Dungeon World – Prescriptive & Descriptive

Dungeon World


The rules of Dungeon World reiterate throughout that the game only works if the rules and the fiction work together. This means that the rules will drive the fiction of the game, BUT ALSO, that the fiction of the game impacts the rules. The attention the system gives to this concept is constant, and you can see how important it is to the designers that the game flows as a natural story that’s not constantly burdened by the chains of the rules.

The system is clear that if someone cuts off your hand – your hand is gone. You should mark this on your character sheet. If you try to climb a rope with one hand, you’re going to have problems doing it, because the fiction demands it, not because there are rules for missing hands. Most people agree that the biggest advantage that table-top RPGs have over any other type of game is the ability of the players and GM to provide a world with texture and options that simply aren’t achievable in video games today. Dungeon World has realized that a lot of strict game systems get in the way of this fundamental power of human creativity, and emphasizes over and over that if the fiction dictates something, that something must be supported then by the rules of the game.

You can see this in the damage chapter, where the rules talk about specific damage (yet GM moves don’t explicitly deal specific damage). You can see this in the character advancement rules related to gaining special moves that aren’t part of your class because the fiction implies that you have learned new moves. The empowerment of the fiction makes Dungeon World quite a bit more narrative focused than classic D&D. Still, one of the most frustrating aspects, to me at least, of recent RPGs (I’m looking at you 4E) is the reduced significance of the fiction for the sake of mathematically sound and consistent mechanics.

From the rules on Character Change:

“Advancement, ilke everything else in Dungeon World, is both prescriptive and descriptive.  Prescriptive means that when a player changes their character sheet the character changes in the fiction.  Descriptive means that when a character changes in the fiction the player should change the character sheet to match.

This isn’t a benefit or detriment to the players or the GM; it’s not an excuse to gain more powers or take them away.  It’s just a reflection of life in Dungeon World.

… Descriptive changes only happen when the character has clearly gained access to the ability.  It’s not up to any one player to decide this – if you think a character qualifies for a new ability, discuss it as a group.”

There is a downside to some of this, and some players are going to be thinking it right now. With the fiction in control, and the GM is so in control of the fiction, the players lose some rules “they can count on.” The world begins to shift under your feet a little bit. I can see and sympathize with that point of view. Dungeon World does one other thing though that helps ameliorate that concern. Many moves in Dungeon World allow players a bit more control over the fiction of the game.  You can see this influence even in the character advancement rule above.  In this way, it becomes even a little bit more like a story-game, but I think it does so just enough to grease the wheels of adventure and file off the rough edges of a vast clunky set of rules that may, or may not, well-simulate a given scenario in the game.

Dungeon World has taken the stance that the game rules, if they are truly going to be simulationist, are going to overwhelm the game play at the table. Indeed there are so many scenarios that are somewhat different that trying to create strict simulationist rules for everything is the wrong way about it. Why not take advantage of the human element of the players and the GM to use the simple framework of Dungeon World’s rules to adjudicate each scenario as it presents itself. And if the basic framework doesn’t well-model the fiction of the game, then the fiction wins anyway and doesn’t have to abide directly by basic framework rules.


Dungeon World – Experience

Dungeon World


Dungeon World gives experience from a number of different sources. To gain a level of Dungeon World, you must spend experience points you’ve gained equal to your level + 7, so 8 points to gain 1 level to level 2, 9 points to gain a level to level 3, etc. They’ve ditched the 29,000 experience point issue that has plagued D&D from the outset of the game.

Next, Dungeon World gives you experience for a variety of different things. At the end of each session, you answer a few questions about the session to determine whether you earned an experience point for each question. Just simple enough to be very usable, just complicated enough to encourage a wide range of behaviors – not just combat.

So what kind of questions do you answer? At the end of the session, you can take the End of Session move:

End of Session

When you reach the end of a session, choose one of your bonds that you feel is resolved (completely explored, no longer relevant, or otherwise).  Ask the player of the character you have the bond with if they agree.  If they do, mark XP and write a new bond with whomever you wish.

Once bonds have been updated look at your alignment.   If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP.  Then answer these three questions as a group:

  • Did we learn something new and important about the world?
  • Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?
  • Did we loot a memorable treasure?

For each “yes” answer everyone marks XP.

For each question answered yes, each character gains an experience point. You also answer some questions about your own character

So – at the end of each session, 2-5 experience points are up for grabs. There is one other major source of experience though, and that is baked into the core mechanic. Any time you miss (6-) on any roll, you mark an experience. This means that when your character attempts an action, you either succeed in that action, succeed with a complication, or the GM makes a move and you gain an experience. Really takes a little sting out of failure doesn’t it? This “learn from your mistakes” method is a great little mechanic! The system now rewards players who get involved in the game with actions, including actions that aren’t necessarily their character’s strengths. This is a power equalizer as well. If you have a character that’s weaker than the rest, that character will likely fail more rolls over time, and gain experience faster, and become a stronger a little faster. Rewarding an experience point for failure means that, conceivable, if you’re a first level character and you are asked to attempt at least 8 rolls in a session (certainly you’ll attempt more than this), and you fail 8 rolls, you’re going to gain a level for that session.

I haven’t gone through the math of this, but I’d like to see how that works in practice. It seems that, with the experience gained on a failure rule, level progression would be quite fast in Dungeon World – maybe a level every session. The number of rolls a player might make during the course of the game could vary drastically, I think, based on the way the game is handled by the GM. The GM is given a lot of leeway in triggering the players to make certain moves, and this frequency will directly impact level progression. This is a minor issue though, since this is an easy threshold to house rule so that level progression meets the group’s expectations.

So, Dungeon World creates an experience advancement system that rewards all the behaviors the system is looking for in players and builds in a little bit of relief from the strict failure that poor dice, weaker characters, or “sub-optimal” actions can cause in a standard game of D&D.

Dungeon World – Magic Items

Dungeon World


Anyone who has played many RPGs with me know how I despise the magic item economy of D&D and Pathfinder, especially in the recent editions. I have written pretty strongly about it here before, and so I’m happy to see that Dungeon World has taken exactly my approach to magic item creation. Magic items in Dungeon World are not needed, and they aren’t factored into the math of the game for advancement. In fact, since the game has a pretty small range of advancement (after all, target numbers never change!) from 1st through 10th level, there’s not much room in the math of the game for a bunch of math adjustment magic items to give you +1 to hit, +2 to damage, +2 Strength, + 1 armor, and +2 to your will power defense.

Dungeon World accepts the premise that magic items are there to be interesting rewards, plot devices, adventure hooks, and thematic character-defining tools. We don’t think of King Arthur having a crown of + CHA, and boots of striding and a cloak of protection. We think of Arthur wielding the iconic Excalibur.

Some examples of these interesting magic items include:

Arrows of Acheron (1 ammo, 1 weight)

Crafted in darkness by a blind fletcher, these arrows can find their target in even the deepest darkness.  An archer may fire them blind, in the dark, with his eyes bound by heavy cloth and still be assured of a clean shot.  If the light of the sun ever touches the arrows, however, they come apart like shadows and dust.

The Burning Wheel (2 weight)

An ancient wooden wheel, as might appear on a war-wagon, banded with steel.  On a glance, it appears to be nothing special – many spokes are shattered and the thing seems mundane.  Under the scrutiny of magic or the eyes of an expert, its true nature is revealed: the Burning Wheel is a gift from the God of Fire and burns with his authority.

When you hold The Burning Wheel and speak a god’s name, roll+CON. *On a 7+, the god you name take notice and grants you an audience.  An audience with a god is not without a price: on a 10+, you choose one of your stats and reduce it to the next lowest modifier (for example, a 14 is +1, so it would be reduced to a 12, a +0).  *On a 7-9 the GM chooses which stat to reduce.

Once used, the Burning Wheel ignites and burns with brilliant light.  It does not confer any protection from those flames, nor does it provide any bonus to swimming.

Dungeon World – Alignment

Dungeon World

I have considered removing alignment from Lost Worlds and replacing it with something more fluid, such as a distinction that asks the characters to describe personal outlooks, motivations, or attitudes of their character. As an ode to old-school D&D, Dungeon World keeps alignment, although it simplifies things a bit. In Dungeon World, the alignments you can play include: Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic, and Lawful. The system does not use a two-axis system, instead relying on these five choices for alignment. A Good character may have lawful tendencies (or chaotic tendencies), but the choice of alignment forces the character to select their dominant personal attitude towards life.

The next thing that the system does is award experience for following your alignment. Each alignment has a series of movies that the system believes embody the spirit of the alignment. For example, if you’re a good Character, an alignment move might include “show mercy.” When you create your character, you will select an alignment move based on your alignment, and at the end of a session, if you have performed the action, you gain an experience.  As your character evolves, you can change alignments (which represents a large shift) or you can simply change alignment moves (which represent a smaller shift in focus within an alignment).

The basic alignment questions are:


  • Uphold the letter of the law over the spirit
  • Fulfill a promise of import
  • Bring someone to justice
  • Choose honor over personal gain
  • Return treasure to its rightful owner


  • Ignore danger to aid another
  • Lead others into righteous battle
  • Give up powers or riches for the greater good
  • Reveal a dangerous lie
  • Show mercy


  • Make an ally of someone powerful
  • Defeat a personally important foe
  • Learn a secret about an enemy
  • Uncover a hidden truth


  • Reveal corruption
  • Break an unjust law to benefit another
  • Defeat a tyrant
  • Reveal hypocrisy


  • Take advantage of someone’s trust
  • Cause suffering for its own sake
  • Destroy something beautiful
  • Upset the rightful order
  • Harm an innocent

In addition, the game places alignment restrictions on each class, but each alignment listed in a class comes with its own alignment move for that class.  For example, the Druid class can be Chaotic, Good, or Neutral.  Each of these three alignments come with an alignment move specific to Druids, such as:

Destroy a symbol of civilization

You could easily implement this kind of system with the classic two-axis alignment. My thought though is that I can use this in an even more deconstructed way – because the real cleverness here is that each alignment has a series of actions that grant it experience. So instead, you could select your own set of actions that you think embody your character’s outlook on life – and they could be anything. Then, the system could reward you for playing to those actions. I can foresee some difficulties with this, and it is really the same difficulty I have with backgrounds: generic choices meant to allow wide interpretation of use. Having an “alignment” or attitude aspect that is generic could be advantageous for a player for advancement, but would be worse for the game. Still, I think this is a route worth considering, because it gives players the flexibility to play characters with depth, with significant differences between them (since you’re not limited to 5-9 options), and if interesting actions are encouraged and bought-in by the group, I like that the system will encourage players to think about their character’s depth and motivation in play.

Dungeon World – Bonds

Dungeon World


I have written about Distinctions in the past, ripped from Aspects of the FATE system, but Dungeon World handles the issue in a little different way. Dungeon World asks you to select a few physical traits, and then focuses specifically on the way that your character is connected to the other characters in the game. These connections are called Bonds, and as far as I’m aware, they are pretty unique to Dungeon World.  Each character can have several bonds with other characters active at once. A bond is a relationship with another character, generally based on prior sessions (although the system does recommend formats for initial character creation bonds, and recommends structures for those bonds by character class).

One of the ways you gain experience in the system is to test and resolve the bonds you have created with the rest of the group. For example, you may have a bond with another character like, “I do not trust Erik to help me when my life is on the line; I will not rely on him in dangerous situations.” Your bonds should begin with a feeling towards another character, and then end with an action you will take based upon that feeling. As you adventure, your relationships with the other characters should come into play, and change over time as your relationships with that character change in the fiction of the game.

The system actually rewards players for testing and “resolving” these bonds. At the end of a session, you formally gain experience if you have resolved a bond with another player. Resolving a bond means that the relationship has changed or grown in some meaningful way so that the current bond, as written, should be updated or removed. You gain experience and remove the bond, replacing it with a new one.

This system formalizes the personal relationships between each character, and provides a simple mechanic for encouraging those relationships to become dynamic over the course of play.

Dungeon World – Taking Watch and Fast Travel

Dungeon World

I’ve previously written some hand-wringing blog posts about whether and how to incorporate travel rules into Lost Worlds. Dungeon World handles these things by making them standard “moves” of the game.  For example, here’s the rule for taking watch:

Take Watch

When you’re on watch and something approaches the camp roll + WIS. *On a 10+, you’re able to wake the camp and prepare a response, everyone in the camp takes +1 forward. *On a 7-9, you react just a moment too late; your companions in camp are awake but haven’t had time to prepare. They have weapons and armor but little else. *On a miss, whatever lurks outside the campfire’s light has the drop on you.

I like how this move just streamlines the whole process of worrying about light, ambient noise, stealth, perception, etc. It just takes the three possible outcomes we are interested in and delivers the answer right away so the game can keep on. Of course, like some of the other rules, some of the verisimilitude is lost here.  The difficulty is not baked into the roll, so it doesn’t seem to matter how stealthy the approaching enemy is. How stealthy the monster ends up being is baked into the player’s roll (on a 6-, that monster was stealthy after all).

Of course, the fiction should not be contradicted by the move. If a giant stone elemental is crashing through the trees, everyone is awake – no roll.

Dungeon World also gives us an interesting move for fast travel.  Traveling along a safe road generally requires no roll, everyone marks off rations and you arrive at the destination, so fast travel is baked into the game through civilization.  However, DW also gives us fast travel through dangerous areas of the world.

Take a Perilous Journey

When you travel through hostile territory, choose one member of the party to act as trailblazer, one to scout ahead, and one to be quartermaster. Each character with a job to do rolls + WIS. *On a 10+:

  • The quartermaster reduces the number of rations required by one
  • The trailblazer reduces the amount of time it takes to reach your destination (The GM will say by how much)
  • The scout will spot any trouble quick enough to let you get the drop on it

On a 7-9, each role performs their job as expected: the normal number of rations are consumed, the journey takes about as long as expected, no one gets the drop on you, but you don’t get the drop on them either.

I like how this rule allows multiple players to participate in the travel mechanic, and again directly delivers what really matters. The rules are clear that this is move is only for traveling to a specific place – if you’re wandering around in the wilderness looking for adventure, you’d make camp and take watches as normal.  Also, the rule makes traveling alone more dangerous – if you have less than 3 people the party automatically gets a “miss” (6-) on the jobs left vacant.

Like many other moves, this move does not define what happens on a miss. Moves that don’t define what happens on a miss are up to the GM to make one of the GM moves that advance the fiction of the game, and there’s a wide variety of options available to the GM to make in these circumstances to make the game more interesting, and dangerous, for the players.

Dungeon World – Specific vs General Harm

Dungeon World has a rule that tries to cover actual specific harm or wounds. This rule is borne out of the rules regarding health and the ever-present stance that all rules of the game are both “Prescriptive” and “Descriptive,” meaning that if something in the fiction happens to the character, then that thing should be reflected on the character sheet. Likewise if something is reflected on the character sheet, that thing should be reflected in the fiction as well.

So in the section on damage, the rules state:

“Damage is dealt based on the fiction.  Moves that deal damage, like hack and slash, are just a special case of this: the move establishes that damage is being dealt in the fiction.  Damage can be assigned even when no move is made, if it follows from the fiction.

HP Loss is often only part of the effect. If the harm is generalized, like falling into a pit, losing the HP is probably all there is to it. When the harm is specific, like an orc pull your arm from its socket, HP should be part of the effect but not the entirety of it. The bigger issue is dealing with the newly busted arm: how do you swing a sword or cast a spell? Likewise having your head chopped off is not HP damage, it’s just you being dead.”

This rule almost feels like a second thought – in comes early in the book and is not highlighted in any way, and it’s not referenced again by any of the GM moves. Still, the rule is clear about its intent. The GM has the capability of inflicting very specific types of damage – anything from a twisted ankle to a cut throat – and the fiction does not have to be generalized away as HP loss.

There are  pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, the game can be lively and there is no status or ongoing impact on a character that the rules can’t support, since this really allows the rules to support anything the GM can think up.  On the other hand, this rule will require a fair amount of trust between the players and the GM. The players will have to be pretty understanding if the result of some series of actions actually ends up being that their character’s arm is permanently (or even temporarily) ripped from their body, causing them to lose the ability to defend themselves.

DW gives the GM another tool to inflict more general maladies on the players, specifically with Debilities. There are six Debilities, and each one reflects an injury to one of the six attributes: Weak (Str), Shaky (Dex), Sick (Con), Stunned (Int), Confused (Wis), and Scarred (Cha). The effect of debilities are simple. You suffer a -1 to your attribute modifier when making any rolls. Debilities don’t stack.

This makes debilities feel a little bit weak, but they’re clearly meant to stand in as a quick and easy way of applying some form of attribute damage without getting in the way of the flow of the game. Debilities are also harder to heal than HP, making them stick around a bit longer. Again though, the rules are still clear about the fiction coming first:

“Debilities don’t replace descriptions and using the established fiction. When someone loses an arm, that doesn’t mean they’re Weak, it means they have one less arm. Don’t let debilities limit you. A specific disease can have whatever effects you can dream up. Sick is just a convenient shorthand for some anonymous fever picked up from a filthy rat.”