We’ve talked here before about the worst game sessions we’ve ever presided over as GM. I don’t think this one was my worst ever but it was certainly my worst in recent memory — my worst ever playing Dungeon World, for sure — and it was at a big table of eager players during a primetime slot of a grand gaming venue, Games On Demand, on of the four best days in gaming, at Gen Con 2013. I’m so embarrassed.
For context, Gen Con marked my fourth straight week of traveling, appearances, readings, and conventions. I was real tired. This is no excuse for providing eager gamers with a weak-sauce experience, if that’s what it indeed was, but I mention it so we’ll all understand that I was not at my best.
Beyond that, Saturday night at Games On Demand is like playing a game in a thunderstorm — swells of noise made it all but impossible for me to hear more than one of my players at a time. When I would lean in to hear from one player, the others would understandably make talk amongst themselves and decide on a course of action on their own. Add that to the diverse and sometimes incompatible interests of the various players and their characters, and we had a table in need of a GM who could hear everyone, who could wrangle creative agendas, who could inspire common goals.
The setting we were playing in, called Orbita, is one I designed for D&D 4E but which runs great with Dungeon World (most of the time), when I can suitably convey the environment and the atmosphere. The short version: It plunks traditional fantasy-adventure characters into a crumbling interstellar dungeon with unusual, magical notions of vacuum, gravity, electricity, and more. Part of the experience involves traversing these weird environments. Part of it involves sorting out the fantastical — rather than scientific — rules by which these environments operate. (Break a window in this part of the galaxy and a nebula’s toxic gases might pour in. Break a barrier separating you from interstellar Void and you might risk falling into an airless nothing.)
Some players love it. Some … not so much. So it goes.
That setting, though, isn’t a big meta-plot kind of place, driven by any core narrative. It’s a dwindling, disintegrating dungeonscape meant to be explored and altered by traveling adventurers. Like Dungeon World says in one of its principles, “Think dangerous:” “The world changes. Without the characters’ intervention, it changes for the worse.”
Opportunities for great stories abound here, but it’s a play-to-find-out kind of place, with stories baked into the level design and no set trajectories, only consequences for action, reaction, inaction.
Some of the players in this session, though, wanted to tell a “grand story.” Ordinarily, when that’s what people want, I’m happy to oblige. I love grand stories. When I’m in fighting shape, I can help coordinate play to deliver a combination of improvisational freedom and narrative punch that at least holds up in the moment, during play. I wish I’d been in fighting shape that night.
Instead, I thought, maybe I missed some passage in the Dungeon World rulebook that mentioned grand stories. Instead, I thought, do I really want to get into an argument with my players about what Dungeon World is designed to do? Since practically everything in Dungeon World is a rule — and I didn’t want to break those rules at that table — I was wary of that argument.
So, when I got home, I went through the book again to see where this disparity between our visions for the game came from. It’s not an usual disparity, I think. Dungeon World co-designer, Adam Koebel, has had “personal experiences with people who, when I suggest DW, say ‘I only play story games.’” [via] But, “the inverse, too. DW is suggested and [someone says] ‘eww, I hate story games.’” [via]
Why play Dungeon World? The book says it’s to “do amazing things,” to see our characters “struggle together” as a party, and “to explore.” The book says “Dungeon World’s rules are here to guide you and help you create a world of fantasy adventure.”
While I’ve seen people write or heard people say that Dungeon World is “narrative” — and I have said variations on that myself — the text of the game (and thus, I suppose, the game itself?) isn’t especially interested in narrative. Just fiction.
The Dungeon World GM’s agenda is, according to the text:
- Portray a fantastic world
- Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
- Play to find out what happens
The text addresses the GM directly, in fact: “You’re most certainly not here to tell everyone a planned-out story.”
That still leaves a space, though, for the question of a story that’s not “planned out.” It leaves space for a player’s planned-out story, however sketched or brief. I’ve seen players bring planned-out arcs for their characters to the table. As a player, I’ve done it! (I’m pretty good at arcing D&D characters, in my opinion, since the leveling mechanism makes it possible to predict a character’s future in some informative ways.)
Should Dungeon World play be concerned with narrative at all? Should it care if “the fiction” yields a story of any kind … or just fiction?
RPGs are often about fiction detached from dramaturgy. I’ve often said that games like these can often be about bad stories told well. They can also be about non-stories told well. E.g., Dungeon World?
What about Dungeon World’s principles? What do they tell us about story?
Principles like “Think dangerous” and “Begin and end with the fiction” might seem to be about narrative, but they’re about the fictional world, not dramaturgy.
One principle — “Embrace the fantastic” — says to think about “the fantastic” and reminds the GM that the characters’ world should be “just as engaging” as fantastical examples provided. None of the examples are explicitly narrative, though. The book says to think “about floating cities or islands crafted from the corpse of a god[,]” but it’s not asking you think about them in a narrative way. The example isn’t about the history or development of the floating city; you’re just supposed to, like, think about it.
Another principle — “Be a fan of the characters” — gets closer to the matter but doesn’t quite touch on narrative, either. It may be implying something grander when it says to think of the players’ characters “as protagonists in a story,” but the reason it gives for us to think of them this way is so that we may “[c]heer for their victories and lament their defeats.” The principle is clear that the GM is not “to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.”
What does it mean to “participate in fiction” in this case? What is fiction without dramaturgy? It is play.
So Dungeon World is clear about pre-planned stories and pretty clear about the GM’s role in the fiction, but it isn’t super clear about what “fiction” is or whether that fiction is meant to be narrative. If it meant to be narrative, it is clearly not the GM’s place to push it around, though she can influence it tremendously through the game space, the monsters, and GM moves. Yet Dungeon World is curiously quiet about the players’ vision for narrative.
I had a player who wanted to make decisions based on narrative notions, which is fine with me. I also had players who wanted to make another player’s decisions based on narrative notions, which is fine with me when it is fine with the players involved. In this case, it wasn’t.
I’m left wondering about player agendas and principles in Dungeon World, too. Dungeon World can service an array of play styles and creative agendas, in actual practice, but it seems like players who come to the game with different agendas than the game’s — who haven’t read the GMing material — might be at the bottom of an incline.
We had a disconnect between player agendas at the table and I, as a Dungeon World GM, felt less empowered to intervene than I would have as almost any other kind of GM … because I’m not supposed to push. Because things that aren’t on the list of agendas “aren’t your goals” as a Dungeon World GM.
Which is, of course, ludicrous. As a Games On Demand GM and a GM with something to prove, I have lots of other goals. But I surrendered to the storm and to the game.
If I’d been on that night, I would’ve used the game’s agenda and principles in concert with collaborative, narrative techniques to help us frame everyone’s own decisions narratively in a grand way. Instead, I failed both the table and the game by not delivering the best experience, by not finding the wherewithal to play hard using all of my tools.