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I've been brushing up on DW rules in anticipation of a game I might be running soon.

One thing that's got me scratching my head is the Stakes in your Fronts/Dangers. So I can cut to the chase, I'm going to assume you already know how they work.

There are some stakes I feel like you could come up with which seem impossible (or at least highly unlikely) to answer "while playing" in a narratively satisfactory manner—stakes that seem like they need to be answered in prep in order to not feel hackneyed or contrived. These would be any stake which begins with Why or How, or in other words, which can't be answered with Yes or No.

I'll give you some examples. Here are stakes that I think would be easy to answer in play:

  • Will Cadney the Bard find his long-lost sister?
  • Will the dead break free from their underground prison?
  • Will Knight Peregrine succumb to his wounds?
  • Did the last of the dragons really die out?

And here are stakes I think would be really difficult to answer:

  • Why is King Taggard so afraid of his Queen?
  • How did a dozen goblins ransack an entire village?
  • Why don't the storms ever clear from Ariadne Island?
  • What's inside the Cavern of the Deeprock that's chased all the Dwarves above ground?

The way I see it, the Easy stakes need only player intervention/investigation for an answer to come about. Cadney probably will find his sister if the party goes looking for her; the dead probably won't break free if the party performs the ancient ritual to release their souls first. Campaigns spring naturally from these kinds of questions, I think.

But the Difficult stakes, to me, seem to demand some kind of predetermined explanation from the DM in order to be answered satisfactorily. How else are the answers going to come about? What could the PCs do that explains why King Taggard won't look his Queen in the eye? And wouldn't any answer to that question need to be made up by the DM on the fly (probably inadequately)? The DM could ask the party these questions at the beginning of the story and use those answers, I guess, but where's the mystery in that scenario?

Moreover, I think many more of these sorts of questions are going to come up organically a lot over the course of a campaign, and it seems distinctly un-Dungeon World for the DM to come up with answers to them on their own. The core rulebook and most guides I've found online seem to all point to the same answer: Play to Find Out. So... how?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What's different between the dragon question and the stormy island or Cavern of Deeprock question? \$\endgroup\$
    – The Photon
    Oct 12, 2020 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! This is a great question. Please consider taking the tour and checking out the help center page. Happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ Oct 12, 2020 at 21:28

3 Answers 3

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Foreword

Remember that your job as GM is to follow your Agenda and Principles, even when doing behind the scenes stuff like this. So Fill their lives with adventure, ask questions and use the answers, make a move that follows, and draw maps, leave blanks are in play here, along with their unlisted friends.

Piecemeal

These kinds of questions can work, but are best answered one piece at a time. Think of it like the game Twenty Questions, where you don't know the answer yourself but each question narrows down the possibilities until only one remains.

How did a dozen goblins ransack an entire village? Let's play to find out. I'll skip everything but questions for brevity; this isn't an interrogation, and these questions should come up naturally from time to time.

GM: As you approach the village, you smell smoke. The last bend in the road reveals the burnt out village is still smouldering and is littered with corpses. Fighter, what kinds of wounds do they have?

Fighter: They don't have any defensive wounds; it looks like they just stood there while someone stabbed them.

GM: Ranger, you're the tracking expert. How many of them were there?

Ranger: There are footprints all over, but it looks like thirteen. One of them has a limp.

GM: Thief, as you scout, what oddity did you find?

Thief: The temple had some kind of brutal ritual performed recently. It's pretty grotesque.

GM: Cleric, what do you recognize about the symbols?

Cleric: Looks like the Goblin god of magic and death. Something about binding souls of the sacrifices in an exchange.

GM: Wizard, what magic do you sense nearby?

Wizard: I found two things; a wide area sleep spell and a powerful spell for opening some kind of arcane prison underground.

GM: Well, it looks like a dozen goblins were able to ransack a village of 1000 by putting the whole town to sleep magically, so they could perform this ritual. Do you think they'll do this again? Can our heroes stop them? Will the dead break free from their underground prison? Find out next week when our thrilling series continues!

Frame Challenge

Remember the plain English meaning of the word "stakes". There should be something clearly at risk, or an answer to those questions that significantly impacts the world (or our view of it). The dead might overrun the living. Knight Peregrine might die. Those are clear and compelling. They also invite more open ended questions like why can't Knight Peregrine be healed? and what is involved in the Ritual of the Souls?.

In my opinion, the issue with your Hard questions is there is no compelling aspect to it; they're more like supporting questions. Can we defend the remaining villages from the goblins begs the question of How did a dozen goblins ransack an entire village?. Can we secure Deeprock for the dwarves? depends quite a bit on What's inside the Cavern of the Deeprock that's chased all the Dwarves above ground?.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer! Jumping from player to player to arrive at an answer for something is a cool idea, and something I hadn't considered. I guess I figured "asking the players" meant "asking one player for the story". Also, you're right, the Hard questions I'd made up aren't the most compelling. But they do still contain information that I think would be pertinent to find an answer to. Your piecemeal process, though, I would imagine applies just as easily. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 12, 2020 at 23:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @starfightercourage You and zero friends will never be as creative as you and several friends. Players are often willing to put in their two cents, even if you didn't ask them. Use it! \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13, 2020 at 0:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for identifying the real difficulty with the “difficult” stakes, ie they’re not really stakes! \$\endgroup\$ Oct 14, 2020 at 2:48
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The world will never be the same.

Stakes are about important changes that affect the PCs and the world. A good stakes question is one that, when it’s resolved, means that things will never be the same again.

-- "Stakes", from the Fronts chapter of the github.

There's a difference between the "Will" stakes questions that you call easy and the "Why/How/What" stakes questions that you call difficult. The difference is that when you resolve a why/how/what question the world doesn't actually change at all, you've just wiped some dust off the lens you're using to look at it.

Dungeon World doesn't really offer the tools to play with why/how/what questions in doubt - in fact, what it offers are ways for the players to force the GM to answer why/how/what questions. An entire village vanished, and the only obvious clue is this paltry number of goblin footprints? This looks like a job for Discern Realities Man! What happened here recently? What should I be on the lookout for? Who's really in control here?

Well, GM? You have to tell the truth.

Don't cross the line.

I can guess that you're asking those what/how/why questions because of something later in that Stakes section that tells you to ask questions you want to see answered. There are two reasons you might want to do that, one good and one bad.

The good reason is that you want to see the PCs find out the answer to the question. You're a fan of the PCs and it would be cool if they learned something new and important! But there's also a part after they learn that thing, where they take action based off of what they learned and the world will never be the same again, so it's an incomplete stakes question. The question you're interested in is maybe more like "will the king give in to paranoia and kill the queen?" or "can the PCs lift the fog from Ariadne Island?" In order to answer that question you're keeping the why/how/what secret for the moment, but more importantly you've got some ideas about how PCs could find the answers, so they can be cool and learn something important and change the world forever.

The bad reason is that you want the players to tell you the answer to the question, and it's a bad reason because that isn't your players' job. You're there to portray a fantastic world. The players are just there to portray their characters.

Now, under some circumstances that line between GM and character looks a little blurry, right? Fightgar is tied into your world. Fightgar grew up somewhere, Fightgar had a family, Fightgar's signature weapon had to come from somewhere (and if Fightgar made it himself, the idea had to come from somewhere). Fightgar didn't get run over by an isekai truck in another dimension, jolting awake at a tavern table already surrounded by an adventuring party, with no past to speak of.

When Fightgar talks about his past it seems a lot like Fightgar's player is defining the world, but a better way of understanding it is that Fightgar's player is telling you what Fightgar knows. Because you're there to be a fan of Fightgar you're probably not going to suddenly reveal Fightgar's history to be a tissue of lies, at least not without Fightgar's consent, but when Fightgar answers questions about the past that's not, like, solving the riddle of Fightgar on which hinges the fate of the world.

There's something else that looks like Fightgar's player is coming up with the answer to a novel question about the world, and that's the thing you might do to start off the first session or in general when you're fast-forwarding time. You know, "you're all packing up to leave the inn in a terrible hurry when there's a sudden pounding on the door and somebody yelling 'open up!' Fightgar, who's at the door?" But this, too, is a question Fightgar already knows the answer to - there's a little something in the fairly immediate past that necessitates the party leaving in an awful hurry, you're just doing a little brainstorming to kick the session off.

When you expect Fightgar's player to come up with answers that aren't about what Fightgar already knows, you're abandoning your responsibility to portray the fantastic world, and Dungeon World doesn't have anything to help you.

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"Why" questions are not Stakes questions.

From the Fronts chapter of DW (pg. 198 in the PDF):

Stakes are concrete and clear. Don’t write stakes about vague feelings or incremental changes. (emphasis mine)

Questions beginning in "Why" are not concrete.

Questions about the past are not Stakes questions.

From the same chapter:

Your stakes should be things that you genuinely want to know, but that you’re also willing to leave to be resolved through play. (emphasis mine)

Although the past may be revealed through play, questions about the past are not about things that will be resolved through play.

Questions about what exists in the world are not Stakes questions.

Stakes are about important changes that affect the PCs and the world. A good stakes question is one that, when it’s resolved, means that things will never be the same again. (emphasis mine)

Questions about what exists in the world are not about changes in the world or the PCs.

Questions about what will happen as a result of the players' actions are Stakes questions.

These questions are about concrete, important changes that will be resolved through play. The players are able to determine the outcome of these questions.


Note: But how do I answer "Why" questions?

When one of these questions comes up in play (for example: "Why is King Taggard so afraid of his Queen?"), the players look to the GM to find out what happens. That's where you have to make a GM move. There are many moves to choose from, but, if you do something other than make a GM move when the players look to you to find out what happens, you're GM-cheating.

Also, the rules tell the GM to exploit your prep. That means it's actually not "un-Dungeon World" for the GM to answer "Why" questions on their own, like you mention. As a GM who's in these situations a lot, I've found the easiest way to correctly respond to these questions, without breaking any of my GM rules, is almost always to come up with an answer on my own, often guided by the players' answers to other questions (Ask questions and use the answers).

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