Sunday, September 9, 2018


Marshedge is about 10 days' travel from Stonetop, via the Highway through the Steplands. It's a relatively safe trip, as long as you stick to the safety of the roads.  

The town overlooks Ferrier's Fen, a vast, mist-shrouded wetland between the Great Wood, the Steplands, and the Manmarch. Maker-ruins can be seen poking out of the fens, as well as huge, ancient willow trees. The drums of ganagoeg (savage, scaly beast-men) beat through the night, and horrors ripple beneath the murky waters.

Many would call the Marshedgers insane to live so close to such a dangerous place, and maybe they are. But long ago, some of them learned the ways of the fen, and of bendis root, which (dried and aged and burned) keeps unclean things at bay.

map by Jason Lutes


Size +1 (Town, ~700-750 people), Population +1 (Growing), Prosperity +0 (Moderate), Defenses +1 (Guard)

Trade:  Lygos (fine goods, spices, etc.); Gordin's Delve (metal, tools); Northern Manmarchers (timber, fur, amber); Stonetop (whisky, fur); Hillfolk (horses, fur, meat)

Resources:  Farming (wheat, hemp, wild rice, herbs); foraging (herbs, peat, clay); trades (textiles, pottery, rope); marketplace, windmill

Parts of Town

Not quite like this, but, y'know

Marshedge is built on two hills overlooking Ferrier's Fen. A river (slow, shallow, wide) flows past the town's west edge. The Highway (one of the Maker's ancient roads) runs through the town. A second hill, to the east, boasts a windmill. 

Older, more established buildings are half-timber constructions in-filled with wattle and daub, sometimes brick. Newer, poorer buildings are stacked timber or wooden planks, possibly on a brick foundation. 

A wooden palisade runs around the Mire. Another runs around Low Town and Dropoff. A third runs around High Town. 

The Bridge: Where the Highway crosses the river, one would expect there to be a bridge made by the Makers. One would be wrong. There's a bridge, but it was built early in the town's history, only a few hundred years ago. Before that, the tales say, the Highway just dropped away into the reeds. The current bridge is mostly wood, just wide enough for a single wagon, built up on feet of crudely-stacked pavestones and mud. It often requires repairs. A guard station sits on the town-side of the bridge and collects tolls from any who would cross. 

High Town: Top of the main hill, "center" of town. Old Maker-ruins dot the hill; homes, the council hall, and garrison are all built on or into them. Surrounded by a well-made, fortified palisade.  Where the oldest, wealthiest, most established families live. There's a nice (but small) inn up there.

Dropoff:  West side of the hill, dropping down to the wide, slow river that flows into the fen. A number of old, established trades are based here, plus some aspiring merchants. The "middle class" section of town.

The Mire:  Lowest part of town, extending into the marshlands on the river's edge, and stretching around to the north of the hill. Wooden walkways (slick and wet) between shallow bogs of wild rice. A palisade against the marsh, dotted with constantly burning braziers of bendis root. Smell of mud and rot and human refuse. Constant buzz and bite of insects. Squalid homes on the slope down.

Low Town: On the far side of the hill from the fen, east and south along the Highway. The marketplace is here. Cramped, wooden homes for working stiffs. Trades, shops, storehouses.

Marketplace: built on and around a wayside on the Highway (one of the big circular sections of paving stones that dot the Maker's roads). The center of the market is build on (and protected by) the road's magic, but aside from a statue to Old Shane Ferrier that's been erected in the middle, no one builds permanent structures on the pavestones. A couple inns and stables are built right around the edge, as well a handful of pubs and permanent stores. Market day is every 10 days, and always a big to-do.

Millers Hill:  A way's east of the main hill, overlooking the fields. Boasts an old, low Maker "tower" that was long ago converted into a windmill. The whole thing makes people very uneasy, irrationally so. The miller's children meet farmers or merchants and base of the hill and haul grain and flour back and forth. Everyone thinks the miller's family is strange and unsettling.

The Fields:  sprawling out to the west of town, fields of wheat dotted with homes nestled up against the Highway and the occasional wooden shed holding tools out amidst the crop. Mostly tenant farmers; the lands are owned by the old families.


Brennan: until just a few years ago, Brennan and his Claws were bandits preying on caravans coming up from the South without the protection of the roads.  Eventually, the Marshedge council decided it'd be cheaper to pay the bandits to guard the town than to pay the blood and treasure to fight them off. Brennan's cagey enough to see the angles, and is now probably the single most powerful man in Marshedge. (Instinct: to maintain or improve his hold on the town)

The Guard: about 20 strong. A dozen used to be Brennan's old gang, the Claws. They're a mixed lot of Marshedge misfits, northern Manmarchers, and southern scum (instinct: to lord over others). The rest of the Guard is split between new recruits (instinct: to avoid trouble & danger) and loyalists (instinct: to protect the town from all threats). There are... tensions.
  • One of the Claws, originally from the Manmarch. Quiet, tough, and dangerous. Not a bad guy by nature, but utterly loyal to Brennan and perfectly willing to do his dirty work
  • Another one of the Claws. Grew up an orphaned waif in Marshedge. Weaselly and mean; clever, but lazy. Uses big words incorrectly. 
  • A young new recruit. Couldn't get an apprenticeship and lacks the patience for farming. Just wanted to earn some coin and start a family (which he did; a wife and two young daughters). 
  • A member of the old guard, quiet and unassuming. Fought against Brennan and the Claws back before they took charge. Has a two sons, two daughters, and two grand kids. (Lost his wife a few years back.) Bristles at the "scum" in the guard these days. 
The Old Families: Four old families (around 30 people total) who trace their roots back to of the earliest days of the town. All claim some relationship to Old Shane Ferrier. They own most of the fields (and rent them out to tenant farmers), have investment stakes in many of the bigger trades. Basically, they own this town. (Instinct: to enrich themselves.)  Another 30 or so servants and aids dote on them (instinct: to please their masters.)

  • Matriarch of the Ferrier family; genuinely concerned with the well-being of her children and grandchildren; genuinely callous and uncaring about what that means for anyone else. 
  • A minor scion of one of the old families, bored but brilliant. Has been dabbling in arcana. Pays a fen-walker handsomely to guide them out in the mists and explore old Maker ruins. 
  • The young heir-apparent of one of the Old Families. Ambitious yet kind. Dislikes Brennan greatly. Wants to greatly improve the lot of the farmers, despite the costs to her family.
  • A house servant, much abused by their master, plotting murder. 
The Council: Marshedge's governing body (instinct; to bicker, infight, and accomplish nothing). Formed of the heads of the Four Families, the miller (if they bother to show), and a representative from each guild (including the fenwalkers but excluding the farmers, obviously). Brennan doesn't have a vote but attends meetings and mostly bullies them around. 

The Guilds: Each of the major trades (weavers, potters, glassblowers, and herbalists) has a guild that serves to arrange for apprenticeships, resolve disputes, protect each other, and represent the trade on the council. They also try to keep new competition out of town. Around 150 individuals work in the guild trades, including family, apprentices, and assistants. (Instinct: to continue business as usual.
  • An herbalist who grows and sells narcotics, secretly, against the guild's rules
  • A young glassblower, talented and innovative, chaffing against tradition
  • A weaver, deeply in debt and plagued with misfortune, blaming their woes on an unnamed sorcerer
  • A spurned apprentice, dabbling in dark arts and sending spirits against their old master

The Fen-walkers: Around 20 individuals who ply the fen: gathering herbs, hunting game, cutting peat, harvesting clay. Most have developed strange behaviors, obsessions, or tics. Some bear strange mutations, which they try to hide. Fen-walkers rarely marry; they pick apprentices from unwanted or orphaned children. Attrition rate is high. (Instinct: to do what needs doing.)

The Fen-walkers have a guild, and thus a seat on the council, and technically they are a privileged class, following in the footsteps of Old Shane Ferrier. They can demand the assistance of any resident of the town, though they rarely do. Fen-walkers rarely come up from the Mire, and their Guild-head almost never attends council meetings. 

There's a little-known clause in the town charter that gives fen-walkers the right and responsibility to execute anyone found to be "corrupted by vyle spirits, or congressing with such." In truth, they most often exercise this duty upon their own numbers, quietly and without fanfare. A corrupted fen-walker simply doesn't return from an outing. 
  • A veteran fen-walker, hiding the corruption of his flesh and soul
  • A young orphan, family dead of flux, recently apprenticed to a fen-walker and utterly terrified. 
  • A young fen-walker who's stumbled on a Maker-ruin, filled with danger and treasure
  • The rare spouse of a fen-walker, constantly fretting, and their young child

Lesser trades: Maybe 50 or so individuals (artisans, family, assistants, or apprentices) are involved in the "lesser" trades: milling, carpentry, smithing, cobbling, baking, midwifery, hostlery, tanning, etc. These are the trades that keep Marshedge running, but not the ones that generate its wealth. Almost all of these trades have some financial backing from the old families, and thus are somewhat in their pockets. Except for the miller, none of them have seats on the council. (Instinct: to look out for themselves.)  
  • The miller and his family, who everyone says must be mad, and who in fact keep a troubling secret locked beneath the mill
  • A midwife, at least as herb-wise as any herbalist in the guild, but denied membership; knows secrets that they don't
  • A smith, who apprenticed in Gordin's Delve and then came back scarred and bitter
  • A publican and brewer, once a scholar from Lygos, on a peg leg, eager for news of the wider world

Merchants: Around 25 individuals (including their families and hired help) are involved in mercantile pursuits—buying, selling, storing, and transporting goods. Some of them are quite wealthy and have homes in High Town, but all of them are beholden to the old families who finance much of their trade. Most of these merchants are natives of Marshedge, but a significant minority (maybe 10 or so?) hail from the Manmarch or Lygos or even Stonetop to set up shop.

The merchants maintain shops, organize trips to and from other steadings, and buy, store, and sell trade goods throughout town. (Instinct: to seize opportunity.) 
  • A shopkeep and grocer, his store abutting the market, bitterly hateful of anyone from Stonetop.
  • A big, scarred Manmarcher, settled in town some 20 years back. The only merchant other Manmarchers will trade with, but someone from their past is still looking for blood.
  • A wealthy merchant, who has something the PCs desperately want, willing to trade it for exclusive rights to the buy Stonetop's whisky
Farmers & Laborers: The rest of the townsfolk (400 or so) are tenant farmers, laborers, and their families. They work the fields and the Mire, keep livestock, help with buildings, etc. Some are hired as muscle for merchants, the guilds, and the old families. (Instinct: to get by.)

A handful of tenant farmers recently formed a "Farmer's Guild" (instinct: to improve their lot) but no one takes them seriously, not even the other farmers. If there was any real risk of them unifying the farmers, the old families would first try to bribe the leaders, and then would have any holdouts violently eliminated. 
  • An idealistic organizer of the Farmer's Guild
  • An old, respected farmer who isn't having any of that "organizing" nonsense
  • One of the Hillfolk, accursed by an encounter at Three-Coven lake, trying to get by as a laborer
  • A farmer's child, bright and wise beyond their years, who sees and can speak to spirits
  • An older farmer, who's children all died fighting Brennan and his Claws back when they were bandits, now bitter and dreaming of bloody vengeance, no matter who gets hurt


Some problems that the town might need to deal with.

Fire, flood, and earthquake: Much of the town is prone to fire (wood, thatch), and the Low Town in particular has suffered serious fires as recently as 20 years ago. The Mire and the Bridge are vulnerable to flooding, which can happen in spring after a winter of heavy snowfalls or just an exceptionally wet summer.  Earthquakes plague the entire region, and while they rarely cause major  problems by themselves, they've been known to cause mudslides that ruin parts of the Mire and damage buildings in Dropoff.  (The worst part of about earthquakes is the shifting that happens in Ferrier's Fen, making the fen-walkers relearn routes; and sometimes, new ruins emerge from the mud and draw the ganagoeg to them.)
Ganagoeg: the scaly beast-men of Ferrier's Fen are the bane of the fen-walkers and the terror that the town tries to forget. According to the fen-walkers, they congregate around certain Maker-ruins, and will try to take captives alive. What they do with the captives is unclear—some say they are eaten alive, others that they are fed to some monstrous thing deep in the fen, and others say that they are kept alive and drugged and constantly bled to feed their darksome gods. But everyone agrees that they have no interest in a dead human, only a living one they can drag off.  

There have been times in the town's history when the ganagoeg grew so bold as to raid the Mire, despite the bendis root braziers. No one living remembers such a raid, but everyone knows that it's happened, and that it could happen again.  

The Willow Witches:  Ferrier's Fen is dotted with willow trees, some of which are truly ancient and massive. The fen-walkers know many uses for the bark, leaves, and seeds of these trees, but they always approach them cautiously because of the Willow Witches.  

Willow Witches appear near these trees, especially the most ancient ones. They might appear as beautiful maidens, hideous crones, or anything in between. They can see through the eyes of any bird in the fen. They desire human infants, though it's unclear why (some say to eat, others say to plant as new willow trees.) They revel in crudity, crassness, and disgust, and love to inflict cruel, body-warping curses on mortals. But, as any fen-walker will insist, they cannot harm one who treats them with unfailing courtesy, manners, and respect. 

One always encounters either one Willow Witch or three. Its not clear how many Willow Witches there actually are. Some say there are dozens, as many as one per willow tree in the fen. Others say there are only three, and they might appear at any willow tree they wish. Still others say that there is one such witch, and she sometimes appears as three, and don't think about it overmuch.

In truth, the Willow Witches (however many they are) are fae beings closely associated with the fen. They despise the ganagoeg but do little about them. They are amused by humanity, and enjoy their discomfort and even their suffering, but respect the rules of hospitality and etiquette and thus can be bargained with. They know much about what happens in and around the fen, and many of its sunken secrets, too. 

Manmarchers: The people of the northern Manmarch are warlike and prone to blood feud among themselves, but if they wanted to, they could unite and overrun Marshedge with little difficulty.  Fortunately, the Manmarchers have the healthy fear of water that all sane folk should, and have little interest in occupying a town so close to the water's edge. But if someone united them, they might think little of pillaging the town and razing it...

Curses: Ferrier's Fen is dotted with Maker-ruins, and a sprawling ruined city lies on the shore of the Dread River only 3 days to the east by the Highway. It s not uncommon for scholars and "adventurers" explore these ruins and come back to Marshedge with cursed artifacts (or just curses). These items might just get passed on some to some unwitting merchant, or they be carried away by whatever fool dug them up. But, often, they cause misery, terror, and horror until a fen-walker takes notice and quietly deals with the problem.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Discern Realities: make the question part of the trigger?

I'm thinking about making this change to Discern Realities in Stonetop and Homebrew World.

When you closely study a situation or person, you can ask the GM one of the following:
  • What happened here recently?
  • What is about to happen?
  • What (else) should I be on the lookout for?
  • What here is (most) useful or valuable to me?
  • Who or what is really in control here?
  • What here is not what it appears to be?
If the answer isn't obvious, roll +WIS: on a 7+, the GM will answer honestly; on a 10+, you can also ask two more questions and get honest answers; either way, you gain advantage on the next move you make while acting on the GM's answer(s).  
  • Asking one of the questions becomes part of the trigger
  • The GM has an "out" to skip the roll if they think the answer is obvious

Asking a Question Before Rolling

The idea of "make the player ask before rolling" has been in the back of my mind for a long time. I haven't really done anything with it because I've never really felt like there was a problem with how the move triggered in actual play.   

But in response to my last post on Discern Realities, about triggering the move vs. just asking for details, Hobbes (who was a player in my Stonetop game for like 2 years) commented:
I'll be honest, as a player the line between "just describing stuff" and Discern Realities always seemed a little fuzzy. I can't come up with any specific examples off the top of my head, but there were definitely some times where I *felt* like a question I'd asked should have triggered DR but I got an answer "for free" (no roll). ...
I'm still not quite sure where the line is for DR. "Anything valuable?" sounds like literally one of the DR questions, and if the trigger is "player takes an action" then the "I drop a coin into the hole, do I hear it hit" would be a DR move. I'M BEING PEDANTIC AND I KNOW IT but honestly this is an interesting distinction.

And, in the G+ comments, Dirk Detweiler Leichty said something smart:
As much as possible I like to stick to telling them whatever is available to their senses, and if they have further questions, telling them the requirements ("you can't tell from here, you'd have to reach in and feel around," or maybe, "you remember something about this from your training but you'd have to spout lore.") 
This is the central loop of exploration play for me lately. ... 
Discern realities interrupts this loop and asks you to work backwards from the answer to decide what happened in the fiction. 
Discern realities gets triggered mainly when the players give up on exploring the space and want to skip to the answer. That's fine with me, I'm not here to enforce some particular level of difficulty, but it is essentially a cheat on what I consider to be the main game here (you get what you want by exploring and interacting with an imagined space.) Sometimes its fun to play with cheats, it lets you focus on other parts of play, like story, etc. 
By default though, I'm going to try to keep to the basic loop, and encourage players to find the answers by interacting with the fiction, not with the answer-button on their character sheet. I let the players be in charge of when they want to skip to the answer. If I wanted to skip to the answer, I'd just tell them.
(emphasis mine)

I don't know that I'd go so far as to call Discern Realities a "cheat," but I totally get what he's talking about it. If you and your players are interested in exploring the fictional space, especially one that has tangibility (i.e. you've prepped it out and committed to it, with maps and notes, or at least a clear mental image), then there's a lot of fun in that core exploratory loop that Dirk describes. OSR-style play is largely based on it.

The core insight of Dirk's comment, I think, is that the players should ultimately be in charge of when they engage Discern Realities, of when they skip the exploration loop and jump straight to insight.  Not every player enjoys the exploratory loop, or is good at it, or just wants to do it right now.

So, a good way to distinguish between "just asking for more details" and "exploring your environment" and "triggering Discern Realities" would simply be to make the player ask one of the questions in order to trigger the move. If they closely study the situation but opt not to ask one of those questions, then the move doesn't fire. They're just looking to the GM to see what happens, so the GM describes the situation and makes a move. If they do ask a question, the move proceeds.

This does make the trigger a little meta-level, because it involves the player doing something instead of the character. But it's something that represents the character's internal monologue, right? You're just announcing to the table what the character is trying to figure out. So I don't think it's too jarring.

There are other benefits of making the player ask a question before rolling, beyond making the trigger clear:

  • It can help inform the fiction that goes into the trigger, and whether you should tell them the requirements to answer their question. "I'm looking carefully at these jars and such on the shelves... what here is useful or valuable to me?"  "Well, they're a bunch of unlabeled clay jars. You'll have to open them up and investigate if you want to figure that out."
  • It can give you something more to work with when they roll a 6-. Like, if I know you were trying to figure out who is in charge here, I might use that as a prompt me to answer the question by having them captured and taken before Prince Jagoff! Or if they study the floor and ask what they should be on the lookout for, and I know there are pressure plate traps, I might answer their question by putting them in a spot. "Well, you know you need to be on the lookout for pressure plates, because you just stepped on one, there's a click underfoot what do you do?"

"If the answer isn't obvious..."

The second part of the change ("If the answer isn't obvious...") was prompted by this conversation with Ben M. He's asking:
GMs, a player triggers Discern Realities and rolls a 7+ when examining a location (say) which in your mind was unimportant or incidental. How do you tend to answer their questions?  Turn the location into an interesting or significant one through your answers, or give answers like "nothing much is about to happen"?
The latter puts less pressure on you but risks devaluing the risk the player took of making the move in the first place (they may have missed the roll and allowed you to make a hard move). So I often feel pressure to do the former. 
And then later, after a number of people suggest that he just say "it's not interesting" before the player rolls, he (correctly, I think) says:
[T]he trigger for DR is explicitly "closely study a situation or person" and honouring the trigger text precisely has served me well on other moves. So I wouldn't want to decide that it didn't in a situation.
And later:
I get what people are saying but "someone examined it, therefore it's significant" doesn't sit well with me.  My players aren't always (or often!) asking because they wish or think that, say, the pigpen should be significant - they're just making sure they didn't miss something.
And finally:
DW teaches us to be very particular about the wording of moves.  DR is triggered "when you closely study a situation or person" which means that a player deciding to closely examine something makes it a thing, even if they don't want it to be.  If the trigger wording wasn't totally under their control (they just say "I'm examining X") then it would be possible for the GM to justify why the move didn't trigger (say the trigger included some allusion to the significance of the thing).   
Compare this with Defy Danger ("when you act despite an imminent threat").  The player performs some action and the GM has input into whether this triggers DD because they can rule that there is "no imminent threat".  In the case of DR it doesn't seem to me, written the way it is, that the GM can't rule at all.  And once the move is triggered the player is risking a hard move, so it's hardly fair for the GM to make a habit of saying "yeah you hit your DR but there's really nothing to tell".

Which got me thinking about the revision I've made to Parley, which goes "When you press or entice an NPC, say what you want them to do (or not do). If they have reason to resist, roll +CHA..."

I've found that little check ("if they have reason to resist") to be useful in play.  When the Would-be Hero goes up to the NPC she previously wronged and, hat in hand, asks humbly for his advice, I don't need her to roll. I don't see any reason why he wouldn't take that opportunity to give her an earful. But when the Heavy tries to convince the pompous, privileged town marshal to work together with Hillfolk refugees and their leader, that check makes me go "yeah, his ego and stubbornness are going to make him resist," and that informs the results of the roll.

So... same thing should work here, right?  If a player studies a situation closely, asks a question, and I think the answer is obvious (or I want the answer to be obvious), then I just answer it. Otherwise, we clarify how they're doing it (if necessary) and roll.

What would this look like in play?

(This is all done using mechanics from Homebrew World.)

The wizard, ranger, and fighter are at the entrance to the Secret Crypts of the Titch. I've got this map, but haven't keyed it or anything. It's the first session; I'm winging it.  

By Dyson Logos. Original here.
I've asked the ranger what sort of beasts they need to watch out of in these vast woods, and he's like "razor bats." I was like "cool" and looking at that map, the first room totally looks like a place that a bunch of bats would nest in. 

So they've climbed up the side of a bluff and are standing on this small platform, looking at the vine-covered entrance to this tomb.  The wizard just told me that she had discovered the location of this ancient and secret crypt in her studies, and put this expedition together to stake her claim on the site and finish her thesis. The Titch, she says, were known for their clockwork automatons and similar artifice, now largely lost to the world.  

Looking at that map, the first room seems like an obvious place for bats to lair in, so I describe how the entrance is mostly obscured by vines and brush, but there are plenty of openings they can look through. The can vaguely make out a stairway leading into darkness and catch a faint whiff of... ammonia?  

"Does it look like anyone's been here recently? Like, any tracks or anything?" asks the ranger. So he's studying the area, right? Looking for tracks. And asking, basically, "what happened here recently?" But the answer is obvious, I decide: no one's been up for hundreds up years. Except razor bats.   

Because the answer is obvious, I just make a GM move: introduce a danger. "There certainly weren't any tracks, and based on the state of foliage when you got up here, no one's been on this ledge in a long, long time. But that ammonia smell is a sure sign that razor bats are lairing down there. What do yo do?"  

The wzard says that she starts pushing the vines aside, looking for any writing or a plaque or anything like that. She's closely studying the entrance, sure, but didn't ask one of the Discern Realities questions, or really anything close. So I just offer an opportunity, and say "Yeah, you do find some old markings, carved into the rock face itself. They're like little pictographs, maybe? Definitely Titch-era."  

"Can I tell what they say?" she asks. That sounds like she's consulting her accumulated knowledge, so she Spouts Lore. Rolls a miss and I think about having the bats come flying out, but instead I build some tension and reveal and unwelcome truth. "Sorta. It's not like anyone knows how speak the Titch tongue anymore, but you're pretty sure these pictographs are a warning of some sort? Something like DO NOT DISTURB... THAT WHICH HAS NO NAME... LOST TO THE WORLD...  Funny that those books you found didn't mention any of that, huh? What do you do?"

The fighter and ranger start cutting the vines and brush aside, opening the entrance, and I decide to show signs of approaching trouble. "Ranger, fighter... you hear hissing and squeaking coming from down below, like the bats are agitated.  Like lots of bats are agitated. What do you do?"  

The fighter wants to keep hacking away. But the ranger is like "Wait. I stop and listen.  Does it sound like they're going to swarm or attack or anything?"  

"Sounds like you're studying the situation closely? You want to Discern Realities? If so, ask a question from the list."  

The ranger's like "sure" and asks "What is about to happen?" I'm thinking they're getting agitated, maybe about to swarm, but I don't think that's obvious, so I tell him to roll +WIS. A miss!  TEE-HEE.  

I'm like "you hear the hissing and squeaking, like I said, and it seems kind of steady, and then, like holy crap FLUTTER SQUEAK FLUTTER HISS SQUEAK! They burst out of the entrance and start swarming you all in broad daylight, what do you do?"

There's a fight. They manage to kill many, many bats and then drive off the rest of the swarm. We learn that the wizard's magic missile is a small blast of lightning, complete with thunder-clap, very loud and potentially dangerous. (I've made a note that the draw attention of the lightning eaters that the fighter mentioned offhand earlier on.) 

After the fight, they finish opening the entrance and peer down the stairs.  Dark, narrow, steep, slick with bat guano. The wizard casts light and sends it dancing down the stairs. I tell them that the stairs go down a bit and then a tunnel heads off to the right. I offer an opportunity and say that they don't hear any more squeaking or anything... if there are still bats down there, there aren't many and they aren't likely to be a threat. Do you head down?

The wizard brings the light back up into the stairwell itself and says "I'm moving the light around, studying the passage closely. What should I be on the lookout for?" 

I don't think there's anything in the stairwell, and I've already established that the bats are no longer a threat down there, but there's only so much the wizard could learn from outside the tunnel. So I tell them the requirements and ask and say "The stairs are pretty steep and they're going to be slick with bat guano, but beyond that you can't really tell from up here. You'd have to enter the stairwell itself and poke around if you want to learn more."  

They decide to just descend cautiously, the fighter going first, tapping each stair with the butt of his ax, staying alert. They ammonia smell is stronger down here, almost overpowering, but they get to the bottom of the stairs, no problem. That turns into a landing, and another set of stairs, and then I change the environment and describe the square room with the four columns.  There are hints of a mural on the wall, long faded, but no obvious exits or sarcophagi or anything like that. There's a thick carpet of guano down here, like almost up to your knees. It's super gross, you're all kind of retching.

The wizard spends some adventuring gear to produce kerchiefs for everyone, soaked in some lemon-scented water. They put them over their noses and mouths and enter the room. 

"I'll take a closer look at the pillars," says the wizard. They're smooth stone, marble, but each one has a metal ring inset around it, maybe six inches tall, flush with the stone. And each of those rings has a series of pictograms on them, going around each ring. Maybe a dozen pictograms on each one. I'm hinting at more than meets the eye. None of this was in my notes, but the map shows four pillars and a secret door in the floor, and the wizard's detail about clockwork & artifice made this room spring to life for me. I pretty much know exactly what's going on in here. 

I ask the fighter "what do you do?" and he says "I'm using the haft of my ax to poke around in the bat guano, looking for stuff that might be buried in there." "I'll do the same thing," says the ranger, "but with my bow."  

"Sounds to me like you're studying the situation closely, yeah? If you want to Discern Realities, ask a question from the list."

"Can we just poke around and see what we find?" the ranger asks.

"You can," I say, "but it's a big room and the guano's like a couple feet thick. You pretty quickly become sure that there's nothing really buried in it."  Then I stop, and think about it, and I decide to point to a looming danger. "Wait... no, you know what?  You do find something. Fighter, your feet kick something hard in there, but, y'know, not big. You fish it out?"  They do.  "It's a chunk of a human skull," I say. "Blackened and charred. You find more bones, too.  Scorch marks on them, but also small little bite marks all over, like razor bats gnawed on them.

"Do razor bats burn things?" asks the fighter. "Not that you know," I tell the ranger. I'm hinting at more than meets the eye now, not even waiting for the ranger trigger Spout Lore.  

I ask the wizard what she does, and she asks if she knows what's up with these rings on the pillars and the icons.  "Sounds like you're Spouting Lore? Roll it." She agrees and rolls a 7-9 so I reveal that they're a combination lock. The pictograms appear to be kind of nonsense, maybe the equivalent of "A, B, C, etc." But the rings spin around the pillars, and if you put the four rings in the right position, a lock opens. Sure enough, each pillar has a little triangular notch on it, right above the metal rings; that must be where you put the "right" symbol. I ask how she knows this and she talks about the ancient books that she found.

I jump back to the ranger and fighter, and ask what they do. "We just find the one skeleton?" asks the ranger. "Two, actually.  Well, bits of two skulls, and a whole bunch of other bones. Plus, maybe like a super-corroded bronze knife and helm?  You can't really be sure, but yeah, looks like two people died in here."

"Is there anything else in all this guano?" asks the Fighter. "Like a hidden door or anything?"

"Sounds like you're Discerning Realities, asking 'What here is not what it seems? If so, how are you trying to figure that out?"

"Same as I said before... going around, tapping on the floor with my ax head, listening for different sounds."

Now, I know that there's a secret trap door, right? And it's certainly not obvious... it was concealed before  the floor was covered in guano. But I start by telling him the requirements and asking. "It'll take a few minutes at least, and you'll have to roll +WIS, you do it?"  Sure, he says.

I ask the others what they're doing. The ranger says he helps the fighter (that'll be Aid to Discern Realities).

The wizard leaves the pillars alone for a moment and goes to study the murals. "Can I make these out at all?" I say they're pretty faded, you can barely make any shapes at all. "Huh. Well, I'll give a really close inspection. Like, I'm looking for a clue. Oh! Discern Realities, right?  What here is useful to me?"  That answer is not obvious at all, so I tell him to roll +WIS.  He gets a 7-9, so I tell him that the shape and pattern of the mural looks really familiar to him, and he thinks he's got a reproduction of that in one of his books, maybe? One you brought with you, maybe, if you expend Supplies to have it.

"Yeah, totally.  I'll get the book, carefully in this mess, and find the mural."

Meanwhile, I have the fighter roll to Discern Realities (with the ranger's help) to determine what isn't what it seems. They get a 10+, so, yeah, the fighter finds the secret door in the center of the floor, because it felt more metallic than like stone. The fighter expends 1 supplies to produce a shovel, and then starts clearing it.

Meanwhile, I have the ranger ask the next question. I then turn to the ranger and say "you got a 10+, and you were Aiding, so why don't you ask the next question." He asks "What here is most useful or valuable to me?" and I'm like not bloody much.

So I answer:"Well, I guess the bat guano itself is kind of valuable? You've heard of farmers using it as fertilizer, and sometimes wizards or alchemists have use for it, but it'd be a pain in the ass to get it all home, y'know?"

"Okay, well... what should I be on the lookout for?"

Ah!  There's a trap here, the thing that set those previous corpses on fire.  "You know, along the walls, almost buried under the guano but not quite, you find some... nozzles? Little metal nozzles coming out of the walls. They just sort of feel sinister to you. What do you do?"  He Has What He Needs to produce some beeswax (a small item, so he marks "out of beeswax" and then starts plugging the nozzles.  Smart! 

"Wizard, you get the book out and find the page. Sure enough, you find the engraving you were looking for, in the notes that led you to this place. I think maybe you found an old engraving plate engraving plate and had a print made, and it was definitely this mural. Like 4 separate pictures... a dude's portrait, a mountain, a sword, and a ship. They're laid out in a 2x2 grid."

"Oh, like the pillars?  I check the pillar on the far left corner. Are there any glyphs on it that would match up with the picture on the top left corner of the mural?"

Clever. "Are you like walking around it, or spinning the cylinder around, or what?"

"Huh? Oh, I'll spin it."

The thing is, I had decided that spinning those metal circles more than one "notch" would set off the trap. I decided these maybe ten minutes ago, but whatevs. The wizard just gave me a golden opportunity.

"Okay, well, as soon as you spin it more than like one or two icons, WHOOMP a big metal door slams shut over the entrance, it's super loud. And as you recover your hearing, ranger, you notice a... hissing sound? Coming from the nozzle you're just about to plug up. And then a sort of light gray, almost sparkly gas starts to mist out of it. What do you do?"

From there, it plays out like an action scene. The ranger tries to finish stopping up the nozzles. The fighter Bends Bars/Lifts Grates to get that big heavy door open, and the wizard Defies Danger with INT to figure out which symbols reflect the pictures from the murals, while the fighter then defies danger with CON to keep the door open while he figures that out, and they all succeed before the room fills with phlogiston and a sparker sets the whole thing ablaze.

Other considerations

If I make this change, I'll need to look at all the other moves that tweak Discern Realities.  In particular, I'm not sure how this will work with moves that let you always as a specific question for free, even on miss.  I'm thinking maybe if that's your trigger question, you get advantage on it?  

The other thing rolling around my head is an even bigger variation on the move:

When you closely study a situation or person, you can ask the GM one of the following:
  • What happened here recently?
  • What is about to happen?
  • What (else) should I be on the lookout for?
  • What here is (most) useful or valuable to me?
  • Who or what is really in control here?
  • What here is not what it appears to be?
If the answer isn't obvious, roll +WIS: on a 7+, the GM will answer honestly; on a 10+, also hold 2 Insight. You can spend Insight 1-for-1 to:
  • Ask another question about the situation from the list above, and get an honest answer
  • Gain advantage on a roll you make to act on the GM's answer(s) 
This means you would not get advantage to act on the answer on a 7-9, and that you only might get one a 10+.  It also means that asking each subsequent/additional question on the 10+ is a more active thing, and it doesn't have to immediately come after the first question or even flow from the initial act of studying the situation.  Finally, it makes the "get a bonus for acting on the answer" thing much more intentional, and less likely to be overlooked.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Hack & Slash, part II

I previously talked about Tinkering with Hack and Slash in order to make it a move that explicitly dealt with initiative and, in the process, address some of my beefs with the move as-written.

That led me to put some polls up on G+, and the responses (and ensuing discussions) led me to discard the initiative idea and and think more deeply about the move.

In the end, here's what I've come up with:

When you fight in melee or close quarters, roll +STR: on a 10+, your maneuver works as expected (deal your damage) and pick 1:
  • Evade, prevent, or counter the enemy's attack
  • Strike hard and fast, for 1d6 extra damage, but suffer the enemy's attack
On a 7-9, your maneuver works, mostly (deal your damage) but suffer the enemy's attack.

It's honestly not very different from the original Hack and Slash, but in the end, I don't think the move really needed much.

What problems am I trying to solve?

I said this in my previous post, but I think it's worth repeating:  
[I]t's always bugged me how utterly mechanical the player side of [Hack and Slash] is. You "deal your damage," and maybe evade the enemy's attack, but the move is silent regarding the momentum of the fight itself
Similarly: the move is silent regarding regarding any intent the player might have beyond murder. If I'm trying to cut myself free of a bunch of tentacles, or drive the orcs back through the doorway, or hold the doorway against their counter charge, or shield bash the one guard over the parapet and carry through with a lunge at the next guard... well, the text of Hack of Slash doesn't actually say diddly about the success of those maneuvers. It tells me I deal my damage.

Another issue that I didn't realize until late in the game: I don't like how the wording of Hack of Slash guides us to resolve attacks one at a time, somewhat blow by blow. I know, I know, it doesn't have to be that way. But I think that the trigger ("attack an enemy in melee") and the way that dealing damage works (roll damage, subtract from HP) kind of naturally lead us to that.

It's certainly been my experience that newer DW GMs, especially those coming from D&D, default into Hack and Slash as an exchange of HP, and even struggle against it when players get creative with their attacks. And I don't want that. I want fights that feel like Wayne Reynolds paintings.

except maybe with slightly more realistic stances
And I know how to get that sort of fight. Like, dramatic, high-tension, dynamic fights are my jam.

But as I'm working on Stonetop, and writing the Basic Moves chapter that explains how the moves work, I want to actually explain them. And I found that I couldn't really explain how to resolve and adjudicate Hack and Slash well without invoking a bunch of stuff that was not actually written into the move.

So, let's see if we can fix all that, huh?

Why the "initiative" model doesn't work

So, like I said, this was the idea that really got me going down this path:
When you fight in melee or close quarters, roll +STR: On a 7+, you make your attack (deal damage!) and suffer the enemy’s attack; on a 10+,  pick 2; on a 7-9,  pick 1 (but not the last one).

  • Your attack is powerful/fast/brutal: add +1d6 to your damage
  • You hold the initiative or give it to an ally; say what you do next, or who gets to go next
  • (10+ only) You evade/counter/prevent the enemy’s attack
The central conceit is: if you get a 7+ and choose to hold the initiative, then you get to "go" (or designate someone else to "go") as soon as the exchange is resolved. If you don't, then everyone looks to the GM to see what happens next, and that means the GM makes a soft move that you then need to react to.

Comments on the G+ post (see also, here and here) were a combo of "ooh, clever" and "this is weird/bad" and a fair amount of cautious "huh, interesting, but what about __."

One of the ways I like to work through a design problem is to write up mock "actual plays." Frame a situation, come up with some characters, and run through the hypothetical as if it was actual play. I did that here, and came away pretty happy with how the scene played out.

But... the comments in the threads (and in private conversation) still had me concerned about a few things.
  • It's definitely weird to have a single move (Hack and Slash) expressly dictate initiative, when none of the other moves do. (I was willing to accept that if the move otherwise worked well.)
  • It only "works" if a GM is consistent about making soft moves whenever the player doesn't choose the initiative. 
  • It has the potential to steal control of the spotlight from the GM.
I was concerned enough about those last two bullets that I went to G+ and posted a number of scenarios & polls, ultimately looking for consensus on whether GMs typically did or did not make a soft GM move after an 7+ exchange on Hack and Slash.  

The answers? All over the place.




There was very little consistency in how people responded. The first two scenarios had pretty clear majorities, sure, but not decisive majorities. Plus, the results flip-flopped between the first two scenarios.

  • In scenario #1, where the enemy's attack on the 7-9 was very hard and aggressive (following a series of aggressive GM moves), the majority would just shift focus and ask "what do you do?" (without another GM move).
  • In scenario #2, where the enemy's attack on the 7-9 was less aggressive, more of a typical "deal damage" sort of move, the majority would escalate a little with another GM move.
  • In scenario #3, where the PC got a 10+ and took one enemy out another was nearby, it's an even split (and the results have consistently swung between the 48 - 52 range on either side).  
There are a number of individuals who shifted positions between the three scenarios, indicating that the details of the scenario definitely mattered.  Plenty of folks explained their rationale in the comments, taking into account the hardness of the prior moves, the spotlight, and how grabby they felt the situation was already. 

(In case you're wondering where I come down, it'd be A, then B, then B.)

What I think was really interesting was how much of the reasoning came down to intangibles like personal style, pacing, and the personalities involved. I thought this comment from Michael Esperum (on scenario #1) was particularly enlightening:
It's actually about 50/50 for me, as who was playing the Ranger would have a strong effect on how I care to describe it. Hell, even who's playing the wizard who's accosted by tentacles would influence how I describe it.
By making Hack and Slash explicitly dictate initiative, I'd be taking away the GM's ability to modulate when and whether they make "additional" moves in melee combat, and these polls & discussions really made me appreciate just how important—and personal—that modulation is.

And also, let's face it:  the idea of having one move, and one move only, that specifically modulates the conversation that way... it is weird. The GM would still have to do all the spotlight managing and control the initiative after every other move a player might make, and while that might feel natural to me or another experienced DW GM, I can easily see it tripping up new GMs.  

Next iteration: "Achieve a tactical objective"

Having discarded the "hold the initiative" option, I went back to the core complaint I have about Hack and Slash as written: it doesn't say anything about non-murderous objectives.

So, why not just make that something you can pick? That gave me this:
When you fight in melee or close quarters, roll +STR: On a 7+, you make your attack (deal damage!) and suffer the enemy’s attack; on a 10+, pick 2; on a 7-9, pick 1 (but not the last one).
  • Your attack is powerful/fast/brutal: add +1d6 to your damage
  • You achieve some tactical objective (push them back, fight free, hold the line, etc.)
  • (10+ only) You evade/counter/prevent the enemy’s attack
I took that version of the move and re-ran through my "Barbarian, Wizard, and Thief try to escape from the Ghouls" scenario (full text here if you want, with commentary) Everywhere that the Barbarian chose to hold the initiative, I had him chose to achieve a tactical objective instead. 

What I found was that:
  • Having/holding the initiative didn't appear to affect the flow of the conversation that much. Now, maybe that's because I tend to make soft moves all the time during a fight, but still...
  • Achieving the tactical objective was, on the whole, a way better option for the PCs than holding the initiative. In this version, the Barbarian continued to hold that hallway until get got swamped. The end result was one less ghoul getting into the room at the end of the scenario, and the wizard thus not having his hand chomped off.  Subtle difference, but important. Moves snowball, right? 
So, I thought I was on to something.  

I still had nagging doubts, though, so back to the polls I went. This time, I was looking for how people did or did not resolve whether the tactical intents of Hack and Slash were met.  



There were a few things that jumped out at me:
  • In poll #4 (the bullywugs and the Cleric), the player got a 7-9 and the majority vote went to, basically, "you get part of your tactical objective, Cleric."  
  • In poll #5 (smashing the draugr off of the Bard), just how strong of a reaction there was for "yeah, the Fighter gets what they were after"
  • Also in poll #5, the comments about how the forceful tag really being key to the Fighter getting what they were after
  • Also in poll #5, just how many folks commented to the effect of "if the Fighter had a normal sword and was just trying to chop the draugr's arm off, this wouldn't be H&S, it'd be Defy Danger."  
(Also interesting: the discussion of whether the Cleric should have actually be Defending in the bullywug scenario, but that is a-whole-nother discussion.)

The H&S vs. DD conversation led to this last poll:


I'm not terribly surprised that the the majority went for Defy Danger on this instead of Hack and Slash. I _am_ pleasantly surprised that the Defy Danger crowd so overwhelmingly went for dealing damage. Because that resolution ends up looking a lot like Hack and Slash.

So... what did this tell me? It told me that when people did use Hack and Slash to resolve these matters, a hit meant the tactical objective was (at least mostly) achieved.  It told me that a not-insignificant group did naturally read these situations as H&S (which is my instinct). It re-affirmed that the damage roll itself wasn't (in most people's minds) the determiner of tactical objective.

Now, remember, the thing I was working on here (without really saying anything to anyone) was whether this move was a solid upgrade for H&S:
When you fight in melee or close quarters, roll +STR: On a 7+, you make your attack (deal damage!) and suffer the enemy’s attack; on a 10+, pick 2; on a 7-9,  pick 1 (but not the last one).
  • Your attack is powerful/fast/brutal: add +1d6 to your damage
  • You achieve some tactical objective (push them back, fight free, hold the line, etc.)
  • (10+ only) You evade/counter/prevent the enemy’s attack
So how would this move apply to the scenarios in the polls?  Pretty well.
  • On the bullywug example, the Cleric got a 7-9, so he'd be getting attacked but achieving the tactical objective of not letting them past.  Basically B or C in the poll.
  • On the druagr example, the Fighter got a 10+ and would almost certainly have chosen "evade enemy's attack" and "achieve objective," so... cool.  A it is.
  • On the hagr example, the likely outcomes with this version of H&S would have been:
    • 10+ achieve objective (cut self free) and evade attack
    • 7-9  achieve objective and get booted or hurled or otherwise knocked around for a lot of damage

So what's wrong with it?

There are few problems. 

For starters, "achieve a tactical objective" is like wickedly wide open, and I don't relish anyone having to dealing with crap like "well, my tactical objective is to cut his head off, so I pick that." So my next iteration was to reign that in, with something like:

When you fight in melee or close quarters, roll +STR: On a 7+, you make your attack (deal damage!) and suffer the enemy's attack; on a 10+, pick 2; on a 7-9 pick 1 (but not the last one).
  • Your attack is powerful/fast/brutal: add +1d6 to your damage
  • You create an opening or opportunity
  • You improve your secure your position
  • (10+ only) You evade/counter/prevent the enemy’s attack
That, I think, establishes an appropriate scope. I'll be honest, I quite like this one.  

But... it's H&S objectively "better" than RAW. If your objective really is just to kill your opponent, it's making the "extra d6 damage" option available for free on a 7-9. Attempts to reconcile that got... messy. I never came up with one that I liked. I could live with this, though, except for the other problems.   

This approach makes your tactical objective a binary. You get it or you don't. This rules out partially successful outcomes like option A with the bullywugs, where the Cleric intercepts two of them but the third gets past.  (I suppose one could always give the PC some of their tactical objective if they didn't pick it, but... eh?)

That thought got me to go back and look at the Barbarian and the Ghouls fight again. And this time, I noticed something. When the Barbarian got a 10+ to Hack and Slash, I was naturally giving him the full tactical objective he was after: driving back the ghouls. But on the 7-9, with the same general drive, my instinct was to have him fight off the ghouls and hold the hallway but get dragged down into a worse position. I think this mirrors a common theme in the poll results and conversations:  a 10+ is a clear success, so you should get what you were working towards; a 7-9 is mostly a success, but with complication.  

And finally: tags screw everything up. Say you've got a forceful weapon and you bash the draugr for X damage. You get a 10+ and pick extra damage and evade attack, but not "improve your position" or "create an opening or opportunity."  The forceful tag still implies that you're knocking the draugr around, which both improves your position and creates an opportunity to act. That's not necessarily wrong or bad, but it sort of undermines the structure of the move. It either makes the forceful and messy tags way more effective (often equating to an "extra pick" on a Hack & Slash) or it kind of nerfs them ("Well, you didn't choose to create an opening, so I think it's still in your face.") 

The problem with tags also got me thinking about the sheer variety of opponents PCs face in Dungeon World, and how their tags, qualities, and moves influence what is or isn't plausible, and how this version of the move could grind against that. Like, this version of the move is really quite close to Seize by Force and its variants in Apocalypse World and AW: Fallen Empires. But those games assume that the vast majority of fights will be against fundamentally human foes. PCs in Dungeon World, though, might be fighting soldiers, giant carnivorous plants, shambling undead, scrambling ghouls, relentless automata, oozes, ghosts, dragons, etc. If you make "Create an opening or opportunity" and "Improve or secure your position" options to pick when using Hack and Slash, the players feel entitled to those choices. And those choices might not be reasonable, depending on the foe. 

Like, imagine a Cleric, hammer and shield in hand, facing off against some wood woads:

One woad is advancing on the Cleric and friends. The Cleric steps up and says he smashes the thing on its face, clearly a Hack and Slash. Rolls a 10+. He's got full HP and 3 armor and feels pretty confident, so he goes for normal damage, creating an opening, and securing his position.  "Cool, how do you do all that?" "I think I smash it over the head, dazing it, then shield bash it back off its feet to knock it down."  

That's all cool, but my stats for the wood woad indicate that it's amorphous and therefore lacking significant anatomy. Hitting this thing on the head isn't going to daze it, because its "head" isn't where its "brain" is kept.  And it's got a monster move of "Grip the ground tightly, refusing to yield." So... do I negate the Cleric's choices?  Tell him to pick something else?  Give the player their choices and ignore my prep?  None of those feel good.  

A simple solution?

Which brings me back, finally, to what I think the right solution is for Dungeon World and the like: just make Hack and Slash explicitly resolve the success of the described action. Which gets us this:
HACK AND SLASH  When you fight in melee or close quarters, roll +STR: on a 10+, your maneuver works as expected (deal your damage) and pick 1:
  • Evade, prevent, or counter the enemy's attack
  • Strike hard and fast, for 1d6 extra damage, but suffer the enemy's attack
On a 7-9, your maneuver works, mostly (deal your damage) but suffer the enemy's attack.
The trigger is a little more encompassing ("fight in melee" instead of "attack an enemy in melee"). It takes the emphasis off of a single attack and makes it more about the overall struggle or conflict. An exchange between duelists, a flurry of blows, wading into a crowd of enemies and slashing all over, parrying a thrust and quickly riposting to the face... I think these should all be Hack and Slash and all feel better captured by "fight in melee" than "attack in melee."  (The "or close quarters" is there  to make it clear that a grapple or other close combat still counts, even if you use the traditional definition of "melee" as a chaotic fight among several combatants.)

The 10+ and 7-9 results indicate that "your maneuver" works, rather than specifically mentioning tactical objectives or initiative or position or anything like that. This means that the onus is on the player to get creative and descriptive with their attacks if they want to accomplish anything beyond "hurt them/don't get hurt."  That is both good and bad.  It encourages creativity and visualizing the fight, but it also privileges assertive players and penalizes players for whom visualizing violence doesn't come naturally.

Ultimately, though, I think this approach is a net win, because it also gives the group a chance to set expectations before the roll.  Tags, monster traits, and fictional positioning should all play into those expectations. Vanilla, RAW Hack and Slash involves a moment of judgement regarding "can you even hurt this thing?" This approach requires some judgment regarding what you're trying to accomplish and what's a reasonable expectation for the outcome.

Like, going back to our Cleric vs. wood woad example above... if the cleric just said "I step forward and smash its head with my hammer," then I don't think there's much to discuss. The expectation seems to be "hurt this thing" with an unstated "don't get hurt back." No worries.

But if the Cleric says "I step forward and smash its head with my hammer to daze it, then shield-bash it back away from my friends," then we probably need to set some expectations, yeah?  "So, this thing isn't like a person, right? It's an animated tree-thing. You might not think of this in the moment, but smashing its head isn't going to anything special, and its feet are like putting down roots every time it takes a step. You sure you want to do that?"

Or, maybe you don't set those expectations up front. You just say "cool, Hack and Slash" and then on a 10+, their maneuver works as expected. They do smash the thing in the "head" and they do shield bash it, and then you reveal that this thing isn't really phased by either part of that maneuver.  They still learned something.  Depending on the players, this might still feel a little crappy, but it feels a lot less crappy than if they rolled 10+, picked an option like "create an opening" and then you told them "yeah, that does nothing."

On a 7-9, the statement "your maneuver works, mostly" gives the GM plenty of room for interpretation. It might mean that the PC gets only some of their tactical objective or suffers fallout from it (e.g. the Cleric engaging 2 of the 3 bullywugs, or the Barbarian holding the hallway from the ghouls but getting dragged down by them).  It might just meant that you exposed yourself to attack, but otherwise got the result you were looking for. I think that's just right.

So... how is that different from Defy Danger?

When I first posted this version of the move, Addramyr Palinor observed:
Hmm wouldn't that blur the distinction between [Hack & Slash] and [Defy Danger] a bit much? "I'm trying to shield bash the orc to shove it away hopefully make it fall down the cliff". RAW that'd be a [Defy Danger]. The way your move is written it could be both. 
It's a fair concern.

The thing is, the line is already blurry. That shield-bash against the orc already looks an awful lot like an "attack in melee" to me. I don't think this blurs the line any further. It just means that, if you do resolve it using Hack and Slash, the move explicitly tells you that, yes, your shield bash works (as expected, or mostly), which it never did before.

I think the line between Defy Danger and Hack and Slash will always be blurry. There will always be a moment of judgement regarding whether you're fighting in melee or close quarters (or, RAW, attacking an enemy in melee) or whether you're acting despite an imminent threatThat's because trying to stab or punch or otherwise harm someone who is aware, alert, willing, and able to fight back is always acting despite an imminent threat. Like:

{edit Sept 3, 5:09pm US Central time: added this to clarify when I think each applies, and how they are different}

I think the key things that make a maneuver H&S instead of DD are:

  • You are trying to hurt someone(s) at hand-to-hand range 
  • There is some plausible chance of hurting them
  • They are are able and willing to fight back

That's always been true of H&S, right?  What this change does, though, is have Hack and Slash "claim" situations in which you are both trying to hurt someone and get something else out of it.  You don't have go "what you really trying to do here?"  Is this violence? Hack and Slash.

On the resolution side, H&S and Defy Danger are quite similar. 10+ yay! 7-9 yay, but....  The key differences are:
  • Hack and Slash is always STR (unless something like the precise tag changes that)
  • For Hack and Slash, dealing damage is guaranteed on a 7+ (whereas it's entirely a product of the fiction in Defy Danger)
  • Hack and Slash has that interesting player choice on the 10+ (extra damage vs. avoid counter attack); Defy Danger is just "you do it."  
  • Hack and Slash promises the enemy's attack on a 7-9 (as opposed Defy Danger's more generalized "worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice)
All of those differences are still there in my revised version of Hack and Slash. The only thing I'm really adding to the mix is that I'm having the move resolve what you set out to do, above and beyond dealing damage.

{end edit}

Also, note that it "fails" gracefully. If your table can't decide "is this Hack and Slash or is this Defy Danger," you'll be on solid footing either way you go.  If you pick H&S, you're committing to damage and the likelihood of an enemy's attack. If you go with DD, you're committing to "yeah, yo do it," and dealing damage only if it's fictionally obvious that you would, and giving yourself a wider range out of options for trouble on a 7-9. 

(Note: when I first posted this revision, here, I had it as "deal your damage if appropriate." But in retrospect, I think that's a step too far. If you're fighting, then you are attempting to overcome your enemy and there is a decent chance that you will hurt them, maybe badly. Don't want to hurt them? Don't Hack and Slash.)

Wasn't this a lot of words (and work) for such a minor change?

Yes.  Yes it was.

Sometimes design sucks. Sometimes you spend a awful lot of time and energy ruling out possibilities until you come right back to where you started.