Deal Damage is a Crap GM Move

Deal Damage is a Crap GM Move

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.”


39 thoughts on “Deal Damage is a Crap GM Move”

  1. I like the idea of removing it, but you’d need to have some more coaching about “on the fly”/improv monster moves.

    In your orc example, I doubt the orc has “hit with sword” as a move. A novice GM with a strict reading of the rules might not understand that the orc can swing that sword even if it doesn’t say it.

  2. Honestly, I GMed/ Played AD&D, Champions, Twilight 2000 over the years. It’s took me a good 6 months to become, what I think, is a decent Dungeon World GM. Unlearning a lot of what I took for granted over the years.

    I’m still catching myself at “just doing damage”, but I’ve gotten better and I think my players have as well.

  3. I really like this. I think that there should still be references to damage, but just push it through the general-Damage dice lens (scrapes and bruises = 1d4, etc). So GMs can still be liberal with dealing damage, but just as a result of other moves, and never just as an automatic response to a 7-9 HS or a missed DD

  4. If we’re talking heretical, I’ll just say that I thought multiple times about writing a “Suffer Harm” move for Dungeon World. The idea was that the Damage roll would double as the result of the move: you’d still have HP (that’s how you know if you risk dying).

  5. Aaron Griffin I’m actually thinking you would NOT replace it with “attack” moves for monsters. But rather, any time the monster attacked, it’d be a different GM move that happened to also inflict damage.

    E.g. when the orc “makes an attack against you,” if I don’t have “deal damage,” I’d be forced to pick do something like this instead:

    Use a monster move >> the orc’s Fight with abandon : “So, you like run it through, but it doesn’t seem to notice. It just pushes itself onto your blade, hacking at you and your shield over and over with that vicious meat cleaver thing, scoring a number of blows before it expires. Take d6+2 damage and your blade is stuck right in the thing’s gut. What do you do?”

    Reveal an unwelcome truth: “You gut the orc, but he scores a scratch on your arm, not a big deal but holy shit does it burn, take a d6+2 damage. And you’re like, uh oh, what’s that greenish oil coating this dead orc’s blade?”

    Use up their resources: “You slash it across the chest, and it reels back, then follows up with just this reign of blow after blow. Take a d6+2 damage and your shield is just in splinters, it hauls back for another chop, what do you do?”

    Separate them: “So, yeah, you run the orc through as it leaps at you but its momentum carries it into you, knocking you down the ravine in a tumble. Take d6+2 damage and you land in a heap, a dead orc on you, the fight up top. Ovid, you see the Hawke and the orc go tumbling off the cliff and another one comes swinging at you, what do you do?”

    Put someone in a spot: “Oh, yeah, you totally slice this orc’s throat open and goes down in a gurgle, but the other two rush in on you and hack away, take d6+3 damage (+1 cuz of the extra one, right?). And they keep reigning blows on you, herding you back toward the pit, it’s just a few feet away, what do you do?”

    Etc. etc.

    I.e. there’s no replacement for the “Deal Damage” move, no general monster moves like “stab them.” So whenever a foe makes an attack, the GM must make a different GM move, one that makes no sense unless you begin and end wtih the fiction.

  6. Greg Soper oh, I still think there’s a lot of value in having distinct Damage values for monsters. It’s part of what establishes the “difficulty” of fighting (e.g.) orc bloodwarrior (d6+2) vs. an orc berserker (d10+5!!!).

  7. Jeremy Strandberg yup, It’s been a while since I’ve read it but I remember that I found it way too descriptive, for 3 reasons:

    – The “when you die?” part

    – The fact that it might easily generate misunderstanding on the fictional danger of a wound between the DM and the players.

    – The fact that it implies rewriting a lot of moves for classes.

    What do you think about the idea of a suffer harm move based on the damage result? I know that it’s really not-mechanically-elegant, but do you see specific problems besides that and the fact that low damage monster are limited in the range of results?

  8. I like that hack too. HP are another one of those legacy mechanics that are a bit out of place in a PBTA game. The Endure Harm move from AW has been something I’d like to adapt, but I know how people feel about moves that are good on a low roll/bad on a high roll.

    Here’s a really quick, off-the-cuff version that I haven’t done the math on.

    When you suffer harm, roll+(your class HP modifier-half of the damage dealt, rounded up). *On a 12+, it’s not that bad; you shrug off the blow and it doesn’t bother you. *On a 10-11, choose one. *On a 7-9, both.

    The injury weakens you, take minus 1 ongoing to suffer harm until you treat the injury. These penalties are cumulative.

    You lose something; your position, your grip, some advantage you had.

    (more options?)

    *On a 6, you’re out of action, either knocked out, too hurt to get back up, or in too much pain to continue. You can’t act until someone Resuscitates you (see below). If no one Resuscitates you within a certain amount of time, you’re dead.

    Resuscitate (replaces Last Breath)

    When someone applies first aid to you, either with a healing item or a spell, roll+nothing. *On a hit, you’ve cheated Death; you’re in a bad spot but still stable. *On a 7-9, your brush with Death has marked you somehow. *On a 6-, it’s too late, your spirit passes through the Black Gates.

    For items and effects that heal HP, I’d say they would remove the penalties to suffer harm, depending on how much HP they heal.

  9. I like things as they are, because it allows me to get into situations like one I recently got into with “Into the Heart of the Dragon”. A player wanted to get into a bar fight to move the action along, but another player did something so epic at a gambling table that some NPC accidentally dropped their knife onto his knee in shock. He got his bar fight, and also the justification that he didn’t start it. Deal Damage helped me facilitate that.

  10. I maybe wrong, but the hack & slash move reads the following: ” On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you.

    So, the fiction already stablished is that the enemy (the orc) makes his attack.

    Per the fiction this maybe him pushing you to the ground, ir just slashing with his sword. Thats fiction.

    You dont have to make a GM move, you have to continue with the fiction.

    If the orc slashes the PC then it makes his damage roll. And the fiction ends here: “the orc hits you with the rotten sword, take 1d8+1 damage, what do you do?”

    Nothing wrong as far as I know.

    Introducing a new move to soak damage seems like creating unnecesary noise. More rolls not needed to something already covered by the system.

  11. This is a Good Post.

    I think the problem with deal damage is actually the name. As you said, the move itself is the only one written purely in the language of game mechanics. Inflict harm as established is not a phrase which rolls off the tongue outside the context of Apocalypse World, but it’s also consistent with the mannered way the rest of the AW game text is written. DW is written in natural, conversational English, so the shift into purely mechanical jargon stands out. If the move was called something like hurt them, I think it might be less jarring.

  12. That was my first instinct too Oscar Iglesias​, with that exact wording. Making hacks and rule changes strikes me as too much work, but rewording it to hurt them opens it up sufficiently to remind you to consider the fiction and your options.

  13. MisterTia86 I think your second point is important. Perhaps a suitable tweak is this: after describing the injury and resolving the Resist Harm move, the GM MUST communicate to the player the exact nature of their wounds, as well as potential short and long term effects. This needs to be information they have as they try to recover from the wound

  14. Speaking of too much work, I’ve been hacking in the dice and harm systems from Blades in the Dark. Don’t ask me why.

  15. MisterTia86 if you’re going to have an extra “Suffer Harm” move, I absolutely think that tying to the damage roll is the way to go. You’re already rolling it, we’ve already got damage dice and armor and HP and all those things. It’s a way more lightweight hack than dropping HP/damage/armor entirely and replacing it with another roll.

    Like, if I was designing a game from the ground up, I’d consider something like Peter J’s example. But I don’t relish shoehorning something like that into DW.

    Even so, I’m not sure a move tied to the existing damage roll is the right call. I assume it’d look something like…

    When you take more than 4 damage at once, the GM picks from the list below. They pick 1 if you take 5-9 damage, 2 if you take 10-14 damage, and 3 if you take 15+ damage.

    * You’re dazed/stunned/out of it

    * You lose something: your position, your weapon, your footing, your grip, etc

    * You suffer a telling wound (this counts as 2 choices)

    Which, yeah, I guess something like that could work. But wouldn’t it be simpler if the GM simply decided to _use up your resources or put you in a spot with the monster’s attack, and the HP loss was just a pacing/pressure mechanism?

  16. Jeremy Strandberg the idea would be to let the player (instead of the GM) choose those options. That way, when you take damage, you (as a player) have to inform the fiction of what is the effect of the damage (instead of just losing HP).

  17. MisterTia86 oh, sure! That might work. And I can see how that’d force the GM and player to discuss and reconcile the fiction.

    How do you see tags like messy and forceful fitting into that conversation?

  18. Jeremy Strandberg maybe something like this?

    When you take more than 4 damage at once…

    If you take 5+ Damage, choose 1.

    If you take 10+ Damage, choose 3 or let the GM choose 1.

    If you take 15+ Damage, choose 4 or let the GM choose 2.

    You’re dazed (take -1 forward?)

    You’re temporarily out of action (halve the Damage taken?)

    You lose something (your position, your weapon, your footing, your grip, etc): if the Damage is forceful, apply this effect twice (example: you lose your weapon AND your footing).

    You suffer a telling wound (this counts as 2 choices): if the Damage is messy this counts as 1 choice or the wound is longlasting/permanent.

  19. I like the idea of choosing from a list based on how much damage was done. However, it shouldn’t be overly punishing to high-HP characters (who will effectively suffer more trouble than low-HP characters!).

    I think that the basic gist of this post: “MC, always make a fictional move which justifies dealing damage” is solid. The question is how to make flow easily and reliably in practice.

    I fooled around with that damage hack (as linked above) and it works really well, but it’s tedious if people are getting hurt all the time.

    So, if you want to use it, I’d also use a different version of Hack & Slash. (If you read between the lines, you’ll see it’s really the same thing, in a way, but clearer for GMs/MCs…)

    Hack & Slash Modified 7-9 Clause

    On a 7-9, deal your damage and the MC chooses one:

    * Your enemy’s attacks leave you dangerously exposed – e.g. on your back, surrounded, in retreat.

    * If you are already dangerously exposed, you suffer their wrath.

    * Your enemy carries out a maneuver while fighting: they seize a position, an object, activate an ability or power, call reinforcements, or similar.

    This gives a nice ebb-and-flow with the harm hack referenced above.

  20. Here’s a “cleaner” version, once you’ve got the hang of it (less text, but also less guidance):

    On a 7-9, deal your damage and the MC chooses one:

    * Your enemy’s attacks leave you dangerously exposed

    * Your enemy carries out a maneuver while fighting

    * If you are already dangerously exposed, they strike hard.

  21. (It’s hopefully clear enough that if “your enemy’s attacks leave you dangerously exposed” and you do anything but to try to save your skin, you’re handing the MC a golden opportunity to hurt you.)

  22. I do to run out of fictions, because there are more hit point loss events than non-debilitating wounds I can think of on the fly, maybe I need more imagination, a table… or just the guts to debilitate my players 😉 I think the problem is a friction between OSR which requires the nostalgia of losing HP and the fiction 1st PbtA approach as exemplified by the above Descriptive Damage Hack ( – A Descriptive Damage Hack for Dungeon World/World of Dungeons

  23. So, just to be clear about something: I’m not advocating more gory, debilitating wounds in any of this.

    I very rarely deal out anything more than nasty gashes or sprains or dislocated joints on my PCs. That stuff can be fun, but (IMO) only if it’s punctuated and important. If every fight with an orc leaves you minus a finger and holding your guts in, that’s gonna get old real fast.

    My main concern with Deal Damage as a GM move is that it doesn’t demand fiction. That doesn’t mean I want it to always be generating nasty, bloody wounds.

  24. Agreed: a “Damage move” should be more about making the Damage abstraction return to the fiction than simply make the combat grittier (especially in DW).

    There’s nothing wrong with Dealing Damage AND make another GM move to add a fictional effect (like, you are disarmed) and/or ask “What do you?” after the attack, but I’m still keen on the idea of using a move to make the players directly involved in the fictional effect of the Damage because I think that it’s a great way to facilitate and reinforce the fictional follow-up.

  25. Agreed, Jeremy Strandberg! The whole deal with my suggestions here is they make the damage happen less often, which helps mitigate that somewhat.

    However, the nice thing about the “descriptive harm” hack is that it REQUIRES the MC to describe the harm. Otherwise you’ll get players staring at you blankly.

    I like your idea of always combining harm dealt with another MC move – that enriches the palette quite a bit.

  26. Paul Taliesin I do like that aspect to your hack (do less frequent damage). But perhaps the hack isn’t suitable for something like a Coliseum scenario, where damage can and likely will happen often. (unless the players just never need to defy danger)

  27. I’m not sure! You could adjust it to be more tactical – you lose position, fall prone, lose the initiative, etc.

    Or you could make the roll more forgiving. It depends!

    I think it really should be adjusted to the style of play you want. Sometimes “bland” hacking away at hit points is exactly what you need for your game, because it gets out of the way of other things you care about, or the hit point economy itself is very much the point.

  28. Wright Johnson aside from removing the option entirely (a valid solution, IMO) hurt them is a great option. As I’ve been reading comments that phrase has been rattling around my head, and it leads me to say, “okay, so how am I going to hurt them?” I don’t think that way when I read “deal damage.”

    Another great discussion for whomever is secretly compiling community comments into DW 2e (you know someone is).

  29. MisterTia86 the BitD harm hack is un-playtested, but currently goes like this. To get the HP values down to blades-like ranges, they’ve all got to be divided by two. So that’s a big effort right off the bat, and you get some fudgey dice changes. 1d12 becomes 1d6, 1d10 becomes 1d5 fudged to 1d6, 1d8 -> 1d4, 1d6 -> 1d3, 1d4 -> 1d2. For the latter two, just call those a static 2 and 1.

    Then we need the harm boxes for the playbooks. Each class gets a slightly different stack, and can gain additional boxes when their CON goes above 0. For starting Harm capacities, I went with roughly half the HP if the character had 10 constitution.

    Next, a new Make Camp move

    Make Camp

    When you settle in to rest and consume a ration, tell the GM what precautions (if any) you take to avoid detection or see danger coming. If you get at least a few hours of sleep, remove all level 1 Harm then move all remaining Harm down one level.

    This version of Make Camp typically heals half your harm rather than half your harm capacity. I suppose it could be reworded, but this seems reasonable to me.

    Next, we need Take Harm rule so that 4 harm (8 HP of damage) isn’t lethal.

    Take Harm

    When you take Harm, the GM will give you a short description of the Harm – write it in the smallest box available that the Harm amount can fit in. If the smallest box available is larger than the amount, you must enter it anyway. If the amount is greater than any available box, and you still have boxes available, you may divide the amount into smaller boxes using as few boxes as possible. If the amount is too great to fit into your remaining boxes, roll Last Breath.

    And that’s the gist of it. Could you avoid halving the HP values if all the boxes were 2, 4, and 6 Harm? Maybe. It would make the hack much narrower in scope, so that might be a better starting place.

    Probably Jeremy Strandberg will end up coming up with something different and better and I will end up abandoning this and using his, as it goes…

Comments are closed.