Category: RPGs

Every DM should run a game of Dungeon World

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.

Advertisements

A more common kind of evil in your game

Evil PCs and NPCs have been on my mind as of late. For villains most DMs seem to go with the typical kick-a-puppy type. You’ve got a baddie and they are mean. Occasionally you’ll dabble in the Mr. Freeze type, a villain that thinks they have moral justification for their evil actions. But for the most part you’ve got villains running around doing really bad things to good people.

Thugs, bandits, warlords, necromancers, you can pretty easily sketch out what drives that type of evil. But if you broaden your definition of evil some. You start to see how easily it can be a label placed on many NPCs, organizations, and even for the players.

What I define as evil in much of my campaigns is a lack of empathy and selfishness. You’ve got a merchant that scraped their little store together from nothing. They’ve been ruthless against competition and unyielding with their prices and policies. Want to get something on credit? Sure, but you pay hefty interest. They’re the kind running a company store for mining claims. They are evil.

Think of a wealthy merchant that built trade empire on white lies and uncaring adherence to the law. They never busted heads or threatened anyone with violence, but they sure got signatures for contracts through pure browbeating and other underhanded tactics (cutting off water rights, undervalued offers for land, etc.) that would make a fictional character like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview seem mild.

If anything Lawful Evil would be a fairly common description of most the evil NPCs in my game. While they might not outright break laws, they certainly bend them and find loopholes. Even more so they’ll also unerringly seek to enforce laws that play to their advantage. The most important characteristic they share would be lack of empathy and being selfish. They are a literal embodiment of ‘F&*K you. Got mine.’

It’s their family, loved ones, and kin that might get an expression of kindness or caring. Everyone else might get a furrowed brow of concern at the most. After all, they can’t give away all they have to help everyone in the world. And this logic is used to cloak themselves from shame when turning their backs on strangers in need. When you adopt that type of mentality for evil NPCS, you begin to see these types of people can be found everywhere in your game.

Alignment isn’t an absolute. Those good villagers might be distrustful of strangers, and circle more around those that they know. But they can be goaded into doing the right thing. However for my evil NPCs I see them doing good deeds as a way to adhere to quid pro quo. Yes, that evil noble will donate to an orphanage but it isn’t an act of charity or compassion. They know they are getting something from it. They know it helps seat them in power and sway the peasants to his banner. He is using that act of charity to further his own selfish goals.

This is easily something that can be adopted for your players. The evil PC is going to get theirs, no matter what. Tasked with clearing out a warren of goblins? Okay. But the village is going to pay. The PC will get a reward AND keep a share of treasure found, no matter what. It’s literally a mercenary way of thinking. And when this type of motivation is expanded some, ensuring a PC gets compensated sufficiently for every ‘good’ deed that is done, your game opens up to playing evil aligned characters.

I would argue it’s the Neutral characters that are the most difficult to play. I see these types more akin to zen-like monks that see the value in letting the universe just be, and not align with any particular moral force. These types seem to hardest to properly stoke motivation in navigating through potential story lines and adventures.

In the past I’ve put my foot down on having players helm evil characters. More from my laziness in not wanting to wrestle with thinking up the right type of adventure hooks and lures to get the group going in a particular campaign direction. But lately I’ve reconsidered acceptable motivations for PCs that swerve into more selfish territory. Once you allow the notion of evil being acceptable for PCs, you’ll also start seeing it a more common NPC personality trait too. It can add more complexity and depth to the type of interactions your group has with denizens in your campaign, and something worth exploring around the table.