I’ve been running some Dungeon World games (off stream) for members of the Variant Roles community for the last month or so. It’s not a “serious” campaign, for whatever value you might attach to that word. It feels more like a series of one-shots, sometimes with recurring characters. This all stems from the desire to teach more people how to play DW and embrace a “Powered by the Apocalypse” or at least fiction-first style, plus the need for episodic games that can be played in a drop-in, drop-out fashion.
How we do it now
I start with a Dungeon Starter from Lampblack & Brimstone, tweaked somewhat to my preferences, and teach folks how to play DW going right through the steps in the book. Nominally, I’ve located some of these across the Quell Islands so it feels somewhat “real,” but we haven’t yet actually used the undertake a perilous journey move.
Within the community, anyone can sign up, and the games run at different times. I put out sign-ups via a Doodle poll that lists the times I’m available that week, and when I get 4 players then we schedule the session. I give them 3-4 choices of dungeon starters (including previously visited locales) and ask them to reach some sort of group consensus.
Dungeon Starters, by the way, provide a fantastic way to start any DW game, whether a series of one-shots (which these effectively are) or a longer-term campaign. In addition to reminding the GM of their Agenda, Principles, and Dungeon Moves, the rest of the structure reinforces those things. Sections include Questions like “What have you sworn to do here?”, Impressions to help the GM embrace the fantastic, usually some custom moves for the dungeon, and then Discoveries (e.g. magic items) and Dangers (e.g. monsters). They follow a similar philosophy as Perilous Wilds, also from L&B, and fit well into that system. See the scout ahead move listed below for more on that.
The following list is exactly what I provide the players in a pinned document:
- The Variant Roles Code of Conduct always applies, whether or not we’re on stream. Make sure you’ve read and agreed to the social contract there.
- This game is intended in general to be a light-hearted, friendly campaign hewing to PG-13(ish) standards with little to no controversial content. That said, like all VR games, we use safety tools including the X card. Also see our lines and veils; if a player would like to add a line or veil but prefer not to add one in the document with their name attached, players can send the GM a private message, no questions asked except for absolutely necessary clarifying ones (not probing into private reasons for the restriction).
- Fantastic racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry don’t exist in this world. Similarly, there are no “evil races” here. Goblins, orcs, deep elves, lizardfolk, and the like exist, but people of those backgrounds are no more or less likely to be “evil” than anyone else.
- Organizing a session is flexible. Some sessions will be scheduled by the GM, while others will be organized by players and then a mutually-agreeable time negotiated with the GM. Sessions consist of about four players plus the GM and last about three hours, give or take. Sometimes this can be streamed if everyone in the session wants that and the VR leadership agrees, but that’s not the default assumption.
- Try to mix it up: we play in groups with different folks. For now, we’ll leave this as a general guideline rather than establishing some specific rules.
- When a session is scheduled, the players will define in advance the specific dungeon, site, or quest they’d like to explore, choosing from a list in the knowledge base or based on in-universe rumors and hooks from previous sessions.
- Characters can die. If it happens, marvel at the story we told, then create a new character and let’s keep having fun. The GM is not out to get you… but the monsters might be.
- The characters don’t need to be friends, but they do need to be willing to work together. Dungeon World as a system doesn’t really support PvP and I’m not interested in open conflict between PCs. Tension and disagreement are welcome in character, but make sure to check in with each other and lean on those safety tools. As a last resort, the GM may resort to fiat, but let’s keep that rare or non-existent.
In general, we use the standard Dungeon World rules which are freely available. However, due to the open nature of this game, characters write flags instead of bonds. Players can use this list or write their own, but you should have two to three of them. At the start of each session, everyone will announce their flags. Characters who hit someone else’s flag or have their own hit will be rewarded with XP. (Bonds between characters are fine, of course, but do not have a mechanical basis.)
As mentioned above, games consist of about four players plus the GM and last two to four hours (three is ideal). At least one break will happen, about halfway through the scheduled session.
A shared map and knowledge base is available to all players, who are encouraged to contribute as they explore the setting where the campaign occurs. Third-party playbooks, races, and the like are welcome! Players should check with me privately first, however, in case we need to make any tweaks together.
Here are some new or changed moves. Many of these come from Homebrew World.
Start of Session
When you start a session, if you contributed a write-up from your previous session to the campaign knowledge base, share it with the group and mark XP. ((This is intended to facilitate sharing among players, so please don’t try to abuse this rule.))
When you explain your absence from the last session, say what happened and roll. If you..
- fought a monster or escaped imprisonment, roll+STR
- did something secret, stole something, or evaded something, roll+DEX
- trained under a mentor or acquired help or resources, roll+CON
- learned ancient knowledge or invented something, roll+INT
- discovered a secret or had a divine encounter, roll+WIS
- made an ally or learned about a culture, roll+CHA
On a 10+ you had a prosperous leave and take +1 forward on what you learned. On 7-9 you attracted trouble during your absence and the consequences may catch up with you. ((source))
When you lead the way into the unknown, say how you do it and then roll+STAT (as per Defy Danger): on a 10+, choose 2 from the list below; on a 7-9, choose 1. ((source: Perilous Wilds))
- You get the drop on whatever Danger lies ahead
- You discern a beneficial aspect of the terrain, such as a shortcut, shelter, or tactical advantage.
- You happen upon a Discovery.
- You notice signs of a nearby Danger — ask the GM what it is, and what it might signify.
When the stakes are high, danger looms, and you act anyway, roll…
- +STR to power through or test your might
- +DEX to employ speed, agility, or finesse
- +CON to endure or hold steady
- +INT to apply expertise or enact a clever plan
- +WIS to exert willpower or rely on your senses
- +CHA to charm, bluff, impress, or fit in
On a 10+, you pull it off as well as one could hope. On a 7-9, you can do it, but the GM will present a lesser success, a cost, or a consequence (and maybe a choice between them, or a chance to back down).
When you press or entice a GM character, say what you want them to do (or not do). If they have reason to resist, roll +CHA: on a 10+, they either do as you want or reveal the easiest way to convince them; on a 7-9, they reveal something you can do to convince them, though it’ll likely be costly, tricky, or distasteful.
Aid or Interfere
When you help or hinder someone, say how. You may do so either before or after they have rolled, but before the outcome of their action is known. If you do it…
- …using brute force, roll+STR
- …with speed, agility, or physical finesse, roll+DEX
- …with vitality, toughness, or vigor, roll+CON
- …through emotional manipulation, roll+CHA
- …through analysis, logic, or book-learning, roll+INT
- …some other way, roll+WIS
On a 10+, they take +1 or −2 to their roll, your choice. On a 7−9, they still get a modifier, but you also expose yourself to danger, retribution, or cost.
End of Session
When you reach the end of a session, if you hit a flag of any other character during the session at least once, mark XP. If anyone hit at least one of your flags this session, mark XP.
Then look at your alignment. If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP.
Finally, answer these three questions as a group:
- Did we learn something new and important about the world?
- Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?
- Did we loot a memorable treasure?
For each “yes” answer, everyone in the session marks XP.
This system isn’t perfect, and after a month I already see some adjustments I’d like to make. First, I want to incorporate more of Homebrew World or One Shot World. This does things like eliminate “race”-specific moves, which really really rub me the wrong way, plus provide playbook documents that have a little more rules info on them and focus on flag-like elements plus more rapid advancement. Requiring 7+level XP is fine when you want a campaign to stretch over weeks or months, but not necessarily here. I would like to write a few more playbooks in this style so that we don’t get stuck with the same tropes as bog-standard D&D. (This group has a lot of love for the Immolator already!)
I also want to improve the ability for the world to maintain a bit of consistency. I don’t know yet what that will mean – maybe a singular megadungeon with lots of different levels, or maybe drawing a new map with the areas nearer each other, or maybe creating more of an in-character organizational structure like my old Relic Hunters Guild. Or maybe we should start having some overland travel and dangers!
Much of the culture that surrounds DW seems to tend somewhat to grim fantasy, and I often love that myself, but for this project I like to keep it light-hearted. That has informed the way I adjust dungeon starters, or even the ones I’m currently writing.
This doesn’t replace long-term campaigns, by any stretch. In my mind, it serves a role akin to one of the purposes of the Adventurers League: give people an easy on-ramp to the game, help them learn to play, and provide episodic games for folks who need something with a little less recurring structure than a weekly game at the same time every session.