Last part of this and specifics on how to apply this to our house rules.
So I've talked quite a bit about threat and tension, but what I want to consider is how we can meaningfully impact play. To that end, I want to think about damage. So I'm focused here on a micro-concern. It is an obvious and specific mechanic for risk-- but it has a limitation. Damage exists as a threat, a caution to the players and a consequence. But at the same time there's an element of chicken to the system. Will the GM apply enough damage to knock your character unconscious (thereby making you sit out while the others play) or even enough to kill you? Some systems apply penalties when players take a certain amount of damage which provides some additional incentive for avoiding damage. Other systems simply have a gross pool without any additional effects (like d20). That's actually the case in the high fantasy version of Action Cards I run on alternate Sundays.
Not having wound penalties was a deliberate design choice on my part for that-- I wanted to catch some of the essence of Rolemaster, d20 and Final Fantasy Tactics. But I also wanted to keep things simple. I've played games which have percentages of HP at which penalties are applied-- but as simple as those formulas might be, they require the players to track and adjust those things in play, which I don't care for. On the other hand I left out “criticals” from Rolemaster which helped make characters more than a lump of hit points. I have a basic critical system, but with thin detail. RM managed to make every hit given and taken distinct-- with a host of conditions and effects. One the one hand that's an appealing and colorful concept. On the other hand, as executed in systems like Rolemaster (or even Mutants and Masterminds with its vast array of conditions) you end up with a lot of non-symmetrical mechanics. A kluge-fest of detailed systems.
Now for standard Action Cards, our homebrew, I've pretty much stuck with a classic wound level system-- increasingly descriptive terms, but a total of six levels (plus unwounded and dead). [For reference those levels are: Grazed, Hurt, Injured, Cut Up, Bloody Heap, and Death’s Door.] Originally I had rising penalties on those levels, but more recently I decided to only have penalties for the last two levels. In this system, if a player takes a wound greater than their present wound level, they go to that level. If they take a wound of equal or lower value to their present wound level, they go up one degree. The consequence for that is a character, when hit after the first time, is likely to either take nothing or go up one level. So one's first hit of damage essentially tells how many more times the character can be hit.
Systems with a relatively small gradations for wounds present several other implications for game play. First, weapons, armor and the like end up extremely abstract. Generally most weapons and attacks do the same amount of damage-- with some small complications. What changes is a weapon's qualities: ranged, fast, cuts through things, and so on. But even weapons which are defined as bad-ass will do a big punch at the beginning, but damage like any other weapon after that (usually). Second, the system also implies that all characters have the same number of hit points. There might be differentials in wound absorbing abilities (reducing initial damage) but everyone has those six levels. That removes a possible character detail in favor of ease and eveness.
Now my thinking had been to add an additional wound effect to the system. Robin Laws' HeroQuest suggests a possible and easy approach: as characters took damage they would find their abilities/skills penalized. This is fairly abstract in HQ and only occurs after the resolution of a conflict. Depending on the stakes, the losing side has a lingering penalty to their relevant ability. I thought that was an interesting mechanism and one which added emphasis to the having some broader and narrower skills (and issue I talked about not long ago). My thought was that in place of damage going up a step or in addition to it, players might be required to put an X by an ability, showing that they could not use it for a redraw until healed. This, to my mind, represented a funny bone injury or disconcerting wound.
I believed this would have two major effects. First it would add color and meaningful impact to damage in combat. Second, it opened up a new avenue for impact as a GM-- rather than just beating a player to unconsciousness, I could shift the threat a little. I would give me more room as a GM. In practice when I decided to apply this mechanic to running the Star Wars version of Action Cards, I completely forgot about it. I suspect that's because I'm so used to running the system without it. In any case, I don't think that's an adequate test of that mechanic except to show that it isn't particularly compelling.
In the meantime I've also had the experience of playing in Kenny's HALO game using the Action Cards system. He keeps the same wound levels, but he doesn't use my mechanic for escalating damage. Instead those wound levels mean you've essentially got 6 Hit Points. That makes combat deadly and dangerous. It also means he can just dish out damage without reference to the player's present state of injury. That eliminates a step and makes things faster-- and makes them seem more objective.
So I'm thinking that I might want to go with a simple wounds pool. It this version of the system all characters would have ten wounds. That would be it-- not abilities or things to buy that up (probably). Simple to track-- but I've got some additional complications to add to that.
Both HeroQuest 2e and Diaspora have systems where conflict causes damage: but that conflict isn't necessarily physical. In HQ 2, all conflict is equivalent. So a character can be as effectively knocked out or removed from the scene by an attack on their reputation as they can from a punch to the face. Diaspora tracks the issue of “composure” for the players. [Sidebar: I've skimmed Diaspora so I may be grossly mistating the ideas there].
My idea would be that the damage a player takes can come from multiple sources-- weapon strikes, mental assault, social retorts, and so on. All of that damage ends up tracked in that shared pool. You might have players mark physical and non-physical damage in different ways both for results and for healing. But the idea would be that a person could become so mentally shaken that a simple wound could drive them over the edge-- leading to collapse, escape or other resolutions.
But I want to take that one stage further-- in one of my earlier drafts of the rules I played with the idea of players being able to avoid a significant hit (and getting K.O'd) but opting to take a secondary effect instead: for example a wounded leg to reduce movement, a scar on the face, a broken hand, and so on. Diaspora does something like that with the idea of “Tags”- qualities which can get applied to an opponent and then get utilized later on for a mechanical benefit. These tags may be concrete: set on fire or more abstract: broken nerves.
I want to apply something similar-- the idea that when a conflict resolves with damage, physical, social or otherwise, the actors in that conflict can apply tags or (to use the term I've previously used in Action Cards) Qualities. For example, a player who takes a large chuck of physical damage could ask top change some of that damage into a lingering quality: such as Unbalanced, Ringing Ears, Bleeding Hand, and so on. This would help offset that damage, allow the player to continue conscious in the conflict, but also give themselves a colorful on-going penalty. The GM could them act on that quality later in describing results and so on.
Likewise, a player could also convert some damage done into a quality applied to an opponent. In this case, the quality would be used to reduce the opponent's advantage: eliminating superior mobility, keeping them from carrying out a plot and so on. With Witless Minion I suggested a like idea with the Hierarchy of Villainy concept-- that superior opponents would provide a set of initial non-combat challenges in combat. Part of the trick would be figuring out how to reduce an opponent down to one's level or to destroy those special effects granting the villain an advantage.
Now this system actually gets more interesting when you apply it to non-standard combat: social interactions, one-upmanship, rumor-mongering, and so on. In this case, the actors could attempt to apply particular qualities like: trepidatious about confronting, isolated from group, self-doubt, bad reputation, or obligation. Or they could take them on to themselves to avoid being destroyed in such combats. Now this wouldn't mean that any social exchange would cause damage. Raising the stakes to that level would be a risky proposition-- just as pulling a knife out on someone would. People would recognize when a 'social combat' is happening and there would be ramifications if over-used.
Finally, such a damage system could also be used to handle fear, stability and sanity. Taking a quality to represent fears or phobias would be an alternative for players. Most importantly throughout this, the players would have a degree of control over their situation-- be given a choice in how they handle the damage: choose between unconsciousness/death and a piece of problematic character color they have to deal with. This is just first thinking about this, so I have to work out some more specifics but I think it is a decent start.