Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dungeon World, OSR, Indie Games, Story Games

So I owe a friend an explanation of why I'm not super enthused about Dungeon World and am not really planning on running it. Because he is enthused, and so are some other friends of mine, and they're smart people who I like to game with. So this is for him, but also for you if you're interested in rambling musings on Dungeon World and D&D and indie games and so on.

So ok, Dungeon World is a current indie / story game D&D alternative. It seems to be really successful and it's coming at a time when people are looking at D&D and D&D alternatives again, in the post-D&D4, new world of Pathfinder and the rise of the OSR and the continuing growth and diversification of indie/story gaming and D&D Next being a year out.

And Dungeon World lives in the indie gaming / story gaming community part of the gaming community, though I get the sense that it's been pretty successful at appealing to people beyond that immediate community as well.

So to start with, indie game circles are (and have always been) gaming circles, which means that there is a lot of D&D in their blood. Now, D&D in the blood means different things to different players -- the version you started with or played a lot recently is likely to cast a long shadow over what you mean when you say D&D. I'm going to be non-committal because a lot of people are involved here and have different ideas about what the game means. But anyway, basic point is, indie and story gamers are gamers, and lots and lots of them have played lots and lots of D&D and maybe started with it and I'm pretty sure that lots and lots of them play lots and lots of D&D every week while talking about indie and story games on the internet and yearning to play those games instead. But maybe they don't have a group that's into playing stuff other than D&D. It iss the lingua franca of gaming, the alpha and the omega.

Now since the very beginning of the current incarnation of the indie gaming scene, there's generally always been an indie/story game community RPG that has been there for people into indie/story gaming but not wanting to play D&D for whatever reason (there are plenty of both good and bad reasons here and you have seen both if you're on the internet). Back in the early days of the Forge, we had Clinton R. Nixon's "Donjon" (that grew out of Clinton and a friend of his playing one of the red box D&Ds one day and improvising and loving it). Later during the early days of the Story Games forum "Red Box Hack" had its time in the spotlight. Right now it's "Dungeon World," which is I think pretty clearly the most successful indie/story gaming D&D alternative. These games are like Rolemaster and The Fantasy Trip and Tunnels & Trolls and Runequest and Palladium Fantasy, all of which grew out of some sort of dissatisfaction with or search for an alternative to D&D. They're all D&D-like, in a lot of ways, in terms of their basic building blocks. Some were especially vocal about being reactions against D&D or aspects of it. Runequest is famous for that, and read Steve Jackson talking about TFT in Space Gamer if you want to hear a guy talking about how he's fixing D&D and making a game that actually makes sense. Looking back on it, it seems to me that at the time Steve Jackson didn't really entirely understand D&D, so some of his criticisms are of the "This game isn't good for doing this thing it wasn't especially designed to be good for doing" type. In the end, The Fantasy Trip is distilled awesome, so I don't much care that in part its design is based on a bad analysis of D&D.

Back in the days of Donjon on the Forge, I was pretty excited about it, and we had some fun playing it, but I house ruled it from day one (I made "classes" for it, essentially, to better emulate D&D). We probably played it half a dozen times and I remember laughing as hard as I have ever laughed when a friend's character drowned in an underground river he had jumped into in plate armor without really looking into the hole in the cave floor carefully first. But in the end, the game's real legacy for me was that it got me to give another look at my copies of classic D&D, so thank you Clinton R. Nixon for that. I ended up reading it and playing it in Hong Kong and realizing how cool it was and how well it held together. Donjon was interesting because the designer thought it was designed to do one thing -- Gamism/Step On Up play, to use Forge jargon -- but it was really not very good for that at all. What it really was was a game about emulating D&D -- it was a D&D-like, and playing Donjon was basically a way of celebrating the fictional tropes and gameplay of classic versions of D&D.

A lot of games do this, including all the story/indie gaming D&D-likes above.

Because D&D's building blocks are really very rich and compelling, from the dungeon itself to weird D&D monsters, to adventuring parties, to meeting in a tavern, to... well... Jeff Rients's immortal words"You play Conan, I play Gandalf.  We team up to fight Dracula."

That is pretty compelling stuff. D&D is a glorious, anachronistic pastiche, a hodgepodge, a medley, and one that is much more than the sum of its parts. And a lot of people want to play with these building blocks.

But not all of them want to play D&D. I'm going to stay away from why (because that usually turns into an exercise in speculative mind reading, which I am not good at, and neither are you).

So ok, for whatever reason, you don't want to play D&D, but $80,000 says you want to play with the stuff of D&D. What are your options? You can play GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or Rolemaster or Palladium Fantasy or many other things, but what if you're really enthusiastic about indie/story games -- they really excite you? Well, you have options, and right now Dungeon World is leading that pack.

But what if you like D&D? Well, you're less likely to be in the market for a Dungeon World game. You probably just don't need it. And if you really like D&D, like you like it enough to blog about it or go on the internet and argue with people on forums about it or whatever, well, in that case you probably also have opinions about it. And if that's the case, you may read Dungeon World and think, "Huh? This is a) fixing a problem D&D doesn't have or b) doing something I can already do with D&D or c) missing the point of D&D and also a lot of this is d) misrepresenting D&D." And you may also see some things and go, "Hey, that's cool, I like that. I think I'll steal that." You might even read it and if you're lucky what you want D&D to be will resonate with what it does and then you'll probably just dig Dungeon World. The art and design is good at celebrating some aspects of D&D's mélange, and it uses some nice tricks from Apocalypse World in terms of how dice are read that encourage attention to what's happening right now at this moment and what could go right, wrong, or sideways.

So now I'm coming back around to getting closer to answering my friend's questions about why I am not personally all that interested in Dungeon World. For starters, I'm in the happy with D&D group. I'd run/play B/X or BECM/RC D&D any time or any other classic version of the game (TSR D&D). I'm even happy to play 3.x/PF and I think D&D Next is going to turn out to be something I'll like. So I don't need an alternative way to play D&D, not really. Also, I have opinions about D&D, so yes, I read DW and think, "Huh? This is a) missing the point or b) doing something I can already do or c) fixing a non-problem and d) misrepresenting D&D but also d) oh hey yeah, I can steal that." On top of that, I also have opinions about Apocalypse World, and I also think that Dungeon World misses the point of Apocalypse World. So there's that. I think AW is a good package that gives you what it's supposed to give you -- it provides the tools to develop a compelling post apocalyptic cluster fuck situation in which people are having to deal with threats and sex and death and each other, and it's good at that. In trying to take the AW chassis and make a game that's about celebrating or deconstructing or being D&D-not-D&D, I think Dungeon World takes some things from AW and uses them for things they're not designed to do. So I'm reading it thinking, "If I want to play D&D, I'll play D&D, and it will be good -- and if I want to play Apocalypse World, I'll play Apocalypse World, and it will be good -- and unfortunately I don't think this game is mixing these things together in ways that hold together. Also, I've had my days of enthusiasm for celebrating D&D via not-D&D, and that was ten years ago, so now I'm a little jaded when story games go that route and it's really hard for me to give them an even shot at it. Can it be done in an interesting way? Oh yes. I mean, I learn to think about things in new ways every time someone does it, so it's good for that. Plus, I mean, Steve Jackson missed the point of D&D with The Fantasy Trip and made something awesome, so that's always a possibility.

In the end, I've played Dungeon World twice, I own the pdf, and I'd play it again. I don't hate it or anything. But it also doesn't really speak to me, so that's why I don't have it in my queue of games to run in the near future.


  1. Your friend sounds handsome and smart. And handsome.

  2. Non-D&D indie games riffing on D&D want two things that all indie games also secretly (or not-so-secretly want): sales and players.

    Writing as someone who was perpetually "that guy in the corner" at the con running something in a modern setting or with weird rules sets while the D&D RPGA gamers had hordes of folks breaking down the door, I can say that yes, most indie gamers want to be with the hordes, and not in the corner.

    Anything that's even remotely similar to D&D has so fewer barriers to gathering folks to play and to possibly sell the game, so your claim about it being "in the blood" is definitely spot on.

    1. That's a good point as well, Evan. I've noticed what you're describing at Games On Demand even just standing in line to sign up for a game. D&D and D&D-like are much more known quantities in gaming circles. I imagine that making the elevator pitch for a game that deviates from those tropes/expectations too much would be tough.

      Hell, I have trouble selling people on Street Fighter at cons and it is a well known property, and one using a familiar enough system (a variant of the White Wolf house system). And my enthusiasm for it is real.

  3. Excited as I am about my shiny new copy of Dungeon World (I'm a sucker for cute move names), I had a similar reaction to 13th Age. It's a cool game, but by the time I played it I was so over-saturated with D&D and D&D alternatives, some of which I liked and some of which I didn't, that I couldn't bring myself to feel strongly about it.

    1. Hi Lula,

      I had the same response to 13th Age, for the same reasons. It might be a perfectly good game. I like some of the previous work of the designers. But I have all the D&D I need, but any FRP that is specifically positioned as a D&D-like or D&D alternative has a really steep hill to climb to get me to really look at it these days.

  4. I think you are pretty spot with most of this article, especially for experienced gamers that have played D&D. I think where Dungeon World might be a little more successful than D&D is with new gamers and children, mostly because of the simplicity and flexibility of the game play. While I did really enjoy playing Dungeon World as a one-shot at GenCon, I think it would get stale quickly in a campaign (a problem we did not have when playing Apocalypse World for an extended length of time). Thanks for your thoughts Rich, always an interesting read!

  5. Glad to hear that rang true to you as well, Jacque. I think you're right that AW is well-suited to campaign play. In fact, I think it's not particularly good for one shots. It probably works best with 4-5 players as a campaign.