If you’re a committed OSR gamer, you may not have read the award-winning RPG, Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel, but you’ve probably heard of it. And if you’ve never read Dungeon World, you almost certainly haven’t paid any attention to the wonderful third-party supplements available to support it. Well, my friends, we need to change that, and I’m here to tell you why.
- Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel
- The Perilous Wilds, by Jason Lutes
- 20 Dungeon Starters, by Marshall Miller and Mark Tygart
- Perilous Deeps, edited by Jason Lutes
What Dungeon World Is, and Isn’t
Dungeon World is as much a modern RPG as old-school D&D is a classic one. LaTorra and Koebel enthusiastically incorporated four decades of evolution in RPG mechanics and design philosophy in creating Dungeon World. OD&D is a tactical game of exploration, discovery, and combat, that pits the players against a hostile world prepared by the Dungeon Master. Dungeon World is a narrative game in which the players collaborate with the game master to create a fantastic world as they explore it, and invent a story along the way.
But when you look past how they work, at what they actually do, the two games have a lot in common. Like OD&D, Dungeon World sends bands of adventurers on expeditions into dangerous, fantastic realms, opposing savage monsters, seeking riches both monetary and magical. LaTorra and Koebel acknowledge that Dungeon World was intended to create classic dungeon adventures using a modern rule system (the Apocalypse Engine, created by Vincent Baker for Apocalypse World). Yet the most important thing that both games have in common, and what sets them apart from modern D&D as it’s played in the fifth-edition era, is that they are intended to be experienced as sandbox worlds, not pre-plotted adventures. And that is where Dungeon World and its supplements have something useful to teach OSR Dungeon Masters.
Don’t Get Buried in the Sandbox
When we played D&D back in the 70s, we had no concept of “plot,” “backstory,” or even “adventure,” really. The game was about exploring dangerous and uncharted regions, either under the earth or in the wilderness. We were theoretically free to go anywhere, and do anything that came to mind. And while that was great fun for the players, it was an immense burden on the Dungeon Master. He had to build an entire world for us wander around in, so that we wouldn’t bump into the walls or fall off the edge. And while world-building can be fun when you’re in high school, not very many of us have that kind of time on our hands as adults with jobs, spouses and kids.
A lot of the old-school renaissance is about recreating that 70s-style experience, and sandbox campaigns were a big part of that. Dungeon World understands that, but it gets there in a different way than OD&D usually does. Instead of expecting the game master to plan out every square inch of his world on graph paper, Dungeon World gives the game master strategies and tools to discover the campaign world in real time, with minimal prep and significant input from the players. And those are methods that can be carried back to your OSR D&D campaign.
Agendas, Principles, and Fronts
One of the most important things Dungeon World does, and one which can be applied to game mastering any RPG, is it presents an orderly, organized approach to the overwhelming and chaotic responsibilities of creating a fictional world and running interesting adventures. The authors declare a three-item agenda for game masters—portray a fantastic world; fill the characters’ lives with adventure; and play to find out what happens. The gist of that final bullet point—play to find out what happens—is that you can’t anticipate every possibility in your session prep, so don’t even try. Leave enough open space in your planning to allow the adventure room to find its own course as it plays out.
LaTorra and Koebel also establish twelve principles to guide the game master as he runs the game. Of these, a couple stand out as especially relevant to the sandbox DM: draw maps, leave blanks; and make a move that follows. Again, the point of that first principle is to plan the general parameters of the adventure, but leave space to let the details emerge in real time, filling in the blanks naturally during play. And the point of the second principle is that when a player makes a choice or takes an action, the DM should respond with the natural consequences of that action, within the context of the world and the adventure so far. If you know the general framework of the adventure, the specific events will flow organically from the characters’ actions, without the need for obsessive preparation.
Fronts are Dungeon World‘s format for establishing that general framework for adventure, an organized approach to prepping the broad strokes without niggling unnecessarily over the details. A front is an overall theme or problem facing the adventurers; the book offers the discovery of an inter-dimensional portal as an example front. Each front should present two to three distinct dangers, each with its own impeding doom; in the case of this portal, one danger might be a cabal of sorcerers seeking to harness the power of the portal, to spread its domination over the region. A series of grim portents is prepared, events signifying the threat that mounts if the dangers go unchecked. And a cast of characters is established—allies, rivals and foes associated with the various dangers, each of which may play a role in the adventure to come. Mapping out several specific encounters in advance is unnecessary; working from the information laid out in his fronts, the game master can improvise the details on the fly, as they are needed.
I’ve over-simplified the Dungeon World approach to campaign-building and adventure prep massively here, but the point is this: plan out the general adventure framework in advance, but improvise the particulars during play. The book guides the DM in preparing for any course the party might pursue, without investing heavily in one particular path in advance. What could be more sandboxy than that?
The Dungeon World system is also supported by an immense number of excellent third-party supplements, filled with useful content that can also be applied to OSR sandbox campaigns. Here are three of the best, all from Lampblack & Brimstone, that you should check out:
This 72-page book focuses on wilderness exploration adventures, providing tables and tools for creating fantastic regions on the fly. (hexcrawl much?) Included are excellent systems for mapping new areas and populating them with dangers and discoveries; managing wilderness expeditions; recruiting and leading followers; creating interesting dungeons quickly, at the table or during prep; and one of the best systems I’ve seen yet for inventing names for NPCs, settlements, and even mounts, that produces names that are both meaningful and fantastic. With Perilous Wilds behind the DM screen, anyone can run successful overland adventures with very minimal prep.
This book is a collection of six dungeons, designed following the guidelines and principles laid out in The Perilous Wilds, each running between six and sixteen pages. Included are “The Pit of Vanzwink,” a mad wizard’s castle of glass created by Perilous Wilds author Jason Lutes; and “Eesha’s Gulf,” an abandoned manor that serves as a portal to an infinite array of afterlives, imagined by Dungeon World co-designer Adam Koebel.
Each of the six unique adventures follows the author’s interpretation of the Perilous Wilds format, including an Introduction (background information for the game master); Impressions (sensory details to set the mood); Connections (ways to reach nearby areas or locales); Common Areas (descriptions of “typical” dungeon areas that will be encountered over and over during exploration); Unique Areas (special places that occur only once in the adventure); Discoveries (encounters that are interesting, but not immediately threatening); and Dangers (things that pose a direct threat, including traps and monsters). In keeping with the Dungeon World philosophy of “playing to find out what happens,” no maps are included; the DM may lay out his own map during prep, or set it down during the play session, as the heroes discover it. Either way, the game master should remember to leave blanks on the map, to fill in as new information and opportunities arise during play.
Where Perilous Deeps describes six dungeons in great depth, this book offers two-page toolboxes for running 20 different dungeons. Themes range from the familiar, such as rat-infested sewers and desperate prison breaks, to the bizarre, including eldritch horrors and a chain ascending infinitely into the sky. Information is packed tightly into each two-page write-up, with most details presented in the form of bulleted lists to maximize data density. Included for each dungeon are Questions, hooks to connect the characters to the adventure; Impressions, from ten to thirty flavorful details to breathe life into the setting; Lore, to provide necessary background information; and Discoveries and Dangers, which serve the same purposes they do in Perilous Deeps.
Dungeon starters are intended to provide settings for adventure; the DM will need to invent the major objectives to suit his campaign, drawing upon the Questions and the interests of his player characters for guidance. For example, “The Goblin Hole” describes what the heroes will encounter in the underground lair of a savage goblin tribe, but the game master will need to provide campaign-specific motivations necessary to inspire them to venture within—assuming they need something more than “because it’s full of goblins!”
Although it emphasizes collaborative storytelling instead of the tactics and problem-solving that dominate most OSR D&D campaigns, Dungeon World and its supplements are tremendously useful resources for DMs planning or running OSR sandbox campaigns. While Dungeon World assumes that most of the world-building and adventure-planning decisions will be made in collaboration with the players, during adventure sessions, the methods and strategies the core book presents can be readily applied by game masters to pre-session preparation. No game or supplement has had as much impact on how I look at campaign-building and game-mastering as Dungeon World.
Similarly, the third-party materials supporting Dungeon World are generally of remarkably high quality and utility. The three supplements I’ve described here are densely packed with directly useful content which can be easily incorporated into any campaign. Because of Dungeon World‘s loose, improvisational approach to adventure prep, it’s far easier for a DM make Dungeon World content feel like a natural part of his own campaign than one usually finds with published adventures.
I may never get the chance to run a Dungeon World campaign, or even a one-shot, but I still consider the book required reading for anyone running a roleplaying campaign, regardless of the rule system they choose. You should definitely give it a look.
Until next time, keep on printing, and keep on playing!