This is how I view the highest-level structure of DW:

This is how I view the highest-level structure of DW:

This is how I view the highest-level structure of DW:

Dungeon World (like AW) is a game of rules that modify a conversation. That conversation refers to a simulated world, which is modified by the conversation and in turn shapes the space of what is reasonable for the conversation to say at any point. The world does not have any more reality than that — it doesn’t “do” anything itself, unless the (rule-governed) conversation causes an update.

For example, if the Red Knights haven’t been mentioned for six weeks of game time, they exist in a space of possibilities – they could be here, they could be there, they could be anywhere within six weeks travel of wherever they were last. The conversation can bring them into the current scene (or show their very obvious effects e.g. having burnt down a town and left their flags all over it) as long as that is consistent with the time, the distance, and whether of all of the chaos shrines in all the mountains of the world there is some plausible reason for them to show up in this one.

What the Red Knights don’t do is move around in the background, in some factual sense, even in the GM’s head. The GM may have ideas about this, but they’re merely ideas until the live conversation makes them fact. The GM’s prep is raw material, prompts, aids, but not reality.

I.e. the possibility and plausibility space is “real” beyond the conversation (and each player plus GM will be independently monitoring it to some degree) but the precise facts there are not.


1. Is the above consistent with how you play?

2. Is the above consistent with the current RAW?

3. Do you think the above what is Latorra and Koebel intended?

12 thoughts on “This is how I view the highest-level structure of DW:”

  1. The improvisational style of MCing you describe is well-supported by Apocalypse Engine games. I might go so far as to say it’s the author’s intended play style, and certainly how I (a consummately lazy MC) usually approach it.

    However, nothing breaks if the MC lays more concrete plans. The whole Fronts system is designed to help the MC track what’s happening “off screen.”

  2. Fronts are where things move in the background, either during play or between sessions. The GM can say “hmm they didn’t do anything against the Red Knights, so they achieved their next goal” and then think of how to show this information to the players.

  3. By and large, that overview is beautiful and consistent with the way I run it. But like Marshall Brengle and Aaron Griffin pointed out, some GM prep occupies a sort of space between a wavefront of possibilities and “Actual Fact” in the shared imagined space.

    Fronts are a significant area where I make GM moves off camera, and I keep track of the current “orientation” of dynamic threats, which may include current “positions” as well as “directions”. Of course, that always leaves an infinite amount of detail unknown, and that unknown detail is just a wavefront of possibilities until realized through narration.

    On the other hand, Fronts always contain un-narrated details that I consider more or less “concrete” for the sake of all the other narration I contribute at the table. I might realize in play that something I thought was nailed down could be reinterpreted, but for the most part I consider it a duty to portray a coherent world (however fantastic it may be) so the players can use reason and experience to make choices and to contribute constructively to the shared imagined space.

    That means I try to consider where armies might be based on not just based on where they could turn up in 6 weeks of travel, but also based on the knowledge they plausibly had and could have gained, for example. To me, that’s makes them somewhat more concrete in my mind as the GM, and makes them more concrete in the calculus of the players.

    In a world that includes fortune-tellers, visions of grim portents, and other “special” knowledge, that could still mean I sometimes junk what I thought NPCs were planning or doing. That makes it closer to the wavefront than the Giant 4-D Chessboard.

    But my discipline is to not think that far ahead in my Fronts. My grim portents on the Adventure Front are limited to things we would likely see on camera next session—and no later than the session after that—if the players fail to ameliorate a threat. They are pretty concrete and ready to be unchained.

    I purposely keep my Campaign Front portents less operationally concrete. I make them vivid enough to be meaningful if the players catch a glimpse of the future or trigger one this session. But my grip on them is loose, and they often change significantly after any given session. Sometimes that’s because they were a wavefront, but most often its because the players have changed the conditions so radically that the other NPCs and factions have to regroup.

  4. Sorry, Rob Alexander! TL;DR:

    1. What you said is how I play, with the proviso that some prep occupies a space between (as described above).

    2. I believe I run it RAW, or within a standard deviation of RAW: RAW as interpreted by a reasonable person who has played a bunch of RPGs.

    3. I believe that the way I play (with the above proviso) is more supported by Adam Koebel’s commentary that I’ve read than Sage Latorra’s—but close to their intentions.

    And I could be wrong. 😉

  5. Is this consistent with how I play?

    Mostly, yeah. Something’s not usually ‘true” until it’s established on screen, and until then it’s just notes and plans. But the notes and plans are usually pretty concrete.

    It’s also worth noting that, because the game is a discussion, sometimes things that are established on screen get retconned due to conversation. From as simple as a player taking back their action because they had a different picture of the situation, to as complex as “hey guys, I was really off my game on the last session, and in order to get us to a satisfying conclusion next session, I think these things should haven’t happened instead, cool?”

    Is this consistent with current RAW?

    Yeah, I think so. But as Marshall Brengle said, nothing breaks if you prep more concretely. You just have to be more careful about where you ask the players for input.

    Is this what Koebel and LaTorra intended?

    Largely, yeah. But I think they were pretty ambiguous about it. The more I play and analyze and discuss this text, the more I think they left that ambiguity intentionally.

  6. John at Deep Six Delver — where you say “That means I try to consider where armies might be based on not just based on where they could turn up in 6 weeks of travel, but also based on the knowledge they plausibly had and could have gained, for example” … that doesn’t necessarily entail you holding prep as fixed. In theory you could think about that knowledge as part of deciding whether to introduce them right now as your GM move.

    Now, perhaps that’s impractical at the table, with all else you’re juggling. Is that what you mean here?

  7. Rob Alexander, you’re right. That kinda came into focus while I was writing, but I didn’t want to make it incomprehensible (and even longer) with too many equivocations and edge-case considerations.

    Here is one example of an “invisible” thing that I generally hold more-or-less “fixed”:

    Monster stats. If they encounter someone once, I might use generic stats from the book or put together tentative stats using the questionnaire. But if the monster survives and becomes an interesting and meaningful part of the game, I will go through the monster questionnaire for this specific individual.

    Then, even if the players interact with them dozens of times and play never exposes their stats, I tend to keep them the same, excepting what might change from regular growth and learning, and sometimes when the players add new monster lore that casts the monster in a new light.

    But even those changes are minor unless the monster undergoes drastic changes in the fiction (onscreen or off): I may update a move or two, add a move, change its impulse, or write some custom player-facing moves to reflect something that happened in the fiction, or clarify how a monster move might work in certain circumstances (like, in lieu of triggering Defy Danger).

    For contrast, Matt Colville talks about jiggering monster stats on the fly during an encounter in order to get the outcome he wants. It’s invisible to the players, so their image of the monster is unaffected. I guess I find that ungentlemanly. The challenge is the challenge. If they don’t know what the challenge is that they are getting into, it’s because they didn’t gather intelligence, consult their knowledge, or study the situation closely—not because I’m secretly changing the parameters of the challenge offscreen.

    I could give more examples besides monster stats, but I’m pressed for time. What I don’t do is maintain a giant conspiracy board tracking the movements of every “active unit” in the setting, or keep up the captains logs of every ship in the armada, or anything like that. In that sense, what you said is a perfect description of how I treat stuff that’s “at large” in the fiction.

    But I have never thought that any RPG demands that, and I can’t imagine doing it no matter what game I was running. It would just be a lot of work, and almost never be relevant to the events that happen at the table. I don’t want to burden my addled brain with work that’s better suited to a massive computer simulation.

    One exception: When the players changed history in my current Dungeon World campaign, it erased 17 sessions of campaign events, and reset the world to “Session 2” status, with a few twists. I went back over my session notes and created a timeline of what the factions were “really doing” offscreen, when it had to be nailed down for the sake of events we saw onscreen. This became important, because they took a different route and made a lot of different choices, and I wanted to enable them to make choices based on experience and reason.

    That timeline was a lot of work, and I definitely would not want to do that for every session. 😉

  8. Echoing what John at Deep Six Delver said, I don’t think there’s much to your description, Rob Alexander, that’s terribly specific to DW or AW style play.

    As the GM, your prep and your sense of off-screen situational awareness is finite. And the idea of “prep as probability waves” is deeply traditional and at least as present in the OSR as it is in DW.

    Like, of course you don’t know exactly where every goblin is on every turn of dungeon exploration. That’s why you have wandering monster/random encounter checks.

    Of course you don’t have every item in the room detailed out. You have the key features (a chest, a poison needle trap, a bed, a letter from The Boss) but you don’t decide if the bedding is wool or linen until someone asks.

    The difference between OSR style dungeons and DW dungeons is, I think, more about priorities and degrees of improvisation than it is about any fundamental difference in concrete prep vs. probability waves. An OSR approach puts an emphasis on the dungeon as a concrete space to explore, but the details and the inhabits all exist in probability clouds that are resolved by random tables and GM improvisation.

    A DW approach can do the same thing (using different mechanics to resolve potentials into realities: GM moves), but it’s also more comfortable with the space itself being more fluid and improvised.

  9. When I’ve used fronts in play the pieces are moving around in the background. They are what I’m daydreaming about and what the players uncover through their actions.

    If the Red Knights don’t come up in 6 weeks of play I’d probably take a hard look at the way I’m writing up my fronts and working to get them in play. That said, I don’t mind a front laying dormant for months until the players uncover it. The nature of them is that they are moving, getting things done, answering those questions asked during their creation and moving in dynamic ways.

  10. Jeremy Strandberg What’s special about AW and DW is how they actually provided explicit tools to deal with the finite nature of off-screen situational awareness. You say “of course you don’t know exactly where every goblin is” – but until AW, games left a great big blank about what exactly you do instead. Tools like random encounters were part of an answer, but AW was the first game (that I could find) that really addressed this issue, and in that absence all kinds of thorny issues can and do result. I have definitely read about trad players and GMs that thought it was unfair if every threat of significance wasn’t explicitly tracked when it was off-screen (particularly in games where there are relatively few highly dangerous threats, e.g. Call of Cthulhu).

    That blog series I posted earlier gives a tour of how these issues have been dealt with (or not dealt with!) over the years.

  11. Jeremy Strandberg To an extent, sure. Dungeon World play, done RAW, is not exceptional. Lots of games are played this way, especially if we only look at the player’s view. A recent blog post by Beloch Shrike tries to describe the (implicit) core mechanic of D&D (, and ends up with something very like DW’s (explicit) core loop.

    But, as in so many other things, DW makes explicit what other games leave explicit. It explicitly codifies one style of GMing, and rules out others. As Morgan Davie points out (above, and in, there’s more than one way to handle this kind of thing, and different games give different advice (more rarely, different rules). In particular, most games commit to much less on this issue — they leave it to the GM to work out what to do.

    On the specific issue we’re describing, even Apocalypse World, as written, is slightly different DW — it says that some prep should be held as definite and certain. (see Morgan again, at

    Most importantly to me, what I say above is not always how I’m trying to behave as a GM. When I run DW as above, I’m thinking “only the established fiction is real”. That feels very different to “the world in my notes is real, even when unseen”. It’s a different GMing experience.

    Committing to concrete prep comes with benefits (e.g. I can design the world to be “balanced” in some way) and costs (e.g. it’s harder to narrate exactly what the game needs in this moment). I never keep to my prep perfectly. I can’t, and I don’t try. But when am in “my prep is real” mode, I experience myself as starting from that ideal and then degrading as gracefully as I can. That feels very different.

    I take the different feel to be a cue that different things are happening, and that if you studied my GMing closely you’d be able to distinguish the two modes. In any case, I’m a player too. How the GMing experiences feels to me matters.

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