The player character is an adventurer who arrives in the isolated town of Glavethile whose inhabitants are trapped in a comatose state by Lord Nightmare, an evil being who resides in a nearby ominous castle. The adventurer must learn how to use a dream technician's jar to cure the the afflicted and fight off the monsters that threaten the town.
Players begin the game by choosing their class and gender as well their appearance. There are two classes: The Warrior has higher health and more straightforward attack and defense skills, while the Wizard has higher mana and is designed to benefit players who spell more complex words. Each class has a different set of skills and each obtain different item drops. Once in the game world, the players are run through a basic tutorial and then they begin proceed through the story.
Characters have three basic stats: Strength governs maximum HP and weapon attacks, Intelligence influences maximum MP and spell attacks, and Vocabulary determines the number of letter tiles available in combat.
Players are given a set of letters tiles with assigned number values, similar to Scrabble, which they can use to spell words by either clicking them one at a time with the mouse or by typing them using the keyboard. The player and enemy take turns attacking, with their pool of letters refilled after each round. Words spelled cause damage to opponents depending on length of word, the number value of the letters used and the character attributes. Characters gain attribute points by defeating enemies and wearing more powerful equipment. Additionally, characters can use skills and items in combat. Many items have the ability to inflict status effects, increase the user's pool of letters, or harm the opponent's letters.
By default the player is given a limited amount of time to spell a word each round, although there is a game option to play without the time limit.
Each class can learn a total of 15 active and 15 passive skills. However, at any given time, each character can have a loadout consisting of only 5 actives and 5 passives. Skills are learned from fighting enemies; after the second, fourth, and sixth kill of each enemy type, the player achieves a "Milestone." Some of these Milestones award attribute point increases, but a few award a new skill. For example, a Wizard will learn the skill Cloak of Shadows after their sixth Bandit Skulker kill.
During battle, characters can activate skills to either provide an instant effect or to modify the player's next word-based attack. Instant skills may be used once per round and do not end the current round of combat. Attack skills modify the player's next word-based attack. For example, the Bash skill adds 5 to the damage score of the next word the player uses.
The player obtains a dream jar, which is used to store and explore people's dreams and nightmares. As the main campaign progresses, the player obtains nightmares belonging to various non-player characters and bosses. Once obtained, nightmares are essentially mini-games that can be played at any time by selecting them from the jar.
Each nightmare can be played on easy or hard mode, with rewards granted for completing both.
- The Herbalist's Nightmare: The Herbalist must form words to water a plant; the plant's water meter constantly drains, meaning that the player must form words quickly to succeed.
- The Blacksmith's Nightmare: The player must forge a sword by forming words from a set of 12 letters. Each letter tile may only be used three times, after which it becomes too hot. The sword must be completed before a zombie marches across the screen and reaches the Blacksmith.
- The Vat Brain's Nightmare: You must spell words of five letters or longer. However, the letter tiles you are given transform into other letter when selected; for example, each letter may shift forward by one letter in the alphabet.
- The Half-Constructed Nightmare: This nightmare belongs to a young girl. You are presented with a black-and-white image of the girl's room. Using a small selection of letters, you must spell the names of objects in the room, after which the object in question will appear in color.
- The Puppy's Nightmare: You play as a puppy following a trail of clues in the forest. You are presented with a four-letter word and a different four-letter word as your goal. In each step, you must form a valid four-letter word that varies from its predecessor by exactly one letter, until you reach the target word.
- Screamy's Nightmare: This dream is a childhood memory of Screamy the Gramlin boss. Screamy is back in school and must fill in blank letters to form valid words.
- Rafael's Nightmare: This dream is obtained from the mind of the bandit boss, after you defeat him. In this traumatic memory, Rafael is a child who must chop wood by forming words using all the letters given to him. If he fails, his father will beat him severely.
- Weald's Nightmare: Weald the Barkwalker is a treant boss you fight in the Forest. Its nightmare is a deletion sequence game wherein you start with a selection of letters at the top of a treelike structure. You fill in lower levels of the tree by removing letters on each branch while ensuring that each level spells a valid word.
- The Technician's Nightmare allows you to face the game's final boss Lord Nightmare in an alternate combat scenario. As the Dream Technician, you are much weaker than Lord Nightmare, but gain access to powerful skills if you have mastered the nightmares of three other bosses: Screamy, Rafael, and Weald.
Word Realms features a number of enemy types with word-themed abilities. For example, a zombie can bite its opponent's brain, "eating" some of their current letter tiles. Ghost Warriors have a special attack that transforms all their opponent's vowel tiles into the letter O.
Gramlins are diminutive, green-skinned humanoids that are relatively weak enemies. Their lack of spelling ability is matched by their manner of speech, which resembles that of "lolcats" and other grammar-challenged internet users.
The Subjunctors are a race of formidable, fanged warriors from the Eastern lands. The Subjunctors at Fort Nox have allied with Lord Nightmare.
Word Realms is the second major game by Asymmetric Publications, the developers of Kingdom of Loathing. Initially started as a quick six month project as a conceptual test for an MMO, Word Realms has been in production since 2008. The project was put on Kickstarter to feel out support for the style of gameplay, continuing toward their eventual goal of creating an MMO. The Kickstarter project was successfully funded on June 21st, 2012 for $121,442, exceeding their goal of $100,000. A beta version of the single player game was made available to Kickstarter backers on July 11th, 2012 and the game was released to the public on the Word Realms official site in May 2013.