Monday, July 28, 2014

The words

I wrote a little while ago about a problem in Heroes By Trade - that a mook with a crossbow was simply no threat.  The system has simple hit rolls to make combat quick and does not have instant kill effects so a single enemy ambushing the characters has almost no chance to inflict real damage.  One of the troubles I am running into in this regard is the way people view damage dealt to characters.  People have two ways of taking damage:  First off they have Hit Points that regenerate quickly after combat and represent effort, exhaustion, determination, and focus.  Secondly they have Wound Points that represent actual cuts, burns, and other trauma.  Damage is applied to HP first so it acts as a buffer that prevents serious harm.

Hit Points unfortunately have a history in gaming and that history is a problem.  In particular DnD never really managed to figure out what HP represented with the books talking about it as if it was simultaneously meat damage and fatigue.  In early editions saying that being down 40% of your HP was only exhaustion was ridiculous though as a good long sleep would not cure the damage and magical healing was necessary.  If I am just tired why do I need a cleric to fix me?  Fourth edition with its powerful personal healing was ridiculous in another way - even if I was beaten into bloody unconsciousness and on death's door everything is fixed and back to normal after one night's slumber.

I think this confusion over what Hit Points represent is a good reason to ditch that terminology completely.  It comes loaded with so much baggage from video games, tactical games, and other tabletop RPGs that no matter what I say it represents people are going to end up bringing their own ideas into the mix and that makes the mook with a crossbow problem even worse.  When we aren't even completely sure what losing 15 HP means (Did I dodge?  Am I bleeding?  What is even going on?) then the whole mess becomes much more challenging to deal with and resolve in a manner that is narratively satisfying.

I am thinking I should change the name of HP to Focus.  Hopefully that makes it abundantly obvious that it isn't meat damage and you aren't bleeding, rather you are desperately blocking or bearing down mentally to negate attacks but that doing so costs you.  Eventually you just become too exhausted to lift up your sword to block that incoming swing and it actually does meat damage when the blow connects.  The numbers are very important in a system but sometimes names and framing of concepts can accomplish what numbers alone cannot.

What I wonder is whether or not I should try something crazy to get away from the whole concept of an HP bar that is an integer that simply soaks up damage.  Rewriting the basic damage model at this point is a pretty daunting proposition but I am really enamoured of the idea of running far away from that basic concept to try to make it clearer that people aren't just standing there eating swords to the face and being okay with that because they are powerful.


  1. Two alternate damage models:

    One you are familiar with (?) is earthdawn which had a hit point total and a wound threshold. If you took your wound threshold in a single hit then you got a wound which gave you actual penalties and which was much harder to heal. Because damage rolls were open ended and because of the numbers it was never really out of the 0.5% range that a hit might be a wound but against dangerous opponents it was much higher.

    In TORG there were three kinds of damage: Shock, KO and Wounds. Shock healed every scene and you got knocked out if you hit your shock value in shock. KO was removed every fight as well. You got knocked out if you got both a K and an O. Wounds were persistent over long period of time and you could die from them. Of course this system required tables (all rolls in the game were on an open ended d20).

  2. I am familiar with earthdawn. That would require a much bigger rewrite than I am up for. TORG's system sounds pretty interesting. The K and O thing is hilarious but I don't think it is exactly my style. I will try to poke about and find out how TORG worked things precisely - it may have some things I can poach or at least take inspiration from.