Deal Damage is a Crap GM Move
slightly heretical musings
When I’ve played DW with less-experienced GMs—and certainly when I started GMing DW myself—I’ve seen this sort of thing happen a fair deal:
“Okay, you got a 7-9 to Hack & Slash the orc? Deal your damage. 3? Okay, he’s still up. But he stabs you back. Take 1d8+1 damage. You still up? Okay, what do you do?”
The strawman GM in my example is making the GM move deal damage, but they aren’t following the principle of begin and end with the fiction. As a result, the whole thing is flat. The player reduces their character’s HP total. We vaguely know that the PC landed their blow, and the orc landed one back. But we’ve got no sense of the actual fiction, the details, the momentum. Who hit whom how? When? And Where? Is the PC’s axe still stuck in the orc’s shoulder? Does the orc up close and personal, stab-stab-stabbing you with his rusty knife? What the hell is going on?
Now, you can blame that on the GM (obviously: they aren’t following their principles). But you’ve got literally a dozen principles always competing for your attention, and it can be tough to keep them all straight.
You can also lay a lot of blame at the feat of the Damage and HP and “down at 0 HP” system that DW inherited from D&D. But if you start tinkering with any of those things, you end up changing basic moves, and class moves, and how you make monsters, and equipment, and spells, and pretty much the whole mechanical economy of the game.
So what about the GM move itself: Deal Damage. I’d like to argue that this move—its name, its description, the fact that it exists at all—is part of the problem. And maybe an easier one to fix.
Of all the GM moves, it’s the only one that maps most directly to a purely mechanical outcome. “Take 1d8+1 damage.” The GM must evaluate the fiction a little to determine how much damage you should take, but not much… you can just look at the orc’s damage die and say “you’re fighting an orc, take 1d8+1 damage.” And because the result of move (the roll, losing HP) is so mechanical and abstract, it’s easy to forget to return to the fiction and describe what that damage actually looks like.
(You don’t see this issue nearly as much in Apocalypse World, even though it basically has HP and has basically the same move: inflict harm as established. I think there are two reasons. First, the way NPCs suffer harm is much more handwavy than in DW… each level of harm corresponds to a rough description of trauma, and it’s GM fiat to determine if the NPC is still standing. Thus, the GM has to decide on the specific trauma, in the fiction, in order determine if the NPC is still a threat. It’s pretty brilliant. Second, against PCs, there’s the Suffer Harm move, which can generate all sorts of interesting fiction.)
Compare deal damage to use up their resources. When the GM uses up resources, they must decide which resources to use up. If they decide to “use up” your shield, then the natural thing to say isn’t “you lose your shield, reduce your Armor by 1” but rather “it smashes through your shield!” or “you feel the strap on your shield snap and the thing goes flying, what do you do?” Even if the GM uses up an abstract resource (like adventuring gear or rations), it’s pretty easy and natural for everyone to visual your pack getting smashed or torn open or whatever. HP are such an abstraction that it’s easy to just decrement them and move on.
Every now and then, the conversation crops up that you just shouldn’t use the Deal Damage move, or that you shouldn’t use it very much. Other GM moves are more interesting, etc. etc.
Another relevant detail: on page 165, there’s this gem that often gets forgotten:
Note that “deal damage” is a move, but other moves may include damage as well. When an ogre flings you against a wall you take damage as surely as if he had smashed you with his fists.
With a sidebar of:
If a move causes damage not related to a monster, like a collapsing tunnel or fall into a pit, use the damage rules on page 21.
So… could we just remove “Deal Damage” from the GM’s list of moves? If it just flat-out wasn’t a choice, and instead you always had to make a different GM move (or monster move), one that might also happen to deal damage, would that help GMs begin and end with the fiction?
Or would it just confuse things? Or not make a difference? After all, you’d still have the GM move Use up their resources, and you HP are really nothing more than a resource.
It’s entirely possible that I’m just overthinking this, and the “solution” to this “problem” is just learning to “begin and end with the fiction.”