I’ve been kinda quiet here on the gaming side, especially on the RPG System front. But I’ve not been inactive! Of late I’ve been exploring and delving into a gaggle of new systems, mostly on the narrative-heavy spectrum, including FATE, Cortex Plus, and Burning Wheel. And they’ve been a great entry to shed some thoughts on how I’d want to handle damage and consequences in my RPG system.
One of the givens of just about every game/story/RPG system is that the characters within will face obstacles, and these obstacles will challenge them, and there will be a cost in overcoming those obstacles. The most common and easy ones are physical combat – where the cost is injury, fatigue, and potentially death – but social challenges or psychological conflict is also quite possible. These consequences are the biggest “losing factor” of an RPG; getting taken out takes away the agency from your character, perhaps for good. This creates tension, drama, narrative, all the good stuff.
And so doing ‘damage’ “right” is key to making a good system.
Surprisingly I kinda like the generic and oft used idea of “Hit Points”. They are, by their very nature, an abstract representation of a character’s (usually physical) well being. They don’t get fiddly in modelling “reality”, they can represent many things*, and they’re simple to use and very easy to know how bad off your character is. On the other hand, often they’re written such that until you run out, they have no impact on your character’s performance. The PC is just as effective when they get up in the morning as they are after a gruelling combat.
I also like the idea of using action penalties for the damage taken. This solves the issue with Hit Points, for each injury now does hobble the character (as one might expect). The disadvantage here is that this can all to readily lead to a “death spiral” – once the character has been nicked they are more easily hurt again, and it just gets worse. Your antagonists effectively get deadlier. Mind you, this is perfect for games where combat is not intended to be the first resort – deadly combat will cause different player choices. (Well, maybe “will” is too strong a word…)
So long as we have a physical consequence tracking mechanism, I’m also down with having a social and/or psychological one, depending on the genre… Then again, if we take the consequence track as an overall status of the character, both representationaly and narratively, then a single track could still make sense. Being shot might make you less glib in your social gambits, and having suffered mental anguish could have you drop faster from a gunshot from lesser willpower.
Hmm, if I follow that, the idea there would be more of a narrative “taken out” than a rigid consequence. And this taken out idea has shown up in a few of those systems I’ve been reading, where the player and the GM chooses how the PC goes down, and why, and what the long lasting consequences are. Getting shot could have you go unconscious from bullet trauma, but it could also represent going tharn** from a series of near misses.
These systems also represent the ideas of consequences and injury as a series of narrative traits that get added to your character, but their effect is not 100% all the time guaranteed to seriously hinder you, either because your opponents (be they NPCs, the environment, or etc) can only activate the consequence a certain number of times, or because they’re a die roll and as such may roll low and not harm you much.
Phiew, Ok, that was a bunch of ground… if you can’t tell, I’m working this out as I type! So, what do I want in game, here?
- I want a system that is abstract and focuses on the character’s status and ability/agency, not the individual hit locations or damage specifics***
- I want a system that’s visceral and easy to keep track of
- I want a system that has consequences that impact the character, not just a binary ok/not ok (ie, the default Hit Point model)
- I want a system that the consequences also have interesting narrative flavour and implications
- I also think there’s an interesting opportunity with the 3×3 grid I have set up for the attributes, with consequences being done to a particular column. As such, injury from weapons or environment or falls would add a penalty to the Physical column, social or willpower consequences to the Spiritual column, etc.
I’ve got a few directional ideas here, and I’m going to let them percolate for a bit…
* – Hit Points in D&D are not just, and in the case of the PCs most decidedly not (as said by Gary Gygax in the 1e PHB), meat. They are a combo of the character’s physical hardiness, their skill, luck, supernatural forces, and other bolstering reinforcements.
** – From the lapine-english dictionary: tharn adj. stupefied by terror (from the lapine language used in Watership Down)
*** – Like Phoenix Command’s 63 hit locations or somesuch…