In my current Dungeon World campaign, I've found my group (and myself) encountering situations that could be solved via violence (which I have on good authority is not the answer) end up being solved by violence. Given that we have very few ranged attack options across the party as presently constituted, this has devolved into a whole lot of Hack-and-Slash, an occasional Defy-Danger (usually DEX), and a rare Aid and even rarer Defend.

This question is two-fold:

First, how can I present encounters that are obviously not forced combat situations?

Second, failing that, how can I present combat situations where Discern Realities, Parley, and possibly even Spout Lore are important options to consider?


3 Answers 3


Dungeon World, at its heart, is a game about Dungeon Crawling and thus - fighting a lot. You see that at a first glance looking at the different tools each Hero gets in their kit.

Now, of course, we don't always want to fight, and fighting random encounters for a few hours straigt can get quite tedious, even in Dungeon World. However, in Dungeon World, anything can happen at any time, so if you are about to go into just another fight and the group is clearly fed up with those for the day, you can just work around that.

For your first question, some examples. Your group has just stormed the castle and ploughed through the gate, the courtyard, the barracks and are now in front of the big double doors to the throne room? Well those 4 guards supposed to guard that probably heard of the party of 3 blood-crazed dudes coming for them and abandon post as soon as they see them coming. Cowards. Then you enter the throne room and there's the king's royal guard. Six of the best swordsmen in the world. Well surely you wouldn't be here if the king wasn't some kind of evildoer (you are heroes after all, no?). Maybe you can convince them to hand over the king in exchange for a royal pardon, so they can live another day.

Well, it seems the parley failed, so into the fight (sigh) an on to your second question!
But what is this, your Fighter is baffled at the sheer supremacy of the royal guard's fighting style. Never has he seen someone wearing heavy armour whirling around their blade so fast. He can't even get a single blow in! Desperately trying to defend himself, he tries to find a weakness in the guard's style (discern realities - yay!). On a whim, the Mage recognises a strange symbol on the ring that each of the guards is wearing on their index fingers. Consulting his knowledge of arcane symbols, he realises that those rings are what grant the guards their superhuman speed - they are attuned to the body of the wearer in such a deep fashion, that cutting off the ring would shatter it and with it the whole body of the bearer.

On to your third question: you can (and should!) always narrate fictional outcomes in addition to the mechanical effects of a move.

First, ask the player that is attacking where they are aiming. Do they go for the swordarm, for the legs or straight at their face?

Then build new fiction based on that. The enemy just took a blow straight to their face, leaving a large gashing wound across their chin? They are now coming at you full berserk! Did the Thief sneak up from behind an attack the hostile backline? Now some of the front line divert their attention to the Thief and suddenly he's outnumbered and cut off from their party!

Has the fight scene already been going on for long enough and you feel like everybody is ready to move on? The last his just disarmed the foe or crippled their legs and they yield!

Now, this might be the point where Parley from your second question can come into play again. You just overpowered the enemy and dead bodies are all around. Those last two of them yielded and you have spared their lives - for now. You want to know the plan of the evil overlord first, of course. Parley it is - a sword at the chin probably provides enough pressure for that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For example, in our session last week a fight broke out and the Monk decided that he didn't want to start squishing the hundreds of angry humanoid newts, so he shouted for the fight to halt and proposed an alliance. (The alliance bit had background context that made it plausible.) Result: fight ended on condition the PCs endure a “trial” for their crimes against Law (the newts are kinda Stupid Lawful), and as “sentence” they were sent on a quest they've been looking for. And the newts happily allied with them (and meanwhile our Princess accidentally psychically bonded with the newt hivemind…) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23, 2017 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ This question has been edited to remove the largely separate third question, I'll form that third question into a new question shortly. You may want to edit/adjust your answer to compensate. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 25, 2017 at 15:55

When you attack an enemy in melee-

Okay, break right there.

Now, you know that you don't always roll Hack and Slash when you're swording a guy, right? Somebody gets in cover, maybe defies danger to keep still, springs out and sucker-smacks somebody, that's not hack and slash. That's just, you got 'em dead to rights, deal your damage.

If the enemy isn't prepared for your attack - if they don't know you're there or they're restrained and helpless - then that's not hack and slash. You just deal your damage or murder them outright, depending on the situation. Nasty stuff.

--from the repo, Moves Discussion

And this fits what you already know: rolling a move in Dungeon World isn't a formal declaration by the player, it's a response to the events of the narrative. I mean, when Grognak shouts "GROGNAK HACK AND SLASH!" and sprints at the lizardmen guarding the village gate, it's pretty obvious where Grognak wants to take the narrative! But sometimes there's a pit trap, or sometimes the lizardmen break and run. If you want to route around Hack and Slash, you have to understand the narrative of Hack and Slash and tell a different story.

A Melee Story

So the story goes that you're attacking an enemy in melee, but what does that mean? Well, what that literally (for certain etymological values of literally) means is that you're mixing it up. You're engaged in a clash of arms, willing and able to hit and get hit. (On rare occasions someone may not be intending to hit back, necessarily, but have their own reasons for remaining within hack range of Grognak; in which case, remember that the "counterattack" is any GM move made with an opponent.)

How do you take a player intent to hack and slash, but not tell that story?

Well, a probably unsatisfying way is that you clash with your opponent and they can't hit you and they die. It might be a satisfying payoff to a find-a-hiding-spot-and-keep-still setup, but let's table that one for now and look at the other possible contradictions.

They don't engage in a clash of arms.

The lizardmen break and run. A pickpocket lifts your wallet and vanishes into the crowd. The guards slam the gates and blow the alarm horn.

But the core to that all is, they have something to do that doesn't necessarily include killing you. You've thought about what that might be, I hope? Give every monster life, and such?

If you don't want to have a clash of arms with your players, when they reach out for that, draw back from them. Show your people and monsters pursuing what they're after. Your players will have to pursue something other than a clash of arms, at least for now, to stop them.

You're not able to hit them.

The lizardmen's pit trap opens up underneath you. Lord Featheringstoke has studied every known fighting style and every move you make he's got a hand up just in time. You can leverage the iron ooze off you just fine, but trying to damage it is like trying to put out a fire with other, smaller fires.

This is kind of the obverse of the above reason. It's not that they have a reason not to clash arms with the players, it's that the players have a reason why they can't clash arms with their adversaries. Some other move will be needed here in order to even allow that. Climb out of the pit, distract Lord Featheringstoke, remember what you know about iron oozes or try and infer from context what it might be weak to.

It's completely fair to just toss casually-invulnerable adversaries at your players with a weakness they have to ferret out, as long as you're clear about how the players' weapons are useless against them. After all, nothing's forcing the players to stay locked in a clash of arms any longer than they want to be, either.


How can I regularly encourage non damage dealing moves via Hack-and-Slash?

There are RULES. LAWS. Consequences. One way to do this is to have the quest-giver have non-lethal as a parameter for bonus OR completion. OR the area where they are has strict laws. OR it's a bad idea to actually kill anyone here, the evil magic feeds on death. OR the main bad guy grows stronger with every minion you kill.

First, how can I present encounters that are obviously not forced combat situations?

LAWS and rules will help take care of that, once they are established. If they know what they can and can't do in a certain area, or that there will be consequences for it, they'll...look for other solutions. The problem with carrying a hammer around all the time is that everything starts looking like a nail. In other words, if violence is how they've always solved problems, that's how they're going to think of solutions.

There are other encounters/obstacles.

1) Environment. Thinking your way around a problem.

2) Peace! Just add children. One way to signal that maybe you shouldn't be hacking and slashing--throw adorable children in amongst the armed adults. Lost kids are always fun too. MIGHT make them pause. Maybe. Depends on the ruthlessness of the players. If they don't well...hey...you know maybe they aren't the kind of players you can do this with.

3) Meeting other travellers & merchants.You might get a meal out of it and or XP.

4) Toll Bridges.

5) They want something in order to complete their quest. Someone else has it. Killing or threatening them will not get the party the object.

6) In a city this can be an event, like a festival, parade or famous person.

7) Disaster makes heroes. A flood, a fire, the aftermath of a raging beast or curse or illness, really, could be anything. Definitely not combat, definitely is something PCs can help with.

Second, failing that, how can I present combat situations where Discern Realities, Parley, and possibly even Spout Lore are important options to consider?

You gotta get creative with it. Make it relevant. For instance, Spout Lore might help a character to know that every baddie they actually kill just makes the boss at the end stronger. Parley might be used to cross a bridge to where they need to go that would otherwise be cut from the other side (Of course you have to have something or pretend to have that they might want which could not be retrieved from your corpses, in order to do that). Discern Realities might tell fighters more about a style and where a person studied, and help them come up with a combat move to counter, or it could determine where an arrow blind is.

From the website for DW:

during a fight the GM will say that the kobold mage stays at the other end of the hall. Discerning realities could reveal the reason behind that: the kobold’s motions reveal that he’s actually pulling energy from the room behind him, he can’t come any closer.

Dungeon World IS kind of geared towards hack-n-slash, so you may have to give clues to your players that things will be run a little differently. Clues like, actually saying, out loud "I give extra XP when encounters are solved without violence" or somesuch.

Or even, just make hack-and-slash more interesting!

I have a narration of failures and successes prepared per encounter, written down in advance of the game. I go beyond the boring "You hit him, it hurts. Owie. He's not happy." That's ok part of the time, but sometimes you gotta get jiggy.

Failure: "The demon lord seems to balance back on his heels, his torso bending impossibly away from you as you try to strike, and miss. No one should be able to bend that way. When he straightens, he smiles at you, a grin too wide for his face."

Success: "The blade bites through armor and chain, a gout of red blood hitting you in the mouth. Suddenly the world seems darker, with shadows clinging to everything. You want to roll Spout Lore to see what the effects of ingesting demon blood might be?" The effect you've added might nothing more than a special, temporary effect, that has no real number crunching effect, but might scare the player, and it might give them an edge in the fight, for example, they can see the shadows, and might be able to spot things they would not ordinarily, like a certain magic being used or item.

Other things, include hazards during fights.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your contribution. Also, what is an "arrow blind"? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23, 2017 at 20:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BlackVegetable Like a hunting blind, but made for an archer. Basically, it's a hidden place from which an archer strikes. You know you're getting shot at, but you don't actually know where the archer is. This can be natural, like reeds or something, or something specifically built. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23, 2017 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BlackVegetable Pretty much if anyone knows that the PCs are coming and how powerful they are, they're going to use hit-run-guerilla tactics, because head-on is stupid. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23, 2017 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ This question has been edited to remove the largely separate third question, I'll form that third question into a new question shortly. You may want to edit/adjust your answer to compensate. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 25, 2017 at 15:55

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