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. 


  1. I've been using this for about three sessions now, and so far it works well. I suspect that it's making the PCs more powerful (as they're getting the specific manoeuvre as well as the damage), but I prefer that to the previous version where it was never clear if their specific manoeuvre should have significant effect or not.

    1. Awesome, thanks for the feedback, Rob.

      Sorry for the late reply... this was caught in moderator limbo (which I didn't realize existed).

      Have you still be using this revision? Any further insights?