Dungeon World is a fantasy take on a narrative RPG system under the Powered by the Apocalypse umbrella (coined from Apocalypse World, the first game which used these rules). PbtA has your typical players and GM type of setup, but the game is highly narrative driven. Action is pushed forward by PC choices and outcomes from their die rolls.
Not to get too deep into the rules, but generally each player describes what they want to do and the GM chooses the appropriate move (action) that they will test for. Pretty much just about like any other RPG out there. The tweak is the simplicity and the potential outcomes. Players roll 2d6. On a 10+ they succeed. On a 7-9 they are successful but at some cost. While a 6 or less is a failure. Simple.
Immediately what you find playing this is that mixed success results become the norm. Additionally players will also get a slew of failures rolling sixes. As dice outcome probabilities go, results of 6-8 will be common with 7 being a typical roll. This pushes the GM to drive the players into interesting situations, layering on complications and forcing the players to make hard choices, especially when they fail.
When they fail outright on a 6 or less, the GM has control of the narration. They can introduce more baddies, cut off expected routes or resources, and in short drive the story in another direction. While players have a lot of agency with this system those failures allow the GM to throw a big wrench into the works. Nothing like having players expect to rest and recuperate from a long dungeon expedition, only to return to the local village and see it burned to the ground from a goblin raid.
Running PbtA games can stretch your GM chops. You have to learn to be adaptable and improvise more. Continually finding mixed success outcomes is especially a wonderful way to strengthen skills for running RPG games. Your typical D&D game can slip into binary outcomes. Either you succeed or you fail with an ability check. Having to constantly think of that ‘success BUT…’ with a mixed 7-9 dice roll result in PbtA really can help you find ways of using it in other games.
Say you’ve got your thief trying to break into a merchant’s room, eager to steal off something valuable to get some useful information. They make their check to open the door. Make a stealthy move around the room. Possibly a perception roll to find any important information. Pretty much they will either succeed or not. Cut and dried.
Throwing in the mixed success suddenly adds more outcomes and a more engaging experience. Roll a 7 trying to open the door? That thief has successfully gotten inside, but accidentally knocked over a brass candlestick. They hear guards approaching to investigate. Do they make a run for it? Do they instead make a frantic check through the room first? As a GM you might leave a hint of a small chest on the floor, or a table with several papers scattered about. They could likely have enough time to get either the chest or the papers, but not both. On their way out, maybe they sneaked away successfully, but left the door slightly ajar. The guards begin a search through the keep, ramping up future complications.
We like to think we run our D&D games like this, but with so many rolls of that d20 I would expect most sway back to those ruts of just having a pass/fail result. While Dungeon World instead has this type of outcome in the structure of the rules. Yes you can get a fantastic success, or potentially get a disastrous result, but commonly your get what you want at a price. The mechanics of PbtA games push for more complicated outcomes.
This actually fits well with fifth edition. The advantage/disadvantage and inspiration rules allow you some tools to introduce mechanical benefits to the game as well. Having a poor outcome for an ability check might not mean that the PC fails outright. Instead they might be thrown off their feet, with their next check being at a disadvantage regardless of what ability/skill being used. Make a wildly successful check? Consider throwing the player an inspiration token. If a player just barely makes that check to avoid falling over a cliff edge, they might instead lose some critical gear, weapon, or ammunition which falls into the chasm.
So I highly recommend if D&D is your bag to give Dungeon World a stab as a one shot. It’s easy to run and get characters generated. There is a lot of free material out there. In fact likely before getting into the rule book too deep, I would consider looking at the Dungeon World Guide first. As a fan-made resource it picks apart the base rules of PbtA system and gives you a firm understanding of how to interpret dice rolls from your players and what types of checks/moves are appropriate, making that first game much smoother to run.
I have a love-hate relationship with classic initiative in D&D. One plus is at least for the first turn, things are chaotic. You can get a player rolling high and step into the action immediately, and you can have a player instead be a little flat-footed by rolling low. It’s fun. However on the following turns it slips into a set order and the humdrum of a predictable routine for turns becomes the norm. Alternately, it’s a little jarring breaking up the narrative to jump into wargame mode for a combat by telling players to roll for initiative.
Newbie Dm has been pondering this last point some, with thoughts of dropping it completely. I can agree that calling out initiative is like announcing RP needs to jump in the backseat as butt-kicking time is taking over the story steering wheel. I don’t quite have an answer for that. There is a certain disconnect with D&D when it comes to roleplaying and the actual mechanics of combat resolution. You can certainly pepper RP into a melee, but there will still be those mechanisms in the background of rolling to hit and damage, with initiative order lumped into that too.
However, I wouldn’t kick initiative to the curb. I realize it can break up the narrative in some cases, but having a completely open order for combats can also allow players to slip into taking over the action completely. I like the idea of combats being deadly and unpredictable. In that aspect, classic rolling for initiative sort of captures that. The problem I have is it slips into a set order, with no surprises after the first turn.
Look at wargames – The idea of unit activation is something that’s been tackled quite a bit through a variety of means in miniature wargames. A lot of designers try to model friction in command and unit activation, and uncertain turn order helps mimic that some. Taking a look at how other games handle unit activation (or initiative), especially wargames, can offer some good ideas for porting them over to D&D. Mind you, what I’ll talk about here is by no means an exhaustive list for systems used in miniature wargames but they are some common themes.
IGOUGO – This is a common turn order system. A player chooses all the units they wish to activate and resolve their actions, then their opponent does the same. This can be shaken up some requiring command checks to see if a unit can be activated.
I’m not a fan of IGOUGO. Even with command checks, you have a degree of certainty how your turn will play out. This isn’t to say it’s not a popular system though. Warhammer 40K and Flames of War use IGOUGO and are probably some of the biggest systems around for wargames. For D&D, you could just have all the players go, and then all the monsters. It can work but not my cup of tea.
Alternate activation – This is a popular stepping stone between IGOUGO and random activation. Players pick one unit to activate and play out the turn, their opponent then does the same, going back and forth until all the units are activated. For D&D, you can have players and the monsters go back and forth, or break it up with the PCs having 2-3 characters act, then a few creatures. It’s serviceable. The kicker is usually figuring out who which side starts at the top of the turn. Commonly a lot of wargames decide that by rolling a die (sometimes with modifiers to represent better command and/or morale). Deciding by the highest dexterity scores D&D might work for D&D.
Random Activation – For me this has become my favorite system in wargames, as it can provide you with utter, random chaos. Granted D&D has this right off the bat with rolling initiative too, however the order becomes static. I’m a fan of keeping things completely random throughout the entire combat for each turn. There are two ways to handle this. One could be that each player/monster is assigned a specific card and they are randomly drawn from a shuffled deck.
Another more flexible system would be splitting a deck of cards up by color, with one side activating when their color is drawn. This could also be done using dice of two sets of uniform colors. To keep ensure everyone gets a turn, you could make a special deck (or pool of dice) where each individual unit is represented by a card of their respective color. One my favorite games, Bolt Action uses this system with colored dice. It’s easy and flexible enough that you can choose what unit to activate (provided you get lucky enough to draw the right colored die).
Savage Worlds also employs a random initiative system going by numerical/suit order using a standard deck of cards. I love it. It makes each turn hectic as you can’t predict exactly when you’ll act from turn to turn. While you could mimic the same thing in D&D just re-rolling initiative for each turn, mechanically drawing from a deck of cards is easier after a good shuffle.
Point allocation – Another system commonly used in wargames is point allocation. Each side has a limited number of command points which can be spent to activate units. Likely not all units on a side will be activated during a given turn and typically a unit can only be activated once. Even using IGOUGO, this can add an element of friction in command and control. SAGA uses something like this and I find it immensely enjoyable.
If you were trying to embrace a more narrative approach to initiative in D&D, point allocation would be something I’d use. When I’ve run Dungeon World, I used a point allocation system. It worked wonders.
The problem with combats for me in Dungeon World was that they were too open. If you had a player or two that were more proactive around the table, they could hoard the action for the group. I needed to break that up and it was a little rough just putting a hard stop to a player’s turn and pushing others to act instead during combat.
So I gave each player 2 markers. When they did something they threw it into the center. If they had no markers, they had to wait. Once everyone spent their markers, they all took 2 markers and the process would repeat. For modelling simultaneous actions in a short time frame, this worked well.
To embrace the open narrative of Dungeon World, I would allow a player to voluntarily give a marker to another player if they wanted. That way if a PC was on a roll doing some cool stuff, another player could allow them to hog the spotlight a bit longer. It added some structure to combats but was still flexible enough for Dungeon World. Going for a more free-form initiative in D&D, I would do something similar.
Handling high (or low) dexterity – This is something that can put a kink into different initiative systems. Players with high dex usually get an initiative bonus acting before others. I’d whip up a house rule allowing PCs to redraw a card, pull another die, or possibly get an additional activation token. There is nothing wrong with giving high dex players some advantage with determining turn order. Regardless, I’d always adopt a house rule to allow players to go first in the case of ties. It’s just a little nod to the players and encouraging them to be heroes over the monsters.
These are a few ideas you might want to port over to your D&D game. If anything, I encourage folks to play other games. I especially think DMs should experience different games aside from RPGs. You really get exposed to interesting game mechanisms playing other types of games, and may be surprised how many things you can pick up to make your own D&D game better.
[A shriveled gnome travels the lands in a ledge wagon drawn by an old donkey. The cart itself appears as a simple shack of knot-ridden boards with tarnished brass fittings precariously perched on four solid wooden wheels. The gnome claims to be none other than the famed mad alchemist and mystic, Digby. Such a fanciful tale is likely just a ploy to sell enchanted trinkets as it would make the gnome well over 500 years old. However one cannot deny the gnarled form is surprisingly deft and almost spritely in step as he moves about his shop. Nearly every village or city within the lands will have Digby come for a visit during the year. When doing so he always makes a simple camp out at the town border, opening his stock of arcane goods to whomever passes, and eagerly offering tales of the magical items of Dungeon World].
Weight 0, Far, Grotesque
This shriveled hand is rumored to have been severed from a thieving ‘adventurer’ and cursed by a powerful lich. The gnarled, blackened hand is stiff and smells of pungent oils and sickly sweet herbs. When held and a brief sentence given as a command, the hand can be dropped and it will slowly scuttle off attempting to complete its task.
The hand is clumsy with a paltry strength. It can carry small items that might fit within its leathery palm of a weight no more than a pound. It cannot offer any deft manipulation of objects, as the joints stiffly creak and fumble with anything but the most basic of mechanical devices. One interesting characteristic is that the hand is a fair climber, able to dig its chipped nails into stonework and even slowly climb up walls.
While it will steadfastly attempt to complete its task and slowly scramble back to its owner, the paw operates as an automaton. It possesses no stealth and some find using the paw can be maddeningly frustrating at times. If ordered to unlatch a window, the paw will open the nearest and dutifully return to its owner, whether the targeted window was the desired one by its master or not.
Nonetheless, the Thief’s Paw is highly sought by burglars. Such rogues have found it able to steal small trinkets and sneak back keys to locked doors. Although having this ghastly trophy could bring more trouble on the owner, as it usually will pique the interest of town guards and other holy followers for possessing a such a necromatic fetish.
[A shriveled gnome travels the lands in a ledge wagon drawn by an old donkey. The cart itself appears as a simple shack of knot ridden boards with tarnished brass fittings precariously perched on four solid wooden wheels. The gnome claims to be none other than the famed mad alchemist and mystic, Digby. Such a fanciful tale is likely just a ploy to sell enchanted trinkets as it would make the gnome well over 500 years old. However one cannot deny the gnarled form is surprisingly deft and almost spritely in step as he moves about his shop. Nearly every village or city within the lands will have Digby come for a visit during the year. When doing so he always makes a simple camp out at the town border, opening his stock of arcane goods to whomever passes, and eagerly offering tales of the magical items of Dungeon World].
touch, 0 weight
This plain brass lantern has a large open face and a stub of candle within. Engraved on the worn handle is a single word in dwarven flanked by unusual runes. When held aloft and the word is spoken, the lamp alights giving off a bright light equivalent to several torches. The candle within the lantern does not ‘burn’ nor give off heat. The ghostly, white-blue light can only be extinguished if the engraved word is spoken again.
What is particularly amazing about the lantern is that once lit by the command word it will hover in place when released. If the speaker moves, the lantern will follow at a leisurely pace, hovering and always remaining within 10 feet. If a weight greater than a single coin is placed on the hovering lamp it will descend and rest on the ground, still giving off light. Attempts to tie a rope or use the lantern as a means of levitation will fail.
If another person touches the lantern, aside from the person that spoke the command word, it will immediately extinguish itself and crash to the ground, awaiting to be lit again by the magical word inscribed on it.
A while back I linked a gaming site that had various MMO soundtracks you could download. They had a pretty nice selection and found a few tracks that would work well for some background music to my sessions. I used to shy away from having music for my games. However I found with a decent mix you could get something playing in the background on a loop adding a little flavor to the game, and still not make it a distraction to what was happening around the table.
A few months ago I ran a Savage Worlds game for a local con. Being a demo game with new people, I really wanted to add something to the session to make it stand out. Normally I’m not one for sound effects. However for a few key points in the game, I wanted to add something to make it more of an engaging experience. As it was a horror sci-fi game, I also wanted some type of ambient noise to get everyone in the mood. Having a MP3 player and a miniature speaker, I could easily get something portable up and be able to play some tracks without it being too fiddly and taking up a bunch of space on the table.
So I needed to try and pick up some sounds. I stumbled across Freesound.org and fell into the rabbit hole of creative commons sound files. A bit of digging and I was able to find that perfect space ship alarm. There were tons of industrial and factory sounds. You can really find some wonderful ambient stuff. As for my sci-fi horror game, I settled on a few and also threw in a particularly longer ambient music track that was perfect for setting the mood.
The tracks are free, but many require attribution if being used in other projects. Consider throwing a bit of money to the site also as a donation. There are some nice tracks folks have made available. As for me, I am certainly going to be mining this for certain games. I simply cannot see running a horror game taking place on a dark and stormy night without using this site for some needed atmosphere.