How Dungeon World Ruined Things

As may be evident from the last number of posts here on, I’ve been playing Dungeon World. I’ve been reading everything I can about it, and playing/running it when I get the chance. For some 24+ years now, I have been what I call a “D&D guy” (and I would still say this) – it’s the game I have easily played the most of, and I don’t venture away from it very often.

When we play games that are new to us, we are often times introduced to new mechanics and concepts that we then compare to the games we are most comfortable with and enjoy the most. In some cases, we bring in elements from other games into ours. For example, a long while back I was playing Dresden and checking out the Fate system. During that time, I began incorporating elements from it into my D&D games. Things like Aspects suddenly appeared in my 4e games, and I even made Fate Point Cards.

Some of these elements are seen as great new additions that can be pulled into our games, but sometimes a new game does something that our favorite games already do… only we enjoy them more this new way.

Single File Combat

20130618_191414I played Pathfinder last week, a game I really enjoy, but it happened to take place after having just played Dungeon World. When it came time for our first combat, we rolled initiative and the fight began. At this point, I wasn’t thinking about Dungeon World – I was thinking about where my Cleric was going to go and what he would do on his turn.

However, at one point early on, the Rogue, a semi-new roleplayer, said, “Can I shoot him?”… and the response was, “it’s not your turn”. An Orc had just emerged from the trees, and it was still their turn to move and act. There was nothing wrong with the call for him to wait, it clearly was not his turn.

Nothing was happening differently in this fight from those hundreds and hundreds of previous fights I have been a part of after all these years (and enjoyed) – some great fights in fact. However, it WAS different – it felt different. The combat suddenly felt very stiff and rigid to me. This feeling was something I had been calling “tactical” when it felt overly slow, or a little boring previously, but at this moment that word felt (to me, in the moment) like a mask… like a blue piece of paper taped over the dent in a blue car.

Initiatives, Rounds and Having “Effective” Options

In Dungeon World there is no initiative or even rounds. The flow of the game moves between participants as the action takes place. Players are put in danger by the GM (no rolling of dice needed), and the player responds narratively, after which an appropriate action/roll is selected based on the narrative. The success or failure of that role determines the next level of danger. The Fighter’s partial success (success at a cost) may not even cost him directly at all – he may succeed (Success) at this intended action – but it may suddenly put the Rogue in danger (at a cost), who must then react to avoid the danger, even if the Rogue just had her turn. In this way, the combat feels more alive and demands immediate responses to very real danger… and you are always in danger.

In the Pathfinder game, my actions involved moving, and healing. By the end of the game, I was looking back on a few combats for which my turns consisted of moving around and touching people… not very exciting. Of course, the defensive response to this would be that I was playing the Cleric wrong, or perhaps I should have built him differently. But the reality is it would not have changed anything really. I would have been moving, and rolling a dice. I’m either removing life from an enemy, or adding life to a friend.

So how is that any different in Dungeon World, Weem?

Dungeon World, in addition to not having initiative or rounds, also incorporates a damage die based on your class. As a fighter, you use a d10, which is to say, it does not matter what weapon you use, or what action you just performed to cause damage, that is the damage dice you use. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not mentioning this like it’s a new thing, but in a game where combat flows as it does in DW, this is a really fun setup. Why? In this environment, you can do many different things while still being “effective” AND, with said untold number of options available to you, you can take advantage of situations as they occur/present themselves. Combat is not only very fluid, following the action, but it is very dynamic.

Combat Example

A selection from the Dungeon World guide - from the Example of Play
A selection from the Dungeon World guide – from the Example of Play
I wanted to type up a quick example of the combat, and compare it to a more tactical/grid-based situation, but I think instead I will point you to a real combat example from the Dungeon World guide. It was this example that really helped me “get” what Dungeon World was, beyond buzzwords like “narrative focus”, etc. I strongly urge you to check this out if you get a chance.

This is a direct link to the PDF Guide. Scroll down to page 50 near the very bottom and see “Example of Play”. If you do get a chance to read this, let me know here (via comment) or by Twitter @theweem what you think about it.


For a long time I have combat in some games much like a freeway. The players are fast cars, swerving around, doing as they wish when it comes to non-combat aspects. Anything is possible, and it is within this area of freedom that myself and my players have always had the most fun. However, when it came to combat, this was where the freeway narrowed down to one lane. Things slowed down and became very orderly. We looked forward to passing all of the cones and roadblocks and hitting the wide open road again.

Dungeon World seems to incorporate that wild, open and chaotic “anything’s possible” feeling into their combat as well.


The last thing I want to say is that I hope you did not read this as a dig against PF. I love D&D, as well as Pathfinder. I’m not sitting here at my desk, scoffing at how PF is now a terrible game while throwing my hands in the air, because it’s not. This is about my feelings regarding various elements/mechanics. It’s about how my enjoyment for the way DW does some things is opening up my mind to new approaches, and why I am enjoying them better than others. The use of the phrase “ruined things” is strong and exaggerated – it’s not as if I could never play a game with initiative again, for example. I never make strict X is better than Y claims because a) there are often times too many variables in play to make a solid case, and b) most of the times those cases are subjective – based on opinions. The point is that some systems I may not have thought too much about before (especially re: “fun factor”) are now standing out, prompting me to address them in more detail than I may have before. It’s a good thing though.

Iserith on Twitter said this morning, “Read your post on G+ [[ I was asking if DW elements ruined things for others ]]. If your experience is like mine, you’ll go heavy DW for a while then back to old fav’s with new perspective” – and this will indeed be true, I’m sure.

I’ve been bending/tweaking D&D for years and years now, as many of you do as well, moving it closer to our own personal preferences. In fact, when I run D&D/PF, I do not use initiative order beyond Mobs vs PC’s. On the PC’s turns, I let them go in any order they choose, setting up various synergies, etc. I’ve always found that more exciting, and turns are taken quicker speeding up combat. The thing is, there are many elements of DW that seem to take into account some efforts I have been making when bending D&D/PF, as if they knew what I was aiming for and said “hey, we do that naturally, no bending required”.

Thanks for stopping in and reading this, especially if you made it this far!

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10 Replies to “How Dungeon World Ruined Things”

  1. I ran DW at a minicon recenbtly and indeed, it was great fun. The paladin never used his sword to hit anything at all – I’d given him an Immoveable Rod and he just came up with different and clever ways to use it. The halfling fighter stuck a spear through a giant’s foot and pinned it to the ground, and as a PF player she was thrilled with the endless choices she had. The person who loved it the most was the bard, especially when he shot an arrow with his mandolin. Good system, but it really kept me on my toes as a GM coming up with scads of different 7-9 results.

    1. Yes! The 7-9 results, hehe – I pride myself on being a good improv guy and it does indeed test those skills.

  2. I’m of much the same mind. I still love D&D tried and true (especially 4E and Castles & Crusades) but ultimately, I was playing those games more like DW anyway. C&C is particularly similar the way the siege engine works, or at least the way I was using it. 🙂
    So, for me, I would say it’s not so much that I’d bring DW-isms into my D&D game, but that I was trying to bend D&D into a DW experience all along. And like you I’ll never disparage the more orderly initiative combats of more modern D&D, as I realize it’s a subjective difference that some people really love. I’ve always had a love hate relationship with initiative order and much like you, I often tend to run it side A vs. Side B, rather than on a per-combatant basis. I love that you’re loving DW btw, please keep the comments coming.

  3. I’ve been reading about Dungeon World for a while and look forward to playing it. I had not seen the guide before your article; it seems very helpful in answering questions. However, I’m just curious about the rolls.

    For instance, on pgs 14 and 15 of the guide, the player is dealing with a goblin firing arrows at them. However their reactions are quite different and consequently set themselves up quite differently, but the rolls seem to be equal.

    In the first boxes on page 14, the player simply jumps for cover using a defy danger. In the second boxes on page 15, the player charges the goblin. This seems more dangerous but also sets the player up to eliminate the threat. Yet both just roll a Defy Danger. It seems to me that since the charge is more dangerous, it should be more difficult, e.g. a negative modifier to the player’s roll. Am I thinking correctly here or do I just not get it?

    1. Yea, it can be a bit hard to grasp initially, and I’m still getting there myself, but I want to see if I can walk through this and help… In all of the examples (except #4) “dodging arrows” is essentially what is happening, hence the Defy Danger. Obviously you could look at example 4 (“I run at him, ducking and weaving”) and feel it is more dangerous and should have a penalty, and since it doesn’t (have a penalty) it seems like there could be a balance issue. The thing is, what you are looking to do is to add in a mechanic (the penalty to the roll) in place of narrative. It may be that the player “simply” has to Defy Danger, the same as others – BUT – as the GM, you are put your players in danger and they respond. You then, based on their responsive actions, illustrate the next danger and let them respond, etc etc. So, in this case, let’s look at that example again, but continue it beyond that point…


      PC: “I run at him, ducking and weaving, and when I get close
      enough I’ll leap at his head with my warhammer!”

      GM: “Alright, sounds like you’re Defying Danger there, with all
      those arrows. Roll for that first… (PC rolls an 11) …Alright, you
      gracefully flit across the battlefield faster than he can shoot. He
      sees what you’re up to and starts panicking. e arrows stop as
      he drops his bow and pulls out this nasty looking homemade
      dagger just as you step up to him. Roll that Hack&Slash if you
      still want to brawl with him.”


      – So at this point, as he prepares to roll, you (the GM) are thinking of the dangers here. Remembering that a 10+ on his upcoming roll is “Success” and 7-9 is essentially “Success, but at a cost” (the cost can be to him, or anyone else fyi).

      POSSIBILITY 1: (Success)

      PC: “Yea I do! I bring my Warhammer down on his head!” *Rolls an 11* (Success!)

      GM: “Nice hit! You smash him in the head, crushing him to the ground.” [TURNING TO THE RANGER] “The Goblins are in shock after the Fighter crushed one of their allies, and in fact one of them was so scared he took off for the nearby door and you seem to have a clear shot at him if you want to take it… he could be going to warn others!”

      POSSIBILITY 2: (Partial Success, or Success at a Cost, etc)

      PC: “Yea I do! I bring my Warhammer down on his head!” *Rolls a 7* (Success, at a cost)

      GM: “Well, you hit him in the shoulder, a decent hit. He slashes at you wildly and misses, staggered from your blow. However, you suddenly feel cold steel pierce your back and hear the cackling of one very excited Goblin behind you.” [TURNING TO THE RANGER] “Not only did you just see a Goblin leap from the shadows and stab your friend in the back, you’ve just spotted another Goblin archer in the distance taking aim at the Fighter… you can fire at one of them, but not both – what do you do?”

      – Often times, a partial success (7-9) can mean that you do succeed, but they do against you as well (you take damage). In the case above, we’ve done just that – BUT – it came from a second Goblin so the danger is increased as the PC now having multiple opponents. This can also be used to bring in new combatants as well. Imagine there was only 1 Goblin there, the Fighter charging him because he thought “Ha! Just one of them!”, but you can use the partial success to bring in a new enemy, and put him in danger, etc.

      Anyway, the idea is that if you feel like something should be inherently more dangerous, bring that danger to the narrative of the game in an interesting way. I hope that helps!

      1. That is very helpful, and I kind of feel like I’m splitting hairs here, because, as the GM, I could run it however I want.

        So, the key idea for me is *increasing the chance of a partial success or failure* based on their actions. At least to me, total success means absence of immediate negative consequences by and large.

        For example, going back to POSSIBILITY #1:
        In the total success, the fighter scares the goblins into inaction, though the warning goblin could cause problems later.
        In the partial success case, the goblin is badly wounded, and the fighter is now threatened by another goblin as well as the original goblin.

        I think I would play it with a -1 penalty for defying danger because the fighter is putting him(her)self into a more dangerous situation. To balance that though, I could give a 9 on a partial success still killing the goblin, while a 7 might be a a glancing blow, and an 8 incapacitates the goblin for a bit, or perhaps causes the injuured goblin to retreat.

        Why couldn’t I do the still threaten on the total success option? Well, if I were a player and I fully succeeded, I would feel that a goblin immediately threatening me afterward isn’t complete success.

        But there should to be a (more likely) dangerous consequence for doing something foolhardy/brave/stupid (charging) vs. something “safe” (finding immediate cover). Doing something dangerous should yield a more likely chance of that dangerous consequence coming to fruition, hence the -1 to the roll.

        Which brings me to another point I’ve been mulling over with DW: bonuses/penalties. It seems like there are a supreme lack of them in DW. I can see why though; with only 2d6 spread, a +1 or -2 is extremely potent change to probabilities. Since I love to tweak situations with bonuses/penalties, this has kept me from jumping wholeheartedly on the DW bandwagon.

        I think in my game I would run with 3d6. Ability bonuses would remain the same (or perhaps mirror D&D’s -4 to +4) and the success/failure probabilities would remain the same: ~50% failure (3-10), 25% partial (11-14), and 25% complete (15-18). With a greater range though, +1 or -1 would have less impact on the outcome but still give the player a feeling of reward (beyond the cool narrative of course).

        Just my $0.02. Thanks for your response. It does clear things up quite a bit.

        1. It’s interesting you say: “Which brings me to another point I’ve been mulling over with DW: bonuses/penalties. It seems like there are a supreme lack of them in DW. I can see why though; with only 2d6 spread, a +1 or -2 is extremely potent change to probabilities. Since I love to tweak situations with bonuses/penalties, this has kept me from jumping wholeheartedly on the DW bandwagon.”

          Since, I was just the opposite. I had grown tired (relatively speaking, I still love 4E D&D) of the constant minutiae of bonuses in modern (3E/4E) D&D. “I rolled a 13, plus my STR, plus half my level, plus proficiency, plus combat advantage, plus a weapon bonus, plus the bonus from the clerics spell, etc ad nauseum (only to come up with 28 and still miss the 29REF which was 2 higher than the 27AC which was balanced so a 13 was a miss for most rolls anyway). I get that some people really like that but it just seemed like it had gotten out of hand. And that DW just made it so simple that we were back in control. I love not needing a character generator app to calculate my level increases.

  4. Exactly Weem. To simplify the explanation, as the GM, if you feel course of action A or more dangerous than course of action B, don’t modify the roll, modify the narrative. What does “more dangerous” mean really? We are trained to think it means “lower chance of success” but the reason we think that is often because that’s what the rules embrace (and facilitate). In DW, more dangerous more often means the risks of failure are greater (as opposed to the CHANCE of failure). In the example above, with the goblin, I would call for Defy Danger in both cases, but a failure in the first case might be getting nicked with the arrow while diving for cover (and is now mostly safe) whereas failure in the second case might be a direct hit dropping the hero to the ground in a dangerous spot. Same roll, same chances, but very different risks involved, all derived from the narrative.

    With all that being said, in the example cited, I would not have called for defy danger if he ducked behind the pillar. I would have just allowed it. He’s not really defying danger by taking cover. Defying danger, IMO would be to take some action despite the danger, rather than attempting to avoid it with no other objectives.

    1. Sorry if my comment above seems like a contradiction. What I meant to say is that if I HAD to use defy danger in both cases, that’s how I would handle it narratively, but that given a choice, I would not have called for defy danger just to take cover.

      1. Mike, I kind of thought the same thing about the difference between ducking behind the pillar vs. charging the goblin. The guide referenced is very good though, and helps in eliminating some of DW’s vagueness.

        And let’s face it, with a game like DW/AW, you’re going to get vagueness. Heck, we get vagueness in systems like Pathfinder and Rolemaster. That’s one of the reasons we love these games. 🙂

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