In which I advance a heretical opinion

In which I advance a heretical opinion

In which I advance a heretical opinion

As the GM, I always roll damage for monsters and other threats. I don’t have the players do it, and I actively think asking the players to roll damage is a bad rule. The only real reason to have players roll damage is so that you can say the GM never touches the dice, and that’s a pretty weak reason.

I have two main reasons for this opinion. First, rolling damage as the GM takes much less time asking the players to do so. Second, rolling damage for the world/monsters falls more clearly within my responsibilities than in that of the non-GM players.

Rolling Damage as the GM is Faster

Take this exchange:

GM: The gnoll smashes you with it’s massive flail. Take the best of 2d10+2 damage, forceful.

Player: Best of 2d10? So I roll 2d10 and take the better die?

GM: Yup.

Player (rolls): Ugh. 7.

GM: Did you add +2?  

Player: Oh, no.  9, then.

GM: OK, so it smashes you for 9 damage and the force of the blow sends you flying. You hit the ground face first, and are just coming to your senses as the gnoll comes at you again, swing it’s flail to smash you in the back of the head. What do you do?


GM: The gnoll smashes you with it’s massive flail. Take… (rolls) 9 damage. The force of the blow sends you flying. You hit the ground face first, and are just coming to your senses as the gnoll comes at you again, swing it’s flail to smash you in the back of the head. What do you do?

Yeah, players get better at this with time. But the fact is you need to communicate the roll to the players, they need to find the dice and roll them, communicate the damage back, and then you need to work the damage into your narrative. That’s always going to going to take longer than you just looking at your notes, rolling, and describing.

It’s More Clearly the GM’s Responsibility

Despite the principles of leaving blanks, asking qustions, being fans of the players, and leading/ending with the fiction, DW is still a pretty traditional game in terms of narrative responsibilities. The players portray their characters, make rolls for their characters, track their character’s HP and other resources, and answer questions about things their characters know or have done.

The GM describes the world, describes what the players see/hear/feel, portrays any NPCs and monsters. It’s the GMs job (part of their agenda) to fill the characters’ lives with adventure, and they do so by making moves.  The GM is the primary author of adversity in the game. As the GM, I might disclaim some of that responsibility or authority (“So, Ovid, just how did you screw up this spell? What’s that look like?”) but it’s my responsibility and authority to disclaim.

Except, as written, for rolling damage. Even though the players generally only portray and manage their characters and the resources of their characters, the game asks them to roll monster/threat damage. It’s the one spot in the game where they take real-world action on behalf of the adversity of the world. 

Now, you could argue that the players are rolling to see how well their characters dodge/roll with blow/etc. But the “b[2dX]” and “w[2dX]” annotations bely that; the best roll means the highest and the worst roll means the lowest. So that’s clearly best and worst from the monster’s point of view.

Think about every time you’ve introduced a new player (at least one with traditional RPG experience) to DW. Didn’t you have to explain it to them the first time you had them roll damage for the enemy? At least with a statement of “Yeah, in this game the GM never touches the dice.”  And they might not have noticed you weren’t rolling for the baddies up until that point. But the players rolling for the bad guys feels weird. That’s why it requires an explanation.  

Hell, I’ve even had a player look at me when I told him to roll damage for the orcs and say “No, I’m not going to do that.” He wasn’t afraid (like the book suggests). He just didn’t think it was his job.  And in my opinion, he was right.

OK, What’s Your Point?

Mostly: I don’t like the rule. I don’t play that way. And I felt like sharing. 

At the start of each session, I grab two of each die and I roll damage for my monsters and NPCs and environment stuff.  I roll the dice openly and in plain view, and I’ll explain what I’m rolling if anyone asks or is confused.

But also: I’m curious if anyone else does it my way. And I’m curious if anyone’s tried it my way and gone back to having players roll, and if so, why?

(Adrian Brooks) 

25 thoughts on “In which I advance a heretical opinion”

  1. I’m with you, players drive their characters, sure, but why do they control the damage enemies dish out? They didn’t make them attack in the first place, the GM did.

    I think its all a weird hold-over between the GM not needing to roll as with Apocalypse World and the fact that Apocalypse World doesn’t have the kind of rolled damage Dungeons and Dragons has. Just a quirk of the mutant Dungeon World system.

    (Psst, sometimes I give basic grunt monsters a solid unchanging damage and don’t roll at all!)

  2. (Tony Ferron I actually think the MC should roll the Harm move in AW, too. For the same reasons. Consider the fact that the players want to miss the Harm roll… and it’s like the only example of “wanting to miss” in the game.)

  3. I think you’re over thinking this. I feel like most of the points you made are group dependent. Who rolls the damage isn’t that important of a thing. Just do what feels easiest and most comfortable for you and your players.

  4. I apologize for the length of this, beforehand.

    I’m glad you brought up this conversation!  I think I’ve adopted several of your suggestions wholesale, because I really appreciate the way you think about things, Jeremy Strandberg .

    On this topic though, I’d like to actually advocate for having the players roll damage, just to present an alternate side.

    First, I agree with you that having the players roll damage just so you can say that the GM never rolls is an incredibly weak reason, and “cool factor” like that shouldn’t drive mechanics.  However, I believe that every decision regarding game mechanics is really a philosophical decision (e.g. a Fighter’s “Bend Bars and Lift Gates” move is less about the mechanical benefit of presenting an out of combat use for the character, and more about making a philosophical statement that “Fighters do this!”  As if to say that they are less concerned with going around problems, and would rather go “through” them.  Etc.)  So likewise, I think the philosophy drives who rolls damage as well.

    Timing and simplicity:  I agree with you, that games would go quicker if the GM rolls damage.  But the same could be said for making most of the rolls.  With the PbtA rule-set moves are triggered rather than performed, meaning that the GM and consensus of players decide when something should be rolled rather than being something the player simply decides.  The player acts, and if it happens, then he rolls.  Because of this, the model outlines that the GM should say when a roll should be moved… which would be similarly streamlined by simply having the GM roll it for the player, then describe the outcome.

    But I love how the system has the Player roll all of these, because it makes two profound philosophical statements.  The first is that a character’s fate is in his/her own hands.  The second is that the conversation of a story is as important, if not more important, than the elements within it.

    1) A character’s fate is in his/her own hands.  Throughout AW and DW you find that rules are unique when it comes to players.  They have more hp than anything else, they embody the definition of their playbook (I am THE fighter) and that the things they do involve chance IN ADDITION to what fiction would direct.  Everything else is solely guided by the fiction.  (e.g. when a hireling gets attacked or falls into a trap, there are no rolls for fate.  Fiction goes forward and what makes sense happens).  Players get to roll, because where they interact with the universe the unpredictable or unexpected can happen, for better or worse.  So they roll for it.

    In this sense, it becomes important that they roll the damage dice.  As a GM I don’t roll any when a creature attacks NPCs, because fiction drives it, not chance or fate.  And just as it’s important for a “player” to realize that this chance is in their hands when a move is triggered (even if it’s not the quickest way to do it), it’s important for them to see that the damage that character suffers is in the same realm and also in their hands.  It’s not that the GM rolled a 10 that your player takes a dirt nap, it’s because YOU rolled a 10.

    2) The conversation in which a story unfolds is as important, if not more important, than the events themselves.  We see this in the way players get to define the world with regard to where their player interacts with it.  It’s why we ask questions and use those answers.  It’s why we give hard choices.  The richness of the story is in the conversation.

    So even though it takes more time for me to correct a player when he/she rolls a move that I don’t think triggered, or to ask them to roll something else, it’s important because our focus isn’t as much the story as the conversation that builds it.  I think asking a player to roll their damage is an important exchange in that conversation. 

    GM: “The troll lifts you from the ground and chucks you flailing into the copse of trees, branches flaying your skin as trunks shatter from your impact.  How much did that hurt?  Roll best of 2d8.”

    Player: “Wait, it does 2d8 damage!”

    GM: “Nah, remember: best of 2d8 means you roll 2 of them, but only keep the highest.  So it’s not likely this won’t really hurt, but it still can’t be more than 8.”

    Player:  “Oh, ok.  A 3 and a 7.  Damn 7!”

    GM: “Ouch, yeah it hurts!  Your tunic is pretty shredded, and you can tell you’ve broken some ribs.  But you’re still standing right?  Now what do you do?”

    Yeah, it takes longer.  But I think that’s the point.


    So even with all of that said, if you disagree, then roll the damage for them.  I think that what’s best is what works for a group: even if that moves to the GM rolling everything, or damage is standardized rather than rolled, whatever.  But I wanted to advocate why I think that little aspect could be an important element!

  5. Great post Kevin Tompos 

    I think you’re right about the intent of the design. I never did roll for the players in Apocalypse World (a much looser game), it just felt right, so no one questioned it. I’m almost convinced to ask the players if they want to make those rolls again, but I think we’ll take speed for now.

    Food for thought!

  6. Hey Kevin Tompos, thanks for the thoughtful response! No worries about length… did you see how long the original post was? (Also, this:)

    Regarding #1: I definitely see where you’re coming from but if that is the intent, then I think the rest of the systems & terms around it are poorly designed. If were a “soak” roll or something like that vs. fixed damage I’d agree with you entirely.  But it’s not.  They’re rolling to see how effective the attack is, or how _un_lucky they got.

    Also: the GM rolling damage dice doesn’t make the GM the source of the damage. “Rolling it” (especially rolling in the open) is a time-honored way of distancing the GM from responsibility for bad stuff that happens to characters.

    Regarding #2: I don’t really buy it. I agree that the conversation is crucially important in DW, but the point of designing an RPG is to structure the conversation to be about the things that are interesting and fun and cool about the game.  To me, rolling dice isn’t what the conversation should be about. The “roll X damage” conversation is actively impeding the conversation I want to have, the one about how the troll flung into the trees and holy crap that hurt and now he’s coming at you WHAT DO YOU DO?

    Side point: I would not argue that the GM making most of the rolls would speed up the game even more. Most of the Basic Moves, all of them except Spout Lore & sometimes Defy Danger, involve players making choices. It’d slow stuff down for me to roll and then refer them to their move.  And anyhow, players get real good real quickly at rolling 2d6+stat, and rolling their own damage dice. It’s the “wait, how much damage should I roll? and add what?” conversation that takes time.  Especially when they’re also dealing damage.

    But you’re right! This is totally a thing to decide on with your group.  It bugs me as a design decision, but it’s like the easiest houserule ever to make.

  7. Yeah, I’d say I agree with all of that (even the side point on how rolling basic moves might not actually speed it up). Since I think the importance is philosophical, the use of it becomes philosophical as well. If damage taken isn’t an important part of the conversation (and I’m not sure it always is) then it’s not important. It’s similar to me to the argument for dice less damage, and it has strong merit.

    Likewise, how important is it that characters have the illusion of control over even the damage they take? I didn’t think it was important either when I approached DW from DnD. But what has convinced me is what feels more powerful to me when the potential damage is significant. When a character has 7 hp left, and takes 1d10 of damage, I think it’s much more powerful when they pick up the dice and make that roll than when I do. Again, because I like them feeling the tactile weight of every moment that chance encounters their character.

  8. Kevin’s done a better job than me.

    As I said earlier, when the players roll the dice, it’s the monster or the world doing the damage, not me, and that’s a meaningful distinction.

    I am not a source of adversity. I author a world in which there is danger, and that danger will bite the characters, but it is the fiction does it, and not me.

    Early D&D (or at least, one style of it) was competetive. It was a wargame that pitted the characters against the Dungeon, the players against the DM. The hands-off approach is also a distancing from that.

    Less importantly, it’s a counter against dice-fudging in whichever direction. It keeps it honest. DW has no balance, no challenge rating. Any encounter can kill the characters. My players can’t expect me to pull my blows by pretending the beast missed or rolled low, because it’s plain I have no such influence. It’s up to them to fight or run, their complete responsibility.

  9. Adrian Brooks… I don’t buy the claim the GM is anything but the author of adversity.  Almost every one of the GM moves boils down to “make something bad happen.”   Yes, you interrogate the fiction to determine what that badness looks like. But you (the GM) is making the decision of which move to make and how to make it. You (the GM) are the one describing it to the players, or disclaiming that authority.

    I do see your points about distancing DW from the old competitive mode of play and the anti-fudge factor. I just think there are better ways to achieve both. (The GM principles for the former, rolling openly for the latter.)

    (Also: sorry, but I think I accidentally marked your post as spam when you first posted it.  Restored now.)

  10. On the one hand, I roll actual dice for damage even when I’m running a PBP session. On the other hand, in PbtA games the GM has a good excuse to pick the damage rather than rolling. That last option has the Platonic simplicity of eliminating the only dice a DW GM rolls. It would probably be too jarring for players with a background in traditional RPGs, but it fits the spirit of the system.

    PBP players would never know…

  11. Not much for me to say that hasn’t been said better by Adrian Brooks and Kevin Tompos.  I agree with having the players roll.  That said, I can see why some people have problems with this particular point as it’s one of the most obviously D&Dish rules in the game, much different from AW Harm Move (and I don’t disagree that the Harm Move being the only move players (generally) WANT to miss is weird… but I definitely disagree that the MC should roll it).

  12. Jeremy Strandberg I need to add: I don’t think you’re wrong; clearly, the GM is actually the source of adversity. But you’re not an adversary. Not touching the dice, you’re  distancing yourself from the mechanics. It’s part of an illusion that “It’s not your fault”. Being an illusion doesn’t stop it being valuable, though. The whole game is an illusion, after all.

  13. Jeremy Strandberg I’m with you. I think it’s faster, and it’s less “intrusive” in the fiction. Also, rolling dice is funny for GMs too 😀  I like to roll, and I like to tell the story… so I think I’m not betraying some important principle, rolling some plastic polyhedron in D.W. 😀 

    Also, I don’t feel as an adversary, when I do that. Siply, I “command” the NPCs and the enviroment around the charaters, so I roll for them, while each player rolls for his own character. I feel this reinforce the “roles” around the table. Finally, I roll the dice openly, the players can see what I’m rolling and the results. No way I cheat with dice and results during play, doubly true in D.W.

  14. Adrian Brooks & Kevin Tompos: good points all around, especially the importance of the illusion.

    I’m curious: have either of you have played with the GM rolling damage? Did you find the illusion damaged? Did you feel more personally responsible for the damage done?

  15. Oh, and Kevin Tompos… your idea that sometimes the damage dealt is significant (and that by contrast it sometimes or even often is not significant) is a really important observation about the game.

  16. I haven’t tried rolling the damage. I’ve tried rolling all things briefly for the players roll to be all in the fiction. I wouldn’t recommend that extent.

  17. Just offer the players an opportunity with (or without) a cost  …

    The gnoll smashes you with it’s massive flail. Take the best of 2d10+2 damage, forceful.  You can suck it up and take 12 damage or try your luck and roll. What do you do?

  18. Nathan Roberts this is NOT a cost. This is a extortion, and I feel it’s very bad for the game. Or you roll for the damage, or you get maximum damage… not fun at all. Also, first time I hear about a GM move built on the rules, and not on the fiction :-\

  19. Jeremy Strandberg l’ve GM’d many other games. And you’re right, I did feel more responsible – I don’t like hurting the characters. Clearly the illusion works both ways round.

  20. Hey Andrea Parducci , I was offering an alternate to Jeremy’s idea on GMs rolling damage.  My bad. It was meant to be half Its maximum damage or roll (which the players can roll or the GM) The fixed amount is  half the possible damage (direct from Jeremy’s example). So in this case 7 damage, Sorry. The idea remains though.

    In what way is this extortion? The PC is suffering damage (as determined by the fiction of the Gnoll failing at them) and you offer two means of establishing that damage. Straight up set damage or a roll where you risk more or less. Maybe the PC has only a few HP left and wants to risk a roll, maybe not.

    In fact when we were playtesting the rules, fixed damage was the original idea. Rolling for damage just became the homage to the game’s  origins.

    When we play, I tend to avoid dealing damage altogether. Monster moves are my favourite attacks to make on players when they fail or   7-9 a hack ‘n slash.

  21. If the damage is b[2d6], you could say “roll 2d6 and tell me the numbers.” “Okay, it’s a 3 and a 6.” “You twist to dodge the blow and instead of glancing off your shield and armor, it’s claws rend through your pauldron, you take 8 damage. Oh, and it ignores 1 armor.” “WHAAAT.”

    By being transparent with the damage roll, you are providing the player with some meta damage information. Namely that this creature has [b]2d6+2 and piercing. They wouldn’t get any of this info if you just rolled and told.

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