John Wick, designer of L5R, 7th Sea and a slew of other games once told me, “If you get hit by the sharp edge of a Katana, you are going to die or at the very least wish you were dead.” Which is pretty much absolutely true for just about anything be it a Colt .45, Mossberg or bastard sword. Sure you might get lucky and the bullet or sword might just wing you, but that is more the exception than the rule. In RPG’s though things are more cinematic and lethality is far less immediate. In some RPG’s it will take you an hour to kill something outright with multiple strikes from multiple PC’s. Dragon slaying ‘aint easy but it sure is necessary.
Adding drama to combat is one of the most difficult tasks for a game designer. Setting a “lethality level” for a game is crucial to the basic feel. Is it heroic and the player characters should be able to take out several enemies at a time or is it gritty and the players have to take care to not be killed by a single attack? It’s also a crucial choice for a GM looking for the right system to help tell his story.
This is a complex topic in general but I want to tackle one aspect that is of special significance to me. That being damage resolution or simply, what formula is used to determine the level of damage that is done after an attack hits.
There are a lot of factors here. How much potential trauma can your weapon inflict? How skilled is the wielder of said weapon? Is the victim able to mitigate some of this damage by blocking, evading or absorbing the impact? How or where was the victim struck? For the most part all of these factors can be simulated meticulously or abstracted in some way, but all of these factors will have an impact on how the combat is narrated and therefore how it affects your story. The real secret is to have a balance between the cinematic value of your combat scene and managing the flow of the mechanic to match the pace of the scene. Just about anything in an RPG has to be assessed by determining how well or how poorly it allows you to craft the story you are telling. Without that element it becomes more of a tactical game than a role playing game.
Some can argue that systems that create a very detailed combat system will allow you to create a higher level of immersion. Knowing exactly where your character took a wound and determining if it was blunt, piercing or slashing damage gives you a good idea of how things are developing in a combat. Others would argue that these particulars should be abstracted systemically and it should be up to those developing the story to come up with the particulars.
In my opinion, they key here is pacing. When a system attempts to develop too much detail, it tends to have a lengthy mechanic with a lot of rolling and book keeping. Some players love this kind of thing, but I tend to think that it detracts from the game. It tends to shift the focus of attention from the story to the mechanic which is something I abhor. A good combat system should allow players to drive the combat through their narrative choices and be transparent enough to let them think less on the numbers and more on the action. This means that the system should be simple and fluid, but be detailed enough to provide serious consequence in order to promote drama. After all, if the idea of impending death does not create drama, little else will right?
Let’s look at it this way. One of the best ways to assess whether the focus of a game is the system versus the story is to ask someone about their character. If they immediately start telling you about the characters statistics, special abilities or what kind of weapon it wields the game is about the combat mechanic to that player. If the player tells you about its relationships, achievements and character quirks then the game is focused on role-play for that player. Listen to your players as they talk to each other or people outside the game about their character. It can tell you a lot about what they are experiencing and what they value in your game.
I am a big fan of systems that resolve the hit and the damage in one roll. This cuts down on any extra mechanic for damage and tends to lean on giving the accuracy of the hit as much bearing to the damage as the size of the weapon. Thus, small weapons like knives can be just as deadly in the hands of a skilled assassin as a shotgun in the hands of a teenager. Additionally, it’s far more dramatic for a character to be deadly because of his impeccable skills than because he could afford the best bit of gear.
Various systems use this kind of damage resolution, for example Shadowrun and White Wolf's World of Darkness. They assign a basic lethality to a weapon and any additional damage is inflicted by margin of success and any reduction in damage is mitigated by armor and supernatural toughness.
I feel that systems that separate damage and accuracy are fundamentally flawed. I can’t tell you how many times I have rolled a to-hit that has nearly doubled the defense of my target just to roll minimum damage on the damage dice. So you mean to tell me that I hit this Umber Hulk full on with the keen edge of my Dwarven steel right in the most vitally vital part of his monstery giblets and did 4 points of damage? It basically gives the player a second chance to fail or can potentially reward them for a marginal success. All in all, it probably balances out statistically, but it becomes harder to narrate with two varying and possibly contradictory outcomes. “I barely hit him, but I guess I hit a vital artery with that attack.” Or, “I hit him square in the face with my hammer but he seemed to keep his brains closer to his neck.”
Another thing these systems have in common is the damage track (well up until 4th edition SR). Everyone has the same number of hit boxes and there are immediate consequences for taking damage.
Systems that reflect toughness by allowing the characters to mitigate damage the moment it is taken do not require variable sets of hit points. Their resilience is already factored into combat. In the end, when you get hit on the head with a big rock you will be just as dead as the guy next to you that is hit with the same rock, unless he has a helmet. I guess it’s just a different philosophy that works out to be pretty much the same. To me it’s just less book keeping and having damage levels that are marked, Light Wound, Moderate Wound, Mauled or Crippled make it much easier to visualize exactly how bad the situation is. Does the word “Bruised” give you a better idea about how bad off a character is than saying, “I am down a quarter of my HP’s.”
I don't mind a hit point system per-se but I really don't like systems where there is no negative impact on your actions after being hurt. Characters with a lot of hit points have a tendency to walk into danger without even caring. My Dwarven warrior used to take out traps just by springing them and taking it on the chin. This really detracts from the tension of combat, up until the character starts running out of hit points. A character should not start to worry about taking damage only when they are close to going down. They need to get nervous the second they are hit. When you have a system that immediately impacts the characters ability to function the moment they take damage it in increases the tension of the scene and therefore the drama. You know that once the character starts taking damage, he/she becomes immediately more vulnerable and that has a direct impact on his/her decisions further along in the story.
So what am I saying here? Stop playing D&D and play more Shadowrun? Not at all. The whole reason for this post is to expound upon how these kinds of mechanics affect your game. I want people to actually think about why combat encounters are important to the game and how it drives drama and story. Take a moment to inspect elements in whatever system you are using and think about how a character reacts when he or she takes damage from an enemy. Are you getting the kind of dramatic response you want or are they simply going through the motions? Elements like, making player characters more in charge of a combat by making things run off fewer random elements, bringing the characters abilities to the forefront of a combat, making players think more tactically because there is a price to be paid even if they are only slightly wounded and increasing the drama by making sure that characters understand and narrate exactly what is going on in a combat so they feel more immersed in the scene. These elements can be applied to just about every system by creating detailed descriptions that have no mechanical value at all. Or by making simple tweaks that better describe injuries and the chaotic nature of combat, you may end up serving your players and your stories better in the long run.