Enhancing long-term relationships in Dungeon World

In our "long-running" (e.g. not one-shot or one-month) campaign, we've found that the provided bonds on various playsheets haven't been working well for us. Even when the character is played well (appropriate to their alignment, abilities, worldview, etc.), we were finding it was SUPER difficult to complete a bond. Why would a good wizard ever want to be made "strong" in the way an uncouth or evil fighter might consider things? Furthermore, it felt a bit weak to treat bonds between characters as a mechanical target to be hit. Over the course of 6 months of weekly sessions, I think we may have completed 3 bonds.

Seeing that a system wasn't working (and thus not helping out with Aid/Interfere rolls in any way), our GM recommended that we switch to a "Flags" system, along with a slightly modified version of Apocalypse World's Histories, or Hx. We're currently using Flags to gain a Hx for yourself against that character when you trigger them, and 1 Hx for that character to yours if they react appropriately. Hx serves as the modifier to Aid/Interfere rolls, you take +2 to Aid and +3 to interfere, and you accrue Hx as normal at the end of the play session. This seems to be working alright, but it's certainly not stellar yet.

However, you gain an XP and revert to 0 Hx whenever you hit 4 Hx with a character... what's the incentive to deepening your character's relationship with another character past 3 Hx, when it's mechanically just as easy to get XP on rolls for your crappy stats?

What if we made Hx feed directly into long term mechanics and relationships between your characters?

Feeding Hx back into Bonds

Narratively, we should look at a bond between characters as something painful that they endured together, or some great accomplishment they achieved while working together. Perhaps it's even a bond of adversity that exists due to opposing goals within the group. Regardless, a bond is something that exists because of two characters' history together, instead of some sweeping statement of aspirations provided to us by the game's designers. Looking at the initial bonds of Dungeon World in this light, or even the mash of delicious systems we have "patched" into our running game, there's something very anachronistic and dissonant about using Hx for Aid/Interfere and having it reset once you reach a certain point. Even just typing this out gives me an oddly metallic taste in my mouth.

My proposal is this:

  1. You start with 0 bonds, and there are no pre-written bonds. They don't exist. In fact, just draw a pretty picture over top of them on your playbook.
  2. You define 2 or more flags for your character to help define who your character is.
  3. Triggering another character's flag gains you 1 Hx with them. Responding to having your flag triggered gains you 1 Hx with the triggering character.
  4. Perform end of game Hx tallies as usual - e.g. each player picks a player who knows them better, or a character who they feel betrayed their relationship or expectations.
  5. When you roll over to 4 Hx, you write a bond you share with that character. It can be anything you want, but it should be based on how you see your relationship with them. "Tara really saved my bacon when I was dangling from the cliff face in that volcano."
  6. Use Roll + Bonds with a character when you Aid or Interfere with them, gaining +1/-2 on 7-9 and +2/-3 for Aid or Interfere, respectively. (You're always better at hindering your friends than helping them /cynicism)
  7. If your aid or interfere roll changes the outcome of the situation, mark XP.
  8. If you reach -2 Hx with someone: destroy a bond, revert to 0 Hx

Why?

This mechanic has moving parts. Comparatively lots of them. However, I feel like this does a few nice things to get the mechanics back in-line with the narrative. Plus if you have a player who still looks to the mechanics before every single action this might spur them on to some better interaction within their group. It also removes the dissonance introduced by using Hx as a roll modifier when the Hx value will cycle unnaturally through the normal course of a game session.

I think that Flags (or "Buttons" as somone at our table called them), are a hands-down better way to add narrative depth to these characters that so easily become murder-hobos. However I think that the reward for interacting with Flags has run counter to rest of the mechanics of the game and even the narrative that we build at the table. I think that Hx is a super cool concept, and superior to the built-in bonds in most ways. I also think that adding these 2 mechanisms allows us to avoid re-writing more of the system that we're using to play.

To shorthand all of the above, this modification rewards inter-character development in both mechanical and narrative ways.

Introducing all of this to the players

I can see the introduction of this system being pretty simple, but potentially messy.

  1. For existing games, the GM decides if any characters should have any existing bonds and informs those players. Players may of course contest and offer rationale, but the GM gets the final ruling on the matter.
  2. Each character starts a Histories sheet, with tallies for each other character and room for bonds with each.
  3. Each character starts with 1 Hx for every other character they knew before the inital moments of the campaign.
  4. Explain that getting +4 Hx lets you add a Bond, and -2 Hx makes you erase a bond.
  5. Help players craft 2 flags for their character, explaining how triggered and response gain Hx between characters once per session. You might need to toy around with players letting the other player known that they should indicate when they are attempting to trigger a flag.

In all, there is only a couple of extra mechanics that anyone needs to track - none of it on the GM's end either. The hardest part of anything we've already done at our table has been coming up with relevant flags that have well-defined triggers that still provide agency to the triggered character.

So, maybe we'll try out this system, maybe we won't. I'm putting this giant wall of text in front of my GM (Hi!) and perhaps he'll like it. Maybe he won't, and this will just be another piece of ephemera living on the internet forever. Who knows!