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Hack and Slash says in its description:

Hack and slash is for attacking a prepared enemy plain and simple. If the enemy isn’t prepared for your attack—if they don’t know you’re there or they’re restrained and helpless—then that’s not hack and slash. You just deal your damage or murder them outright, depending on the situation. Nasty stuff.

What if they're prepared, just not trying to fight? Because they are prepared, the move seems like it should trigger. But then what does a miss or a success at cost mean in that case?

Let's take the case of trying to kill someone, but they don't want to kill or hurt you. Perhaps they want to flee? Or they want to talk to you, but also don't want to get killed. It doesn't say that the enemy takes a move against you, it says, "On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you." What if they're not attacking?

In the past when be had this happen in a battle, I've just attributed the damage to other aspects of the fray, e.g. an attack from someone different hits unexpectedly. But if there's no other way of taking damage, though I can narratively create something, it doesn't appear that Hack & Slash would be triggered. I didn't know if I have been missing something about how this is supposed to work.

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Look down the page a little bit.

The enemy’s counterattack can be any GM move made directly with that creature.

You might notice the GM has a list of like a dozen moves and exactly one of them is "deal damage".

So, cool. You've got somebody on Team GM who is willing to risk their lives in a melee combat in order to accomplish something. What are they trying to accomplish? There's your move.

Now, maybe you might want to know what context that move's going to happen in. Excellent news!

There is nothing called a "combat round" in Dungeon World.

Combat is just a series of chaotic events that involve everyone. It's not that different from the dungeon, a series of chaotic events that involve everyone. You set someone up with a dangerous situation, get their reaction to it, make the necessary calls, and then play the results of that out into a dangerous situation that someone else is in.

You're passing the spotlight around. But the spotlight is just the focus of the story. And the thing about a story is that it doesn't all have to happen in strict linear time. Events get focus as they make sense in the narrative, not as time catches up to them.

So if someone's fighting defensively and trying to buy some time? Cool. Separate them.

This is just frustrating, Fightgar. You can't seem to make contact and find yourself constantly overextending and needing to pull back from the opportunities you're offering. You're going to spend some time in this deadly dance of blow and counterblow before you get that hit in, which means, for example, that you can't help or protect Shanksworth from the three guards that just rounded the corner. Shanksworth! Whatcha doin'?

They want to talk? Sounds like an excellent time to reveal an unwelcome truth.

Endbringer bites deep into the lizardman chief, Fightgar, but he grabs the haft with desperate strength and you can't pull it free. "Damn your soft hide, sunlover! This army isn't for your little stickpile! Even now an ice demon leads a horde of skeletons to slaughter us all!" It doesn't sound like he's lying. What are you doing?

You've got them on the back foot, but not absolutely surprised, and they're trying to arm up? Show signs of an approaching threat.

Two full swings tear chunks out of the forest floor, but the third makes good, solid contact with the ice demon, Fightgar. Weird, it looked at the last second like he was bracing himself. He wanted to get hit. Why-?

He staggers back and tumbles off a stony outcrop to splash into the swamp below. Ice traces across its surface in narrow, jagged sheets. They look like a giant's arms and legs. And then they start to act like them.

Leafwillow, your treant limbs sweep aside another half-dozen skeletons. Then a heavy footstep behind you alerts you to the emaciated ice colossus towering over the treeline. What are you doing?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "The enemy’s counterattack can be any GM move made directly with that creature." That was the detail that I was missing. Thanks for that, and the rest of your answer! \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Aug 22 '18 at 18:09
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So you're asking about an NPC who is prepared for your PC's attack, i.e. they can see it coming, but "not trying to fight", i.e. they have some narrative reason for not wanting (or not being able) to respond to the attack by hitting you back.

When is Hack and Slash not triggered?

Let's look at the text of Hack and Slash.

Hack and Slash

When you attack an enemy in melee, roll+Str. ✴On a 10+, you deal your damage to the enemy and avoid their attack. At your option, you may choose to do +1d6 damage but expose yourself to the enemy’s attack. ✴On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you.

So if Hack and Slash is triggered, and you fail your roll, then the enemy must counterattack.

The "if" is very important. One of Dungeon World's core principles is "begin and end with the fiction". The rules should never force you into an action that makes no sense from a narrative perspective.

So if it would make no sense for a certain NPC to counterattack you (because they are in love with you, or they want to die, or they need you alive and unharmed for some ritual, or they are an extremely committed pacifist, etc.), and Hack and Slash would force them to counterattack you, that must mean that Hack and Slash was not triggered in the first place.

When they can't or won't resist

Let's go back to that first line again.

When you attack an enemy in melee...

"In melee" or "in combat" is a two-way street. If you are swinging your sword at someone, and they are not fighting back at all, you are not "in melee" with them. You're just beating on them. In this case, Hack and Slash is not triggered. It's the situation you described in your post:

You just deal your damage or murder them outright, depending on the situation.

When they don't need to resist

If you have no realistic chance of hurting a target with your attack in the first place, Hack and Slash doesn't trigger in that case either.

Note that an “attack” is some action that a player undertakes that has a chance of causing physical harm to someone else. Attacking a dragon with inch-thick metal scales full of magical energy using a typical sword is like swinging a meat cleaver at a tank: it just isn’t going to cause any harm, so hack and slash doesn’t apply. Note that circumstances can change that: if you’re in a position to stab the dragon on its soft underbelly (good luck with getting there) it could hurt, so it’s an attack.

It seems logical that you could extend this privilege to an NPC who is just so good at blocking or dodging that you have zero chance of actually hitting them. A tiny fairy zipping around at the speed of light, or an ancient warrior monk who's been practicing his defensive techniques for a thousand years.

So that's when Hack and Slash isn't triggered. But there is another possibility.

Creative Hack and Slash: How an NPC can counterattack without dealing damage

✴On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you.

What, exactly, does it mean to say that the NPC "makes an attack against you"? Does that mean they have to hit you with their sword?

No. Going back to the text:

The enemy’s counterattack can be any GM move made directly with that creature. A goblin might just attack you back, or they might jam a poisoned needle into your veins. Life’s tough, isn’t it?

Any GM move made directly with that creature. GMs have a lot of moves, though not all of them can be made directly with the creature you just attacked. The section of the rules on GM moves echoes this:

If a player move (like hack and slash) says that a monster gets to make an attack, make an aggressive move with that monster.

Note that's aggressive, not damage-dealing. In fact, "deal damage" is just one of the twelve basic GM moves.

This opens up some interesting possibilities.

With a little creativity, the GM can make a move with the NPC that could still be considered "attacking" (i.e. engaging or interfering with you in a way that goes beyond blocking or dodging), but which doesn't actually deal any damage. Here are some examples:

  • Use up their resources: The sailor knocks the sword out of your hands and it clatters across the deck. (The manual specifically mentions "temporarily losing your weapon" as an example of this move.)
  • Separate them: The old monk blocks the blow with his staff, and simultaneously kicks you backwards into the koi pond. You're not hurt, but it's going to take a minute for you to get back on your feet, and meanwhile your teammates are going to have to try and subdue this guy without your help.
  • Put someone in a spot: The wizard snaps her fingers, and suddenly you find that your limbs are frozen in place. "This spell lasts about twelve hours...so it looks like you won't be in time to save the village after all." She smirks. "Serves you right for trying to kill me. Of course, I could break the spell early..." She leans in close. "...if you tell me where to find the Amulet of Kasmar."
  • Use a monster-specific move: Before you can blink, the spiderlord has tangled your sword arm in its sticky threads. (Move: enmesh in webbing)

You can see the benefit here: the NPC gets to actually do something besides standing there like a lump.

What if an NPC just wants to defend themselves without counterattacking?

As we established above, not counterattacking doesn't fit Hack and Slash, so Hack and Slash can't be triggered. But since the NPC is defending, we wouldn't expect the attack to just work, either.

The upshot of this is that when a player attacks this defending NPC, the players will look to the GM to find out what happens next. Which triggers a GM move. Unlike the counterattack from "Creative Hack and Slash", this GM move does not have to be "aggressive", nor made directly with the targeted NPC. So any number of things can happen at this point: the NPC could try to bribe you to leave him alone, new NPCs could arrive and interrupt, a sudden avalanche could threaten you all, etc.


From a narrative perspective, if an NPC knows that someone is about to hit them with a sword, then 99% of the time they should either fight back or run away. Other reactions are possible, but they shouldn't happen very often. If you find yourself dealing with this situation a lot, there may be something wrong with your NPCs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I see what you're saying, but it seems that in the case of them not wanting to kill or hurt you- perhaps to flee, or to talk to you, but they also don't want to get killed, there should be another option. The move doesn't say that the enemy takes a move against you, it says, "On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you." What if they're not attacking? \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Aug 22 '18 at 3:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChuckDee I am working on a significant update to this answer, please stand by. \$\endgroup\$ – MJ713 Aug 22 '18 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the update! I accepted @Glazius' response because he beat you to the point, but you both arrived at the same location. But thanks for all the effort you put into this one. \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Aug 23 '18 at 2:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChuckDee Added one last update just now. Glad I could help. \$\endgroup\$ – MJ713 Aug 23 '18 at 2:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ The update is an improvement, but I think this buries the lede way, way down at the end and fails to telegraph that’s its ever getting around to the real answer, so I don’t think it’s sufficient improvement. Moving the answer up to the top and demoting the rest to aside with less text would be better I think. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 23 '18 at 2:57
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It depends on the narrative. If they're not resisting your attack, then it may mean they just die.

When the harm is specific, like an orc pulling your arm from its socket, HP should be part of the effect but not the entirety of it. The bigger issue is dealing with the newly busted arm: how do you swing a sword or cast a spell? Likewise having your head chopped off is not HP damage, it’s just you being dead.

If an enemy just stands there and a player says "I cut off their head." And the enemy doesn't resist, and they are competent with a sword, that probably just happens. Just like walking around generally doesn't require a move. If they are prepared and defend themselves but don't attack you, then just treat them like a normal enemy who doesn't make moves to attack.

If you mean an ambush, then they hide using any class abilities and then if whoever they are ambushing has a meaningful chance of hearing them (loud armor, or keen hearing, or such) then they can hide from the danger, and you can ask them to make a defy danger roll to avoid being heard.

Then, the DM decides whether a sudden ambush would kill the enemies for example they're just weak goblins they die easily, checks if any moves trigger, like backstab from thieves, or if the enemies just take damage automatically.

What to do if they just defend themselves.

This would count as a normal hack and slash scenario, assuming there is a realistic chance of guards coming, except that on a 7-9 they don't make an attack against the user. On a 6, perhaps a guard arrives. If there's no chance of a guard arriving they just get sliced up, no need to roll. If they have enough health to survive being sliced up, you can make a soft move about danger arriving.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's not the situation though. Let's take the instance of a full defense, the enemy is avoiding frantically, but not attacking. Maybe yelling and waiting for the guards to show up. Or any one of another situation where the enemy doesn't want to die but doesn't want to attack. There should be another option other than being forced to attack or die, shouldn't there? \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Aug 22 '18 at 3:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I gave a brief answer to that, but if that's your scenario, I'll go more in depth. \$\endgroup\$ – Nepene Nep Aug 22 '18 at 3:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChuckDee you provide different abstract examples, like "yelling and waiting for the guards", "they want to flee" or "they want to talk to you". Is this an iffy question? On RPG.SE you should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Different problems might have different solutions. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 22 '18 at 12:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is an actual practical question that came up in conversation. Does a question have to be from an actual example? I've never taken it that way.. just that it's a practical question about a practical situation, and in this case, “I would like others to explain ______ to me” \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Aug 22 '18 at 18:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a fairly normal situation. It's hack and slash, just the damage of the enemy is zero. \$\endgroup\$ – Nepene Nep Aug 22 '18 at 20:17

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