A recurring problem I have in Dungeon World is having an ambush or other hidden danger set up and not wanting my players to just blunder into it without giving them a chance. It seems that calling for a discern realities without them doing something to actively trigger it seems wrong and yet it seems equally wrong to assume that their characters would not be on guard. What I've been defaulting to is springing trap, ambush, ect, and saying "the danger is heading towards you, what do you do?" But this feel artificially fake and gets old after awhile. Players will never look for traps or ambushes if they are always given a chance to defy danger with no issue when the danger springs up. Yet just saying, take X damage feels unfair and worse, unfun.

--An example--

Player are inside a Kobold infested dungeon. I've Shown Signs of Approaching Danger by mentioning that the pictographs on the walls have all been marked with graffiti venerating dragons. I've drawn a map of the hall and left blanks to fill in as they move further down. The players entered through a large cave in and have alerted the inhabitants of their ingress. Thinking off screen and Giving Monsters Life the Kobolds would investigate and then plan an ambush. Beyond the limited foreshadowing already done, I don't know how to warn the players. This seems acceptable except that if I don't warn them and simply spring the ambush it is done via a soft move, most likely

  • Reveal an unwelcome truth
  • Show signs of an approaching threat
  • Put someone in a spot

prompting me to pick a target and ask them what they do, potentially opening up defy danger. This is instead of the via a harder move, probably one of

  • Use a monster, danger, or location move
  • Deal damage
  • Use up their resources

I know this isn't Appocalypse World, so doing what prep demands isn't part of it, but it feels like those are actually what would follow the fiction. However on a "fairness" or "fun" level that feels wrong.

How do I balance the moves here to make it feel appropriate to the danger the ambush presents without making my players feel like I've "cheated" them or made it unfair?


3 Answers 3


Mind Your Follow-Through

Note that Defy Danger starts out with:

When you act despite an imminent threat or suffer a calamity

Getting rushed by screaming kobold fanatics who've set themselves on lightning* is pretty calamitous, and if you hit on a 10+, that's great! But what it means is that the threat doesn't come to bear right now, not that it vanishes forever - "defy" doesn't mean "eliminate".

Yes, you are encouraged to start setting up the scene with softer moves, but all of these moves are things that are actually happening in the fiction. The players aren't trying to, like, counter and eliminate your moves or anything, they're also taking actions in the fiction and accomplishing their own things. They can manage to be both momentarily safe and still very much in danger.

So, you hit on a 10+. The screaming kobold fanatics haven't gone away. It's just that when the first one rushes into the innocuous-looking jar/carefully positioned Leyden mine and they both go up in a cloud of electroclasm and smoke, you're not right there with them.

Awful lot of jars in here, aren't there?

* no one ever said the path of the blue dragon fanatic would be easy

Mind Your Setup

Tell them the requirements or consequences and then ask is often underestimated, but it's an excellent way to extend the results of moves without having to write entirely new ones.

So if, for example, Stringfellow surveys the upcoming holosparkst, decides it's time for the better part of valor, and says he's diving out the nearest doorway, that does sound like Defy Danger too, doesn't it? But you can always say:

Sure, but things in here are ramping up rapidly. If you make it out, getting back in to help everyone else won't be nearly as easy.


Sure, but whatever that just kicked off is already cascading around the exits. You'll be taking 1d6 damage through armor just to try.

Or even:

Sure, but, gosh, there's all this smoke in here and your ears are still ringing from the blast. You can get out somewhere safely, but it's not entirely clear to you where that's going to be.

And then end with:

Is that alright?

And if it's not, then Stringfellow isn't going to dive out the door in the first place. His turn in the spotlight will be spent doing something else. And if it is, then even a 10+ on a Defy Danger will still leave Stringfellow in a bad position. It doesn't violate the spirit of the move to do this - accepting those known bad outcomes is just the cost of making the move in the first place.

Mind Your Prep

And, of course, if you knew all along that there'd be kobolds in these ruins and they laid traps like the dickens, you can sit down and craft custom moves to deal with this and take Defy Danger off the table as an initial reaction. Something like:

When Lightning's Claw springs their ambush on you, say who was the most cautious among you and have them roll +WIS. On a 10+, they pick 1. On a 7-9, the GM also picks 1. On a 6-, all 3:

  • You're right where they want you. Everyone takes -1 ongoing to all rolls to dodge or escape, until you're out.
  • You didn't see this coming. Pick someone else in the party to take the brunt of the first attack; the GM will make a move against them.
  • They timed this one perfectly. All their damage is best of 2 rolls, and when they gang up it adds +2 damage instead of +1.

But you don't need to haul something like that out all the time, just for when you want it to be a sufficiently big deal that a regular Defy Danger doesn't seem like it should be able to resolve things satisfyingly on its own.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That last bit seems to be what I think I'm missing. Creating a few custom moves for certain dungeons and traps/ambushes seems like a great way to handle it. Thank you \$\endgroup\$
    – Ringo_St R
    Mar 1, 2018 at 16:24

Although Dungeon World shares many of the trappings of D&D and its ilk, it can sometimes be tough to transition between the tactical, simulationist thinking of D&D and the narrative focus of Dungeon World. Remember that in Dungeon World, nobody (including the GM) gets a "turn". Instead, the GM takes action when a move is triggered which can happen one of three ways.

  • When everyone looks to you to find out what happens
  • When the players give you a golden opportunity
  • When they roll a 6-

So, the answer to your question becomes, "What triggered you to make a move?" The book suggests the following:

Generally when the players are just looking at you to find out what happens you make a soft move, otherwise you make a hard move. (When to Make a move, pg. 166)

So, if your players have either given you a golden opportunity or failed a roll, you should feel free to move straight to a hard move (such as dealing damage). What move is appropriate will depend but a Thief who fails their Trap Expert roll is pretty much begging to trigger one. On the other hand, if you are responding to the fact that the players are looking to you, you can use a soft move to indicate that something might be out of place; giving them a reason to use Discern Realities, Trap Expert, or Defy Danger. Their narrative choices and the results of the dice roll should be sufficient to determine what outcome is appropriate. However, if the players fail to react to your soft move, the book already has an answer for that:

A soft move ignored becomes a golden opportunity for a hard move.

There's even a section on page 173 that discusses Traps in more detail.

Traps may come from your prep, or you can improvise them based on your moves. If nothing has established that the location is safe, traps are always an option. The players may find traps through clever plans, trap sense, or discerning realities. If a character describes an action that doesn’t trigger a move, but the action would still discover a trap, don’t hide it from them. Traps aren’t allowed to break the rules.

In other words, you might want to give them a reason to check but its up to the players to ensure there's nothing laying in wait for them.

Since it seems like your issue is primarily centered on what and how to use the soft moves, the answer there is that it depends on the style of play you want to encourage. If you tend to litter your game with unexpected surprise encourage your players to play cautiously by providing few hints but keeping the damage low to start with. Rather than dropping hints specifically when something is coming up, I would recommend giving little details in all your descriptions. To signal that ambushes might be a possibility, include descriptions of the trappings of people living nearby without any people present. To signal that traps might be a possibility, you might describe stumbling across a hunting camp or seeing already sprung traps in the area. You should also pepper these descriptions into scenes that aren't intended to have these features to make sure this is a clue rather than a statement.

If you want traps and ambushes to be a part of the narrative but don't necessarily want to penalize the players for not accounting for them, you can keep the damage consistently low or use a "Clue by 4" and treat the traps as the consequences of doing something stupid. There isn't really a good middle-of-the-line between these two without using Defy Danger as a save mechanism.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The advice is good but could you perhaps be a bit more specific? I've mostly groked the theory, it's the practice that I'm having trouble with. Is this the time where you hit your party with a clue by 4, ham handed as possible, letting the discern realities move handle all tension, or should I follow the 3 clue rule leaving 3 hints and if they miss all, they have made there bed, or is there perhaps another option? An example of play would be quite helpful. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ringo_St R
    May 16, 2016 at 20:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ringo_StR I included some additional details but I'll leave Examples of Play to those with more experience. \$\endgroup\$ May 17, 2016 at 3:27

I've had a couple of goes at writing down some trap and ambush examples for you that I've used (as an answer, 'cos it's too long to be a comment). The problem being I wasn't really formal about it at the time, and wouldn't be so if I did it again.

So, there was a fight on a floating raft with thinly covered pits which supported the weight of the defending kobolds. Could be triggered on player miss, if pursuing retreating kobolds, or assaulting waiting kobolds; the latter two triggering defy danger.

A later fight had concealed kobolds in ambush. Misses or hack and slash 7-9's would have attacks from kobolds hiding in trees or sneaking out of holes; no mechanical difference from the norm, but it felt different.

Finally, a classic magician's tomb defence series of pits, arrow traps and similar worked from having a firm grasp of the fiction; how each was triggered, reset, and so on. That dictated there'd be holes in the walls, odd patterns of wear, and similar, which made sure the player's were well aware of what was happening. The thief moves, defy danger and the like coped well enough with the player's progress (but not so well they weren't affected).

  • \$\begingroup\$ This first two examples aren't really what I'm driving at as combat has already happened. I'm looking for how to handle the trigger from walking around to combat without going full hard with no warning, which feels unfair, or putting it out too soft, which feels unrealistic and removes the danger and adventure from the world. Perhaps you could expand a bit more of last example with some specifics of how different surprise dangers were handled? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ringo_St R
    Jun 3, 2016 at 13:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ambush first, as I realise I've missed out an important thing - what is an ambush? An unexpected fight? We know how to handle those, just as you've said (except maybe maybe "Suddenly kill an NPC"). But it's more than that. It's an attack at the place of the ambusher's choosing, somewhere where the ambusher has an advantage. It's thus an attack from all sides, or on terrain that suits the ambushers, or somewhere where some pre-prepared surprises can be sprung. That's what I was trying to illustrate. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slow Dog
    Jun 3, 2016 at 22:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the latter, it's really a series of Dungeon Moves - When someone first stands on the pressure plate, the arrow trap fires for D6 damage; when someone stands on the pit-flap, they fall in the pit, and the pit flap closes behind them. No defy danger; it just happens. The "Save" is sufficient warning that they're in a place where traps can be expected, and standard moves will detect them if they look. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slow Dog
    Jun 3, 2016 at 22:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ The save? I don't parse \$\endgroup\$
    – Ringo_St R
    Jun 3, 2016 at 23:05

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