Comments and Afterthoughts on Random Action Sequences in Dungeon World

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Yesterday I posted some ideas for using dice to “roll for initiative” in Dungeon World. Some comments came in after posting that made me want to clarify a few things. This article focuses on issues around individual initiative and what happens if the monsters go first. At the time of this writing, no one has taken issue with methods 4 or 5.

What if a player triggers a golden opportunity during their move, and the obvious consequence would be a monster move out of sequence?

None of the above was intended to break the rules of Dungeon World, so golden opportunities would trump “turn sequence”. There are a bunch of ways to handle it:

1) The referee uses the golden opportunity to set up the next character in the sequence.

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “It bites down and swings your flailing body toward Paladin. Roll 2d12 and take damage from the higher roll, plus 5. Paladin, what do you do?”

Paladin (going at 7): “Uh, I get out of the way fast!”

GM: “Sounds like you’re Defying Danger. Roll +DEX.”

2) We cut to the next character in sequence, and we hang in suspense to find out the fate of the character who triggered the golden opportunity.

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “Okay. Paladin, what are you doing while the dragon is distracted?”

Paladin (going at 7): “I, uh, what’s going on with Thief?”

GM: “Do you want to hesitate to study the situation closely, or take advantage of the distraction?”

Paladin: “No way! I drive my longsword into the webbing between her toes. ‘Go back to the hell that brought you forth, Dragon Gehenna, you blight on the land!’”

GM: “To do that you risk getting hit by her tail.”

Paladin: “So it’s Hack and Slash? I got 11! And 7 damage.”

GM: “Ouch! Your blade pierces between the scales into ropy muscles, and blood bubbles forth smoking on the ground. The dragon draws its wounded foot back, tucking it under a coil.” (Making the dragon’s move on 6) “Okay Thief, the she swallows you whole. Roll 2d12 and take damage from the higher roll, plus 5. Also, you are stunned. It’s dark in here, tight, and you can barely move or breathe.”

Thief: “You mean the stunned debility?”

GM: “No, I meant ‘stun damage’ on page 22. You have to Defy Danger to do anything, until you get out of the dragon.”

3) Make the monster move right away, as an interruption to the sequence. The random sequence was just to add spice anyway, not an 11th commandment or anything.

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “As you gaze into the maw, you see two rows of dagger length fangs and a throat big enough to drop a wagon wheel into. Are you sure you want to do that?”

Thief: “I don’t care. I’ve got to earn Paladin’s trust and she’s on a quest to slay Gehenna, isn’t she?”

GM: “Got it. As you steel yourself in front of the maw, you hear a sound like a giant bellows as she draws in a gale of breath. She opens wide and you put your head the dragon’s mouth just as an explosion of flame erupts from within. Take your Last Breath. Everyone in front of the dragon roll 2d12 and take damage from the higher roll, plus 5.”

Thief: “I got a 7.”

GM: “The Black Gate opens onto a burning plane. You see someone who died before whose name you know. Who is it?”

Thief: “It’s Nixxon, the master of the Thieves Guild. ‘Nixxon, what are we doing here? What’s going on?’”

GM: “Nixxon says ‘Death sent me with a message for you. He said you can go back, but if you go back you will always bear the fire of Gehenna within you, and the touch of water will forevermore bring you suffering.’ What do you do?”

Thief: “That sounds cool. I go back.”

GM: “Paladin, the dragon turns and drop Thief’s roasting carcass on the coin-littered floor before you. What do you do?”

Rolling for initiative has drawbacks.

I’m aware that individual initiative can create other obstacles to the immersive conversation of play. For example: Players stop talking about what their characters say and think and play switches into a tactical mini-game. Or players who know it’s not their “turn” lose interest in the fiction until their “turn” comes, and then they need to be briefed on the situation again. Or the cool thing a player wants to do has to wait until another character or event sets it up, and you have to “hold” your action, which is dumb and boring—especially if the event doesn’t happen.

I admit I’ve seen all of these situations come up in game with random action sequencing, and none of them in Dungeon World. Still, I wonder if it’s the problem is inherent in the technique or whether it’s cultural. Or both.

LotFP Weird Fantasy has countdown initiative like I outlined above, only with everyone rolling a d6, and when we played that it worked well without the problems I laid out above. My hunch is that those issues are escalated by using a tactical grid in combat instead of theatre of the mind.

But there’s no denying that the conversation in Dungeon World combat holds everyone’s attention in a way that I haven’t seen in games that randomize the action sequence.

What if the monsters go first?

Here are some more examples from the conversation on Reddit.

Suppose the dragon’s initiative roll beats the Thief and Paladin’s, and the GM makes a hard move:

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “You stand in terror as a terrible gust rushes past you into Gehenna’s nostrils. Before you can react, you are surrounded with gouts of fire as hot as a forge. Who’s closest?”

Thief, shyly: “I am.”

GM: “Roll 2d12 and take the higher die in damage, plus 5. Your clothes and gear and skin are all on fire. Everyone else in front of the monster, I’d say this is a calamity. Thief, you’re up. What do you do?”

Thief (going at 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “If you do nothing about being on fire, it’s going to hurt. Is that really what you want to do?”

Thief: “At this point I’m toast anyway, and if I’m going out, I at least want to give my friends a shot at killing this thing.”

GM: “Okay, Gehenna bites down and revels in swinging your flailing figure to the left and right. Take roll 2d12 and take the higher die in damage again, plus 6 because of your burning gear. Paladin, you see the dragon’s left pinion is vulnerable while she’s distracted, but you’ll have to get through the inferno to hit it. What do you do?”

But if the monster makes a soft move, isn’t it just flummery?

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “You stand in terror as a terrible gust rushes past you into Gehenna’s nostrils. Before you can react, you are surrounded with gouts of fire as hot as a forge. Thief, you’re closest. What do you do?

Thief (going on 8): “I duck the fireball and run toward the dragon’s junk. I imagine that it comes out like a cone, so it’s safer under her jaws than it is over here, right?”

GM: “Yeah. She’s on all fours and you don’t see any junk, but you can make a dash to get under her forelegs. Sounds like Defy Danger. Roll +DEX.”

Thief: “I got an 8.”

GM: “You manage to get through the fire with a few singes and a sunburn—take d4 damage—but Gehenna lifts her forefoot and pins you under it with the strength of two lions.”

Thief: “At least I’m not toast!”

GM: “Paladin, this is a calamity for you too. What do you do?”

Paladin (going on 7): “I, uh, I duck behind my shield!”

GM: “That sounds like you’re enduring. Roll +CON.”

Or, keeping with the golden opportunity, making a soft move with the dragon might look like this:

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “You stand in terror as a terrible gust rushes past you into Gehenna’s nostrils. Before you can react, you are surrounded with gouts of fire as hot as a forge. Thief, you’re closest. What do you do?”

Thief (going on 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to distract her!”

GM: “To get there, you need to charge directly into the blast. Is that what you want?”

Thief: “I’ve cheated Death twice already. Might as well go for the hat trick!”

GM: “Okay, you take the highest die of 2d12 damage, plus 5. Your clothes and gear and skin are all on fire. Paladin, this is a calamity for you to. What do you do?”

Thief: “Did I get my head in her mouth, or not?”

GM: “You sure did, but at this point everyone else just sees your silhouette charge into the flame and disappear.”

Another possible soft move with the dragon that would change the situation entirely:

GM (making the dragon’s move on 10): “As you stand in terror before the beast, you hear a sharp intake of breath. She opens her mouth, and… speaks! ‘Paladin, don’t kill me. I’ve been cursed! I’m your mother!’ Thief, you’re the first to gather your mettle. What do you do?”

Thief (going on 8): “I put my head in the dragon’s mouth to plug her lying pie-hole!”

Doesn’t this allow the dragon to kill the thief without the player even rolling a Miss on a Move?

Note that in the examples, the Thief put her head in the dragon’s mouth. But even without that, the Thief was in a bad spot already: she was standing close enough to put her head in the dragon’s mouth.

The examples started en media res, so you we didn’t see how the Thief got there. But if it happened at my table, that would have either been a sneaky move that failed or the referee telling them the consequences and asking—“The dragon’s eyes widen in astonishment and her nostrils flare as you brazenly stroll up to get close enough to touch her. You sure about this?”

It’s not losing initiative that got her into that position, it was getting close to a dragon—the Solitary, Huge, Terrifying, Cautious, and obviously Ready For Them kind. If it was a Sleeping, Sedated, Poisoned, Tied Up With Adamantium Ropes, Itty Bitty, Stupid, Meek, or Surprised dragon, this would be a different story.

It’s crucial for the referee to “show signs of an approaching threat” or “point to a looming threat” early and often. If they get to the point where you would roll for initiative in D&D, they should have seen it coming a mile away.

Wouldn’t the initiative sequence become a deterministic force that trumps fiction and rules?

That’s not what I had in mind, no. Like any roll of the dice in Dungeon World, the players and referee would have to interpret the result in light of the current fiction, informed by the rules. If there’s no way someone could go before everyone else, they don’t roll.

The upshot is, I’ve realized something. If it included individual initiative or monsters going first, “Roll For Initiative” would have to be a player-facing move with a clearly-defined trigger based in the fiction.

Comments on Reddit/r/DungeonWorld

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