How do you handle monsters attacking from stealth?

How do you handle monsters attacking from stealth?

How do you handle monsters attacking from stealth? It seems heavy handed to open up with a hard move (Deal damage). And a Discern Realities move won’t get triggered by the PCs without some kind of prompt, which defeats the purpose of stealth.

31 thoughts on “How do you handle monsters attacking from stealth?”

  1. Defy Danger. And then yes, right into a hard move, if it’s appropriate.

    And just because the players know something (the GM asked for Discern Realities), doesn’t mean the PCs get to do squat about it. Think of Discern Realities as being the ‘spooky music starting, close camera shots’ in a movie.

  2. Walking into a dangerous environment (in the dark) without ways of detecting ambushes is a golden opportunity.

    You are however a fan of the characters and therefore must assume they are capable dungeon explorers and DO keep their eyes out. If they show behaviour that suggests they don’t then golden opportunity. If not then set it up with a soft move.

  3. First, you set the scene… 

    “You step into the room, torches flickering. It’s long an narrow, with these deep cluttered shelves on either side and another door on the far end.  The stuff on the shelves is super weird, like the collection of some deranged rag-n-bone man.  Rusted tools, cracked religious icons, dolls, freaky idols, a dozen or so pots, a bunch of vials and bottles of who-knows-what.”

    Then you make a soft move, most likely show signs of an approaching threat or point to a looming threat.  Do something that builds tension.

    “As your torchlight passes over these things, you could swear you see something move out of the corner of your eye. When you glance back, something is missing.  Wasn’t there a creepy little frog-man statue there a second ago?  What do you do?”

    Now you follow the player’s actions.  

    Do they look more closely at the shelves, trying to find where it went?  Roll Discern Realities.  On a miss, they get a face-full of homonculus stinger.  If they get a 7-9 and ask “what should I be on the lookout for,” your answer is the darting shadowing shape scurrying away from your light, and did that thing have a scorpion tail? If they ask “what is about to happen?” you answer that with them spotting the homunculus again, just as it’s about to pounce, what do you do?

    If they ignore the soft move, that’s a golden opportunity.  Maybe it waits and pounces on the last PC to leave the room.  Maybe it follows them for another couple rooms and then appears. 

    If they do something else, like Spout Lore about this stuff on the shelves, a 6- is a perfect moment to reveal the threat they’ve ignored, again with a face-full of homunculus stinger. 

  4. Matthew Caulder Jeremy Strandberg It really is. I’d be interested to know how you two would handle something without any warning, though, as this is something I’ve been thinking about myself.

  5. Ari Black I do very little prep ahead of time when I run DW, and only prep high level ideas. If I knew there was going to be an encounter in an idea, a man attack from stealth would be my go-to hard move for a failed Discern Realities or if no one did that move for a bit and looked to me for what happened. DW really fits well with my free-wheel GM style for it.

  6. Matthew Caulder I know I’m picky at edge cases but what about a situation where it was going to happen no matter what? This is assuming I’ve planned the event in advance, what if the characters don’t know it’s going to happen so they can’t defy it?

  7. Ari Black The moves follow the fiction, so you can’t really ever say “this will happen for sure” in DW. You can plan for that encounter, but if someone is being crazy vigilant and succeeds, there’s no reason they wouldn’t see it.

    Showing the presence of the creature is a soft move, attacking them with a hidden beast is a hard move

  8. Ari Black in your case of an complete surprise attack, If you want to soft move it, you could ask what they are doing as they move into the ambush position. If they discern realities, then let the roll determine what happens, as Matthew Caulder​ explored. If you want to give no warning, just roll the action forward a few frames and put them in a spot. You could have the attack begin and then ask what the first player does. Let the moves follow from their responses, possibly at a -1. Set the mood in the fiction. Let them know that they are in trouble and then see where it goes.

    “As Heinrich, the wizard, enters the small clearing that Mitchell, the ranger, has led you into, crude arrows start peppering the trees and ground around you. With barely a moment to get your bearings, goblins, mouths agape brandishing unnatural numbers of teeth, explode from the underbrush riding wolves and slicing at the air with rusty daggers. You have been caught off guard! Mitchell what do you do?”

    The thing you have to remember is that, in the fiction of play, if they have done their due diligence to avoid the problem, then let that happen. If they are traversing the forest and are being extra cautious and are making efforts to be alert, then let them have their discern realities rolls and let how the ambusg proceed from there.

    How do you handle traps? I would think that an ambush could be handled similarly. If the thief is checking for it and is successful, don’t negate that. If she’s not checking, or check’s and fails, then you have the GM moves at your disposal, and they don’t necessarily have to be “Deal Damage.” Always take the most interesting, dramatic or fun choice.

    Possible goblin ambush outcomes:

    Use a monster, danger, or location move

    A quick count shows three goblins riding wolves and one Archer in the tree. Those aren’t bad odds. You’re a party of four. You can take them. Speaking of that archer, you notice his location because he’s raised a horn to his disgusting mouth and is now calling for reinforcements, what do you do?

    Reveal an unwelcome truth

    As the mounted goblins race around and circle you and the goblin archer continues to lob arrows in your general location, you each group closer together in the center of the clearing. A thought occurs to each of you in turn, the goblins aren’t actually attacking us. What are they doing?… THEY’RE HERDING US!!! Just then you all begin to fall through a  dead drop pit trap into a dark cavern below. Luckily the pit descended at an angle, so you don’t take any damage, but now you are in a dark cavern. The opening to the pit is at least twenty feet overhead, rimmed with laughing goblin heads smiling in disturbing glee. What do you do?

    I’ll add more later.

  9. Ari Black  what about a situation where it was going to happen no matter what ? This is assuming I’ve planned the event in advance, what if the characters don’t know it’s going to happen so they can’t defy it?

    I think you need to give an example of this.  I have a hard time imagining one that a) would actually come up in play and b) doesn’t violate the GM’s principles and agenda.  

  10. Jeremy Strandberg Actually, that’s the scenario I have in mind. I’m looking at an WorldEngine game that allows for more flexibility on the principles and agenda.

  11. Ari Black Ok, let’s face somme sudden and deadly events like a trap or an ambush. Let’s say the PC don’t take the general precautions.

    The trap triggers, the goblins fire their arrows. Always warn your PC and ask what do you do?

    There is no such things as rounds or turns or initiative. The time can be streched as a marshmallow, like in a slow motion movie.

    The trap triggers.

    – Valliant, your hear a sudden cling just under your feet, what do you do ?

    – I jump aside !

    – Ok, let’s say you defy danger, the danger is that blade springing out the ground.

    The goblins fire their arrows

    – Your group enter the canyon when suddenly you hear the buzzing sound of arrows coming toward you? What do you do ?

    – I raise my shield and endure (defend move)

    – I hide behind rocks (defy danger move)

    The assassin is behind his victim

    – Leila, you feel a presence right behind you ! What do you do ?


    A damage move is always the result of some PC failure or golden opportunity.

    Try inflict free damage if you will. I don’t think your players will appreciate.

    Free damage will bring less to the scene than a failed roll, snowballing and bringing new situations, new DM actions.

  12. I think Magi max and others give the canonical answer.

    In general, this is an issue of controlling and conveying the level of danger. And the trilemma blog has an excellent discussion of it:

    Play up hidden threats long before players encounter them. Let them hear rumors of plotting factions or stalking creatures in perilous lands.  If they weren’t paying attention to the telegraph or don’t take it seriously, I think you’re in your right to make harder moves.  Just keep in mind that hidden threats are significantly more dangerous to players than known ones. Use sparingly!

  13. My players prefer a world that they can’t always predict. They want to play capable heroes, not necessarily epic ones. This means that, Tyler Solomon on occasion, they’ll want to be caught off guard. 

    I don’t mean to suggest that, Magi max, they will be struck hard or killed without a chance to respond. However, I don’t see an issue with them being say, tackle from behind without knowing it was going to happen. Surprise is classic fiction trope, in my experience, and suggests that there are forces moving in the world that can’t always be detected.

  14. Surprise is certainly a fiction trope. However, the outcome of surprise is not always the same. A character in one story may get attacked with no opportunity to respond, while one in another story may hear a twig snap, see something on the periphery, etc., which allows them to counteract the attack.

    In RPG terms, then, it’s a matter of agency. Specifically, it’s a matter of player agency. Some systems (such as D&D) are more flexible for the GM and more restrictive for the players. Others (such as DW) are the opposite, being more flexible for the players while restricting the GM.

    So, pulling all of the above together, DW really requires the opportunity for a character to respond or counteract. Hard moves must follow the fiction and (in most cases) be set up previously by a soft move. If a character fails to respond to the setup, or responds in an ineffectual way, then the hard move follows. In this sense, DW leans toward that twig snapping, etc. Nothing in Dungeon World should be arbitrary.

    D&D, in contrast, allows DMs to make arbitrary decisions. Traps can be sprung with no warning whatsoever. Players can be tackled out of the blue without a hint of danger. No questions asked, for the most part.

    However, if you reveal (even with hints rather than statements) in the fiction that the dungeon the PCs are exploring is a stronghold or otherwise a place not intended for a casual stroll-through, then you have (in a loose sense but I’d call it fair) already set up the opportunity for a trap. Unless the PCs take these hints seriously and respond by carefully searching every step of the way, a trap can be sprung with no further warning needed. Likewise, if you give hints that the PCs may not be alone or otherwise should be on their guard but they lose focus, getting tackled out of the blue is no longer out of the blue.

    My two cents, worth every penny.

  15. Ari Black I also prefer campaigns where player characters are, as you put it, capable but not epic. 

    If the threat is completely unknown and hidden, then opening with a hard move is appropriate, though damage is kind of a boring hard move.

    I’ve been playing around with the idea of adding “intrusions”, from Monte Cook’s Numenera, as a new GM move.  Here’s the basic idea:

    Intrusions allow the GM to make sudden twists in the fate of a player.  When a GM makes an intrusion, she gives an XP to the player directly affected, and that player gives one XP to another player.   This is an exception to the rule that a soft move should always precede a hard move, but it is not an excuse to grief players.  The intent of intrusions is to mix up the typical flow of play.  A player expects bad things to happen on a 6-. Intrusions are a here to spice up the players lives. Just remember that too much spice leaves a bad taste.

  16. Tyler Solomon That’s a neat idea. I might spin it into DW terms by something like “here’s an unexpected hard move that I JUST HAD to do to you to feel complete as a person, in return here’s +1 going forward to respond to it”.

  17. Ari Black Thanks. I made a top level post about it on this forum. Though it seems the common reaction is that the move strays too far from the principles and isn’t “playing to find out what happens”. Oh, well. I still think it could be fun in moderation.

  18. Tyler Solomon That particular principle is what I’m straying from in my hack/campaign. I think there’s a lot of worth to how they approached DW’s design but I think there are other ways to play and I’m exploring that.

  19. Ari Black Ah, I just recalled, The Perilous Wilds has a great move for this. Because of the way it’s worded the GM can request the roll or the player could trigger it if their suspicious.

    “stay sharp”

    – when you are on watch and something approaches roll+WIS

    – 10+ you notice in time to alert everyone and prepare a response; all party members take +1 forward

    – 7+ you manage to sound the alarm, but no one has time to prepare

    – 6- whatever approaches has the drop on you

  20. Ari Black Ah, Yes! Except Jason Lutes renames it to “Stay Sharp” and points out that it “has application beyond the campsite.”

    I think it could be a simple and elegant solution.

    A hidden danger approaches players and you say, “Something doesn’t seem right. So-and-so make a “Stay Sharp” roll.

    Or perhaps a player says, “I don’t trust that we’re safe in this area, I’m alert and suspicious of everything. ” Then when the moment is right you tell them that something seems off and ask them to roll “Stay Sharp.”

  21. Tyler Solomon  That’s a fair distinction. I’ve never really liked Take Watch, it feels a bit too automatic for my tastes. I’d prefer discern realities. 

  22. Almost always you should make liberal use of the Show Signs of An Approaching Threat move. If they PC’s don’t act on this, then you have a golden opportunity to make a hard move.

Comments are closed.