Sometimes you read a new roleplaying book and everything clicks together. You see the designer’s intentions, and your head fills with great possibilities. Unfortunately, Dungeon World won’t provide one of those moments. Dungeon World is a newish roleplaying game from Sage Kobold Productions. An adaptation of the Apocalypse World rules, it’s made in the style of old school Dungeons and Dragons. The game is meant to evoke classic high fantasy adventures, with worthy heroes traveling to distant lands to protect all they hold dear. It’s too bad the rules aren’t better at doing that.
The Language Is Obtuse
Learning a new roleplaying game is difficult, especially if you have no one to teach you. With that in mind, rule books should endeavor to be as neophyte friendly as possible. Instead, Dungeon World bombards the reader with several confusing terms that are mostly new ways to describe old ideas.
The most blatant offender is “+1 Forward.” This also comes in variations like “+2 Forward,” or “-1 Forward.” It indicates a bonus or penalty to a character’s next roll. It’s unclear why a brand new term was needed for this relatively simple concept. It takes up less space than “the character gets +1 to their next roll,” or something similar, but it also sends new players scrambling back to the index at a time when they are least comfortable with the rules. There are other confusing terms like “1 Hold” and “+1 Ongoing,” and they cause the same problem, making it harder to learn and remember the rules. There’s value in developing shorthand, but in this case it isn’t worth the effort.
Far worse is the concept of a “Move.” Many things in the game are expressed through Moves, from the fighter swinging their sword to the bard talking down an angry bartender. Monsters and the GM have Moves as well, except they employ completely different mechanics.
For example, a wizard casting magic missiles uses the Cast Spells Move. The player rolls dice to see if there is a success or failure. However, when a monster performs a Move, no dice are rolled unless that move results in damage. For monsters, Moves are often general descriptions of behavior rather than mechanical rules. The book doesn’t make this distinction clear, which leads to a lot of confusion when the GM is trying to figure out how their beloved Rust Monster works.
Character Generation Is Needlessly Restrictive
There’s a lot to be said for a streamlined character creation process, and at first glance, that’s how Dungeon World looks. Players choose a class, assign the values of their six core attributes, and pick from a handful of class abilities. After that, the only thing left to do is select their race and alignment. So far, so good.
The problem only becomes clear when you look at the race and alignment options for each class. Namely, that there are very few of them. Bards can only be elves or human, because apparently none of the other races play music. Druids can’t be evil, and thieves can’t be good. The list goes on.
The reasons for these restrictions are unclear. The first guess would be game balance, but that doesn’t hold up. Races and alignments have no inherent bonuses on their own. Instead, being an elf will give a different bonus depending on what class it’s selected for. Elven bards gain extra knowledge of old civilizations, while elven fighters are more accurate with their weapons. There’s no possibility of an overpowered combination because the designers created each bonus from scratch.
The most likely answer is that the different options are what the designers felt was most appropriate for each class. This is incredibly unsatisfying to players who want to play a halfling bard or a kind hearted thief.* It’s puzzling why the game is so restrictive in this area, considering how few other options there are to customize characters. In a final oddity, there are no blank character sheets included with the game, only ones premade for the book approved combinations. Any GMs looking to create custom classes will have to make their own character sheet.
The Paladin Is Crazy Overpowered
Most of the different character options are very well balanced, and that’s not an insignificant accomplishment. Unfortunately, it’s overshadowed by how absolutely broken the Paladin class is. One of the holy warrior’s starting abilities is to become completely immune to one form of harm when they are on a quest.* The books lists examples like edged weapons, fire, and enchantments, but the player is the one who actually decides what they are immune to.
It’s not hard to see how bad this is. With only a little bit of forethought, the Paladin can make themselves immune to a huge portion of the adventure’s danger. Is the party questing after an evil lich? Then an immunity to magical attacks will certainly be handy. Is a horde of club-wielding orcs causing trouble? It’s a good thing the Paladin can’t be hurt by blunt objects!
No other class has anything close to this level of power, even in their higher level abilities. The only drawback to this immunity is that the Paladin must take one or more sacred vows to maintain it, except that the vows are all things the Paladin would probably have done anyway. They include such onerous tasks as not using dirty tactics and remembering to observe holy services.
What’s most upsetting about this ability is how obvious it is. It’s difficult to imagine no one in the design or playtesting process ever pointed out its potential for abuse.
Difficulty Levels Aren’t Flexible
The core mechanic of Dungeon World is simple. For almost every task, the player rolls two d6 and adds the modifier from their relevant attribute. 10 or more is total success, 7-9 is success with a condition, and 6 or lower is a failure. This means that the chances of success are governed by how capable the character is, rather than how difficult the task is.
That dynamic is problematic because it means that escaping from a small landslide has the same probability as trying to outrun a massive avalanche. This creates a disconnect between what’s happening in the story and what the rules say. Call of Cthulhu has a similar problem, but in that system, at least the GM has tools to alter a character’s skill for especially easy or difficult tasks.
In Dungeon World, that option isn’t presented in the rules. GMs can always add bonuses or penalties if they remember, but that’s putting a lot of burden on them. It’s very easy to forget stuff like that. Even worse, fixed difficulties often result in PCs failing easy tasks. It’s frustrating to players when their characters repeatedly miss the broad side of a barn.
There Are No Rules for Combat, but There Should Be
Not every roleplaying game needs a combat system, so Dungeon World could have been fine without one. Most of the rules are focused around using a single roll to solve each problem, and there’s no reason that couldn’t apply to combat as well. Burning Wheel has a similar system,* and it works great.
That idea falls apart because of hit points. Monsters and PCs both have them, usually enough that it takes more than one hit to end a fight. This means that players are stuck making the Hack and Slash Move over and over again, until the monster finally falls over. On some of the tougher monsters, this will take a very long time.
On the surface, this might sound similar to how other systems handle combat, but in most cases there’s a framework to make the exchange more interesting. Dungeon World doesn’t have that. The players just keep making the same roll, with nothing to interrupt the monotony. Imagine if the system called for three strength rolls to swim across a river? It would be clear that so many rolls are pointless, and it’s the same for combat in Dungeon World. Instead of an exciting tactical skirmish, fighting monsters only eats up time.
To make matters worse, the rules are strangely silent on when PCs should act during a fight. Only from reading the example of play can you figure out that everyone is supposed to get one turn before anyone else gets a second turn. If that sounds confusing, it is. There are no rounds, or any other suggestions on how to divide screen time during a conflict. To reiterate, this would be fine if combat didn’t require so many rolls – but as it is, things are just a mess.
The Rules Are Restrictive and Vague at the Same Time
Dungeon World is a game that wants players to phrase their actions in terms of the story, but its rules contradict that idea. Everything a PC wants to do must be expressed from a list of predetermined Moves. This means that players often spend more time searching for the appropriate Move than they do describing how their character is acting. The rules are highly intrusive, always making their presence known.
The GM is supposed to follow similar restrictions, though it’s a smaller problem because those rules are easier to fudge without anyone noticing. If a GM did play the game exactly as written, they would spend their time trying to make their story work for the rules, instead of making the rules work for their story.
The rules of Dungeon World fit like a straight jacket, severely limiting what can be done at the table, rather than facilitating it. At the same time, there are many places where they’re frustratingly incomplete. There are rules for weapon range, but no rules for movement. A PC’s spear has a five foot reach, but there’s no explanation for what advantage that offers. How quickly can a character go from Far Range to Close Range? The game doesn’t say.
Another example are the rules for eating. The book mentions a few times that characters must eat, but it gives little indication of how often, or what happens if they don’t. The rules for taking a journey describe eating the “normal number of rations,” but don’t saw how much that is. Does a ration provide one day’s worth of calories, or just one meal’s? This wouldn’t matter, except that characters have to keep careful track of how much they’re carrying, and food takes up inventory space. If the designers weren’t interested in providing more useful rules for food consumption, than they should have saved space by removing them entirely. Few would have minded.
Easily the worst offender is the monster rules. Each monster comes with its own set of Moves, but there’s no indication of how to use them. Rust monsters are supposed to “gain strength from consuming metal,” but nowhere does it say how that strength manifests. Using monsters is extremely frustrating. The game indicates that they only act in response to what the PCs do, but there is no clear framework for how this works. GMs are left to scramble, trying not to offend any of Dungeon World’s overbearing rules.
This one-two punch of rules that do too much and also not enough is Dungeon World’s biggest problem. It’s like the designers couldn’t decide if they wanted a rules light or rules heavy system, and ended up with the worst of both.
Some Things Work Very Well
Despite its many problems, there’s some good to be found in Dungeon World. The character bonds in particular are a great mechanic, helping bind the party together from the get go. Players can either choose from premade bonds, like “Arbin owes me their life, whether they admit it or not,” or make their own. These are very simple ways of expressing how the characters relate to each other, and they’re a lot of fun. They also have mechanical effects. Characters get experience points for acting on their bonds, and certain rolls get bonuses if the characters are bonded together.
The adventure creation advice is solid as well. Dungeon World provides a guide for creating classic adventures, and it’s especially useful for new GMs. It gives suggestions of where to add in new threats, and how to make foreshadowing pay off down the road. There are tips for creating new environments and exciting set pieces. This section is worth a read even if you aren’t planning to run Dungeon World at all.
In the aesthetics department, Dungeon World does a really good job embracing diversity. Its sample characters are a diverse group, and the book uses mostly gender neutral pronouns. More roleplaying games need to make this effort.
Dungeon World has some great ideas, but they’re smothered in a rules system that doesn’t know what it’s doing. It’s certainly possible to have fun playing this game, but GM and players alike have to work very hard for it. Roleplaying games are difficult enough as it is; there’s little reason to use a system that doesn’t measure up. There are other games out there that do what Dungeon World is trying to do better. Playing one of them instead will lead to less aggravation and more fun all around.
Correction: The “Undertake a Perilous Journey” move does say how many rations a character consumes, it’s just written in a super unclear way.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.