The Dungeon World core loop

What is the core loop of Dungeon World? How are the high-level events in a game supposed to occur? The RAW is not precise to the specificity demanded by my exacting analytical genius. So I will describe it here.

Firstly, all of the below happens in context of my previous description The highest-level structure of Dungeon World. This loop is inside that. Key quote:

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.

The loop

  1. The GM describes the world state, and what’s just happened
  2. The GM asks the players, or one player in particular, “What do you do?”
  3. The GM waits until
    • A player describes a plausible action corresponding to move trigger, in which case the group executes the move
      1. If the move fails (roll of 6-) and no special handling of that is given in the move text, the GM makes a move as hard as they like
    • A player describes an action (or inaction) that presents a golden opportunity for the world or an NPC to fuck them up, in which case the GM makes a move as hard as they like
    • The players look to the GM to find out what happens, in which case the GM makes a soft move
  4. Loop back to (1)

What are the consequences of this?

  • PCs never get to do truly parallel actions. There’s always an order. E.g. see the top answer to an (AW) StackExchange question on “everybody reads the situation” — someone has to go first (perhaps with someone else aiding them). And if someone gets a 6-, or an interesting answer to one of their questions, the players might not want to Read a Sitch again. They might need to act.
  • Things never get quiet — even if the GM’s prep, and the established fiction, suggest things are peaceful and safe here, the requirement to make moves provokes the GM to raise the tempo with opportunities or threats.

Beyond soft and hard

The RAW, IIRC, talks about “soft” and “hard” moves, not about an axis of hardness. That’s probably because there is a binary distinction there — if a move has immediate, irrevocable consequences then it is a hard move (DW p164). But we can profitably think about continuous intensity as well as this binary distinction.

I think it was Dan Maruschak first suggested this to me, in a Google+ thread. Jeremy Strandberg then gave several examples of low-intensity soft moves:

So: “I open the door.” And you make a soft-as-bunnies GM move, change the environment: “Okay, you see a long, dark hallway, stretching out to the edge of your torchlight. Smells like dust and damp air. What do you do?”

Or: “I tap the jars on the shelves with my dagger.” And you make a soft GM move tell them the requirements and ask: “They go ting ting? If you want to know more, you’ll have to, like pick them up and open them or whatnot. Or, like, Discern Realities. What do you do?”

Or: “I drop my torch down the pit.” And you offer an opportunity with “It drops maybe 20, 30 feet down and lands on something hard. The light flutters a little, but then flares back up. You don’t see the light reflecting off of the walls all the way down there, so there’s probably a bigger chamber to explore down there. You could climb down with a rope. What do you do?”

How can this go wrong?

It can become a rollercoaster, where there are constant high-intensity moves and the action never stops, never slows, never runs quiet. I’ve never been conscious of doing this myself, but I’ve heard a player complain this about another GM’s DW game.

Potentially it could go the other way, and become a tedious, low-key slog. I suspect that’s rare in DW, though if you engage with intensity-continuum idea above there’s probably more risk of that. I’ve come closer to it, myself, while GMing other games with less prescriptive GM rules.

If your table culture is loud, aggressive, talk-over, any formalised structure may be an awkward mapping. Jeremy Strandberg encountered this with Italian players. Whatever the actual conversation, to play this game the group must map the overlapping buzz onto the DW model so that the rules can fire. The StackExchange answer I referred to above expresses this well — “In the [AW] conversation, you’re hearing one player at a time.” (emphasis mine)

What useful variants are there?

In the Google+ thread, Jeremy Strandberg talks about sometimes using a “free and clear” stage, then resolving moves.

What is missing?

Looking at the above on Google+, Jeremy Strandberg gave a list of things this doesn’t cover:

  • The GM asking the characters questions (“Ragnir, you’re from around here… what’s this town most known for?”)
  • The GM clarifying intent or actions with the players (“Okay, so you’re tapping the jars with your dagger… what are you trying to accomplish here? Is this Discern Realities?”)
  • The GM answering questions about the scene (which is really just elaborating on “describe the situation”).
  • Portraying NPCs (which, yeah, sometimes you use them to make moves, and sometimes you’re just portraying NPCs and enjoying the banter)
  • Sitting back and letting two or more players talk something out, in or out of character. (Maybe interjecting here and there with corrections on established fact, probing questions, adding details that they’d clearly know, etc.)
  • Discussing the rules themselves
  • Discussing the larger fictional situation (“wait, Ifan… is that Mini-Mouse? Or Schmuckface?” or “No no, Gordin’s Delve is 4 days west of Stonetop, and you all are like 12 days southeast of Stonetop.”)
  • Spotlight tricks, like where someone rolls a miss and then you immediately cut to a different player and do steps 1-3 for them, then jump back to the character who rolled that miss and drop your hard move on them, then go back to (1) for them.

That’s all true, but I don’t think immediately significant for my purposes here. None of the above directly interfere with the loop, which carries on alongside them. The GM has to multitask, keeping track of their loop position while doing other things, but that’s not hard because they spend most of their time in the step 3 waiting state.

(NB if it’s not already obvious, although I give an apparently strict, mechanical, procedure above, I take some level of deviation, adaptation, take-back, and repair action as given. This is a procedure for intelligent humans in a messy real-world context; it’s not a computer program.)

There is a risk, though, that during any of these extra things the GM forgets to run the main loop. For example, when playing NPCs, the GM can caught up in “being the NPC” and adlibbing their side of the conversation, forgetting to look for their make-a-move cues. When a PC asks the Queen for help defending their lands, that’s a great opportunity for a GM move (e.g. future badness — “I would, but my forces are massing at the border because of the suddent advance  of the…”).

And I suppose that if you use a strict trigger of “the players look to the GM to find out what happens”, there are a number of things in Jeremy’s list that you can’t do.

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