by Delos

Interview with Dungeon World

Hey internet. This marks the one year anniversary of Ramblings. As a special treat to you guys I interviewed Adam and Sage of Dungeon World fame and here it is. There’s no video just the text so you can enjoy it at work while your boss is not looking 😛 Enjoy!

Once again thank you Adam and Sage for doing this. I really appreciate the time you took to answer these questions.

Could you tell us a little about yourself outside of the RPG world? (family, friends, pet, day job, etc)

Sage-

My day job is software development at Google. It’s a pretty great place to work for a number of reasons, particularly including the number of gamers at the office. We have regular Magic drafts, boardgames, and the occasional RPG.

When I’m not at work I’m at home with my wife Sarah and our two cats, Chomsky and Winston. Which reminds me, somewhere I have some leftover footage from our Kickstarter where Adam pitches Dungeon World to Winston, I need to post that.

Adam-

By day, I work at an online marketing firm. I do a lot of email and social media marketing. It’s an interesting discipline and a lot more like game design than you might think. I live in Canada, so mostly I just spend my time listening to the icy winds howl outside my yeti-cave and try to keep warm by drinking craft beer and listening to heavy metal music.

How did you two meet?

Adam-

I met Sage in a tavern. An old man had mentioned to me, on the dusty road into town, that he was seeking adventurers for a quest. I was down to my last copper piece and my chainmail had a hole in it, so I figured “why not?” In the ensuing chaos, we looted the manuscript that would become Dungeon World from the cold dead hands of a dwarf who had helped us escape the clutches of a demon prince. Poor Thrunk. He was the bravest of us all.

Sage-

I met Adam in a saloon. He rode into town with a bounty for a fellow named Don Jeon Wurld and with a bar tab to pay I had no choice but to ride out in the hopes of a glorious death. I’ll spare you the gritty details of our chase across the west—the showdown outside El Paso, the stampede in No Name Arroyo, the standoff at Dying Hill. We managed to get our bounty and ride off into the sunset.

When did you start playing RPGs?

Sage-

I can nail it down pretty accurately to just before the release of 3rd Edition. My friend Isaac (who did some art for DW) had some AD&D 2E Dark Sun adventure that he offered to run for me, one-on-one. What we didn’t have was a PHB, so he asked me if I wanted to be a wizard and of course I said yes. I had some stats and magic missile and got thrown into a pit fight.

I was pretty much sold, so when 3E came out a little later I picked it up (one book at a time, what a strange release schedule) and became our regular GM for the years to follow.

Adam-

I was probably ten years old, give or take. I inherited a box of books and Heavy Metal magazines from a weird uncle. My brother (who was seven) and I started “playing” AD&D by reading the manuals, trying to guess what the rules meant and then just making up stories. Some things never change.

Favorite PC you played?

Adam-

I don’t actually *play* much, to be honest. I’m usually the one inflicting games on unsuspecting players. If I had to pick, though, off the top of my head? I’d probably say Iris, my very first Apocalypse World PC. That guy was such a slimy little yes-man. What a crap. I loved playing him, though.

Sage-

That’s a tough call! I’m gonna have to say Baston, my dwarf from a Warhammer game. As usually happens with Warhammer he was ill-equipped for everything. The unusual part was that somehow his awful plans always had a way of succeeding. He was a well-meaning idiot.

When did you start working on RPG design and why?

Sage-

Everybody who plays an RPG is designing in some way, but getting into gaming as the OGL became a thing meant that publishing stuff just seemed obvious. I didn’t quite have the knowledge to do it myself (thankfully) so I sent off all kinds of horrible pitches to dime-a-dozen d20 publishers. I think the first thing I seriously designed was stats for a swift. Someone was planning to make a book of d20 stats for real world animals, and they put out a call for people to submit their work to be considered. I decided to show off by finding the fastest bird not already covered in the MM and then trying to recreate it accurately. I remember looking up it’s airspeed, converting that to a one turn run distance, then figuring out it’s movement rate from that. Turns out that d20 stats have absolutely nothing to do with the real world.

Adam-

I think that first game back when I was ten counts as “working on RPG design”. I think everyone who has ever drifted a rule to match their table or changed a game to do what they think it ought to do is doing game design. That’s the fantastic thing. People are already doing it. At least a little, right? So once you’ve read the game as-written, whatever game, and you start drifting it, you’re making a new thing. So in that sense, I’ve been working on game design for twenty years. More seriously, though, with the intent to experiment and design and publish and all that? Just about five years now, give or take.

What made you decide to make Dungeon World? (The main goal behind it)

Adam-

I wanted to become rich and famous, like all the other massively wealthy celebrity tabletop designers such as … ummm…

We wanted to make a game we would like. We wanted to make the D&D that we remembered playing. A game about the fun and adventure we always wanted D&D to be before all the rules and craziness got in the way. Also, I was already playing a very heavily hacked game of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that played a lot like DW would eventually play, so it felt like a normal thing to just make a game.

Sage-

Well, it seemed like it’d be fun. And it is, in a way. But there’s also accounting and shipping and taxes and printing and all that.

The game design though, that’s still fun. Sitting down and figuring out cool things and how to present those in a game is the thing that keeps me coming back.

Where did you get the inspiration for DW? (other systems, books, movies, etc)

Adam-

Dungeons & Dragons and Apocalypse World, mostly. And then every other fantasy game, movie and comic we’ve ever played, watched or read. Sage introduced me to the concept of the “pop culture cesspool” where everything just sort of belongs to the same massive mess of stuff and we let everything influence the game as we built it. You can really see this in the Barbarian playbook.

Sage-

I got the ‘pop culture cesspool’ thing in a roundabout way from John Harper who I think credited it to Jason Morningstar, so they can totally take credit if they dare.

The original context for it was as something to avoid: if your game doesn’t provide some clear elements to latch onto people are going to fall back on the pop culture cesspool. If you try to make this detailed fantasy setting but don’t give people ways to use it they’re going to fall back on some mixture of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, some edition of D&D, and Monty Python.

For Dungeon World we decided to embrace that. Some of the best moments for D&D as a game have been when it interacts with the pop culture around it. Since we’re not D&D and we won’t be working our way into pop culture, we wanted to bring pop culture to us.

To actually answer the question, I think one of the biggest references that not everyone realizes is Ghostbusters. Dungeon World plays kind of like Ghostbusters except everyone might fail and/or die.

What was the biggest thing you argued about when creating DW?

Adam-

I think Spout Lore was almost the argument that ended Dungeon World. Almost. Probably our most severe debate, to date.

Sage-

I don’t actually recall that being that bad!

I’m kind of oblivious to how heated things might be, since we mostly work over email. I think the thing we discussed the longest was HP. I still have mountains of spreadsheets on how certain damage/armor/HP interactions work out.

What was the hardest thing to come up with for DW? (Class, general mechanics, etc)

Adam-

The hardest stuff was never about design. The hardest stuff was publishing logistics. Postage and fulfillment can die in a fire forever.

Sage-

I agree. Design is a skill you build up through years of play so when an idea like DW comes along you’ve had years to prepare. The new stuff we had to take on to make an actual product was way tougher. Layout, art direction, taxes.

I’ve been in discussions that talk about how DW was trying to get away from traditional conventions of D&D and other games and make it all about the story. Something that comes up often is how spell lists feel too mechanical and isn’t very story driven. Why did you decide to stick with a spell list for the Wizard and Cleric classes and not go the route you went with the Bard and just make moves that allow you to make up your magic as you go?

Adam-

Spellbooks and spell lists and stuff are all part of the fantasy milieu we were trying to capture. Free-form magic isn’t “on brand” for the game. It’s why I’ve never been satisfied with any of the playbooks that try to make the Wizard more like a character from Mage: The Ascension.

Sage-

It’s funny that that’s the one that gets called out. There are all kinds of elements of DW where at least part of the reason for choosing them was to keep that tradition alive. Funny-shaped dice for damage and classes, for example. We don’t choose those things lightly but we do choose them for a reason.

I also have digress for a moment because it’s one of my pet peeves: we weren’t trying to get away from D&D, and it isn’t all about the story.

The style of game DW supports is the same type of game I was playing with d20 back when I got started, more or less. DW does some cool things to support that, but the tradition of play that it aims for is not a new one or one apart from D&D.

‘Story’ is also a really tough term to nail down. DW isn’t about story in the way that, say, Primetime Adventures is. You’re not playing DW to tell a story or make a story directly, you’re playing (like many great games) to have a bunch of things happen that in retrospect make a story that you’ll tell all your friends.

What is one thing from your book that you feel should be in every RPG? (general advice, a mechanic, etc)

Adam-

Rules (not just wishy-washy advice) for running the game. Actual “do this or you’re breaking the rules” sections for the GM.

Sage-

Damn, Adam beat me to it.

The funny thing is, I don’t think most games are very far off from having rules for GMing. The innovation in Apocalypse World that we stole is in some ways a matter of presentation. It’s also something that ties back to an older tradition: you read something like Moldvay and it’s dead-clear on what you do as a GM, how, and to what goals.

My personal theory is that over time some of that clarity got lost to “it’s your game, we can’t tell you what to do” (which is trivially obvious) and “this game can do anything” (which it can’t). When your game is written to be ignored, or is trying to be everything to everyone, you really can’t give much in the way of clear procedures.

What is your favorite playbook from DW? (Yours or Fans)

Sage-

On a pure gut level I’ll always love wizards. I cannot resist playing a wizard in any game, even if I know I shouldn’t (and in DW it’s a great class). The barbarian, though, might be our best design on a number of levels. It was also the last one made, which makes sense. There are a few lessons there that would be nice to filter back through all the classes, but nothing big enough to actually justify all the overhead that that would require.

I keep up with most of the third party classes that get ‘finished’ and the ones that stand out are the elf, dwarf, and halfling classes. There’s a temptation in DW (and most fantasy games) to just keep introducing new types of magic and give every class some break from the norm. I love the classes that stay grounded.

While it’s not directly for Dungeon World per se, the Engine of Destruction from Dungeon Planet is wonderful.

Adam-

I’ll probably always love the Paladin most of all, but the Barbarian is really really fun to see in play. I’ve honestly never really given any of the third-party playbooks much of a look. I know Johnstone Metzger’s Elementalist playbook is getting some play on twitch.tv over all RollPlay Vigil (http://www.twitch.tv/itmejp) and watching it has been pretty neat. I’d try that, I think.

Do you have any projects you are working on currently? (Related to DW or not)

Sage-

We’re both working on Inglorious, which is our first DW supplement. It’s been an interesting process since we kind of said so much in DW it was hard to find our niche for a supplement now. We also keep ourselves to pretty high standards, and this supplement has taken almost as much work as DW itself, oddly enough. We’re rounding it out now, to the point that we’re about ready to deal with art ordering and layout.

My other project right now is Black Stars Rise (www.blackstarsrise.com). It started life as a Cthulhu/Apocalypse World hack designed to fill a different niche than Tremulus, but it’s drifted a bit from that now. It’s a little bit like you’re playing the people from one of those towns on The X-Files but Mulder and Scully are never going to show up: your normal life is intruded on by things beyond the normal. True Detective and 2666 are also touchstones. It’s totally playable now but I think the next stage will likely be some vicious trimming down to its core. That and making it a stand-alone text.

Adam-

I’m personally working on a mash-up of Stars Without Number and World of Dungeons. It’s just a little personal project so I can play Stars without having to resort to d20-driven combat. Also, I think it’s going to provide me some insight into the Mass Effect hack I’m working on.

What advice could you give to people who would also like to write their own RPG?

Adam-

Do it. Start small and make something for another game. Learn the process of design / iterate / test / feedback / throw in the garbage / pick up the pieces. Publishing games and getting access to other game designers and fans is literally the easiest now that it has ever been in the history of time. So, there’s no excuse. GO MAKE STUFF.

Sage-

You’re already doing it. Just by playing and being passionate you’re already hacking to some degree. The intimidating part is figuring out how to present that to others and then dealing with what they say about it, but it’s totally worth it.

How has your life changed since DW got Kickstarted?

Sage-

I do interviews now.

Adam-

I have a lot more followers on Twitter.

What is your favorite RPG outside of DW?

Adam-

This is such an unfair question. It can’t really be answered universally, so I’ll answer based on right this second. I’m really digging Night Witches, which is Jason Morningstar’s in-progress game about the 588th, a World War 2 Soviet all-women bomber squadron. It’s wicked-good.

Sage-

It’s kind of like ‘what food is your favorite:’ you can probably come up with some single answer but it’ll be a drastic simplification of your actual appetite and will probably get caught up in the related question ‘what’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten.’

Right this second seems like the best way to avoid the obvious (D&D, Burning Wheel) so I’m going to say that right this second my favorite RPG is Pendragon. It’s a game of Arthurian legend, but it’s really a game of trying to get ahead in a feudal society.

What made you decide to have DW be OGL?

Adam-

Technically, Dungeon World is CC-BY and not OGL, but that’s something only copyright dorks care about. We did it because we are lazy and the idea of licensing third-party projects and dealing with copyright is so so repulsive. Also, marketing. A free, open version of the game means more people can try out the rules and decide they love them. Combat piracy with love. Build loyal fans, not consumers.

Sage-

Adam’s a copyright dork!

When making a game your biggest obstacle isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (I stole that from Adam). Any sales we ‘lost’ to the free text are probably people who would have been disappointed buying the game anyway, so hopefully we end up with a higher percentage of customers happy.

What is your favorite fan-made mod for DW? (Pirate World, Grim World, things of that nature)

Adam-

The Korean version of Dungeon World just blew my mind when I saw it. The Italian version, too. Narrativa does fantastic work. I really don’t keep up with other third party stuff that much, to be honest. I have copies of everything Johnstone Metzger has done so far and it’s all very solid work. Truncheon World ends up in my bag more often than the DW core rules do.

Sage-

I rarely bring Truncheon World or Dungeon World. I just print off the sheet and figure out the rest as I go. I probably get it wrong.

I keep up with at least most of the fan-made stuff. Grim World is definitely a favorite. Adam already covered Johnstone’s stuff, but Adventures on Dungeon Planet deserves an extra callout. I’m reading through Inverse World now and it’s cool to see people point the game in a different direction.

It’s sometimes hard to tell where a bunch of custom rules becomes a mod and where a mod transitions into a full game. Planarch Codex might be more of a supplement, but it deserves a callout.

What is your favorite RPG anecdote?

Adam-

I have a ton of ridiculous stories from my Dungeon Crawl Classics game that I’ll spare you, right now. It’s never quite as good as when it happens at the table. Go play! Make your own anecdotes!

Sage-

This one time Adam told me to go play instead of telling him my anecdote.

Do you prefer to GM or play a PC?

Sage-

I’ve been a bit busy recently, so I’d say right now I prefer playing.

Adam-

I don’t have a preference, but I’m in the GM chair more than the player one.

If you were trapped in the last game you GMd, and the PCs were your only hope for survival, how screwed would you be?

Adam-

I’d have to rely on Sage’s idiot dwarf Dim (whose primary talent is dying) to save me. I’d be extra screwed.

Sage-

I think the last game I ran was Black Stars Rise, so super screwed.

How do you keep such epic beards epic?

Sage-

I prefer a restrained epicness: weekly shampoo, every other week trim with a beard trimmer and clean up the edges with a razor. The tough part is finding the right setting for your face that balances decent growth with some restraint.

(I originally typo’ed ‘bear trimmer’ which I was tempted to leave for epic-ness.)

Adam-

Daily combing, weekly shampoo and conditioning, beard oil for special occasions. Also blood for the blood god.

So there you have it folks. Thanks for reading and thanks again to Adam and Sage for giving us this awesome game.





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