Dungeon World (A Powered by the Apocalypse Review)

Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel is a high fantasy TTRPG using the Powered by the Apocalypse game engine (PbtA). This system is used to create rules-lite, narrative-focused games which highlight shared world building between the Game Master (GM) and players. They aren’t quite story games, however, as they still have plenty of opportunities to roll dice or special abilities for players to activate based on the type of character they are playing.

Dungeon World’s core mechanic is in-line with the vast majority of other PbtA games: you roll 2d6. If the result is 10 or above it’s a full success, things happen like the player intends. If the result is 7-9, the character succeeds but there is a complication (a “partial success”). On a 6 or less, the character fails (and there is often some other complication introduced by the GM). The specific differences between the complication on a partial success and a failure is a matter of some debate within the community. For the purposes of this review, knowing the general way in which the game works is sufficient.

Before I get to my thoughts on the game and how it plays, I wanted to say a few words about the rulebook. It is available as a PDF or a paperback. The cover art is cool and does a great job of capturing the feel of the game, but there isn’t much interior artwork. The formatting is also simple, readers are presented with paragraphs and paragraphs of text with little visual variation to break anything up or call out important sections. Because this is a rules lite game, however, I have found the only sections I reference are the playbooks (akin to character classes), which are also available in a separate PDF for free, and the section on moves. A layout with more visual appeal would have made the game a bit more accessible.

As for the actual play experience: I like it a lot. I’ve GM’d a 6 session adventure, as well as a one-shot for different groups. The adventure ended up expanding into a larger campaign I’m still in the midst of running, so Dungeon World has plenty of legs which allow characters to grow—in both mechanical and narrative ways. When I first came across Dungeon World, I was looking for something that didn’t require a great deal of prep for the GM and that allowed for theater of the mind combat—which is something in which Dungeon World excels. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that doing too much prep as the GM works against Dungeon World’s intention for players to have a large hand in cultivating the world. In the one-shot I ran, I did a little more on the prep side, in that I designed a dungeon for the party to delve. But in the adventure I ran, I used the adventure front method that Dungeon World recommends and it worked fairly well. Even though, in the end, the party managed to (unintentionally) shatter the very fabric of reality! But that just left a great hook for the start of the longer campaign!

Dungeon World is designed so well for theater of mind combat I feel it would be weird to try to use minis with the game. There are no distances given for anything, for starters, but combat also doesn’t take place in strict turns. Rather, players can describe what their character does and can jump in when something happens. I love this element to how Dungeon World works, because it makes combat engaging. Even when it isn’t your turn, you’re still paying attention because you might be able to jump in. There is no action economy to speak of, no initiative order, and the transitions between combat and not-combat elements of the game are seamless. When I GM fantasy role-playing games, combat tends to devolve into “I attack this dude,” some dice get rolled, and then it’s on to the next player’s turn. But in Dungeon World, combat feels much more epic, even though there may still be dice rolls scattered throughout. For instance, below is a combat encounter which took place during one session I ran. Trixie is a halfling rogue, Daelwyn is an elf bard, and they were fighting some dark pixies.

GM (me): You awake to the sounds of battle. All along the caravan the other guards are engaged in combat with what appear to be small, winged humanoids the color of dusk.

Trixie: Alright, I hide in the shadows.

Daelwyn: Oooo…I start playing a song to encourage the guards. 

GM: Sure, go ahead and roll for that. *dice clatter, it’s a 5* Oh…looks like that didn’t quite work, but you have attracted the attention of several of the pixies attacking the caravan. Three of them head for you, shortswords drawn. Two of them work to circle you while one of them heads straight at you.

Trixie: OH! OH! I throw a dagger at one of the ones trying to circle around behind Daelwyn! *rolls dice* OH 10! 

GM: Nice! Yeah, you hit him so roll your damage *dice clatter* ok that’s enough to take that one out. Nice job!

Trixie: I start circling around closer to Daelwyn

GM: Cool, but let’s get back to Daelwyn, what are you doing now? You have one pixie in front of you and one behind now.

Daelwyn: I draw my rapier and I want to slice at the one in front of me while I spin and try to step away and turn so both are in front of me.

GM: Ok, go ahead and roll for hack and slash and then roll for defy danger for your repositioning…we’ll say you’ll use Dex for the defy danger roll. 

Daelwyn: *rolls an 8* So I hit? 

GM: Yeah, you hit but you leave yourself open to the pixie’s counterattack. roll your damage and then take *rolls dice* 4 damage yourself. 

Daelwyn: Ok, so I rolled 6 damage, and now I roll defy danger? 

GM: Yep

Daelwyn: *rolls* huh-o, I got a 7.

GM: Well! The good news is you’re able to position yourself with the two pixies in front of you. Good job! The bad news is that you’ve blocked Trixie’s approach, you’re now in between him and the pixies.

Trixie: That’s ok! I run forward and slide between Daelwyn’s legs and as I do I throw two daggers, one at each of the pixies. 

GM: Ok, well that definitely sounds like defying danger. So roll that with dex to see if you manage to successfully slide under her legs and if you get a 10+ we’ll say you do so well enough that you’re able to throw both daggers. On a 7-9, you’ll only be able to throw one.

Trixie: *rolls 11* Hahahaha! 

At that point, Trixie rolled his two attacks, managing to hit both. He took one pixie out but then opened himself to an attack from the other. After that Daelwyn skewered the final pixie and the narrative moved on. As you can see, while there is the normal back and forth that you’d expect in a TTRPG, the rules don’t get in the way. When Trixie wanted to throw two daggers while sliding between someone’s legs, the answer was “yes.” There wasn’t a debate about only having one action a turn, and whether making the dexterity check to slide between someone’s legs counted as an action and thus Trixie didn’t have any actions left to attack (to say nothing of a level one character only having one attack). This felt like the sort of thing you might easily imagine happening in a movie, and so it just happens. It was dangerous though, and there was potential for failure, so dice rolls determined how well it worked. For reference, if Trixie had rolled a 6-, he would have tripped Daelwyn and they both would have found themselves on the ground as additional pixies ran up with a net…that didn’t end up happening, obviously, but I think the narrative was well-served either way.

It’s also entirely possible to run sessions with zero combat in Dungeon World. When I ran a one-shot for a group of friends, a significant portion of the time was spent focused on narrative without any combat. Because the idea of a partial success also applies to rolls outside of combat, there can be interesting complications introduced and when those complications involve interactions between characters it creates a lot of fodder for the narrative. 

Dungeon World also awards XP any time someone fails a roll, which provides a benefit even when one ends up rolling horribly during a session. Another thing I loved is that characters select bonds during character creation, basically short narrative hooks that connect them to the other characters. At the end of each session, the GM checks with the characters to see if any bonds have been resolved. Resolving a bond results in the character(s) gaining XP. I love that the narrative side of the game has mechanical benefit! 

As enjoyable as the game is, Dungeon World does have some weaknesses. For me, I think one of its greatest weaknesses is that the difficulty is set and impossible to vary, at least as the rules are written. A roll of 6 or less is always a failure, 7-9 is always a partial success, and 10+ is always a full success. There is no way for a GM to adjust those ranges for more difficult tasks. Related to this, rolling 2d6 and scoring above a 7 will happen nearly 60% of the time. Once you factor in adding ability scores to the dice roll, you can see that success is significantly more likely than failure. That isn’t a problem in and of itself, but when coupled with the static difficulty, it can begin to feel constraining. I had one player report that once he realized how likely success was, the game was less fun because failure wasn’t a significant possibility.

Another area of weakness, for me, is that Dungeon World doesn’t have the mechanical crunch to make advancement feel epic. That’s by design. Advancement is flat, characters select a new class move each level. Some of those moves are more interesting than others, which can impact play, but I tend to like a steeper advancement climb. But even if you are like me and prefer more crunch when it comes to advancement than Dungeon World offers, I think there’s still a lot in this game to recommend. I’ve played enough PbtA games now that I try to find ways to import the failure, partial success, full success mechanics into other games.

If you want a narrative focused fantasy role playing game where combat can feel fun and epic, Dungeon World is one to check out. At present, I am GM an on-going Dungeon World game. And that may be the finest endorsement I can give.

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