house rules – How does the “Descriptive Damage” hack affect Dungeon World?

So, after this question pointed me at that hack, I convinced the group I GM for
to try out a campaign with Descriptive Damage. I’ll describe our experiences so
far, though they should be taken with three caveats: (1) all of us are still
comparatively new to Dungeon World, so things might play out differently with a
more experienced group (or at least a more experienced GM), (2) we’ve only
played two sessions so far, and (3) the hack left many details up in the air,
and different decisions on our part might have led to a very different game.

  • We played with Resist Harm triggered by any injury to a PC. Damage to
    monsters was as in regular Dungeon World.

  • We played with standard HP totals and HP regeneration at a rate of half the
    character’s class’s bonus HP per level-up. Magical healing was as in vanilla
    DW. I did not use HP handouts to incentivize “doing fictionally and
    thematically relevant things”.

  • We did not cap HP expenditures.

  • A character protected from an attack by armor took +1 to Resist Harm. A
    character impervious to an attack because of armor took +2 to Resist Harm.
    (We also considered abstracting away armor (“…if you have lots of hit points,
    it’s because you’re badass and probably wear heavy armour”), but the first
    encounter was with a razor boar, and it helped to have the monster’s fiction
    backed up by some mechanical consequences.)

  • Spell Defense was treated as giving +1 to Resist Harm.

  • We didn’t use monster “deadly” ratings. Injuries were deadly or not as
    adjudicated from the fiction.

  • We couldn’t figure out whether Last Breath was supposed to be in-play or not,
    so, as a death-adverse group, we kept it in. However, it hasn’t come up yet.

Specifics for Injuries

Playing without Descriptive Damage, our group often has good fictional detail on
the how of an injury, but fewer specifics the what; with Descriptive Damage,
we got both, even though none of the injuries I threatened were particularly
exotic. For instance, our cleric, instead of just being beaten and bruised, has
a nasty gash in the shoulder of her off arm that got infected when she fell into
some filth, plus she’s dealing with some lingering effects from a concussion.
Our druid got stomped on by a gargoyle while in snake form, and now she has some
broken ribs and a crushed lung. Our wizard broke two fingers when another
gargoyle wrestled a book from his hands. Etc.

Threat Differentiation

Since character’s injuries were specific, the fiction picked up situations where
certain monsters could exploit or exacerbate those injuries, making those
threats play differently than indiscriminate ones. For instance, after slicing
her shoulder, our cleric was still willing to get in a tangle with a roper since
it was just trying to eat her. But she was a lot more skittish around a pack of
gargoyles that could see and target the rent armor on her left side and her
mostly useless left arm.

Balance and Player Spending Strategies

In the hack comments, Paul writes:

Realistically, if you want to be doing basically OK, you’ll probably want to
spend enough hit points for a +3 on each roll.

This was our experience. Most of the time players spent 3 HP (for a 1/12 chance
of missing) but they were willing to put up more if they felt that avoiding the
injury would let them wrap up a battle. So, roughly speaking, injuries under
Descriptive Damage corresponded in magnitude to damage from a solitary monster
with a damage die around 1d8, though, because of player agency, with much less
variance. At least against solitary monsters, the game balance didn’t feel like
it shifted much.

Confusion about “React Immediately”

One of the choices for Resist Damage is:

  • You maintain your position or advantage, and can react immediately (if you
    do, take +1 forward)

In the first session I read “react immediately” as a bonus to give a character:
little or no in-story time would pass between their injury and their next
action. This played a little oddly.

For instance, one of the times our cleric went for the razor boar with her mace,
she missed, the boar inflicted an injury, and she rolled an 8 and chose
immediate reaction, which she used to Hack and Slash the boar anyway while she
was being gored. Characterization-wise, that was cool, but it made the H&S
outcome more like a 7–9. And if she had rolled 9 or less on the second attack,
I would have had to come up with another way for the boar to deal damage, which
could have triggered an immediate reaction….

Reviewing for the second session, I came away with a different impression based
on the paragraphs before the move. Instead, I read “react immediately” as a
character’s usual ability to keep taking actions through a scene and the absence
of “react immediately” ala the Frodo example. That led to less dissonance
between the fiction and the mechanics.

HP Mechanics that Crossed the In-Fiction/Out-of-Fiction Line

We had a lot of difficulty agreeing on whether or not HP corresponds to anything
in the fiction, mostly because either choice led to immersion problems.

HP as “Plot Immunity / Mistake Potential”, Paul’s likely intent, while supported
by the hack itself, interacted jarringly with other DW rules, particularly ones
about healing: HP outside the fiction but HP management in the fiction makes for
disconnects between player and character motivation. Clerical healing, as
mentioned in the hack comments, is the trickiest case, because it’s unclear
story-wise what the cleric is doing or why. We also didn’t know quite what to
do with potions, and our halfling druid had to invent a justification for
singing her healing song in the middle of the night out in the woods when the
party was trying to avoid attention.

On the flip side, attempts to equate HP with “Defensive Combat Skills / Stamina
/ Luck” presented problems with the hack rules not being designed for such
equivalences. Skills aren’t really something that threats of injury consume;
stamina is something that should also be depleted by other actions and
replenished by rest; luck normally applies to more than just injuries. One
might be able to swing an explanation that uses a kind of divine favor or luck
specifically for self preservation, but I feel like it makes more sense to
rethink the DW HP rules to fit the hack than vice versa.

Deaths by a Thousand Cuts

While differentiating monsters by threatening different injuries works well for
the heavy hitters, monsters that wear PCs down slowly don’t seem to work well
under Descriptive Damage. Or, at least, I don’t seem to be clever enough to
describe injuries that players want to spend just 1 or 2 HP on. As a
consequence, those monsters become a lot more dangerous.

I think part of the problem is that I always gave injuries with all three kinds
of effects: immediate, temporary, and lasting. If I only threatened one, say,
then hopefully players’ spending would be motivated by their chances to reach
the 7–9 category instead of the 10+ category.

Duration of Consequences

Under Descriptive Damage, injuries are about equally frequent as in vanilla DW,
but their consequences are a lot longer lasting, especially because Recover from
Trauma can have some steep time costs and still not provide a full recovery. In
our game the party has just barely uncovered one front, and already every
character has at least a few months to wait if they want to heal naturally; it
takes some believing that they’re not packing up and heading home. I may rule
that a potion erases an entire injury, or else we’ll end up with a much grittier
feel than we normally like to play with.