I recently paid (on DriveThruRPG) to download a zipped file of the Dungeon World rules. I had read some favorable reviews which said, in effect, that it was obviously inspired by the original D&D approach, but that the DW creators had tried hard to keep the rules and mechanics pretty darn simple in order to keep the adventure moving along at a brisk pace when the Player Characters are in the middle of a dungeon. That sounded appealing, so I took the plunge and paid for the download.

I've been looking through the rules. I think I understand nearly all of what I've seen, in theory -- although I'd want to play in a few sessions before I was sure I grasped how it all fits together, in practice, if the GM (and everyone else) is "doing it right" -- but one paragraph really threw me for a loop by upsetting my previous assumptions.

In the "Getting Started" section, where the game's creators are offering advice to a GM on starting a new campaign from scratch, it offers examples of common questions which players are likely to ask while they are generating their new characters. Along with suggested answers to those common questions. The Q & A combo that stunned me was this:

Are there other wizards? Not really. There are other workers of arcane magic, and the common folk may call them wizards, but they’re not like you. They don’t have the same abilities, though they may be similar. Later on there may be another player character with the same class but no GM character will ever really be a wizard (or any other class).

As far as I can tell (after having looked at a lot of other stuff in the book), they never really elaborate upon the details of this distinction between player characters of a certain class (such as "Wizard"), and NPCs controlled by the GM who can use "similar" abilities when they set their minds to it. Which left me scratching my head as I tried to figure out what the ramifications of this briefly-stated "principle" might be.

Until I ran across that paragraph, I think I'd been assuming that if, let's say, a player creates an eager young Level 1 Wizard as her PC, it is at least implied that higher-level Wizards already exist somewhere in this new campaign world. Maybe not anywhere within a hundred miles of the Wizard PC's current location, and maybe they are very thin on the ground even when the adventuring party visits a major city (a national capital, for instance) at some later time in the campaign . . . but I'd assumed that more experienced and presumably much more powerful wizards still existed, somewhere offstage, even if the GM wasn't supposed to let them hog the spotlight by tagging along on the party's adventures.

But, in that paragraph I quoted, the implication seems to go along the following lines: "If you are a Level 1 Wizard, you are already the highest-level Wizard in the world. If you are a Level 1 Cleric, you are already the highest-level Cleric in the world. And so forth." I'm not sure how that would work in practice.

Is that quite what DW's creators are getting at? For instance, should I presume that until a Wizard PC reaches Level 3, there is no one on the face of the planet who can reliably perform a Level 3 spell from the "Wizard Spells" section of the rulebook, and so forth?

Or does "don't have the same abilities, but similar," mean the DW creators expect us to draw a much more subtle distinction -- something along the lines of the GM saying to the person playing a wizard: "the Big Bad can cast spells that look a heck of a lot like yours, but they don't have quite the same impact, since he is not truly 'a wizard' in the same special way that you are!"? Or what?

In short: As I asked in the title, what's the exact difference, in practical terms, between a PC who is of the Wizard class, and an NPC who just has "similar" arcane abilities? For instance, if it comes down to a violent showdown between the two at the climax of an adventure?


6 Answers 6


It's important to remember that Dungeon World is a much more narrativist system than D&D, which is more simulationist in most editions (especially 3.X).

In a simulationist system, the primary purpose of the rules is to simulate a world. When the system presents rules for making a wizard character, those rules describe how wizard characters work in the world. In a narrativist system, the primary purpose the rules is to help the players tell a story. When the system presents rules for making a wizard character, those rules describe how a wizard player character works in the story; non-player characters, no matter how wizard-like they seem, use different rules because they have a different role in the story.

What that passage is explaining (somewhat poorly) is that even if a NPC the party meets walks like a wizard and quacks like a wizard, that NPC will not use the same rules as a wizard player. A party with a level 1 wizard may encounter an NPC who can cast level 7 wizard spells; this does not mean that the NPC is a wizard of any level, it means that that ability is appropriate for the NPC's role in the story.

The in-character difference between a wizard PC and a wizard-ish NPC is up to the setting the GM and the group have chosen to use. The wizard PC could be the same sort of spellcaster as all the others, or they could be something new and unique, at the group's discretion.

This is another difference between simulationist systems and narrativist (or gamist) systems. In a simulationist system, in-fiction things (commonly called fluff) have to be tied closely to their corresponding rules elements (commonly called crunch), because otherwise the simulated in-fiction world won't work correctly. In narrativist (and gamist) systems, the crunch doesn't have to dictate nearly as much of the fluff, because it's not trying to simulate the fluff world: the goal of the rules is instead to give you crunch you can hook up to whatever fluff you want to use.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ So what you're saying, in effect, is that the distinction between "a Wizard-class PC" and "an NPC who casts Wizard spells and is called 'Wizard' by everyone else" is strictly a matter of OOC knowledge for the players and the GM? But the distinction is invisible from the IC (In Character) perspective? That makes some sense, but I'm afraid it is not what the "typical new player" would think if I simply read aloud to her that response from the rulebook. Perhaps I should have stressed, in my post, that I was mostly wondering about "what's the difference in terms of IC perspective?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 14:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ It might amuse you to know that when I was first looking at that passage I quoted, and pondering possible implications, one precedent that popped into my head was the time in the mid-1980s when I was a kid reading the original Dragonlance novel (Dragons of Autumn Twilight). As I recall, in the plot a big deal was made out of how Goldmoon was supposed to be the first spellcasting cleric of the True Gods to walk upon the face of the world of Krynn in centuries! (Continued) \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 14:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ For a moment, I wondered if someone roleplaying a Level 1 Cleric in a new DW campaign would feel obligated to model her behavior on Goldmoon's situation. "I am the first of a new breed! All the other clerics of this day and age will be following in my inspiring footsteps!" Although I strongly doubted that this was precisely what the DW creators had in mind when they wrote that paragraph in the rulebook. :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 14:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lorendiac The in-character distinction between a wizard PC and a wizard-ish NPC is up to the group. If the group (including the GM) want to say that the wizard is some amazing new type of spellcaster, they can do that. If they want to say that wizard-ish spellcasters are a dime a dozen and in no way distinct from the wizard PC, they can do that too. The rules are saying that PC rules are for PCs only. The rulebook is a toolkit rather than a campaign setting; it's trying to give you what you need to build the world you want, rather than defining the world for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 14:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Major terminology quibble: going by the GNS essays themselves, the "creative agendas" refer to a particular set of play goals (challenge, thematic fiction, exploration of "the thing itself"), not this specific coupling between rules and fiction; you could sit around and make the argument that DW is mostly about Sim play — the tropes of D&D without the fuss, — if anyone still cared to use those categories like that in 2017. Major PbtA quibble: large chunks of the rules are about very specific, ironclad linkage between "crunch" and "fluff" ("to do it, do it" and everything extending from that). \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 14:23

NPCs in Dungeon World are simple and focussed. Whereas a player character is creating a rounded but themed set of skills, an NPC is a fictional element of a story. The rules reflect this, spending more time describing the nature of a creature than skills. Ultimately, the NPCs don't have "moves" and rely upon how the GM applies them. They have qualities that guide how they interact, threaten, and/or influence.

For instance, a Djinn can "Grant power for a price" or "Summon the forces of the City of Brass". The GM has control to decide what this looks like, and can apply it through their hard or soft moves. Similarly, there could be an Archmage that has some specific abilities or qualities that are well beyond that of your Wizard PC in the fiction. But it will be specifically to what an archmage is or does in that fictional world.

Long story short, player moves help players figure out how their actions interact with the fiction. NPCs are of the fiction itself and don't have moves or classes.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You seem to be saying much the same thing as Oblivious Sage did. Evidently I failed to make it clear that I was mostly wondering about the IC perspective on this distinction between PC and NPC Wizards (or Clerics, or whatever). In other words: "Should a low-level Wizard PC be roleplayed as someone who already knows she is, or soon will be, inherently 'superior' to any other so-called 'Wizard' she meets, if that spellcaster is just an NPC?" And the answer appears to be: "No, the difference is an OOC matter; not a 'social distinction' to be reflected in their dialogue." Fair summary? \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 14:35

"Can the world affect me how I can affect it?" "No."

So I'm assuming you're familiar with some other roleplaying systems, and you've probably run across one or two where the instructions for the GM to create the opposition are just "create PCs and run them like PCs" or maybe "create PCs but using these diminished 'NPC classes' and run them like PCs". The GM gets the character creation resources and such as appropriate to plot demands, but once the characters are made they can do everything the PCs can do.

Dungeon World is not one of those games.

Heck, forget classes for a second, there isn't anything out there in the world that can Hack and Slash. Nothing's going to roll its strength and just whack you one and get off scot-free if it gets high enough. There isn't anything out there in the world that can Discern Realities; nothing's going to size the PCs up for a while, roll, and just ask them "what is about to happen?" and they have to tell the truth.

"So how does the world affect me?" "Every other way."

At character creation, assuming you made first-level characters and followed all relevant guidelines, there is literally nobody else in the world who can make the "Cast a Spell" move and invoke the effects of a cantrip or a first-level Wizard spell, just like that.

This is different from there being nobody who can detect magic or throw bolts of arcane force. Or, y'know, make magical lights or call up spirits from the vasty deeps (and have them answer when they're called).

In much the same way, threats can attack the PCs in melee and hurt them, or investigate them and find out what they're up to. They do this through the GM making GM moves, like "deal damage" or "observe a potential foe in great detail" or "cast a perfected spell of death or destruction".

"And how do I stop it?" "You affect it first."

All these things are combinations of plot consequences and dice consequences - things the PCs chose not to do and things you're dropping on them as a result of poor rolls. Or, of course, things the PCs chose not to do when faced with a result of their poor rolls. But you're not there to vomit damage on the PCs until they inevitably die. I mean, that's one of the next questions down on the same page, right?

Is the GM trying to kill us? No. The GM's job is to portray the world and the things in it and the world is a very dangerous place. You might die. That doesn't mean the GM is out to get you.

You're there to portray the world. That means you need to make the PCs aware of what's out there and what it's trying to do to them. What they do in response and how successfully they do it will play into where you take things next.

"Only these ways here?" "Sometimes more than that. Sometimes not even them. You should always ask."

So, if it comes down to a violent showdown at the climax of an adventure, and Wizzrobe (a PC) and Tidecaller Silvertip (one of the GM's monsters) are going at it, what happens?

  • Maybe, Wizzrobe rolls to Cast a Spell normally and unleashes whatever magics are appropriate on a hit
  • Maybe, Silvertip is enveloped in the embrace of the ancient ocean, which no mortal magic can penetrate
  • Maybe even, as Wizzrobe focuses arcane threads at Silvertip through the lens of his third eye he becomes aware of a force comparable to his own, the flows arcane being shunted back at him, and the hearty cry of "WIZARD BATTLE!" fills the air as he struggles to overcome the sea-beast in a contest of raw, primal will

The answer is it's gonna depend, alright? On, like, ten bazillion things, because one of the things it told you as the GM to do in the previous chapter is "draw maps, leave blanks" and brother, that wasn't just talking about architecture. One of those things is, of course, the role you intend Silvertip to play in the battle as regards Wizzrobe.

"And how do these all work?" "That's a question!"

Several other of those things are, well, what you and Wizzrobe are going to work out about exactly how he's casting magic. Dungeon World leaves a great whacking lot of things up in the air, among them "what is magic" and "how are spells".

You've got (I assume) a decent fantasy experience to build on in that regard, but one of the notable advantages to nobody else in the world being a level 1 Wizard is that Wizzrobe can talk freely about how he chooses to do magic without that nailing down how everybody else in the world must do magic.

"So why does it even say-" "SHENANIGANS."

All that said. All that said, there is something important, mechanically, about Wizzrobe's signature status, in a way that's similarly important about Fightgar and Clericsdottir and Shanksworth and everybody else.

That important thing is that Wizzrobe has a spellbook, and, mechanically, it's not actually supposed to have all the spells in it the way Clericsdottir can pray for whatever. This frees up the spells to be a little more powerful for the same level, because part of that power is that Wizzrobe gets one spell at level up, and turns down the opportunity to access most of the others.

If there were Wizards, capital-W Wizards that worked like Wizzrobe, he might just... be able to work off their spellbooks, and have all those spells at his disposal that he strictly should, but grabbing a new spell requires one of:

  • Leveling up, which is, yeah, a big deal.
  • Selecting a move at level up to grab a single additional spell (though most of that is probably going to be poaching one from Clericsdottir, in practice)
  • Rolling a 15 on a treasure roll, which for reference is where you roll the monster's damage, +1d4 if it's a boss monster, +1d4 if it's ancient or noteworthy. Even assuming you just use that range as a guideline and assign treasure, a single spell is not going to be within the provenance of an average Joe. (Note that it doesn't have to be a new spell for Wizzrobe. It can be a new prayer for Clericsdottir. It can be the thing that convinces Stringfellow to finally pursue the formal arcane arts. Or it can be worth a large pile of coin or consideration from the Imperial Wizard Academy.)

So that's one mechanical lock on how you want to think about Wizards and all the other playbooks that make you define something unique about them. There aren't Wizards that Wizzrobe can just walk up to and learn their spells, any more than Fightgar can just walk into the Fighter's Guild and check out a different Fighter's Signature Weapon on the honor system, or Clericsdottir has a friend on the ecumenical council and can also petition their deity according to the precept of their religion, or Shanksworth can just take night classes at the Thieves' Guild and learn to safely handle different poisons.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate your going to so much trouble in your response to cover various aspects of how you'd expect the GM's NPC version of "a character casting Wizard spells" to be handled, and why you'd expect it to be done in certain ways. I had figured it was highly probable that the creators of Dungeon World expected the PCs to occasionally go up against adversaries capable of high-level spellcasting, but as I said in the original post, I was thrown for a loop by that statement that anyone who isn't a PC can never "really" be a Wizard. (Continued) \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ As I've now said in responses to a couple of answers that came in before yours, I've belatedly realized that I didn't express myself as clearly as I could have. While I was wondering about various aspects of the "PC Wizard/NPC not-really-a-wizard" dichotomy, I think I was mostly wondering: "Will Wizzrobe start out feeling very smug and superior because of an IC knowledge that Silvertip 'ain't really a Wizard' in the first place?" Your answer, and others, seem to imply: "Wizzrobe doesn't consider himself the One True Wizard. He knows Silvertip can give as good as he gets in a showdown." \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ The answer is, it depends. Do you (plural you here, as in GM and Wizzrobe's player and also all the other players) want to be doing an Orrerly of Solinari campaign where Wizzrobe is the last and first true caster, bringing arcane magic back to the people? Cool, you can. Do you want to be doing a campaign where Wizzrobe's GPA at Imperial Wizard Academy went underwater and he went walkabout? That's fine too. Wizzrobe can feel however he wants about his arcane powers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 2:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ That doesn't mean Wizzrobe gets to be right. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. I mean, seriously, you can't see Wizzrobe stepping up to Silvertip all sure of his arcane superiority and getting blasted out the tower window by a pocket tidal wave and Fletcher burns off two dozen arrows splinteringly breaking his fall? And being all nonchalantly "well, twenty years of practice can do a lot of things, I suppose" when Fightgar ribs him around the campfire? \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 2:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm fine with letting the GM (with help from the players) work out some of the distinctive historical and cultural "assumptions" for a new campaign world. Such as whether or not something resembling a "Wizard's Academy" and/or "Wizard's Guild" exists which is run by "wizards" capable of casting every spell in the book. What I was originally wondering was whether such options were Utterly Excluded in DW by the odd choice of words in that paragraph I originally quoted about nobody else "really" being a wizard. So that players might rebel if the GM tried to introduce such things! \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 0:37

There are really two things going on here.

The first is that, in Dungeon World, monsters (including NPCs) don't operate under the same rules as PCs. They don't make Moves (although they can provide justification for the GM's Moves), they don't even roll dice! An arcane spellcaster NPC doesn't use the Wizard playbook, so he's not really a Wizard in any mechanical sense.

The second is that DW and related games treat the PCs as unique examples of their type. (IIRC, this is played up more in Apocalypse World and not mentioned so much in Dungeon World, but it tends to be implied in most games with "playbooks" for each character.) Your player's character isn't a Wizard, he's The Wizard. The one and only. There may be other arcane casters with similar, or even identical, abilities, but none of them are The Wizard. Only the PC is.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I knew, vaguely, that Dungeon World was a sword-and-sorcery knockoff of the "Apocalypse World" engine, but I have no familiarity with the latter. So "unique examples of their type" didn't come across clearly, except in that one paragraph I quoted above, where it seemed to assume the intended subtleties were obvious without being spelled out at the time. Other Answers imply that the distinction is basically an OOC matter, rather than a question of "When a Level 1 Wizard PC walks into a Wizard's Guild, she expects everyone to bow and scrape because she is So Awesome." Do you agree? \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 15:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lorendiac - I'm not 100% sure I followed what you're asking if I agree with, but I would not expect anyone to bow and scrape when a level 1 PC walks into a guildhall (or anywhere else). A level 1 DW character is bigger and badder than a level 1 D&D PC, but they're not that big in the world (at least not as I've played the game; other campaigns may vary, of course). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 9:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lorendiac No two DW games are the same. To contrast with Dave, in my game, I took it literally - the were no other Wizards, the players were (some of the most) powerful characters in the world. In particular The Cleric was known the the one true avatar of his god for all that god's follower, so was a really big cheese from the start. I know my players enjoyed this approach, for they told me so. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slow Dog
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 13:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dave Sherohman -- Yeah, when I posted the question, I was kinda imagining players saying: "Hey, GM, why aren't all the other spellcaster types licking the boots of my PC, Mary Sue the Magnificent, since they must know that she is the One True Wizard in this entire world and they'd better butter her up while she's young and impressionable, before she becomes the Only Person capable of using 9th Level Spells on those who displease her in any way whatsoever!" Not something I'd normally want to run (if I were GM of a DW campaign, which I'm not). So I wanted some advice from veterans. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 0:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lorendiac D&Ders have been taught that you start small and gain power through effort and luck. There's no reason that other RPGs need follow that model. I particularly remember a piece by Vincent Baker about what fun it would be to start as one of Arthur's Knights. DW starting characters are quite powerful - way more so than a standard human - so I followed that principle, the character's being a (puny NPC) Lord's troubleshooting team. Not that I'm typical. But I'm discussing again, disallowed here. Ask how others have done it on Reddit DW, or the Dungeon World Tavern . \$\endgroup\$
    – Slow Dog
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 2:34

What's the exact difference, in practical terms, between a PC who is of the Wizard class, and an NPC who just has "similar" arcane abilities?

Nothing. That is to say, nothing which can be described by the rules. I can walk upright, speak English, and write code, but no matter how many people you find that do those things as well as me, they will all do them differently.

This question/answer format is to help you explain to your players that the notion of "wizard" provided in the book to help them build their character should not be used to classify people they meet in the world.

You can't cast a spell that detects wizards, but you might be able to locate people skilled in magic. If a character shoots lightning at you, you shouldn't assume they won't try to punch you in the face.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "If a character shoots lightning at you, you shouldn't assume they won't try to punch you in the face." is a solid piece of advice for the GM. \$\endgroup\$
    – edgerunner
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 13:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ The notion of "wizard"' provided in the book to help them build their character should not be used to classify people they meet in the world. Looking back on it, I believe one of the things I was afraid of (as I've now suggested in other responses to previous answers) was that a bunch of new players might think they were learning the opposite lesson if I simply read to them, word for word, the answer provided in the book. "We should always classify other spellslingers, fighters, etc. as being inherently inferior to our PCs! In character, we must treat them as 2nd rate imitations!" \$\endgroup\$
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 15:17

There are other users of arcane magic and there are plenty of monsters that use magic, but they aren't Wizards like a player character, with that particular collection of moves, powers, and available spells. The hedge wizard “monster” is one such incarnation:

Hedge Wizard (from Monster Setting 9: Folk of the Realm)

Not all those who wield the arcane arts are adventuring wizards. Nor necromancers in mausoleums or sorcerers of ancient bloodline. Some are just old men and women, smart enough to have discovered a trick or two. It might make them a bit batty to come by that knowledge, but if you've a curse to break or a love to prove, might be that a hedge wizard will help you, if you can find his rotten hut in the swamp and pay the price he asks. Instinct: To learn

  • Cast almost the right spell (for a price)
  • Make deals beyond their ken

I treat the authors' statement about no other wizards as an admonishment to the GM to not be limited to the idea of classical (D&D) wizards when dealing with arcane magic-users. Those tropes, to the extent they're presented to the Wizard class in Dungeon World, are best served for that class. As a GM, stick to your agenda and principles but otherwise go wild.


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