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Recently I had a player partial hit on a Defy Danger roll. On the partial I told them that they were able to avoid the danger they were defying but it caused them to lose hold of some rope they had. My player said that I, as the GM, was breaking the rules and that on a partial I had to offer them one of (at least) two choices. The player cited the fact that the text of Defy Danger uses the word "offer":

the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

Now offering a "hard bargain" or "ugly choice" are pretty clear to me, but what it means to "offer you a worse outcome" is not so clear. It seems like a worse outcome is a single thing, and the player can't choose to refuse it.

In this particular case I switched over to a hard bargain (telling them they could hang onto their rope and take the danger or drop the rope to escape) but I'd like to know going forward what a "worse outcome" is and how I might offer it to my players.

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And Now The Rest Of The Quotation

"worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice" is language quoted from Dungeon World's parent game, Apocalypse World. Specifically from the downside to the move Do Something Under Fire, or Act Under Fire depending on whether you're looking at first or second edition.

Dungeon World tends to fall a little short in the area of worked examples, so I'll put up what you might consider canonical examples of each of the three, from pp.136-138 of AW second edition, and explain how they differ.

Keep in mind that, whatever the 7-9 is offering you, it's a qualified success. It's not the worst thing that could happen.

The Worse Outcome: Almost Got 'Im

Bran the savvyhead's got less than a minute to get Frankie's car started again before Balls and friends are on them. (On a 7–9, maybe I give him a worse outcome: he gets the car started, but Balls' first couple of people are there already.)

There isn't any choice to the worse outcome. It's the "any color car as long as it's black" sort of offer. I mean, what, you're going to just stick around and let everyone catch up? No.

It's often used in situations where you've got a bright clear picture of one single thing that could go wrong and the best thing the PCs can hope for is not to have anything go wrong.

The Hard Bargain: Something To Lose

Keeler the gunlugger's taken off her shoes and she's sneaking into Dremmer's camp[...]. (On a 7–9, maybe I give her a hard bargain: she can get to Dremmer, sure, but only by breaking cover and alerting his guards.)

The hard bargain is giving up something to get something else. It is a choice - do you want to give up your stealth to get to Dremmer, right now?

Left unspoken here is what happens if you don't take it, but it's clear enough that, well, you're in a position to take it. You know how to get to Dremmer. You know you're hidden and going this way is going to take you out of cover. Okay fine, you don't go that way, so what are you doing?

(What you're doing probably involves somebody making a move and making a roll and perhaps a snake-eyes happens and you break stealth anyway, but it's still yours to risk.)

The Ugly Choice: Nothing To Gain

Foster's gang opens fire on Marie the brainer and Roark her friend picnicking on the burn. Roark's hit, and Marie tries to drag him to cover. (On a 7–9, maybe I give her an ugly choice: there’s a second bullet, and will she take it or will Roark?)

The ugly choice is the hard bargain's meaner brother. You can't turn it down and leave yourself in a neutral position. The hammer's going to fall. You just get to pick which sacrifice you can best deal with.

Aren't you the fortunate one?

And Now You Know The Rest Of The Story

So, let's circle back to your example, which, having seen the difference, we can classify as an ugly choice. ...probably.

I mean, the worst thing that could happen was that the PC ate a bunch of damage and let go of the rope, right? So "take a bunch of damage" and "let go of the rope" are both things the PC doesn't want to happen, there isn't a single worse-but-not-worst outcome, so instead of both happening, they get to pick one.

Or it's possible that this was a hard bargain and the rope represented some kind of advantage in progress. Like the PC was trying to lasso an electric owlbear or whatever and you're like "it shocks you and you drop the rope" and they're like "what no I'm a lasso that owlbear right now", in which case the bargain is, they can give up some hit points to get the rope around the owlbear.

It... might potentially even have been a worse outcome? Hard to think how. I am assuming in this case that the rope had been, like, tied to something important with time and care, and wasn't just "okay, I spend an adventuring gear and now I have some rope." "You lose hold of the rope." "Okay, I spend another adventuring gear and now I have some more rope." In that case losing one use of adventuring gear is probably strictly superior to losing some hit points, but that's just a probably. When it comes down to it, they're really not the same thing on the same scale.

Whatever the circumstances, the objecting PC felt that there were multiple possible vectors of badness they might have been able to choose from, and you made that choice for them. You told them the bad thing that happened. That's not really any kind of a success, and they were right to object.

But Which, And When?

Well, first off, you're the GM, alright? You control the universe. You can pick whichever one of these speaks to you the most at the time, and make the call, and that's what happens.

If things don't seem to you that there really was a choice in the matter, if it wasn't really possible to hold onto the rope when the electric owlbear shocked you because it's just that potent, then the next best thing to a clear success is dropping the rope and not getting hurt, and you're not obliged to offer a choice. (It is, however, proper sportsmanship to listen seriously to player objections and explain yourself. Who knows? Maybe you'll find yourself coming around to a second Defy Danger to grit your teeth and hold onto the rope, with damage guaranteed and risking a debility, because if that's what an electric owlbear can do then they really want to lasso it now.)

If you some more guidance than just that, well, Defy Danger is kind of a catch-all move, right? The book actively steers you away from penalizing the roll if the PCs are in more dire straits. There is a danger, you wish to defy it, so roll. But the circumstances are still what they are.

A hard bargain best suits a controlled position. The PCs have prepared for this and they're facing it head on, and you're offering them a way to escalate things but on their terms.

A worse outcome best suits a risky position. Things have started to jump the rails a bit but not beyond the usual ability of the PCs to deal with it. They can't dodge everything but they take less damage. They can't avoid all the attention but they do avoid most of it. They don't lose everything but they do take their pick of what to keep.

An ugly choice best suits a desperate position. Oh God, oh God, please let this work, oh God, please please please let this work, oh God. Unless by some miracle you get away clean, the best you can hope for is to choose what takes the consequences.

(The astute observer will have noticed what else I'm cribbing this from, and infer that in advanced cases the GM may offer the PCs some benefit to drop down to "worse outcome" or "ugly choice" from a better position than would warrant it. They are both astute and correct.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've learned more about GMing PbtA in the two minutes it took to read this than in several hours of reading the game texts and playing AW... Well done. \$\endgroup\$ – João Mendes Feb 22 '18 at 9:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for sneaking Blades in the Dark terminology in there :) \$\endgroup\$ – edgerunner Feb 22 '18 at 12:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @João Mendes It's a funny thing to say about an answer that largely quotes AW, but it is AW 2E, which has the advantage over AW of 6+ years and thousands of Internet strangers playing and commenting on the system, especially in its examples of play. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Feb 22 '18 at 12:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I especially like the heuristic at the end of the article for advice on when to use what style of cost for a partial success. Kudos! \$\endgroup\$ – neontapir Mar 12 '18 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JoãoMendes I am making a 6 months flashback here. But your reaction is why I think the PbtA engine might be a little to subtle in its structure for its own good. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Aug 23 '18 at 13:43
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First things first, your worse outcome was perfectly fine. It just has to be a success (because a partial hit is a success), but worse than if they'd got a hit (10+) would have resulted in. So think of what a hit would have made happen, and then think of something that's worse but still a success. Losing something but still avoiding the danger is a perfect example of a success but still worse than a full hit.

Second, your player is misunderstanding how the move works and what it asks the GM to offer. You give them one offer from that list. You choose as GM which of those three you'll offer, and then you create something that fits that description, just as you did.

Then you offer it, and the player chooses between that and getting nothing. So in your example, the player can choose to successfully defy the danger and lose hold of the rope, or they can keep the rope but it's as if they missed on the Defy Danger roll and they take the full consequences of the danger — their choice.

You don't have to offer two choices: the partial hit is already giving them two choices, between success at a cost or no success and no extra cost. You offer a result that they might not want, and then they decide if they take it and successfully defy the danger, or refuse it and fail to defy the danger.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This might be a nitpick, but it seems you are actually saying that the player is correct and not the GM. I initially was not giving them the option to hold onto their rope and take the hit. When the player told me that I had to give them a choice I allowed them to choose to take the hit. Thanks for the answer regardless. \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Feb 21 '18 at 20:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WheatWizard Ah, I think I misunderstood your player's position, and missed that the GM was saying “this happens” instead of “this could happen, do you accept?”. Yes, you have to offer a choice, but it doesn't have to be you making up two things from the list. That's what choice I thought they were insisting on. “Well, the rope starts to pull from your hand — you can either get out of the way and lose the rope or grab tighter hold but be unable to dodge the spell.” \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 21 '18 at 20:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ This might be better asked as a separate question. But does the player always have the agency to refuse an offer and take the hit? For example I had a scenario where three players were headed down a dangerous slope, a player had a partial success on Defying Danger so I told them that their two friends were split onto different paths and I gave them the choice of following either of their friends with no option to just take the hit. \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Feb 21 '18 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Seven "You choose as GM choose" — did you want to choose just one of those chooses? :) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 21 '18 at 20:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's an ugly choice, @WheatWizard \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Feb 21 '18 at 20:40
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I've always read this slightly differently. If you read it as:

the GM will offer you a worse outcome: A hard bargain, or ugly choice.

Then I find it makes a lot more sense, because I too don't really have a handle on how to "offer" a worse outcome.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The grammar doesn't really fit that interpretation though. Only one "a" and two commas implies that the three things are equal options. \$\endgroup\$ – John Montgomery Feb 21 '18 at 23:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ For advice on offering a worse outcome, look at the Moves in the Gamemastering section. For example, "Deal damage", "Use up their resources", and "Separate them" are straightforward examples of worse outcomes for the character. \$\endgroup\$ – neontapir Mar 12 '18 at 18:04

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