Thursday, April 4, 2013

Damage

Yesterday I talked about my views on how combat should run. I felt that injuries deserved their own post. I'll start with some basic declarations and go into more specifics from there.

  • I don't believe in hit locations, random or otherwise.
  • I don't believe in highly random weapon damage.
  • I don't believe in "non lethal" damage.

Where an attack initially lands is less important than what is actually hurt. Externally superficial wounds can mask some serious injuries, and wounds that appear to be bad can turn out to be superficial. I'll always remember the time I cut my thumb really bad with an X-Acto knife. I was pretty young and I thought I had cut my thumb off, so I passed out. The cut needed only a few stitches. A bullet can enter through one part of the body and lodge or exit someplace else. I've actually heard of a bullet deflecting off a pelvic bone and coming right back out again (at an angle, obviously). Similarly, there are many reports of people who have taken mortal wounds and kept right on going. If hit locations are going to be tracked, then the system might as well go full-bore and trace the path the weapon takes internally. There are just too many variables involved and it's just not worth it to roll for location or assign any kind of special severity to various locations.

Hit Locations?

Similarly, I don't like systems where it's possible for weapon damage to be highly randomized. How much damage is inflicted does have something to do with the weapon - obviously, heavier or faster weapons can cause more serious injury. But that's only one part of it; the quality of the strike should have equal, or greater, weight. The aforementioned Silhouette system is a perfect example. Weapons have a damage multiplier - for example, a dagger might be x6. That value is multiplied by the amount the attack roll succeeds over the defense roll. The better the strike, the more damage is done.

Going hand in hand with that is the idea of "non lethal" damage. Anything that can harm a character has the potential to be lethal, whether it's a fist or a shotgun blast. Having the damage classified as "crushing", "piercing", or "slashing" is likewise irrelevant. What's most helpful to me is how badly the character is hurt overall.

To that end, I prefer systems that have more abstract damage tracking mechanics. Silhouette (and Synergy) use general wound systems, where each level of severity incurs a penalty on actions. Not "a penalty to just Agility" or a "penalty to just Endurance". All actions. The penalty represents not only the physical injury but the pain, shock and impairment from the injury. The exact nature of the wound, the location, and any descritpion of its effects are left up to the GM. In both games, there are limits to how many injuries characters can take before succumbing to shock or dying.

The pinnacle for me in terms of abstraction that still provides narrative detail is Consequences in Fate. Stress tracks are a great pacing mechanism, and the choice between marking off stress or taking a Consequence is a compelling one (no pun intended). Putting that choice in the player's hand, as opposed to a simple die roll, is something that might not appeal to everyone but it hits a sweet spot for me.

Oddly enough, over the years I've reconciled with the idea of hit points. In reality, the flourishes that many damage systems put on to try to differentiate themselves from hit points are like putting lipstick on a pig. I now tend to think of hit points as an abstraction and pacing mechanic than any actual measure of injury - that doesn't happen until you reach zero and then fall into the whole negative-hit-point-before-death thing.

Of course, all of this can actually be turned into a discussion about goals and risk, and different ways that those things can be handled in an rpg. The chance of injury in a physical conflict should be about what the player is willing to risk achieving a goal. That is going to be a post for next week.