One of Dungeon World's gamemastering principles is “Address the characters, not the players”:

Addressing the characters, not the players, means that you don’t say, “Tony, is Dunwick doing something about that wight?” Instead you say, “Dunwick, what are you doing about the wight?” Speaking this way keeps the game focused on the fiction and not on the table. It’s important to the flow of the game, too. If you talk to the players you may leave out details that are important to what moves the characters make. Since moves are always based on the actions of the character you need to think about what’s happening in terms of those characters—not the players portraying them.

I fail to see how addressing the player disrupts the flow of the game, or how explicitly addressing the characters solves any of the issues cited in this paragraph.

My first experience with Dungeon World was as a player, and whenever I made the mistake of mentioning a fellow player instead of his character, I was not-so-gently reminded something like “It's not "Tony", it's "Dunwick".” That principle did not leave a good impression on me, it felt over-constraining, and more disrupting than anything.

I'm about to run a new campaign as a GM, and after discussing with the players what sort of campaign they wanted to play and all that, we concluded that Dungeon World would be the best fit. As I'm getting reacquainted with the system, I'm still having trouble with the “Don't address the players” rule.

As a GM, I would be inclined to say “Tony, what are you doing about the wight?”, or “So, what is Dunwick doing?”, while looking expressly at the player. In my opinion, I am addressing Tony, I can't pretend the contrary. I understand that the player may be completely involved into his character, but I don't see how it changes how I should address him.

I can see two ways of expressing the relationship between players and their PCs: either they act in place of the characters (“I'm Dunwick, I do this…”), or they control them like puppets (“Dunwick does this…”). I've never intended to impose a point of view or another on the players, but it looks like Dungeon World wants me to. I'd rather they do what they're the most comfortable with.

What I'd usually do in this situation is to just skip the rule*, but I'm afraid that by doing so I'm missing some important point about Dungeon World. What's so wrong about addressing the players and not the characters?


* I've already made it clear to the players that I would let intuitive playing prevail over the system, and that I would skip rules whenever I find them too constraining.

  • Thanks everyone for answering! Although I can only mark one answer as accepted, I really liked both MJ713's and Alex P's answers, because they looked beyond the rules to explain DW's point of view from a new angle, and that made things much clearer to me. BlackVegetable and Glazius raised good points as well. I now understand better the reasoning behind this particular rule, and I'll think twice before rejecting it. – SDF Feb 4 at 14:51
up vote 34 down vote accepted

It's all about immersion

This part of your question jumped out at me:

I can see two ways of expressing the relationship between players and their PCs: either they act in place of the characters (“I'm Dunwick, I do this…”), or they control them like puppets (“Dunwick does this…”). I've never intended to impose a point of view or another on the players, but it looks like Dungeon World wants me to.

You're right, it absolutely does. Dungeon World has a very definite point of view. "Acting" your characters, immersing yourself in them, diving in as deeply as possible, is part of that point of view.

What does it mean to say that an RPG has a point of view?

All games have two components: a goal and a set of rules or consraints. Or to put it another way, what you want and how you're allowed to try and get it.

Some games have simple, definite goals like "score the most points" or "checkmate the opposing king". RPGs by their nature have looser, more open-ended goals that are partly determined by the players themselves: things like "get a ton of loot" or "unravel the conspiracy" or "have fun role-playing conversations between my character and other characters".

But that doesn't mean that all RPGs support all player goals equally. Even where the rules of an RPG don't make a certain player goal impossible, they can still make it more difficult, boring or annoying to achieve then other goals. (You could try to play a traditional heroic knight-like character in a game of Paranoia, but you'll be fighting the game the whole way.) Some RPGs try to support a wide variety of player goals. Others have narrower goals in mind, and their rules are designed to push players towards those goals. I call this alignment of goals and rules the game's point of view.

So when I say that Dungeon World has a very definite point of view, what I mean is that it has very definite goals in mind, and its rules are designed to strongly push the player towards those goals.

What is Dungeon World's point of view?

Fortunately we don't have to guess what goals the game designers had in mind. The SRD tells us up front:

Why Play Dungeon World?

First, to see the characters do amazing things. [...]

Second, to see them struggle together. [...]

Third, because the world still has so many places to explore.

The GM's Agenda section is also enlightening, and also names some goals that the game designers explicitly rejected:

Agenda

Your agenda makes up the things you aim to do at all times while GMing a game of Dungeon World:

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

Everything you say and do at the table (and away from the table, too) exists to accomplish these three goals and no others. Things that aren’t on this list aren’t your goals. You’re not trying to beat the players or test their ability to solve complex traps. You’re not here to give the players a chance to explore your finely crafted setting. You’re not trying to kill the players (though monsters might be). You’re most certainly not here to tell everyone a planned-out story.

If I had to sum all this up in one sentence, I would say that the goal of Dungeon World is to immerse the players in a collaboratively-generated adventure story of vivid characters interacting in a fantastic world.

The rules of Dungeon World are all designed to push the players towards this goal in one way or another. For instance, the "collaboratively-generated" part is encouraged by severely restricting the GM's ability to pre-plan campaigns, giving the GM moves that can generate new plot points on the fly, and giving the players the power to push the GM to flesh out parts of the game world that the players find interesting (through moves like Spout Lore and Discern Realities). All this discourages railroading and encourages shared improvisation.

What does all this have to do with addressing characters instead of players?

The real question is, how does this rule help to push players towards the game's goal?

Let's start by reading this part again:

If you talk to the players you may leave out details that are important to what moves the characters make. Since moves are always based on the actions of the character you need to think about what’s happening in terms of those characters—not the players portraying them.

So it's not just about doing a word search on your sentences and replacing "Tony" with "Dunwick". It's about forcing yourself into the mindset of the characters. What do they know? What can they see and hear around them? How does that drive their actions? If you are actively thinking this way, you might realize that you forgot to mention the lead goblin is wearing extra armor, or that the friendly shopkeeper is a Tremarian (Dunwick is racist against Tremarians)...or on the other hand, you might realize that the archer you were about to mention is sitting motionless in the shadows 100 feet away, where Dunwick would have no chance of spotting her. You the GM become more invested in the story just by thinking this way, and with fewer hiccups and less metagame-y infodumping, the story becomes more believable for everyone else.

But even if it was just a simple word-swap, it would still help the players get immersed in the story. Imagine watching a play where the actors keep saying each others' names instead of the characters' names. Changes the mood, doesn’t it? It emphasizes the artificiality and "play-ishness" of the play, which puts a distance between the audience and the story. Dungeon World doesn't want to create that kind of gap. You and the other players are actors in a sense; you are all performing your part of the story for each other. Using the players' names is a distraction. Using the characters' names, on the other hand, generates a continuous string of little near-subconscious reminders to focus on the story and characters, which is what the game wants.

What happens if I break this rule?

Not much, honestly...assuming you are only breaking the names part specifically, and are otherwise doing what you can to preserve the story-focused frame of mind that the rule encourages. (Thanks to Dave for pointing out this nuance.) Alex P is right, this rule by itself isn't a huge one, and leaving it out won't kill the game...but by the same token, leaving it in won't kill you. Why not give it a second chance? Now that you understand some of the reasoning behind it, it might grow on you.

What if I don't even want to immerse myself in the story?

If you and the game disagree on goals, you're going to have a bad time. I don't think this is your case, but if it is...Dungeon World may not be the right game for you.

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    For “what happens if I break this rule”, I’d contend not much if you address the other aspects of making sure that spotlight is on what is going on in the fiction that you spelled out earlier in the answer. – Dave Feb 3 at 17:59
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    @Dave Good point, I added it in. Thanks. – MJ713 Feb 4 at 1:32
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    Ah I was waiting for someone to get to the heart of it. +1! – mxyzplk Feb 4 at 2:08
  • +1 for a GREAT explanation, even though tbh I personally don't think "immersion" is a particularly great word for the main thing that PBTA rules achieve. – Alex P Feb 5 at 18:17

Addressing the characters reminds the group that the stuff that the GM is saying is immediately actionable.

I think Apocalypse World explains it a tiny bit better:

Addess yourself to the characters, not the players. "Marie, where are you this morning?" not "Julia, where's Marie this morning?" "A woman comes up to you, her name's Pelt, and she's anxious to get back to her family. It's obvious she is." It's obvious she is makes this something the character knows and sees in Pelt, not exposition straight from you to the player. (Apocalypse World, 2nd Edition, page 82)

Note that last sentence.

"Addressing the characters" is intended to keep the focus of your description on their experiential frame. The DW example mostly stresses not leaving details out, but I think it's more important to note what AW does — that any detail you offer is something they can actually react to, in-character, not exposition that's directed to the-group-as-an-audience but unknown to the protagonist in the fiction.

If you break this rule, the game likely won't suffer very much. (While the GM agendas in PBTA games are useful and important, the games also generally aren't fragile — there's copious room to make mistakes and improve your technique over time.) Mostly you risk everyone forgetting each others' characters' names a bit more often, and slowing down play due to a bit more ambiguity about "wait, does my character know that?"

@BlackVegetable's point about multiple PCs is excellent, too: you save a lot of time and static if you're clear about "which character is this about" as the very first step of any interaction.

Addressing the characters reiterates that the conversation of the game is rooted in the fiction.

Your [GM] moves are not mechanical actions happening around the table. They are concrete events happening to the characters in the fictional world you are describing.


Address the characters, not the players; Make your move, but misdirect; Never speak the name of your move; Begin and end with the fiction; and Be a fan of the characters are the most important principles. Without these the conversation of play and the use of moves is likely to break down.

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    Thank you for pointing that out. However, your answer doesn't advance my understanding of the situation very much. In particular, the benefit you mention doesn't look like something that a good introductory speech wouldn't do (and with much less inconvenience). Would you mind elaborating a little? – SDF Feb 2 at 20:14
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    @SDF, One introductory speech will never be as effective as a continuous string of little near-subconscious reminders that pop up every time someone takes a turn. Dungeon World is a game with a very specific point of view, and it uses every trick at its disposal to nudge you into its desired frame of mind. Imagine watching a play where the actors say each others' names instead of the characters' names...changes the mood, doesn't it? – MJ713 Feb 2 at 20:49
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    @MJ713 Consider making this comment into an answer. – okeefe Feb 2 at 22:18
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    Can you embellish on how it reiterates that? I feel like we'd be talking about the shared fiction either way? – Alex P Feb 3 at 3:55
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    @AlexP I prefer to keep my answer a simple reference to the game text. – okeefe Feb 3 at 20:37

It's against the rules

What's so wrong about addressing the players and not the characters?

The same thing that's wrong with not moving a Bishop diagonally in Chess - the rules say it's the wrong way to play.

Why do the rules say it?

The rule actually says so right in the text: "Speaking this way keeps the game focused on the fiction and not on the table."

This is one of the main design focuses of any Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game. Within the Threefold Model (TM) of RPG theory, PbtA emphasises the Drama goal, and the designers feel that by forcing the players to remain in character, this helps the game do so.

The game was possibly a reaction to the 4th edition of D&D which, within the model, emphasised the "Game" goal of the TM.

They're not the boss of you

If all the players are happy to move Bishops in any damn direction they like including straight up you go enjoy yourselves.

I have felt like this rule is one of the least important in the game. That said, the rules in DW are quite well written overall so maybe there's something I'm missing.

However, there is a situation where addressing the players instead of their characters becomes an issue even I can identify: when a player chooses to have a level 10 +1* character take on an apprentice. According to the rules, a single player is to then play both characters. Addressing the characters may help retain some immersion that is risked when a single person is controlling two+ characters.

For instance: I would feel a distancing layer of indirection if I controlled multiple characters and was asked "BlackVegetable: what do you do about the impending club swing threatening Worglesquort? Oh, and I'm giving the spotlight to Sammich, not Beeswax." This may even be made worse if the interaction is between two of my own characters.

*You only have this option once you level PAST 10. There is a common misconception that you choose from your special options AT level 10.

You use names so you don't have to use names.

So I was doing a demo of Dungeon World the other weekend, and when a mad hermit tinkerer in the desert used the glass wings of his sunbird platform to send bolts of solar force screaming at the Ranger, I asked, "have you ever been sunburned?" As a precursor to describing what the damage felt like, I figured it was a good opener.

And some of the players were taken aback for a second, which is about when I realized I hadn't said, when they'd chosen character names, that I'd be talking exclusively to and asking questions exclusively of the characters.

If you always address the characters by name when you're fishing out for a name to call, as a conversational filler or whatever, then when you direct the conversation using only body language, the players know that "you" will always mean "your character" and not "you, the player".

If you play online this is less of an issue, since you pretty much have to use names to direct the conversation then.

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