Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Problem With Damage In RPGs

Role playing games feature many kinds of conflict but physical conflict is nearly always a big part of the game. With that comes the problem of tracking damage to Player Characters and its effects. I haven't written much about the system I'm developing here on the blog, but now that I'm ready to playtest the "3D System" that's going to change. Here's a look behind the curtain at my reasoning for how I dealt with the problem of damage in RPGs.

D&D and many of the games that came after it use the idea of: "Hit Points." A character or creature can take a certain amount of damage before it's mortally wounded and goes down/dies. Hit Points as an abstraction of a character's survivability causes some confusion since it's tied to weapon damage. The concept is more of an expression of script immunity and games like Neoclassical Geek Revival are more explicit about it by calling them luck points instead.

Hit Points as a concept are illustrated by the typical action hero movie. Action heroes take a tonne of punishment over the course of a typical film. They are banged up, bruised, cut and bleeding all over, but never seem to loose their effectiveness as bad-guy-killing machines. Sometimes a particular wound will have some kind of dramatic effect for a while, such as John McLean's feet cut up by the glass in Die Hard, or Jack Bauer's heart being stopped during torture in one of the 24s. Even these consequences for critical hits are not permanent, resulting only in a quick bit of first aid or an ill-timed, dramatic nap. As characters "level up" in an RPG of this type they gain more ability to stay in the story despite the negative impact of opposing forces. Basically, they are allowed to be heroic longer and have bigger adventures. It's only that last swordstroke that really gets through the character's defences that actually connects in a way that matters. The one that brings the characters down is the mortal blow that can put a character into coma or a fight for it's life.

The Fifth Edition of D&D embraces this model by allowing characters to recover some Hit Points merely by taking a break to rest and recover and get them all back with a good night's sleep. Barbarians of Lemuria is similar, allowing the recovery of half of what is lost in a combat merely by taking a break to have a drink and rest. If Hit Points are just a matter of staying power and not actual serious wounds, they should be easy to recover.

My favourite part of 5e D&D is the fight for survival after losing all Hit Points. Rolling saves to either stabilize in unconsciousness or die without help show how deadly that last hit was. Old D&D countered the massive hit points with some things like poison and magical effects like a Medusa's stare coming down to a single roll to avoid death. Fail that saving throw and the character is dead, no matter how many Hit Points they had. Even the greatest hero could be killed by a serious threat. A poison dart was all it took to kill Achilles after all.

Playing big damn heroes is fun, so this abstraction works pretty well for a lot of games but some of the genre fiction that these games are based on takes a grittier approach. The idea that you could take a beating and still be as effective as you if were fresh also requires more suspension of disbelief than some people want in their fiction or games.

Some games stick with the hit point approach and limit them to keep things tense. Games like Talislanta and Barbarians of Lemuria have hit point values for characters that allow the character to handle a few hits, but there is no expectation they will ever be tougher than that. Traveller, which I talked about in a recent post, uses a random physical stat as a stand in for hit points. These values are pretty low compared to the damage that can be done so combat is over quickly, usually going to whoever surprises their opponents. It also makes combat in Traveller a deadly prospect that players will want to plan with care. In these cases every combat has the potential to be the last one but there's no expiration of the characters like you get with the hit point model.

At least as characters run low on hit points the players become more wary and don't want to commit to a fight they might lose. Even the highest level characters are slowly run down by a succession of combats. This change is a way of mechanically expressing the exhaustion caused by life-or-death struggle and the change in play to a slower, more careful pace is representative of the effects of exhaustion without having a direct mechanic for endurance. It's also why the Constitution stat in D&D is used to modify hit points. The healthier you are the more staying power you have for fights, adventures and shenanigans.

(One of Frank Frazetta's many paintings of Conan)

Hit locations are sometimes used to create effects from damage beyond coma/death so characters could lose the use of an arm or leg and have penalties to actions instead. I find that annoying to track for NPCs and it gets even more silly than hit points when the luck of the dice spreads the damage of lighter hits across all the locations for no effect. This one has always felt fiddly to me and never worth the effort to track.

Hit points are a nice simple solution to express a complex situation. Even when people don't understand how much is going on it still works as a game mechanic. As much as I like it in D&D and other games, I don't want to use it for the one I'm designing. Because my game embraces the pulp feel where heroes are worn down but still succeed, I decided to make damage an increasing penalty rather than a ticking clock.

Part of the inspiration came from reading Robert E. Howard's Phoenix on the Sword [Spoilers! this paragraph only] in which an older Conan is set upon by a group of assassins.  Because he's Conan, they can't get around his defences to land a definitive killing blow, but they do wound him making it impossible for him to do much more than defend himself. As the minor hits and cuts pile up he slows down and becomes more vulnerable. It is an awesome fight with great tension! It would be so much fun to play that way! As damage makes the fight more desperate players get creative to end it quickly. When that happens it's more fun for me whether I'm playing or running.

The old D6 System from West End Games had a wound track with increasing penalties. This method worked great for the cinematic action they were going for with games like the original Star Wars RPG.  There are other games that use wound tracks and some of them integrate them into the game exceptionally well. Mouseguard is a great example. I have a lot of love for D6 Star Wars though, and the more I think of it, the more I realise it may be game that gave me the subconscious push in that direction when I was deciding on the damage system for the 3D System. The pace of the game and the pulp-cinema swing of the action are things I love in a game. I've said it before, D6 Star Wars only needs little tweaking to be a sweet sword and sorcery game itself. Based on the pedigree of the wound track, I'm confident it will fit the feel of the play I want at my table.

My take on the wound track is pretty simple. Humans and their equivalents have two boxes in their tracks that correspond to Wounded and Down similar to the Wounded and Incapacitated statuses in D6 Star Wars. In the 3D System each box ticked means another -3 penalty so that Down character is rolling -6 to do anything and is more likely to push too hard and wind up dead than succeed. Other creatures will have different tracks but this model is the character kind of resilience.

The wound track is not enough though. It still doesn't catch the flavour of the fight in The Phoenix on the Sword or the other pulp fiction I'd like my games to feel like. That's why I added minor hits. These light wounds are the flesh wounds and bruising that can be shaken off or ignored with a little rest and quick medical treatment. These cumulative -1 penalties can build up in a fight and make it hard to continue a fight without ever threatening the actual life of the character. First blood is a serious advantage.'

"It is but a scratch"

The difference between wounds and minor hits is the size of the penalty (-3 vs -1) and speed in which they are recovered. A proper wound will take time to heal whereas a minor hit can be recovered from with a roll after some rest and possible medical treatment. Rolling to recover means some of these light wounds will persist in hampering the character's ability. The timeline is tight, and it means the characters can continue on, but fate will catch up with them eventually if they push things too far. This system blends the grittiness of low hit points and would tracks with the limited endurance of the hit point system.

From what testing I've done in scenarios for my #3DSytem, it looks like will work. We'll see how it plays soon enough. There's no perfect solution to RPG damage, but I'm hoping this one works out for my gaming style.

UPDATE/NOTE: In playtest the wound track created a situation one of my players dubbed the "death spiral" where the advantage gained by one side or another allowed them to push the loser into ineffectiveness quickly. That turned combat into a situation where the two sides fought for the upper hand and once it was secured surrenders started. In one case a character that was wounded stepped away from the combat and tried to help in some other way because they were too wounded to continue.

I enjoyed the moment to moment consequence and the way it changed the flow of the game from the abstract hit point style combat. I've rarely seen surrenders happen in D&D because the bad guys might be only one HP from defeat. No one wants to give up. Because the flow of the fight is obvious to everyone involved, the fight to the death is becoming less likely in the 3D System.

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