Fighting and harm: a descriptive approach

Fighting and harm: a descriptive approach

Fighting and harm: a descriptive approach

Trying to ditch HP, working on some rules for descriptive damage in a Dungeon World-ish context:

Gimme your insights! Comments in the doc welcome also.

Editing to disclaim that a lot of foundational ideas here were lifted from this great thread on story-games:

36 thoughts on “Fighting and harm: a descriptive approach”

  1. I will write it out in a post in community discussion I copied it down from a forum whose link O don’t have. I can copy it down from the hardcopy of made. It’s a page long though.

  2. Question: you don’t really explain how to dispatch a monster. You suggest they’re willing to suffer minor harm or major harm, but how do you determine this? What happens once Defenses are circumvented or worn out?

  3. Interesting.  How do you determine when PCs have taken enough wounds to die?  

    This system obviously enforces descriptiveness in combat, which you ought to be doing anyway, but maybe sometimes get slack about. ¬†And it forces more attention to PC injuries, so it’s more ‘realistic’ than ‘swashbuckling’. ¬†On the monster side, though, does it really change much? ¬†The Red Dragon was always going to make savage bites and breathe gouts of flame, and the Zombie already “attacks with overwhelming numbers” and “corners them” and “gains strength from the dead”. ¬†Do I need rules to force me to describe the zombie’s unnatural anatomy or the way they grab with dead hands? ¬†I wanted to do that anyway.

    Does having two boxes for defence mean it always takes three hits to kill that type of foe? ¬†That’s roughly what you get with the DW book zombie’s 11 hp, 1 armor, but doing it with hp means there’s some chance for randomness and rolling well.

    You say defences can be “bypassed if you’re trying to”. ¬†How does that work with the examples you give? ¬†“Armored Scales*” is classic Smaug, okay, make a called shot to the weak point. ¬†But what about “Monstrous”, “Blood of Fire”, “Strength of the Dead”, “No Anatomy”, “Squirrelly”, “Feign Wound”, “Play Dead”? ¬†I’m not sure how it works exactly to say in the fiction “okay, you’ve hit the Blood of Fire once, but you need to hit it again to fully bypass it.” ¬†

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always considered that a great strength of Dungeon World is that it doesn’t try to nail these things down exactly mechanically, so you always have freedom in any fight to narrate appropriately. ¬†If you want more rules to make PCs deal with their own injuries, sure, that makes sense to me. ¬†But I’m not sure you’re really gaining anything by trying to add crunch to the monster side, even if you’re doing in the name of “descriptive damage”.

  4. Leaving aside the rules part, using the format Establish Presence/Threaten the Heroes/The End is Nigh to describe monsters is great!  A nice clarification/formalization of what we ought to be doing all the time anyway.

  5. Aaron Griffin re: when does death come?

    If you cross blades with a monster and say, “I strike a forceful blow at it’s head,” if the thing has no defense against such an attack, it just happens. You forcefully strike it’s head with your sword. If that’s something that would kill it, it dies.

    If it had a defense, like “covered in armor,” it would use that defense to shrug off the attack.

    If it had a defense like, “animated by magic,” it would use that similarly, to say “hey, I don’t really need a head anyway.”

  6. colin roald re: player death:

    We have a pretty good common understanding, i think, of what type of wounds are life-threatening. The GM should have some kind of move like “Reveal the consequences of an injury,”


    GM: The goblin’s sword cleaves a deep wound into your abdomen, if you don’t do something to staunch the blood, you’ll definitely bleed out.

    Player: I don’t have time, have to keep fighting!

    GM: You start to get dizzy as the blood rushes out of your body, roll to Endure calamity.

    Player: Rolls a 7 I’ll choose the second option.

    GM: So it’s not as severe as it might have been and you’ll yet recover, but you have to tend to it right now.

  7. Unless I’m missing something (and I might be, it’s late), it seem like the damage done by a PC’s attack will always be either nothing (on a miss) or the expected amount. I.e. if I attempt a mortal blow and get a 7+, it’s going to be a mortal wound. And a wild, panicked swing is never going to inflict a mortal blow, even against a target that’s lost all its defenses.

    There’s no room here for a random swing that drops the foe, or for a mortal attack that doesn’t quite finish the foe.

    Maybe that’s your intent, but it feels to predictable to me.

  8. Jeremy Strandberg¬†That’s sort of right, but let me outline the different outcomes in more detail. (Leaving out the clauses about permanent/ mortal wounds for now because I’m not sure I care for them and they’re not a necessary part of the design.)

    So, you cross blades with something, 

    On a miss, the GM makes a move

    On a 7-9, you describe your attack in keeping with the tags of your weapon (and expose yourself)

    This either…

    …happens, just as you describe it, or

    …reveals and uses up their defenses.

    On a 10+, you can also choose to add extra tags to your attack, either quick, forceful or vicious (vicious is basically +1 damage to their defense.)

    The unexpected comes from¬†not knowing what or how much defenses an enemy might reveal (if you do know, it’s because you discerned realities and asked, which provides it’s own sort of payoff.)

    If you make an attack to “chop off their head,” and they mark off their last defense box to avoid it, that is a mortal attack that doesn’t quite finish the foe.

  9. I feel like some sort of system like Fate’s consequences would make this more complete. First you take a Minor Injury, then a Major Injury, then a Terrible Injury, and then you die.

  10. It’s a Black Knight in full spiky plate. What does it mean to “reveal its defences”? They seem brutally obvious. I think maybe I’m not getting how you intend to play this, because sometimes defences hardly need to be “revealed”, and “revealing” them has not much to do with getting past them.

    By “reveal” defences, do you mean damage them? I.e., are they just hit points by another name? But you say that Discern Realities can reveal a defence, and that doesn’t damage anything.

    If you really do mean “reveal” defences, does revealing that one goblin has a shield mean that you can now bypass the shields of all of his mates?

    If fiery blood is a defence, what does it mean to reveal or damage that?

  11. Incidentally, Dirk Detweiler Leichty, did you see all of my first comment or did g+ hide 90% of it? As for mortal wounds, I get how you can describe “this wound is going to take you down,” but how does the DM decide when to say that? that is, when is this wound mortal and that one isn’t?

    Presumably every monster can potentially kill you, so it’s not just when an attack has a tag. Is it when the player rolls especially badly? Is it only after they’ve accumulated a few lesser hits (which makes it kind of like hit points)? Do you have a separate roll to determine severity? Is it just DM whim?

  12. Sure, definitely, some defenses are totally apparent. If the knight is “Armored,” you can see that. You may not know how tough that armor is until you start hacking away at it.

    So say that I see that the knight is armored, I cross blades with it and say, “I deliver a piercing thrust with my dueling sword.” Now that bypasses the defense, and the Black knight has a stab wound in the abdomen. We understand that to be serious shit, deadly if it’s not dealt with immediately, so is that something the knight is willing to risk?

    The rules don’t intervene in the process of discerning how serious a given wound is, we just describe it and rely on common understanding. My feeling is that if we can leave behind our expectations of where the rules should intervene, our natural understanding of these things will usually be an adequate guide.

    An alternate situation:

    I see that the knight is armored, and say “I deliver a piercing thrust.” What I don’t know is that the knight is also “quick as hell.” When I make my attack, GM reveals that defense and the knight marks off one box of “quick as hell” to mitigate my attack.


  13. Dirk Detweiler Leichty Yeah, I can see how an unexpected Defense would turn an otherwise lethal blow into a scratch (or whatnot). But that still leaves out the option of the lucky shot, right? Again, maybe that’s what you want.

    Am I correct that if a player has identified a monster’s Defenses (via spout lore, discern realities, or seeing it in action), that you expect them to fictionally maneuver to bypass those Defenses? And if they do so, the Defenses don’t come into play?

    Maybe a minor thing, but… the trigger of cross swords is “When you engage a foe in armed combat…” and the results indicate that (on a hit) you make an attack. But won’t I have described making my attack in order to trigger cross swords in the first place? If I haven’t, how will we know whether to apply the -1 or -2 penalty?

    Regarding your comments and doubts about the “permanent harm” or “lethal harm” penalties… I think you’re right to question that approach. I see why you’re doing it: if there’s no penalty, why would you ever do anything other than a lethal blow? But it feels cumbersome. Also, because the harm a PC inflicts never unexpectedly “ticks up,” what happens if I make basic attack after basic attack after basic attack?

    Did you ever see Colter Hanna’s Adventure World? He’s got a nice distinction between “Aggress” (your general fighty move, similar to cross swords) and “Strike Down,” which only triggers when you have a clear opening. Strike Down is the finishing move, and you have position yourself with Aggress (or Court Peril, or Evade Attention, etc.) in order to trigger it. A similar approach might work here?

  14. If something has “blood of fire” as a defense, that might not be immediately apparent. But if you hurl a fireball at it, the GM would reveal that defense to you, and mark off one use of it. “Your fireball makes sure contact, but despite some light singe marks, the thing seems largely unharmed; it must have some resistance to fire.”¬†

  15. ”¬†if there’s no penalty, why would you ever do anything other than a lethal blow?” ¬†Well, in the real world, and you’re fighting for your life, presumably you do always attempt a lethal blow, and the question is whether you manage to achieve it. ¬†But in the real world, also, sometimes you’re not fighting for your life, like it’s a bar brawl or some wacko is in your way and you just want to discourage him without getting into the consequences of killing a person. ¬†Presumably in a dungeon delve usually you’re just fighting for your life and every blow will be as lethal as you can make it.

  16. My feeling is that if we can leave behind our expectations of where the rules should intervene, our natural understanding of these things will usually be an adequate guide.

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about this in the past, and went down the path of “can we just do it all narratively?” I ended up stepping back from it for a number of reasons:

    1) Fights are super chaotic. Even fencing someone (just the two of you, with rules of engagement, similar weapons, wide open flat space, no distractions, etc.), many exchanges devolve into this wild scrum of instinct and reflex. You take the openings that you get, even if they wouldn’t be lethal. And sometimes, even the rank amateur lands a “killing” blow on the master.

    Randomization of damage (via either the attack move, or by somehow rolling damage, or rolling for armor) adds that element back in. In DW, if the fighter describes choking up on his ax and popping the choker in its face, and rolls a 10+ on H&S but a piddly 2 damage, we can infer that the choker reeled back and only got a minor gash (and is probably still choking the fighter). If the damage was a 12 (vs. the choker’s 6 hp), the ax pops the choker’s skull open and the thing goes limp (though maybe the corpse is still wrapped around the fighter’s throat).

    2) Armor and defenses are super complicated to model “realistically”. For armor, there are questions of coverage (how fully armored are they? how easy are the unarmored parts to defend? how “juicy” are the unarmored bits?) and effectiveness (yeah, it defends against errant thrusts but will it stop a dead-on skewer?) and how that armor behaves against different weapons or materials (leather vs. sharped steel? chain vs a mace?). Trying to handle that narratively, especially combined with #1 (fights are super chaotic) is really rough.

    3) The GM needs some assistance in determining how bad a monster’s attack is. I, at least, don’t want to be on the hook for deciding that this attack from the Black Knight is a debilitating one (a stab at your unarmored leg) while that attack threatens no more than a scratch. A lot of the time, the attacks I’m able to initiate as the GM are in response to player moves (the 7-9 on H&S , the miss on a Defy Danger to get behind them, etc.). I want something to remove (or at least support) my responsibility for deciding on how lethal each of those reactive attacks are.

    4) Wounds suck. I originally wanted wounds to be nasty things that we tracked and accounted for in the fiction. But not every wound is worth doing that. A lot of the crap that happens in a fight is, in the long run, superficial. Scrapes, bruises, strained muscles, flesh wounds. But the stuff that’s actually injurious is a big deal. Like, think about what happens when there’s a real injury at a sporting event. Everything stops. Paramedics are out there. It’s not infrequent for the player to get hauled off in a stretcher and have to sit out for much of the season. Inflicting that kind of pain and debility on the PCs is a Big Deal. And unless you’re looking for Fantasy Vietnam or some sort of DCC grindhouse, you probably want to insulate your PCs from that sort of trauma.

    Anyhow… I don’t want this to come across as you shouldn’t do this! I mostly mean this as “here’s all the problems I found going down this road.”

    If you’re interested in what I ended up with at the end of that thought process, check out the approach to damage in Heartbreaker world:

  17. Jeremy Strandberg¬†there’s some interesting stuff in Heartbreaker World. ¬†Did you go back to a closer-to-vanilla-DW base for #Stonetop ¬†because you’ve been planning to publish all along, or other reasons?

  18. I started on Stonetop first, and was always sort of meant to be something for a wider audience. Heartbreaker is more of a proof-of-concept for mechanics, but not grabby enough by itself to get much notice. I’ll dust it off when Stonetop is done and apply those mechanics to something bigger, possibly adventurers-as-special-forces-in-a-fantasy-Wiold-War.

    But if you want to chat more about, lets take it to a different thread.

  19. The trigger for cross blades is to “engage in armed combat.'” Maybe there’s a better way to Communicate this, but I imagine that as saying “I pull out my sword and advance on them.” Or something like that.

    If you trigger it by describing at attack, then you have to go back as revise what you said based on the results of the roll. Hopefully having the roll before the description makes better continuity (although enemy defenses might require that a description be revised, so not perfect)

    +Jeremy Strandberg thanks for sharing your experience, I think I may have slightly different goals here, so let me respond to your numbered points:

    1) the variability of defenses, and the randomness of the attack roll is enough for me. I’ve never liked rolling for hack and slash AND damage in DW, and I’m content to lose the possibility of a lucky swing suddenly killing a superior foe. Although there might be a place for something like a critical on a 12+ that blows right past any defenses.

    2) Yeah, I’m happy with abstracting these things. If a defense might be applicable, the GM can describe how it’s used to turn a serious blow into a minor scratch.

    3) this is also very important to me. I think how you do it in this case is to craft monster move lists to the degree of danger you want to present. You can even do things like:

    to show them you’re serious, let out a terrifying roar

    when you think you’re in control, slice at their flesh

    wen you fear for your life, go for the throat

    4) yes! I want wounds to suck. My thematic intent here is that fighting is rare and costly if you’re not well prepared. I also want to use this in a long time-frame context where seasons pass, and there is time to heal wounds.

    I’m excited to read what you came up with for heartbreaker world, will take a look a bit later today.

  20. Fantastic concept, could also work for things like armour and weapons durability, “parry” or “trick”. 7-9. “You make the shot but you seem to have broken your bowstring” “your arquebus fires both slugs successfully but it seems the extra powder made a mess of the breach, it’s going to need a clean before you can fire again.” “amazingly, you successfully parry the axe but your poor sword has taken a beating it’s now blunt and chopped take a -1 to all attacks with it until it’s repaired and sharpened again, or better still put it away before it becomes a plowshare”

  21. Dirk Detweiler Leichty, totally follow you that we might have different design goals.

    You say that your “thematic intent here is that fighting is rare and costly if you’re not well prepared.” With that in mind…

    How much of action in this game would be fighting?

    How long do you think fights should take to resolve?

    What do you envision an “awesome fight” to look like?

    How often do you think PCs should actually suffer significant wounds? Like, maybe each session or two at least one PC from the party suffers a wound? Or more as this thing hanging over the PCs that almost never drops?

    Are you down with a significant wound being something that dominates play for an entire session, or longer? E.g. the barbarian gets stabbed in the gut, and the rest of the session revolves around getting him to safety and medical attention?

  22. Some more thoughts after playtesting:

    -descriptive harm is definitely viable on the player end. Really, the GM is following the same principles to determine how severe a wound might be as when they’re deciding how much damage to hand out. There’s one less step involved actually, since you don’t have to convert your natively descriptive understanding into a number. In both cases (with numbers or with description) we’re relying heavily on the GM’s principles–that fact just feels a little more bare when using description.

    -the key to it is clear communication: the GM must always foreshadow and telegraph the level of danger for things to feel natural and not arbitrary. with that in mind, I’ve added a clause to the Endure calamity move: “When you face immediate and unavoidable injury, ask the MC exactly how serious it is, and roll.” This gives the player a chance to spend resources like armor to avoid catastrophic damage.

    -it’s probably better to keep some abstraction on the NPC end. It’s good to have some way of quantifying how deadly the players’ attacks are.

    Jeremy Strandberg

    Having one or two serious fights in a session is good. This isn’t well-suited to dungeon crawling. If you’re wounded in a fight, you’re probably not going to want to or be able to keep fighting.

    Most fights should be over in a single Cross blades roll. The outcome of that roll will almost always change the situation enough that one party or the other retreats or surrenders.

    That said, the players do have resources they can use to prolong fights against scarier opponents. An “awesome fight” is one that uses up every last drop of those resources.

    The risk of serious wounds should always be there when you pull out your sword, but the chance is not overwhelmingly high. If you’re fighting defensively, you can carry forward a significant bonus to your Endure roll. Most often, if the player takes a wound, it’s because they roll a 7-9 and decide that it’s worth it.

    A serious wound will only dominate the story if the GM’s principles suggest that it should. Probably rarely. This definitely requires some reinforcement on the GM side. Some specific principles or requirements for how to forecast and deal out the danger.

    Here’s the playbooks I’ve been using for this hack, they definitely share some common ideas with Jeremy’s heartbreaker (and I may have lifted a couple ideas from it directly)

  23. Marshall Brengle¬†please do! It’s not close to finished on the GM side, but most of the principles from DW carry over.

    In the games I’ve run, we’ve used the Land/ peoples sheets as a sort of dungeon starter /oracle for setting up the first session. It’s generated some fun stuff, but it’s notably missing a good hook for binding the party together.

  24. First off: super cool! There’s some awesome stuff in there.

    Is the roll still 2d6? ¬†If so, it seems like you’ll be rolling +0 a lot of the time. I know you can mark a Strength box to get +1, and a lot of the moves add a +1 circumstantially. ¬†But only 1 in 4 rolls can be affected by an after-the-roll spend (I’ve done the math; let me know if you want the numbers), and those circumstances seem rather limited. ¬†Rolling +0 is pretty harsh.

    Going back to the descriptive harm system you’ve got… ¬†_Most fights should be over in a single Cross blades roll_. The outcome of that roll will almost always change the situation enough that one party or the other retreats or surrenders. ¬†Have you actually been seeing that in playtesting? ¬†

    Assuming you’re still using “ablative” Defenses (where a foe has, like, Quick Reflexes [][] and each attack they can dodge tics off a box), seems like the first Cross Swords is doomed to just eat up the foe’s defenses rather than actually inflict harm. Like, even if you pick the right tags, a 2-box defense will negate the attack, right? ¬†

    And as the player, I’m almost certainly going to be Enduring Calamity any time I Cross Swords. ¬†Which means if I want a decent chance at coming out of this fight on top, I’ve got drop them on the first exchange. Therefore, I’ve got to bypass their defenses entirely. ¬†

    I guess where I’m going is: ¬†the ablation doesn’t seem to add much to me. ¬†I think you could just treat Defenses as “blocks” and basically say that if they don’t pick a tag that bypasses them (of fictionally set it up get that tag), then your blow is countered. ¬†

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