I ran my second session of Dungeon World today, which lasted just under three hours and at least an hour of this was made up with a single combat.

They were a party of four facing 12 small mechanical beetles (3 HP 2 armour), and I had a number of issues with how it ran.

Firstly, I had trouble with knowing when to narrate movement of the beetles that weren't directly involved in the moves the players were making, particularly when the players were being successful with their rolls. Is it OK to say something along the lines of 'in the time it takes you to move over and hack at those, the other beetles have moved....'? This seems a little unfair and disjointed for the players that have not had a chance to react yet.

I was also unsure of how to handle when one PC was in melee with three beetles. I reasoned that they could only attack one of them, and would have to roll Defy Danger to dodge the attacks from the two he was not engaged with, but this really slowed things down, because assuming he hit it meant he was making three rolls every time.

Lastly there seemed to be a lot of hitting and missing or not doing enough damage to take them out. In retrospect I suspect this was because I set the HP/armour too high for this number of critters and the party's current combat capabilities (they are currently still Level 1).

Am I running these aspects of combat correctly? If so, are my expectations of the speed of combat unrealistic given the system?

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Dungeon World isn't a combat simulator. I'd recommend thinking about the combat as though it were a movie script and framing each shot. That should help you think about the correct level of granularity.

Are these beetles supposed to be a threat by themselves, or are the three collectively a threat? There are rules for combating multiple enemies. [I don't have my copy of the book handy, but I think it's highest die +1 per helper.]

For that matter, from a story perspective, are they a threat or just a nuisance? Do they coordinate their work, or is it every beetle for themselves? These kinds of questions will help you think of soft and hard moves for the beetles. If you can replace the beetles with a generic monster, the encounter deserves more thought.

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    When you get into the flow of more cinematic combat, I've found players are heavily engaged, and don't mind that it's not strictly "realistic". I find it helps to handle positioning in very broad terms. – Alan De Smet Apr 18 '14 at 22:39

The answer to your problem, I think, is one of approach, not of rules. In the GM section, on page 160, has a set of principles. The one that applies here is Be a fan of the characters.

Think of the player’s characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.

When following our favorite heroes in media, the camera favors them a bit more, and the point of view is skewed in their favor. Do the same in your game. This is one of the reasons that the *World Engine games are driven off of the rolls of the players. If the player futzes a roll, the hard move would be made by an aggregation of the group that they're fighting. Otherwise, as individuals, the combatants don't matter- the character does. Assume that the actions of the enemy are subsumed in the characters' moves, rather than having each individual enemy make a move.

This might change if there is a special enemy around, i.e. a sniper's shot might be handled as a defy danger. In that case, it has become consequential. But in general, the opposition just isn't important unless they are.

Most time in combat in my experience is taken by (a) the players analyzing moves, (b) the rolling of dice, and (c) maneuvering. The focus on the story should get rid of (a) and (c). The players should not be saying that I hack and slash, but rather describing their moves narratively. As for (b)? By reducing the number of actions that are the focus of rolls, you reduce the rolling of the dice and all of the resolution that goes along with it.

When the players roll good (10+, or 7-9 for moves that have set consequences for this range of options), unless they run out of things to do you shouldn't be making moves, not even soft ones.
The easiest way to have this happen without letting a single character do too many things while his enemies are not doing anything significative is to shift focus on another PC.

Player 1 rolls a 10+ to Hack&Slash one beetle
You: "Your rapier hits between the joints of the mechanical creature, concentrating their attention on you. This leaves Lucian free to move without much opposition. Lucian, what do you do?"

When rolling Defy Danger... why are you rolling? What did the player say to trigger that move? I imagine it was along the lines of "I lunge at the middle one, trying to evade the short reach of the other two". He's doing something dangerous, because he's trying to avoid some close enemies, but that would be the same as trying to avoid only one enemy, as far as the rules are concerned. He rolls Defy Danger (dexterity) once, if he rolls good he managed to avoid "provoking AoOs", borrowing from D&D's terminology.
So, why is it important to know he's facing trhee enemies? On a 6- he could get surrounded, which requires a roll to disengage.

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    So would enemies moving at all count as a soft move then? – Wibbs Mar 12 '14 at 22:23
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    Usually, they do move for some reason. Getting in a more advantageous position, going out of reach, swarming a different character. That's something I'd treat as a soft move, or at least as part of a move. Sometimes moving is just what they do, maybe because some PC move says they must, maybe because it makes sense to have them just move. Your call, but most times the enemies are moving after engaging because they want to set up something nasty. Soft move. (All enemies repositioning? Still a soft move maybe) – Zachiel Mar 13 '14 at 1:04

If you feel like it's getting boggy, think about what the fight scene is for, like @neontapir said. Monsters have instincts and their own moves in their descriptions. Use them; it makes combat smoother if you know what their built in tendencies are. Are they relentless, or would they scatter once a few get taken out?

If the combat is dragging, figure out why there isn't enough stomping happening, and try to change it. If the characters are Defying Danger too much, no wonder no beetles are getting smashed.

You can treat small groups of small enemies as one target, allowing a character to take 2 of the three out if he does enough damage. A single Hack & Slash move doesn't necessarily mean one swing, it encompasses a bunch of movement, lunges, parries, etc.

Since DW doesn't have separate mechanics for combat and non-combat encounters, you can use monster moves or any other GM moves at will. What the characters do in reaction to that is what they roll for. If something attacks a character, don't assume the only response is a dodge. As far as I know (and it works in our group) Hack & Slash can be used as a response to an attack. Instead of just dodging (Defy Danger) your characters can try to attack the beetles back when they advance. It's all about intent also. That comes first and then the rules. What are your characters trying to do? Do they want to be (or have to be) standing there fighting these things or can they get an advantage another way and move on? If it makes sense in the scene and it's exciting, go with your gut.

There are two common mistakes here that can impact the smooth running of a lot of other scenarios. They don't have a lot to do with each other, conceptually, so I'll pull them apart.

1) It's Really Defy Extra Danger

So, PCs are in dangerous situations all the time, but some of them are already covered by other moves. For example, when Wizzrobe is unleashing a high-level spell, he doesn't have to make a Defy Danger roll first, to try to control something so powerful. The risk of channeling magic from the spellbook spells is already wrapped up in the Cast a Spell move. When Sir Justice is trying to Defend the duke from an assassin with a poisoned dagger, he doesn't have to make a Defy Danger roll first, because poison is dangerous. The effects of getting in the way of the blow are already modeled with the outcomes and choices of the Defend move.

Defy Danger is there to handle situations on top of the normal course of these moves - for example, when Wizzrobe is trying to unleash a spell while a stone giant is shaking him around like a rag doll, or when Sir Justice is over by the punch bowl on the opposite site of the throne room when he notices the assassin. Sometimes it makes sense to "soft fuse" Defy Danger to another move so its results partly reflect the other move's results - in Sir Justice's case, maybe the result of the Defy Danger roll to close the distance will see him take the dagger on a clean hit and additionally halve the damage on a 10+, similar to the results of the Defend move.

But let's move to melee combat for a second. A melee is a chaotic affair where each of the combatants involved is roughly equally dangerous to each other, and Hack and Slash is an attempt to avoid getting hit in the melee and strike a clean blow yourself. So when Fightgar rushes down three mechanical beetles, is that 1-on-3 fight a roughly equal combat, or is Fightgar at a significant disadvantage? It didn't sound like you intended the beetles to be particularly canny combatants, so while they'd still swing for beetle damage +2 as a collective due to the gang-up bonus, Fightgar can just engage them with Hack and Slash normally without any extra danger.

2) A Series Of Combative Events

You also mention that you were having a tough time staging the beetles' moves, "particularly when the players were successful with their rolls". This is a combination of a couple problems. The first is that "when everyone looks at you" is much broader than it appears. Fightgar fought three beetles, not all twelve at once, and you're the only person who knows what's happening with the rest of them. You absolutely have license to make moves with the rest of them to present dangers for other characters to deal with. Obviously you're not going to pan over to the last person to have a go and now two beetles have infiltrated their ribcage or something similarly high-test. You're going to be presenting opportunities, announcing future badness, telling them the requirements and asking.

In other words, the fiction is going to move forward. But what are the beetles going to be doing aside from trying to rip the PCs' flesh? Well, it's going to depend on:

  • the things the beetles are capable of
  • interesting features in the room
  • what the beetles want to do: kill all humanoids, protect a space, preserve a relic?
  • what the players want to do: smash all the beetles, get through as quick as possible, steal a relic?

Aside from the last one, you can get most of those from the sum total of your adventure prep: monster, dungeon, and danger prep, respectively. That doesn't mean you need to script out half a dozen possibilities, and it doesn't mean you need to stick to anything you've planned out if it doesn't make sense to do in the moment. But it should give you enough of a vocabulary that you can switch things up to react to player actions.

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