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I'm preparing to GM my first game of Dungeon World and want to make sure I can keep the flow of the game exciting. The players are new to the system too, though, so I'd like to make sure I have an 'out' if players feel put on the spot and not sure how to respond.

I'm considering two cases. The first I think I have an idea.

GM: Breaking that jewel out of the floor made a lot of noise. You hear footsteps coming toward you at a run from the far hallway. What do you do?

Players: (lots of looking back and forth) Erhm... (time passes)

I'm guessing this counts as a golden opportunity that I can use to trigger the "Use a Threat" Dungeon Move, but how long should I give them to think up a response before moving on?

Here's another case where I'm more uncertain. My reading so far suggests that it's okay in Dungeon World to have the players participate in building the lore, so I can do something like this:

GM: As you turn the corner, you immediately notice a strange glowing sigil on the wall to the right. Anna, it looks really familiar to you; where do you know it from?

I've put her on the spot here, so what do I do if the player struggles to provide an answer? I want to get the players to help build the story, but I want to avoid awkward crickets chirping moments. In this case, in particular, it's less clear to me whether inaction could trigger a Move on my part.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel like this is a really common problem, not just for Dungeon World, but for a lot of new Game Masters and new Players - I've definitely encountered it, more than once, where a session stops cold because nobody really knows what to do next. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Jul 27 '16 at 20:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zibbobz, I've run into it too as a player. As far as Dungeon World in particular, I'm trying to stay cognizant of the Moves mechanic, which is very new to me. I'm a big believer in constraints enhancing creativity, so I think I have a reasonable initial understanding of how the system is designed to function, but I'm sure it will take a while to internalize. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Bryant Jul 27 '16 at 20:59
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There are many things that can encourage hesitation. None are unrecoverable though, and some are avoidable.

Asking the whole group

Ironically, one common source of player hesitation is asking the group as a whole — when you do that, nobody in particular has to answer so everybody has permission to keep letting someone else answer. “What do you do?” is a fine question when it's obviously already addressing one character, but when it's the group, it works better to pick someone to answer (at least at first) based on whose next action is most interesting* in the situation:

Breaking that jewel out of the floor made a lot of noise. You hear footsteps coming toward you at a run from the far hallway. Fighter, what's your reaction?

As a bonus, if the answer is non-committal, you can then ask another likely PC what they do / what their reaction is, as if you meant to do that all along. “Okay. Bard, the footsteps sound like they're about to round the corner. What are you doing?” (In move terms, let's say the Fighter responded with “ready my sword” or something else OK but not moving the action along, which is doing something and then “looking to the GM”; so you got a GM move and used show signs of an approaching threat again.)

Who you ask also will tend to (but not always!) bias the answer in a particular direction. If you ask the Fighter, you'll probably get an answer that is fighty or preparing to be fighty; if you ask the Thief you'll get something more sneaky, perhaps; if you ask the Bard you might get something more social. It's not a guarantee, but you can nudge the action toward a certain directly this way. As a bonus, the hint that it's a Fighter-y (or Thief-y, or Cleric-y, or whatever) situation can signal the players a bit more about what they're facing, and may relieve the players' indecision enough for someone to leap forward with actions.

So: ask a specific character what they do instead of the whole group, since asking everybody can often be the same as asking nobody.

* “Interesting” can be “most obviously relevant” (i.e., the Fighter's response to a hostile threat), but it can also be very interesting to ask a character who is not obviously the lead for certain situations, like asking the Bard what they do in the face of armed hostiles. Mix it up, and the game will be more varied and interesting.

Alternatively, recovering is totally possible

Avoiding it is easy, but in the moment you might do it anyway and ask the whole group, or maybe that just seems like the most sensible thing to do at the time. When the whole group hesitates significantly to answer a question, give yourself permission to wait. The in-game action might be fast and furious, but the out-of-game action is a conversation, and sometimes some thoughtful silence improves conversations.

So although it's likely not your first reflex, relax and let the silence draw out. If you don't seem rushed, that can actually quickly wash away the group's collective hesitation and give people permission to stop thinking “ah, I don't know, I'll let someone else answer!” and sit back and actually create an answer they might offer to continue the conversation.

So letting them take their time to move the conversation forward is sometimes just fine. Give yourself permission to have quiet spots, even if the in-game situation is tense. (Believe me, Dungeon World sessions can be an exercise in sustained intensity, so a moment of quiet in the middle of a tense bit of action can actually be a welcome change!)

A player freezing when put on the spot

This one isn't so much something to avoid, as something to be confident the game can handle. The recovery can be pretty much the same: let the player collect their thoughts if they have to, by patiently giving them a moment of quiet to back away from the on-the-spot panic and thoughtfully engage the question.

Often (more often than you might think), that won't detract from the pacing of a situation at all, and will do the trick. Sometimes the player is really stuck though, or the pacing really does want an answer nownownow. In that case, ask for confirmation, in the form of tell them the requirements or consequences and ask:

Wizard, are you just hesitating? If so that's OK — we can see what someone else is doing in reaction to the sigil.

They get a chance to decide no, I am not just standing there! and say what they're doing instead. If so, cool! The game proceeds. They also get a chance to instead beg off the question, but that also results in an in-game action (hesitating, lost in thought or study of the phenomenon) and that's a tiny bit of forward action. (You also get the chance to practice a rare low-pressure consequence — not every GM move has to be world-shattering.) While they hesitate in-game, you ask someone else:

Ranger, this glowing rune on the wall is obviously not natural, but — worse — it's feeling more intensely unnatural by the second. What do you do?

or maybe…

Thief, you've heard of wizard sigils through professional contacts. What's the worst thing you've heard happen to a burglar who ran into one?

Giving another character a chance to react lets you paint what they're all seeing through a different character's perspective, giving them all a bit more context for their decision-making.

It also just gives the group another opportunity to do something interesting before “sudden DOOM” results from one player's uncertainty.

The second example I gave just there is a “non-action-y” question, in that it will likely result in some lore rather than an action, but that's OK too — the Thief's answer will add nuance to the situation, and possibly prompt someone else to take action! And if nobody does, still, you can reveal an unwelcome truth or show signs of an approaching threat or whatever suits the danger/opportunity that the phenomenon represents.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think your "ask a specific character" advice is going to help me a lot in this upcoming session; I even described the shared glances (maybe he knows?) without realizing the root cause. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Bryant Jul 27 '16 at 16:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ +many for "give yourself permission to wait." I know the rules explicitly say that a prompt for a GM move is when the players all look at you, but there's nothing to say that the move has to come immediately, and there's lots of virtue in letting five or ten seconds "run off." \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 27 '16 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Really love the "what's the worst thing you've heard about this?" tip. That seems like a fun way to provoke reactions from other players without forcing any one player to take action. \$\endgroup\$ – recognizer Jul 27 '16 at 16:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the way you had the responses to the Wizard's hesitation change the question from a simple opportunity to build some lore into a situation with an implied threat. That's a subtle consequence to not providing an answer, but not so terrible as to make the Wizard feel bad about not answering. As you said, a low-pressure consequence. I'll have to try to keep that in mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Bryant Jul 27 '16 at 16:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wish I could +1 again for the permission to wait bit; I needed the breather as a GM just to keep track of what kinds of things I might want to respond with. Probably wound up cheating a few times while getting caught up in narrative, too, but overall was still a fun session. GMing is kinda intense! \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Bryant Jul 28 '16 at 3:53
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I ran into both situations in my last game. In the first case I made it clear that I was asking the group.

GM: You've dispatched the giant spiders and though the trees are full of more, they don't seem to have noticed you. What do you do?

Group: [collectively looks like deer in headlights]

GM: The threat from the spiders is gone for the minute as long as you don't go out of your way to provoke them. What do you want to do as a group?

Then I let them debate, ask for clarifications and so on.

With the individual I let them ponder for a bit, but if they were stuck I prompted a bit more.

GM: This magic seal is about to break. Cleric do you know of a way to repair it? (There was no wizard this session, so the cleric got to answer some questions about magic.)

Cleric: Um... I don't know.

GM: Does your temple use seals like this?

Cleric: No, this kind of magic isn't something we do.

GM: Who handles magic for the temple?

Cleric: We only allow divine magic at the temple. I guess there are some wizards or something that would know, but the temple was very insular and I don't know a lot of common stuff like that.

We didn't resolve much about the symbol, but the Cleric got to create some more back story. The players then looked at me. I looked at my agenda. "Fill the characters’ lives with adventure," they didn't swallow the crumbling seal hook. Time for something else. I chose "Point to a looming threat," as having the most adventure potential right now.

GM: While you were contemplating the seal someone has noticed your campfire, you notice a group of people moving your direction from the village. You can't yet make out how many or what kind of people. Fighter, how did your visit to the village go?

Fighter: The villagers were sullen and didn't talk to us much. I think they don't like us poking around out here very much.

GM: Indeed, you see a glint of sunlight on spears. It's the village guard, a dozen strong and they are headed your way fast. What does the group do?

An approaching threat goaded the action along when the "try to find a way to repair the seal" hook didn't. Keeping the guards moving after the party provided a lot of incentive for the players to keep doing things. If they decided to stay still they would have to deal with the guards.

Note: Had the fighter said "Oh, we got on great in the village, really nice folks," I would have threatened the village instead of the players and the group would have been the elders coming to ask for help with the seal.

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The other answers are excellent, but I wanted to add a particular issue that contributes to player indecision that I faced when beginning to run Dungeon World.

Give the Characters an Actionable Hook Everytime you finish a bit of narration, you should be ending with "What do you do?" This should be directed to either one character or the group as a whole. Either way, it is vital that the situation you're giving the characters has something specific to respond to.

For example, when entering a new town: "The sun shines down as you enter Trebon, and the swelter of heat in the city quickly presses against you. In the distance you see what is clearly an outpost of the mage's guild. To the west is a marketplace and far to the east sits the shining tower of the Duke's keep. What do you do?"

While this is acceptable in a more classic fantasy game, where the PC's generally have a pre-illuminated goal and reason for being in the town, it doesn't work as well for Dungeon World.

Instead try: "The sun shines down as you enter Trebon, and the swelter of heat in the city quickly presses against you. As you walk through the busy marketplace, Fighter, a merchant calls out to you. "My friend, I see you are a warrior of no little skill. I have a weapon of starsteel, crafted by dwarven smiths. Come with me, my friend, and I will show you this wonder." What do you do?"

This sort of hook has a much more direct call to action and presents a situation that must immediately be dealt with.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That part I do get. My sense of Dungeon World so far is that the GM Moves create a directed structure for engagement, with hooks, prods and enticements put out in the open, with no apologies. I don't have to worry about the characters finding the adventure in the world, because I just bring the adventure to them, wherever they are. They're like walking adventure magnets and I'm playing the role of Maxwell. My biggest challenge so far has been trying to find the right balance between defining what happens and letting the players define it. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Bryant Jul 29 '16 at 2:55

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