Simple, effective rules with plenty of room for story, will stretch everyone's creativity. I love the non- binary skill rolls. You can pass a check, almost pass but with a complication, or fail and have a major setback. Simple character building, the bonds system, easy leveling up, and it is simple to create new material, too!
I played this for several sessions, and the gameplay in terms of the narrative created was basically Dungeons and Dragons. The mechanics were very clear, with lots of ‘fill in the gaps’ cues to determine personality and character motivations. The target numbers were easy to understand, with a simple 2d6 roll, and apparently the GM felt supported through the systems design too. The various character choices given were reminiscent of earlier editions of D&D that tried to control what you could or could not play. No Dwarf Wizards or Half Orc Bards in this game, while the actions (‘Moves’) you could do were all predefined. Some powers/spells were loosely defined, however, which could lead to power gaming from anyone with an active imagination. Ultimately, the system mechanics and design features may have seemed more innovative in its parent game (Apocalypse World) where the genre was more distinct. In the crowded D&D-esque fantasy genre, however, it really didn’t offer enough of significance to convince me to play it instead of…well… D&D proper.
If you're not a gritty simulationist, this should take you through a great old school dungeon adventure without much trouble. While I'm personally obsessed with RPG universe physics and numbers to a certain degree, works like this one that says outright from the start that "We're a narrativist game!" are surprisingly appealing, too. Be warned though, as such, this one's far from the best in simulating RPG "physics", but probably one of the most innovative in simulating RPG "feel".
I quite like the idea of a very rules light, narrative driven game like this, but it didn't seem to have enough by itself to excite me. The presentation of the book is a bit weak - when I open the pages of a RPG product I like to see engaging text and and inspiring images, and the wording in the book is almost joke-like, and the illustrations are quite cartoon-y. Having said that, the game seems fun enough, but I don't think I'd want to play a long campaign of it.
Dungeon World is a fun little game that manages to be one of the best improvisational games I have ever played. It is based on Apocalypse World, a game I am not familiar with and would never play because it's not my thing. A big part of what makes DW work -- and a key ingredient for any improv game -- is familiarity with the genre. I know D&D better than anything, so DW is instantly familiar and the game and setting just assemble themselves with no effort at all.
The game mechanics drive the story forward and keep everyone engaged, yet there remains enough dice rolling and rules engagement to keep most people happy. I would say the core game is about as complex as old school classic D&D; I have played with experienced players and newbies and it worked well for everyone. It is well worth a play just to pick up some new tricks, and a great pick-up game for your shelf.
The most brilliant bit IMO is the concept of Fronts. It essentially takes the "plot point" idea of Savage Worlds and distills it down into an improvisational and organizational tool; there are no mechanics so you can import it into your favorite RPG. Unfortunately, while the basic concept is pretty straightforward, the "how to" text is confusing and possibly contradictory, so you have to chew on it a bit to massage it into something that works for you. The good thing is, the concept is what is important.
The worst bit, in my opinion, is the overuse of the "tags" mechanism. It takes a great concept for quickly outlining monsters and bogs it down with detailed rules for each tag, defeating the whole point of being lightweight and improvisational. Worse, it then presents a system for creating towns with tags, which is overly verbose and overkill. I think tags are a great idea if you resist the temptation to define them.
The other thing I didn't like are the need for specialized character sheets -- without a printer you really can't play. And to add insult to injury, the sheets are ink-intensive. If it was written so you could play with a 3x5 index card it would be much better. To be fair, some of the pick up and play nature is because the game rules are printed on the character sheets, but I still dislike the need to keep a printed supply handy.
My most experienced player had a complaint about DW: he felt that because the world and adventure are created during play, he could not believe in the world; to him it lacked substance and solidity, and he preferred a world created by a GM and kept hidden, because it had objective existence apart from play. I think this is a fair criticism and it is fundamental to any improvisational game. But I also think it is easily avoided: there is nothing preventing you from using DW in a traditional sense, with a pregenerated world and NPCs, the only difference is the timing of who and when various details are invented. So a valid criticism based on personal preference and the default mode of play as presented... but not an inherent failure of the game.
There are some fun bits, like easter eggs hidden in the magic items section. This is a fun game that doesn't take itself too seriously. There are some nifty ideas, like the Undertake a Perilous Journey move, or the Spout Lore and Discern Realities moves. Hirelings are nicely done.
To their credit, the authors have made DW available under a liberal license: the entire game is available free online as an SRD-type document. Unfortunately the fan community seems to want to charge a buck or two for every page they create. This was part of what turned me off the DW community.
Dungeon World is my favorite system to play in for a number of reasons. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Dungeon World for a variety of things- and that’s totally fair- but I think that whether you’ll like it will hinge on whether or not you seriously consider what you like in a TTRPG, what your players like, and whether DW is a good fit for your game goals. For me, these are DW’s strongest points (speaking as mostly a GM and an occasional player):
1. Streamlined: Trims away the copious fat of regular D&D and systems that heavily take after it. Mechanics that slow down storytelling, combat, and roleplay are refined to their most efficient forms. There’s only 1 book to read and all the information the players need is either on their character sheet or in the list of basic moves. No tomes to details to parse through, no slog through dense tables or meaningless data. Just exactly what you need with maximum efficiency.
2. Accessible: Kind of goes hand-in-hand with the first point. New players can easily jump right into a game and handle their PCs with minimal ‘tutorial’ sessions and no hour-long level up breaks and/or table-referencing. Like I said, all the information they need is right at their fingertips and in succinct language that makes sense even without contextual knowledge of ttrpg systems.
3. Deliberately Flexible: Moves and rules are written with clear language and Dungeon World’s mechanics always resolve on common-sense answers based on the guiding principles of the game, which cuts down on confusion but also helps both the GMs and the players arrive on the same page when discussing moves, their impact, and their results. Another major bonus of this is that it encourages coming to a solution as a group instead of racing to be a bigger rule-lawyer that’s more concerned with the letter of the law instead of the intent.
4. You Will Instantly Become a Better GM: The GM's Principles section of Dungeon World alone is worth the price tag and it is a targeted outline of things to keep in mind while running a game to, a) play a fun, fulfilling session, b) actually collaborate with your players, c) ramp up the narrative intensity and payoff of your storytelling, and d) help you prioritize the ‘action’ of your game so that you have more fun and less slog.
5. Emphasis on Storytelling and Roleplaying: Character development and narrative are mechanized in clever, subtle ways (like playing in alignment and bonds, which are mechanized incentives to form relationships with both other PCs, NPCs, and even intangible concepts). Character classes have movesets that reflect a really broad archetype and you could easily have four players pick the Fighter class and wind up with four combat-focused but entirely unique characters not only in appearance but also in differing move choices, signature weapons, and related bonuses, ranges, and fighting styles.
Maybe a better demonstration would be that the Fighter class could be a brawler, monk, knight, archer, or even some anime-style character with a gigantic weapon. The mechanics support all these builds and gives you all the tools you need to develop each one’s unique playstyle. Things like long journeys are reduced to a set of moves that you could throw a roleplay scene into or add a combat encounter if the PCs roll poorly. Combat favors high narrative, back-and-forth action that still has battlefield minutiae like range, encumbrance, and environmental considerations but it's more interested in telling the story of a fight than simulating one for “realism”, whatever that ultimately means. In layman’s terms, my D&D group would regularly take literal hours to get through a moderate combat encounter, in Dungeon World, it's only maybe 15-30 minutes max for something that's more intense and 100% action and storytelling.
Another example is the built-in lore-development moves that lets the GM ask the players questions about the setting or themselves and their answers become the world ‘canon’. This off-loads a little work from the GM, which is nice, but it demands collaboration, which instantly increases the PCs’ investment into your story and world. It's one of my favorite things about DW that I’ve tried to incorporate into other games as well.
6. You'll Probably Become a Better Player: I’m not quite as strong on this point than I am with the GM side of things but I still believe players learn a lot from DW too. Because its storytelling/roleplaying mechanics are tied in with moves/combat/etc, players who spend a lot of time in DW tend to get really good at providing rich, actionable details about their characters, actions, and backstories in a way that lets the GMs weave more story. They’ll pay more attention to narrative details and and flex inside their character archetypes. As a GM myself, it was so rewarding to see players I’ve known for years suddenly step way out of their comfort zone and play these super creative characters and then even try harder with them in other systems that are less focused on character narrative.
7. Built in Setting is Pretty Flexible: DW is written for a ubiquitous medieval fantasy setting but you can alter this fairly easily. I wrote a huge Norse setting with brand new character classes and while THAT was an endeavor, you can easily alter the in-world environment and tweak monsters/character classes without as much work. The character sheets are archetypal so they fit in a variety of settings and the DW community has a ton of classes for specific settings that all have a fairly high level of consistent quality
8. Making monsters is easy: Customizing monsters is super easy because their creation is based on tag/features to give stats but with DW’s focus on the narrative, a monster’s un-quantified damage is usually way more dangerous than a standard attack.
9. Combat is Harrowing and Exciting: Most people learning about DW read that post about the 16HP Dragon and how it tore that experienced party of PCs apart. Essentially, DW monsters can only move in reaction to player actions and their abilities are divided into hard and soft moves. Soft moves are usually things that don’t deal damage directly- like forcing a player to drop a weapon, using environmental hazards, changing positions, opening up the target to a more direct attack from someone else- while hard moves are the “meaner” kind, things that deal direct damage or more aggressively put the player in a bad spot. The dragon example is poignant because it displays the devastation the Messy tag has (something any monster could potentially have). All it takes is one failed roll to give the Dragon a hard move against the player attacking it, and since its attacks have that tag, the targeted player gets hit with a claw that tears them apart- but doesn’t kill them unless their HP gets depleted and now the party must deal with the narrative implications of being maimed.
A lot of really entrenched players from other systems have difficulty getting used to the fact that monsters- by nature- don’t have a ‘difficulty rating’ or something similar in DW and there’s really a simple reason for this. In DW, all monsters are dangerous to all level characters in some form or another. If the monsters aren’t a threat to your party, DW encourages skipping the combat phase all together (DW is big on ‘if you can do it without any challenge, then you can just do it’). The Dragon fight is a great example because ALL PCs should be wary of going into open combat with a Dragon- the level and stats don’t describe the danger as powerfully as the narrative power of the rampaging dragon. PCs are fleshy humanoids and no amount of mundane armor or levels is going to stop a dragon claw and as a GM, you want them to consider this before engaging in a larger, vicious enemy. But man, the tension brings a delicious amount of narrative weight as PCs are incentivized to pair their mechanical builds with environmental considerations.
10. The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You: No seriously, from a GM’s perspective, there’s an innate flow to DW that is very easy to organize on your side of the game. GMs have their own list of moves (that covers literally everything) and your actions always follow the players which keeps up a constant level of narrative impetus without a lot of effort or improv. Admittedly, this is maybe the hardest part to get down when first starting with DW but man, the support it offers in keeping things moving is incredible and, just like narrative combat, I’ve really tried to incorporate some of these principles in other games.
So, in all, Dungeon World may not be for everyone but damn if it wasn’t a great fit for me and my regular game night. Our campaigns are more actionable, intense, flexible, and above all, more fun. It’s easy to learn and my absolute favorite thing about it is the way it incentivizes collaborative roleplay in a way other systems just… don’t. I recommend that everyone give it at least a try, even if it's not a great match for your table, I’m certain that the GM’s Principles section alone could provide some interesting tidbits to sharpen your game.