Living Dungeon World

This year my local gaming club has been running a multi-GM persistent world campaign called Living Dungeon World. At its peak we were running five to six games (each with five players) per week. Players were posting actual play reports in excess of five hundred words, which is pretty good for games that would be three to four hours long. By the end of the campaign we’d spanned thirteen years of game time and two major story arcs, helped a number of gamers get into the habit of GMing, and considerably boosted the profile of roleplaying at the club.

In this post I’m going to outline the premise of Living Dungeon World, how we set it up, what we changed as a result of experience, and an overall evaluation.

The origin of Living Dungeon World

I got my first hint of Living Dungeon World reading through Ben Robbins’ article on his West Marches campaign. Robbins describes the West Marches campaign as follows:

1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

West Marches is a great example of a sandbox RP setting: the players start in a town in the middle of the wilderness and can explore wherever they want. Robbins’ description of the world reminds me of old-style Rogue-like games: a vast, uncaring world awaits, and it’s up to you to work out where to go and what to do. The wilderness is populated with ruins and caves and all manner of interesting things, but also dangerous creatures that are definitely not scaled to your level.

For some time after reading this article I’d bring it up as an interesting thought-experiment in conversation with other GMs, but it was a discussion at a SAGA gaming afternoon in late 2012 that made me seriously consider running something like this. A friend had jumped on board the Dungeon World Kickstarter, and was raving about the system. When I brought up the idea of the West Marches campaign, he suggested we could run an ongoing multi-GM campaign at SAGA. We roped in a couple of other GMs and were soon seriously talking about running our campaign.

The setup

The core of Living Dungeon World was the world. All adventures took place in one persistent world: in our case the world was an (initially) unexplored continent with one city (Whitmouth) for the characters to embark from. As regions of the world got explored we added them to the map, such that over time the “known world” slowly grew.

The continent that would later be known as Mithrasia

Living Dungeon World had four GMs. Our club meets on Tuesday and Thursday nights, so we had two GMs assigned to each night: at maximum capacity, each GM would be running one game a week. We also had a Facebook page, whose wall acted as a public forum: people could post there regarding events in the world, items they had, tasks they needed done, and whatever else came up. There was also a “player-facing” map hosted on the page, that we’d update weekly with humanity’s spread on the continent.

If you wanted to play a session of Living Dungeon World, you would make an “Adventurers Wanted” post to the Facebook page. In this post, you would specify where you were headed and the purpose of your expedition (as well as what night it would run on). Up to four other players could jump onto your mission, and the GM team would ensure someone would be able to run your game. Once the GM knew where you were headed and why, they’d work out the adventure for that night.

Once the session was done, you would hand in your map of the area (so the GMs could update the big campaign map), and write up reports for the campaign at large1. Other players would read these reports and use the information to launch follow-up missions the next week.

Every session was a self-contained mission: at the end of each session you would make it safely back to the nearest civilised place. However, every session was dependent on previous sessions: if last week you raided the lizard-men for supplies, this week they won’t welcome you back. This meant that new players could easily slot into a group, but at the same point, people would get invested in the game world. Interaction between characters could continue over multiple sessions if you happened to be in a group with the same player over and over2.

The campaign also encouraged people to talk about their games. Your average year-long five-person campaign is interesting to the people involved in it, and approximately no one else. In Living Dungeon World, you had a player base of twenty to thirty other people who would be interested in your stories, especially when people started swapping notes on the world. In addition, a group of ten to fifteen people hanging out at game night discussing the campaign, or the live action trial we ran for one player, or the three-GM coordinated dragon attack, were a lot more visible than a group of four people quietly talking about their game before disappearing off to a corner of the meeting room.

In short: Living Dungeon World got roleplayers to talk to one another, it established a core roleplaying group in the club who knew each other, and it drastically increased the visibility of roleplaying in the club.

Initial logistics

When we started, we thought the campaign would run for a term or two before finishing up as people lost interest in the idea. Without a central driving narrative to keep people interested, it was up to individual players’ enthusiasm to keep the game going. We were planning for somewhere between ten and twenty regular players.

This is what we prepared before the campaign got underway:

GMs. We had four GMs total, one of which was our “creative head” and effectively in charge of everything. Each of us was able to make decisions about the game on the spot, but in the case of disagreements, the head GM arbitrated. Having a head GM also gave the campaign more direction, as one person had the authority to drive any long-term stories or themes in the game.

A system. We decided to go with Dungeon World over a version of D&D or an OSR equivalent. One of the great things about Dungeon World is that a first-level character can join a group of fourth-level adventurers and not feel completely useless: this was to be handy if people were to jump into the campaign a few months in, when original players had had some time to level up. Additionally, you can learn DW in about ten minutes, less if you’re an experienced roleplayer. This considerably lowered the barrier to entry.

A map. At the start of play, we had a GM map of the continent, divided into hexes that were approximately twenty miles across. We established in our first meeting that each hex may also have an “instance”: a village, dungeon, tower, ruin, or whatever, and that these instances were established on an as-needed basis.

A dropbox. We kept all the GMing materials here - notes on PCs, locations, monsters, NPCs, terrain moves, maps, images, and other miscellania.

A mailing list which we used to keep in touch with each other.

We left a lot of the details of the campaign to be worked out later. We didn’t have a concrete idea of where the campaign would go3 or who the major races of the land were. None of the known world was decided either, and when required the GMs would generally quiz the players on the gaps in group knowledge. The following occured at my table a few times as new players got introduced to the concept of group authorship:

GM: So where in the old world do you come from?

Player: I…um, I didn’t actually see a map of the old world…

GM: Oh, we don’t have one. We haven’t established much about the old world, so feel free to make stuff up.

Player: Oh. OK. Well, I used to live in the forest outside this city called York…

Dungeon World is well-suited to this style of improvisational gameplay, which was another bonus.

Campaign progression

As the campaign matured, we found ourselves adapting the campaign (and our resources) to suit play. We hired on new GMs as old GMs experienced burnout and as the campaign became more popular, altered the tools we used to run the event, and changed the setup of the campaign itself.

GMs

About halfway through the year, a number of the current GMs started to burn out. GMs had to create new one-off adventures, sometimes in less than 24 hours, for a given adventuring group. While you can prepare a couple of fall-back scenarios for those weeks where everything is a bit too busy, even then you have to adapt them to the given location, adventuring party, etc. In short: it’s constant work that you have to fit around your schedule.

The amount of new blood that Living Dungeon World brought to the club meant that we were able to pick enthusiastic players who showed promise at GMing, tutor them in the techniques required, and get them into the groove in a matter of weeks. More GMs meant that we could have evenings where three groups were running simultaneously, and that led to a number of large set-piece scenarios4. Because we drew from the existing player base, these GMs had their own characters in the game, and a number continued actively playing when they weren’t GMing. While I was initially concerned at our new GMs’ abilities to separate GM and player knowledge and motivation, they were all excellent at keeping their characters from acting on GM knowledge or driving play in a particular direction.

Tools

When we started Living Dungeon World, we provided a Facebook page for our players to communicate with each other. While Facebook is an excellent medium for short-term communication (over the course of a day or two), it’s hard to retrieve information (play reports, etc.) from earlier than this. As a result, we added a player wiki (hosted at wikia) halfway through the campaign. This ended up working as a combined knowledge base and actual play recorder, although near the end of the campaign it started to see less use.

Near the middle of the year, the GMs also implemented a private Facebook group through which they could organise play. I believe the reason for this was because the newer GMs were more used to communicating via Facebook than email, and thus the Facebook group slowly replaced the mailing list as the primary means of communication between GMs.

Campaign setup

Early on, the GMs established a number of fronts (as described in the Dungeon World rulebook) to organise the opposition that players would be facing. Here it was invaluable to have a creative head on the team: the head basically got to pick the fronts which were active and told us when we weren’t pushing them hard enough. The list of grim portents5 also provided an excellent adventure seed when the GMs weren’t feeling particularly creative. In this way the campaign fronts not only helped tie adventures together, they also made the GMs’ jobs easier.

I observed that each GM would also gravitate towards one area of the campaign. For example, the first couple of adventures I ran centred around the White River swamp and the lizard folk who lived in there: following these adventures I started adding more background detail about the area and the lizard folk to the dropbox, and this effectively made me the resident GM for lizard folk. This applied for the other GMs as well, which meant that we were all enthusiastically involved in our own little bits of the world. This is by no means a bad thing: in fact, I think we would have done well to explicitly recognise that GMs would develop a sense of ownership, and add procedures to deal with this. Later on, there were some incidents where GMs ran adventures in another GM’s “space” and got details wrong, leading to ret-cons, disagreements, and the like. I wonder if recognising GM ownership would have helped in situations like this.

Overall evaluation

Living Dungeon World was undoubtedly a success. A number of people joined SAGA, several people started GMing, and I even saw some friends start roleplaying who I’d never have expected to do so. It was so successful that a couple of other potential roleplaying games at SAGA folded due to lack of demand. It was definitely high-maintenance, and keeping four (or more) GMs on the same page can take time, but it paid off in campaign quality and breadth of appeal. There’s intermittent talk at the club of running another living campaign next year, and although I won’t be involved in running it, I’ll be very interested to see if the next batch of GMs can replicate this year’s success.

The campaign’s success must be accredited at least in part to the system. Dungeon World is easy to pick up, accessible to anyone who’s read a fantasy book or seen a fantasy film, fast-paced, and flexible enough to handle the scenarios I’ve had to throw at it. If I were to pick the top three drawbacks of the system, I would list:

Lack of crunch. Without a well-developed storyline to keep player interest, the system can quickly grow boring and samey. System mastery is easy enough that people used to more rules-intensive systems will often grow bored, especially without the attraction of long-term dynamics that you’d seed in a persistant group.

Imbalance. I found that over the course of months, regular players can soon have characters hit level 8 through 10, making them true powerhouses of continually hitting rolls and surviving all but the bone-jarringest of encounters. This may be a side-effect of my GMing style: I’ve found that I have a problem setting up properly epic adventures that level 10 characters should be facing, although this may be a symptom of late-campaign GM burnout and a lack of time to set up such missions. Additionally, level 10 characters would often multi-class, and tended to be overbearingly powerful and capable.

Focus. The lack of social centres outside of Whitmouth meant that Living Dungeon World was somewhat myopically-focussed on wilderness exploration and fighting. Rangers became a powerful support class for wilderness travel, while fighters excelled in both dishing out and taking punishment, far beyond any other class.

I should add that Living Dungeon World was a pretty high-intensity workout for the Dungeon World system: assuming two games per night and four players per game, we ran through over two thousand player-hours of game time. Given this, the system stood up admirably to any number of situations, from pseudo-mass-combat showdowns to low-combat investigation games to cross-dimensional travel.

Would I do it again?

Maybe.

Let me qualify that: I think it would be awesome to run something like this again, especially given that I know what to do (and what not to do) a bit better now. However I’m really looking forward to running (and playing in) a couple of campaigns before then. One of the things I missed during Living Dungeon World was the long-term investment possible with campaigns that I just didn’t get in episodic play. In addition, I have a list of game systems as long as my arm that I haven’t got around to playing/running, and I’ll need a few months to try all those out.

I need a buffer of a few years, I think, before I run something similar to this. And assuming I run it at the local gaming club, I think the club needs a couple of years to recover as well. Some of the GMs who aren’t burned out yet want to run another Living game next year, and I wish them well, but I think I’m going to sit by the sideline this time around and watch. Maybe I’ll even stat up a character and do a bit of dungeon-delving for a change.


  1. To incentivise all this, handing in maps and writing reports gained you XP. Even still, enough players got invested in the campaign that actual play reports would creep into hundreds of words. 

  2. We ended up with an in-game marriage by the end of the campaign. 

  3. Robbins suggests that you shouldn’t add a narrative to this sort of campaign: it’s about exploring and note-taking, not about defeating the ancient evil. However, we did end up with a story in our campaign: it just took a while to work out what the story was

  4. Including the July end-of-the-story-arc assault on the Shadow Lord lair, bringing the initial plot to a close. 

  5. Events that tell you something terrible is going to happen.