Post-Publication Edit: One of my friends on Twitter helpfully pointed out that one of the creators of this game, Adam K., has been involved in some awful controversies and, as these horrible things have shown, was apparently never a terribly nice person despite the persona he cultivated online. I can’t suggest buying the book at this point since I don’t think this guy should get any more money, but the other creator seems to be grappling with the failings of this system (e.g. the fantasy racism spread through the examples of how to use the rules and narrative guidelines in play) and his co-creator in a potentially healthy way (I’ll admit I’ve spent only an hour reading up on all this so there might be stuff I’ve missed), so I suggest getting fully informed before you make a decision.
As you’ll see below, I like the narrative style of the system and the light, story-centric rules, but those are common to most Powered by the Apocalypse games, not just Dungeon World, so I suggest you look elsewhere in that system if you want a fun game that doesn’t support someone whose actions are antithetical to my primary principles as a storyteller and GM.
Original Post Starts Here: I’ve been delving into the rules of Dungeon World lately, and I’ll admit my initial impressions of it were way off. In retrospect, I probably should have looked into the system myself rather than listen to the voices I did. They were pretty wrong. To be honest, I think anyone who describes Dungeon World as “D&D Light” is doing the system a grave disservice. Though, to continue my honesty, I can see why they would think that if they only skimmed through it. The things the rule book call to your attention, and are the most accessible to a scan, make it seem very close to the game that most people are familiar with.
Having dug into it in more depth, though, especially since I’m preparing myself to run an occasional game of it, I can say that most of the differentiation comes in the application of rules and the mindset of the participants. Specifically, Dungeons and Dragons is a war game that has had roleplaying elements added in and that puts most of the work for creating roleplaying incentives on the Dungeon Master. For instance, a need or situation is presented by the DM, the players choose how to act, and then dice determine success or failure. D&D runs mechanics first and narration second.
Dungeon runs the opposite way. It is primarily a narrative game than has some mechanics built-in to introduce variability. The dice give a verdict, but the Game Master is the final adjudicator of what that means in the game. Dungeon World runs narration first and mechanics second, and the rule book explicitly states this. It even gives the GM tools and phrases to use to help keep the players thinking fiction-first and examples of how the GM could accidentally start addressing the players and mechanics instead of the characters and the fiction.
If you’re having a difficult time appreciating the difference between the two systems, don’t worry. They’re pretty similar since they’re both fantasy games and the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has pushed narration much further foreward than any other game before it. If it helps at all, the way I think of it is similar to the way that different schools of thought talk about language: Dungeons and Dragons is prescriptive and Dungeon World is descriptive. Dungeons and Dragons provides rules and mechanics that apply to the world and everyone in it, providing boundaries and telling the players how they can act. Dungeon World is a system of adjudicating collective storytelling, triggering certain results when players describe certain story elements, with an element of variability that represents the players characters’ ability to change the world around them in a way that the non-player characters are incapable of doing.
I hope that didn’t make it worse. If it did, go re-read paragraphs 2 and 3, and then skip paragraph 4. And this one, I guess. To be honest, I’m still absorbing information so my brain is a bit mushy from learning something entirely new and reading a bunch of stuff I’ll need to reference and remember when I eventually run this game. The distinction is still rather nebulous in my head and I expect it’ll stay that way until I actually play and run the game, no matter how much Friends At The Table I listen to.
What appeals to me most is the attitude it takes toward playing the game in general and how the GM is supposed to run the game. The website’s subheader is one of the GM goals the rulebook assigns: “play to find out what happens.” I like to think this is how I run most of my games, but I’ll admit I also tend to build way more of the world than Dungeon World will let the GM. There’s literally a bit about drawing maps but leaving blank spaces and asking players to make decisions about how the world works. Which isn’t that far from the bit about the GM using this player-created information to create a world that the player characters can change and which will run to a specific end without them. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s a line I’ve been chasing in one way or another for a few years in my D&D games, so I’m excited to work on it more explicitly.
Ultimately, like all tabletop roleplaying games, this is supposed to be fun. I’m looking forward to developing different skills, playing a different type of game, and telling stories with people rather than being the primary storyteller. I can’t wait to see what this game gets up to.