Monday, June 18, 2012

Dungeons, Dungeons, everywhere...

The Wargamer is back, everyone, and with it comes a review of a yet-to-be-released game called Dungeon World. Dungeon World is a role-playing game that boasts "old-school style and modern rules." Really, it's a game that captures the essence of the original Dungeons & Dragons while incorporating a new mechanical aesthetic I see popping-up here and there within the "indie" gaming scene. Now, that's a hell of a paragraph, touching on various things I just spouted out without any explanation, so let's just sit and digest it before I explain more.

Here, look at their Kickstarter.

Now, I'm too young to have digested the zeitgeist of role-playing games during the late-'70s/early-'80s, but I am playing in a Basic D&D campaign right now, and I have been playing role-playing games quite regularly for over a decade-and-a-half so I can speak on the matter of "old-school style" without looking like a total rube. Primarily, what I gather, is that every character had a role, back in the day. Rogues opened things, fighters bashed things, and wizards threw spells and died. Combats were deadly, the fantasy of the world seemed like it was left on the low setting, but was really ever-present, and Larry Elmore, and Keith Parkinson, painted sweeping vistas that fostered the imaginations of DMs, and GMs.

So, what's meant by "new mechanical aesthetic?" Crack open a copy of Burning Wheel, or the Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, or even the Mouse Guard RPG (based off the Burning Wheel system), and you'll see that, while all the usual trappings of a pen-and-paper role-playing game are there (dice, character sheets, attributes and skills), the way these things are used is different. For instance, in The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries (TCFTEM) all the players are characters remembering instances in the past that had already happened, but for the purposes of the game are happening just now. There's also no Game Master (GM). Instead, the other players are your adversaries, but, like a traditional GM, they're also there to help you tell a story, rather than see your carefully-crafted character dead. You roll the dice to give you attributes, and to indicate success (or failure) on given tasks, but the dice need to be interpreted subjectively, rather than objectively.

I guess that's the real difference between a traditional RPG and the modern games that are termed "indie:" the "democratizing" of the GM, making her less of a benevolent tyrant, and the use of dice in more abstract terms (a departure from gems like Rolemaster, where the dice are law). Now, of course these are generalizations, and don't deign to encompass all of the newer RPGs invading our game shops.

So what about Dungeon World? Well, I had a a chance to play this game on Free RPG Day, with one of the creators of the game as GM. I played the Ranger, while those around me played the Wizard, Rogue, Fighter, Bard, and Cleric. Much like an old-school RPG, the classes were well-defined (Cleric healed and repelled undead, Wizard blasted stuff and cast light, the Bard buffed, etc.), and the game even includes an interesting rule stating that you cannot double-up on classes within a party. Before you think of this as restrictive (I guess it is), it does create for some balanced parties and allows each gamer to shine in their own way.

We went through character creation, which consisted of your typical fare, except that you start with the choice of class before you do things like stats, race, etc. The character creation was also part of the character sheet, which contained all of our options for that character, which we checked, circled, or highlighted in some way to show that we chose that certain ability. For instance, I had a choice with the Ranger between going with a human, or an elf. I went with human, and checked off the box next to it. Assigning ability scores is as simple as putting them (along with their modifier) into the relevant statistics (which are the same as in D&D: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). I don't know if these were pre-rolled, or if you always start level 1 with the same six numbers. Other than the choice of race, or stats, I got to choose my animal companion, and my equipment all by checking boxes, and circling choices.

The most innovative thing about character creation was the rule for Bonds. Bonds are personal connections between you and the other players. Few are adversarial (you are a party, after all), and most of them are pledges such as fealty, or mentor ship, or something like that. They come into play when you wish to aid or confront another player, in which case the modifier to the die roll would be equivalent to the number of times that player is mentioned in your Bond statement. The statement, itself, is a list of Bonds between players with a blank space where the character's name should go. These are all done through agreement with the players, making it so that you can't just mess with some one's background by saying that they hate nature, when really they love it (a couple of my Ranger Bonds had to do with nature, and the bonded companion's feelings towards it). As you play, you may resolve these bonds. Perhaps your lukewarm feelings towards another player is cooled or warmed, or perhaps you've been assigned to mentor another player, and you've taught them all you know by the end of the adventure. In this case, you erase the bond, receive experience points, and write a new bond beneath.

Experience points are gained for failing rolls! Let that sit in. This definitely gels with the old adage that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. One xp/failed roll, and when you get 8xp you've levelled! Ding!

Now how do you hit things? All dice rolls to succeed or fail, are determined by rolling 2d6 and adding in your relevant stat bonus (STR for combat, DEX for shooting, etc.). 10+ unequivocally succeed, while 7-9 succeeds but with something bad happening to you, and anything less than a 7 is a failure. Since the GM doesn't roll any dice, the failure usually means that the target of the attack gets to deal damage (having hit the PC by virtue of not being hit by the PC), or the player slips and falls in the case of a skill check requiring a rope, for instance. 7s, 8s, and 9s still consider the action a success, but perhaps the enemy has snuck in a blow, or some other misfortune befalls the player, just not as bad as if a total failure were to occur. What I thought was super-keen was that on a 7-9 sometimes the GM offered me a choice, such as with my missile attacks where I could attack with -1d6 damage, or attack at regular damage, but mark off an ammunition point from my quiver (ammunition points are an abstract way of tracking arrows, or bolts). This "choice" mechanic is repeated with other actions as well, leading to what was a detailed role-playing experience. Rather than the GM declaring on a failed roll that, "your arrow flies wide, and strikes the cavern wall," I was put in as part of the action, and not just the sad recipient of a failed roll.

The actions one can take in Dungeon World are known as Moves and they are things like Volley (missile fire), Hack-and-Slash (melee), Spout Lore (used as a knowledge-based skill), and Discern Realities (perception, prettymuch), to name just a few. Each of these Moves works similarly to the method I described above, and replace the Move, Minor, Standar, one would find in D&D, for instance.

So how do I like it? Enough to back it on Kickstarter (here it is again). What do I like about it? Its mechanics. As you all know, I'm a sucker for how games work. If I had any interest in mathematics, I'd have become an engineer, so instead of figuring out how machines work, I like to take apart games and look at them in that fashion, and I like what I see here. It's interesting enough to grab my attention, but familiar enough to keep me playing. In fact, one of the things I like about this game is that I can imagine myself playing in a protracted campaign using this system. Many of the smaller "indie" RPGs (I must admit) I
can't imagine playing beyond a one-off, but Dungeon World seems like it has enough to keep my attention for much longer.

I can't just fawn over it, though. Some things I'm hung up on are from my "mainstream" (I'll have to write an essay on the dubious usage of terms like "indie" and "mainstream" in reference to gaming) gaming likes: I would like to see an increase in HP from level to level. In Dungeon World there is no HP increase, so I imagine I'd have to rely on my new powers to keep me from dying against larger, and more powerful monsters in later levels. I do like the basics of the levelling system, but more HP would be nice. Also, I'm not sure if a game like this would put more work or less work on the GMs shoulders. My GM seamlessly demonstrated the shared storytelling and die-deciphering that the game showcases, but I wonder how a system like this would fare if I GM'd it, or a more inexperienced player. At least they wouldn't have to roll dice.

Overall, I really, really, like this game. But don't take it from me; go here and download the quickstart, and see for yourself. I can't wait for the hardcover to show up on my doorstep so I can plan my first adventure. Man, I hope the bestiary includes an Owlbear.


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