Stealth in Dungeon World

I was asked to write a post about stealth in Dungeon World. Stealth is tricky for many newcomers to the system, and I can honestly understand the confusion. So, here’s stealth from my point of view.

The “problem” with stealth…

… is that it isn’t really covered by neither basic, starting nor advanced moves. A lot of people think that it is a sort of Defy Danger using DEX, but it really isn’t, as they aren’t “defying danger getting out of the way or acting fast”. OK, some cases exist where this is the case, but that sort of implies that you are about to get discovered, and it doesn’t cover all stealth situations. You could house-rule it to work like this, but I recommend not to. I’ll explain why in a bit.

Some seems to think that stealth is an excellent opportunity to make highly specific custom moves, with triggers like “when you sneak your way into the duke’s castle…” or “when hide yourself in a barrel…” and similar. While custom moves are always nice, this means that you specifically have to prepare every stealth roll in advance, for every situation and for every way of “stealthing”. That’s a lot of work and is frankly not feasible. You can’t prepare for everything. Play to find out, right?

Instead, my recommendation is to use…

GM moves!

This is the most “elegant” way of handling it in my opinion, as it makes you able to react to an unforeseen stealth situation, no prep required. I’m not talking about hard moves here, but making a chain of soft moves to explain the situations helps the players know what’s at stake, and lets them find “smart ways” to solve problems instead of relying on the dice. Unless they find a way to exploit a move they have that requires a roll of course.

To really illustrate what I mean I’ll give an example on how to do this:

Castor (the human fighter): OK, I take off my scale mail. Does the armor of the guard i just stabbed fit me?
GM: What?! Why?
Castor: I figured sneaking in would save us a lot of hassle. But I’d prefer being at least clad in some armor, some that won’t attract attention.
GM: Oh, good point! Yeah, it sort of fits. It’s a bit tight around the crotch, but otherwise it fits just fine. You’ll have to wipe off the blood first though.

GM move here is “offer an opportunity, with or without a cost”. In this case without a cost.

Lanethe (the elven ranger): While Castor dons the armor, I’ll scout ahead, looking for an easy entry to the Duke’s castle.
GM: You move through the undergrowth, and before long the castle is in sight. A few guards is taking rounds on horses, and a few are guarding the main gate. Around the castle is a somewhat wide moat. What do you do?

Reveal an unwelcome truth…

Lanethe: Can I spot some other entrances from here?
GM: No, not from here, you’re too far away. Maybe if you sneak closer to the castle, but that would risk pulling attention from the guards.

Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask…

Lanethe: OK, I mark a use from my Adventuring Gear to produce a spyglass. Close enough now?
GM: Fair enough! Well, looking closer, you see that there’s an open window above the moat on one side of the castle. If you could find a way to breach the gap, then you could easily get through. But you’d need to create a distraction first, otherwise the rider could easily spot you. What do you do?

Another offered opportunity, but this time with a cost, or more correctly, a requirement.

Lanethe: Well, I’m sure that I have a grappling hook and a rope in my Adventuring Gear, in case that is necessary. I head back to the others and tell them what I’ve found.
GM: OK, Lanethe has returned and told both of you what she has learned. What do you do?
Robard (the halfling druid): So we just need to create a distraction? I could easily provide that.
Castor: Without raising the alert?
Robard: Sure! I’ll just shapeshift into a wolf and scare the horses! That should keep them preoccupied!
Lanethe: And then I’ll throw my grappling hook through the window, so we can climb in. Robard can turn into a bird and fly through afterwards.
Castor: OK, that’s the plan then. Lanethe and I will go into position and wait for the distraction!
GM: OK, you two wait for a while. Robard! You see the two riders come close to your hideout behind some bushes near the edge of the woods! What do you do?
Robard: I turn myself into a fearsome and savage wolf, of course! I call on a wolf spirit and demands that it changes my form!
GM: Roll+WIS then!

Notice that this is the first roll, because the no player had triggered a move until now. Robard rolls a 9.

GM: A spirit wolf appears and leaps into you, changing your shape to that of a big, red wolf, as by your tell! You get two hold. What do you do?
Robard: Oh yeah, I go red when I shapeshift… No matter! I leap out in front of the horses, growling as I go. Can I spend a hold to leap and go for the throat on one of the horses?
GM: Sure! You feel your fangs penetrate the soft flesh, the warm blood starts pouring out of you. The horse rears and collapses, whinnying. The other horse rears as well, nearly throwing off its rider. The rider on the ground rushes to his feet, and with fear in his eyes he draws a longsword! The other rider draws her sword as well! What do you do?

Putting Robard in a spot. If he uses his last hold to defend himself, he will revert to his halfing form. If he does nothing, they’ll probably hurt him really bad.

Robard: I have no idea why I didn’t see this coming. I flee back into the woods. Can I spend hold to outrun them?
GM: Well, yes, but only briefly as you will revert. What do you do?
Robard: Well, I do it! I flee back into the woods and hide behind a tree, then reverts.
GM: Well, it happens as you say. As you get behind the tree, you feel the spirit wolf pulling free from your body. You have returned to your halfling self. The remaining rider is close behind you though, and you only have seconds before she’ll catch up with you, and subsequently put two and two together. What do you do?

Keeping up the pressure by keeping him locked in the situation as what he did didn’t actually solve anything, with the exception of giving him a chance to inconspicuously shapeshift into a bird…

Robard: I turn into a raven by calling on a raven spirit in my mind!
GM: Roll!

Robard rolls a 7.

Robard: Phew! I fly back towards the castle!
GM: In the meantime, Lanethe and Castor has climbed through the window, unnoticed as far as they know. You are currently standing in a larder. A moment later, a red raven flies through the window. You have now all successfully entered the castle, and to your knowing without discovery. You all hear some chatter outside. It sounds like a kitchen crew bantering about some porridge. You hear a female voice saying “I’ll just go fetch some more flour from the larder!” Someone yells in consent. What do you?

Reveal an approaching threat, namely the threat of discovery…

That’s it!

The above would continue until a player triggered a move and rolled a miss or gave me a golden opportunity, in which case I would make a hard move instead of a soft one. I left that out from the example, but one remark on hard moves in stealth situations; it is all too easy to make a hard move into a “you get discovered!” move.

While it makes sense in many situations, it can also feel like the players did a lot of work for no gain, especially if a lot of other obstacles on the way was handled with significant cost to the party, like using scrolls to avoid rolling to cast spells or equipment from Adventurer Gear. Keep that in mind and be a fan of the characters!

But that’s not all!

As a finishing remark, I’d like to point out that stealth isn’t really a “special” situation in Dungeon World. A lot of stuff isn’t covered by player moves, such as hunting and foraging in the wilderness or navigating underground caverns. No matter the situation, it is important to understand one simple thing about Dungeon World (and Apocalypse World hacks in general): It is all about the conversation!

While Dungeon World doesn’t have a strict turn structure, it is important realize that there is an assumption on how the conversation is supposed to be structured:

1) The GM makes a move and asks “What do you do?”
2) The players respond.
3) If the players triggered a move, resolve it immediately.
4) Go back to 1.

More formally, a guy named Matteo Suppo formulated it as a flowchart for Apocalypse World, but it should apply equally to Dungeon World. The flowchart can be seen here.

I made one myself, much in the same way, to help new GMs understand the implied “turn structure” of Apocalypse World-based games. It can be viewed here.

Happy sneaking!

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About Undreren

I'm a university student from Denmark, currently taking my candidate degree in Mathematical-Economics. I have played pen & paper RPG's since 2004, but my interest for the phenomenon sparked about 3 years prior to that. I'm an amateur programmer and knows Java and Haskell as well as some rudimentary HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript.

9 responses to “Stealth in Dungeon World”

  1. Andrea says :

    Very nice article, Undreren.
    Still, I feel that sometime stealth is a simpler thing than you picture it.
    Sometime, it isn’t a full silent burst-in scene; sometime, the character is in a narrow alley, and he simply wants to wait the the guard is turned away, then jump from a roof ledge to the facing roof, and then silently move on, OR make a soft, silent run and a well placed hit in the guard’s back.
    So you simply need a good Defy Danger (Dex?) to avoid be heard (the “danger”), and if the character get a success, he’s right behind the guard, ready for a satisfactory backstab, OR he’s silent as he’s hoping for, ready to pass the danger and move on.
    Now, the question is: is backstab, in this moment of fiction, an hack-n-slash move? Or is it a simple “do the maximum damage without rolling”? Or is an insta-kill? The answer can be the excuse for another article… 😀

    • Undreren says :

      There’s nothing “wrong” with using Defy Danger to handle stealth, not if it makes sense you to handle it that way. It is however entirely possible to handle problems in a way such that you’re not really facing any danger.

      For example, if you hide behind a box, there’s no danger of being discovered, unless those you’re hiding from suddenly decide to come your way. This is something for you have absolutely no control over, and there’s nothing to defy. No matter how well you roll on a Defy Danger roll, that person will still come your way.

      I don’t see why you think my approach isn’t simple. It’s simply just following the fiction, something we already spend the entire session doing. It doesn’t have to be an all out stealth situation to still apply.

      You example on hiding in an alley, doesn’t make sense to me. The way you are putting it, the hiding person is already “in place”, and merely needs to stand still. That’s not particularly difficult, it’s easy as pie!

      You’re only acting despite a danger or calamity, if your action implies exactly that danger. Not making a sound doesn’t imply a chance to be heard.

      Dashing on the other hand DOES imply the danger of being heard, so “acting fast” with DEX makes total sense.

      As for the backstabbing thing, I think the answer is already given in the book. Read page 58:

      “Hack and slash is for attacking a prepared enemy plain and simple. If the enemy isn’t prepared for your attack—if they don’t know you’re there or they’re restrained and helpless—then that’s not hack and slash. You just deal your damage or murder them outright, depending on the situation. Nasty stuff.”

      My biggest gripe with the “handle it with Defy Danger” is that it isn’t very nuanced. Use Defy Danger when it makes sense, i.e. when your action implies a danger, and makes soft moves (or hard moves when you get a golden opportunity) when it doesn’t. That’s my opinion on it.

      • ishmadrad says :

        You wrote “I don’t see why you think my approach isn’t simple”. Sorry, I was misunderstood – language barrier 😦
        I was meaning that “not everytime you have to build a whole scene of a party acting stealthy, sometime you face *stealthy situations* you can resolve with a simple Defy Danger”.
        Also, in my two examples, I see the necessity of a “stealth roll” (translated, a Defy Danger move), because the big problem here is “The guard can hear me, so the plan crumble”.
        >> If you are silently jump from a roof to another, you don’t have to do it “fast”, you have to do it “silently”, so the guard keep walking and ignoring you. Of course I still use roll+Dex, ’cause I feel that as the best characteristic to face the problem, however if the player come with a better idea, I can go with that (example: the player tells me “I search for the softest part of the roof, so when I jump, I land on a soft surface, making no noise”, than I could roll+Wis, or maybe roll+Int, to find the soft roof part; now Dex is lesser useful, the big part is to find the softer part).
        >> If you are silently moving behind the guard that is walking, in the hoping to arrive at his back, for the backstab (so, you are stalking him), I feel you are doing “stealthy”, not fast, as in every videogame you see this kind of action executed. Here, again, I usually ask a Defy Danger with a roll+Dex.

        I hope I better explained my previous post.

        PS. About your “hide in a box” example, if I was the character hiding inside the box, and you was my GM, I’d ask you “Have the box a couple of small windows to look outside?”. If you reply yes, then I’d tell you “I mark off 1 use of Adventuring Gear, so I can have some metal spikes with me. Now, I throw the spikes thru the small box opening, making some noise far away. I hope that the person will be lured by the noise, and let me alone 😀 “. Ta-daaaaah! Now I hope this thing can help my day, and of course you could ask me to make a roll to make a good throw. Aven in this case, this is not a proper Volley move, I can see it as a Defy Danger (Dex?) to make a good throw and lure the enemy away (the obvious danger is “the enemy see my efforts, or I make some noise inside the box, so he discovers me”).

      • Undreren says :

        Just for clarity, my example was to hide BEHIND a box, not in it. 😉

        My main point was that you only Defy Danger when your actions implies a danger, it was less about the semantics of which stat to use. If you do something that doesn’t imply a danger, then there’s no roll, right?

      • ishmadrad says :

        “Just for clarity, my example was to hide BEHIND a box, not in it. 😉 ”
        Ahahahahahh! My bad. Of course, to much Metal Gear playing:

        “If you do something that doesn’t imply a danger, then there’s no roll, right?”
        Absolutely right, but in my examples – and, ususally, where players wanna make “something stealthy” – the obvoius danger is “being discovered”. So this is why many GMs ask for the roll+XXX for “doing something stealty”.
        Finally (and this is a great mechanic of *World Engine), if the player fail the roll, he CAN do the stealthy move with success, BUT you can introduce something in the next action/scene etc.

      • Undreren says :

        Sure, roll the dice when the danger is present, but whether or not that danger is present depends entirely on which action you take.

        If you can hear people approaching, but they can’t yet see you, then you could hide behind a box without a roll. If you need to dive for it, then you probably couldn’t.

        If what you do requires you to silent, then you could roll as well, but sometimes being silence is a *choice*, not a *challenge*.

  2. Simon says :

    My interpretation of this is that this is basically all about your personal expectations of “stealth” in RPGs.
    In Dungeon World, if you keep ‘playing to see what happens’ in a situation that calls for stealth, then you will eventually get to a situation where being stealthy will explicitly rely on “getting out of the way or acting fast” as a situation occurs that begs the question “will this person be detected right here, right now?”

    Player: “I sneak through the corridors of the castle, attempting to find my way back to the exit”
    GM: “The hall intersects with another, forming an X. You can hear footsteps coming from the right.”
    Player: “I try to find something to hide behind”
    GM: “The walls have long, thick drapes and there are several large humanoid statues along the wall. You can hear the footsteps closing in – he’s nearly in sight.”
    Player: “I quickly hide behind the drapery, close to a statue.”
    GM: “Sounds like you’re trying to defy danger, roll +DEX”

    If there’s no immediate danger, there’s no need for a roll; keep playing.
    There will be almost certainly be a need for one eventually, and if there isn’t that’s probably due to clever planning or execution on the player’s part.

    A defining characteristic of Dungeon World is that it certain things you roll for in other games just don’t warrant a roll in DW.

    • Undreren says :

      I have a pretty square approach to *World games: If your actions trigger a move you have, then nothing between heaven and earth can prevent that move from being executed (unless you restate your actions, I don’t like to play “gotcha”).

      That should basically be enough to deal with stealth, yet people asked about it all the time when I wrote this piece.

      Looking back, I might have put a few things differently, but I’m still happy that there’s no generic “when you do stealthy stuff” move.

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