Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel, is a tabletop role-playing game that focuses on storytelling and ease of use.  One game master and 3-5 players collaborate to tell a low fantasy story.  Anyone who has played some flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (aka DnD), or really any RPG, will recognize most of the tropes but the system is highly streamlined.

Character sheets are simple, with 1 to 2 pages containing all information so the players don’t have to refer back to the book.  There is no skill list, all players instead sharing a list of common moves that use their attributes without training modifiers.  All outcomes are determined by rolling 2d6 as opposed to a d20, with an added wrinkle- only the players roll for actions.  Players failing a roll is the main opportunity for the opposition to make moves, and also the main generator of experience.  It creates an interesting and spontaneous game, where the players are the primary movers of events.  Failed rolls giving experience also acts as a good equalizer and takes some of the sting out of failure.  Dungeon World emphasizes failing forwards, so the story keeps evolving instead of coming to a grinding halt when a roll fails.

The downside is that the GM needs to be very comfortable adjusting scenes and encounters on the fly or simply making them up as they go along.  Collaborative world building is encouraged, but in my experience players react poorly to being put on the spot- if they offer something it can be integrated but the bulk still falls on the game master.  The game master’s section offers some excellent instructions on this and running a game in general but you still need to be comfortable improvising.

In the same vein, combat is much simpler than in most games- no battle mat required, which helps keep things fast.  Hit point pools are small so things don’t drag on.  This makes things more lethal for the players as well but the simplicity of the rules makes it simple to adjust encounters on the fly.  There is no recommended monster budget for encounters as in DnD, in part because not all the classes are balanced for combat- the game master will need to create situations where the more utility focused classes shine, assuming they are being played.

Conversely, if you are coming from another Powered by the Apocalypse Game, Dungeon World will have longer and less lethal combat than you are used to.

Something to be aware of with the system is how quick the leveling is; not a problem itself but players start to gain access to game-breaking abilities around level 7 or 8, which can quite easily be reached in 10 sessions.  At this point players will be able to one shot even the toughest monsters in the book, teleport unlimited distances, succeed on most roles involving their main attribute, and in general trivialize any challenge thrown their way.  You’ll need to plan campaigns to end at or shortly after 10 sessions to keep power creep from making things boring.  I just wrapped up a 13 session campaign and my players dealt with the worst the book had to offer without too much difficulty.

The games themselves are also shorter- I’ve always tried to keep my sessions to four hours, as have most of the people I’ve played with.  Pathfinder and DnD always strained against this, especially 4th edition DnD, where you can really only do one combat encounter in a session.  Dungeon World’s simpler rules let you run numerous combats in a session with plenty of time for exploring and character development as well, something I love about the system but people who enjoy tactical combat may not.  There is also no set initiative- I tried to give everyone turns and only making GM moves on failed rolls but ended up having to play a little loose and fast with the monster’s actions to keep things interesting

Price wise its no contest, $10 for a Dungeon World PDF, or twice that for the paperback, which includes all the playbooks and, gamemaster material, and bestiary, vs at least $30 for even a player’s handbook for more popular systems, and you need several hardback books to run 5th edition DnD.  Obviously if you pirate the books this isn’t an issue, which is a fairly common practice in the RPG community, but I like having books to hold and they aren’t much cheaper used.

TL,DR:  A light on rules & story focused system.  Ideal for newer players but the game master needs to be able to improvise.  The price is right so give it a try if it sounds interesting to you.

Picture source and paperback purchase, or you can purchase the PDF.


The Dark Tower Movie: It is Happening

If you haven’t heard, Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower, is officially getting a movie adaption, due out January 17, 2017.  Idris Elba has been cast as Roland and Matthew McConaughy will be the man in black.

I’m a little concerned; epic fantasy movies-and shows- don’t have a good track record.  I would like to see more serious attempts- the TV movie made to hold onto the Wheel of Time rights doesn’t count– but I understand why studios aren’t doing so.  The Inheritance Cycle books sold well but the absolute butchery that was the movie Eragon put an end to any further movies from that franchise.  It didn’t do the genre any favors either- the Lord of the Rings was the only epic fantasy franchise that had been adapted to movies for a long time.  If both the upcoming Warcraft movie and The Dark Tower are flops it could put an end to epic fantasy movies in the near future.  Game of Thrones is doing well but I feel like the stakes are high for The Dark Tower, for me as least.  I want to see a Mistborn movie eventually so I’m rooting for things to go well but this will be a difficult adaptation.  The special effects requirements won’t be as high as for some series since magic in The Dark Tower tends to be subtle, and there are no real mass battle scenes; but the series is far more surreal than either Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, most notably when Roland pays Stephen King a visit in Maine.

Roland was white in the books, and some of the people in the reddit thread are not happy about the switch to a black lead.  While Roland’s ethnicity was a plot point in some of the books I’m supportive of the move, because Mr. Elba seems like he has the gravitas to pull it off and a lot of material is going to have to be cut to make this manageable as a movie series, especially since there is no current news on the hybrid movie and TV show format that was floated last year.  The Dark Tower is literally three times longer than the Lord of the Rings, which only fit into three movies by cutting material.  Harry Potter got away with eight movies but its much more of a cultural touchstone than The Dark Tower.  The racial tension between Roland and Detta is probably a good cut to make to get the film to a wider audience.

I think making a good movie is more important than being true to the source material, and certainly better than doing neither as in the case of Eragon, and I hope the movie does what it needs to succeed, including taking more time- the January 2017 release date seems either optimistic or sabotage.  Overall I’m cautiously optimistic.

TL,DR: This could be a very good movie or a huge disappointment- fingers crossed- but its finally happening.  Hopefully a good showing will encourage more movie adaptations of epic fantasy.