My group tried out Dungeon World for first time. We've played quite a variety of games, but the most time has been spent with D&D 4E and 5E.

During the session - which in general I enjoyed - I felt something wasn't quite right for the group, but only based on my understanding of what DW is about (and as I am new to the game, I could just of jumped to the wrong conclusion).

My understanding of DW is that it is very heavily "fiction first" - you start with description and conversation, that then triggers moves that are then resolved. However, some moves seem very specific and can be practically called out in character e.g. "I cast a spell".

During our session, most play seemed to revolve around calling out moves directly, almost as if they were 4E-style powers. That then drove the fiction, maybe some in-character discussion, until someone felt they could suggest another apt player move. I felt this worked OK for highly in-character options such as casting spells, but felt wrong (in my admittedly sketchy view of how DW should work), when players called out "I Spout Lore" or "I Discern Realities" with no other description, in order to gain clues from the world on what to try next.

So my question is 2-part:

1) Is it OK - as in it still works for DW as a system, and plays more or less "as intended" but maybe low on RP descriptions - for players to call out move decisions for their characters directly?

2) If it is not OK, does anyone else have experience in how to change player habits learned from 4E, to get closer to "fiction first" as opposed to "game first"?

The best advice for my particular group would be low impact things we can work on just before/after or during a game session, as we don't really get time to do RPG "homework" between them due to real life commitments.

up vote 47 down vote accepted

It isn't OK. I don't mean in the sense of “oh no everything is broken now!”, but in the sense of “yeah, Dungeon World is way less fun, and it will fail to be awesome in ways you wouldn't even know could have been awesome.” That sense of the game being ‘off’ is what Dungeon World feels like when its heart and guts are missing because some core rules aren't being followed.

Put another way, the game fails to live up to its promises when played that way. It can be played that way though — you just get a pale imitation of Dungeon World instead of the real deal.

How to fix it and make Dungeon World sessions gently unfold like a spring flower of awesome

This is something the players are doing, but the fix is super effective and entirely within the GM's control. It's easy to miss, but the rules say literally what the GM must say when the conversation takes this kind of turn, and the GM must say it in order for the GM to be actually following the GM's rules.

Here is it (p. 180):

When a player just says “I hack and slash him” be quick to ask, “so what are you actually doing?” Ask “How?” or “With what?”

It's that simple, but the GM has to be consistent for it to work.

Doing it in practice

Remember that Dungeon World's rules are all based on dictating legal conversation subjects. Weird, I know, but it works and it's important to remember so that the GM can see where and to what the rules apply during a session. This is one of those situation, because the players are attempting to skip steps. It would be like if the player of a 1st-level single-class fighter in D&D 3.5e says that they cast a fireball at the villain and start rolling 10d6. If that D&D 3.5e DM is all like “uh, okay, I guess they die” instead of “what, no, you're not a spellcaster” then D&D 3.5e isn't going to really work properly, right? Same thing here: when players just call out the moves and the GM acquiesces, Dungeon World doesn't work properly.

So in practice, when a player names a move and you say “OK, what does that look like?”, there are a few ways they might respond.

  • The best case is they pull up short mentally, think for a moment, and then start describing what their character is doing instead of what move the player hopes to trigger. This is awesome and lets the game roll on pretty quickly.

  • The middling case is where they're confused by the question and you have to elaborate. So you say something like “I mean just that: when you cast a spell, what does that look like for you, Cleric?” and “Well, you're hoping to spout lore, so what does consulting your accumulated knowledge about something look like for the Wizard?”

    The key here is that you, the GM, are not allowed to contribute the results of what they do to the conversation yet. You keep asking question, talking about the fictional situation and what they are or would do, possibly resulting in events progressing in-game with no moves triggering yet, until a move (player or GM) is triggered and you have to follow its rules. If the player in question keeps trying to skip ahead and execute a move without triggering it, they're going to keep looking at you for the result and you're going to keep not conversing about the move, 'cause it hasn't triggered yet. Keep bringing it back to asking them to describe what they're doing, and watch for move triggers in the description.

    Be prepared for the description to actually trigger a different move, because moves matching the fiction regardless of what move a player wanted to have happen is a powerful and core part of the feedback loop the whole game is designed to create.

  • The worst situation is where they argue, especially if they pull out a half-baked understanding of the game and claim that Dungeon World lets them do anything and the GM has to go along with it.

    You're still the GM, and the world is basically in stasis until the GM converses about it changing, so misguided, arguing players can't really force the game forward without your cooperation. That means: Don't Panic. It's fine, the game is fine, and you just need to chat reasonably with them and rest confident that the game reality will wait patiently for you. There's no rush, so you've got time to correct the misunderstanding without actually getting into a heated argument.

    In practice argument is actually unlikely, but it's good to have some ideas for keeping the game from being sucked into the Argument Black Hole. So there are a few ways to handle an argumentative player.

    • Get back to game basics. Remind them that to do a move, they have to trigger it, and just saying the name isn't a move trigger. This backs everyone up a step away from playing the game to discussing the rules of the game, which some people might have misunderstood. Then ask them, “So what do you do?” to nudge everyone quickly back into playing mode.
    • Switch to another PC. Smile kindly and say “OK, we'll get back to the Fighter in a sec. Ranger, you see [situation summary], what do you do about that?” This keeps the game moving the way it's designed to, and as a bonus gives you a chance for you and another player to demonstrate how it's done.

But all this is a long-winded way of saying that the GM's job when someone just declares a move's name without actually describing their character doing anything is to somehow get someone — anyone — at the table to tell you what they're actually doing in fictional terms. If it's the player who just named the move, that's great, but there's no initiative and you can flip over to someone else who'll help you keep the conversation about the fictional events moving instead of stalled.

Get people saying what they do in game, and only call moves that match after they match the triggers, and Dungeon World will deliver the subtle awesomenesses it promises.

  • 2
    One thing to note; but not required for your answer; is that this is actually how D&D is supposed to work as well. A player tells you what they're doing, you call for a skill check. The short-hand of "I use Acrobatics to jump the creekbed" is common; but (at least from all I've read) the game is really meant to be Description->(maybe)Action – blurry Sep 9 at 16:56
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    @blurry I’m inclined to think so too, but I don’t think that way of playing is universal. Stating such a thing in the answer would just draw arguments over how to play D&D “right”, and that’s a sleeping dog I’d rather leave lie. :) – SevenSidedDie Sep 10 at 3:43
up vote 25 down vote
+100

It is definitely not "as intended;" the DW rules make it very clear that a player never says when a move is triggered. They say what they are going to do in the in-game fiction, and then you say what move got triggered.

Sure, sometimes the line is close, like Cast a Spell - but even then, they should be describing "I waggle my fingers and chant to bring down firey death on my enemies" and you translate that to casting Fireball. But with the vast majority of the moves, you want that additional fictional distance between what they want to do and which move gets pulled (if any). Heck, they are probably ripping themselves off by triggering moves instead of just letting you say they succeed in this way.

"Is it OK" is pure opinion. It's not the way DW is meant to play, as it says explicitly in the rules. Can you do it and probably still have fun, well sure. But since you seem to want to get there, you're probably seeing the light in the distance and realize you're just not there yet.

My group just learned DW from a D&D/Pathfinder base as well, and it can be hard to foster fiction-first play. We went through startup issues as well. Some things we learned while doing it:

  1. Have shorter sessions. You need a long, long time for a normal PF session with a couple fights. You get through a lot more in DW, but also people's brains get tired and the purple prose doesn't flow as freely after a couple hours. Or take breaks.

  2. The GM needs to keep pimp hand strong. Don't accept "I trigger move X!" Just redirect that with "and so what does Alaktu Likkit the half-orc barbarian do exactly?"

  3. Be generous. "You just plain do damage" or other don't-need-to-roll-it things help players realize you're there to help them along and they don't need the player entitlement of the rules to get there (a lesson 3e, 3.5e, 4e, and Pathfinder have been slamming into them for years, it's hard to get over).

  4. Practice makes perfect. Your players have been spending their time and training their brains to come up with CharOp UberCombos instead of coming up with compelling narration and description. It'll just take some time, and some going back to the pools of inspiration (fantasy novels, movies, etc.) to be able to do fiction-first smoothly. Don't fret that you're not perfect out of the gate.

There are many excellent answers already, so I will just fill in the gap that describing what you do in Dungeon World triggers the move and that description is not fluff - it actually matters. If your players get that their chance of success (and what happens if they fail!) depends on the fiction they are narrating, they will be incentivized to do that.

Fiction first simply means that we use the fiction to decide if something is possible, instead of game stats. It also determines what happens in a success or failure.

In short, fiction in DW affects:

  • Can you even try? If a dragon is immune to fire in the fiction, then it is immune to all moves that rely on fire to hurt it; if a stone golem is impervious to bladed weapons, then it is immune to all moves that rely on steel -- Hack and Slash, for instance -- to hurt it. You can try to Hack and Slash the golem with a warhammer, but not with a sword - or you can try using the blunt end of the sword to hurt the golem. Hence, how you do it, in fiction matters.

  • What happens if you fail? Using the blunt end of a sword as burgeoning weapon sounds like a great idea until you roll a 7-9 and while you hurt the golem, your weapon broke. Lying to the guard captain that you are on a secret mission from the King works well...perhaps too well, when you roll a 2. The players' fiction comes into play as well when they fail.

  • What happens if you succeed? A "I attack the Orge" vs. "I attack the Orge, hoping to drive him closer and closer to the edge of the cliff" are both Hack and Slash. If you are going to roll, you may as well get the best out of it!

It is a mindset change to go from move, action, bonus action, extra action, reaction to "describe what you are doing in full". I prohibit my groups from using the move names. I don't use mine when I describe my moves, and they don't use theirs. I have them describe what they are doing and I decide which move they are invoking, if any. The other posts that suggest simply asking them to elaborate are great for moving past the issue in-game and without fuss when it happens, but I am more direct. I simply say, "Backup a moment and describe what you would like to do, and we'll go from there". To be honest, I don't go into combo moves. I like fast and smooth flow. If what they are describing is more defy danger than hack and slash, then that's what they roll and vice-versa. It REALLY depends on their description of what they are doing and what their focus is on. They will learn to emphasize what they are good at and avoid what they are not. If they get creative in their wording to minimize danger on a fail, then that is just a bonus for the game.

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