Negative Pick Lists

What are your thoughts on negative pick lists and negative pick list items? What is the design intention for them? Consider the options in the Get Paid move for The Sprawl. You’ll get to pick one or three of these, depending on the die roll.

  • It’s not a set-up or an ambush
  • You are paid in full
  • The employer is identifiable
  • The meeting doesn’t attract the attention of outside parties
  • You learned something from the mission; everyone marks experience

Some of these are negative options. “It’s not a set-up or ambush” and “the meeting doesn’t attract the attention of outside parties” are negative (not, doesn’t).

As a game designer, when you include negative pick list options, is the goal that not choosing a negative option means that the thing it could have warded off will come to pass? Or might come to pass, if the GM feels like it?

That is, if the player does NOT choose “it’s not a set-up or ambush” does that mean “it is a set-up or ambush” or does that mean “it might be a set-up or ambush”?

To me, move pick lists are like poetry: It’s creating a scene in the imagination within tight constraints. The player gets to define the scene that’s about to happen. So to me, “it isn’t not a set-up or ambush” is equivalent to “it is a set-up or ambush.”

It’s important to me for the players to be on my side here, as a GM. If it’s 11:15, and we end at 11:30 and we still have to do end of mission stuff, I don’t want to run a big ambush scene and double-cross. I don’t want a player not picking “It’s not a set-up or ambush” because it’s 11:00 and they know I don’t want to drag things out, so it seems like a freebie (or at the very least, I’ll advance a single clock instead of making a big scene of it). I want them to not choose that option if and only if they actually think that a set-up or ambush would be fun. And I want them to choose it when they really don’t want a set-up or ambush.

This is not a rules question about The Sprawl. It’s clear that the negative pick list options are not guaranteed if the players don’t choose them in The Sprawl. From page 40, where Get Paid is explained:

“These choices give the MC opportunities for action. They do not guarantee that these things will happen. Similarly, these things may happen off screen, and result in the movement of a corporate Countdown Clock.”

But above, same page, it also says,

“The MC’s agenda includes filling the characters lives with action, complication and intrigue and a final betrayal at the end is part of that. The options here allow the players to set parameters on how that betrayal might play out”

To me, that’s saying you don’t have to make good on the threat of these negative pick list items, but you really ought to, because doing so advances your agenda.

I think the Get Paid pick list in The Sprawl is kind of an extreme example, because “it’s not a set-up or ambush” authors a LARGE chunk of content. Dungeon World’s Fighter move “bend bars lift gates” has much smaller story-content negative options. It’s pretty easy to make all the ones the Fighter doesn’t pick come true, because they’re not entire scenes of bloody action that can potentially come at the end of a game session. It’s just a door breaking or making a lot of noise.

So designers - what’s your intention when you design negative pick list items?

And as a designer, if you want negative pick list items to always come to pass if not chosen, how do you communicate that?

Alternately, if you want them to only sometimes, at the GM’s option come to pass, how do intend GMs to make that call? Do you take into account players making choices based on what they think the GM won’t do?

Other thoughts on negative pick lists / negative pick list items?

Roll +Designer. On a 10+, choose two. On a 7-9, choose one. On a 6-, mark XP and prepare for the worst.

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Lots of thoughts.

First of all, I think this is the wrong question:

As a game designer, when you include negative pick list options, is the goal that not choosing a negative option means that the thing it could have warded off will come to pass? Or might come to pass, if the GM feels like it?

It doesn’t matter much what you as the designer intend; it matters how the moves get interpreted and get interacted with in play. Even if you intend that a not-chosen item happens only if it makes fictional sense–there are plenty of players and GMs who will read those moves and interpret them as “each bad thing not prevented definitely happens.” If you intend the opposite (not-picked items always happen), plenty of players/GMs will assume “well, yeah, but only if they make sense/the GM decides to act on them/etc.” See: many many posts and comments on G+ (RIP) and Reddit and probably Twitter.

So if you’re going to use moves that have you chose “avoid negative” options, you kind of have to assume that some players/GMs will take it one way, and others will take it another, and ask yourself if you’re okay with either interpretation.

Or you can make it clear via the move’s text which you intend. A few ways to do that. You can set the default in the “body” of the move and then let choices counter/add to the default. I think this works well for moves that mix and match “positive” and “avoid negative” choices. For example, this move I just made up:

When you wade into battle, head-to-head, trade harm with your opponent but first roll +Prowess: on a 10+, pick 2; on a 7-9, pick 1:

  • You avoid their attack, suffering no harm
  • You strike hard/fast/precisely; do +1 harm
  • You improve your tactical position
  • Create an opportunity for an ally or bystander

Another way to make it clear is by adding “(otherwise…)” clauses. Gets wordy, but sometimes it’s worth it. E.g.

When take break into a place or thing, roll +INT: on a 10+, you do it and pick 2; on a 7-9, you do it and pick 1:

  • You work quickly (otherwise, it takes a while)
  • You work discretely (otherwise, someone notices)
  • You work cleanly (otherwise, you leave signs of your handiwork)

Again, if you don’t do some sort of clarification, you have to expect that some tables will interpret these moves (or even each individual move) one way, and other tables will interpret them another way.

Personally, I generally try to avoid moves with “__ doesn’t happen” choices. I find that moves are cleaner and easier to understand when the choices are “positive” (as in: pick things that do happen, good or bad) rather than “negative” (as in: picking things that don’t happen).

For example, here’s the original Bend Bars/Lift Gates move from Dungeon World:

When you use pure strength to destroy an inanimate obstacle , roll+Str. :eight_pointed_black_star:On a 10+, choose 3. :eight_pointed_black_star:On a 7-9 choose 2.

  • It doesn’t take a very long time
  • Nothing of value is damaged
  • It doesn’t make an inordinate amount of noise
  • You can fix the thing again without a lot of effort

All negative choices. Cue conversations like “Okay, so if I can’t fix the thing without a lot of effort… what does that mean? Do I care? It’s a boulder, what does choosing that look like?”

Here’s how I’ve rewritten it for Homebrew World and Stonetop:

When you use brute strength to overcome an inanimate obstacle, roll +STR: on a 7+, OH YEAH! but choose 1 (on a 10+) or choose 2 (on a 7-9).

  • It takes a while
  • You cause unwanted damage or harm
  • You make a lot of noise
  • Mark a debility

All positive (but bad) choices. I find that it cuts the handling time down a lot, and the players have a firmer sense of what consequences they’re picking.

So any time I’m thinking about writing a move where they choose the bad things that don’t happen, I try to invert it into them picking the things that do happen. I think you can almost always do that on moves that involve only negative picks.

Likewise, on moves that mix-and-match positive and negative picks, I at lest consider re-frame the negative as a positive, or hard-coding the 7-9 into the move.

For an example of the former, here’s the DW-original Backstab:

When you attack a surprised or defenseless enemy with a melee weapon, you can choose to deal your damage or roll+DEX. :eight_pointed_black_star:On a 10+ choose two. :eight_pointed_black_star:On a 7–9 choose one.

  • You don’t get into melee with them
  • You deal your damage+1d6
  • You create an advantage, +1 forward to you or an ally acting on it
  • Reduce their armor by 1 until they repair it

That first pick is the only negative in the mix, and it raises all the questions. “If I don’t pick it, does that mean I do get into melee with them? Like, what does that mean?” But if you rephrase it as "You slip away before they can react" then you’re establishing a positive fictional statement and change that’s pretty easy to visualize, with intuitive value and consequence.

Another way to avoid these is to hard-code the bad result into a 7-9 result. So instead of…

When you call on the world itself to bind a spirit or a perversion of nature, spend 1 Stock and roll +WIS: on a 10+, choose 2 from the list below; on a 7-9, choose 1.

  • You avoid or prevent their attack
  • Roots, vines, and earth restrain them
  • They take 2d4 damage (ignores armor)

You could do:

When you call on the world itself to bind a spirit or a perversion of nature, spend 1 Stock and roll +WIS: on a 10+, choose 1; on a 7-9, choose 1, but suffer their attack.

  • Roots, vines, and earth restrain them
  • They take 2d4 damage (ignores armor)

This gets rid of the negative choice (good), but it changes the move quite a bit–and not necessarily for the better!

  • In the first version “their attack” is nice and vague; maybe it’s against the PC triggering this move, maybe it’s against an NPC or ally. In the second version, the PC is definitely the target.
  • In the first version, we get the conversation about whether or not there’s definitely an attack if the player doesn’t pick the first bullet. And maybe the PC is using this move on a target at range, and the target has no real way to attack back. The second version makes the assertion that an attack is always a risk (yes, fiction first and all that, but the default is that a 7-9 means suffering an attack).
  • In the first version, there’s a sense that the PC can use this move defensively, with the primary intent of preventing an attack (it’s not obvious, but it’s there). That’s lost in the second version.
  • Finally, the first one elegantly gives the player an option of “let 'em hit me” in order to both hurt and restrain them. The second version doesn’t have it (and putting it back it would take a lot more words).

So while I generally dislike mixing and matching negative and positive choices, I actually prefer it to the alternative in this case.

Anyhow, I’m sure others have different opinions. These are mine!


I really enjoyed reading this reply. Thank you for taking so much time. It’s really a very useful analysis. I’ve been talking about it for two weeks offline!


Very incisive analysis. One small note in re: 2nd version of last move. You can preserve ambiguity/flexibility of target of the attack by simply rewording as follows:

When you call on the world itself to bind a spirit or a perversion of nature, spend 1 Stock and roll +WIS: on a 10+, choose 1; on a 7-9, choose 1, but you or someone in your group suffer their attack .

  • Roots, vines, and earth restrain them
  • They take 2d4 damage (ignores armor)