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The Ranger has a starting move of Called Shot.

When you attack a defenseless or surprised enemy at range, you can choose to deal your damage or name your target and roll + DEX.

Head. *10+: as 7-9, plus your damage. *7-9: They do nothing but stand and drool for a few moments.

Dungeon world is about following the fiction- letting the logic of the world trump a strictly mechanical sequence of events. My narration as a GM needs to make sense of what just happened. When the target is sufficiently armored and the ranger gets a 7-9, the arrow might hit the helm and glance off. Let's go with the least convenient world here. The target is a human without any helmet or headgear, and the ranger just rolled Called Shot on the head and gets a 10+, dealing 4 damage; enough to wound, but not kill. He's going to stand and drool for a few moments, but after that... what? What happens? The ranger is going to take dozens of called shots over the course of a campaign. A lot of them aren't going to be fatal according to hit points.

Options I've come up with;

  • Freak survival, Phineas Gage style. Works once, maybe twice, but that's going to get weird fast.

  • Every wears helmets or has scales nonhuman anatomy or something. Not a fan of a literal planet of hats.

  • Any creature with normalish anatomy that takes a headshot without protection dies. This is what I'm inclined to go with, though it seems to be making this option far better than the other two (Arm and leg) and more dangerous than intended.

  • Describe something else about the attack, and leave the question of how they survived an arrow to the noggin blank. Less jarring than someone getting up and acting again after I've described the shaft going in, but this feels like ignoring the fiction for the mechanics, which is bad form in DW.

How do you deal with Called Shots to the head on creatures where that really should be fatal?

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Any creature with normalish anatomy that takes a headshot without protection dies.

You seem to vastly overestimate the damage caused by a head shot. For a real world example: the '09 Fort Hood shooting, 4 out of 5 people shot in the head survived. No, those 4 were not wearing helms. Skulls are pretty damn hard and can deflect shots. It seems like it ought to knock them down, and take more than a few moments to recover but instant death it isn't.

For the most part heads are small and move quite a bit. I would narrate them as glancing blows, maybe lose an ear, ear\cheek chunk, or something. A full on right between the eyes hit should be the exception not the rule, even with this ability.

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If the attack did not kill the target outright, it just means that the arrow did not really penetrate anything vital. With a head tightly packed with quite vital stuff, this may mean that the arrow just grazed the skull, or gave the target an ear piercing. It hurts and bleeds a lot, it dazes the target, but it isn't fatal.

A helmet has its weak spots as well. An arrow slipping between plates and penetrating just a little into the target's cheek is going to give them hell, again without killing.

Even the 7-9 result can be narrated to make sense with a helmet involved. The loud clang could have the target's ears ringing for a few minutes, disorienting them, or the arrow could jam the visor at an awkward angle, effectively blinding the target until he can fix it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the arrow didn't penetrate, but was lodged part-way into the skull and is sticking out of the target's forehead, I imagine it would take him a moment to put his wits back together ^_^ +1. \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Nov 13 '14 at 19:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are real-life cases of people being stabbed through the brain with large chef's knives or sections of iron pipe and surviving, just to note. Granted, they generally don't immediately engage in combat immediately afterward with no other effects, but then again, we don't play fantasy games for their realism anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Asher Apr 3 '18 at 16:30
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Even though the ability is called "Called Shot," that doesn't mean that the arrow always has to hit the head. After all, if your player hit the victim squarely between the eyes, they'd be dead, wouldn't they?

Shoulder hits are a good candidate, because they are extremely painful and debilitating, but don't (typically) kill. You might also consider a severe gash along the neck, or a hit near the collarbone or chest area.

Bleeding into the eyes is also a good way to narrate a "stunned" state. The arrow might have gashed the target's brow, causing the blood to weep into his eyes.

And, if you have a craving for disfigurement, taking the nose off is always a good candidate that might have your players gagging at the mental image.

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I think you're making the right call by following the fiction and letting the creature die outright if it makes sense in your world and in the current moment. This follows the principles of Be a fan of the characters, Begin and end With the fiction and Think dangerous. The Ranger may not always want the creature to die, in which case a shot to the arm or leg would be preferred. If your hotshot ranger shoots something in the head, they probably want it dead. If they succeed, that should be a distinct possibility regardless of a few HP here or there. Ask them first to clarify that this is what they want.

You could also treat it as incredibly harmful but non-fatal. Have your creature retreat with the arrow lodged in their eye socket or have them faint, bleeding out and at your party's mercy, leaving it up to your players whether they finish the job. There's a veritable gamut of pain between being absolutely okay and completely dead.

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