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I chanced across a question someone else asked about the Ranger's move Unnatural Ally while looking through the Dungeon World GitHub's issue tracker. Asking a question about the game is arguably not a design issue, so unsurprisingly it's gone unresolved since 2012 Maybe we can close this one out then…

The question they posed is this:

tresi commented on Aug 28, 2012

For the Ranger's Unnatural Ally advanced move, does the existing companion become monstrous or do they gain a new, replacement, monstrous companion?

If the former, then they should probably describe what happened to it, right? Does the boost to Ferocity and Instinct stack with whatever they had before?

If the latter, are Cunning and Armor just based on the creature picked? And it knows all the tricks the old animal knew, plus a new one?

That question is referring to this 6–10 Advanced Ranger move:

Unnatural Ally

Your animal companion is a monster, not an animal. Describe it. Give it +2 ferocity and +1 instinct, plus a new training.

My initial reaction to reading the question was to breezily think that it would probably be obvious with a re-read of the move and some working knowledge of Dungeon World, but actually I find myself uncertain at the correct answer.

My initial assumption was that “of course” you have the same animal companion — but the broad discretion the move gives the Ranger to describe a completely different sort of creature makes that hard to swallow. What, does the Ranger wake up one morning, look at his owl, and go, “Good morning, Archimedes! …Goodness, I never noticed that you're actually a manticore! Well then, silly me.”

Conversely, the move also says “Give it +2 ferocity and +1 instinct, plus a new training”, which wording implies that its your existing critter companion.

How does this move work, both regarding the mechanical issues in the above quoted question, and fictionally (which are inextricably intertwined, this being Dungeon World)? Does it make the Ranger's existing animal companion suddenly (or suddenly revealed to be) a monstrous creature, or does it replace the Ranger's existing animal companion? Some middle ground I'm overlooking? And whichever it is, how do the monstrous companion's stats work in that case?

Or does this “simply” fall under the usual “ask the Ranger how their class works” GM manoeuver, so that you just follow that fiction to an ad hoc, per-Ranger reconciliation of these conceptual and mechanical conflicts every new Dungeon World campaign? Even if that's the answer, that leaves me (and I imagine others) right back at the beginning, tripping over the apparently contradictions and wondering how these can be at all reconciled with a good fictional explanation.

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The door is open for any of these possibilities.

As you say, and as Dungeon World is oft to do, the rule is designed to allow an ad-hoc, Ranger-by-Ranger explanation. All of these possibilities and more can be worked out between the GM and the player.

  • The animal turned out to have always been a monster, and previously hidden traits are suddenly emerging.
  • The animal became enchanted, infected, or otherwise turned into a monster by a sudden recent event, causing them to morph and change.
  • The Ranger gets an entirely new animal, which may be similar to or entirely different from the previous (perhaps use the same stats and modify them, or perhaps invent new stats using the original rules and then apply the new modifiers to those). Happy retirement, Mr. Bear, and welcome aboard, Ms. Dragon!

Dungeon World frequently allows for these kind of open-ended choices with designing characters, so I find it likely that this is the intent. The player and the gamemaster should have a conversation and choose whatever they collectively think is the most interesting to them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It is notable that nowhere in the Ranger's character sheet does it describe the pension plan for Mr. Bear. I'll assume this negotiation falls under one of the few cases where you use your CHA modifier to Defy Danger against a bear. \$\endgroup\$ – BlackVegetable Feb 3 '17 at 21:59
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Both. Or neither.

Apply this to the Half-Elven move: If you are half-elven do you just suddenly wake up with elven features or do you get replaced with a half-elf? Or do you travel back in time and convince your mom to go adventuring and schtup a human?

My point is, the moves don't exist to tell you how things happen, let alone why. They exist to provide support for telling your story. While all the options mentioned are technically possible, the most logical conclusion is that you were Half-Elven all along. And after all, your choice only affects the type of companion you have. Maybe your bear is actually a dire bear. Or your mule is a... okay, seriously, who takes a mule as an animal companion? Anyway, all of the things you mentioned are options. As are things like your animal companion becoming mutated by wild magic. Or you could have had a Dire Bear from the beginning and just now taken the thing that gives it full mechanical support.

Remember, Dungeon World is intended as a conversation, not a monologue. Don't expect moves to tell you how they work because the game actually wants you to decide.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But to the contrary, Dungeon World is (also) a prescriptivist game, and that's why the move brings me up short. “Advancement, like everything else in Dungeon World, is both prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive means that when a player changes their character sheet the character changes in the fiction. …” That's also why Half-Elven can only be chosen if it's the first advanced move chosen, to avoid the on-screen reveal of that heritage being weird due to being really late in the “series”. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 3 '17 at 19:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but it ONLY changes if it NEEDS to change. See again, you are Half-Elven because your character sheet says you are but that does not mean you weren't before. Likewise, just because updating your sheet CAN mean your animal changes if your companion already fits then it doesn't need to. \$\endgroup\$ – Wesley Obenshain Feb 3 '17 at 20:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with Wesley \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Feb 3 '17 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm still not quite buying it, and I'm falling off the following-wagon at the first sentence of the second paragraph. The moves do exist to tell you (briefly) exactly what happens, and all the things in a move must be followed / be true, else you're not following the rules. (Changing the rules of a game on the fly is okay to do, but not relevant to understanding the game or playing it straight.) The game does want you to decide, but in the voids left by the moves, not by changing/ignoring bits of them. The conclusion might be correct, but the reason given is contrary to my understanding of DW. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 3 '17 at 20:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes. That is true. That's why the question is focused on the apparent contradictions in the move's literal wording and relationship to previous Ranger moves, because yes, normally following a move exactly is fairly straightforward. It's not in this case, which is why the question is asked. This answer appears to either ignore the point of the question, or say to ignore whichever parts of the move I find inconvenient. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 3 '17 at 20:23

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