Oh boy, here we go.

Oh boy, here we go.

Oh boy, here we go. As a follow-up to my absolutely disastrous excuse for a Dungeon World Primer, I’ve written a 5-page commentary that highlights what I consider to be the most important GM rules that separate DW from other RPGs. Since it focuses on GM rules, it’s not really a primer for the players, but I think it is an interesting read nonetheless for those that are passionate (or very curious) about the game.

This version is still a draft, and I fully expect it to be torn apart, ripped to shreds and burned to ashes by the community. I have a tendency towards unnecessarily hyperbolic language, so don’t be afraid to point the worst of them out too.

I wrote this commentary/guide for many reasons. I wanted to put more thought into some of the rules that I initially glazed over, then blew me away when I really analyzed their implications. There are also frequent questions and mistakes resulting from a lack of understanding of DW’s GM rules, or even what DW is really about to begin with. A lot of other primers focus on dice rolls, character sheets and other nit-picky details, while completely missing the big picture of how DW is supposed to be played.

I don’t claim to be an expert. On the contrary, this is a way for me to learn more about the game. Part of the guide is from experience, especially what happens when the rules are not followed. Basically, what I learned from our group’s mistakes. The other part is a thought-experiment: what might happen if I ignore those rules? And finally, I’ve incorporated a lot of criticism from my doomed primer.

I’m not sure if I would keep calling this piece a primer, even. It’s definitely long-winded.

Anyway, tell me what you guys think. Like it? Suggestions? Burn it with fire? I’m ready to mark XP.


30 thoughts on “Oh boy, here we go.”

  1. Nitpicking: I don’t like the “bipedal ant” example.

    1) Why is the player asking if they can do it? Just do it (or try, at least)!

    2) “Roll Defy Danger with Dex” How about “You are Defying Danger with Dex, roll it”?

    3) (really my main point) Okay, this is a worse outcome. I think that a hard bargain or ugly choice would be more interesting, but okay. But when I read this, I feel as if a) the character didn’t really succeed in doing what they wanted despite rolling a success: they tripped they ant, but it’s getting up again; b) the situation seems essentially unchanged rom before, and rolling in order for … nothing … to happen isn’t interesting. You should include some kind of soft move here, something should happen as a result of the roll.

    Just a thought I had when reading this example. Feel free to disagree.

  2. The section about how the GM isn’t here to challenge players with traps seems particularly ridiculous. The GM is here to fill the world with danger and adventure and see what happens to the characters and what they do… nothing about traps runs inherently counter to that. Your personal feelings for or against traps are your own, and play groups will have their own feelings, but it’s basically a point that serves zero purpose in terms of understanding DW.

  3. Alfred Rudzki Hmm, you missed the point completely. I didn’t write any of what you said, because that would be ridiculous indeed.

    Maybe the point wasn’t clear enough?

    1. The Dungeon World book says that solving complex traps should not be a goal.

    2. I said, be careful because they can conflict with GM goals. I tried to explain the book’s statement.

    3. Try simple traps instead.

    4. Complex traps are fine if you know what you’re doing.

  4. Your point was super unclear because it was lost in you saying traps break storytelling, miss the point of the game, and are repetitive — none of which is found anywhere in the text. I, personally, don’t see the value in a primer that is editorializing the content from the rulebook, and you asked for critiques.

    Edit for follow-up thought: I think perhaps a better use of the space under Play to Find Out would be to take the GM Agendas, and maybe break down how they guide story-telling, rather than this emphasis on what does not guide story-telling. Or, maybe a brief paragraph with an example situation, and things like “if we were here to Take the Players Through our Finely-Crafted Setting, maybe we would do X — but it would be more appropriate to do Z, as per our Agenda.

  5. Alfred Rudzki That’s helpful, thanks. This is definitely a case of “less-is-more.” The more you try to explain something in detail, trying to cover all possible misconceptions, the mere fact that you wrote a lot is probably enough to generate more misconceptions instead. Because TL; DR.

    I did consider an alternative approach: an infographic map of how the GM’s moves and principles link back to the GM’s agenda. Making a single picture might save me writing a thousand useless words. I might do that next, maybe.

  6. Much better then the first primer, but still heavy on opinion. You keep saying this is the way it suppose to be played, but it should say. “This is the way I like it or I feel it should be ran”. Outside of following the principles, their is no one right way to run a game that’s heavily based on interpretation like DW. However, I do like this alot more then the first one.

  7. RidersOfRohan I don’t think opinion is the problem here, but heavy opinion is. I think the piece still suffers from the same problem as the first primer. The tone is too negative. It is as if the article is saying “you’re all fools! you’ve got it all wrong!” And that is certainly not my intention.

    It’s difficult since I’m trying to remove myself from writing in a way that still speaks to the veteran D&D player in my group who disses DW really hard as being a ridiculous, poorly-designed set of rules. I guess that voice of mine is still a large part of this primer, and it’s what’s holding it back from being concise and neutral. Hence, the emphasis on “this is not what you should do in this game.”

    Look at these 4 GM rules, guys, pay attention to them! They’re really important! That is really the opinion I want to share, and the rest is me elaborating on why I think so.

    So my initial hunch is right. This shouldn’t be a primer. Not really. Maybe it should be called something like Suddenly Ogres, and should focus on what the GM can actually do to follow these rules, rather than what not to do.

    A completely-rewritten guide called Playing To Find Out What Happens, maybe.

  8. Maybe…as for your player, every person wants something different from their roleplaying time. He might be more of a tactical gamer than a storyteller so he misses the challenge and satisfaction of solving those tactical issues.

  9. Dawit Thepchatree, your D&D player needs to learn a bit of RPG theory, because quite clearly, when he says that DW is badly designed and has ridiculous rules it just shows that he doesn’t understand that the gameplay motivation (or Creative Agenda, if you prefer) that DW promotes is totally different from D&D (and I say that as someone who is not a fan of DW by any stretch, although I love PbtA games). It seems to me that he/she would be better served playing something else. There’s no point in you trying to force him/her to “get” DW. Also, people can perfectly well “get” DW and simply not like it.

    With that said, I generally like your new version. I do have a major quibble, though. You somewhat misrepresent what “play to find out what happens” means in that first section (the later section in the Conclusions is correct and to the point). “Play to find out what happens” refers to having no scripted plot and allowing the players to take the story wherever they want. It’s a concept that was introduced with Ron Edward’s Sorcerer, the grandaddy of all these “narrativism-promoting” games, PbtA games included. The thing is, “play to find out” has nothing to do with how much background your world has, or how detailed it is, or how much back-story there is. If that was the case, it would be impossible to play a PbtA game set on Earth, right? Back-story and setting is what is there for the players to interact with until Now. Scripted plot is about defining a priori what’s gonna happen from this moment on and leaving little chance for the players (through their characters) to affect the game world and make meaningful, dramatic decisions. In other words, the setup, backstory, and setting are completely independent from the “play to find out what happens” principle. They are not in conflict. Prep all you want if it makes your day. Just don’t write the “story” a priori. It is true, however, that DW is not about lot’s of background prep and that it gives players a lot of power to create setting in various forms. But still keep in mind that these concepts are not at odds with each other.

    Otherwise, I think this new version is fine. Oh, and D&D is not about “beating the players” nor about trying to kill the characters. If your “veteran” D&D player has been doing that, tell him he/she’s a douche.

  10. Pedro Pereira You know your writing isn’t working when more than a couple of people actually misread into what it’s actually saying. I went back, re-read the section on “play to find out what happens,” and nowhere do I see anything stopping the GM from prepping the backstory, the setting and the setup. And yet, the impression is that I did.

    I thought all I did there was elaborate on what Adam and Sage wrote.

    Ah, I really need to make that part super clear.

  11. You wrote about “superior” ways to play and suggested that prepping backstory and setting leaves “little consequence for decision making.” We’re reading the words you wrote, dude.

  12. Maybe it’s a matter of wording, but that’s how I understand (or misunderstand, as it may be) what you’re writing. Not that it is terribly important for your purposes here, though.

  13. Alfred Rudzki I know. It’s not what I meant. I wrote:

    Too much time might be spent sifting through and investigating the details of a location, again with little consequence for making decisions. A superior setting in DW is one that is instead loosely-crafted, with many blanks left to fill.

    What I mean to say is:

    There is little repercussion in sifting through stuff, looking at objects, opening drawers, deciphering books, rummaging through a pile, etc. There is typically little risk in deciding whether to look at this vase versus that painting. With a detailed setting, the storytelling process of risk and consequence takes a backseat to careful exploration. It also goes against Draw Maps, Leave Blanks, a GM principle.

  14. Dawit Thepchatree have you played a really good campaign setting in DW? Like Servants of the Cinder Queen?. It provides a really great adventure and some blanks. The primary power being how you handle the situations and what happens in between the journey from your current place to your next. Regardless though, we knew that. (Unless you went in blind) that the next seen was this or that. (With the power to change things and get creative on how we handle the situation) Despite coming to something predefined. I enjoyed it alot and it was still dungeon world. The goal is to have fun and if players want these things. Then it’s perfectly fine to have them. Fun is the only rule that truly matters and I don’t think we can all be reading it wrong, it just wasn’t written correctly, but lastly still much better then that last one. That why this is a draft.

  15. RidersOfRohan It’s not about using a predefined setting at all. That wasn’t what the authors meant. In fact, they encourage prep, just not too much. So where’s the line that’s drawn; how much is too much? The word they used was not predefined, it was finely-crafted. In other words, a setting where all the blanks have been filled. When there are no blanks, it becomes more difficult to play to find out what happens.

  16. Dawit Thepchatree if you have not played it, I highly recommend it. As for the Primer it’s a decent draft, just want more. How to and less how not. The Later doesn’t help the game at all. I think it’d be interesting to play your “version” of DW. Hopefully one day, I can try at your digital table. Maybe it’s just the interpretation or maybe it’s that we play the same game correctly in our own ways. Because their is no one right way.

  17. RidersOfRohan Sure, I agree with focusing on how to and not how not to, at least for a primer. I’m still deciding whether or not to maintain the focus and change it from a primer into a “cautionary tale” guide instead.

    Hmm, now that I think about it, I definitely need to stop calling it a primer. It’s not.

    However, I disagree that there is no wrong way to play DW. Have you played DW by butchering it with D&D rules? I have, and it’s not a pretty picture. I’ve also played DW with the GM’s Agenda ignored, and it wasn’t fun either. And finally, I incorporated the GM’s Agenda, with incredibly positive results.

    How far can you take DW before it stops being DW? I don’t think there’s a real answer to that, but it’s an important question to ask, regardless.

    The thing is, an experienced GM from another RPG can probably safely ignore most of the GM’s rules and still run DW fine. Then there’s the rest of us, me included, who need to be guided with rules and best practices.

    But even if you’re an experienced GM, the notion that DW can improve your GMing in any RPG is almost unanimous. On the flipside, if you’re not following any of DW GM’s best practices, it’s likely that you’re far from meeting your full potential as a super-awesome GM. Likely, but not always.

    In DW, you have to follow the rules. That’s what the book says. Part of the rules is following the GM’s Agenda, and part of following that is Adam’s and Sage’s list, not mine, of what not to do.

    EDIT: I think I’ve got it. A way to write a “how not to” in a way that’s uplifting, funny and easy-to-read. Stay tuned. 🙂

  18. Dawit Thepchatree I did not say there is no wrong way. I said there is no one right way. Meaning if we both stick to the principles,but interpret them differently. We can both still play DW entirely correct in our own way. I wrote it correct and plain as day, you just miss read. Changing the title to your suggestion is a good solution with a improved write up.

  19. When it comes to RPGs as long as everyone is having fun not much else matters when it comes to right and wrong. While you might not like DW with some D&D rules someone else might. You need to write about your love for DW and lose the hate for not DW. Then it’ll be a better read and lose some of negative vibe that’s there.

  20. Dawit Thepchatree

    “When there are no blanks, it becomes more difficult to play to find out what happens”

    This is where my biggest quibble lies. I totally agree that the more defined the setting the less the players can contribute to world building, which is a big thing in most Forge-type games and the moves in PbtA are clearly built to promote this kind of player authorship.

    However, and I repeat again, leaving blanks in the setting doesn’t make it any more difficult to “find out what happens” because “finding out what happens” has to do with not scripting the plot, not with background info and setting detail. If it did, it would mean that we couldn’t play PbtA games set, say, in 15th Century Europe because it doesn’t get any more detailed than that in terms of setting, right? Same thing for how detailed a dungeon is or not, etc. It goes against player imput in contributing to world and location building, but it doesn’t have jack shit to do with “playing to find out what happens”.

  21. Pedro Pereira What if something contributed by the players to the setting affects how the plot plays out in the end? In that sense, won’t a more flexible setting affect finding out what happens?

  22. Sure it does, but that is true for anything going on in the game, pre-established or not, pulled out of your ass as you go or not. None of that affects the players’ capability to do meaningful choices. All you’re doing there is letting players contribute to the game world during play (a good thing) instead of giving them a pre-designed sandbox for them to play in (which is fine too if they like it), but otherwise it’s the same principle of letting players do whatever they want and not railroad them. Both allow all the “playing to find out what happens” you can ever want. However, there may be problems when using games that have built-in mechanics to allow players to cooperatively build the game world, but that is NOT about playing to find out what happens.

    Think about it this way: you want to play a PbtA set in Middle Ages Europe. As a setting, that is as detailed as it gets, right? But in what way does that affect your ability to find out what happens? In no way. All you have is that sandbox world, your character choices are still all there and they can make all the meaningful, dramatic choices they want. What you do need to avoid is scripted plots. THAT’s where this whole story of “playing to find out what happens” comes from originally. And it is good to keep these separate, otherwise confusion will follow.


    railroading/scripted plot/DM applying force =/= level of game world detail

  23. Pedro Pereira Logically, that makes sense. I don’t disagree that game world detail does not directly affect railroading. No, I’m on board with that logic.

    What I’m not convinced is that railroading will not happen indirectly as a result of “finely-crafting a setting.” For instance, a GM has spent 4 hours designing a dungeon with a myriad of traps, monsters, puzzles, mysteries and so on. In other words, a lot of effort was spent making a very, very detailed setting. Fairly early on, what if the players decide that the challenges are not worth the risk and want to exit the dungeon in favor of a different quest? Won’t the GM be compelled to push the players to explore the dungeon, despite what the players want? That, to me, is railroading that happens indirectly as a result of too much “setting prep,” and it has nothing to do with scripting a plot. In the end, the GM blocked everyone’s escape and forced the players to beat the dungeon.

    The thing is, I’ve experienced this, not as a GM, but as a player. You could easily blame the GM, but really, he was stuck. In this particular situation, the right thing to do is to go along with the players, but doing so could mean hours of wasted hard work. If the GM didn’t spend all that time crafting the detailed setting to begin with, he wouldn’t have been compelled to railroad the players and force them to explore it.

    What if the sandbox requires the players to get item A to unlock door Z, item B to catch monster X and capture person C to get item Y? It’s not exactly scripted, but the players still have to follow a set sequence of tasks. Taken to the extreme (perhaps, get A B & C to progress, then complete J K & L to activate the machine, then to use the machine clear this 15-minute puzzle), this “sandbox” starts to resemble a scripted plot in practice. Yes, “detail” does not necessarily have to involve something like this, but it can get awfully close to it.

    On the other hand, if the GM has built a dungeon more loosely, leaving a lot of blanks, there’s little incentive for the GM to unwittingly railroad the players on a path they might not want.

  24. Ah, that is an interesting question, and you are absolutely right that many GMs will indeed railroad the players by forcing them to go trough his/hers finely crafted dungeon because otherwise all that time was wasted. Totally agree with you on that. It can indeed be a problem and is an eternal source of frustration for players and GMs alike, especially those used to railroad-as-fuck story-based modules of the Pathfinder generation (although the problem began reaching very high levels around AD&D 2nd edition, me thinks). It doesn’t surprise that so many people had such bad experiences with D&D and felt like “story-games” were some kind of second coming (and for me, they surely were).

    However, this is a common theme in old school D&D and especially the OSR. Craft a sandbox world and drop the players there to do whatever they want whenever they want. The “good” GM will simply have to accept that the players may or may not bite the carrot or may decide to leave the dungeon and explore somewhere else. It is a feature of this type of sandbox gameplay. It’s doable and people do it all the time. But if as a GM you don’t want to “waste” your time, then it’s much better to go for DW-like games. Notice also that in practice it is not that difficult to manage, though. For starters there’s a ton of material out there, free or commercial, that can easily be dropped into your game world in a such a way that it doesn’t require you to design everything from scratch. And second, usually you as the GM already know that the players decided (freely) to go explore that region or dungeon or whatever, so you can do that prep between sessions. In fact, this kind of thing happens in DW too. Jason Cordova, from what I remember, uses some published OSR dungeons (e.g. Death Frost Doom), which obviously requires at least some level of prep before dropping in the game world. And surely you yourself have experienced the situation in which you had to prep some material for the next session in response to the players’ interest and intentions in a previous session. So in practice, it’s doable. It’s a lot more work for the GM, of course, but some people love that kind of thing, so it’s all good.

  25. BTW…in my case if I design encounters or dungeons and my players don’t go the way I expected that’s ok. Those encounters and dungeons can be repurposed later. When the players think I just created that fabulous encounter “on the fly” they might not realize that it was prep from 5 sessions ago.

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