My friends and I are wanting to run a Dungeon World game soon. We are all big on survival, grimdark themes, etc and DW is fairly open in how to portray the world and setting applications but everything I am reading and hearing so far states that it is heavily focused on high-ish fantasy with how classes are constructed and such.

How can I can use the game's mechanics, rules and systems to apply a survival feel to the game and make the players feel like everything has a cost and death is right around the corner without planning.

How we are defining grimdark:

A grim and dark tone, a sense of realism (for example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and the agency of the protagonists. (Wikipedia)

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    \$\begingroup\$ What's the reason you're planning to run Dungeon World with a grimdark setting, if the system isn't all that well-tuned to it? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Oct 21 '18 at 17:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi! "Looking for ideas" is much too broad for the format. It's more suited for a forum and not how Stack Exchange works. If you could narrow this down to a specific problem you're having about running a grimdark campaign we can certainly help with that :) \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Oct 21 '18 at 17:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @StefanPaxton I've edited the question a little to make it more focused and get it reopened. If you don't like what I've changed you can always undo it, but be aware that without edits it is likely to stay closed. \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Oct 21 '18 at 21:06

To do it, do it.

There are, of course, alternate settings, like Grim World or The Last Days of Angelkite, that have done a bit of this for you, with alternate playbooks and world moves that enforce this kind of atmosphere. But if you don't want to pay for that or they don't sound like the world you're trying to create, you can do the heavy lifting yourself.

It starts from this: there is very little that must be true about Dungeon World. Even the available player races don't have to exist if nobody decides to be one of them. There are weapons, and armor, and people have to eat, and magic is known to exist, but how abundant food is and how friendly magic is are entirely up to you to decide.

Want to be short on supplies all the time? Nobody just sells food. Maybe you need to pay ruinous taxes to the local despot to be allowed to buy some, or you need to make a Supply roll to track down a black market, or you have to find some way to convince the water merchants you're worth taking a risk on before they sell to you.

Want to fill the world with danger? Okay, it just is. Now when the players go somewhere or do something you hadn't strictly planned for, which should be happening all the time, think: the world is dangerous. Given that, what's waiting for them?

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The beauty of Powered By The Apocalypse games is that they are fiction first. So if you use, for example, Warhammer Fantasy as your setting and tropes, you will have grimdark fiction that naturally influences your group's judgement as to when, for example, a move applies will be different. If playing an anime-level Slayers game, the triggers of moves would be more positive and wacky; in a grimdark setting it's harder to get effects.

Also, you can use hard moves more often than soft moves as the GM. DW allows a huge degree of variation in result based on how hard the GM makes it to do something - can you just attack the chaos mutant, or do you have to do a Defy Danger to avoid its chaos-blade first; if you fail, do you get a soft move result that allows you or other PCs to react or do you just get jacked up immediately?

Then, you can consider adapting the playbooks and moves to the more grimdark elements you want. For example, there are some PBtA hacks for grimdark settings - here's one of Warhammer 40k called "Deathwatch: Apocalypse", one for Warhammer Fantasy called "Streets of Marienburg, and another for Warhammer Fantasy called "Eye of Chaos."

Note how they alter the moves to be a little "grimdarkier." For example, Eye of Chaos replaces Hack & Slash with "engage in violence", and on a miss the consequences are harder than usual - "On a miss, the GM may inflict harm on you, choose two from the list above for your opponent, or make a hard move." Marienburg has a big "Problems & Fumbles" section focusing on negative consequences as well.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Just a note from someone that tried those PBtA Hacks for Warhammer (both 40k and Fantasy) - It is incredibly easy to leave the grimdark territory and end up with "grimderp" instead. GW's setting is a bit too dark and it may end up breaking the realism instead of pushing it forward. If you're going to try those, read carefully the setting first and pick only what you need. Lots of sensitive themes there. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar Oct 22 '18 at 12:14

Do a bit of resource accounting:

One approach to this is to determine (roughly) how much health, wealth and other resources are lost or used up per session, and make sure that the rate of (easy) replenishment is well below that. But don't decrease the rate at which challenges appear.

Next, make the (easier) replenishment of those resources involve moral compromise and sacrifice compared to the harder ones. Grimdark is not about things being bad, it is about that the choices are between bad and awful, but you still have to make those choices. For those choices to be meaningful you'll need the players to be clear on their character's aspirations and values so that you can offer them choices that have consequences.

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You have to remember Grimdark is a tonal element, meaning it's predominantly expressed through roleplay where the characters have to make terrible choices.

Start with:

  • There are no truely good guys
  • Actions have CONCEQUENCES (the unfortunte or otherwise bad kind)
  • altruism does not work out in the long run

Remember that tonal elements are wide brush strokes and that tone fluctuates (moments of levity, etc.)

That all is where you begin with Grimdark, it is not where you have to end.

Next level is on the mechanical, causing the challenges the players have to face to be more taxing and grueling to reinforce the established tone.

The final level is transcendental which relates to the story arc.


https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com/2017/06/osr-death-taxes-and-death-taxes.html https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com/2017/06/osr-death-taxes-and-death-taxes-part-2.html

The goal of this level is determining what to do if the players beat back the grimdarkness.


  • the players just won, think riding off into the sunset campaign over
  • the players secure a region against the grimdark and continue to fortify against corruption from without and within.
  • the players won but their victory has attracted a GrimDARK LORD and his evil armies out for vengeance

Woops the last one wasn't a win, Grimdark huh.

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