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I've been GMing for a couple of sessions now and I'm still struggling at making encounters or situations more difficult. I will describe dangerous situations and encounters in fiction but the mechanics make it too easy for my players to succeed.

For instance no matter how big I describe the Troll, if the fighter of the party charges him and swing his sword, roll+2 for Hack and slash, he'll easily hit the troll. Almost 40% chance to hit without consequences.

Edit: I updated the question to clear the confusion as I think my own question wasn't clear enough.

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Is there a problem with telling your PC no? –  corsiKa Jul 18 '13 at 15:31
    
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A knight falling stairs in a full plate with a shield the size of a table would be hilarious to watch –  MrJinPengyou Jul 18 '13 at 18:13
    
I restated my comment more completely as an answer. –  okeefe Jul 19 '13 at 18:20
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This seems to be less about increasing difficulty, than enforcing or establishing difficulty. Those are very different. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 19 '13 at 18:51
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4 Answers

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One thing you can do to make a big boss dangerous is just make normal Hack & Slash useless. Imagine they are fighting a storm giant or something the like, and they normal Hack & Slash, you can just say "ok, you are just chipping his toenails, that is not going to work."

Force them to be creative: climb the giant (defy danger), try to out maneuver it, use terrain to get higher, make it kneel, whatever. It's a giant, it makes sense a normal attack on his foot with a sword is not going to work (even if it works in other games).

About hard moves, I would say the troll hitting is a consequence of them failing. For example you say:

— The troll comes at you with its huge club, what do you do?
— I tumble to the side to avoid it. (player rolls and fails)

And now is when you decide a hard or a soft move. You could do damage, or you could just put the player in a harder situation (you are not fast enough and the club grazes you taking you out of balance, your weapon goes flying and you are now lying on the floor, while the troll prepares to step on you!).

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What this answer boils down to is "make the situation more complex and ask for more than one roll". Which is what worked best in my couple of games. This and combined with hard moves when they fail is the best way to increase difficulty. –  MrJinPengyou Jan 29 at 14:52
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You could make things mechanically more difficult by making custom moves, but I would not start there. Instead, narrate in the fiction greater consequences, via the GM's show an approaching/looming threat moves and follow up with hard moves, tougher monsters, and more damaging challenges.

For a boss with giant sword, lead up to the fact that he's dangerous: share that he's killed twenty knights in one-on-one combat, show carnage on the way to him, have him be encrusted with gore. The 16 HP Dragon is an example of what can be done. You could also make him mechanically tougher, of course.

I wouldn't make the lockpicking roll harder, but I would just ramp up the consequences of failure—again, appropriately telegraphed so that when they lose a finger or hand when they botch (6-) the roll they aren't completely surprised.

I'm also having a hard time saying to my players as part of a hard GM move: You are hit by a the troll holding a tree as a club and you fly across the room and land on the wall. You take 4 damage that ignores your armor. I can already imagine my players asking:

  1. Can't I try to dodge the attack?
  2. Why do I get damage automatically and why does it pass my armor?

Explain when you, as GM, are allowed to make hard moves like this. If they ask why their armor doesn't help, ask back: Do you think it's going to help? You got hit by a tree and landed on a wall. Do you think it would help you if you fell down the stairs? Remember the GM principle "Ask questions and use the answers", but also talk to your players so that they understand how the game works.

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The narrative at hand is a perfect reason to make things difficult for the player. You should always ask questions like crazy, ie. ask for justification from the player about how he does what he does. He may want to hack and slash at the troll but he doesn't decide on what move his intended action corresponds to. Feel free to challenge his intent by clarifying details and then asking.

I can imagine a conversation going like:

— I hack and slash at the troll!
— Cool, how do you do it?
— I just swing my sword to chop his head off!
— Well, he's swinging a huge tree trunk around, how do you intend to get close enough to bring your steel toohpick in striking range?
— Well, I try to look for an opening and dive in.
— Looks like discern realities, please roll+wis.
— That's an 8, I get to ask one question, ok, what should I be on the lookout for?
— His swing has a semi-random looking pattern but you can guess it out.
— So I can just run in with perfect timing to avoid his swing.
— Cool, that looks like defy danger with roll+int to outsmart the troll.
— What? Not dex? Why?
— Because you can see that even with speed and reflexes, you'd eventually get hit by the trunk unless you figure out his rythym.
— Well, here goes… a 4, ouch!
— There's no way you're getting in by timing it, sooner or later that trunk will push your skull into your ribcage unless you keep your distance. That's what you have been doing instinctively anyway without realizing that you have been cornered, with nowhere to retreat anymore. The troll seizes the opportunity to deliver its skull-to-ribcage promise by swinging the trunk straight down on you. What do you do?
— Whoa, I duck and tumble inside his guard.
— Sure, defy danger with roll+dex…
— 9 this time. What now?
— Well, you're obviously not going to pull that off with a sword in your hand. Either let go of it or feel the impact of the trunk on your back, your call.
— I need the HP, so ok, I let go of the sword and tumble.
— Cool. You're now inside the troll's guard without your sword. The troll grins to show you his rotting teeth, drops the trunk which just falls on your sword, and lunges to grab you by your throat. What do you do?

Here, the GM diverts the player's action so that he's on the defensive rather than the offensive he intends. The player had to go through three potential points of failure and he still couldn't take a real swing at the troll.

That, in my opinion, is what makes this a difficult adversary. Not how improbable your chance of succeeding is, but how many other things you have to go through before you can take a shot at your quarry.

Regarding your player's questions

Can't I try to dodge the attack?

You probably already have done the show an approaching threat move and told him that the troll is swinging a tree trunk at him, asking "what do you do?" right? Then he probably said "I try to tumble and roll to dodge it", which you interpreted as the defy danger move based on roll+dex, for which he rolled miserably. That's why it's ok for you to just deal damage, a hard move, telling him what horrible thing happens to his bones.

Why do I get damage automatically and why does it pass my armor?

You don't get damage automatically, you do get damage because a troll hit you with a tree trunk, which you just failed to dodge. The impact gives you a concussion and twists your joins in unnatural ways, that's why your steel suit which is good for keeping sharp edges from cutting you doesn't really help much here.

In other words, give him details that would make sense, and only then tell the corresponding game mechanical impact.

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I think edgerunner nails it. Here are some examples I'm fond of for making things dangerous. boredandsorcery.com/rpg/the-scariest-pudding latorra.org/2012/05/15/a-16-hp-dragon –  Alan De Smet Aug 28 '13 at 19:44
    
Not to forget Tucker's Kobolds :D –  edgerunner Aug 29 '13 at 0:21
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Hard Moves

The simple answer is use hard moves.

When you have a chance to make a move, you get to choose whether it is a soft move, announcing danger; or a hard move, delivering on the promise of that danger.

So if you think fights are too easy, use more hard moves.

My experience is that players like it when they succeed, but bleed. That means they get through just by the skin of their teeth - they face dangers that do them harm and make tough choices and live with the consequences - but they achieve their goals. Maybe with a price they hadn't anticipated, but they succeed just the same. They will deny it, they will tell you that they like the succeed part just by itself, but they are wrong or they are lying. They like encounters that balance on the razor's edge - and why not? If the encounter was too much for them, they'd have been smarter to find a way around it. If it was a cakewalk, why even bother playing it out? It's the instances where it can go either way that are worth playing.

One of the great things about Dungeon World is that it allows you to dynamically adjust the difficulty of encounters instead of having to set everything up exactly beforehand. If your PCs are bowling over the goblins, they're going to succeed, but if you need to make them bleed before they do, use the horde tag to make them call for backup from their kin! And use organized to make sure they fight like intelligent creatures fighting for their lives - they'll volley with arrows and divide-and-conquer!

I highly recommend reading The Dungeon World Guide - it provides lots of great examples specifically on combat and hard-vs-soft moves.

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