Reflections on Dungeon World

My group has recently wrapped up a high fantasy campaign, our first time using Dungeon World. It was rocky in most of the ways that the first time using an unfamiliar system will tend to be rocky. Those hitches get ironed out with practice. But there were also dissatisfactions that have more to do, I reckon, with Dungeon World itself. Now that we've moved on to a different game for a while, I'm actively looking for ways to address them the next time we circle back to DW.

The tricky part, I realize, is that I want two things that, though not quite diametrically opposed, tend to pull in different directions. One is flexibility. The other is specificity.

A major strength of DW is the way it fosters improvisation. A GM is free, of course, to prep as much material as they'd like ahead of time, and in our initial campaign I spent an appreciable amount of time each week doing just that. But the core rules are distinctly tooled for building out a world through play. Why would I eschew that? High fantasy games are numerous enough that there's little point in sticking to one if you're not going to lean into the features that distinguish it. So choosing a different game the next time we want to play high fantasy is an option, but I enjoy the way DW plays. Part of that is its flexibility, and I want to preserve that quality.

The specificity I want has to do with setting. As I understand it, DW was designed to make the conventions of old-school high fantasy games playable in the newer style ushered in by Apocalypse World. The game's setting is generic out of fidelity to those conventions. It defines some character classes and includes a bestiary, but to the degree that DW presents a broader world, it does so mostly by gesturing toward the familiar. All of which is fine, but lends itself very easily to a generality that, by tasting a bit like everything, ends up having no distinct flavor of which to speak. Maybe I've been spoiled by Ultraviolet Grasslands, but what I'd like is for DW to present a world that asserts some identity of its own.

The major options offered by the game for fleshing out its setting are to either “convert” material from other games, or elaborate your own. The first has limited appeal. Converting D&D modules wouldn't really address my complaint, of course. Converting a more idiosyncratic setting might, but at least for comparison's sake, I'd rather run the more specific setting by its own ruleset at least once or twice.

So that leaves devising a completely new setting and gearing it to work with DW. The trick is to get it to do that without undermining the strength of either.

#DungeonWorld