Dungeon World actually contains some procedures and advice on adapting material. Though I know the game well, I'm only now doing a thorough cover-to-cover read since my hard copy arrived, so I missed this section.
Appendix 3 (p. 382) is all about converting existing adventures into a form that suits Dungeon World's structure and the GM's agenda and principles in particular. Briefly:
- Review your agenda and principles, as a guide for exploiting the published material.
- Review the adventure, looking more at themes and interesting playing pieces that can fulfil your agenda, then put it away. You don't want to convert all the details faithfully, since you want to be faithful to Dungeon World first. Focus on threats, dangers, neat magic, fantastic places, and interesting NPCs and monsters and their agendas – stuff that would be in an adventure Front in the first place. Ignore or mangle stats, linear plots, and square-by-square details. Steal liberally, discard freely, and add new ideas.
- Redraw the maps in your own hand, leaving blanks. Alternatively, use the originals, but don't look up things in the map key – if you remember it and it's cool and suits that moment in your game then it's good; if you can't remember it then it wasn't interesting enough and you should make up something in normal Dungeon World fashion to fill it. Play to find out what is in the blanks on the map and in your memory.
- Pick a couple forces and make them Fronts. Follow the normal procedures for picking and making Fronts, but now you're exploiting material instead of just your own imagination. Blend them.
- Don't forget stakes questions. These are about reminding you to leave the best blanks for discovery during play.
- Convert the ideas of monsters, focusing on what they do instead of their numbers.
- Look at what magic items are for in the adventure, rather than treating them as raw loot. Raw loot is not part of DW's reward cycle!
Again, this is all for converting an adventure, but it gives us solid guidance for a setting since the adventure is the raison d'être for the setting in a game of Dungeon World. Let's pull in the procedures of the First and Second Session to see what I mean.
The First Session: Blanks & Questions
In the first session, your job is to set the PCs' life of adventure into motion immediately once play starts. No wandering around a gorgeously-detailed countryside looking for adventure – put them right in the middle of a situation that demands reaction right away. The suggestions in the text – in a tense negotiation, at the mouth of a dungeon, ambushed, spying on a band of orcs – these all put the moment of play ahead of the setting. Setting comes second.
So, to adapt a setting, review it as you would an adventure. Look for the interesting bits you can remix. Redraw the map from memory, leaving blanks and thinking of questions and pondering the forces at work you find neat. Then zoom into a single location that you want to combine with the creative unpredictability of the players and brew up some adventure ideas for it. That's where your setting begins to actually exist once play starts – establish details during play, and all else is just your ideas, to be used or discarded when the game gets there. Set up your initial situation, and let the moves snowball.
You can work up a whole dungeon or adventure, but you don't need to – a few hours of play can easily be filled by letting moves snowball and doing the normal first-session things. Ask questions and use the answers. Tuck away interesting facts that play establishes. Bring the NPCs your players actually focus on to life and forget that anyone named Elminster or Vecna might have existed in an alternate reality version of this world. Fold, spindle, mangle, and crease the setting until you'd make the post office blush.
The Second Session: Fronts
Have your first session, and gather all the ideas that you normally do in DW when there is no pre-made setting, and let it simmer a day or two. Then do your second-session prep as the book prescribes (p. 183).
Think of the forces behind or near the action of the first session. Which ones are adventure fronts? Make a couple. Which, if any, could be a campaign front? Since you started with action, the direction of a campaign might already be emerging from the creative chaos. Make a loose campaign front out if that.
Especially remember that you will not be doing a Grand Tour Of The Setting – make your fronts relevant to the PCs now, here, and scope them to fit your 5–12 sessions. The game might go elsewhere (follow it!), but right now you should focus on immediately relevant things to help you resist the scope of a typical published setting. Think of novels: they focus on narrow slices of setting, where the conflict unfolds. You can always start on a second saving-the-world once this campaign wraps up.
This is also when you can consider some custom moves to highlight the unique character of the setting. Are interactions between gods and mortals an important thing? Maybe a custom move that triggers when you swear and oath or when you invoke divine intervention would be cool. Are there places where magic is twisted and broken from the fallout of cosmic events? A move that triggers on using magic there, or that adds a new 7–9 option to Cast A Spell would suit. Is there a dangerous place nearby, a political situation, or a renown person, near the PCs that they might interact with? Custom moves will say something about their importance and place in the world. Some of these moves might be attached to fronts, monsters, or locations, or they might be pervasive and attached to the world. It's all good.
The Last Word
Let the setting be just so many disposable ideas as your own normally are when creating your group's unique Dungeon World with your players, until the setting details are established through play.