The highest-level structure of Dungeon World

This post describes how I view the highest-level structure of Dungeon World. Most of what I’ll say also applies to Apocalypse World, so I’ll mix discussion of the two with little warning.

The first level — everything is the conversation

Dungeon World is a game of rules that modify a conversation. That conversation refers to a simulated world, which is modified by the conversation and in turn shapes the space of what is reasonable for the conversation to say at any point. The world does not have any more reality than that — it doesn’t “do” anything itself, unless the (rule-governed) conversation causes an update.

For example, if the Red Knights haven’t been mentioned for six weeks of game time, they exist in a space of possibilities – they could be here, they could be there, they could be anywhere within six weeks travel of wherever they were last. The conversation can bring them into the current scene (or show their very obvious effects e.g. having burnt down a town and left their flags all over it) as long as that is consistent with the time, the distance, and whether of all of the chaos shrines in all the mountains of the world there is some plausible reason for them to show up in this one.

What the Red Knights don’t do is move around in the background, in some factual sense, even in the GM’s head. The GM may have ideas about this, but they’re merely ideas until the live conversation makes them fact. The GM’s prep is raw material, prompts, aids, but not reality.

I.e. the possibility and plausibility space is “real” beyond the conversation (and each player plus GM will be independently monitoring it to some degree) but the precise facts there are not.

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Three more notes on Apocalypse World

From Jason D’Angelo’s “Daily Apocalypse”:

Who should adjudicate whether the immediate fiction meets a player move trigger? Baker —

If there’s a genuine disagreement, like if the player suckering someone can’t see how she could miss, in fact, then she shouldn’t automatically defer to the MC. She should hold the dice. The game can’t proceed until they come to an agreement, and the rules don’t care whose view prevails. It might be hers, it might be the MC’s, but somebody has to win the other one over.

Does the MC have final say? Sure! Does the MC have sole final say? No! Everybody has final say.


Note the assumption that the players are mature adults with reasonable levels of social functioning. AW is not built for teenagers, nor for people with major social disabilities.

In any interesting game, maybe we always “play to find out”. Games just differ in what we’re finding out about. Baker —

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What Does Railroading Ever…

This isn’t one of my “let me carefully review the basics of our hobby” posts — it’s a discussion on Story Games. Eero Tuovinen has a thread there called A Bit of Railroading Theory, which is exactly that.  It includes sections like “The creative payoff of railroading” that I think are sound (though note the objections raised by David Berg further down the thread).

Eero makes one major point that I think is right — railroading is a hard way to GM, at least if you want your players to have a good time. It’s not necessarily easier to make railroading work than to wing it:

“The historical tragedy of our hobby seems to be that railroading has been understood as the hiding place of the mediocre and the starter set of the newbie when precisely the opposite is the case: you should only do railroad play if you, alone, actually are capable of being an entertaining storyteller. If that’s not the case, the railroad bit is just an incidental detail, and the real issue with your game is that you’re putting a mediocre and boring thing in front instead of trying to hide it in the back, as a sensible person would [grin].” (source)

Ideas gleaned from dead cells

I’ve been played Dead Cells today. It seems surprisingly good, and has given me ideas for rpgs, particularly dungeon/hexcrawl ones, and perhaps particularly for open table games:

  • Parcel out knowledge in little, mysterious hints of one or two lines. In session announcement emails, on playbooks and other props, hanging on the back of the GM screen today…
  • Random roll when you enter the dungeon for major state-changing events that day. E.g.
    • There’s a goblin raid ongoing in the section
    • The Goblin King has recalled all goblins for a feast, so there are no goblins other than there
  • Dungeon World (or similar) location moves that don’t supplement but replace the standard set. Have as cards/sheets that you stick over the standard list while in that area.
  • Enemies you can harvest for rare ingredients (seems obvious, but I’ve never done it)
  • Dole out world knowledge in tiny parcels through item names, in-game events (hearing that the Hate-Dwarves attacked means that you now know Hate-Dwarves exist), creature types (knowing that the Funnymen are wretched humans with bizarre things grafted onto them implies the existence of a malevolent grafter)…
  • People love treasure, especially if there’s a chance of a rare and valuable item. I’ve never got good at treasure — my default is to forget it entirely, or be realistic (and thus give far less than is best for player reward experience). For some games that doesn’t matter, but I rarely shift gears properly for games where it does.
  • Let players unlock things that will outlive their character — perhaps for them, perhaps for all players. Advantage of latter is that it makes player-player balancing easier.

D30 reasons someone is dead

Want to explain a missing family member? Want to put a backstory to a grave? Want to be a dick and stop the players talking to that crucial NPC? I am the OSR, roll d30:

  1. Fell through a rotten floor into a nest of vermin
  2. Thrown from their horse when it was spooked by a ghost
  3. Skin sloughed off and blew away on the wind
  4. Became maudlin, stopped eating
  5. Hung themself out of spite
  6. Limbs turned into snakes and slithered off
  7. Challenged someone to a duel, killed them, killed in turn by a sibling
  8. Cursed by a boggart, dried out, shrivelled up
  9. Got an infection, swelled up, burst
  10. Took patent medicine for a headache
  11. Took to bed, raved prophecy for three days, expired
  12. An excess of laudanum administered for joint pain
  13. Ran wild with joy, fell in a pit
  14. Hit by an arrow meant for a cheating spouse
  15. Cheated on their spouse
  16. Ate very old beans
  17. Key parts wore out
  18. Bones ran away from them
  19. Years of hard living
  20. Years of loose living
  21. Picked a fight with a bear
  22. Jumped in to save another
  23. Something came at them out of the dark
  24. A long suffering neighbour put them out of his misery
  25. With each passing year, another ailment
  26. Was careless with tools
  27. Was barely noticed amid the many that winter
  28. Slowed to a halt over many years
  29. They shrank as their spouse grew
  30. No reasonable explanation, but here they are

What do published rulesets ever do for us?

Some months ago, I asked What Do Rules Ever Do For Us? I asked, there, “Why use rules? Why not just freeform?” Under “rules”, I included those that were “RAW from a third party text, hand-crafted by the GM, or assembled by the play group through a democratic process”. Here, I’m going to zoom in on the first of those and ask “What do published rulesets do for us?”. I’m not interested, here, in things that any collection of rules can do — I’m interested in a what a set of rules carefully designed by a third party can do for you.

I’m not asking, here, about rulebooks per se, as texts or as physical artefacts — I’ve asked that elsewhere. I’m asking about the rules themselves, howsoever communicated and stored.

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What do rulebooks ever do for us?

Some months ago, I asked What Do Rules Ever Do For Us? Here, I’m going to ask “What do rulebooks do for us”? I’m asking not about rules (abstract things that could be just in the players’ heads) but about actual rules texts.

Rulebooks can sell

Rulebooks can start by inspiring one person to want to play. If there is a GM, it will often be this person. This was my experience with Zweihander — reading the book (and, particularly, looking at the pictures) made me want to run it. I wanted to play in that world.

Rulebooks can then help to encourage people to play. The zealot from above can wave the book at players. Those players can look at the art, read the prose, scan down lists of abilities (or insanities) and come to feel that they want to play, too.

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Freedom to choose your path — player survey

I surveyed six people who’d played in several of the recent games I’ve run, asking

How much freedom you had over the major events in my various games? Did you feel you were steering, or that I was? Was it like a quad bike or like a rollercoaster? Like being a writer, or like being a reader?

Crucially, I want to know “Did it feel like you could change the major outcomes of the story being told?”

I asked them for a 1–5 rating of each game, against the following anchor points:

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Vincent Baker and the need for seed

Vincent Baker says that “seed content” is important. Seed content is “You are Mormon troubleshooters moving from town to town”, it is “If you want to be a Sorcerer you must first be Scholar”, it is a standard list of beginner’s spells including Magic Missile and a very weak summoning. It is all the explicit or implied setting material that comes with a game.

Content doesn’t arise from people + creative process. It arises from people + seed content + creative process.

Why? At the time of writing (2009), Baker was seeing a lot of games that just said “work together as a group to make your own setting and then use these generic rules”. And he saw that this caused three problems:

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