Saturday, May 25, 2019

Defy Danger, Restated

For Homebrew World v1.5, I've rewritten Defy Danger as follows:

I've been thinking about this move a lot the past few weeks, inspired largely by this post on the Gauntlet Forums, but also this old post from the PbtA G+ Community

I think the salient points of those conversations boil down to:

  • Defy Danger's trigger is incredibly broad and thus can arguably be triggered by just about any action with a modicum or risk
  • The move itself doesn't necessarily prompt players to say or do interesting things. It just serves as a fallback task resolution mechanic.
  • It sort of gives license to players to try ridiculous things, with the presumption that on a 10+ it'll work with no consequence. 
  • The 10+ result doesn't really do much to change the situation. It more deflates tensions ("phew") than pushes the game in a new direction. 
  • It'd arguably be more interesting if the move wasn't there at all, and when a character did something risky or dangerous that otherwise wasn't covered by another basic move, the GM presented a hard bargain or ugly choice, or just say what happened and follow up with another soft move, escalating until move is triggered.
I can see where a lot of where this is coming from. I do think it's easy (especially for newer GMs) to over-invoke Defy Danger, calling for a roll when the stakes aren't very interesting (I know I've done it).  I think it might be nice if the move somehow encouraged more dynamic or surprising outcomes (the way that Keep Your Cool does in Monsterhearts 2e) or at least more interesting actions (e.g. if "I dodge out of the way" wouldn't trigger it, but "I duck under his blade and dart inside his guard!" would).  

This revision doesn't get all the way, but I'm not entirely certain that any revision could get there without significantly restructuring the game. The move is simply doing to much. Instead, I'm going for: 
  • A clearer trigger
  • Better descriptions of when to use each stat
  • A more reasonable 10+ description
  • A 7-9 result that provides better guidance

The trigger

So, here's the original trigger for Defy Danger:
When you act despite an imminent threat or suffer a calamity, say how you deal with it and roll.
And here's mine:
When the stakes are high, danger looms, and you act anyway, roll...
This is basically just rephrasing "when you act despite an imminent threat," but I think it's better because it clarifies that the stakes need to be high before the danger matters. If I'm walking a tightrope, there's an imminent threat that I fall off it. But if it's only 5 feet off the ground and no one's chasing me and I'm not trying to impress anyone and I can just try again... well, whatever? Don't roll. Right?

For experienced players and GMs, I don't think this would change how or when Defy Danger gets triggered. But for newer players and GMs, I hope it will at least push play in the right direction, towards high stakes and danger looming and awesome characters acting anyway, rather than toward... skill checks, I guess. 

You will notice that this version of the move doesn't have anything like the "suffer a calamity" clause that the original version does. Mostly, it's because I don't think it's necessary.  If you suffer a calamity (your arm is cut off, you fall down a slope, your caught in a gout of dragonfire, you're poisoned, whatever), then whatever you do next, the stakes are almost certainly high and danger is almost certainly looming.  I.e. you're going to Defy Danger anyhow, unless you just lay down and die.  So why do we need this move?

A couple folks I talked to suggested that the "suffer a calamity" cause is there to determine just how bad an injury or other calamity is.  Like, if you get stabbed by a poison dagger, Defy Danger with CON to see how badly the poison affects you. 

To which I respond: meh. I guess if your GM move was Deal Damage and you knew the enemy had a poison dagger, that maybe would make sense and work?  But Deal Damage is a Crap Move, and in HBW it's replaced with "Hurt Them."  If my move was "Hurt Them" with a poisoned dagger, I'm going to hurt them:  "That cut on you arm is burning, way worse than it should, and you start to feel your muscles seize up, your vision is going blurry... you've been poisoned, you're sure! What do you do?"  And then whatever they do next, the stakes are high and danger looms, so Defy Danger, yeah?

That stat descriptions

In the original Defy Danger: 
...say how you deal with it. If you do it...
  • powering through, +Str
  • getting out of the way or acting fast, +Dex
  • enduring, +Con
  • ...with quick thinking, +Int
  • ...through mental fortitude, +Wis
  • ...using charm and social grace, +Cha

In this version, it's:
...and you act anyway, roll...
  • +STR to power through or test your might 
  • +DEX to employ speed, agility, or finesse
  • +CON to endure or hold steady
  • +INT to apply expertise or enact a clever plan
  • +WIS to exert willpower or rely on your senses
  • +CHA to charm, bluff, impress, or fit in 

It's mostly just a rephrasing, but I think these do a better job of reflecting how the stats actually get used. For example, every GM I've ever played with has called for DEX to Defy Danger by moving silently or hiding in shadows... even though it isn't covered by "getting out of the way or acting fast."  It would be covered by agility or finesse.

On a 10+...

In the original Defy Danger, the 10+ clause is:
On a 10+, you do what you set out to, the threat doesn’t come to bear.
I think the wording is pretty weird, but the real problem, I think, is that implies that a 10+ is consequence-free: "the threat doesn't come to bear."  I haven't seen it much myself, but I can easily imagine that leading to declarations like "He swings the club at me?  I just grit my teeth and take it!" with the assumption that a 10+ means he'll be fine and shrug off the blow.

Now, obviously, this is the sort of place for player-level conversation and GM moves like tell them the consequences and ask.  "You're just gonna take the hit?  I mean, okay, but you'll be Defying Danger with CON and it's gonna be like d8+3 damage even if you get a 10+. You sure?" 

But it'd be better if the move itself tempered expectations. Hence:
On a 10+, you pull it off as well as one could hope.
I guess you could get into some annoying conversations like "well, I can hope for quite a lot!" But at the very least, it's setting an expectation of "within reasonable limits."

On a 7-9...

In the original Defy Danger, the 7-9 clause is:
On a 7–9, you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

Okay, first of all:  "stumble, hesitate, or flinch" has always been my least favorite line in any of the basic moves. It describes a fictional outcome, and then implies that said fictional outcome leads directly into the worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice. Well, first of all: stumbling, hesitating, or flinching doesn't make sense as a fictional outcome in many of the cases that involve Defying Danger.  I mean, yeah, you can make it fit, if you really try to. But it's work. And in my experience, when I've tried to keep stumble/hesitate/flinch in mind, it's actively made it harder to come up with good, interesting results that are still fundamentally a success.

The "stumble, hesitate, or flinch" clause makes a lot more sense in Apocalypse World's Act Under Fire move. But that move is all about keeping your cool, as opposed powering through/acting quickly/all the other ways to Defy Danger. And even in AW, the example 7-9 results ignore the "stumble, hesitate, or flinch" part and just go straight to worse outcome/hard bargain/ugly choice.

So: gone. It's actually been gone from both Homebrew World and Stonetop from almost the beginning. 

More importantly:  the "worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice" part of the move has never felt like it offered particularly good guidance to GMs.  The number of G+ conversations, Reddit posts, conversations on the old Barf Forth forums, etc. that have stemmed from that phrasing are numerous. 

My take on it has always been:

  • Worse outcome: you do the thing, but the outcome isn't as good as you'd hoped. 
  • Hard bargain:  "You can do it, but..."  Basically, tell them the cost or the consequences and give them a chance to back off.
  • Ugly choice:  They do it, but it doing it, they have to pick between two or more consequences or costs.  
The distinction between "hard bargain" and "ugly choice" is fuzzy, and not necessarily helpful to the GM.   Also: it's easy for a new GM or player to read "worse outcome" as "worse than you when you started" and not "worse than what you were hoping for" and that's not right at all. It's important to remember that a 7-9 is still fundamentally successful. 

Both the hard bargain and the ugly choice involve costs or consequences, or maybe a lesser successes.  So... why not just say that? But there's still value in those "you can do it, if" and "well, you can do it, but either __ or __."  That led me to this:
On a 7-9, you can do it, but the GM will present a lesser success, a cost, or a consequence (and maybe a choice between them, or a chance to back down).
This wording:

  1. Establishes that they can do the thing (fundamentally a success, right?)
  2. Replaces "worse outcome" with "lesser success" (clearer, reinforces that that it's still fundamentally a success)
  3. Puts the cost or consequence right in there, in plain language
  4. Keeps the possibility of a hard bargain or ugly choice. 

In summary

I don't think this really changes Defy Danger significantly. I hope that it makes it clearer, and easier to use, and helps set appropriate expectations.  

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