We are a couple months into the campaign, and I've come across two moments that really made Dungeon World shine. I get it now.
Click Read More below for the stories:
The first is what I like to call, the Founding of Ester Village. The players decided to travel from Aleria, the city they were in, to New Gareth, a city far to the north, a few weeks travel. They asked about a few cities along the way, and I offhand mentioned that one, Portsmouth, was a holy city along the coast. It was kind of the beacon of divine magic, in this otherwise arcane coastline.
Our wizard character mentioned that he has been there before, (the Nothernmost city being his home), and they didn't care much for mages. He wanted to try to avoid it. Cool! I didn't write that, the players did. I let them know that they could avoid the city, though that meant they would add quite a bit of time onto their journey, as it was the road is the most direct route.
That's when another player pointed to a blank spot on the map, along the coastline, and said "as a ranger, I've been all over this coast, and there is a little fishing village here. Maybe we could get a boat and just sail around the city." I named the village based on a randomly named nearby body of water (Ester Bay), and it quickly sprung into having it's own story, it's own inhabitants, and the players spent two sessions from there. To me, it was a squiggle I made with a marker to make the coastline look cooler. To the players, it was a village.
The other, How Robert Learned to Fear Death, happened shortly after we added a new player, Vierstra the Thief, played by Robert. This was the second session before they left Ester Village. The quick hook was that they decided to stick around to help out Lucilla Isfore, a woman whose daughter went missing. Offhand, Vierstra said she knew the girl, because she was friends with Lucilla, her mother. It was just a bit of improv for flavor.
They followed some breadcrumbs to a cave system, which ended up housing some cultists up to no good. This got really good at the end, where they found the girl, unconscious, and a handful of cultists summoning a portal. The head cultist, having chased away one of the three players with a fireball, started to cast another. Vierstra chose to moved to defend the unconscious girl, as the other remaining cultist kept the portal from closing. Then the druid had the opportunity to make a move. He focused on the main threat, and forced the last cultist away, closing the portal.
The head cultist, uninterrupted, let loose his fireball, which left Vierstra at 1 HP. Whew. Except, it's an AoE spell. I gave Vierstra the option to take the girl's damage with the defend action she had readied. Robert, the player, said "so either she might die, or I die for sure? Damn you!"
The player, whose character was established to be selfish and evil, still played in-character when she sacrificed herself for the NPC, who she said she knew at the beginning of the very same session. By the rules of the game, he didn't die outright, but came back after making a permanent deal with Death. You can be sure that a burnt haired, fire scorched, and now sun-blind thief got big XP for that roleplaying.