There are many different fantasy genres, each with their own style or advice for GMing. Dungeon World is designed for one of those styles in particular—a world of elves, orcs, dragons and magic where dark dangers mix with lighthearted adventure. The rules in this section will help you run a game in that style.
The characters have rules to follow when they roll dice and take actions. The GM has rules to follow, too. You’ll be refereeing, adjudicating, and describing the world as you go—Dungeon World provides a framework to guide you in doing so.
This section isn’t about advice for the GM or optional tips and tricks on how best to play Dungeon World. It’s a section with procedures and rules for whoever takes on the role of GM.
Running a game of Dungeon World is built on these: the GM’s agenda, principles, and moves. The agenda is what you set out to do when you sit down at the table. The principles are the guides that keep you focused on that agenda. The GM’s moves are the concrete, moment-to-moment things you do to move the game forward. You’ll make moves when players miss their rolls, when the rules call for it, and whenever the players look to you to see what happens. Your moves keep the fiction consistent and the game’s action moving forward.
The GM’s agenda, principles, and moves are rules just like damage or stats or HP. You should take the same care in altering them or ignoring them that you would with any other rule.
When you sit down at the table as a GM you do these things:
- Describe the situation
- Follow the rules
- Make moves
- Exploit your prep
The players have it easy—they just say what their characters say, think, and do. You have it a bit harder. You have to say everything else. What does that entail?
First and foremost, you describe the immediate situation around the players at all times. This is how you start a session, how you get things rolling after a snack break, get back on track after a great joke: tell them what the situation is in concrete terms.
Use detail and senses to draw them in. The situation isn’t just an orc charging you, it’s an orc painted in blood swinging a hammer and yelling bloody murder. You can leverage a lack of information, too. The sound of clattering armor and shuffling feet, for instance.
The situation around them is rarely “everything’s great, nothing to worry about.” They’re adventurers going on adventures—give them something to react to.
When you describe the situation, always end with “What do you do?” Dungeon World is about action and adventure! Portray a situation that demands a response.
From the get-go make sure to follow the rules. This means your GM rules, sure, but also keep an eye on the players’ moves. It’s everyone’s responsibility to watch for when a move has been triggered, including you. Stop the players and ask if they mean to trigger the rules when it sounds like that’s what they’re doing.
Part of following the rules is making moves. Your moves are different than player moves and we’ll describe them in detail in a bit. Your moves are specific things you can do to change the flow of the game.
In all of these things, exploit your prep. At times you’ll know something the players don’t yet know. You can use that knowledge to help you make moves. Maybe the wizard tries to cast a spell and draws unwanted attention. They don’t know that the attention that just fell on them was the ominous gaze of a demon waiting two levels below, but you do.
Your agenda makes up the things you aim to do at all times while GMing a game of Dungeon World:
- Portray a fantastic world
- Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
- Play to find out what happens
Everything you say and do at the table (and away from the table, too) exists to accomplish these three goals and no others. Things that aren’t on this list aren’t your goals. You’re not trying to beat the players or test their ability to solve complex traps. You’re not here to give the players a chance to explore your finely crafted setting. You’re not trying to kill the players (though monsters might be). You’re most certainly not here to tell everyone a planned-out story.
Your first agenda is to portray a fantastic world. Dungeon World is all about guts, guile, and bravery against darkness and doom. It’s about characters who have decided to take up a life of adventure in the hopes of some glorious reward. It’s your job to participate in that by showing the players a world in which their characters can find that adventure. Without the player characters the world would fall into chaos or destruction—it might still even with them. It’s up to you to portray the fantastic elements of that world. Show the players the wonders of the world they’re in and encourage them to react to it.
Filling the characters’ lives with adventure means working with the players to create a world that’s engaging and dynamic. Adventurers are always caught up in some world-threatening danger or another—encourage and foster that kind of action in the game.
Dungeon World adventures never presume player actions. A Dungeon World adventure portrays a setting in motion—someplace significant with creatures big and small pursuing their own goals. As the players come into conflict with that setting and its denizens, action is inevitable. You’ll honestly portray the repercussions of that action.
This is how you play to find out what happens. You’re sharing in the fun of finding out how the characters react to and change the world you’re portraying. You’re all participants in a great adventure that’s unfolding. So really, don’t plan too hard. The rules of the game will fight you. It’s fun to see how things unfold, trust us.
- Draw maps, leave blanks
- Address the characters, not the players
- Embrace the fantastic
- Make a move that follows
- Never speak the name of your move
- Give every monster life
- Name every person
- Ask questions and use the answers
- Be a fan of the characters
- Think dangerous
- Begin and end with the fiction
- Think offscreen, too
Your principles are your guides. Often, when it’s time to make a move, you’ll already have an idea of what makes sense. Consider it in light of your principles and go with it, if it fits.
Dungeon World exists mostly in the imaginations of the people playing it; maps help everyone stay on the same page. You won’t always be drawing them yourself, but any time there’s a new location described make sure it gets added to a map.
When you draw a map don’t try to make it complete. Leave room for the unknown. As you play you’ll get more ideas and the players will give you inspiration to work with. Let the maps expand and change.
Addressing the characters, not the players, means that you don’t say, “Tony, is Dunwick doing something about that wight?” Instead you say, “Dunwick, what are you doing about the wight?” Speaking this way keeps the game focused on the fiction and not on the table. It’s important to the flow of the game, too. If you talk to the players you may leave out details that are important to what moves the characters make. Since moves are always based on the actions of the character you need to think about what’s happening in terms of those characters—not the players portraying them.
Magic, strange vistas, gods, demons, and abominations: the world is full of mystery and magic. Embrace that in your prep and in play. Think about “the fantastic” on various scales. Think about floating cities or islands crafted from the corpse of a god. Think about village wise-men and their spirit familiars or the statue that the local bandits touch to give them luck. The characters are interesting people, empowered by their gods, their skill at arms, or by mystical training. The world should be just as engaging.
When you make a move what you’re actually doing is taking an element of the fiction and bringing it to bear against the characters. Your move should always follow from the fiction. They help you focus on one aspect of the current situation and do something interesting with it. What’s going on? What move makes sense here?
There is no quicker way to ruin the consistency of Dungeon World than to tell the players what move you’re making. Your moves are prompts to you, not things you say directly.
You never show the players that you’re picking a move from a list. You know the reason the slavers dragged off Omar was because you made the “put someone in a spot” move, but you show it to the players as a straightforward outcome of their actions, since it is.
Monsters are fantastic creatures with their own motivations (simple or complex). Give each monster details that bring it to life: smells, sights, sounds. Give each one enough to make it real, but don’t cry when it gets beat up or overthrown. That’s what player characters do!
Anyone that the players speak with has a name. They probably have a personality and some goals or opinions too, but you can figure that out as you go. Start with a name. The rest can flow from there.
Part of playing to find out what happens is explicitly not knowing everything, and being curious. If you don’t know something, or you don’t have an idea, ask the players and use what they say.
The easiest question to use is “What do you do?” Whenever you make a move, end with “What do you do?” You don’t even have to ask the person you made the move against. Take that chance to shift the focus elsewhere: “Rath’s spell is torn apart with a flick of the mage’s wand. Finnegan, that spell was aiding you. What are you doing now that it’s gone?”
Think of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.
Everything in the world is a target. You’re thinking like an evil overlord: no single life is worth anything and there is nothing sacrosanct. Everything can be put in danger, everything can be destroyed. Nothing you create is ever protected. Whenever your eye falls on something you’ve created, think how it can be put in danger, fall apart or crumble. The world changes. Without the characters’ intervention, it changes for the worse.
Everything you and the players do in Dungeon World comes from and leads to fictional events. When the players make a move, they take a fictional action to trigger it, apply the rules, and get a fictional effect. When you make a move it always comes from the fiction.
Just because you’re a fan of the characters doesn’t mean everything happens right in front of them. Sometimes your best move is in the next room, or another part of the dungeon, or even back in town. Make your move elsewhere and show its effects when they come into the spotlight.
Whenever everyone looks to you to see what happens choose one of these. Each move is something that occurs in the fiction of the game—they aren’t code words or special terms. “Use up their resources” literally means to expend the resources of the characters, for example.
- Use a monster, danger, or location move
- Reveal an unwelcome truth
- Show signs of an approaching threat
- Deal damage
- Use up their resources
- Turn their move back on them
- Separate them
- Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities
- Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment
- Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
- Put someone in a spot
- Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask
Never speak the name of your move (that’s one of your principles). Make it a real thing that happens to them: “As you dodge the hulking ogre’s club, you slip and land hard. Your sword goes sliding away into the darkness. You think you saw where it went but the ogre is lumbering your way. What do you do?”
No matter what move you make, always follow up with “What do you do?” Your moves are a way of fulfilling your agenda—part of which is to fill the characters’ lives with adventure. When a spell goes wild or the floor drops out from under them adventurers react or suffer the consequences of inaction.
You make a move:
- When everyone looks to you to find out what happens
- When the players give you a golden opportunity
- When they roll a 6-
Generally when the players are just looking at you to find out what happens you make a soft move, otherwise you make a hard move.
A soft move is one without immediate, irrevocable consequences. That usually means it’s something not all that bad, like revealing that there’s more treasure if they can just find a way past the golem (offer an opportunity with cost). It can also mean that it’s something bad, but they have time to avoid it, like having the goblin archers loose their arrows (show signs of an approaching threat) with a chance for them to dodge out of danger.
A soft move ignored becomes a golden opportunity for a hard move. If the players do nothing about the hail of arrows flying towards them it’s a golden opportunity to use the deal damage move.
Hard moves, on the other hand, have immediate consequences. Dealing damage is almost always a hard move, since it means a loss of HP that won’t be recovered without some action from the players.
When you have a chance to make a hard move you can opt for a soft one instead if it better fits the situation. Sometimes things just work out for the best.
To choose a move, start by looking at the obvious consequences of the action that triggered it. If you already have an idea, think on it for a second to make sure it fits your agenda and principles and then do it. Let your moves snowball. Build on the success or failure of the characters’ moves and on your own previous moves.
If your first instinct is that this won’t hurt them now, but it’ll come back to bite them later, great! That’s part of your principles (think offscreen too). Make a note of and reveal it when the time is right.
When making a move, keep your principles in mind. In particular, never speak the name of your move and address the characters, not the players. Your moves are not mechanical actions happening around the table. They are concrete events happening to the characters in the fictional world you are describing.
Note that “deal damage” is a move, but other moves may include damage as well. When an ogre flings you against a wall you take damage as surely as if he had smashed you with his fists.
After every move you make, always ask “What do you do?”
Every monster in an adventure has moves associated with it, as do many locations. A monster or location move is just a description of what that location or monster does, maybe “hurl someone away” or “bridge the planes.” If a player move (like hack and slash) says that a monster gets to make an attack, make an aggressive move with that monster.
The overarching dangers of the adventure also have moves associated with them. Use these moves to bring that danger into play, which may mean more monsters.
An unwelcome truth is a fact the players wish wasn’t true: that the room’s been trapped, maybe, or that the helpful goblin is actually a spy. Reveal to the players just how much trouble they’re in.
This is one of your most versatile moves. “Threat” means anything bad that’s on the way. With this move, you just show them that something’s going to happen unless they do something about it.
When you deal damage, choose one source of damage that’s fictionally threatening a character and apply it. In combat with a lizard man? It stabs you. Triggered a trap? Rocks fall on you.
The amount of damage is decided by the source. In some cases, this move might involve trading damage both ways, with the character also dealing damage.
Most damage is based on a die roll. When a player takes damage, tell them what to roll. You never need to touch the dice. If the player is too cowardly to find out their own fate, they can ask another player to roll for them.
Surviving in a dungeon, or anywhere dangerous, often comes down to supplies. With this move, something happens to use up some resource: weapons, armor, healing, ongoing spells. You don’t always have to use it up permanently. A sword might just be flung to the other side of the room, not shattered.
Think about the benefits a move might grant a character and turn them around in a negative way. Alternately, grant the same advantage to someone who has it out for the characters. If Ivy has learned of Duke Horst’s men approaching from the east, maybe a scout has spotted her, too.
There are few things worse than being in the middle of a raging battle with blood-thirsty owlbears on all sides—one of those things is being in the middle of that battle with no one at your back.
Separating the characters can mean anything from being pushed apart in the heat of battle to being teleported to the far end of the dungeon. Whatever way it occurs, it’s bound to cause problems.
The thief disables traps, sneaks, and picks locks. The cleric deals with the divine and the dead. Every class has things that they shine at—present an opportunity that plays to what one class shines at.
It doesn’t have to be a class that’s in play right now though. Sometimes a locked door stands between you and treasure and there’s no thief in sight. This is an invitation for invention, bargaining, and creativity. If all you’ve got is a bloody axe doesn’t every problem look like a skull?
Just as every class shines, they all have their weaknesses too. Do orcs have a special thirst for elven blood? Is the cleric’s magic disturbing dangerous forces? The torch that lights the way also draws attention from eyes in the dark.
Show them something they want: riches, power, glory. If you want, you can associate some cost with it too, of course.
Remember to lead with the fiction. You don’t say, “This area isn’t dangerous so you can make camp here, if you’re willing to take the time.” You make it a solid fictional thing and say, “Helferth’s blessings still hang around the shattered altar. It’s a nice safe spot, but the chanting from the ritual chamber is getting louder. What do you do?”
A spot is someplace where a character needs to make tough choices. Put them, or something they care about, in the path of destruction. The harder the choice, the tougher the spot.
This move is particularly good when they want something that’s not covered by a move, or they’ve failed a move. They can do it, sure, but they’ll have to pay the price. Or, they can do it, but there will be consequences. Maybe they can swim through the shark-infested moat before being devoured, but they’ll need a distraction. Of course, this is made clear to the characters, not just the players: the sharks are in a starved frenzy, for example.
Dungeon Moves are a special subset that are used to make or alter a dungeon on the fly. Use these if your players are exploring a hostile area that you don’t already have planned completely.
Map out the area being explored as you make these moves. Most of them will require you to add a new room or element to your map.
- Change the environment
- Point to a looming threat
- Introduce a new faction or type of creature
- Use a threat from an existing faction or type of creature
- Make them backtrack
- Present riches at a price
- Present a challenge to one of the characters
You can make these moves whenever everyone looks to you to say something, when the players present you an opportunity, or when the players miss on a roll. They’re particularly well-suited for when the characters enter a new room or hallway and want to know what they find there.
The environment is the general feel of the area the players are in: carved tunnels, warped trees, safe trails, or whatever else. This is your opportunity to introduce them to a new environment: the tunnels gradually become naturally carved, the trees are dead and strange, or the trails are lost and the wilderness takes over. Use this move to vary the types of areas and creatures the players will face.
If you know that something is lurking and waiting for the players to stumble upon it, this move shows them the signs and clues. This move is the dragon’s footprints in the mud or the slimy trail of the gelatinous cube.
A type of creature is a broad grouping: orcs, goblins, lizardmen, the undead, etc.
A faction is a group of creatures united by a similar goal. Once you introduce them you can begin to make moves and cause trouble for the players with those creatures or NPCs.
Introducing means giving some clear sensory evidence or substantiated information. Don’t be coy; the players should have some idea what you’re showing the presence of. You can, however, be subtle in your approach. No need to have the cultist overlord waving a placard and screaming in the infernal tongue every single time.
A hard application of this move will snowball directly into a combat scene or ambush.
Once the characters have been introduced to the presence of a faction or type of creature you can use moves of monsters of that type.
Use the factions and types broadly. Orcs are accompanied with their hunting worgs. A mad cult probably has some undead servants or maybe a few beasts summoned from the abyssal pits. This is a move that, often, you’ll be making subconsciously—it’s just implementing the tools you’ve set out for yourself in a clear and effective manner.
Look back at the spaces you’ve added to the map. Is there anything useful there as yet undiscovered? Can you add a new obstacle that can only be overcome by going back there? Is there a locked door here and now whose key lies in an earlier room?
When backtracking, show the effect that time has had on the areas they’ve left behind. What new threats have sprung up in their wake? What didn’t they take care of that’s waiting for their return?
Use this move the make the dungeon a living, breathing place. There is no stasis in the wake of the characters’ passing. Add reinforcements, cave in walls, cause chaos. The dungeon evolves in the wake of the characters’ actions.
What do the players want? What would they sacrifice for it?
Put some desirable item just out of reach. Find something they’re short on: time, HP, gear, whatever. Find a way to make what they want available if they give up what they have.
The simplest way to use this move is the promise of gold out of the way of the main objective. Will they stop to pry the ruby eyes from the idol when they know that the sacrifice looms closer and closer? Use this move and you can find out.
Challenge a character by looking at what they’re good at. Give the thief a lock to pick, show the cleric servants of an enemy god to battle against. Give the wizard magical mysteries to investigate. Show the fighter some skulls to crack. Give someone a chance to shine.
As an alternative, challenge a character by looking at what they’re bad at or what they’ve left unresolved. If the bard has a complicated lie on his conscience, what steps will he take to cover it up when someone figures him out? If the wizard has been summoning demons, what happens when word gets out?
This move can give a character the spotlight—even if just for a moment. Try to give everyone a chance to be the focus of play using this move from session to session.
There are some common situations that come up in Dungeon World. Here’s how to deal with them.
Sooner or later blades are drawn and blood is shed. When this happens the players are likely to start hacking and slashing, volleying, and defending. Think about more than just the exchange of damage. Monsters might be trying to capture the characters or protect something from them. Understand what the fight is about; what each side wants and how that might affect the tide of battle.
No self-respecting monster just stands still for their beating. Combat is a dynamic thing with creatures moving in and out of range, taking cover, and retreating. Sometimes the battlefield itself shifts. Have your monsters take action that the players will react to. Make sure you’re making use of moves beyond deal damage, even in a fight.
Make sure everyone has a chance to act, and that you know where each player is during the chaos of combat. Make a map of a complex battle location so that everyone knows just what’s happening and can describe their actions appropriately.
Traps may come from your prep, or you can improvise them based on your moves. If nothing has established that the location is safe, traps are always an option.
The players may find traps through clever plans, trap sense, or discerning realities. If a character describes an action that doesn’t trigger a move, but the action would still discover a trap, don’t hide it from them. Traps aren’t allowed to break the rules.
Dwarven smiths, elven sages, humans of all shapes and sizes occupy the world around the characters. They’re not mindless stooges to be pushed around but they’re not what we’re playing to find out about either. The NPCs are people: they have goals and the tools to struggle towards those goals. Use them to illustrate what the world is like. Show your players the common people struggling for recognition or the noble classes seeking to uplift their people. Some whole adventures might take place in a peopled environment rather than an isolated dungeon. Some classes, the bard in particular, are adept at manipulating and using people as resources. Don’t shy away from these situations. Be a fan of these characters, giving them interesting, nuanced people to interact with.
People, just like dungeons, change over time. The passing of the characters through their lives might inspire or enrage them. The characters’ actions will cause the world to change, for good or ill, and the people they meet with will remember these changes. When the characters roll back through a town they were less-than-kind to on their previous visit, show them how the people are different now. Are they more cautious? Have they taken up a new religion? Are they hungry for revenge?
Relationships between characters are represented by the bonds but relationships with NPCs are more tenuous. If the players want to make real, lasting connections with the people of the world, they need to act. Remember, “what do you do?” is as valid a question when faced with the hopes and fears of a potential new ally or enemy as it is when staring down the business end of a longsword.
Fronts are secret tomes of GM knowledge. Each is a collection of linked dangers—threats to the characters specifically and to the people, places, and things the characters care about. It also includes one or more impending dooms, the horrible things that will happen without the characters’ intervention. “Fronts” comes, of course, from “fighting on two fronts” which is just where you want the characters to be—surrounded by threats, danger and adventure.
Fronts are built outside of active play. They’re the solo fun that you get to have between games—rubbing your hands and cackling evilly to yourself as you craft the foes with which to challenge your PCs. You may tweak or adjust your fronts during play (who knows when inspiration will strike?) but the meat of them comes from preparation between sessions.
Fronts are designed to help you organize your thoughts on what opposes the players. They’re here to contain your notes, ideas, and plans for these opposing forces. When you’re in a bind your fronts are where you’re going to turn and say, “Oh, so that’s what I should do.” Consider them an organizational tool, as inspiration for present and future mayhem.
When you’re building fronts, think about all the creepy dungeon denizens, the rampaging hordes and ancient cults that you’d like to see in your game. Think in broad strokes at first and then, as you build dangers into your fronts, you’ll be able to narrow those ideas down. When you write your campaign front, think about session-to-session trends. When you write your adventure fronts, think about what’s important right here and right now. When you’re done writing a few fronts you’ll be equipped with all the tools you’ll need to challenge your players and ready to run Dungeon World.
You’ll make your campaign front and first adventure fronts after your first session. Your campaign front may not be complete when you first make it—that’s great! Just like blanks on a map, unknown parts of your campaign front are opportunities for future creativity.
After that first session you’ll also make some adventure fronts. One or two is usually a good number. If you find yourself with more adventure fronts consider leaving some possible fronts as just notes for now.
At their core, all fronts contain the same components. They sort and gather your dangers into easy-to-use clusters. There are, however, two different kinds of fronts available to you. On the session-to-session level there are your adventure fronts. These fronts will see use for a few sessions each. They’re tied to one problem and will be dealt with or cast aside as the characters wander the dungeon or uncover the plot at hand. Think of them as episodic content: “Today, on Dungeon World ”
Tying your adventure fronts together is your campaign front. While the adventure fronts will contain immediate dangers—the orcs in Hargrosh Pass, say—the campaign front contains the Dark God Grishkar who drives the orcs to their pillaging. The campaign front is the unifying element that spans all the sessions of your Dungeon World game. It will have slower-burning portents but they’ll be bigger in scope and have a deeper impact on the world. Most importantly they’ll be scarier if they’re allowed to resolve.
When a danger from an adventure front goes without resolution you’ll have to make a decision. If the danger is something you like and feel has a place in the larger world of your game don’t hesitate to move it to the campaign front. You’re able to make smaller dangers that went unresolved into bigger dangers some day later on. You can move dangers from the campaign fronts to an adventure front if they’ve come to bear, too.
Here’s how a front comes together:
- Choose campaign front or adventure front
- Create 2-3 dangers
- Choose an impending doom for each danger
- Add grim portents (1-3 for an adventure front, 3-5 for the campaign front)
- Write 1–3 stakes questions
- List the general cast of the front
Not every element of your game will warrant a danger—traps, some roving monsters, and other bits of ephemera may just be there to add context but aren’t important enough to warrant inclusion. That’s okay. Fronts are here to keep you apprised of the bigger picture. Dangers are divided into a handful of categories, each with its own name and impulse.
Every danger has a crucial motivation that drives it called its impulse. The impulse exists to help you understand that danger. What pushes it to fulfill its impending doom? Impulses can help you translate the danger into action.
When creating dangers for your front, think about how each one interacts as a facet of the front as a whole. Keep in mind the people, places, and things that might be a part of the threat to the world that the front represents. How does each danger contribute to the front?
Let’s say we have an idea for a front—an ancient portal has been discovered in the icy north. We’ll call our front “The Opening of the White Gate.”
The easiest place to start is with people and monsters. Cultists, ogre chieftains, demonic overlords, and the like are all excellent dangers. These are the creatures that have risen above mere monster status to become serious threats on their own. Groups of monsters can be dangers too—goblin tribes or a rampaging centaur khanate, for example.
For the front we’re creating, we can pick a few different groups or people who might be interested in the gate. The College of Arcanists, perhaps. There’s a golem, too, we’ve decided, that protects the forgotten portal. The golem is just an obstacle, so we won’t make him a danger.
Thinking more broadly, less obvious elements of the world can be dangers. Blasted landscapes, intelligent magical items, ancient spells woven into the fabric of time. These things fulfill the same purposes as a mad necromancer—they’re part of the front, a danger to the world.
For our front, we’ll add the gate itself as a danger.
Lastly, if we think ahead, we can include some overarching dangers. The sorts of things that are in play outside the realm of the obvious—godly patrons, hidden conspiracies and cursed prophecies waiting to be fulfilled.
Perhaps the White Gate was carved in the ancient past, hidden by a race of angels until the Day of Judgement. We’ll add the Argent Seraphim to our front as a new danger.
There’s always more dangers you could add to a front, but limit yourself to 3 at most and leave room for discovery. Like a map, blank spaces can always be filled in later. Leaving room for player contribution and future inspiration means you’ll have freedom to alter the front and make it fit the game. Not every bad thing that could happen deserves to be made into a danger. If you’re uncertain, think about it this way: dangers can always get worse.
A barbarian tribe near the gate, the frozen tundra itself, a band of rival adventurers; all these things could be dangerous elements of the game but they’re not important enough just yet to deserve to be dangers.
Creating dangers is a way to slice up your overall front concept into smaller, easier to manage pieces. Dangers are tools for adding detail to the right parts of the front and for making the front easier to manage in the long run.
Once you’ve named and added a danger to the front you need to choose a type for that danger from the list below. Alternately, you can use the list of types to inspire dangers: with your front in mind, peruse the list and pick one or two that fit.
For our three dangers (The College of Arcanists, The White Gate and the Argent Seraphim) we’ve selected Cabal, Dark Portal and Choir of Angels, respectively.
- Ambitious Organizations
- Planar Forces
- Arcane Enemies
- Cursed Places
- Misguided Good (impulse: to do what is “right” no matter the cost)
- Thieves Guild (impulse: to take by subterfuge)
- Cult (impulse: to infest from within)
- Religious Organization (impulse: to establish and follow doctrine)
- Corrupt Government (impulse: to maintain the status quo)
- Cabal (impulse: to absorb those in power, to grow)
- Attack someone by stealthy means (kidnapping, etc.)
- Attack someone directly (with a gang or single assailant)
- Absorb or buy out someone important (an ally, perhaps)
- Influence a powerful institution (change a law, manipulate doctrine)
- Establish a new rule (within the organization)
- Claim territory or resources
- Negotiate a deal
- Observe a potential foe in great detail
- God (impulse: to gather worshippers)
- Demon Prince (impulse: to open the gates of Hell)
- Elemental Lord (impulse: to tear down creation to its component parts)
- Force of Chaos (impulse: to destroy all semblance of order)
- Choir of Angels (impulse: to pass judgement)
- Construct of Law (impulse: to eliminate perceived disorder)
- Turn an organization (corrupt or infiltrate with influence)
- Give dreams of prophecy
- Lay a Curse on a foe
- Extract a promise in exchange for a boon
- Attack indirectly, through intermediaries
- Rarely, when the stars are right, attack directly
- Foster rivalries with other, similar powers
- Expose someone to a Truth, wanted or otherwise
- Lord of the Undead (impulse: to seek true immortality)
- Power-mad Wizard (impulse: to seek magical power)
- Sentient Artifact (impulse: to find a worthy wielder)
- Ancient Curse (impulse: to ensnare)
- Chosen One (impulse: to fulfill or resent their destiny)
- Dragon (impulse: to hoard gold and jewels, to protect the clutch)
- Learn forbidden knowledge
- Cast a spell over time and space
- Attack a foe with magic, directly or otherwise
- Spy on someone with a scrying spell
- Recruit a follower or toady
- Tempt someone with promises
- Demand a sacrifice
- Wandering Barbarians (impulse: to grow strong, to drive their enemies before them)
- Humanoid Vermin (impulse: to breed, to multiply and consume)
- Underground Dwellers (impulse: to defend the complex from outsiders)
- Plague of the Undead (impulse: to spread)
- Assault a bastion of civilization
- Embrace internal chaos
- Change direction suddenly
- Overwhelm a weaker force
- Perform a show of dominance
- Abandon an old home, find a new one
- Grow in size by breeding or conquest
- Appoint a champion
- Declare war and act upon that declaration without hesitation or deliberation
- Abandoned Tower (impulse: to draw in the weak-willed)
- Unholy Ground (impulse: to spawn evil)
- Elemental Vortex (impulse: to grow, to tear apart reality)
- Dark Portal (impulse: to disgorge demons)
- Shadowland (impulse: to corrupt or consume the living)
- Place of Power (impulse: to be controlled or tamed)
- Vomit forth a lesser monster
- Spread to an adjacent place
- Lure someone in
- Grow in intensity or depth
- Leave a lingering effect on an inhabitant or visitor
- Hide something from sight
- Offer power
- Dampen magic or increase its effects
- Confuse or obfuscate truth or direction
- Corrupt a natural law
Write up something short to remind you just what this danger is about, something to describe it in a nutshell. Don’t worry about where it’s going or what could happen—grim portents and the impending doom will handle that for you; you’ll get to those in a bit. If there are multiple people involved in the danger (an orc warlord and his clansmen, a hateful god and his servants) go ahead and give them names and a detail or two now. Leave yourself some space as you’ll be adding to this section as you play.
Sometimes a danger will suggest a move that isn’t covered by any existing ones. You can write custom moves to fill the gaps or to add the right effects for the danger. They can be player moves or GM moves, as you see fit. Of course, if you’re writing a player move, keep your hands off the dice and mind the basic structure of a move. A 10+ is a complete success, while a 7–9 is a partial success. On a miss, maybe the custom move does something specific, or maybe not—maybe you just get to make a move or work towards fulfilling a grim portent. The formatting of these moves varies from move to move.
For the Opening of the White Gate, I just know some fool PC is going to end up in the light that spills from the gate, so I’m writing a move to show what might occur.
When you stand in the presence of the Light From Beyond, roll+WIS:
✴ On a 10+ you are judged worthy, the Argent Seraphim will grant you a vision or boon.
✴ On a 7-9 you are under suspicion and see a vision of what dark fate might befall you if you do not correct your ways.
✴ On a miss, thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting.
Grim portents are dark designs for what could happen if a danger goes unchecked. Think about what would happen if the danger existed in the world but the PCs didn’t—if all these awful things you’ve conjured up had their run of the world. Scary, huh? The grim portents are your way to codify the plans and machinations of your dangers. A grim portent can be a single interesting event or a chain of steps. When you’re not sure what to do next, push your danger towards resolving a grim portent.
More often than not grim portents have a logical order. The orcs tear down the city only after the peace talks fail, for example. A simple front will progress from bad to worse to much worse in a clear path forward. Sometimes, grim portents are unconnected pathways to the impending doom. The early manifestations of danger might not all be related. It’s up to you to decide how complex your front will be. Whenever a danger comes to pass, check the other dangers in the front. In a complex front, you may need to cross off or alter the grim portents. That’s fine, you’re allowed. Keep scale in mind, too. Grim portents don’t all have to be world-shaking. They can simply represent a change in direction for a danger. Some new way for it to cause trouble in the world.
Think of your grim portents as possible moves waiting in the wings. When the time is right, unleash them on the world.
I’ve chosen a few grim portents for my new front.
- The College sends an expedition to the Gate
- The Key is discovered
- The First Trumpet sounds
- A Champion is chosen
- The Second Trumpet sounds
- The Herald appears
- The Gate is Opened
When a grim portent comes to pass, check it off—the prophecy has come true! A grim portent that has come to pass might have ramifications for your other fronts, too. Have a quick look when your players aren’t demanding your attention and feel free to make changes. One small grim portent may resound across the whole campaign in subtle ways.
You can advance a grim portent descriptively or prescriptively. Descriptively means that you’ve seen the change happen during play, so you mark it off. Maybe the players sided with the goblin tribes against their lizardman enemies—now the goblins control the tunnels. Lo and behold, this was the next step in a grim portent. Prescriptive is when, due to a failed player move or a golden opportunity, you advance the grim portent as your hard move. That step comes to pass, show its effects and keep on asking, “What do you do, now?”
At the end of every danger’s path is an impending doom. This is the final toll of the bell that signals the danger’s triumphant resolution. When a grim portent comes to pass the impending doom grows stronger, more apparent and present in the world. These are the very bad things that every danger, in some way, seeks to bring into effect. Choose one of the types of impending dooms and give it a concrete form in your front. These often change in play, as the characters meddle in the affairs of the world. Don’t fret, you can change them later.
- Tyranny (of the strong over the weak or the few over the many)
- Pestilence (the spread of sickness and disease, the end of wellness)
- Destruction (apocalypse, ruin and woe)
- Usurpation (the chain of order comes apart, someone rightful is displaced)
- Impoverishment (enslavement, the abandonment of goodness and right)
- Rampant Chaos (laws of reality, of society, or any order is dissolved)
When all of the grim portents of a danger come to pass, the impending doom sets in. The danger is then resolved but the setting has changed in some meaningful way. This will almost certainly change the front at large as well. Making sure that these effects reverberate throughout the world is a big part of making them feel real.
Your stakes questions are 1-3 questions about people, places, or groups that you’re interested in. People include PCs and NPCs, your choice. Remember that your agenda includes “Play to find out what happens?” Stakes are a way of reminding yourself what you want to find out.
Stakes are concrete and clear. Don’t write stakes about vague feelings or incremental changes. Stakes are about important changes that affect the PCs and the world. A good stakes question is one that, when it’s resolved, means that things will never be the same again.
The most important thing about stakes is that you find them interesting. Your stakes should be things that you genuinely want to know, but that you’re also willing to leave to be resolved through play. Once you’ve written it as a stake, it’s out of your hands, you don’t get to just make it up anymore. Now you have to play to find out.
Playing to find out is one of the biggest rewards of playing Dungeon World. You’ve written down something tied to events happening in the world that you want to find out about—now you get to do just that.
Once you have your stakes your front is ready to play.
My stakes questions include, as tailored to my group:
- Who will be the champion?
- How will Lux respond to the Light From Beyond?
- Will the College be able to recruit Avon?
Often a front will be resolved in a simple and straightforward manner. A front representing a single dungeon may have its dangers killed, turned to good, or overcome by some act of heroism. In this case the front is dissolved and set aside. Maybe there are elements of the front—dangers that go unresolved or leftover members of a danger that’s been cleared—that live on. Maybe they move to the campaign front as brand new dangers?
The campaign front will need a bit more effort to resolve. It’ll be working slowly and subtly as the course of the campaign rolls along. You won’t introduce or resolve it all at once, but in pieces. The characters work towards defeating the various minions of the big bad that lives in your campaign front. In the end, though, you’ll know that the campaign front is resolved when the Dark God is confronted or the undead plague claims the world and the heroes emerge bloodied but victorious or defeated and despairing. Campaign fronts take longer to deal with but in the end they’re the most satisfying to resolve.
When a front is resolved take some extra time to sit down and look at the aftermath. Did any grim portents come to pass? Even if a danger is stopped, if any grim portents are fulfilled, the world is changed, if only in subtle ways. Keep this in mind when you write your future fronts. Is there anyone who could be moved from the now-defeated front to somewhere else? Anyone get promoted or reduced in stature? The resolution of a front is an important event!
When you resolve an adventure front usually that means the adventure itself has been resolved. This is a great time to take a break and look at your campaign front. Let it inspire your next adventure front. Write up a new adventure front or polish off one you’ve been working on, draw a few maps to go with it and get ready for the next big thing.
As you start your campaign you’re likely to have a lightly detailed campaign front and one or two detailed adventure fronts. Characters may choose, part-way through an adventure, to pursue some other course. You might end up with a handful of partly-resolved adventure fronts. Not only is this okay, it’s a great way to explore a world that feels alive and organic. Always remember, fronts continue along apace no matter whether the characters are there to see them or not. Think offscreen, especially where fronts are concerned.
When running two adventure fronts at the same time they can be intertwined or independent. The anarchists corrupting the city from the inside are a different front from the orcs massing outside the walls, but they’d both be in play at once. On the other hand one dungeon could have multiple fronts at play within its walls: the powers and effects of the cursed place itself and the warring humanoid tribes that inhabit it.
A situation warrants multiple adventure fronts when there are multiple impending dooms, all equally potent but not necessarily related. The impending doom of the anarchists is chaos in the city, the impending doom of the orcs is its utter ruination. They are two separate fronts with their own dangers. They’ll deal with each other, as well, so there’s some room for the players choosing sides or attempting to turn the dangers of one front against the other.
When dealing with multiple adventure fronts the players are likely to prioritize. The cult needs attention now, the orcs can wait, or vice versa. These decisions lead to the slow advancement of the neglected front, eventually causing more problems for the characters and leading to new adventures. This can get complex once you’ve got three or four fronts in play. Take care not to get overwhelmed.
Impulse: to absorb those in power, to grow
- The College sends an expedition to the Gate
- The Key is discovered
- The Gate’s Power is harnessed
- The College seizes control
Impending Doom: Usurpation
Impulse: to disgorge demons
- The First Trumpet sounds
- The Second Trumpet sounds
- The Gate is opened
Impending Doom: Destruction
Impulse: to pass judgement
- A Champion is chosen
- An organization of power is formed or co-opted
- The Herald appears
- Judgement is passed
Impending Doom: Tyranny
An ancient gate, buried for aeons in the icy north. It opens into a realm of pure light, guarded by the Argent Seraphim. It was crafted only to be opened at Judgement Day, so that the Seraphim could come forth and purge the realm of men. It was recently uncovered by the College of Arcanists, who do not yet understand its terrible power.
- Oren Balserus, Arcanist Supreme
- Hali’el, voice of the Seraphim
- Drudge, a manservant
When you stand in the presence of the Light From Beyond, roll+WIS.
✴ On a 10+ you are judged worthy, the Argent Seraphim will grant you a vision or boon.
✴ On a 7-9 you are under suspicion and see a vision of what dark fate might befall you if you do not correct your ways.
✴ On a miss, thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting.
- Who will be the Champion?
- How will Lux respond to the holy light?
- Will the College be able to recruit Avon?
At some point you'll likely be teaching this game to others, either experienced roleplayers or those new to the hobby. Throughout the design process we've had many chances to play with lots of different gamers from different backgrounds and there are a few things we've found work well for teaching the game.
Before you play you'll likely be explaining the game to your new players (don't just spring it on them, that's not cool). We call that the pitch: it's explaining why you want to play Dungeon World and why you think they'll like it.
First and most importantly: put it in your own words. We can't give you a script because the best way to get people excited about the game is to share your honest excitement. There are, however, some things you might want to touch on.
With first-time roleplayers it's best to focus on what roleplaying means in Dungeon World. Tell them what they'll be doing (portraying a character) and what you'll be doing (portraying the world around them). Mention the general conceit (adventurers and adventure). It's usually a good idea to mention the role of the rules too, how they're there to drive the action forward in interesting ways.
With folks who've played RPGs before, especially those who've played other fantasy adventure games, you can focus more on what makes Dungeon World different from other similar games. Ease- of-play, the way the rules just step in at the right times, and the fast pace are all things that experienced roleplayers often appreciate.
No matter the audience, don't just pitch Dungeon World, pitch the game you're going to run. If this is going to be a trip into the city sewers, tell them that right up front. If there's an evil cult to be stopped that should be part of your description. The interaction between you, the players, and the rules will create all kinds of interesting secrets later on; your pitch should honestly portray the game you intend to run.
Once everybody's on board for a game of Dungeon World and you've sat down to play start by presenting the character sheets. Give a short description of each, making sure to mention what each does and their place in the world. You can also read out the descriptions for each class, those all include something about both what the class does and how that fits into the big picture.
If anybody has questions about the rules, answer them, but for now focus on describing what the classes do in plain terms. If someone asks about the fighter it's more useful to tell them that the fighter has a signature weapon that's one of a kind then to go into detail about how the signature weapon move works.
Go through the character creation rules step by step. The process of creating a character is also a great introduction to the basic concepts: the players will encounter stats, moves, HP, and damage all in an order that makes sense. Don't bother trying to frontload the rules explanations. There aren't really any wrong choices.
Each player will encounter the rules that are important to their class. The fighter, for example, will see moves about weapon ranges and piercing and ask about them, explain them as needed. If the fighter player doesn't ask you what piercing is, don't worry about it. They're happy to choose based on the fiction, which is all the stats and tags reflect anyway.
If your players are particularly worried about making their characters 'right' just give them the option of changing them later. Trying to cover every rule and give them all the context now will just slow the game down. In particular, don't go over the basic moves in detail yet. Leave them out so that the players can read them and ask questions, but don't waste time by explaining each. They'll come up as needed.
As the players introduce their characters and start setting bonds move from answering questions to asking them. Ask about why they chose what they did and what that means for their character. Ask about details established by their bonds. Let their choices establish the world around them. Take special note of anything that you think you might be able to make moves with (like an estranged teacher or a simmering war).
Start play by concretely describing the world around them. Keep it brief and evocative, use plenty of details, and end with something that demands action. Then ask them what they do.
Ending with something that demands action is important. Don't presume that new players will already know what they want to do. Giving them something to react to right away means you get straight to playing.
Especially for new players make sure that the action they're thrown into is something they have the tools to deal with. A fight is a good choice, as is a tense negotiation (which can easily become a fight). Keep it simple and let the complexity build.
Even in a fight keep to simple monsters: things that bleed, don't have too much armor, and don't have piercing. Give them a chance to get used to their armor and dealing damage before you start using the exceptions to those rules, like piercing and ignoring armor. Of course if the fiction dictates ignoring armor or piercing or a certain monster, use it, but don't lead with those.
For new players make liberal use of your Show Signs of an Approaching Threat move. New players, or those used to a different type of fantasy adventure, may have different assumptions about what's lethal and when they're in danger, so make sure to show them danger clearly. Once they've started to pick up on what's dangerous you can give them a little less warning.
If you're GMing for the first time focus on a few moves: Show Signs of an Approaching Threat, Deal Damage, Put Someone in a Spot. Only look at your moves sheet if you're pretty sure none of those three apply. Eventually you'll build up familiarity with the whole range of GM moves and using them will seem like second nature.
After an hour or two of play the players will likely have everything down. As a first time GM you may take a bit longer to pick up all your moves, maybe a session or two. Just roll with it.
If you find yourself struggling in the first session consider it a pilot, like the first episode of a TV show. Feel free to start over or retroactively change things. If a player decides that the thief just isn't what they thought it was let them switch classes (either remaking the same character or introducing someone new). If your first adventure wasn't working too well scrap it and start something new.
While Dungeon World works great for one-shots the longer cycles of levels and bonds don't really kick in for a bit. If your first one or two sessions go well consider scheduling out enough time for 5–10 more. Knowing that you're planning to play that much longer gives you some space to plan out your fronts and resolve them.
There isn't always time for prep. People aren't entirely committed to a game—you just want to test it out or you've got a four-hour slot at a convention that you want to fill and you've never met the players before in your life. Maybe prep isn't something you care about or you think it's more fun to just take a map and run with it. Even better, maybe you've got a favorite old school adventure module and you'd love to run through using the Dungeon World rules. In this appendix, we'll cover how to convert and adapt material from other games into Dungeon World and give you the same flexibility to run your favorite adventures using the rules in this book.
The first step in preparing an adventure for use with Dungeon World is reading through that adventure, and through the Dungeon World rules. For this book, you'll want to be familiar with all the basic rules, as well as familiar with the section on fronts and on the GM principles. The former will be guiding you in adapting the framework of the adventure and the latter will help keep your mind going in the right direction—so that gameplay stays true to the style and rules set out in this book. You'll want to read through the module next, paying close attention to the four following topics as you go.
- Magic Items
- NPCs and Organizations
Flip through the adventure, make some notes as you go, but don't feel you need to memorize the whole thing. Areas that focus particularly on statistics are likely to end up ignored, and you'll want to leave blanks in the adventure for you and the players to discover as you go.
When you've finished, you'll have a broad understanding about what the adventure is about—the power groups at play in it, the special or cool monsters the adventure contains, the threats and dangers that its cast present to the world and the kinds of things the PCs might be interested in. Set aside the adventure for now, and refer to the fronts section of Dungeon World. This is where the majority of your work is going to take place.
The core of any standard adventure, scenario or game session in Dungeon World flows outward from the fronts to the players; the fronts have their impending dooms, the players react, and in the space between, you play the game to find out what happens. The same is true when presenting a converted adventure. Reading through the module, you'll have noticed things—NPCs, places of interest, special monsters and organizations that might have an impact on the world or some agenda to carry out. Depending on the size of the adventure, there may be just one or a few of these. Take a look through the list of front types and create one for each group.
I'm going to convert an old adventure I love; I've run it a dozen times in a bunch of different systems and I think it'd be a blast to run my Dungeon World group through. I've given myself a quick read through to remind myself what the adventure is all about. In this case, there's a town being menaced in secret by a wicked cult who worships a squamous reptile god. Sounds like fun! The adventure has a secret dungeon, a corrupt religious order, a bunch of smelly troglodytes and, because the whole town is a mess of suspicion and finger-pointing, some very helpless adventurers. It's a pretty grim start with lots of bad things to choose from. I've decided that all that bad stuff falls under two main fronts: The Cultists and The Troglodyte Clan.
Now, I could make the sorcerous naga that lives in the caverns her own front, if I wanted to, or I could add in a campaign front for the Reptile God itself, but I think I'll only be running this game a few sessions, so I'm going to stay focused. The two fronts I have work together in some ways, but are unique and operate independently, so I've separated them.
Create these Fronts like you would normally, choosing dangers, impending dooms, and grim portents. Ask one or two stakes questions but be sure to leave yourself lots of room—that's where you can really tie in the characters. Normally, you'd be pulling these things straight out of the inspiration of your brain, but in this case, you've got the module to guide you. Think about the fronts as themes, and the dangers as elements from the pages of your module. Look at the kinds of things your fronts are said to be doing in the adventure and how that might go if the PCs were never there to stop it. What's the worst that could happen if the fronts were able to run rampant? This kind of reading-between-the-lines will give you ammunition for making your hard moves as you play through the adventure. This step is where you'll turn those stat-block NPCs into either full-fledged dangers themselves, or members of the front's cast.
If there are any traps, curses or general effects in the adventure you'd like to write custom moves for, do it now. A lot of old adventures will have elements that call for a 'saving throw' to avoid some noisome effect—these can often simply be a cause for a defy danger roll, or can have whole, separate custom moves if necessary. The key here is to capture the intent of the adventure—the spirit of the thing—rather than translate some mechanical element perfectly.
When you're done, you'll have a set of fronts that cover the major threats and dangers the characters will face.
Most published adventures contained one or two unique monsters not seen anywhere else—custom creatures and denizens of the deeps that could threaten players in some way they hadn't encountered before. Take a look through the adventure and make sure you've caught them all. Many monsters will already have statistics noted in Dungeon World and you can, if you're happy with them, just make a note of what page they're on in your fronts and move on from there. If you want to further customize the monsters, or need to create your own, use the rules to do so. In this step, try to avoid thinking about 'balancing' the monsters or concerning yourself too much with how many HP a monster has or whether its armor rating matches what you expect. Think more about how the monster is meant to participate in the world. Does it scare off hopeless adventurers? Is it there to bar their way or pose a riddle? What is its purpose in the greater ecology of the dungeon or adventure at large? Translating the spirit of the thing will always give you better, more engaging results. If the monster has a cool power or neat trick you want to write a custom move for, do so! Custom moves are what make Dungeon World feel unique from group to group, so take advantage of them where you can.
In my adventure, the monsters run the gamut. I've got a scary naga with some mind-controlling powers, an evil priest with divine snake-god magic, a bunch of ruffian cultists, a dragon turtle and a few miscellaneous lizards, crocodiles and snakes. Most of these I can pull from the monster settings, but I'll create custom stats for the naga and the cultist leader, at least. I want them to feel new and different and have some cool ideas for how that might look. I use the monster creation rules to put them together.
If you run across a monster that you haven't already created and which you don't know well enough to convert using the monster creation rules you can instead convert them directly.
If the monster's damage is a single die with a bonus of up to +10 keep it as-is. If the monster's damage uses multiple dice of the same size roll the listed dice and take the highest result. If the monster uses multiple dice of different sizes roll only the largest and take the highest result.
If the monster's HP is listed as Hit Dice take the maximum value of the first HD and add one for each additional hit dice. If the monster's HP is listed as a number with no Hit Dice divide the HP by 4.
If the monster's AC is average give it 1 armor. If the monster's AC is low, give it 0 armor. If the monster's AC is high give it 2 armor, 3 armor for beasts that are all about defense. If it's nearly invulnerable, 4 armor. +1 armor if its defenses are magical.
Look at the special abilities or attacks listed for the monster, these form the basis for its moves.