In Dungeon World, it's very important to get the carts and the horses in the right order, else it annoys the pig and the metaphors get horribly mixed.
Moves come second, never first. If you find yourself looking at a move and asking yourself, "How do I make that work?" then you've got the cart in front of the horse and you need to start over. Always describe the action first – only once the action has been described can you look to see if a move has been triggered.
In you example of the jewel and the orcs, I'm going to say that you can't use any attribute you like. If the orcs are surrounding you and "about to attack you," then it's too late for using charm and social grace to trigger a Defy Danger that lets you roll+CHA. The danger is that you're about to be facesmashed – your reaction must be something that's relevant, else you just stand there grinning while getting sliced up and don't trigger any move at all.
Similarly, in imminent danger of an orc sword to the chest, you don't have the time to give a speech, or fake them out, or make them flinch. If it's imminent, it's past time for such manipulations and you just need to save your own skin. And if there is time then the physical danger isn't "imminent", making Defy Danger inapplicable since that's part of its trigger.
So how do those non-physical attributes ever get used? Well, the move says, and it's easier to find them when you pick the right move for the situation rather than picking Defy Danger first and then trying to shoehorn it into an inapplicable situation.
Let's take the move apart and see how it ticks:
When you act despite an imminent threat or suffer a calamity,
So to trigger Defy Danger you have to have two things happen to trigger it (we'll ignore suffer a calamity for the moment):
- There is an imminent threat
- You act despite that threat
So you have to be told the treat by the GM's narration, and then you have to describe an action that just so happens to invite that danger anyway while you're busy doing something else.
Now that the move has triggered, you start doing what it says.
say how you deal with it
So first you said what you were doing, danger be damned, and now you must say how you're dealing with the danger to, hopefully, evade it. This happens after you trigger the move, but before you or the GM decide which attribute will be used, because we haven't got there yet – the move needs you to say how you deal, first.
and roll. If you do it…
Here we go, this where everything gets translated into a roll. The danger is already established, the action despite danger is narrated, the method of mitigating the danger is already narrated.
I'll give some examples for things that would trigger each. Note that you won't always be able to trigger any attribute you want, simply for the lack of any feasible way of mitigating the danger that would be related to that attribute.
…by powering through, +Str
Bull-rushing the orcs to batter them out of the way? Yeah, that's one way to deal with the threat of being sliced up while you try to move past them to the jewel. It would work because that would plausibly disrupt their attacks, thus mitigating the stated sword-to-face danger.
…by getting out of the way or acting fast, +Dex
Leaping over the orcs heads would totally be Dex. I can picture them being startled and swinging wildly at this unexpected angle, making them not connect (all assuming the roll succeeds).
…by enduring, +Con
Run the gauntlet and take it to the face. You're trying to shrug off the hits, not avoid them, and just keep moving despite the pain. It can feasibly mitigate the danger by not letting the pain stop you from getting to where you want. You might even do it enough that you shrug off the wounds and they're effectively just scratches.
…with quick thinking, +Int
There's not much that quick thinking can do to mitigate [sword + face + now] unless you already know a perfect sentence that will distract the orcs, and failing having that already set up by earlier fiction and moves, can you really imagine any result of quick thinking that will stop a sword already swinging at you (remember: imminent)?
You're much more likely to see a way of dealing with a danger that counts as "with quick thinking" when the danger is something more suited to avoiding with quick thinking. (Makes sense, right?)
For example, you're talking to the gate guards and you want them to let you in after dark (which is Parley – but we're getting to it). You miss and the GM makes a soft move: Show signs of an approaching threat. They say the guard squints and says "Hey, you look familiar, do I know you?" and leans over, just enough for you to see a wanted poster of yourself on the wall right behind the guard. "What do you do?"
You still want into the city, so you're doing this anyway and damn the danger! You say, "We'll I'm not backing off or running for it…" and the GM replies, "So you're sticking around despite the scrutiny. Sounds like defying danger, and obviously the danger is being recognised as wanted." Bam, Defy Danger is triggered by 1) the threat of being recognised is imminent, as in you must deal with it right now, and 2) you're acting despite it, by holding your ground. So the move demands: how do you deal with it?
If you choose the fast-talking approach, that requires quick thinking. Not a "hey yeah, didn't we end up singing drinking songs last week? You got the drinks so I owe you next time!" approach, since that's turning on the charm. But rather, "Oh yeah, I came through earlier today. I was sitting the top of the haycart though so you probably didn't get a great look at me then." You get to roll Int because you're using quick thinking to come up with a plausible line that will satisfy his interest and stop him from searching his memory harder.
…through mental fortitude, +Wis
This is the "I use my force of will to resist!" method of mitigating danger. You can't use willpower to get a sword-orc who's in your way out if your way, but it's perfect for other things.
"As you inspect the sigils, you feel an alien presence test the boundary if your mind. What do you do?"
If you answer, "GAH! I stop reading!" then you're not acting despite the threat, so no move triggers. But if instead you keep reading ("act") and declare that you're responding to the threat of mental invasion by holding it off with sheer force of will, that's dealing with it "through mental fortitude" and you roll+Wis.
For another example, say you're in the middle of a summoning ritual, and your trusted apprentice suddenly stabs you! You know that if your concentration breaks, the demon will claim your soul and own you. So you grit your teeth, push the pain far from your mind, and attempt to finish the last few binding words and gestures. That's defying the danger of your ritual being interrupted by continuing the ritual ("act") and relying on mental fortitude to maintain your concentration. That's be a roll+Wis too.
…using charm and social grace, +Cha
You could use the drinking-buddy line on the gate guard and turn on the buddy-buddy charm, and that would get you a roll+Cha to avoid him connecting you to the wanted poster. That's one example.
Another would be a petty noble at a high-society ball, chatting with a prince who might be willing to arrange an audience with the queen. Suddenly, your nemesis breezes by with a grin and greets you like an old friend, then asks all innocently whether you enjoyed the hunting trip at the estates of a particular duke, who just happens to be a rival of the prince's. If you just excuse yourself and get out of that situation, no move, but if you try to stay in the prince's company ("act") and deflect the implication that you're friends with the duke with grace and charm by saying something like, "Oh yes, it was lovely, and so good to see that the duke is doing what he can to distract himself from the sorry state of his affairs…" (let's at least assume that's a graceful and charming put-down of the duke to the prince's ears, and hope the dice agree), then you get to see if it worked with a roll+Cha.
Another helpful way of looking at Defy Danger, if you have a strong D&D background, is that it fulfils the role that saving throws did in 3.5e and earlier editions. You get caught by dragonfire? You're dodging that with Dex, not charming the dragon with Cha into not breathing out the fire that it has already breathed out. Hit with a mind-control fungus? Resist that with Wis. Just unwittingly drank a poison you thought was a potion? Con is your friend here.
The move Defy Danger is actually built the way it is to be the saving throw of Dungeon World – it's not a coincidence that it fulfils the same role, but a deliberate design choice. It's not only for avoiding danger of all sorts, but also for surviving when the danger has already got you. This is where the suffer a calamity trigger suddenly makes more sense: when you're on fire and you try to put it out, that's a calamity and how you're dealing with it.
But what about spotting that opening and diving through? What about knowing the orc tribe's superstitions and exploiting that? What about intimidating speeches? All of those can be valid actions to take, and if you're not imminently getting swords in the face you have the time to do them.
Looking for an opening to exploit would trigger a Discern Realities move. A good roll could give you a +1 forward to a (e.g.) Dex-based Defy Danger to slip past the orcs, if the answer to "What here is useful or valuable to me?" shows you an opening.
Knowing what the orcs are superstitious about might be "something interesting and useful about the subject relevant to your situation" that you could get from a good roll for Spout Lore.
An intimidating speech could trigger a Parley, where the leverage your offering is you not hurting them with your epicness, and what you want is for them to back off and let you take the jewel.
And, it's worth saying that those aren't impossible even if surrounded by orcs about to attack: you can always declare you're speechifying or Spouting or looking for an opening, and if your GM is cool with it in that situation, then as far as they're concerned there's time enough. Try stuff, go for it, and let the moves trigger as they may!
The lesson here is a repeat: never pick the move first. By doing the action first and then looking to see if a move is triggered, you'll discover that what moves are actually triggering may be entirely different than what you expected. The game will flow more naturally, and the moves will make more sense and feel less arbitrary. Picking the move first then trying to figure out how to make it happen leads to logical and narrative contortions that will make the game feel kinda hollow, and like the moves are just "win" buttons that you can just keep choosing to suit your best stat.
So the short of it is:
- Describe the situation and actions first, and wait until a move triggers.
- If that move is Defy Danger, say how you deal. Don't try to shoehorn in a particular attribute – just say what you're doing and figure it out later.
- Based on how you're dealing, the attribute should be more or less obvious, no fuss or confusion.
- Roll it!