by Mike Shea on 25 September 2017
The fantastic roleplaying game Dungeon World is a treasure trove of wonderful ideas we can bring right into our fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons games. We've talked in the past about using fronts as a way to focus our preparation time on the antagonists of our campaign and their own plots rather than trying to build linear stories to stick in front of our players.
Today we're going to talk about another concept from Dungeon World, the "hard move". We're going to twist this idea into a powerful improvisational weapon we can draw out at our table and change the world we create with our players at the table.
Let's look at what Dungeon World has to say on the idea of moves:
When you make a move what you're actually doing is taking an element of the fiction and bringing it to bear against the characters. Your move should always follow from the action. They help you focus on one aspect of the current situation and do something interesting with it. What's going on? What move makes sense here?
In Dungeon World, a hard move has an immediate and powerful effect on the characters—like inflicting damage. We're going to expand the definition a bit to suit a wider use for D&D:
A hard move drops a big rock into the path of the story. When the world laughs at the characters and turns up the heat by a factor of ten, that's a hard move. "Life's a bitch" is the tag line for our hard move. It's Murphy's Law. Hard moves are bad freaking luck.
The world of D&D doesn't follow purely predictable paths. Sometimes chaos flows in hard, wrecking perfectly laid plans. The dice often act as these agents of chaos but we can add another big change ourselves, a meteor that soars in and makes our world complicated.
When the characters try something, roll for a skill check, and roll really low; that's a great time to drop in a hard move. They don't just fall off of the wall they were climbing. They fall into the palm of the cloud giant who has been hunting for them right before the cloud giant smiles and smahes them against the wall like a bug.
There's an oft-discussed concept in modern roleplaying games called "failing forward". When a character attemps something and fails, they don't lose the game. The game doesn't end. Instead, it steers the story of the game down a new path, a potentially more difficult path, but a path that might be just as interesting or even more interesting than the original path they would have followed on a success.
Low rolls on skill checks is a perfect time to drop in the hard move and that's basically how it works in Dungeon World. It works just as well for D&D.
Sometimes, even outside of a bad roll, hard moves just happen. We drop them in when the story needs a complication. If things have been going too easy or the plan has worked out too well; time to drop in a hard move.
Knowing how and when to inflict hard moves is an advanced bit of DMing to learn. We might throw in a hard move when we're pissed that the players broke our perfectly planned boss encounter. That's not a good time to throw in a hard move.
We don't throw in hard moves to negate the exciting and sometimes surprising victories of the characters. We applaud those victories. We throw in hard moves when things start to feel stale. We drop them in when the story becomes mundane and the players are starting to look a little bored.
Hard moves are perfect vehicles to spice up the pace of our game. Sometimes we might throw it in at a low point of energy in the game but sometimes we might throw it in when the energy is high to make it even higher. Sure, the characters are worried about fighting that ettin, but what if two more ogres walk in the back door to see what the ettin is on about? A tense situation just got worse.
Hard moves, though powerful, are also dangerous. We need to be careful how we use them. We don't want hard moves to destroy the careful work and planning of the players. We don't want it to remove their capabilities or circumvent their actions. Hard moves, though painful within the story, should be built to help players show off their characters. Like much of the rest of the game, they should be designed to make characters look cool.
When the characters are in a fight with a couple of veterans and then fifty bandits show up like the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, they get an opportunity to look really cool. Fireballs love bandit hoards. If the characters are headed onto a gambling ship and their arch villain shows up as a surprise guest, it could be a rough spot but they might learn something or even steal something from her. That's cool too. Hard moves look terrible at first but then end up as jump pads to make characters look awesome.
Here are twenty examples of hard moves.
Its possible for us to plan our hard moves ahead of time. It helps us ensure we're not throwing in a hard move that's too hard. The heat of the moment may make us drop in a hard move just because we're pissed off that the fighter killed our favorite lich in two attacks. We might plan out a few hard moves when we're writing down our secrets and clues for our next game.
Other times, however, an idea might just pop into our head. The game might be growing stale. The characters are having a pretty easy go of it. They have a really solid idea of the direction the story is going and it feels too perfect. That's the time to throw in a hard move. While hard moves can come from bad skill checks, it also doesn't need to be a reaction to the characters at all. Maybe that's the time the servants stage their violent revolt against the aristocracy. Maybe that's the time the sleeping horror beneath the city wakes up.
The right improvised hard move can be loads of fun that take you and the players into entirely other worlds of adventure.
Hard moves aren't punishment. They're the vectors that take our story into new and wild directions. Often, when we throw in a hard move, even we don't know where it will take the story. That's the fun of running these games. We have no idea where they'll end up. Next time your game is feeling a bit stale, throw in a hard move and see where it leads.