I'm not a total newbie to DW, and have played 'solo' DW with my partner for at least two years. We both have a number of level 3 characters who we run through GM-less scenarios we generate from various GM emulators and in the spirit of DW explore the world and find out what is happening.

A few days ago, we had visitors and took them through some scenarios. They immediately raised a point we had never considered:
How do "monsters" attack if the PCs don't engage in combat first?

  • Do they simply deal damage?

  • Do the PCs defend?

  • Do they use their attack moves (via the GM or in our case via our adherence to the fiction) and make a hack and slash move, or again do they simply deal damage?

I appreciate this is maybe a simplistic question, but, we have never really thought about it before.

Surely there is some mechanism outside the fiction that governs their method of determining whether an attack move on their part is successful?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi Emma, I think Anagkai's formatting edit may have been slightly more suitable than yours, save for "Do the PCs defend?" correctly being on a separate bullet point; the rest of the lines in your question are not entries in that list. If you're just trying to fix the line spacing, you can create breaks between paragraphs by hitting enter twice at the end of a line, or hit space twice at the end of a line and hit enter once to create a smaller line break. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 29 at 20:08

There isn't "combat". There's just "monsters trying to hurt PCs."

I mean, there is combat-the-fictional-thing, if you want to define that as, for example, "a fight to the death between PCs and monsters, with neither side holding an overwhelming advantage". Some playbooks care about going into combat or limiting use of features per combat. But from a GM's point of view, there's nothing special about that state of affairs as compared to any other, no difference in the pace of play, no extra responsibilities (and no fewer either). There's no combat-the-game-state, in other words.

You might be thinking about a fairly common scenario that, if this were a video game, would be "the monsters strike first!", where the monsters pull PCs into combat-the-fictional-thing at a disadvantage. This is a sensible desire, especially when, y'know, Fightgar is delving deep into the Ruins of the Ambush Goblins, and what's going to happen, not ambushes?

The Ambush: Starting with Disadvantage

However, keep in mind that you're there to be a fan of the players and fill their lives with adventure. Starting from a neutral position, just straight-up dropping damage on somebody isn't very adventurous and doesn't contain much to be a fan of -- and you've already got that impulse, right? It feels like there should be something that determines whether or not "the attack is successful", that you should be able to go, like--

Your torch creates patterns of light and shadow on the arched ceiling as you press forward, Fightgar. Suddenly, there's a movement, and you spin and raise your torch just in time to see a goblin leaping from a ceiling nook, brandishing a wicked-looking knife. "Glory in shadow!" it screams. You only have a split-second to react. What are you doing?

And this is also a little more adventurous, isn't it? Fightgar's on the back foot! What's going to happen?

But because Fightgar's at a disadvantage, you should also feel free to tell them the requirements or consequences and then ask if they try and do something that assumes they're on an even keel - sure, you can draw Endbringer and attack the goblin in melee, but the goblin's got the drop on you, literally, and you will take at least one stab in addition to whatever results from your hack and slash.

Probably the only move that won't have this sort of rider is defy danger -- not because it's the "a monster is attacking you, dodge" move, but because it's useful for moving out of a temporary disadvantage state and back to even. You shouldn't be regularly calling for defy danger during combats - if Fightgar is an even match for what they're fighting, it's likely to stay that way.

It is completely legitimate for you do this from a neutral setup.

This is a move that puts Fightgar in a spot, which is a perfectly fine thing for a move to do, and you can make a move any time the players look to you to find out what happens. Who at the table knows what will happen when Fightgar delves deeper into the Ruins of the Ambush Goblins? There are probably some justified suspicions out there, but the only one who knows for sure is you, the GM. Your free choice of moves when the conversation turns back to you should be tempered by the principles you're trying to follow.

(This is where things fall apart a little if you're trying to run Dungeon World as a solo adventuring engine where you are both player and GM - deciding where to draw the line about what player-you knows. It's not easy, but trusting your instincts about when the conversation should pass from one person to another is a good guiding principle. You have a lot more experience having conversations than you do playing Dungeon World.)

Of course, if it's not a neutral setup -- if, for instance, Fightgar wisely attempted to Discern some Realities about the Ruins of the Ambush Goblins but unwisely rolled a 4 -- then you have a little more leeway to have the monsters start out successful:

What should you be on the lookout for, Fightgar? Well, you sweep the torch around as you walk and -- oh, wow. Those aren't just shadows behind the pillars and the ceiling trim. This whole place is shot through with tunnels! How deep do they run? What's in them? Oh gods they could come from anywhere. It's almost a relief when a goblin takes a flying leap from the ceiling screaming "Glory in shadow!" and clamps onto your torso. The wicked-looking knife that sinks into your shoulderblade is less of a relief -- take d8 damage, piercing 1. Oh, and you've got a goblin clamped onto your torso ready to do the same thing again. What are you doing?

Additional Concerns

I've been using just plain ol' deal damage in these examples, but keep in mind that you're also here to give every monster life:

Think about more than just the exchange of damage. Monsters might be trying to capture the characters or protect something from them. Understand what the fight is about; what each side wants and how that might affect the tide of battle.

"The GM -- Fights", from the repo here

So, what do the monsters want? "Blood and pain" is a fine answer, especially for, say, a starved ocelot or a wandering patrol of mindless undead or, yes, a goblin ambusher, none of whom are big-picture thinkers. But other monsters might want different things, as evidenced in their instinct or their moves, and so when they have the PCs at a disadvantage they might choose to do something different.

  • A giant eagle is going to hunt by dashing you on the rocks, so its opening move is not to just hurt you, but to pull you into the air.
  • A hobgoblin slavetaker wants to take slaves, so it'll manacle your arms or legs when it gets the chance.
  • Ossian, the lich, wants to channel the power of the stellar convergence without interference, to keep on un-living, so he puts into motion the ritual of the Hundred Mirrors, separating you and your companions from each other, and from most of reality.

But none of these are that different in execution from dealing damage - if they're intended to catch the PCs off guard, then present them as an imminent threat the PCs must react to, or if the PCs gave you an opening, just make them happen.

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Monsters (or NPCs in general) don't make specific moves.

Instead, the GM will make moves whenever the players present a golden opportunity (amongst other things)

So if the PCs don't engage in combat, but keep looking at the GM, there'll be a progression of moves, probably something like this:

Show signs of an approaching threat

The hobgoblins you've encountered in the woods snarl at you, then draw their swords threateningly. What do you do?

Reveal an unwelcome truth

As you wait patiently, they start fanning out, surrounding you completely. What do you do?

Put someone in a spot

Their leader makes a sudden gesture, and the two hobgoblins on Fightgar's flank leap forward, swords flashing. Fightgar, what do you do?

At that point, if Fightgar says he's just going to stand there and not engage in combat because "the monsters don't make attack moves", the next step will probably either be:

Deal damage

Roll a d8 for the Hobgoblins and take that much damage.

Or, if you're more lenient, Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask:

Fightgar, if you don't act the Hobgoblins are going to cut you down where you stand. Are you sure you don't want to do something..?)

(Or a conversation about how the game works. Whatever works for your table...)

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    \$\begingroup\$ One additional note is that it's not too uncommon to create custom moves for monsters that are triggered by things that happen in the fiction when engaging with those monsters. Custom "pick a negative consequence from a list" moves can be fun to engage with mechanically. This can work especially well for monsters associated with a Danger Front. It's important to remember though that monsters don't 'do these moves', but rather these moves have triggers in the fiction related to things the monsters do. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Bryant Jul 31 at 14:16

Begin and End With The Fiction

No-one on either side of the table really "makes moves". The moves come from what happens in the fiction, more specifically, from what the players have their characters do in response to that fiction.

From the SRD Gamemastering chapter, Principles section (emphasis mine):

Make a move that follows. When you make a move what you’re actually doing is taking an element of the fiction and bringing it to bear against the characters. Your move should always follow from the fiction. They help you focus on one aspect of the current situation and do something interesting with it. What’s going on? What move makes sense here?

For example, The GM lays out a situation, "A bunch of troglogroths¹ approach you. They look aggressive. What do you do?"

The moves result from what the players do next. This could be "do nothing and look at the GM to see what happens next," which would probably lead to the troglogroths initiating combat (because nothing in the fiction says they can't).

¹ Thank you @edgerunner. I have no idea what a troglogroth is but its a cool name and I'm using it a lot from now on. :-)

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    \$\begingroup\$ As of this comment, this is the single page in the whole observable internet containing the word "troglogroth", FWIW. \$\endgroup\$ – Emilio M Bumachar Jul 30 at 20:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Happy to hear that 😇 PS. I have no idea either. It just came to me. 😬 \$\endgroup\$ – edgerunner Jul 31 at 16:33

The PC's don't have to engage in combat. They will respond to whatever is happening and sooner or later, something will trigger the moves snowball.

  • They just stand there? That's a golden opportunity with a GM move as a follow up. Make it as hard as you like.
  • They run away? That's Defy danger. If they miss, then it's your move.
  • The bard tries to talk them down with an offer of tribute or a threat? That's Parley. What happens if they miss the roll? Do the monsters even listen?
  • The ranger shouts "That's a Troglogroth™. Hit it in the nose!"? That's Spout lore. Are they going to find out if that's true on a miss?
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't feel like this actually answers the question, although it does bring up the point that enemies approaching doesn't have to mean combat. The heart of the question seems to be "if enemies deal damage in response to player actions, what happens when the players don't" \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jul 31 at 18:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ They will do something, even if that's just standing there. What happens next flows from the fiction. They will trigger something, and when they don't, they will be looking at the DM to find out what happens, which is by definition, a golden opportunity \$\endgroup\$ – edgerunner Sep 17 at 22:16

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