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I've been running Dungeon World games for two years now and from my experience, once a player's dominant combat ability scores reach 18, it becomes very difficult for opponents to put up a fight against them. In Dungeon World, the GM can directly influence the story when one of the following happens:

  • When everyone looks to you to find out what happens
  • When the players give you a golden opportunity
  • When they roll a 6-

Once an ability score reaches 18, rolls associated with it average out to 10. Thus, it seems that triggering that 6- clause becomes increasingly less likely, requiring a roll of 3- on a 2d6 roll. When looking at the other two clauses, it would lead me to assume that the GM should also be making moves when players do not roll 6-, albeit said moves should lean towards the soft side to avoid taking away from player success.

However, most GM moves function by posing a challenge which a character must overcome, which often result in a player triggering a "Defy Danger" roll, which is typically aligned thematically with the triggering roll. Combat moves are met with combat moves, thus high ability scores, particularly physical ones, make characters unlikely to fail. As such, combat where characters are supposed to be outclassed usually boil down to a series of rolls where the worst outcome is a middling success before a solid hit is scored, or a series of solid hits with little or no pushback.

Articles explaining how to GM Dungeon World often cite the use of tags and narrative positioning to force players to shift their behavior against a threat. For instance, 16 HP Dragon posits that a dragon with the messy tag might shear off limbs when attacking foes, forcing players to keep their distance to avoid the danger. However, leaving aside that this could also be a hard move of its own right, it does not entirely solve the issue. With a 50% chance of completely successful moves (based on the average roll of 10), there is also a large chance that the opponent will simply never get to hit a player character, even with a middling success.

In the rare cases where a middling success occurs or in the very rare case of a failure, harsh punishment can come at a bit of a whiplash when a fight has been going completely smoothly before. Harsh punishment is in fact necessary for this model or it will not impact the scope of the fight enough to change play.

Ultimately, is this a fundamental misunderstanding of how the game should be played? Need challenging fights with characters with high stats require more devious means of combat than the usual slugfest?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why do you say a Defy Danger roll is as likely to succeed as the previous roll? Are you letting them pick their own stat to use or something? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jul 7 '18 at 20:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik Physical combat is largely dictated by strength and dexterity from what I've found, thus combat dedicated characters can focus stat bumps on strength and dexterity, just as a ranged casting class can usually focus on their casting stat and dexterity to dodge ranged attacks \$\endgroup\$ – Zer0ah Jul 7 '18 at 20:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slow Dog If this is a combat circumstance, no answer is needed, jumping out of the way or parrying seems like a reasonable response. If the character is assumed to be restrained, then some move must have been made to put the character in those restraints. One failed move triggering a lock state like restraints can certainly feel off when the entire preceding fight was going well in my experience \$\endgroup\$ – Zer0ah Jul 7 '18 at 20:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slow Dog Given that DW has such a huge concentration of moves focusing on combat prowess, I feel that I would still call it a combat focused game, just one with a greater capability for non-combat action than other games. Perhaps I should clarify that this question focuses less on combat specifically though and more on the issue of challenging those with high stats in their home turf. Winning all the time is not interesting, and losing by a fluke can only be interesting so often \$\endgroup\$ – Zer0ah Jul 7 '18 at 21:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please do not answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 7 '18 at 22:50
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Making Murders Interesting

So here are some guidelines to keep things interesting when Fightgar hefts Endbringer (two-handed huge spiked) and rushes in screaming for blood, +3 Str bonus or not.

0: It's Called Dungeon World, Not Murder World.

Lady Featheringstoke's sworn knights are key to the kingdom's strategy, but she is reluctant to go to war.

The fissure in the earth widens, and the lost treasury of the dwarven kings tips closer to the edge.

Stout iron doors suddenly slam down in the archways, and choking green vapors boil from the gargoyle heads.

The sun suddenly flickers, like a lantern running out of oil, and you know in your heart that the Goddess of Light is dying.

You're doing standard DW adventure prep, right? Considering adventure fronts, writing down dangers, plotting impending dooms? You've got total license to create any number of exciting and dramatic situations that murders cannot solve, where the stakes are not "do you die y/n?"

(To increase the visibility of these stakes to players, you can create "countdown clocks", a technique borrowed from Apocalypse World, and say that for example the Dwarven Kings' Treasury is currently at 2/6 integrity points.)

I mean, murders can help with those, if, say, Fightgar jumps down into the ensorceled war diorama to prove the Battle of Teapot Dome is winnable, or hefts Endbringer and rushes at the xorn undermining the treasury's walls, screaming for blood. But there's no special primacy for murders in the Dungeon World rules. Combat is a consequence of the action players are currently taking, but actions are tied to passing the dramatic spotlight, not to the regimented passage of combat rounds, and it can easily be necessary to take other important dramatic actions when the spotlight is on you.

1: Some Murders Are Tougher Than Others.

Attacking an enemy in melee requires you to be able to engage it in a melee in the first place. Several common caveats to this include:

  • Range band incompatibility. If Endbringer is a Close weapon, enemies with Reach weapons can prevent Fightgar from getting close enough to attack in the first place. Enemies with Hand weapons, if they end up getting inside Fightgar's range, are too far inside to bring the full force of Endbringer to bear.
  • Unreachability. Archers are on top of a castle wall. The Apocalypse Dragon is flying in the stratosphere. The dread salamancer is standing in a river of lava.
  • Invincibility. The angry ghosts are ghosts. How are you going to axe a ghost? The iron ooze is like a big blob of acidic paint and, sure, you can smear it around, but how do you damage it? Lord Featheringstoke has mastered every fighting style known to man and laughs at your pathetic attempts to apply axe to face.

Each of these presents natural obstacles to murder - first you have to get to the proper range, first you have to close the distance, first you have to work out how even to hurt them in the first place.

2: To Be Interesting, Say Interesting Things.

You're still conveying the results of players' moves to them. You can disclaim that responsibility if you want, but even on the cleanest possible hit, you can still narrate the challenges and dangers that Fightgar overcomes in order to cut off three orc heads at once, to keep them fresh in the players' heads. Here are some other things to keep in mind.

  • A 7-9 is only a qualified success. Especially for Hack and Slash, which gives you complete license to haul out a move then. Even with a +3 bonus that's happening a little under half the time. A common misconception is to conceive of Hack and Slash as a single dramatic blow and counterblow, like that time Leafwillow turned into an air elemental and cannoned Fightgar into the stratosphere so he could take a cut at the Apocalypse Dragon, and if the killing blow lands there's no counterblow. But Hack and Slash is about the chaos of combat, about people willing to hit and get hit, and on a 7-9 they get hit. Unless you've giving your players the luxury of unlimited downtime between murders, those hits will still add up.
  • A 10+ is very seldom "you succeed, nothing else happens". "When everyone looks to you to find out what happens" is much broader than you might think. All players act in a narrative context, they're relying on you to present that context, and you do that with moves. It isn't very good sportsmanship to just go hard out of nowhere, but if you say, like, "the Apocalypse Dragon is surrounded by a roiling aura of chaos" and Fightgar runs in to take a cut at it anyway, even if they roll boxcars that just means they get out of the melee clean. The roiling aura of chaos is still there and can do anything you want. Similarly, if Fightgar crashes the enemy lines and cuts off three orc heads at once, now he's surrounded by 27 other orcs, and that's way too many orcs to comfortably melee. Just make sure it presents some kind of opportunity to pass the spotlight to another player.
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I think the answer to your question could be the answer to a lot of questions about combat in DW. I'll give it a shot:

  • play with tags: someone mentioned the "16hp dragon" in the comments, that's a good start. Take advantage of the characters' reach, because how are they going to hit the 50 mutated rats overwhelming them with their poleaxe? Which means they'll have to rely on something else than hack'n slash. Use monsters with "forceful", preferably near a pool of lava. There are many ways to inflict harm other than as the result of an attack.

  • play with the environment: and with the tags, it can't be easy to swing a giant warhammer in a cramped tunnel. And use positioning as well.

  • play with your moves: they can be as hard as you want, so when it's your turn, don't hesitate to inflict debilities or to take their stuff. Use monster moves that target stats that are not maxed.

  • don't trigger the moves if you don't think it's relevant: there's no point rolling when a munchkin fighter attacks an orc. There's just gonna be one more dead orc.

Hope it helped!

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Yeah, I have run into similar issues myself.

Im at the 24th ~8 hour session into a DW game and the PC characters have ended up becoming very powerful, with the ability to basically 1-shot an Apocalypse Dragon if they wanted to.

Here are a few things that I have been doing that seem to have helped mix up combat a bit and make it more serious and enjoyable:

  • Use Range Tags: If your character has a range lower than their target (Far>Near>Reach>Close>Hand)they should at least need to make one Defy Danger roll to get into attacking range. This opens them up to more danger and gives you options to use Monster Tags.
  • Use Attack Tags: Using the Tags on an attack (Fire, Messy, Forceful, Area, Ignores Armor, Piercing etc..) is really important, and you can give enemies the ability to use more of these tags just with the weapons they use. I know that 16HP Dragon touched on this a bit, and it can be hard t tell a player that they have lost a limb to an attack, but as long as you set up the danger before they run into it, they can't really complain, and it does maintain the stakes of combat.
  • Use Monster Moves: When you get to make a move through a PC failing a roll, take the opportunity to use a relevant "monster move" (Burning Flames, Melting Acid, disarming, Messy or Forceful Attack, Regenerate Health, Summon Minions, Become Enraged, Damage their Weapons/Armor, Use up some Equipment etc...)
  • Build bigger, stronger monsters: If the situation calls for it, introduce an enemy with some really strong powers. My party recently faced a massive (6x size of elephant) Magma Golem. It was introduced by it killing and consuming a Dragon, which set the scene so my PCs knew what they were up against. It's stats broke the rules of the DW monster creation system (~60 health, 5 Magic Armor, B:2d12+4 Damage, Immune to Fire Attacks/Magic, Burning Messy Attacks, Destroyed mundane weapons used against it and grew bigger and stronger as it consumed previously living things) but it wasn't an impossible target, and wasn't a pushover either. I also had a few strong mercenaries fighting along side it (melee, archers and mages t mix it up and threaten even the PCs who attack at range or have lots of Armor).

To defeat it they ended up having to Polymorph it into a table and smashed it, although one ended up having to make a Deaths Door roll due to the way they handled it and mistakes they made.

  • Use the Environment: Taking full advantage of your power to set the stage for combat is really important, it's no fun having all combat take place in a bare flat field. Adding environmental hazards can really spice things up, especially if you have intelligent enemies that will attempt to use the terrain to their advantage. Don't be afraid to have smart NPCs that look for the PCs weaknesses and exploit them.
  • Enemies are always Acting: One of the biggest issued I had early on was that I wasn't really thinking about what the Enemies would be thinking or doing all the time, especially if there are larger groups. The Enemies should always be in the process of acting, they aren't dummies that only wait for a PC to run up and attack them. Have the Enemies initiate combat and set the terms of engagement, and force the PCs to have to work hard to put the fight on their terms.

Dungeon World isn't really the game you play if you want strategic, tactile combat because it relies too much on the GM to guide it and introduce appropriate challenges. Something like D&D has calculations to design enemies that are appropriate for your PC party, but DW relies more on the GM to balance everything. In the end, it usually just takes more

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Tucker Kobolds my dude!

Overconfidence leads to mistakes. Play on their assumptions with an easy mob. But those are Kobold Commandos.

Play as Edward Lasker, chess champion who played slow games vs impatient players. Closed games vs aggressive players.

Do they focus fire? Give them hordes. Do they spam magick? Say hello to my Golem which is inmune to magic.

Asses they greatest virtue and figure a cost to balance. If they make waves, the local mafia would dislike their presence and deffamate them, pay coins to an orphan to go screaming afyer them "You murdered my family!".

Reputations, infamy and fear can and will make a threat that can't be solved by violence alone.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How would you handle doing this in Dungeon World? You open up by mentioning Tucker's Kobolds, but that was a D&D story and doesn't translate to Dungeon World, and "do the antithesis of what they're good at handling" doesn't sound consistent with DW's values. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 8 '18 at 1:59

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