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Fiction & Story

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There’s this discussion I keep seeing round Dungeon World. It boils down to this: is Dungeon World about telling a story?

It’s not an easy topic, mostly because “story” seems to mean different things to different people. So I’m going to try to lay it down in as direct a terms as possible, trying to avoid overloaded terms that have their own baggage.

First, though, a note on a term we overloaded: fiction. Throughout Dungeon World we talk about “the fiction.” Sometimes that gets read as fiction, as in a genre of literature (as opposed to non-fiction or poetry or whatever). That’s not the intent. “The fiction” is essentially short for “the fictional world that everything happens within.” Our usage of this term made a lot of sense to most people we showed the game to, so we kept it, but there’s definitely some overloading going on. It could easily be replaced with “the world the characters inhabit” if you don’t mind adding a few hundred words to the book.

That leads into talking about what Dungeon World is actually concerned with, which is a living fantastic fictional world.

The GM’s first job, as listed in their agenda, is to “Portray a fantastic world.” When you GM, you’re responsible for showing a fantasy world to the players. The players have some input into that world: in a few places, their characters let them define things about the world, like the cleric naming their deity. More commonly, the GM will ask players about the world. These questions can be big or small, allowing a player to invent nations and species, or having them fill in their character’s family and home.

The living part comes from the second point of the GM’s agenda: “Fill the characters’ lives with adventure.” Whatever characters get made, the GM should look at the world around them and find what’s in danger or flux and push on it. These are not adventures in the form of a plot to be followed, but adventure in the sense of uncertainty and change. Adventure can mean anything from a gargoyle eating up local livestock to an invading army marching through—the point is that (much like the real world) there’s something happening everywhere for people to be in the path of. Or get sucked into. Or attempt to ignore.

“Fantastic” and “fictional” are there to establish that what goes into the world need not be bound by the laws of the real world.

My feeling is that Dungeon World creates “stories” roughly the way a war zone does: by dropping people into a dynamic moving life-or-death situation. What gets told afterwards is a byproduct of the way the world works.

This ties back to GM moves. The GM’s moves are essentially a lens with which to look at the world and figure out what “failure” means in any given context. There’s a list of them so that the GM can scan down them and get ideas, not to limit what can happen in the fictional world. As it says in the book “start by looking at the obvious consequences of the action that triggered [the GM move].” We’ve made an effort to include every broad category of “failure” in that list. It’s a tool for GMs to find inspiration in a situation—to figure out what failure means here and now.

Where this leaves Dungeon World on any given person’s spectrum of interest I don’t know. I’m sure for some people “a dynamic changing situation with people in it” is the definition of “story” and for some it’s not. I just wanted to make an attempt at clearing up some of what we’re trying to do with Dungeon World.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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