game silly. Way more than in the D&Dlikes, which kind of hover in a narrower band of funny-reality/serious-game zone.

Really, though, probably down to who I am and know, it's usually just a question of time before the storygamey designs meltdown into total silliness. Players used to puzzle-solving style play (everybody I roll with) run roughshod over these games--stuff gets weird very fast.

-They are fun. They are basically about as much fun as hanging out with the people you're playing with even without a game, though.

-At no point am I afraid of dying or, really, of any consequences at all. So that tension isn't there if, like me, you like that kinda thing. (Exception: Dread.) I suppose if you were really invested in having the characters do this thing (and be alive) instead of that thing (and be alive) you might start to fear consequences but I never feel that feeling ever about fictional characters so it's kinda lost on me.

-If you're one of the louder people, by the time the game's over you feel as if you just GMed the whole game yourself. You also have to be conscientious about not talking over the quiet people in a way that's not such an issue in more traditional games, there's not a lot of regulation on who talks when.

-When you play them and post about it on the internet two things happen:

1. The people who wrote the games and/or the people who got excited enough to GM them for you read what you have to say and go "Yeah, I can see that, good point".

2. Lonely defensive indie-game evangelists read the exact same things and freak out and call you names.

Some Things That Made It Like That

-No initiative order and no limit on how often you can act. So: loudest person does more stuff than everybody else.

-Characters are really rrrrrreally powerful relative to the environment. Hitting stuff is easy and I had 21 hit points and didn't take any damage the whole time. If my paladin took an oath I could've made it so I could unwaveringly sense whatever I was looking for or been immune to the attack form of my choice.

-Characters are not just very powerful but able to warp reality at first level in ways that can totally change the terms of conflict. Like the level of narrative control is such that you can completely jiu jitsu a traditional dungeon without even trying if that's the direction your instincts lean.

Other Stuff 

-It has a really simple basic mechanic: 2d6 + stat bonus to do anything. As far as I can tell (which isn't that far, I only played one session) it relies on the players and GM to make the game scale up (in terms of the kinds of monsters you face, environmental difficulty, how-long-do-you-have-to-play-before-you-can-try-to-assassinate-the-duke etc) over time in long term play. Like the numbers don't do it for you as much as in trad D&D. But we only played one game so it's hard to tell.

-The weird restrictions on the names, PC classes, and appearance I noted yesterday had no effect on anything in the game and I'm still kind of mystified as to why they are there.

-The PC bonds (formal descriptions of relationships between PCs and other PCs) didn't change much, really, it was mostly the kind of thing that would get sorted out in the first session of any RPG anyway. They have a tiny mechanical bonus that seems fairly throwaway--at least from what I got to see.

-The "there are no turns but if you stop talking the GM can attack you with monsters" thing--I don't know how it's spelled out in the actual rules--seems to compress the story. You begin to fear lulls in the dialogue and it seemed, in our game, to squeeze out inter-PC roleplaying.

-The group's overall take is the people who'd like this game best would be not people who just wanna kill monsters and solve problems and not people who can invent a crazy story with lots of textured details out of their head at a moment's notice but a kind of person in the middle who wants to create a crazy story out of their head but isn't naturally going to do it and so wants a game structure that keeps prodding them to do that at intervals.

-There are a lot of either/or choices built into the system for partial successes like "Ok that was an 8, you can either knock it out of the monster's hand or cut it in half". These seem like the most promising thing in the design. It's an old and good GMing technique, but I don't know enough about the game from the GM side to know how much the game requires you to do it procedurally.

Anyway that's that.


  1. Zak, this is great critique of Dungeon World, I’m so happy that you gave it a try because I’ve been looking at it too, wondering about it.

    Personally I see three batches, though. Place-based games, story-games and then those weird railroady type games (Call of Cthulhu often ends up in this category).

    1. If you play Call of Cthulhu as a railroad, you do not have to. I never do:


    2. To me there was this whole “middle generation” of weird role-playing games with tons of rules yet no clear structure. Like GURPS. Fifteen-thousand books and where is the game? What are we doing?

      You can “save” most of them by adding a good structure, for example exploring a map or situation.

      As for hunter/hunter, I commented on that thread back in February why it hadn’t worked so well for me.
      It feels like two parallel tracks while what I want is something wide open.
      (Not saying that no-one can ever like it!)

    3. @2097
      The point is NOT whether it is likable or not, the point is it is not a railroad by any means. It is not "2 parallel tracks" either, since on one of the "tracks" the players have near total control of what action takes place and where and under what terms.

    4. Yes, I agree with you that adding a structure such as hunter/hunted can make a “trad” game not railroad.
      (The point with the like/not like thing was just to say that I did already know, and even commented, about Hunter/Hunted, which I guess I should’ve just said.)

      My beef with the middle generation of “trad games” is the combination of heavy rules and a lack of structure. (Many newer games that claim to place themselves in the story game batch seem to have have the same problem, though.)

      Adding a structure such as a map or good random tables saves it. Actually, I found your “roguish heroes” post recently with the problem of running a Superman campaign and that pretty much hit the nail on the head of what I’m thinking of this “middle batch”—so vague, yet so much complexity.

  2. "-They feel really "easy". Both to solve the problems the character has in the game and to think up the kind of textured narrative explanations that these games run on."

    That is a really great observation. Encapsulates the genre(?) really well.

    I hope this helps with the name thing: Have you heard of Apocalypse World? The "Pick a Name:" stuff comes from that. Maybe it's an artifact of that, I don't really know, but the games that are based on AW tend to come with lists that you select things from to build your guy. AW let you pick name, gender, and a couple of physical details. I always like the name lists because, frankly, I'm kinda bad at coming up with names on the fly. Whenever I run a game I always cook up a list of 20 or 30 names and just pick one from that list when a new character comes into play.

    Are you guys playing any more DW? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the experience system, too.

    1. The discussion of the utility of the name list is discussed in the comments below the previous post about DW from yesterday.

      If you are bad at picking the kind of details DW provides then you are having an rPG problem I am unfamiliar with in real life but I am glad the game helps you solve the problem you are having.

  3. I really want to play Dungeon World. My sense its that there's a specific mastery to issues like "when the GM can attack you with monsters" - in other words, it's a distinct GM subskill particular to the AW hacks. Haven't tested that.

    But you've verbalized some issues I've noticed with Fate (my main interaction with the Category 2 games you mention.) Specifically the "easy" and "hard to die" part - I've noticed my NPC go down way faster in these games than I am used to. Mainly (I think) this is because the players as a group have more brain bandwidth to dedicate to the narrative problems than I as a single GM have, and the game leverages that sort of "be awesome" thinking. I have to be more bad-ass than I am used to to threaten them - I can't just trust in the monster stats and dice.

    Not sure that's a problem, just a learning curve for me. Also not sure how much it applies to Dungeon World.

  4. While I have been aware of this game for a while, I have not payed much attention to its progress. Prefering to wait hard copy. Now that the PDF is out, and cheap I was thinking of picking it up. But after reading this and a couple other reviews I guess I will pass. I could live w/'some of the weirdness ( besides how hard can it be to tack on an initiative system?)BUT:
    Industructable characters? Reality bending powers....ugggh! NO thanks.

    1. Reality bending powers are definitely part of any kind of game where narrative control is shared the way it is in DW.
      The authors tell me that in terms of "indestructible PCs" mileage varies. Lethality is certainly less emphasized.

  5. "Characters are really rrrrrreally powerful relative to the environment. Hitting stuff is easy and I had 21 hit points and didn't take any damage the whole time."

    I'm starting to run a DW game, and as DM I've been working over this point a lot. I've been reasonably convinced by partisans of the game that monsters can be made as lethal as you, the DM, want them to be, but that it takes some deftness and aggressiveness as DM to make that happen. There's a skill to be learned as DM to make the game work, and I don't know that it's particularly well explained in the rules.

    The best example I've seen about how the designers hope the game will be played is this: http://www.latorra.org/2012/05/15/a-16-hp-dragon/

    (And I'd say you should read it even if you don't want to play DW again -- it's pretty awesome as RPG fight scenes go.)

    I'm still feeling my way around the system. I like that it feels streamlined enough that I can just *do* things and not worry about contradicting a rule that one of my players remembers and I don't. I like that it's dead easy to stat up a monster on the fly. I like that combat is fast and has lots of scope for being colourful. I like that a lot of the game systems are loosely coupled and easy to hack.

    It's clear, though, that it's going to push me to play the monsters pretty hard in order to make them dangerous, and I'm a little worried about the conflict of roles between playing the monsters to the hilt, and also adjudicating the success of PC actions. There's a lot of scope for the DM to just decide what happens, and often I'd rather let the dice do that. In other words, what David Goodwin said.

    But it's a skill -- making my monsters more aggressive -- that I'm interested to try to get better at, so I'm going to give the game a shot and see how it goes.

    1. Yours may be one of those comments someone makes that gets a response and then the person ignores that response as if it didn't happen but anyway...

      -I have seen that 15hp dragon thing reposted a zillion times and I don't see what it has to do especially with the Dungeon World system specifically, it just seems like "Be a good GM instead of a shitty GM". I think the fact that some people are treating it like a revelation seems more informative than anything else.

      -" I like that it feels streamlined enough that I can just *do* things and not worry about contradicting a rule that one of my players remembers and I don't."

      I have never had that feeling ever but if you have maybe DW is the way to go.

      -" I like that it's dead easy to stat up a monster on the fly. I like that combat is fast and has lots of scope for being colourful. I like that a lot of the game systems are loosely coupled and easy to hack."

      Those are all qualities I associate with the games I'm already playing, but different people handle different systems in different ways.

  6. Is he talking about classic D&D here?

    "I like that it's dead easy to stat up a monster on the fly."
    Answer: HD. Other than T&T's Monster Rating, this is probably one of the easiest forms of monster stats. Plus: easy to scale and a dead-functional mass combat system.

    "I like that combat is fast and has lots of scope for being colourful."
    Classic D&D combat is so abstract, you can just about tell anything through the combination of hit-rolls, hit points and armor class. My gamers love the details I make up just looking at the things happening at the table and are encouraged to do likewise.

    "I like that a lot of the game systems are loosely coupled and easy to hack."
    Classic D&D is the basis for a myriad of retroclones and, honestly, for most traditional RPGs ever since. Many of these are mere hacks of the basic system. Which I find great, as it is easy to add stuff to it.

    So if that is what you're searching for, you might find it in old school D&D, without all the hand-wavey aspects of DW, which literally is just an emulation of an emulation of fantasy (minus a solid rules-set).

    1. Yeah, like I said, Colin is clearly one of those people who initiates a conversation, gets a comprehensive answer that rebuts all his points, then fucks off.