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In various comments on this site, DW was mentioned as

[Dungeon world/Apocalypse World] is really more required reading for any designer today working on innovation in mechanics

Having read the ruleset, I do not (yet?) see why some posters feel this is such a major step forward.

A few examples of mechanics mentioned as innovations are those:

Moves, unified power mechanics

There is a unified mechanic for 'doing stuff' called 'moves'. Reading the moves, this sounds like 4e powers or 4e monster powers to me. While this unified mechanics is certainly a good thing, it's hardly an innovation of DW. What makes moves special?

Hard boundaries on scaling

There is (almost) no scaling, and hit/miss is not dependent on enemies, but only on attacker. A cornerstone of many rules-light games, and something that can certainly be seen as a good thing. What's different or noteworthy about DW's implementation?

No initiative

Why is this a good thing? I know it from rules-lite games; when I've experienced this it often lead to a situation where a small part of the group had the majority of the spotlight.

Less tactics

No flanking etc. In-combat positioning and grid-based combat are a cornerstone of dungeon crawls and D&D forever, war game roots and all. How is this supported in DW? Does it even make sense to use a battle mat or grid for DW combat?

XP for misses

Trying to soften the blow on failure is certainly a good goal, but again - nothing unique. It also reminds me a bit of Burning Wheels 'you can only advance through failure' - which I felt was detracting from good game experience.

So...what am I missing? What are the major innovations in Dungeon World compared to D&D 3.5/Pf/4e? Why is Dungeon World (or Apocalypse World) considered a seminal work for innovative mechanic design?

A good answer would contain a short discussion of each of the major innovations of DW over older D&D variants, and what problem this change solves. This also applies if the mechanic itself is not new but is used in a novel way.

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Bah to these comments. Answer the question. –  mxyzplk Jan 22 at 2:15
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Apocalypse World's innovation was collecting a lot of innovation in one very tight game. Dungeon World's innovation was making it more accessible. Unfortunately, the DW book isn't great at conveying why it works; I needed to see it in play before I got it. Once I introduced it to my local group, they lept on it like starving hyenas on roadkill; it replaced an OD&D and a D&D 4e game in short order. –  Alan De Smet Jan 27 at 21:47
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4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Dungeon World is a narrative game, at it's core, that distinguishes itself from D&D in the way it tells stories. The innovations are in the core philosophies and mechanics. Let me address each of your points in turn:

Moves as Powers

Moves are NOT just powers. Many are closer to D&D's feats. Others have no mechanical effect at all. Some simply tell you that your character can do a thing, without giving any rules for it. The real key to class moves is that they provide distinct flavour to the characters, as well as story-telling hooks. Take a look at the paladin's Quest, or the fighter's Signature Weapon, and notice that they're more about interesting character details than they are mechanical effects.

No Scaling

Love this. A level one character and a level 10 character can coexist without any real issues, and being level 10 doesn't mean that early monsters are no longer a threat. DW's implementation of this isn't anything particularly special, but it works really well in the context of the rest of the game. Because stats don't increase by that much over the course of a campaign, you still end up with interesting results for die rolls (see Interesting Failure, below).

No Initiative

I also love this, but it's a tricky beast that takes a lot of getting used to. The GM should be directing the action and the spotlight such that every player gets a chance to be involved. But note that there are certain situations where it makes perfect sense to focus on one character or another. Combat scenes in DW should follow the flow of the action, not be restricted to a turn-by-turn basis.

Less Tactics

Of course there's flanking. But it's handled narratively, not mechanically. See, for example, the thief, who gets to use Backstab on a surprised enemy. One of the ways to accomplish such surprise is for the thief to have positioned himself behind the enemy while another character distracts him. Or perhaps a bard chooses to taunt and distract an enemy, and meanwhile the fighter attacks the enemy from behind. Remember that if you attack something that isn't fighting back, you don't make the Hack & Slash move, you simply do damage (or whatever else you're trying to do).

Overall, the players have infinite freedom in what they can try during a fight. The key is to respect the fiction and pay attention to the situation. If there's interesting terrain, tactics are involved. If the enemy has only one weak point, tactics are involved. If there are many enemies, tactics are involved.

XP for Misses

Not earth-shattering, no, but this mechanic encourages players to try things they might not normally do, which is no small feat. Rewarding players for failure makes the players more invested, and even excited about failing. More on this in a second.

There are plenty of the innovations that you've missed entirely in your analysis. These tend to appear in the core of the rules, not necessarily readily apparent. They're apparent in the philosophy of the rules, if not the mechanics themselves. And many of them are in the GM-facing rules, not the player-facing rules.

Interesting Failure

Failure in DW is interesting. Note that all moves involving dice rolls have only three possible results: success, success with complication, or failure.

when you fail, the GM has every right (and in fact, is mandated by the rules) to drop a hard move on you. A failure is never simply "nothing happens." Instead, a failure leads to a change in the situation: you take harm (and not necessarily just HP damage), you get separated from your friends, you lose your stuff, you encounter some portent of future badness, etc. This is the real key, here, that keeps the game moving and keeps the stories interesting.

On that note, the most common result is success with complications, which is also interesting. Take a look at Defy Danger, probably the most commonly used move in the game, in which most successes come with a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice. Plain old success (e.g. you dodge out of the way of the falling boulder) isn't as interesting as complicated success (e.g. you dodge out of the way, but you either lose your weapon or your backpack in the landslide).

Mechanics that Encourage Storytelling

Take a look at the Spout Lore move. When a player request information of the GM, the GM is encouraged to ask the player how they know that information. The player gets to use that as an excuse to add information about their character (and the world) to the story. Or how about the Bard's A Port in the Storm? It mandates the GM tell you something new and interesting about the world every time you set foot in a place you've been before. Moves like these litter the rules.

Collaborative Character Creation

Players create characters during the first session, with each other and with the GM. The GM is expected (again, mandated by the rules) to ask questions, using the player's character choices to inform the setting. In the last game I ran, one player decided he wanted his Fighter to have scarred skin (as is one of the look choices on the Fighter's character sheet). I asked him how he got those scars, and he decided they were from fighting in a war. I used that idea to decide that the world was one that had only recently found peace, with tensions still running high while people slowly reconstruct civilization. Had the player suggested that he got the scars fighting as a gladiator, for example, that would have let to an entirely different setting decision. And that was just one question out of dozens that I asked the players.

And then there are bonds, which are statements of relationship between characters. This gets players thinking not only about themselves, but about how they relate to each other. The bonds themselves are vague enough to leave a lot of room for the players to come up with specifics, but defined enough to really cement the relationships.

More

There's probably a bunch more that I'm missing, but I've written enough, methinks, so I'll leave it at that. The other answers here are also really good.

It should be noted that most of these things aren't revolutionary in and of themselves. Each has been done before in other games, but what makes Dungeon World such a great game is how well all of it is put together, and how cleanly each mechanic is implemented.

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It looks like my answer is currently picked as the best one, but I personally think @SevenSidedDie's answer is the best one. –  Mike Riverso Jan 25 at 7:19
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Dungeon World is an odd beast. If looked at through the lens of existing D&D experience, it doesn't look like anything different, and lots of its differences seem stupid. To really appreciate what it does differently you have to spend some time immersing your brain in it.

I'm a veteran, but I still keep learning new things about the game—it's like a pile of koans that reward returned meditation, or a newspaper chess problem that is inexplicable except with long study. I've seen a lot of people approach Dungeon World with confusion about why anyone thinks it's cool, and I've seen how much conversation is sometimes required. On the plus side, that means there's a lot of existing material you can benefit from.

Since that means that the wheel has already been invented, and I can point you to those conversations. Pointing you at existing help is going to work much better in a Q&A format than just doing an info-dump that may or may not catch your exact disconnects with the text.

What follows, then, isn't an answer in itself for what makes Dungeon World innovating, but is instead a roadmap for anyone who wants to understand Dungeon World but doesn't quite yet.

First ensure the baseline

You may have already done this, but it's super-important so I'm going to risk redundancy.

The first thing is to read all of Dungeon World. Unlike D&D, the "system" is not found in what looks like the "player section"—the classes and the basic moves—and reading just the part where a D&D veteran expects to find the system can result in the feeling of having understood the system while completely missing it. The actual system is in the interplay between the GM's rules and the players' rules—yes, the GM has rules they follow just like any other player—and understanding, really, really understanding the GM's section is necessary to "get" Dungeon World.

Unless you're a player, actually. That's one of DW's innovations: everything a player needs to know is on two pieces of standard paper, and can be learned during the first session. The rules that bind the GM are where a lot of the magic lies.

So first make sure you've read the whole game. I'm not assuming you haven't, but it's important enough to belabour before pointing to any other resources.

Read the Dungeon World Guide PDF

Once you've read the game, your next stop is the Dungeon World Guide. It's a detailed explanation of how the game works, that isn't burdened by having to convey the rules at the same time like the game is. I can't recommend it enough.

Follow in the footsteps of others

The DW Guide will do it for some people, but not everyone. For them, reading through the conversations others have had in trying to understand the game may provide the idea that makes it finally "click". Even then, it's a useful optional step for those who feel like they understand Dungeon World after reading the Guide, since there's almost always room for fuller understanding.

These conversations are useful reading:

Examples of play

Good for getting a feel for how all the bits of the system show up in actual play.

Talk with others

After following in others' footsteps of learning the game, the final step you could take is to talk to others about it directly. There are several places online where Dungeon World is discussed and "I don't get this part" questions are happily fielded:

Dungeon World doesn't get all the credit

It must be said that Dungeon World's innovations is just in bringing them from another game into the field of fantasy RPGs. Almost all of its major innovations are in fact directly inherited from its parent, Apocalypse World. If you understand Apocalypse World, then you'll understand Dungeon World. So to understand Dungeon World, it can help to seek out discussions on Apocalypse World too. A good place to start is the Apocalypse World forum. That's just the tip of the iceberg, but more AW discussion is easy enough to find because it has made such a huge impact in RPG design.

Why Dungeon World instead of another D&D?

The common expression I've heard (and myself experienced) about problem Dungeon World solves over other D&Ds is that it has no downtime. One of the major problems of D&D is that a lot of table time is spent waiting for your turn, finessing minor details of a rule or build, doing stuff in-game that the players aren't interested, or the dreaded "nothing happens" when a skill roll is failed.

Dungeon World manages to eliminate all the dead time. Nobody is waiting during combat: they can act whenever there is an opening. There are no mechanics that need fiddling with: you just play, and decide when a move triggers. Handling time for moves isn't a step outside of the game: the content of the move keeps you engaged and (for those who do it) immersed in your character's situation. The rules the GM must follow ensure that the adventure is always constantly pulled in the same direction that the players' attention is pointed. A miss on a roll always leads to a new interesting event (often bad, sometimes good, always adding nuance to the adventure).

This is paraphrase of a quote that I've commonly seen:

Dungeon World feels like what you imagined D&D was when you first heard of it.

It accomplishes that by eliminating the need to talk about anything that isn't action happening right now.

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+1 for "read the whole game" –  gomad Jan 22 at 7:38
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After many RPGs whose GM sections were almost identical, it's easy to overlook how essential DW's is. It mostly seemed obvious, but I found that treating them as rules, not advice, broke me out of some ruts and made me a better GM. The resulting DW campaign was the best campaign of any game I've ever run. –  Alan De Smet Jan 27 at 21:54
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@AlanDeSmet Exactly! The GM section is rules in DW. In fact, the GM rules are the core system. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 27 at 23:16
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Apocalypse Engine is all about fictional positioning

There are many ways that the players, the game mechanics, and the shared fiction of play interact with each other. Different systems and different groups emphasize some over others. Apocalypse World is built to emphasize "fictional positioning," which is when already-established elements of the shared fiction drive what happens next.

D&D4's powers say "I have this on my character sheet, so I can do this in the fiction" (or, sometimes, "I have this on my character sheet, so I can do this mechanically, and then I'm free to narrate whatever that mostly matches it in the fiction" — a group can play it this way and the game still works fine).

Apocalypse World moves say "When you've narrated someone in the fiction doing something like this, here's what happens next."

Moves are the outputs of stake-setting and GM rulings, codified for reuse

So, it helps to understand a bit of what has gone before.

  • Part of "old-school" play, especially as exemplified in modern Old School Renaissance games, is a focus on "rulings" — in-the-moment decisions from the GM, based on her own judgement of the current situation rather than a set of hard-and-fast rules in the book.

  • Many modern-day RPGs, particularly "story games," use "stake-setting" as the central mechanic of the game. When an interesting situation presents, the group works out what cool consequences are, then we roll the dice to find out what happens.

So, what does this have to do with Apocalypse World? Well, AW's approach is to give you a bunch of pre-baked situations to guide you in creating interesting and appropriate outcomes in your game.

Here's Vincent:

Apocalypse World's moves (1) create the arenas of conflict in which the game's action plays out, and (2) create the differences between those arenas of conflict. They do it in a transparent and accessible way, simply by saying "these are the things that characters do when they're in conflict with one another, and these are the different possible outcomes of each."

This is a bit harder to see in Dungeon World, because a lot of what Dungeon World puts to paper are moves that rehash character abilities from D&D, since those are the common activities in D&D-inspired fantasy adventures in the first place. It's clearer when you look at Apocalypse World's playbooks — these are character archetypes based on what kinds of things they do in the story. A Hardholder and a Battlebabe are different characters because they relate to the world around them differently, first and foremost.

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I would like to point out that setting the stakes was, if not invented, then at least formalized and brought to the forefront, by Dogs in the Vineyard, another D. Vincent Baker game. –  gomad Jan 22 at 10:26
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I feel like many true things have already been covered in the other answers, but I still feel there's something missing on the points you used as examples. I'm gonna focus on those, while upvoting the other good answers.

Moves, unified power mechanics
There is a unified mechanic for 'doing stuff' called 'moves'. Reading the moves, this sounds like 4e powers or 4e monster powers to me. While this unified mechanics is certainly a good thing, it's hardly an innovation of DW. What makes moves special?

D&D 4e powers are mostly combat things. In DW there's no clear distinction between in-combat and out-of-combat. The rules you use are the same whether you're trying to strike an enemy or to climb a dangerous cliff or to convince the city guard of your innocence.
Moves also involve failure and partial success, and move the fiction forward, while failing a to hit roll has no consequences outside of the current combat encounter or situation.

I had this DW game where a failed spell casting evoked a friendly but problematic NPC from another dimension. What power in D&D 4e can do that?
Consequences of failed rolls are entirely fictional and, while needing to satisfy some conditions, they can be really varied.
Of course you could do the same as a D&D DM, but in DW it's fair because the DM can only do those things when the players give him the possibility. This makes it impossible for the players to feel cheated: the DM is also free to be as harsh as he wants to be because the system always lets the player retaliate (by doing more moves).

Less tactics

This is actually where the game is really different from D&D. The game is less focused on strategy and tactics and there's a direct correlation between what you think would be good and what it's best to do in the game. In D&D sometimes you don't grapple your enemy because, even if it seems a good thing to do fictionally, it's mechanically underwhelming. Or maybe it was charging, or disarming.
In DW, a move is as strong as your group agrees on it. Tripping someone could mean slowing someone down, or letting your ally gain a free attack on them... or whatever you think would be a realistic consequence of your actions. The consequence is that the fiction produced by DW feels more realistic than any fiction you could post-engineer from a D&D combat sequence. And no more "but the turns are contemporary but separate".

At the same time, the game does not want to be a tactical game. It wants to be a more narrative approach to the dungeoneering game, with lots of things happening in the same game session (compared to the 2 encounters per 3 hours session I experience in D&D 4e). Combat is faster and less similar to a wargame, which is a thing many D&D players don't like (but they don't often know of the alternatives).

Why is Dungeon World (or Apocalypse World) considered a seminal work for innovative mechanic design?

Because it is a game that's really similar in structure to a D&D game, with a DM that has similar responsabilities (but often made easier to accomplish, just think how easier it is to "teach the game") but at the same time it has rules that are written in an organic, synergistic way.

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That's a great answer, too bad I can only pick one. –  Mala Jan 24 at 9:00
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