On Running Dungeon World 

Having run other game systems before, I found myself grateful that the essential heart of Dungeon World (DW) consists solely of rolling two six-sided dice and adding the modifier of the applicable stat, if any. Everything proceeds from that and becomes detail. As with all things in this life, the devil is--as always--in the details, but what I like about DW is that I wasn’t required to wrestle the devil...not immediately, anyway. This is because in DW, the Fiction (with a capital F) comes first and the rules are written to give way to it instead of shoehorning it into the fiction (with a lowercase F) implicit in the rules themselves. The muscle of DW, driven by the heart I described above, is the Move. The Player Characters (PCs) have Moves by virtue of their Classes as does the Games Master (GM) by virtue of the game world, and all these are written to serve the Fiction rather than the other way around, as was the case of other systems I had GMed in the past (I am looking at you, Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition).

Where does the Fiction come from, and, more importantly, where does it go? It emerges from the conversation that the GM has with the players at her table. Everything flows from that conversation and DW is designed to keep it going instead of stopping it dead in its tracks, usually to the sound of pages of rulebooks being flipped in search of that One Elusive Rule(TM). More importantly, DW takes pains to get out of the way of the flow of that conversation, allowing the ones actually playing the game to take it where they will, as opposed to following the tracks laid down earlier by some far-removed, and possibly dead, author. This was exactly what happened when I participated in the conversation that was The Last Days of Anglekite.

The Last Days of Anglekite event was held over two days and was run by four GMs using DW rules for 16 players. As the name implies, the world is about to end and the PCs are the heroes who are tasked by their Adventurers’ Guild to prevent that from happening. Each GM ran a table that represented a major part of the world and the troubles and dangers that beset it, and each table started the game with four PCs each. I underscore the word ‘started’ because PCs were expected--and in fact encouraged--to move from table to table as their personal narratives required them to. I had asked to be allowed to handle Necropolis, the university city of the Undead and the world’s repository of knowledge which was presided over by the Archlich as its dean. This was my first time to run DW for anyone.

The PCs at my table were assigned the task of retrieving the Obsidian Gauntlet which was known to be in the possession of the Archlich and, more importantly, ask why Necropolis had recently gone silent when the world was facing imminent destruction at the hands of the Scourge Karkis, a 200-foot giant covered in corruption and dripping pestilence. The journey of the PCs from Anglekite to Necropolis was uneventful but when they got to Clarefield, a village on the outskirts of Necropolis, they noticed that all life was being leached away and that Necropolis appeared to be the cause. The heroes chose to confront the Archlich directly and get answers, assistance for Anglekite, and--perhaps--even the Obsidian Gauntlet itself.

I chose to roleplay the Archlich as everyone’s favorite grade school teacher and established that all of the PCs had, at one time or another, studied under him. I also established that all of them remember him fondly--more or less. He answered all the questions of the PCs truthfully and without reservation or embellishment: he was casting a ritual to gather enough power to hurl Necropolis into another dimension to escape what he judged to be the irrevocable end of the world. While the PCs were able to eventually get their old teacher on their side, they also learned that the plan of their guild to save the world may very well end up destroying it.

All throughout the two sessions of the game, DW allowed me and my fellow GMs to move the Fiction forward and to keep the spotlight on the PCs. I had a lot of fun GMing: I always enjoy it when my players come up with something clever in the games I run, or when they build on the little hints and seeds that I scatter throughout the narrative. No matter how outlandish the declarations of the players, I found to my surprise that if I could not bring myself to immediately say yes to something they declared, it was an easy matter of having them make a roll to find out what actually happens. I found myself spending more time encouraging players to be as descriptive and as detailed as they could be about the actions of their PCs as opposed to me simply ruling whether or not the declared action would work. I found that the more vivid the description, the easier it was for me to make the judgment call, and the more material I had to work out what would happen next.

The number of players at the table did not seem to matter because whether I was running a scene for a single player or managing an all-out donnybrook involving eight PCs and a co-GM playing the big bad of the scene, the process remained the same: describe the situation, ask everyone involved what they would to (“What Do You Do?” has become sort of a mantra for me as a GM), have the players roll the dice if needed, and then narrate the outcomes of the actions of the PCs. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I also found that I didn’t need to have the players roll the dice as much as I thought I would in order to move the Fiction forward. Though I heard the clatter of dice far less than I was accustomed to, I found that I didn’t mind at all. It was in running Last Days of Anglekite that I came to realize just how treacherous the dice actually are. When the dice are involved, the players get what they want only 16.66% of the time; much of the time (41.67%), they have to settle for success at a price, or (also 41.67%) accept what the GM declares, which is usually bad news for their PCs. In short, more often than not--83.34% of the time--things don’t go as the PCs plan.

This is where the Agendas and Principles of GMing come into play. My job as GM is to portray a fantastic world, to fill the characters’ lives with adventure, and to play to find out what happens. I have a general idea of where I want to take the story but leave the details to the players. Given that the Last Days of Anglekite was compressed to only two sessions, I found myself constantly escalating. Opponents that the PCs had bypassed in the last session now come back to literally haunt them. Solutions to past problems now show their shortcomings and unintended consequences. I had no idea how the players would deal with these challenges and had no preconceived notion of a solution but that’s where the fun of being a GM comes from: having the players surprise you with just how creative, clever, and devious they are.

The Principles of GMing DW are more numerous and detailed and pretty much speak to a GM running an on-going campaign, but I found that I used pretty much all of them at the event too, so maybe these also scale: draw maps, leave blanks; address the characters, not the players; embrace the fantastic; make a move that follows; never speak the name of your move; give every monster life; name every person; ask questions and use the answers; be a fan of the characters; think dangerous; begin and end with the fiction; think offscreen, too. Come to think of it, these Principles came to my rescue many times while I was GMing at the event and allowed me to keep the energy at the table high.

The Last Days of Anglekite event was a test of fire for me since I hadn’t run DW before. I think I did pretty well and I have good memories of the two sessions. From what I can tell, the players who ran with me seemed to be enjoying themselves pretty much too. I think this is enough for me to make DW my go-to system for the settings that I am currently designing. Fate, in the form of Fate Accelerated Edition, comes in at a close, close second and I am trying to marry the two in a homebrew I am concocting, but that’s a different story.
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