Play By Email Week: DungeonWorld

Concluding Play By Email Week, the last game I’ve been playing lately is Madhouse Interactive’s DungeonWorld. As the name implies, it’s a hack-and-slash RPG heavily based on genre clichés. It is processed entirely by computer, with no human moderator making decisions based on your role-playing, but there are enough possible commands, different items, and unique rooms to keep it from feeling like a simple game of numbers. It’s also fairly hardcore, with character death being permanent and the signup page including a quiz to keep out new players who aren’t committed enough to read the rulebook first. I suppose that’s something I find intriguing about PBEM games: Though the players are very friendly, there is none of the hand-holding and guaranteed victory of modern games.

DungeonWorld is priced competitively compared to most other PBEMs, with a sliding scale that lets you choose how committed to become. In a brilliant move, your first character in each module is free. This allows up to eight free characters, from the heroic Kingdom of Bereny to a lawless jungle, an Arabian Nights-inspired desert, and even a steampunk setting. (All but one of those eight, a post-apocalyptic setting, are part of one large world that a strong character could traverse in a few years’ time.) However, it really starts to get interesting once you are paying for multiple characters who can work together and coordinate actions. Considering all the free gaming available, the cost of a couple paid characters seems more than fair. (The exact cost is variable, since it’s in British Pounds and the exchange rate fluctuates, and Madhouse frequently offers specials that let you pre-pay at a discount. But officially, a “position” costs £1, plus £0.50 for each character after the free one.)

An example turn result, though there are a couple more pages after this to describe the results of the character's actions.

An example turn result, though there are a couple more pages after this to describe the results of the character’s actions.

Each turn of the game includes fifteen rounds of action, so you need to plan out moves without knowing exactly what will happen. There are a variety of options available for both moving and attacking to let your character perform intelligently (sometimes…) even if the situation becomes different than what you expected. As usual, PBEM allows plenty of room for simultaneous choices among players. Will you reach that loot before the character on the other side of the room? Are those orcs going to come after your weak Enchanter? Do you need to devote a whole turn to attacking an enemy, or will it be defeated in a couple rounds?

This simultaneous-choice game doesn’t go too far, though, because you’re almost never competing against other players. The community is universally friendly and very eager to assist new players. It’s a good thing, too, because the game does have several flaws that would be deal-breakers if not for this. The rulebook is inconsistent and years out of date, so most opportunities and information are passed around verbally. Also, the senior characters are orders of magnitude stronger than new ones, which would make this unfair if there were even a hint of competition between them. Finally, the person who runs the game needs to stay fairly active to correct mistakes, but he also ensures there are always epic quests going on. The game is huge enough to explore for years, but the community is small enough that within a few months I could contribute to the discussion and join in on a major storyline.

There are many email lists with different topics that are used for these discussions. I recommend them, but they’re all optional. You can enter orders on the website, and your results are emailed to you as a pictures and text in a PDF. Unfortunately, the website is not  guaranteed to work (it sends an email to the central server for you, and you get no confirmation that it arrived), and the other options for entering moves are Windows-based programs. Those are nice, but not a great solution to me as a Mac-user. Once again, I find myself wishing for an email order system that lives up to Diplomacy’s standard.

At two weeks between turns, events can take years to play out. My first characters, over a year old now, are halfway through the second level of one dungeon, and only got that far thanks to maps and experienced colleagues. However, that time was very interesting. Monsters and treasure spawn fast enough to keep things moving along, and playing with several characters guarantees that some of them will be in an interesting situation on every turn. Also, at least some experience accumulates every turn, and the system of training and skills allows you to spend experience for chances to improve as you travel along. There’s a constant feeling of forward growth, counterbalanced by the perpetual threat of defeat: Every month or so, another player will announce the death of a years-old character.

Though it has its flaws, DungeonWorld captures the dungeon-crawling experience very well. The slow, ongoing experience sticks with me consistently. Between the emails and my thoughts about what will happen next, it’s like a part of me is always playing. This is the sort of thing that makes PBEM unique.

Grade: B

 
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