10
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Now I get that when anyone attacks a unsuspecting target they just deal damage, and that the thief backstab move is there to add some more options.

And most of them make sense, you could easily imagine someone cutting armor straps or tying shoelaces, or doing more damage because a thief knows where to stab. But I don't get "you don't get into a melee with them" out of the 4 options.

I guess it makes sense if you get a 10+ and you take it along with the armor or +1 forward options, but how exactly do you stab someone right in the back and walk off without anything happening? And choosing it on its own basically means you do nothing at all.

Am I just misunderstanding what it means, or is it just not possible to pick it along with the damage option, because it will never follow the fiction?

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You can always pick any option you want. It's the GM's job to make them make sense together, by arranging the circumstances believably around them. (Although, as part of the GM's job, they might throw that question back to you using a GM move to make explaining it your job. Either way, it will get explained.)

But, essentially, what choosing “You don’t get into melee with them” from Backstab means is that you escape, at least for the moment. Even if you just stabbed them, choosing to not get into a melee means you stabbed them and then got away. You might now be in a chase, or you might be in an awkward spot, or you might be praying you make a good Defy Danger to blend in with the crowd Assassin's Creed–style, but at least you're not facing live steel right now. You've got some distance and control over the situation. You gave them the slip! You don't stab them and then just stroll off with a “how d'you do” to them as they do nothing; something is there that you leverage to get away from immediate reprisals.

Its meaning might be more easily grasped if you consider what happens if you don't choose it: you are now in melee, and they are going to (try to) hurt you. Being a thief, melee is not where you want to be, and escaping melee is going to be dangerous and possibly painful.

Even if you get a 7–9, it can still make sense to choose to not get stuck in a melee. You snuck up, hoping to do some serious hurt to that fully-plated knight on guard on the wall? Great! Oh, but you roll a partial success, and you can only choose one. Now that you're here, and you will get caught in melee if you don't choose it… maybe what you want to do is just leave, and try something else, right? When the alternative is stabbing them but then being stuck inside the keep, in a fight, just leaving might turn out to be your preference, and you have the option. That's what choosing only “You don’t get into melee with them” can mean: you escape without getting caught. Oh, you might still get noticed, but at least you got away, right?

But isn't it always better to just outright murder them without a move, since you can do that, when an opponent is defenseless?

Not always — a humanoid opponent, maybe, but you don't always face humanoids who are squishy enough for that fiction to make sense (and an auto-kill only happens when the fiction makes sense), even when they're defenseless. You're not going to murder a sleeping dragon! But as a thief, you are assured of a chance to hit that sleeping dragon once, hard, while it's defenseless, and Backstab will trigger in those circumstances.

And their death isn't always the objective anyway — you might be sneaking into the enemy camp to intimidate the General into marching his army away cleanly, instead of killing him and having the army disband into a bunch of brigands that will ravage your homeland. Backstab gives you a solid mechanical assurance of being able to pull off such a non-lethal attack, much better than a bare Defy Danger would in the same situation.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I really like this answer, but I wanted to add that not getting locked up with them in melee also makes a lot of sense assuming you're not playing in a vacuum. Those friends of yours scribbled in your Bonds? Let them do the toe-to-toe steel-on-steel thing, while you move from flank to flank cutting fights (and lives) short. The barbarian and the fighter are having where they're at, taking the focus off you; why would you want to ruin that? \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Nov 24 '15 at 22:52
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First of all, let's clarify a small misunderstanding: If someone who's not a thief tries to backstab someone, what happens is completely up to the GM, because it does not trigger any moves. The thief's Backstab move gives two options:

  1. Deal plain damage without rolling.
  2. Roll+DEX and choose from the list.

You're right, that "you don't get into a melee with them" option usually makes sense only on a 10+. It means that you were fast or stealthy enough to avoid retribution.

But still, you may still want to choose it on a 7-9, especially when your target is something like a dragon. In that case, it may mean that you failed to backstab but still avoided some potentially lethal attention.

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