Theory : Dungeon World is (in Ron Edwardsian terminology as I understand it) a Story Now (Narrativist) game wrapped…

Theory : Dungeon World is (in Ron Edwardsian terminology as I understand it) a Story Now (Narrativist) game wrapped…

Theory : Dungeon World is (in Ron Edwardsian terminology as I understand it) a Story Now (Narrativist) game wrapped in the trappings of a Step On Up (Gamist) game. 

It gives the impression of a system in which players compete mechanically against each other and GM/MC created challenges as everything the players do is portrayed as a subset of given “Moves” based on “Stats”.  Some Moves are universal, some are character / playbook specific, implying a “I will prove my choices for character development are better than yours” sub-game.  Because of the way the moves interact, however, direct inter-party conflict is curtailed (or brief and decisive, depending on MC fiat / “home-rules”) leaving said sub-game largely without decisive victory conditions, since the party is typically working together.  Outside of player-vs-player competition, the characters struggle to mechanically overcome the situations in which they find themselves.  The examples in the core book largely reference dungeon delving, confrontations with guards, and high-magic, high-hostility situations…. which is to say, situations in which the players find themselves in direct confrontation with monsters / villains.  They contest such by seeking preferable conditions for the struggle, and by using their character’s chosen moves along with the core ones.

The GM/MC, on the other hand, has rules and moves of a vastly different nature.  What they envision happens.  They complicate matters as a consequence of the luck of the players with hard and soft moves, but the specifics of the moves are mostly not matters of specified mechanics.  They do, however, affect the availability or effectiveness of the moves of the characters.

(Example : On a miss from a fighter ‘s Hack and Slash against a troll while fighting on a narrow bridge, the MC decides they lose their footing and fall into the river thirty feet below.  They COULD have had the fighter disarmed, or dealt direct damage, or have even complicated matters for another character.  On a successful H&S roll, however, the player would have dealt their class damage in a manner that only changes the fictional environment if/as the GM/MC determines.  Regardless, now in the river the Fighter no longer has access to the Hack and Slash move.  He would have had such if the GM/MC had chosen one of the almost infinite options available that wouldn’t remove the character from the immediate area of the troll.  In this situation, could the Fighter fling his sword up to the bridge with a Volley roll?  I don’t know [Vincent Baker’s voice in my head says’Say yes or roll’]… you’d have to ask the MC.)  The mandate for the MC to describe what happens WITHOUT mentioning the move (s)he used also puts them in the position of being able to BS consequences not directly tied to the core-book’s move list.

Attentive players will quickly begin controlling combat or social situations through fictional positioning, not requiring rolls… or requiring rolls besides those related to combat or conversational dominance, with potential consequences different from failure in the combat/social situation.  This opens up new options for the GM/MC to provide complications to the character’s lives, but it also makes the adventures more involved than mechanically proving the characters superior to their opposition. 

So you end up with a play style in which players provide the MC/GM with more opportunities to complicate the matters they find engaging by dictating fictional circumstances requiring more rolls, thus requiring more GM/MC moves that force the situation into new and unplanned directions.  Railroading becomes very, very difficult.  Matters the players don’t care about get resolved quickly, for the good or ill of the characters and/or the world they inhabit.  As a consequence, the story of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it becomes more pressing in the minds of the group than stat-wrangling. 

And let’s be honest, 99% of the time you could put a Fighter or a Wizard into the same situation and they’d have roughly equal chances of succeeding in their player’s goals.  And even if they can’t, because experience is earned by failure sub-death failure is rewarded!  The playbook mechanics are a means to an end – development of involving, evolving, open-ended-until-closed-by-the-players stories.

Objections?  Comments?  Obvious logical inconsistencies?

30 thoughts on “Theory : Dungeon World is (in Ron Edwardsian terminology as I understand it) a Story Now (Narrativist) game wrapped…”

  1. Yup, I’d say your statement is accurate in that it describes the pro forma goal of the vast majority RPG games at the table to a greater or lesser extent.

    I feel like the *World system shines by making all of that as transparent as possible, with little need for a gm to fudge outcomes (as they have several defined avenues for making their choices)

    It can help if you look at the GM as being just another player, playing the GM ‘class’. In that way the entire game is PVP.

    look at moves, you have three open, but clearly defined states.

    Player Wins all, Player/GM compromises, and GM wins all.

    the differences lie in that all options move the game forward, there are no brick walls, no “you failed to pick the lock, nothing happens, we sit here until you finally succeed, or we go do something else. or we wait until someone magically reads the GM’s mind and figures out what we’re supposed to do”

  2. I agree that DW and other PbtA games are Story-Now, but I think they’re a lot less Step-On-Up (Gamist) than you’re proposing.

    Any Story-Now game needs a resolution mechanic.  The game play needs unpredictable resolution of decision points; otherwise, the GM can pre-plan the whole thing.  In PbtA games, resolution involves dice and player-character powers (moves), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the game has a Step-On-Up component.

    In DW in particular, character advancement is nearly absent in terms of raw power.  Characters gain more options over time, but not more hit points or significantly higher stats.  They evolve fictionally more than they rise in game-space power.  Treasure-gathering (a proxy for mission successes), similarly, has little impact on a character’s game-effectiveness.

    I think most of the perceived Step-On-Up-ness of DW is a flavour echo from the early D&D to which it pays tribute.  But the game-play, in practice, is almost entirely focused on the fiction.

    For your consideration: In as much as any RPG contains elements of all three approaches, I would call DW and the PbtA family Story-Now games.

  3. I don’t see any actual basis for your player-v-player competion ideas. There’s no reward for being “better” than another character – the end of session acheivements for winning apply to the entire party, and the ones that don’t are role-playing awards unrelated to move choice.

    Sure, some players try to be “the best” or “most powerful” – there’s one in my group – but nothing in the game provides a mechanism to support that.

  4. In general though, the terminology of Story Now or whatever Edwards thing isn’t very useful when actually discussing games, or games design, to say nothing of the fact that GNS theory is pretty flawed on it’s own.

  5. I’m a little bit perplexed by the assertion that “It gives the impression of a system in which players compete mechanically against each other and GM/MC created challenges as everything the players do is portrayed as a subset of given “Moves” based on “Stats”.”

    Do you actually mean to imply that any game that has direct mechanical actions taken by characters that utilize ‘stats’ “gives [you] the impression of…players competing mechanically against each other”?  Because I think this is an extremely strange perception given that very, very few games actually encourage this behavior.

  6. John Willson I do not agree that players do not get more raw power as they level up.

    The small increase in stats is very significant because of the dice mechanic!

  7. Jay Vee

    I’d argue against the categorization of a 6- as “GM wins all”

    One of the GM’s rules is “be a fan of the PCs”

    on a 6-, the character’s opponent may win; the character may lose to an obstacle; but viewing character defeat as “GM wins all” scenario  is risky.

    I’d assert that there is only one clearly defined state of a successful DW story: “Fiction moves in an exciting, interesting direction….”

    Rolls simply provide a little random spin on the push/pull of the PCs’ pursuit of their goals.

    Regardless of any die roll, regardless of whether a character wins the keys to the city or dies an ignoble death, the players (including the GM) all win if the story was fun to play….

  8. I agree, I was mostly arguing rhetorically trying to figure out what the OP means by the PVP comments.

    I was just attempting to illustrate through analogy the “pulling in two directions” nature of moves.

    Of course the GM should be a fan and not set out to kill players, the agenda and principles are a vital part of the “GM playbook”, as much so as any of the moves. but the GM is supposed to make things complicated, interesting, and challenging, which is diametrically opposed to what the player would have gotten had they rolled a 10+

    That was my intention when I said on one end the player ‘wins’ on the other the gm does.

  9. John Willson Yes, very much yes.  “Wrapped in the Trappings” was meant as an indicator of appearance, not substance – I failed to adequately articulate that.  It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Or a gateway drug to pull RPG-as-Wargame players into a RPG-as-Story game.

    Adrian Brooks “But look at all these options!  I can pick a class, decide on Stat allocation, choose a race (and corresponding power), pick what actions give me bonus XP, divy up my levels in extra moves or modifiers to my existing moves based on my class selection, earn Compendium Class abilities… there’s a way to Min/Max this somehow!”

    Which there is, but only to the ends you’re seeking as a player, not in terms of “winning Dungeon World” the way you can ‘win’ standard “Dungeons and Dragons” (played as an evolution of the wargame) by being able to kill anything in the monster manual.

    Jay Vee I’m working with what I’ve got to work with.  Recommendations on study done to the level that Ron / Vincent / Yee Olde Wiser Heads studied (are studying) are welcome.  I personally have enough experience to emulate good play and adjust based on bad play, but I can’t identify the root of what makes (sustainable and group-transferable) fun.  Which is to say I’m faffing about with increased efficiency/effectiveness, but without anything resembling Tradecraft… which I see, or mis-see, in the things a certain few have presented (Edwards in the forefront).  I agree that the complete lack of a need to pull punches as a DM make this game shine.  I can kill players and have them pop right back up, there’s never a moment where ‘they didn’t have a chance’.

    Mike Pureka  It’s not something everyone would see in the playbooks, but I think it’s something you could interpret from them.  “I chose (X) because that will allow me to be the ‘best’ character for reasons A, B and C, which will make me a greater asset to our party than the other players.”

    Yes, I’m saying any time you show potential variation between mutually-exclusive alternatives (and since The Fighter is THE FIGHTER, not ‘a fighter’, each playbook is exclusive to a single individual) you encourage the idea of competition and attempts for supremacy in people with a certain mindset.  People get their cars repainted to the tune of thousands of dollars because X color is better than the one they had.

    It’s a form of statistical analysis.  “My moves are better than your moves, as a result of choices we made in the past.”  Of course, that has to be proven via play, and by that point you’re playing the game and TRAPPED IN A NIGHTMARE WORLD OF STORYTELLING.  Hopefully enjoying yourself too.

    If you didn’t know what *World games were, you’d probably take Dungeon World as a ‘streamlined’ or ‘light’ version of D&D until you had played it.  Which I think is intended.  And brilliant, since by the time you’re playing it, you’re playing it.  If you’re into this kind of thing you’re enjoying yourself before you realize it’s pappy isn’t just D&D but Lady Blackbird, Trollbabe, etc

  10. Player Vs Player competition : “I excel more than you and am more important to accomplishing our mutual goals.”

    Player Vs Threat competition : “I am BETTER THAN YOU (and will probably kill, banish, or otherwise end you before the session is over)”

  11. Sean,

    I see what you’re trying to say, now. Here’s what I think.

    (Restating and agreeing with your theory):

    The DW GM poses a gamist-styled Narrative to the players – threats, challenges, the step-on-up game style of D&D and its ilk.

    DW Players can and do respond in a gamist manner, with fictional position substituting for what it others games become tactical bonus to dice rolls, etc.

    And this all largely works.


    While I love the game, I’ve had conversations elsewhere which suggest that GMs and Players who enjoy tactical positioning and the related choice of attributes to effectiveness (the “crunch”) of other games can be disappointed by DW, finding fictional positioning an inadequate substitute.

  12. You win DND by being able to beat everything in the MM? There’s as much fiction in a DND game as DM has the thought and time to throw in. Nothing is or even needs to be RAW, and never has.

    The big difference when I’ve played DW is the resolution mechanic. But some folks have different experiences and that’s OK.

  13. Jason Healey, you’re right, there can be lots of fiction in a D&D game. But if the DM is pre-planning and enacting all the story, then it’s not “Story-Now.”

    Edwards’ “Story-Now” play means that the story is created in the moment, through play, by all players. That’s what sets DW apart from D&D: the mechanics specifically support that kind of play.

  14. Jason Healey

    I don’t really like this assertion;  The “Nothing needs to be RAW” contention seems to range too close to the old “If you don’t like the rules of crappy game X, just change them!” suggestion.

    If you’re not playing something reasonably close to RAW, you’re not playing D&D for purposes of this discussion.

  15. Several people in this thread seem to be saying things that are based on the idea that fictional positioning is fundamentally at odds with Gamist play. That’s not right. An old-school D&D “can we beat the killer dungeon?” game with lots of 10-foot-pole poking and let’s-pour-acid-on-it problem-solving can be all about challenge but is also heavily rooted in treating the fiction as a concrete factor that shapes play.

    The canonical definition of Story Now play requires both a dynamic plot and “addressing of Premise”. It’s not clear to me that DW in general does the addressing of Premise thing. But that might be because I find the Forge definition of Premise to be pretty slippery. I agree that DW doesn’t seem to be particularly Gamist, except via the “flavor echo from D&D” as mentioned earlier.

  16. Andrew Fish

    What he said. Character death in DW has been highly satisfying. In Pathfinder it is oh /#$$× I have to start at 1st level again.

    (That’s why I don’t do PF any more. I always die before I get to be awesome)

  17. Adrian Brooks  Dungeon World is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played.  But it can’t satisfy everyone.  No one system can.  It’s a shame that some people won’t enjoy it, but the cost of entry, fiscally and chronologically, is low.  Only NOMIC is the game-of-games for all peoples, and most people don’t have the patience for it (or agree enough with their fellow players to enjoy it)

    Jason Healey No, no one plays a RPG entirely vanilla.  And I think that’s good!  As a play group, you ought to be having fun, and if that means modification of the standard set by the game as written then it means modification of the standard.  Who can remember EVERY rule anyway?  Or interpret a given rule the exact same way as everyone else?

    A game though, a thing designed, pushes play in a certain direction if it is well made.  So when talking about ‘the game’ we should probably be discussing the core, the most vanilla version of it, the one that naturally evolves when the rules are followed.  And the writing and mechanics of DW push the GM to be more reactionary to the player’s actions than D&D does, which makes for a different kind of game, even if the D&D DM has a living, breathing, reactionary world.  In D&D the characters change the world, in DW the world sprouts forth in response to the characters.  The three agendas of the DW GM are, after all, portraying a fantastic world, filling the characters’ lives with adventure, and playing to find out what happens. It is different in feel and moment-to-moment play to a game where the players react to the prep work the DM did earlier. 

    If your DW plays like a streamlined D&D game : You may want to have your DM read the original Powered By The Apocalypse game, Apocalypse World.  Or check out the BarfForthApocalyptica forums.  Unless everyone’s having fun, in which case your group is playing right (although they’re probably not playing DW, but using part of it’s mechanics)

  18. John Willson I don’t know, I’m not sure if the Forge definitions are strong enough to support that level of fine-focus. As I understand what is claimed, you’re generally able to impose any CA on any RPG, but some pairings are more conducive than others. So I’m not sure if “but can mechanic A be used to do X if you want to?” is a useful mode of analysis from a Forge perspective. (Personally I’m not fully sold on the idea that the CAs are coherent ideas anyway, so I always hesitate to dive too deeply). 

  19. Sean Fager so, going back a bit, I do agree with your original point: that DW is a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing — in a good way. The wolf is a story-now game. The fleece is the familiar trappings of everybody’s favourite fantasy game ;-).

  20. Although the GNS model is valid because it works, I prefer to classify RPG philosophy a bit different, and I believe a bit more practical because it has direct implications on session design.

    RPG design has layers. Two of them are system design and session design. Where system design has to do with structure, session design is concerned with content. What actually happens at the table. And I believe this is more important than the resolution system to determine the kind of play.

    There are three modes of session design.

    The first is exploration. The primary tool in exploration driven design is the map. The designer designs the map and populates it with characters. If you open door x there are always y goblins bebind it. There are different sub methods: Linear routes, branching routes, alternate routes/ endings and sandbox design. The dungeon is something to be solved. It results in a very specific type of gameplay. The early iterations of d&d were all like this.

    The second type of session design is story driven. The basic building block of story driven session design is the encounter, which is basically a short unit of story that is pre written and accessed by the players during play. The basic gameplay is the same as exploration/ map driven sessions but instead of the pc’s progressing from dungeon area to dungeon area, they progress from encounter to encounter. The same variants found in the exploration model is found in the story model. Pathfinder is built on this model. That is why “encounter design” is such an important thing for Paizo.

    The third type of session design is front driven. I do not think many people realize it, but this is the true genius of Dungeon World that sets it apart from other RPG’s. In a front driven session there is no map to speak of. Although there could be one, it has to have blanks. The map is also almost never drawn, except in very broad strokes. There are no pre planned encounters, and no pre planned story.

    What DW has are fronts: GM characters with instincts, drives and plans of their own. Each important GM character wants to write the story according to his plans. Add the PCs to the mix and play to find our what happens. So “fronts” is the story that would have happened if the PCs did not intervene. This approach to session design is radically different from the other two models, and it is in my opinion the biggest driver of narrativistic gameplay that separates DW from the other games.

    Yes, the resolution mechanics do matter. One could argue that pre-decision vs post-decision dicerolling contributes too (incidentally this is one of the main differences between euro board games and ameritrash).

    But do this mental experiment:

    Play d&d 1st ed with fronts instead of maps. Suddenly the story is written by the players. Play PF with fronts instead of pre planned encounters. The same thing happens.

    I played Castle Ravenloft ( An exploration driven module with ground breaking story driven elements for its time) in DW. It was less like playing DW and more like playing d&d 1st ed.

    So while the whole package is important, I believe front driven session design is the most important factor that drives DW’s unique gameplay.

    *And probably that of all *World games. I just know DW the best.

  21. Wynand Louw I like your breakdown. I might call ‘front driven’  ‘character reactionary’ – I’ve been playing a beta of a *World game which has mandatory map-drawing and no formalized fronts, but is player driven with a lot of GM improvisation required.  Where would you put Fiasco in your matrix of play?

    I think if “mechanics as design” or “the system is the message” (or any of the other ways the idea I’m groping for is articulated) is core to a game it mandates (or at least pushes) play where the session design is dictated by the system design.  Examples on either extreme would be Murderous Ghosts (little room for mechanical deviation) and Flatpack : Fix The Future (which essentially doesn’t have an existing system)… and DW does a good job, when played-as-designed, getting the message of play across.

    Ravenloft was my favorite setting for D&D back in high school, but I never played a specific scenario there (not invented by the DM from whole cloth).  I have a few pages of a rambling word doc trying to isolate what made it so cool to port to DW.  I think I’ve got the slow-slide into madness/evil, but haven’t figured out the fear element.

  22. Sean Fager

    Fiasco? It is front driven, because:

    In literature the law of plot is “character is plot.” This is literature’s equivalent of fronts. It works like this. You have a character you know nothing about. You place that character in a conflict and force a decision. The decision the character makes defines who he is. As he acts on that decision the story/plot advances.

    Classical example: Mel Gibson’s daughter is kidnapped. A ransom of $1000 000 is demanded. Mel decides to give the million not to the kidnapper but to the person who betrays the kidnapper. This defines who he is. It also drives the plot of the rest of the movie.

    In fronts terms: The GM does not pre-create a story. He pre-creates NPC’s who have instincts, drives and goals. As they get into conflict with the PCs because of their conflicting goals, both the NPCs and PCs make decisions and act on it. These actions define the characters and drive the plot forward.

    If you understand this you will immediately see the link with Fiasco: “Characters with poor judgment and poor impulse control”. A typical Fiasco session starts with characters in conflict with each other who act on decisions forced on them by the conflict, and these actions drive the plot.

    The difference between Fiasco and DW is mainly, I think, that in Fiasco the conflict is PC vs PC. As other RPGs like DW are more co-op, the conflict is mainly PCs vs NPCs.

    I think you could design front driven sessions for almost any system, although some systems will definitely fight you all the way. 


    Of course fronts are not always Characters (as in “persons”) in DW. It can also be organisations, mindless monsters or inanimate dangers. But the same principles apply.

  23. John Willson I found the creation of fronts to mirror a lot of homebrew dnd campaigns ive played in.   Document and track general happenings in the world, that move indepently of the characters.  The characters have to react and shape it.  Thus, the story is made.    

    DnD for me has never been diablo – your bad guy is in the dungeon and you have to go get em.  You can play part of the game like that, sure.  You can play dungeon world like that, too.  All it takes is a front that presents a danger breaking out of an ancient cell and the only way to handle it is to enter its home/labyrinth, etc.  Much like in DnD, the players can choose to ignore it, or not.   

    I’m also not a 4e-er, and I grew up with DnD where none of us had a lot of purchased campaigns due to lack of funds.  Maybe that shaped my perspective.   Most of the folks I play with want to be the actor, and not the worldbuilder:  they define their part (their character idea) and they want to see it through their imagination.  

    Questions come up in play, the players still shape direction or story and change the world but they do not do it by themselves.  In DnD, I ask “what do you do?”  I do the same in Dungeon World.  It’s always after the DM presents an environment change for the players to react to; the players aren’t playing a game where they represent the environment, which is quite possible in GM-less games and usually result in very “far out” settings and happenings like most improv.     

    As opposed to drawing this on even longer, I’ll just say, have fun and good gaming, which is all I wish for anyone on these boards.     

  24. One current theory of mine is that the GNS model misses a type of play that I call “fiction now”. It may be some kind of degeneration of Story Now and Simulationist agendas, but I see distinctions. In “fiction now” play, the important thing seems to be moving quickly and with color. Unlike Sim, the rules tend not to directly reflect/impose/create the fiction or, perhaps more importantly, don’t contend that the fiction exists outside the table. Unlike Story Now, the rules don’t necessarily point to or drive the players to address premise in any serious way (although it can be done at will, obviously). These games tend to, ime, generate a lot of fiction and move through scenes quickly, but they don’t have a definitive “end” to either sessions (as Fiasco) or sometimes even scenes (as Capes does). To me DW fits squarely in this mold.

  25. Thanks Jason Healey .  DW was probably written to teach story-now gaming to people more like me.  When I was a kid, D&D was played from modules.  When we ran out of published modules to play, we wrote our own; either way, adventures were always pre-planned.  It’s been a great revelation to me, and a lot of work, to learn to let go of pre-planning and run games improvisationally.

Comments are closed.