So, folks, what’s your take on levelling up in Dungeon World?

So, folks, what’s your take on levelling up in Dungeon World?

So, folks, what’s your take on levelling up in Dungeon World? Do characters become more and more awesome, capable of taking on dangers orders of magnitude greater, or do they become broader-skilled, more flexible and deeper? Is there a big increase in character power with level-ups, and how do people tailor opponents and adventures to cope with higher levels?

It looks like one of our party (the thief) will be levelling-up next session, and I’m keen to get a feel for what to expect.

25 thoughts on “So, folks, what’s your take on levelling up in Dungeon World?”

  1. In my experience so far, it’s a lot more about options than powers: more contingencies, more neat stuff to do. (In terms of White Wolf disciplines/other powers, it’s more like getting an extra couple at 3-4 dots than getting one up to 6.) But we’ve only gotten to levels 4-5, too.

  2. In my few playtests it seems to me that large jumps in power will be given through the fiction, with custom moves or items (if you, the gm, lets them be powerful). The levelup character advancement as Bruce said, seems to be more about expanding your toolkit.

  3. It occurs to me that the word I’m looking for here is “leverage”. DW characters become capable of dealing with more kinds of defenses and more kinds of threats. Their damage total goes up some but not a whole lot, from what I’ve seen so far.

  4. I think that’s kind of what I’d picked up from reading – it’ll be very interesting to see how mechanically the GM provides suitable opposition as characters level up. In some instances it looks as though you simply widen and intensity the narrative, rather than provide any mechanistic increase in opponent difficulty. (I’m thinking of the 16 HP Dragon example.) Do you think there’s any objective way to measure opponent (NPC / Monster) difficulty wrt higher level PCs?

  5. Yeah… I’m not hugely happy with that, as it smacks somewhat of illusionism. I think I’ll be paying close attention to difficulties as I play – I’m guessing potentially increasing the Moves available to critters, and their efficacy, might go some way towards structuring the relative critter difficulties in such a way that they’re inherent to the stats, rather than entirely up to me. 🙂

  6. The thing is, the flexibility of the moves is what creates the situation. Monsters already have access to all the basic GM moves. Their unique moves are just flavorful examples.

  7. I was looking at the basilisk on p245 as a great example. It has two Monster Moves, one of which is “Turn flesh to stone with a gaze”. That’s awesome power right there – no illusionism. You charge into combat with that, you’d better roll a very sweet Defy Danger or you’re stone. Sure, there may be ways for 1st level characters to get the drop on a basilisk, but I’m guessing higher level characters will have moves and spells to cope far better. I don’t suppose other monsters are quite as clearly more or less powerful, but it’s a place to start. If too much hinges on the GM’s narration, then “Play to find out what happens” starts to fall apart – what happens becomes what the GM decides is going to happen, based on how difficult he makes the fiction.

  8. I don’t think there’s any risk of a Dungeon World game being illusionist. Illusionism is when the players appear to be able to affect the world, but really they aren’t.

    The players moves give them very concrete ways of affecting the situation, so it’s pretty hard to make them powerless and ineffective.

    Just because the GM’s ideas and decisions can influence the game doesn’t make it illusionist.

    The fact that narration is meaningful (for the GM and the other players) is one of the things that makes Dungeon World great.

  9. If it helps, here’s an example.

    I’m presenting the group with a threat. In both cases, I’m making the GM move “Show signs of an approaching threat”. In both cases, the threat is mechanically represented by the standard stats for a goblin on page 237. However, the fiction surrounding the goblin determines the nature of the threat.

    “A goblin bursts out of the tunnel and runs at you with a knife! What do you do?”

    Clearly this is a simple and straightforward problem. Even a level one character can meet it head on and expect to succeed by trying something like: “I charge to meet the goblin and hack at it with my sword!”

    Here’s a different situation for the same move, but this time, the goblin contracted a horrible life draining curse while scavenging in the tomb of an ancient lich. Remember, same goblin stats. Ready:

    “A goblin bursts out of the tunnel and stumbles towards you. Its flesh is pale and tight, and its eyes are wide with terror. The grass whithers and dies before it as it approaches. What do you do?”

    The goblins stats haven’t changed, but the same straightforward approach isn’t as safe.

    Sure you could charge in and hack the goblin, but you’ll clearly be exposed to the curse if you do. Will it wither your flesh? Will it cling to you like it did the goblin? Can you slay the goblin without exposing yourself to the curse? Can you cure the goblin?

    I don’t know. I haven’t decided any of that stuff.

    We’re still playing to find out, I’ve just described a bigger threat, without altering the goblin’s stats.

    Does that make any sense?

  10. Agreed absolutely – I don’t think there’s any danger of DW itself being illusionist. 🙂 It’s just I’m personally keen to grok the built-in differentiation between the “magnitude” of critters and other threats, so that they’re mechanically / fictionally more or less difficult in themselves, without having to have that arbitrarily entirely dependent on my own decisions. The 16 HP dragon and the basilisk are great examples of how to do that – I’m now looking for some rule of thumb to use when statting critters myself. 

  11. That’s a good example – for my purposes, the second goblin example wouldn’t actually have exactly the same stats as the first. It’d have a Move or maybe a Special Quality such as “Carries a Withering Lich’s Curse” or some such, which would power your increased critter difficulty. I’d say (personally) that the existing goblin stats on p239 don’t in themselves contain a move that “allows” the GM to inflict a major curse on a PC – although of course as GM you could independently decide that “this particular goblin” does.  

  12. That’s tough because there is no objective magnitude of a threat. There’s not even any clear guidelines like in D&D, where you can say “Okay, this monster is level 1, so it probably won’t trounce my level 1 players.”

    Luckily, providing balanced and fair encounters isn’t in your agenda! So don’t worry about that!

    Your job is to present a fantastic world and fill the characters lives with adventure (and play to find out what happens).

    Now, PCs are very durable, even in situations where they may not be effective. They probably won’t die in a single hit from ANYTHING, and they can probably at least manage to run away after a few successful Defy Danger rolls.

    That means that you can feel safe throwing threats at your PCs and seeing what happens. Maybe they get beat up really bad and have to run. That’s okay! Heck, maybe they all die. That’s okay too! That’s part of finding out what happens.

    Now, I’m not saying you should just throw threats out there without any care towards how dangerous they are. But I am saying that you don’t have to worry too much about being WRONG about how dangerous they are.

  13. You’re right that the existing goblin stats don’t have a move to inflict a curse on the PCs. HOWEVER, I don’t have to make one of the goblin’s moves!

    I’ve clearly shown the players the threat, so as far as we’re concerned, it’s real an it’s fair for me to hit them with it if they expose themselves to it. The move I’d be using to inflict that curse would be “Reveal an unwelcome truth.” (Or, if I’m feeling really generous “Tell them the consequences and ask.”)

    Those are normal GM moves and are ALWAYS on the table, even if there are no monsters at all.

  14. So Sarah Newton it’s interesting what you said earlier.

    Yeah… I’m not hugely happy with that, as it smacks somewhat of illusionism.

    I think I see what you’re getting at. If a GM is akin to a grandpa making all sorts of noise and thunder and scaring the PCs (oooo this monster is skaaaaary!) but they know they can pull their punches and not off their group – that is a form illusion and knowing the PCs are supposed to win regardless of odds is certainly an aspect of illusion-ism.

    No risk, no reward.

    If you think about it though, ‘balanced’ encounters are exactly that.

    I think though that there is a different thing at play here (maybe, correct me if I’m off). In trad games there is a statblock, and a pattern of attack. So if a fight goes poorly you can appeal to the rules (hey I just ran it the way I’m supposed to!) or use them to make sure you’re ‘doing it right’ and ‘check your work’ as it were to make sure things were fair.  There’s a tricky assumption attached to that however – and that is that there is a ‘wrong’ way to play. Tucker (in the story above) had to stay inside the rules that chained him (monster HP, to hit etc) but stepped out into where the rules were not so strict (dungeon design, tactics) in order to  create a story with his group.  Here (meaning DW) the rules are not-so-strict in most places as opposed to only a few. And here’s the secret – there’s no wrong way to play.

    You are clearly running a great game, and I see you asking the right questions with the right lingo here as far as I can tell. This means you’re doing it right. You are empowered to make all the calls you need to. Trust yourself, and be honest in how you think the encounter would play out, and then be honest with the players and let them decide to chance the odds. Illusionism comes from the lie (you can change my plot but I know the outcome, you believe this adventure is dangerous but I will keep you safe). Just be honest, follow your GM precepts (really, these are what keep the game illusionism free) and it’ll evaporate in the wind.

  15. Oh also on leveling – the characters definitely get stronger in ways. For example the fighter and the paladin can shrug off blows, and dish out much more sizable damage. The bard and the cleric both gain stronger healing. Once the PCs get +3s in their primary stats, they hit more often than not, but also gain XP less frequently.

    What Dylan said about the strength of threats though holds.

    Hope that answers your question!

  16. Tim Franzke Amazing ! We had exactly the same painful experience many years ago. What should have been an easy “pest control” became a real nightmare and the Kobolds’ nest a sort of maze full of booby traps, pits, poisoned darts. Some of us were garroted, others blinded… we also learned that caltrops have many uses… This adventure has been so traumatizing that we fully dedicated an issue of our home made fanzine to the wickedness of Kobolds !

  17. Thanks for all the comments, everyone – very useful! I’m very much looking to Dungeon World to replicate that “old school sandbox D&D” feel, hence my focus on “playing against the game” wrt encounter / monster difficulties and levelling. I’m a big story game fan, but again as GM I like to “play the game” rather than simply guide the players through my story – if I want to tell a story, I write a story. 😉 That’s my personal preference – I always look through the RAW to find the game mechanics which I as GM can engage with as well as my players. I prefer to minimise GM fiat as much as possible – or, put differently, I prefer to incorporate my GM fiat in the scenario / encounter design rather than improvising it in reaction to player actions / in-game events. I personally get pretty bored if I’m constantly having to fudge things – plus I get the feeling that DW is pretty lethal played RAW, which certainly seems to support the “source material” emulation. I want to look to that objective mechanical lethality, rather than have it hang on my arbitrary moment-by-moment decision-making.

    Of course, there’s also a huge difference between narrating a scene so that it’s fictionally / tactically interesting, challenging and / or crunchy, and the mechanical difficulty of that scene as embodied in the rules. At the moment, as a DW n00b, I’m very interested in grokking just how mechanical difficulties are expressed through the rules – and it’s becoming very clear that the phrasing and number of Monster Moves are a key part of dialling encounter difficulty from the basic moves in the GM’s arsenal. At least, that’s how I’m seeing it at the mo. 🙂 

  18. The players wanted to start at level 2 and they all were at level 3 at the middle of the second session, for the first time ever I had people complaining they level up too fast, almost as if they wanted to feel it more before they leveled.

    The power is pretty much the same, using a dragon can be done at level 1 or at level 10, I am using levels as a measure of the scale of their presence and the opposition they find in the world, right now they are up against isolated and small groups, with the latest actions they took and the new level I am taking that up a notch and they got the attention of a major (and dangerous) religious sect, a minor demon prince and let a dragon loose on the world without much concern on what can come out of it.

    Overall levels mean more options on their hand and very little extra power per see.

  19. Sarah Newton, “pretty lethal played RAW” is an interesting reaction.  My impression is that it’s much more common for people’s reaction after the first session to be “it’s too soft, my players never felt like they were in any danger.”  As far as I can tell, the RAW really don’t specify any danger level whatsoever.  There’s no rule about how often you as GM take moves, nor about how hard they are.  It’s pretty much entirely up to you as GM.  Any time the players stop talking, you have the option to either take a move yourself, or say something like “Fighter, what do you do?”  The more often you take a move for the monsters, the more dangerous the fight will be, straight up. 

    I have spent a while trying to get comfortable with this, and I think ultimately it’s pretty fun.  At the moment, I’m playing things where most of the time when I take a monster move, I give the player a chance to Defy Danger, unless I feel like they’re acting particularly recklessly and need to eat some straight-up Ignored Threat.  So I get to be pretty aggressive and creative as I can manage in making things hard for them with ultimately quite squishy monsters, but they get enough chances to defend that they don’t die easily.

  20. RAW basically say the game is as lethal as the GM makes it.

    Depending on how savage you are with your fiction, how tough the tough choices you present are, and how hard your hard moves are is whether the game is a walk in the park, a rolicking adventure, or a brutal deathscapade.

    First time playing it, I think GM’s have a tendancy to ‘go easy’ as they find their footing, and learn how far they can extend. as you play, you learn how much punishment your players can take, and how lethal you can make your moves to keep things dangerous but possible for the players. Colin Roald  pretty much described that here in his post.

  21. The “lethal RAW” thing is pretty much down to the monster moves listed for certain critters, like the “Devour” move of Bakunawa, or the “Turn Flesh to Stone with a Gaze” move of the basilisk. Unless you’ve geared up specifically to counter those attacks in the fiction, running in waving a sword is just going to get you eaten or turned to stone, possibly with a Defy Danger roll to avoid. That kind of feels like the old “Save vs Poison or Die” aspect of old school D&D – although sensible players will wise up quickly to potential dangers.

    Another aspect of the lethality came from a recent session, where the PCs overtly ignored a threat to take another action. A hill giant had come charging into a chamber waving a huge club, and rather than address that threat, the PCs ran off. Result: auto-damage on one of the PCs. That can get messy quick. 🙂

    I’m actually happy with these clear consequences of actions (or lack of) – I don’t mind a game being lethal, as long as it’s not also arbitrary. In both cases handing out damage wasn’t me as GM just making stuff up – it came directly out of the PCs’ actions.

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