Having recently started a Dungeon World campaign with one of the players' characters a Druid, I've run into an interesting game mechanics situation. The druid shapeshifts often. This is usually done because she believes one of her forms will be beneficial, only to discover minutes later that it isn't as helpful as she'd hoped and she needs to either be in her human form or a different animal form.

This has had two interesting ramifications:

  1. She rolls dice far more often, and thus gets 6- far more often leading to more experience. It has happened often enough that I've started telling her to simply not mark experience for some of those failures.

  2. It isn't clear how long shapeshifting takes, or should take. We've settled that it requires some measure of concentration and maybe at least 10 seconds, making it less of an option in a close combat situation. However, she has just leveled up and chosen the Shed advanced move which states:

    When you take damage while shapeshifted you may choose to revert to your natural form to negate the damage.

If she is constantly shapeshifting, she will by far be the most useful character in any combat setting and rolling even more often as she has additional incentive to be shapeshifted. What is a Dungeon-World appropriate fiction to establish to restrict these two problems?


2 Answers 2


Based on the comments, the problem is 100% not how quick the Druid's shapeshifting is, it's that you haven't been making GM moves on 6−.

Restricting the move is not at all the answer. The GM doesn't have that authority in the first place, and more importantly, the Shapeshifter move needs GM moves on its misses in order for it to function correctly. If you haven't been making GM moves on a miss, the move is going to be completely unhinged.

Don't change anything else yet — fix the lack of GM moves first, and see how the move is supposed to work. You'll notice that it's still quite powerful, but so are the downsides when things go wrong. Play at least a session with the rules as written before attempting to hack it to fix a problem that the move only has because of the lack of misses.

As an important tip: on a 6−, the GM always makes a move, regardless of what the player move says. (And the player always gets to mark XP — that is another thing that isn't under the GM's authority.)

But since we're here… how long does it take the Druid to shapeshift?

Like many unwritten things about Dungeon World characters, the easiest way to find out is to ask the expert: the Druid herself!

GM: Druid, how long does it take you to shapeshift?
Druid: It's the blink of an eye! One moment I'm there, then a blur and I'm a bear. If you blink, you'll miss it.
GM: Cool, okay! *makes a note*
GM (writing): Druid shapeshift: blink of eye / blur. GM move idea: so fast that when something goes wrong with a shift, by the time Druid notices, it's too late.

This is a pair of GM Principles in action: Ask questions and use the answers and Be a fan of the characters. The Druid is the expert here, and that's great — let her player tell you how the Druid works, when Dungeon World doesn't already say. Then build on her contribution to fill her life with adventure, later, by using those answers for good and ill. No matter how awesome-seeming a player's answer about their character's abilities is, there are ways it can be good and bad, and the GM can build on it to make the PC and game more interesting in the future.

There's also a sneak peek at a possible future GM move (Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment) at the end there. The nice thing about Dungeon World is that, because you have full permission to make things go beautifully, entertainingly wrong on a miss, you can relax and let yourself let a move go beautifully, entertainingly right when it's a hit. Dungeon World characters are powerful, and the game wants to see them use it to change the world. It's normal and okay for the PCs to enjoy huge successes without the GM tempering them, because sooner or later something will inevitably go wrong too.

My own experience asking my Druid questions about how her class works can be illustrated with a brief tale:

Two DW campaigns back I had a Druid in the group. We never learned exactly how fast or quick the shapeshifting was, but when I asked how it worked, we learned that it required a physical totem with the relevant nature spirit inside, for each shape the Druid could take. Shifting involved asking that spirit to lend Druid its form, and having it hold onto Druid's human form for safekeeping. That Druid was a combat monster, wrecking organised foes with Elephant charges and swooping around with tactical rakes as Eagle.

But building on this answer lead, with no planning at all and only in hindsight, to the climax of the campaign where the party vied with a drow priestess to see who could raise a greater spirit to demigod-hood first, and hence who would influence its alignment and attitudes, and its future as a god in the Forgotten Realms.

All because of one missed Shapeshifter roll. The miss let me build on the Druid's own answer on how shifting worked, and combine it with a random dark pit that I'd added to the current dungeon room without ever knowing what it was going to be. When the Druid missed on a Shapeshifter roll while about to fall into the pit as Elephant (the intent was to become Eagle), the obvious “make a move that follows” result that built on everything I knew about the situation just happened to be that Druid was trapped in Elephant's form, because the pit was a Gate of Elemental Darkness and something down there sucked Elephant Spirit out of the totem, so that Elephant couldn't trade back forms with Druid. From there, history was made…

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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed. I didn't understand that all 6- rolls are coupled with a GM move. This does definitely makes sense solving a few other suspected "balance" issues I thought I noticed. I'll give this a shot tomorrow and report back. :) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2017 at 17:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Am I reading this correctly: You're saying that changing back from elephant form to human form required the suddenly-unavailable Elephant Spirit? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2017 at 18:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MontyHarder In that specific campaign, yes. That's how we'd already established Shapeshifter worked, according to the Druid's player, the first time she shifted. (In a new campaign, a Druid player would get to answer that question her own way.) The shapeshifting power was granted by a specific spirit lending its form, and the Druid could only have one form at a time, so the “spiritual” copy of her human form had to be held somewhere else… This is a great example of the mechanics following the established fiction. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27, 2017 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Two weeks later, I've reported back -- true to my word. See my complementary answer for details. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 12, 2017 at 2:59

As mentioned in SevenSidedDie's answer, the crucial piece I was missing was making a GM move on a failure even when it isn't explicitly stated to do so next to a move's description. As evidence that this mechanism (shapeshifting) works just fine when you follow the builtin safeguard, I will relate a short experience putting SSD's answer into practice:

The intrepid party of adventurers managed to find themselves backed up against a fast-moving river, being stared down by half a dozen large python-like snakes and an ominous rumbling beneath their feet they hoped to avoid learning the cause of. Having previously informed the player of the druid of the party that shapeshifting is supposed to have a real ugly cost on failure, she chose to avoid shapeshifting in a rather dire circumstance for fear of making it far worse.

One set of failed rolls later, the party was tied together by Ropert (their pet rope) at the wrists, with one wrist tied per party member. They were attempting to swim across the river to avoid the snakes only to get Ropert caught on a large rock protruding a bit downstream. This left two party members on each side of the rock, dangling, while snakes on the near end of the shore were in biting distance of at least one of them. Shapeshifting was again considered but rejected both on grounds that failed rolls might get all of them killed and that Ropert would probably be damaged even on a successful roll.

Fast forward to a later scene in an inn they were staying in as guests. The party is about to go investigate a local refinery/smithy adjacent to the town they were staying in, to determine what role it might be playing in supplying the (possibly) evil Duke with (particularly well-crafted) weaponry. The bard, cleric, and thief planned on a direct approach as the refinery wasn't a restricted area per se. However, the druid felt it would be wise to shapeshift into a rat, with the intention of scouting out the upcoming locale while the others talked to the owner. This was thought to be a pretty safe place to shift, as it was a friendly-enough inn (free room and board for instance.)

Well, she rolled a total of 5 -- a clear failure. So, yes, she gets 1 hold to spend. I get to choose her moves, and make a move of my own. Oh yeah, and the shape she shifts into doesn't quite work out the way she wanted. She did turn into a rat... she just forgot the legs. Her moves were "roll around awkwardly" and "squeak helplessly". Then, I made my move which was "show signs of an approaching threat". A custodian working at the inn, chose that moment to walk in and, stereotypically being afraid of rats, screams for help and rushes out of the room. Seeing the dilemma at hand, the party abandoned the idea of the druid acting as a forward scout and simply pocketed the legless rat and walked down the stairs while a shirtless young man with a sledgehammer boldly climbed past them to vanquish the fearsome rat.

That session demonstrated two parts that come from following SSD's advice:

  1. The threat of danger alone will make shapeshifting far less frequent.

  2. Shapeshifting failures can cause problems even in safer settings. Nowhere is fully safe in Dungeon World, although admittedly some places are more dangerous than others. Be sure to make the failures ugly, and hopefully, memorable.

The idea of a set time to shapeshift is no longer a big deal. Some shapeshifts take more time then others, whatever. The fact that I can choose to make a shift take a really long time, if a failure is rolled, when that time matters (such as when you're about to be swarmed by snakes) means the normal non-failure time really isn't relevant.


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