Game Design Goals and Philosophy 1: Dungeons

I was listening to a James KA Smith lecture on a recent road trip, and he was mentioning how a lot of the media we consume is trying to define “the good life”. Beauty products commercials sell a beautiful face as the good life, and their products is the way to get there. Beer commercials may show good times with friends, and beer is how you get there.

Of course, I know that’s true, but its easy to forget, especially when we are immersed in design every day. I’ve been applying that thinking to some of my favorite Tabletop RPGs recently. This might turn into several posts…

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons is the archetypal tabletop RPG, in the same way that Frisbee is the archetypal flying disc toy. What started off as a way to simulate medieval combat soon grew into a deep, intricate world of magic, skills, and impressive individuals.

Most of the DnD mechanics focus on gaining XP, and growing stronger, both via stats and new abilities/spells. Since the primary way to gain XP is by killing monsters, most skills and abilities have a combat focus.

The results in a game the places combat as the primary road to success, with success represented by more powerful characters. Players are encouraged by the mechanics to maximize their combat capability so that they can kill more monsters and gain more XP.

Also, because the rules are precise and extensive, players are encouraged to work within them, mastering and manipulating them to their greatest advantage. This isn’t true of every group, but I think the way that the rules are usually played and written is to appeal and convey the concept of growing stronger through combat.

Dungeon World


To contrast, I’ll talk about Dungeon World next. Set in a similar medieval fantasy setting, Dungeon World keeps a lot of the trappings of Dungeons and Dragons. However, Dungeon World has a simplified set of rules, advancement, and statistics.

Everything that happens in Dungeon World relies on the Apocalpse World mechanic of “Triggered Moves”. The basic idea is that the mechanics should shift into the story, resolve a questionable situation, and then shift back out; allowing the mechanics to take a back seat to the narrative story-telling. Here’s an example:

John: “Now, I’m sneaking along the crevice of a mining shaft, keeping my eye out for any monsters or nearby enemies.”
GM: “As you come around the corner, you see a group of 3 goblins below trying to get some ropes working to haul themselves back to the surface. In their bickering and arguing, they haven’t yet seen you.”
John: “Alright, I think I’m going to jump on the lines above, and drop down into the midst of them.”
GM: “That’s going to trigger a Defy Danger move. Roll your dice”
John: *Rolls successfully* “Yes! so I made it?”
GM: “oh yeah, the Goblins turn to look at you, bewildered by your awesome recklessness.”
John: “I take out my axe, and go for the closest one!”
GM: “That counts has a hack and slash, make your roll…”

As you can see from the above example, the players always describe what they are doing, and that is exactly what happens when they describe it. The mechanics are only there to determine the result of risky or questionable actions, and never limit or constrain the players.

This results in a game where player creativity is encouraged, and the way that players describe their actions directly relates to the available consequences. In the above example, if John had slowly climbed down, then perhaps his failure wouldn’t have alerted the goblins, although then he wouldn’t have had such close access for his attacks.

You know….stunts like this!

The above description is a bit winded, but it really was a revolutionary revelation for me, and changed the way that I play and GM rpgs. Dungeon World promotes a style of play that rewards creative narration, dangerous stunts, and careful descriptive actions. Players don’t grow stronger as much as the accumulate new moves and abilities. XP is rewarded for failure; creating a sort of win-win for every situation. If you succeed, then great! If you fail, at least you got some XP, and are closer to growing stronger.

Since the mechanics are so general, there isn’t much chance of manipulating or taking advantage of them. Players are encouraged to take risks through the mechanics, both to earn XP, and accomplish daring stunts. A good, exciting game filled with stunts is the “good life”, and the light narrative mechanics is how they get there.