Is Defy Danger a bad move?

One point I’d like to make here: I almost didn’t respond to this thread because labeling things “good” and “bad” is not a mode of criticism I like to engage in. But I do have criticisms about the move and I appreciate the opportunity to do a deep design analysis like this one. I think many of the critiques above are valuable without them claiming to know how DW “should have done it.”

I’ve got one that comes to mind. Masks is one of my favorite PbtAs. It simply does not have a “do something difficult” move. There isn’t one. So you don’t get hung up rolling on things that don’t matter to the young superhero genre. If none of the moves trigger, you just go to a GM move.

The broadest move in Masks is “Unleash Your Powers”. You roll + Freak and on a 10+, you do it. But this move is rooted in what your powers do, so the fictional trigger is always delineated by your specific power. Also, if a character has +3 in Freak (say, the Transformed) that doesn’t only mean they have consistent use of their powers. It also means that people see them as a Freak. A 10+ on an “Unleash Your Powers” is a golden opportunity to use the GM move “Tell them who they are”. A kid goes running away crying, a crowd is taking cellphone videos of the collateral damage, they hear the police detective (who is the Janus’s mom) whisper: “Freak”.

Since the moves in Masks connect to shifting labels when adults try to tell the heroes who they are and who they should be, a successful “Unleash your Powers” ties back into the premise in a way that a generic task resolution could not. Does the Transformed accept this label or not? Success just directs the tension of the narrative from physical obstacles to inner conflict.


I completely agree that “good” and “bad” are not intrinsically helpful for framing a conversation like this one, even if that is how this discussion is often framed elsewhere. You can operationalize “bad” in a lot of ways - “poorly defined,” “fundamentally flawed,” “game-breaking” - and I am appreciative that people engaged with this topic on their own terms, pushing it in directions that I hadn’t intended but were more interesting anyway. The conversation has been substantive, and many posts (particularly @gamesfromthewildwood) gave me a lot to think about in terms of overall game design and what role moves’ specificity of language have to play in that.


I am personally very much in the “prescriptive, limited moves” camp of PBTA design personally. I have personally found the core strength of the move structure being the specificity of the move triggers. “Seize by Force” is a brilliant example of a move that explicitly declares something about the kind of world where that kind of behaviour is a default.

Act Under Fire is a bit more general, but the fact that there is an implications that you are trying to avoid being shot, and the fact it’s linked to a single stat, does a good job of anchoring things in the fiction. By contrast, Defy Danger is a touch muddled from my perspective and it lacks that level of setting specificity.

That’s not actually a criticism of “Defy Danger” per say, but I would have personally split those into six different moves, and customised them a bit for flavour. That said, I recognise those are very much my own personal design sensibilities in action.


FotF? What is this acronym?

Freebooters on the frontier?


I don’t think Defy Danger is a bad move, the problems with it are just a side effect of the difference between attributes in Apocalypse World and Dungeon World.

Stats in AW are roles in the fiction. I’m struggling for a good word, but maybe it’s role. The cool character, the hot character, the Hard character. They’re really personality traits. Take Hard: “hard-hearted, violent, aggressive, strong-willed, mean, physically and emotionally strong”. Only a part of that has anything to do with physical ability. A character could be high in Hard without necessarily being all that muscly or physically imposing or tough. Being strong by itself isn’t nearly enough to make the character Hard.

Cool is described as “meaning cool under fire, rational, clearthinking, calm, calculating, unfazed.”

This works because characters in fiction, particularly movies, avoid danger not simply by being fast, agile, strong, smart, wise, etc. Those things on their own aren’t enough. Being calm, collected and focused is what matters because you can be as smart, fast or tough as you like, but if you’re confused, scared or distracted you’re toast.

But note that AW does acknowledge that there’s a problem here, and it does so by granting certain playbooks moves that let them sub in their best stat for Cool on Act Under Fire. It does that for a few other core moves as well, just to give a little flexibility where it’s needed.

Dungeon World has very functional stats. It draws a direct line between material, testable, objective capabilities and stats. That means different forms of danger much more clearly correspond to particular stats. So while AW can say, well whatever the danger is you have to be Cool to survive it, in DW you can’t say the same for any one stat.

So given its approach to stats, I don’t think DW has a choice when it comes to this move. Personally I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s not ideal, it’s a bit of a mismatch between the design approach of AW where it’s moves derive from, and D&D where it’s stats come from. I can’t blame the designers though, I see perfectly well why they wrote DW the way they did and it achieves its goals very well. I just think Defy Danger is the fault line where the two different approaches to game design intersect.


This strikes me as a very insightful post.

I never quite consciously realised that there is this difference between AW’s stats (being personality traits or story roles) and DW’s (being measures of capability). But now that you’ve surfaced that realisation for me, of course it makes sense, and makes a few other things make sense. In AW, your smartness, speed, toughness etc are all represented in the fiction itself, whereas the stats describe your role in the story.

This also makes it interesting to notice that each stat in AW is explicitly paired with one or more basic moves. So the character with Cool+3 just is the one who acts well under fire, regardless of what that fire is. That’s just what it means to have Cool+3, it’s what role you have in the story. How you actually do it, physically, is handled in the fiction; it’s not what the mechanics are interested in.

Thanks for prompting this realisation!