Slaying the 16 HP Dragon

Dungeon World is no longer the new hotness when it comes to RPGs, but it is still an invaluable resource when introducing players to games with stronger story or narrative elements. Nearly a decade ago, it spawned the famous article titled "A 16 HP Dragon," which supposedly demonstrated why something as fearsome and powerful as a dragon didn't require mechanical cruft to render it a dread foe.

I take issue with this for a handful of reasons, notably that I take issue with many things that have reached memetic status. As a dour, curmudgeonly contrarian, it is in my nature. The aforementioned article, in which one of the authors of Dungeon World, Sage La Torra, shares a forum post in which a Dungeon World dragon is elevated beyond a modest foe of a handful of hit points. The post provides crucial insights into the difference between story-oriented games and more traditional RPGs, and it provides some helpful advice for those wishing to play Dungeon World (or any other similar games, Powered by the Apocalypse or otherwise).

It's an example of why games--not storytelling activities, but games--require mechanics and procedures to adjudicate properly, and it demonstrates the flaws with trying to mesh numeric values with narrative mechanics.

Preface: Does It Matter?

No. Duh. The usual caveats are in place: if the group is having a good time, then it doesn't matter if you're playing strictly rules-as-written or freeform roleplaying. However, as this anecdote is trotted out whenever someone talks about his difficulties with "properly" GMing Dungeon World, I feel justified in dissecting it. It's irksome to place the fault on the GM who doesn't run the game "right" when the rules (or lack thereof) fail to support him.

Breaking Down the Statblock

To begin with, let us discuss the dragon in question. First off, the dragon is described with the following adjectives: Solitary, Huge, Terrifying, Cautious, Hoarder. From that, the reader can surmise the dragon's habits, plus that it is sizable and inspires fear in onlookers.

All fair enough. Its weapons are next: a bite attack (and presumably flame breath), listed as rolling 2d12+5 damage, keeping the highest of the two dice. It is also Messy (meaning it leaves a bloody mess behind it) and has Reach (so it can strike from a fair distance, especially when you factor in that the dragon is Huge). The Piercing quality ignores up to 4 points of Armor, so the most heavily armored warrior decked out in plate and shield will suffer the full wrath of its attacks.

It likewise has Elemental Blood and Wings, and its moves--or special attacks/qualities, as they would be described in a more traditional RPG--are vague, but they exist to lend the dragon character more than power. All excellent.

To summarize: the dragon has a ruthless bite attack (that extends largely to its other attacks, including claws, tail whip, and so on) and has a size and reach advantage over normal PCs. Its attacks do upwards of 13 hit points of damage. How dangerous is that, however? The wizard's starting hit points are going to be about 14 or thereabouts (4 + Constitution score), meaning the dragon, on average, can knock the wizard down in a single nip.

That's not particularly impressive, upon reflection. But let's dig into the actual blogpost.

The Fight Itself

The group starts to help the townsfolk (this is not a magical node, so the wizard can’t just ritual up some rain) when a building shatters with the landing of a 4-5 ton creature, and it opens up its pipes, it’s golden eyes burning and it’s metal hide resonates with a roar (terrifying).
Their charges scatter, the PC’s have to defy their own terror to attack the thing. They do negligible damage (yay 4 armor) for those that DO anything, and realize that the only person who has a shot at killing this is the armor-penetrating wizard spells. Unfortunately, so does the dragon.
What ensues is horrific. One fighter takes up defensive position, when the dragon strikes it doesn’t just do 1d10+5 damage, it rips off his arm (messy remember?) and shreds mail like tissue paper. It does breath weapon attacks that cause ALL of them to defy danger or burn.
The party breaks and runs. The dragon laughs and settles to ash the village and eat any survivors.
The Dragon had 16 hit points. The party did 9 to it before they left. And when I said left, I mean they ran like rabbits into the night with few provisions, no easy means of recovering them, and no thoughts in their heads other than survival.

Take this as a whole, then break it down.

Defying the Danger of Arbitrary Difficulties

Oh, Thom, what a clever little card you are with that witticism! Fully engaging the system's mechanics in the fight begins here:

the PC’s have to defy their own terror to attack the thing

In Dungeon World parlance, it means that the characters must roll to Defy Danger to harm the dragon. What does this entail? Defy Danger is so loosely written as to be formless. When the players roll the dice, they either get a 6- (something bad happens), a 7-9 (they can attack the dragon but suffer some kind of downside), or a 10+ (they can attack the dragon). In a game of 2d6 dice rolls, the majority of these are going to fall in the 7-9 range, which is fair enough: they can attack but it's going to sting.

The--what's the word?--problematic part of this mechanic is that there's no real rules guiding it. Defy Danger is meant to apply to a broad swathe of situations and thus its reach is encompassing. The rules text indicates that on a 7-9, the GM is to provide the players with "a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice." The GM is within the rules to adjudicate at 7-9 result as:

You swallow noisily at the dragon's presence. As your trembling the dragon looms over a mother and child as as you draw your bow, and you can see that if you fire upon him, he will devour them. What do you do?

He could likewise adjudicate it thusly:

Your fear gets the best of you as the dragon bears down on you. You manage to draw your weapons, but your formation breaks and you scatter.

Mind you, the GM's decision to call for a Defy Danger roll is entirely at the GM's discretion. There's no reliable mechanical trigger except that the GM wants to increase the difficulty of the battle. A less-experienced GM wouldn't do this, or he might make the battle too difficult. On a 7-9, the Defy Danger rolls could be called for in this manner instead:

The dragon rears back and a boiling cauldron of flame appears at his mouth. You freeze. You can either dive for cover or take the dragon's breath in the face.

Those unfortunate enough to roll a 6- could very well be hit with the full dragon's breath.

You're likely going to object, "Aha! Thom, you fool! You have entrapped yourself. On one hand, you have argued that the 16 HP Dragon is not dangerous enough, yet you have simultaneously argued that it is too dangerous! Which is it, you doddering twit?"

Mine objection herein is that the 16 HP Dragon breaks down precisely because the difficulty is arbitrary and dependent upon vague mechanics. In a traditional RPG, the GM can adjust the difficulty of a dragon by adjusting its ability scores and tactics, but Dungeon World is entirely dependent on GM fiat to provide this difficulty. Defy Danger has a distinct lack of clarity compared to the simplicity of "saving throw for half damage."

On Negligible Damage

This is mild quibbling overall with the greater inconveniences the written mechanics provide:

They do negligible damage (yay 4 armor) for those that DO anything, and realize that the only person who has a shot at killing this is the armor-penetrating wizard spells. Unfortunately, so does the dragon.

The dragon has a whopping 16 HP and 4 whole armor. The fighter does 1d10 damage with his attacks. A solid hit on Hack 'n' Slash gives him the opportunity to add +1d6 damage. He has Advanced Moves that stack additional damage on top of this. Thieves do 1d8 damage. Clerics do 1d6. There are weapons that pierce armor. C'mon. It ain't that scary without the false, GM-imposed difficulty.

One fighter takes up defensive position, when the dragon strikes it doesn’t just do 1d10+5 damage, it rips off his arm (messy remember?) and shreds mail like tissue paper.

The damage in the text varies from the actual statblock, but I've addressed that above. When the GM says the fighter "takes up a defensive position," he is likely to referring to the Defend move, which allows the PC to, among other things, halve the damage of an effect. Suddenly that dragon's 13+ damage per strike is reduced considerably. If the fighter loses his arm while defending, well, that's the GM's choice as well.

A Creature of Shadow and Flame, Kinda

The dragon's armor-shredding talons and jaws accurately portray the mechanics, yet once again the GM steps in to impose Nintendo Hard difficulty:

It does breath weapon attacks that cause ALL of them to defy danger or burn.

I'm not even certain how this works within the context of the Defy Danger move--perhaps the hard choice proffered is to stop, drop, 'n' roll or burn to a crisp--but there is no clear indication in the text or the rules for how this functions. In D&D, for instance, I might have a dragon with a statblock that says, "On a failed saving throw against the creature's breath weapon, characters must immediately make a Dexterity save or burn for 1d8 fire damage." Case in point, the giant spider statblock:

Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature.
Hit: (1d8 + 3) piercing damage plus (2d8) poison damage.
The target must make a DC 11 Constitution saving throw, taking the poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. If the poison damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, the target is stable but poisoned for 1 hour, even after regaining hit points, and is paralyzed while poisoned in this way.

This is a bit rules-heavy for Dungeon World, but it provides a solid mechanical footing for how the spider's venom works. Dungeon World doesn't even do the GM the courtesy of providing guidance for adjudicating the dragon's breath. No remarks on fire or burning, not even meriting a footnote about the gouts of flame eschewing from its maw. The GM's imagination is tasked with filling in the gaps.

Failing Forward

The rub is this: this exact same GM advice could be handed out to GMs for a single goblin encounter. A rather extreme example, but a similar implementation of the rules can be imagined. No, the PCs might not need to Defy Danger against their fear, but they might need to Defy Danger to track the goblin as it ducks behind furniture and rubble. Then they have to Defy Danger or bleed from a nasty cut, or maybe the goblin's knife has a paralyzing poison coating the blade. The goblin's statblock is less imposing than the dragon's--but the primary difficulty of the draconic encounter is comprised of the GM's desire to make the dragon a challenge. Another GM could provide a draconic encounter that is a cakewalk--inadvertently, even--because the mechanical scaffolding of Dungeon World is so barebones, and the rules are so vague as to be scarcely there.

This is the pitfall and tragedy of trying to shoehorn narrative elements and by-the-numbers mechanics into a game, an uncanny valley of storygame-cum-traditional-rpg. I'm not saying Dungeon World is a bad game, far from it, it's an accomplishment that I could never hope to recreate. Its wide success in introducing people to Powered by the Apocalypse makes its stand apart despite its weaknesses as an early Apocalypse World hack. Regardless, I'm here to tell you, as a potential Dungeon World GM or player, if you're confused about the 16 HP Dragon, you're not alone. Not by a longshot. In the words of a man with a unique with words: Many such cases!