SHAKE, RATTLE, AND WOUND
Last week I touched just on the fringes of the “Does System Matter?” question and this weekend we recorded an episode on the topic for Play on Target. I’ve been trying to figure out if it does matter to me- and if perhaps that’s just a GM position. because I usually run and set the rules, perhaps the system has more of an impact on my experience. Maybe system and mechanics seem crucial because I run the game.
But then I remember how much I love rolling damage.
A lot. There’s something supremely satisfying about hitting and then being able to grab up a completely new set of dice and roll. Everything’s going to pay off now- maybe I’ll crap out and just twing the bad guy or maybe I’ll roll huge and blow a PC out of the water. I love rolling and counting damage, regardless of which side of the screen I’m on.
I'LL DEFAULT TO A 12d6 EB
I ran and played Champions and HERO for many years (twenty, I think). When it arrived, it offered the most controllable super-power system out there: elemental but complex. A few others tried to match it (DC Heroes and GURPS Supers) but none really did. But Champions had a 15 point disad in the length of time even the smallest of combats took. And we’re talking with people who ate, slept, and breathed the system. A fight could drag out for hours before the tide turned. But man, no other game matched damage rolls in Champions. You had a choice. Go the conventional route of standard damage and roll a fistful of dice. Count the pips and the Body to get a total. Smart players worked maneuvers and pushes in to get even more dice to thrown. There’s nothing quite like doing 50 points of Stun on a 12d6 roll. Or you could go for the gamble that was the Killing Attack- first you roll the Body then you let loose with the Stun multiple to see what you got. Pure joy when it went off with max effect.
A few other systems managed to match how that felt for me- high powered D&D for example. But early on, our group shifted away from AD&D and went down the Rolemaster road. Rolemaster seemed like a collapsed system- to hit and damage rolled into one, but in reality the hits you did in the initial roll didn’t matter. Crits ruled and you almost always rolled crits if you played smart. That’s where the gamble hit, the chance for a big pay-off. As a player, if I calculated my attack well and managed to use Ambush, I could take out the biggest foes. As a GM, I could have a group in terror of Tiny Criticals. We had one player get his eye bitten out by Tiny Crits from dogs...twice. Bloody, awful, over-elaborated and silly. I loved that damage.
Probably my favorite combat came from a Werewolf the Apocalypse short campaign. I wasn’t sold on the setting, but others loved it. Once I got to playing, I bought in just because I loved slinging so many dice around. We had a final fight where I threw out massive piles of damage- and took huge amounts. I got knocked out twice, the second time being hit by a flying bus. But I got back up again. Stupid and silly, it stands out for me. I have the same fondness for first edition Exalted, for all of its flaws.
PRYING AWAY THE DAMAGE DICE
I recall the first time I hit a game that didn’t use a standard damage system: James Bond 007. At the time I couldn’t wrap my head around the wound system. It seemed like players could get taken out horrifically easily. I was only fourteen and had always played games with big HP tracks. I ended up reworking the damage wounds system to make it more liberal- with rolled damage and players needing multiple shots to put a foe down. Not realistic, but more appealing to my Middle School sensibilities.
Over the years, I’ve played and run different damage systems- certainly with a move to tighter ranges and compressed mechanics. GURPS, of course, only has the players rolling a few dice for damage. But those dice can be lethal, given how little health anyone actually has. Easy to use criticals and the crush/cut/impale damage distinctions give a little more weight and dynamism to the system. We played GURPS for many years which changed my take on things.
We've started to see more games which brought together attack and damage in a single mechanic. FATE does this- with margin of success as stress done, sometimes modified by a weapon value. The new World of Darkness made successes into damage. ORE and HeroQuest do so as well if I recall correctly. I’m sure there are others. Mutants & Masterminds, my go-to system for supers reverses the damage approach. There’s no damage roll, only a check to resist damage dealt. It works quickly and fits with the genre. The game puts staying up and continuing to fight in the hands of the players. Still I’ve had a few people who didn’t care for it; they wanted to roll and have a shot at a bigger hit. Some systems keep attack/damage distinct, but narrow the damage ranges- like GUMSHOE. You give up something in granularity in favor of speed through easy to recall mechanics or a reduced number of rolls. When I first came up with our card-resolution based homebrew, Action Cards, I had a distinct draws for attack and for damage. Eventually over the years I shifted that to an easier success margin = damage result. Easier, faster, and vaguely unsatisfying.
Our group had a mixed reaction when I decided to bring back dice for damage. I changed nothing else but that- we still do all tests and conflicts with the cards. But when you hit, you get to pick up a pile of d10’s and roll them to see how much damage you do. And the game’s better for it. The players love their character decks, but they also love the sensation of flinging dice and counting wounds. Best of both worlds. I put off that change for a long time because I worried it would break the “concept” of the system- the diceless nature. But eventually I realized I wanted the thing that I loved most back in the game.
Because I love rolling damage.