I have a new appreciation for games that are “Powered by the Apocalypse.” This badass moniker describes games are based on the rules used in D. Vincent Baker’s award winning Apocalypse World roleplaying game (now in its 2nd edition!). The first edition (published in 2010) became the framework for about a million spin-off games that recognized the genius of the system and applied it to different genres. Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel is one of these spin-offs, using the Apocalypse World rules to power a fantasy setting. This article is about some brilliant nuggets I found in the Dungeon World rules.
I have never played Dungeon World, and although it’s hard to admit it, I haven’t played Apocalypse World either. I have a keen interest in apocalyptic-y themed fun and award-winning roleplaying games, but it wasn’t until someone posted about how the Dungeon World SRD helped them run a Fate Core game that I finally took time out of my schedule to investigate.
It was worth every second.
Here are a few mechanics that I borrowed from Dungeon World for use in a Fate-based game I ran recently. These mechanics have whet my appetite for more games Powered by the Apocalypse, as well as generally improving my gamemastering. I’m sure there are more gems to be found, but hopefully this is enough to get you interested in investigating Dungeon World and other Apocalypse games for yourself!
1) Agenda, Principles
The first thing that drew me to investigate the game system was the simple gamemastering guidelines. A fellow Fate fanatic had posted that the Dungeon World Gamemastering section was great, and pointed out a few ways it was helpful to him. Dungeon World begins by laying out the gamemaster’s job in three bullet points: 1) portray a fantastic world, 2) fill the characters’ lives with adventure, and 3) play to find out what happens.
Just kidding. They go on to hammer home exactly what is NOT the gamemaster’s job, including beating the players and testing their ability to solve problems. Especially hard to hear was that it is not my job to let the characters explore my finely-crafted setting. Once I choked that part down, though, I could see the wisdom. These three points are the reason that people play fantasy roleplaying games. Other agendas tend to just get in the way.
There is then a list of Principles that the gamemaster should follow. I won’t list them here, though I will be drawing on a few of them in my other points. Suffice to say that LaTorra and Koebel simply take all the things that make a good gamemaster good and turn them into rules for the game. I took these to heart, and they changed my game for the better.
Seriously, why didn’t anyone think of this before?
2) Focus On The Story
Many games claim to be ‘story-based’ or ‘story-driven,’ and they all deliver to some extent. ‘Begin and end with the fiction’ is a gamemaster principle in Dungeon World, and the system backs the gamemaster up with the rules. What is unique about the Dungeon World rules is that they kick in only when something in the story triggers the rule. Conversely, the rules themselves generally feed back into the narrative, which mean that every interaction with the rules actually “begins and end with the fiction.” Rather than using rules to simulate the reality where a story occurs, Dungeon World ignores the simulation and instead uses rules to drive the story forward. This subtle shift in emphasis helped my players and I to focus on the fiction rather than the simulation, which ironically tended to make the game feel more real. We spent less time on using mechanics to explain situations and more time actually roleplaying. Win! We also avoided some of the sillier fantasy roleplaying conversations like “can I roll to persuade this character?” If you focus on the story, the answer is obvious: only if you make a convincing argument or have some leverage on them. So no. Or yes. Whatever makes sense in that situation!
Fronts helped me to plan the session and plant seeds for the future. One of LaTorra and Koebel’s gamemaster principles is to ‘draw maps and leave blanks.’ As anyone knows who has run a game, the best-laid plans rarely survive an encounter with the player characters. The answer? Plan less, but give your plans real teeth. Base your opposition on the player characters; what is important to them? Then advance the opposition step by step to the point that if the characters ignore it, the opposition will either suddenly or gradually destroy the things the characters love. That means that even if they spend a full session messing around in tavern in some backwater town, the plot will move forward and drag the players with it. Again, I’ve seen similar optional mechanics in other games (Aspect Events in Fate Core, for example), but LaTorra and Koeble roll it into the rules of the game, forcing you to have more fun.
4) Gamemaster Moves
The heart of Dungeon World, and I assume all Apocalypse World derivatives, is the ‘Move.’ A Move is a rule that applies in a particular game-world context. For example, the “Discern Realities” Move happens when a character closely studies a person or a situation. Beginning with the fiction, the rule tells you what to do. Usually there’s a dice roll which defines what happens, and you explain the result in the fiction. To reiterate: the difference between this and other systems is subtle, but important. The context for making a Move is defined so that rules don’t have to be applied where they don’t belong.
The best part, however, is the gamemaster’s Moves. They are a bit different. The gamemaster makes a Move in one of three situations: 1) when everyone looks to you to find out what happens, 2) when the players give you a golden opportunity, or 3) when someone fails a roll. At that point, the gamemaster chooses a Move that makes sense. There are only a dozen, but each one helps to create a compelling narrative. It means that whether a character succeeds or fails, something interesting is going to happen. This gem shines in that the story never deflates, even in the case of a failed action. It is always driven forward.
5) Reward The Desired Behaviour
The final and most powerful mechanic is the Advancement mechanic. I had to tweak it quite a bit to make it work with Fate, but I could see the value in it, and the work paid off. Dungeon World awards experience points for advancement, much like Dungeons and Dragons, but the context is different. Instead of gaining experience by fighting monsters, you gain experience by failing a roll or by successfully achieving the goals of the game. What goals? Look back at the gamemaster’s agenda, and see if these question match up at all:
1) Did we learn something new and important about the world?
2) Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?
3) Did we loot a memorable treasure?
These three questions define the purpose of the game: to explore, kill monsters, and get treasure. The great thing is that the questions can change depending on the purpose of the game. Maybe you want a game that makes political power plays and rewards intrigue. Maybe you play a game where your characters protect the innocent from supernatural evils. Whatever the point is, it can be made into one of these questions. For the fairy-tale adventure game I ran recently, I used the following questions:
1) Did we learn something new and important about the world?
2) Did we overcome a memorable challenge?
3) Did we do good in the world?
In addition to this, Dungeon World also awards experience points for portraying your character accurately. Players do this by, in character, resolving bonds and fulfilling their alignment. To convert this to Fate was super simple, because character aspects define characters in a similar way. Regardless, it was incredibly refreshing to see a roleplaying game that deliberately rewards players for playing their character!
Apocalypse World changed roleplaying games by building rules around what actually happens at the game table. It can be adapted for any setting, if Dungeon World is any indication. The rules continually refer back to the fiction, keep the game moving forward, teach gamemasters and alike players to play well, and rewards them when they do. Are you going to try it out?
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (roleplaying games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Picture Reference: https://adventurerules.blog/2017/11/15/what-i-would-change-for-dungeon-world-second-edition/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.