Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On Learning to Run Dungeon World

Over on Google+ (in it's last, dying days), Tom Pleasant said this (across a couple different comments):

I’ve done a reasonable amount of storygames but am struggling to grok GMing *World.... Played a dozen different *World games and read up on how to run it. All the agendas and things just make me panic.

I've heard that sentiment before and I totally get it. It seems like you're supposed to constantly keep about a dozen different principles in your mind and make sure that anything you say comes from a list of another 12-20 (or more) proscribed GM moves. How the hell are you supposed to do that and juggle all the social realities of the table and know the rules of the game and keep your setting coherent and and and and.

You know. Just do this. It's easy.

It doesn't help that text of most PbtA games present the "How to GM" chapter as rules that the GM must follow as opposed to advice. Here's the Dungeon World text:

This chapter isn’t about advice for the GM or optional tips and tricks on how best to play Dungeon World. It’s a chapter with procedures and rules for whoever takes on the role of GM.

Here's my (slightly heretical) advice, to him and any other potential GM who's intimidated by the agenda, principles, and GM moves, of Dungeon World.  

Forget the agenda. Ignore the principles. Run the game.  

If you've run pretty much any role playing game before, and certainly if you played Dungeon World or another PbtA game, then you already know the most basic, fundamental thing that you need to know: the game is a conversation.

Establish the situation. ("You're standing in front of these two huge teak-wood doors. The mountain wind howls all around you in the fading light. Your breath catches on the cold air, getting colder. It'll be night soon.").  Keep it brief. Maybe ask the characters some questions about why they're there, what they hope to find, what they're worried about it, why they shouldn't dally. As much or as little as you and they are comfortable with. Enough to set the scene and establish their motive for being there.

Restate the scene and the situation (doors, cold wind, getting darker and colder). Turn to a particular player and ask their character "What do you do?" 

If they ask questions about the situation, and you think you the answers would be self-evident, answer them honestly and generously.  ("Are there any handles or anything on the doors?" "Oh, yeah, there are these huge brass rings on each door, like the size of your arms making a circle. They hang down so the bottom is at about chest height.")  Then: What do you do?

If they ask questions about the situation, and you DON'T think the answer would readily apparent, tell them what's required to learn it. Maybe it involves doing something.  Maybe it involves them making a move.  ("Can we hear any noise from inside?" "No, but they're really thick and it's windy out here. Maybe if you pressed your ear to the doors?" or "Are there any footprints or signs that they've been opened recently?"  "Sounds like you're studying the situation. Discern Realities?")  Ask if they do that. If they do, say what happens or engage the move and resolve it per the rules.

If they do something with an obvious outcome, say what happens as a result. ("I grab onto one of the big brass rings and pull." "There's a creaking noise, and the door slowly grinds open. It's like dragging a car in neutral, it's so heavy.  Dust falls from up top as you, gets caught in the wind and swirls. Darkness looms inside.")  Then: What do you do? 

If things are dragging and the PCs are just dickering around, or you want to get to some action, then telegraph some trouble. ("As you step into the door and get your torches lit, you see a huge, vaulted hallway leading into the darkness. Just at the edge of your torchlight, you see a boot, lying in the ground. Then you realize it's attached to a bony leg. A dead figure, sprawled in the middle of the hall.") Then: What do you do?  (Chances are that they'll do something triggers a move. Resolve it.)

If they do something that would trigger a bad thing, say how the bad thing starts to happen but not how it finishes. ("As you approach the dead body, the tile under your foot starts to give way just a little, then click.").  Establish a bad thing about to happen, but stop while it's still unfurling, and ask them (or another character): What do you do?

If they don't do something to reasonably address the bad thing, clarify with them. ("You just stand there? Even though you pretty clearly just stepped on a pressure plate?")  If they really do ignore it ("Pressure plate? pfft, whatever, I study this corpse.") then bring it home.The bad thing happens, full force. ("You feel this burning stab in your gut and then your ears register this THWOOSH and you realize that there's this six-inch dart sticking out of your stomach. Take d6 damage and your whole body starts to feel like it's on fire.")  Probably turn to someone else and say that they just saw that happen: What do you do?

If, when you introduce the threat, they say that they do something about it (good on them), then they're probably triggering a move. Resolve it!  ("Oh, crap, a pressure plate? I dive back and to the side." "Okay, sounds like Defying Danger with DEX to me, roll it.") Resolve the move as written. ("A 7-9? How about a hard bargain? You can dive and get out of the way of what's coming, but your torch will go clattering off into the distance. Yeah?").

On a miss (6 or less) have them mark XP and then decide what's the most obvious bad thing that can happen?  It happens. Tell them what happens  ("As you dive out of the way, there's this burning stab in your leg. As you hit the ground, you realize you've got this 6-inch dart sticking out of your leg. Take 1d6 damage and holy hells does it burn, way worse than it should.")

However the move ends up resolving: re-establish the situation, turn to a specific player, and ask their character What do you do?

In a chaotic, fluid situation (like a fight), keep moving around between players. Each time you re-establish the scene for them, throw in something that they have to react to (not always bad, maybe it's just an opportunity, a chance to act) before you ask: What do you do?

Notice that I'm not referencing agenda, or principles, or GM moves.  You're simply:

  1. Describing the situation
  2. Answering their questions
  3. Giving them some sort of hook or thing to react to
  4. Asking them what they do
  5. Saying what happens next (return to 1)
  6. Following the rules of the player-facing moves, then saying what happens next (return to 1).

That's the flow of the game, the conversation.

Not sure what to do for #2?  Or as a result of #5?  Skim over your GM moves list and see if something inspires you.

But mostly, just follow the natural fiction of the game and the rules. And don't beat yourself up if for not doing it "right".

Then, after the game, think back on the decisions you made, the things you decided to say. Run those things against the game's proscribed agenda. Did you say or do anything that violated the agenda? Try to avoid that next time.

Look at the principles.  Did you say or do anything that violated them?  Think about what you could have done instead. Think about what adhering to that principle might have looked like.

Look at the GM moves. Think about your major decisions, the things you said to prompt action from the PCs or to give them hooks. Can you match each of those things to one or more of the GM moves?  Where there any decisions you made, where you could have done one of these other GM moves instead? Keep that all in mind for next time.

My ultimate point here is that the GM's agenda, principles, and moves are just ways to codify and describe good GMing.  Some GMs adhere to them closely and intentionally make their moves from the lists. Some GMs keep the principles constantly in mind.

But if they're acting as a barrier to you, and intimidating you, then fuck 'em.  Describe the situation. Give them hook or prompt a response. What do you do?  Resolve a move or say what happens. Repeat.

And then look back on your work and see how you could have done better.

GMing is a practice, like yoga or martial arts or meditation or painting or whatever. You get better at it by doing it, by reflecting on it, by constantly trying to do better.  No one starts off as a maestro. Don't be afraid of being bad or mediocre or less than excellent.  Do the work. Show up. Get better. Get good. Get great.


  1. This is fantastic. May I share it around?

    1. Of course! (Though it's not super applicable beyond DW or other pbta games.)

  2. #WhatTheRulesShouldHaveSaid

    That last paragraph is key. It is easy to be nervous about ruining the game as a GM, but players are pretty forgiving, and if at the end of the session they are eager for the next session then you've done well, cause they had fun (and hopefully you had plenty of fun yourself).

  3. Spot on. The rules are written for someone who has never run a RPG before. As a result, they're making up jargon for what people have already been doing, and it's confusing. I love DW, but the rules are poorly written. Their site has another document (a companion?) that is worth your time to download.