Thursday, August 1, 2013

Breaking PCs: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 15

This episode we consider the idea of damage in its broadest sense: how do the PCs get worn down and taken out in the course of a game session or campaign. We look at more than just hit points. Damage can be resources spent, opportunities lost, equipment damaged, relationships eroded, conditions suffered, status stripped, money lost, and so on. The creative GM considers all the little ways they can create tension and raise the stakes in a game. Characters more than willing to martyr themselves with a glorious death on the battlefield may not have the same reaction to a significant other's death or even mundane crises like bankruptcy. Different kinds of damage may suggest new and novel situations to the GM. 

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I’d originally started thinking about this question after playing the recent Final Fantasy XIII games. They switch up the normal calculations and practices of a JRPG. Essentially your Hit Point pool resets back to full after any combat. That means each combat ought to be a tight race to the death. You have two possible results: win or lose. Standard games have three results: win with no losses, win with loss of resources, or lose. FFXIII has some interesting dynamics to go with that- depending on the fight you may have to allocate roles to healing or to buffing. Some attacks cap the max you can heal back up to during that particular fight. I enjoyed it- but it was certainly more arcade than I was used to. Do I think a system like that could work? As with many answers in this particular podcast, I have to answer yes and no.

At first blush it seems like it shouldn’t work. It puts stress on every combat- which seems fitting with a game that has a mechanical system for tracking and balancing that. So my first thought is to say no. However, we have a couple of situations where this kind of effect happens. If your campaign offers easy access to healing (cheaply done, multiple players with healing, time and mana replenishment) then it can often feel like the players simply return back to baseline state after a fight. That’s solved by putting additional pressures- of time, resources, new challenges- to make that healing not “free.” This can also happen in campaigns with fewer conflicts- if you only have a fight every couple of sessions, as is often the case with more story games, then the time between those fights usually allows for that recovery. That also can be cured by putting pressures on the resources necessary for that healing or adding in statuses which can’t be easily cured. As an example of a genre that most often feels like this FF XIII structure- consider superhero campaigns. Usually they have a single big fight. Or even if they have a smaller fight beforehand, they can usually heal up. Mutants & Masterminds gets around this a little with the Drama Points. They’re so useful that they act as another spendable damage track- and players only get them back at the end of a session. Of course that creates incentives to delay a game so that the second fight doesn’t happen…

We talked about different damage tracks as an alternative to straight hit points. This isn’t a new solution- CoC’s Sanity mechanic represents a similar approach. The lethal/subdual damage distinction from many FGU games and HERO’s Body/Stun do the same thing. This is slightly different from multiple damage types (Ego, Energy, Physical) which all hit the same pool of damage resources (HP or whatever). This multiple approach can lead to some problems in play. For example, in DC Heroes, characters had three damage tracks: physical, mental, and magical. When we first started playing, NPCs (like those from the books would have one as a weakness). However if one of the PCs had that as a primary attack, they would easily one-shot the particular bad guy. So the villains started to have a better spread of damage numbers. The result reduced the effectiveness of the players coordinating to take down a bad guy- unless they all attacked on the same area. If the rest of the team did physical damage and I’m did magic, then they would likely take out the bad guy before I had any effect. The game had options for team attacks, but the basic problem remained. FATE somewhat gets around the problem of multiple tracks by having singular tracks for consequences. If I make you use up a Moderate Consequence from my Composure attack, you no longer have that option for future Physical Stress (usually).

Tracking’s the other problem coming from multiple resources and damage types. This is a matter of personal preference: I don’t like having to track too many different things. That’s especially true where the system adds ongoing effects to tracking several damage pools. Rolemaster and Mutants & Masterminds, both have multiple damage conditions to track, but that’s tied to a single damage pool (HP and Toughness Penalties respectively). I’ve mentioned before that I like GUMSHOE but it didn’t go over well with my group. Part of that arose from having to track and record skill spends. That’s effectively another damage track- measuring player wear down and exhaustion. But it is one with many little bits and details and potentially distinct mechanisms for recovery.

Who doesn’t love critical hits? In the early days of D&D- late ‘70’s- everyone came up with their own system for handling those: random tables for bonuses, extra damage, etc. Rolemaster built and entire game engine just on the coolness of criticals. Many games built those in as unparryable or specialty effects. I always assumed the necessity of critical until I heard an argument from Greg Christopher on the concept. He pointed out that criticals, as cool as they were, usually worked against the players. The GM, by volume, usually rolled times and so would likely end up with more crits. If the game had devastating effects for such hits, you could wipe the table. More modest effects seemed like a half-hearted measure. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that- but I do consider those mechanics more closely these days. Critical hits with single shot devastating effects often lead to an escalation of effect and counter effect. Well, they shouldn’t be able to randomly crit kill the dragon on the first round with a dagger…so we have to have some mechanic to mitigate that.

Many combined critical hit and specialty damage systems combined them with a hit location mechanic. GURPS, TriTac (Fringeworthy, Bureau 13), and Killer Crosshairs. Hit locations seem cool but have a few drawbacks. First, no one wants to have their arm maimed. Players like doing these kinds of effects to bad guys- but some players have a harder time when this happens to them. That’s a judgment call and a good way to test for competitive players. Second, most hit location systems add an extra step to damage resolution. Unless you’re going for a gritty game where a damaged heel could have significant implications for survival (i.e. can’t keep up when you flee the zombies), I’ve usually seen these systems set aside after a few sessions. Third, location-based damage systems can create balance problems for the system itself. For example, Legend and other like systems assume location-based hit points. That means a solid weapon with some strength to back it up has a good chance to take out or cripple a limb. Let’s say you don’t want to use location damage and instead go with a damage pool. Suddenly the weapon which could inflict limb damage and neutralize an opponent has to hit the bad guy multiple times to cause an effect. Shifting those approaches requires some difficult choices and changes- something my GM for Legend has been working on.

Damage requires trust. If I do damage to your character- hit points, equipment breakage, the death of a loved one, dagger to the eye- you need to trust that I’m being fair. Systems with explicit damage rolls, clear mechanics, systems of balances (like challenge ratings) create trust and fairness through those mechanics. That’s an advantage they offer- transparency of mechanics and results. That’s a strong appeal for many gamers. I think that’s a good place to introduce new gamers- so they can see underneath the hood and not feel that what’s happened to them is arbitrary. I think it easy for gamers who enjoy more story or narrative rpgs to overlook how important that can be for a variety of games from tactical games to OSR to super-crunchy ones to mathematically balanced systems.

I’ve said it before, but trust is huge at the table- especially with systems that offer more narrative and interpretive power in the hands of players or GMs. We might look at a game and see immediately that it could be exploited by “that guy.” And it could- but more often than not, we aren’t playing with TG. We’re playing with our group most often. My advice and observations are tainted by that- by having a long-running set of players who trust me to be fair at the table.

And I need that trust so I can slowly and carefully con them into doing stupid things and second-guessing themselves. I need them attached to things they like. I need them to love their characters- because that’s the way I can get them to walk into the meat-grinder of damage-dealing situations. I can play off of their egos and desires to do well to get them to take non-traditional damage: spending drama points, invoking aspects, spending resources, to do well in those situations. That’s damage too- and creates alternate kinds of stress and breakdown for the PCs.

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