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Dungeon Games

There is a rash of new Dungeon Games coming to market right now: D&D Next is in playtesting, Dungeon World is emerging from a kickstarter, and 13th Age is lurching toward publication. Reading all of them in the past few months has made me realize both how broken Dungeons and Dragons’ Fourth Edition is, and how distant I am from finding a game that does what I want while repairing that brokenness.

We must start this conversation, though, by looking backward. Each of these games is in large part a reaction to Fourth Edition (henceforth ’4E’), and can be defined by its major differentiation from that ruleset and its heritage. As such, a cursory understanding of 4E is a prerequisite for everything that follows.

Fourth Edition is Epic, but ultimately focuses too much mechanical attention on combat.

I’ve struggled to find a better word for it, but Fourth Edition is epic. Your first-level characters are badasses, and they storm into the fray and do cool things. Every turn you unleash four actions into the world, and with planning you can interrupt other people’s turns, too. You fling around magic items with abandon, fight two battles before breakfast, heal yourself through sheer willpower in the middle of combat, and carry around a checklist of which of the thousands of available monsters you’ve felled. 4E makes you feel like you’re inside the battle scenes of one of those Manga titles where every short-skirted schoolgirl can toss off a dragon punch to passersby.

Which is all awesome, except that it makes 4E an incredibly blunt instrument, extremely suited for the glorious fights but utterly helpless when the scene break occurs and you have to interact with the world in ways that don’t involve rolling for damage. The assumption that you spend all your time in “encounters” pervades the time-keeping mechanisms of the game, making it impossible to have short scenes with any balance. Worse, even when you’re in a combat scene you’re fighting against a system that goes to ridiculous lengths to provide you with large and growing bonuses to everything to make it clear that you’ve leveled up, but then goes to even more ridiculous lengths to balance that growth so that your higher numbers don’t convey greater success at anything, and serve only to make the math harder. To top all that off, new sourcebooks are constantly appearing, giving every player new and just-often-enough slightly-better options, making the chore of actually creating your character– or your adventure, for the DM– into a slog through endless lists looking for the few jewels worth paying attention to.

Everyone seems to have noticed these glaring holes at the same time and decided to do something about it. But the ways that the three new games go about this task show what their underlying goals are, in much the same way that 4E’s goal was to make combat a ton of fun. They all assume 4E and its history, and all steal liberally from the D&D canon, but they all ask different questions about what would make the game better.

D&D Next

Next tries to streamline, but simpler mechanics contrast with more mechanics, and the workload of understanding gets too high

Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Next asks “what can we streamline to make the game play quicker, so as to get to more story?” and runs with that. This is the most straightfoward of the three games, because it makes no attempts to radically change the way that D&D has always played: there is a DM telling a story, and players interacting with the story, but the narrative rests in one person’s hands. Again and again Next sluffs off rules and holes where rules could be, and lets that weight land on the DM.

Sometimes this works wonderfully. Advantage is a clever system that is well-suited for a more freeform style of play, where lots of things can give you an edge and the DM can reward you for clever ideas. The race/class/background/_theme__specialty_ quartet is a great way to mix and match parts of a character and end up with something that’s suited for who you want to play.

Sometimes this works much less than wonderfully. The most obvious place this urge to simplify proved crippling was the first release of the fighter class, which had no rules to call his own and was a bore to play. The shattering of 4E’s unified Power structure into a million different mechanics is an annoyance that will only grow as new classes appear. The emphasis shift from skills to ability scores from 4E and then again between the two playtest packets is disconcerting.

Astute readers will not that my tastes have soured somewhat since I last wrote about Next. The main difference here is that I DMed a short game in Next and found the experience wanting. Viewed from the other side of the table, the heroes in Next seemed little and frail, and their actions seems to match. Higher-level play might fix that, but I can’t endorse a game that takes months before you get to the good stuff. And it might be the playtest-grade material speaking, or simply a first-playthrough group, but the DM’s burden of adjucating so many different resource-management systems (learned spells, twice-a-days, hit dice, etc) gets really draining really quick.

Which is ultimately why I think that Next does a poor job answering its question: the design is too busy trying to be clever and make each class distinct that its much-simplified core gets bogged down as soon as it comes into contact with the various classes as they exist right now.

13th Age

13th Age puts the focus on story, but fails to simplify gameplay

Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet’s 13th Age asks “what if we made interacting with the wider (political, cultural, etc) world a basic mechanical part of the game?” and runs with that. This is the kind of question that pushes all the buttons in my story-focused mind, and it does a fantastic job of delivering on this premise.

The focus on story pervades the entire game, and it starts with the principal of Failing Forward: every attempt progresses the narrative forward, no matter what the die roll. You might not get all that you want, or you might get something bad in addition, but you move forward. That rule alone makes up for the fact that, in almost every other respect, 13th Age is an crossbreed between 4E and 3.5E, with its multiple-actions-per-turn, reactions, and complicated action economy.

But a more coherant story is told by 13th Age’s honing of 4E’s powerful level-one characters, which in this game become interesting characters who interact with– and define– the world around them and the adventures to be found there. First among those mechanics is the One Unique Thing, where each player gets to pick something that makes their guy interesting enough to be a character in a story worth telling. Next is the über-flexible “backgrounds” that sit where “skills” were in 4E, giving you little umbrella terms that you can use to cover all manner of abilities, while also baking a personality and a story into your character sheet.

Lastly, the characters become more interesting because of their Icon Relationships, which tug the party into the wider world, giving the GM a ready toolbox to engage the players and bring them into the action. Each character has some connection, good or bad, to a number of the game’s Icons – powerful beings that reside in the world and whose interactions define the conflicts to adventured between. I love how simple they make it to create a world full of interesting places and conflicts, and how easy and obvious it is to customize that world to squirrel away your own story hook deep within the workings.

But I hate the fact that you roll so many freaking dice: your basic attack is one die for each level you’ve got (which go up to 10). I loved the idea of magic items that required a real choice to wield, but the actual magical items are banal and lifeless. Similarly I love the idea of classes being mechanically distinct, but in practice– and as with Next– the actual mechanics fail to live up to the idea; it would be better to pick a good mechanic and use it for everyone, especially for stuff like leveling up. In the same vein, I wish the mechanics for character-to-icon relations was mirrored by some character-to-character relation mechanic that could yield similar fruit.

I’m not yet decided on the Escalation Die, which to my mind seems as likely to delay the big guns from coming into play as it is likely to speed up the end of a battle. I’m also quite undecided on the economy of Feats, which are all tied to 4E-style Powers as little bonuses or exclusions, making them less likely to be abused but also just generally less interesting. Perhaps the worst part about them is that they fall far from the game’s greatest strength: Feats aren’t character-defining; they’re just little benefits that augment something you were already doing, and so they fade into the background too easily.

I’ve yet to play 13th Age, and so I am loath to judge prematurely, but it seems like its best ideas could be stolen and taken to any system, while the rules you work with most– for fighing, social interactions, etc– are nothing special, and in some cases just seem outright broken (really, you want me to roll ten dice on every hit?).

Dungeon World

Dungeon World puts the focus on the characters’ stories, but lacks characters worth caring about

Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel’s Dungeon World asks “what if we focused more on the narrative of the characters themselves?” and runs with that. This game comes at the genre not so much as an augmented version of 4E as a parallel universe– the “indie (aka story) games” movement– intersecting with the D&D genre. As such, this game is also the farthest from the D&D playstyle, actively discouraging the GM from preparing too much of a story, and often repeating mantras like “play to find out” that try to steer the game into a collaborative effort at storytelling and mythos-making. I love this kind of stuff; it’s 13th Age’s story-focus in a tighter beam.

Where Next has simplified the turn to streamline it and 13th Age has simplified the in-character options to streamline the turn, Dungeon World simply does away with the concept. Instead of picking from a list of your attacks, in Dungeon World you instead narrate what your character is doing, and if that thing involves attacking someone, you’ve just initiated a “Hack and Slash” Move. Moves are the basic building block of Dungeon World, and they always flow out of the narration, and their result flows back into the narration to spur on the next Move. My Hack and Slash deals damage to your monster, who might run back into the Dark Portal and insodoing trigger another Move, bringing the Black Temple crashing down around us. Because a Move is such a generic building block, classes become simple lists of “Advanced Moves” that one can pick from. Moreover, because Moves are themselves quite flexible, each class can easily offer a few different builds that emphasize different parts of the adventurer’s life.

Dungeon World’s dice mechanic is built on a slightly-weaker version of Fail Forward wherein you will sometimes get everything you want, often pay dearly for getting what you want, and very rarely outright fail. Every Move is accomplished by rolling 2d6 and adding a bonus from your sheet; a 10+ is an unqualified success; a 7-9 is a success with catches, and a 2-6 (after your bonus, so rare!) is a whiff.

The GM section is fantastic, laying out a simple way to build just enough framework that the table will be able to create an interesting story out of it when they get together. The GM creates Fronts of the “battle” being waged, and for each front creates Dangers that check off a list of Grim Portents as they near an Impending Doom. This system provides enough flavor that you won’t be caught flat-footed as to who’s behind the curtain, but also leaves the actual goings-on very open, to better entwine the characters into the action. Finally, the list of GM Agendas and Principals serve as a great primer for GMs in any game, deftly explaining the role and demonstrating beneficial usage of the awesome powers the role provides.

The selection of Magic Items also contains some amazingly neat stuff full of mystery and possibility, which is odd for a system that explicitly shuns having a worldbook.

But as much as I like Dungeon World, it has some problems. The first is that the book’s layout is very confusing: a glossary at the front contains a number of rules not repeated anywhere else, while there are a few other places where large sections of explanatory text are repeated verbatim elsewhere. There are some sections (I’m looking at you, Debilities, a kind of status effect targetting one of your Ability Scores) that seem to have mechanics that have been orphaned and forgotten about by the rest of the rule set.

Outside of things a good reorg will fix, your choice of class determines your options for race, which limits your character creation options in annoying ways. Your class is also your only source of Advanced Moves, which limits your options when you level up, too. As if that wasn’t enough, your class also proves a couple templates for your Bonds to the other PCs, a fill-in-the-blank relationship to the other guys that sounds like a good idea but falters due to the inanity of the Bonds provided (which, to be fair, you outgrow and replace with freeform text as you progress).

Sadly, I’ve not yet played Dungeon World either, so I reserve the right to change my mind on any of this at a later point in time. But it seems like the Story Game guys took a lot of their neat ideas about making a story in this genre, but then figured that the genre was about these archetypal characters more than anything, and so the least freeform part is the character creation rules, which is one of 4E’s real strengths (after you wade through the bloat of useless options I complained about above).

Conclusion

I think each game’s question is interesting, but I’m not sure any of them are enough for what I want. But before we get to that, let’s just pause for a moment and note that all three games’ questions focus the play more on story and less on combat; that’s 4E echoing down the hobby. I have played and enjoyed many a battle in 4E, and I will be forever nostalgic for some of the magic that the system can work in that format, but ultimately I find it poisonous to playing a real game with a real story that engages the characters and, ultimately, the players at the table.

Because that’s what I want: I want to sit down with my friends every week and see what new heights of awesome we can achieve together. Occasionally that awesome should be a flying piledriver that cracks open a lich’s exposed skull, but there are other things to enjoy, too. I want my character’s goals to be achieved or dashed in epic fashion. I want kingdoms to rise and fall. I want wonderous magics to ravish and revitalize the land. I want Deep Mysteries. I want suspense. I want triumph.

So while Next has a good solid kernel upon which to build a game, it leaves the creation and management of awesome up to only one person at the table, not even helping out with rules that will steer the other players and the game in the right direction. While 13th Age has great rules for drawing the characters into the larger story, it holds on to too many of the clunky mechanics of yestergame, and I fear that its future holds the same death by restrictive rules, level creep, and bloat. And while Dungeon World has great tools for making the campaign center around the characters, it lacks mechanics to make characters worth centering a story around.

The best line in any of these books is from Dungeon World: “Dungeon World isn’t about balancing encounter levels or counting experience points; it’s about telling stories about adventure and death-defying feats!” If it learned to focus more on who was accomplishing those feats and why– if it took a little of 13th Age’s smart ideas about building characters worthy of playing– then I’d have found myself a new system.