Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Deal Damage is a Crap GM Move

I posted this essay on the G+ back in June of 2017. I still feel this way, and in Stonetop and Homebrew world, have replaced the GM move "Deal damage" with "Hurt them." It's not much of a difference, but I find that it better matches how I play. Fair warning: if you ever play DW (or a variation of it) with me running it, expect to be losing HP very often.

obligatory "wounded man" image

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."


Now, for some selected comments from the post:

Aaron Griffin:  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.

Me:  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 with the fiction.

Greg Soper:  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 Hack & Slash or a missed Defy Danger.

Me:  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!!!).  

Wright Johnson:  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.

Asbjørn H Flø:  That was my first instinct too​, 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.

Jason “Hyathin” Shea:  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."


There were also a number of comments around the idea of introducing versions of AW's Suffer Harm player move, discussion of Paul Taliesen's A Descriptive Damage Hack for Dungeon World, and so forth.


In the end, I've replaced Deal Damage with Hurt Them in my Dungeon World hacks, along with these instructions to the GM: 

When you make a GM move that involves someone getting banged up, knocked around, hurt, or injured, then deal damage as part of that move. If the damage is caused by an established danger, deal damage per its stats. Otherwise, what would it do to a normal person?
  • Bruises & scrapes; pain; light burns d4  
  • Nasty flesh wounds/bruises/burns d6  
  • Broken bones; deep/wide burns d8  
  • Death or dismemberment d10
Debilities are ongoing states reflecting the tolls the characters have taken. Inflict them as (or as part of) a GM move. They are:
  • Weakened: fatigued, tired, sluggish, shaky (disadvantage to STR and DEX)
  • Dazed: out of it, befuddled, not thinking clearly (disadvantage to INT and WIS)
  • Miserable: distressed, grumpy, unwell, in pain (disadvantage to CON and CHA)
Debilities might also cause someone to Defy Danger to do things that are otherwise safe.

Yes, those are different debilities than core Dungeon World. That's a post for another time.


  1. Since you are rewriting various moves from Dungeon World, have you also considered replacing the D&D attributes with some other attributes (less? more?) that would be more appropriate for Stonetop?

    1. I've thought about changing the stats around, but I ultimately don't see much value in doing so. I think the 6 D&D stats are good enough, and I've never come up with or seen an alternative set that would be sufficiently better for Stonetop in particular to warrant gutting the mechanics in favor of it.

      Besides, a design goal for Stonetop, despite lots of tweaks, is to make it fundamentally an extension of Dungeon World. That means some sacred cows aren't going anywhere, most notably the six stats and the basic moves (even if they are getting tweaked and polished).

  2. I also like the "Hurt Them" title, because there are a lot more ways to hurt them than to simply do damage.