Critical hits, fumbles, hit location, bleeding, wounds, conditions, weapon damage, armor damage, and a host of other things are bad for PCs. Feel it intuitively? Take my word for it? Perhaps. Or, I can try to explain why.
One thing I think it takes time for people to realize, and it helps immensely to GM to see it, is that PCs and antagonists don’t have a symmetric relationship to combat. This manifests in a number of ways. One way is that PCs will usually be designed for greater efficiency in combat, eschewing certain weapon choices, armor choices, fighting styles, or whatever because they are suboptimal. On the other hand, “people antagonists” in worlds where stuff outside of combat matters are usually much more focused on combat than an equivalent experience PC.
For example: In Conan, a dagger is pretty much useless. Can add poison, can have a bunch of Sneak Attack damage, but you can just substitute some other weapon and be better off. The thief’s weapon of choice for a PC, assuming you go with some low damage weapon, is a shortsword. There are examples in Conan of how a PC will go for more well-roundedness with Feat slots or whatever, but a really good example of how NPCs focus on combat was when I played in the battle event at Gen Con for HoR, where rank 2 Bayushi Bushi we fought all had 9k4 attack rolls as compared to my 6k3. I might not get up to Kenjutsu 5 by rank 3(!!) at the rate things are going due to wanting a high Intelligence and putting points into noncombat skills, neither of which were relevant for one-shot antagonists.
Most of the asymmetry between protagonists and antagonists comes out of the typical fate we look for from each. All players care about with regards to antagonists is removing the threat of them. Usually, that means depriving them of life. Don’t remotely care whether they have all of their limbs, whether they will never be able to breed again, how dented their shields are, etc. They must be incapacitated, preferably permanently.
Meanwhile, lasting wounds, especially permanent ones, are a resource hit to a PC. Weapon damage and armor damage – resource hit. Even if it just takes money to fix something, if the money required rises to the level of significant, then resource hit. Even survival can be a resource, as various systems have resurrection, usually at a great wealth cost. Of course, survival can be even more important with the lack of resurrection.
Okay, all this seems obvious. But, what about crits, fumbles, conditions, bleeding, and hit locations?
Bleeding, and what I really mean by bleeding is not someone in their death throes but someone who can start bleeding from lesser attacks, should be obvious. Rules for bleeding from casual wounds force PCs to take noncombat actions or to put PCs on a clock. Who cares whether the goblin bleeds? The goblin is going to die or I am.
One thing about crits and fumbles is how often they occur and what the results are. You can build these mechanics in such a way that they favor PCs. For instance, you can say that fumbles only occur if you suck and make sure PCs never suck. You can have fumbles reduce the amount of damage or attack percentage when PCs have a huge advantage with either. Crits don’t tend to be so bad for PCs when PCs have far more hit points than their opponents and all crits do is increase damage. And, so forth.
Yet, in all likelihood, these two mechanics will punish PCs. There’s a crucial principle when it comes to RPG combat. The principle is that PCs want combat to have less variance. The more predictable combat is, the more reliably the PCs win.
But, you say, what about when the opposition is stronger than the party? Of course that can occur, but why should it? Why would the party be favored to lose? Because … all sorts of reasons, you say.
Sure, there are legitimate reasons to put a party into a losing fight. Parties choosing to bite off more than they can chew should be at a disadvantage. Not every fight is supposed to be winnable. In fact, if you are doing videogame roll-playing, like old school D&D dungeon crawling, the idea is that you go as far as you can as long as you believe you have the advantage and run/hide when you no longer think you can continue. Though, if you were engaging in this sort of thing, you would expect every first combat in an adventure to be in the party’s favor, otherwise, the party will never get anywhere.
So, back to crits and fumbles. They increase variance. But, there are also other imbalances that normally occur. For crits, antagonists usually make more attacks than PCs. While this can vary, being outnumbered is a common combat setup for a party. Even when not outnumbered, monsters often have more attacks than PCs. There are plenty of RPGs where an animal would get both a bite and claw attacks or a bite and two claw attacks, while a PC will get a single attack. Everything else being equal, which admittedly isn’t often the case, the increased number of attacks by antagonists leads to more crits.
But, you say, doesn’t this apply equally to fumbles? Sure, volumewise, can tilt towards PCs. Fumbles are primarily a screwjob on PCs because of the effects of fumbles. For instance, if a possibility is to attack a friend or oneself, it’s rather normal for PCs to do more damage than their opponents. Or, if the fumble is drop weapon, a PC will typically be highly dependent upon a particular weapon where some lizardman or whatever just switches to natural weaponry. Actually, it doesn’t even need to be that complicated. PC attacks are more valuable than antagonist attacks, if for no other reason than that the PC perspective is that PCs must win, where antagonists winning is … problematic.
It may seem like too many of my “typical” scenarios would be ones where the party is fighting a larger, but less skilled, force. It’s also common to fight a single big bad or two badasses. In these cases, if fumbles are just as likely and the effects of fumbles are normally things like losing attacks, losing defenses, attacking allies, or whatever, then fumbles can be worse for the antagonists. At the same time, fewer opposition tends to go with more skilled opposition, so in theory, they will fumble less often, depending upon the system.
Again, though, we run into the idea of asymmetry. If a party gets an easy fight because the opposition rolls badly, then the party is inclined to seek out more fights, to the extent such things are possible within an adventure, balancing out the results, or the party will be more successful, which, as long as it isn’t the norm that combats are easy, is likely not to make the players sad. Meanwhile, a fight that goes badly because of unexpected results can either prevent the party from continuing on towards a goal or can result in permanent losses, which somehow seems sadder to the players.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, not even that long ago, while GMs can establish that the costs of failure be measured in things like lost reputation, prevention of story goals, being captured, and whatnot, the norm with FRPGs is death or other results that are of a similar severity. Losing out on treasure, for instance, can be just as bad as dying in systems where stuff/wealth is critical to success. I stopped playing my first RuneQuest character in part because he lost a bunch of Intelligence, reducing his skills to where I became more inept than I was at initial character creation.
Conditions are more nebulous. What are conditions? L5R 4e has a list that I recall fairly well that includes, among others: Dazed, Fatigued, Blinded, Prone. Pritnear every system has rules for being poisoned. Attribute loss would be similar to a condition. Some systems make these more permanent than others. Permanent conditions, of course, are a major screwjob on PCs. We played for over a year with a blind character in Conan. There were unusual reasons why it worked at all. In most cases, any sort of permanent injury means retiring or suiciding your character to get one that is whole.
But, what about temporary conditions? Much less clear how they punish PCs. Still, predictability. That’s what we look for. Dazed is an interesting condition in L5R. It tends to be extremely bad in a fight, unless the one Dazed has nonattack combat abilities. For instance, while not great for a shugenja to get Dazed, a shugenja can still cast spells. A badass bushi Dazed is essentially useless, same with the vast majority of creatures. I’ve GMed where a PC could Daze enemies, and it made fights insipid, in the favor of the party.
So, why bring up conditions? Because conditions are more commonly inflicted on the party than inflicted by the party. The whole point of supplements like the Monster Manual is to throw different stuff at parties and “different” often comes with special abilities that do weird things to enemies. Also, an easy victory by the party due to blinding the enemy dragon tends not to be as problematic as an easy PC kill when your tank or spellcaster or whoever goes blind. Anyway, that conditions are more commonly relevant to a PC than to an antagonist means having to deal with something outside of the norm, greatly increasing the reduction of efficiency of the party.
Conditions are things that have more impact the fewer combatants on a side. If you kill a mook a turn, then you don’t really care if one of those mooks is also stunned.
Hit locations is interesting in that I see them being a PC screwjob whether the PCs are outnumbered or whether the party outnumbers the enemy. While the Conan forums may have always given the impression that PCs fight similarly built NPCs, I have rarely played any RPGs where the antagonists were often built like the PCs. Feng Shui, with named characters, comes to mind as a case where antagonists were akin to PCs, but usually, you either have a horde of mooks or a small number of big bads.
Obviously, if fighting your doppelgangers (not the monster but identical builds), hit locations would be fair. But, when fighting inferior opposition, do you really care whether you hack off an arm or a leg when the enemy is dead either way? Then, hit locations usually go with spreading damage around, i.e. the target can potentially receive more damage than a straight hit point system. Even in RuneQuest, there’s some truth to this for PCs in that taking out a limb caps damage from a single attack. I would argue that RQ is a good example of how this screws PCs on the other side – the big bad side. If you spread damage around on a big bad, all that ends up happening is you end up taking far longer to kill the big bad.
But, you say, RQ has pretty severe penalties for losing a limb, so doesn’t this suck that much more for big bads, which are being outnumbered by the party? No. Hit points in systems with hit locations don’t tend to follow a “balanced” scale. If you take a RQ character and give it 10 more hit points with the normal increases in each hit location, it becomes far, far more resilient. How do I know? I had such a character for a time. One of my characters had roughly a 50% increase in hit points, and he became ridiculously more resilient to damage. A big bad is not only going to have these defensive benefits but also improvements in offense to justify being a party challenge. But, even ignoring the offensive side of the game, spreading damage on a high hit point target is awful for a party.
Note that one of the most played systems, if not a FRPG, which uses hit locations is BattleTech. While BT is its own thing and lacks a lot of similarities to hit location systems in FRPGs, it is interesting to note just how resilient spreading damage can end up being in BT, something I think is a good thing in the game. Of course, where limbs come off all of the time in BT and the player can not be too displeased, limb loss at the humanoid PC level is something I equate with a dead PC, displaying a way in which I find hit locations to be a screwjob to PCs – you would rather take generic damage and live or not live than lose the use of part of a body even if you do live.
Okay, you say, I get it – you just want PCs to never be threatened, for adventures to lack any sort of challenge, any sort of adventure. Free XP and gold for all.
Actually, several of these mechanics I’m fine with, if handled in a reasonable way. The ones I’m never fine with are bleeding, hit locations, and equipment damage; not specifically because they screw PCs but because they generate a bunch of accounting hassles while punishing PCs in ways I don’t see any benefit in.
Yes, I do realize that not having bleeding makes for some undramatic situations where you can just leave a horribly wounded person lying around forever. Actually, let me make an exception or modifier to my feelings on bleeding. Bleeding from any sort of damaging attack is annoying since it generally requires being taken out of a fight to deal with, which is crippling to parties. Bleeding to death from something like being in negative hit points might be fine, preferable even if the alternative is you just die when you hit negative hit points (or the equivalent). Conan, for instance, has bleeding to death rules that I’m fine with.
I’m generally anti-fumbles not because I have no sense of humor and hate variance but because too many fumble systems are disproportionately brutal to a PC, and it’s not often funny if fumbling directly leads to dying. Maybe, it’s the systems I’ve played recently that have colored my thinking. In the past, when I played less gamist systems, fumbles were more entertaining. Immortal saw a 10% chance of fumbling every single time you used your magical powers (that everyone pretty much had); it even seemed like the intent was that you would fumble so that you got weird disadvantages from being tainted.
Really, more my point is that GMs/groups need to be aware of how these sorts of mechanics affect party results. In particular, the more of these mechanics, the greater difficulty PCs have in being functional, a major takeaway from my RuneQuest experiences.
Maybe this is another case of my being inconsistent or having a hard time articulating a point of view that hits a sweet spot on a spectrum, but I’m hardly in favor of predictable combat. If I know success is inevitable, I’m inclined to not fight it out at all. At the same time, I have no interest in combat just being a randomfest of randomness, where anything can happen.
Why? Because high levels of randomness undermines strategy and tactics, as well as undermining character building. Decisions should matter. If I want to attack the enemy but just end up shooting my commander in the back every time due to fumbles (this basically happened in a Mekton game I played in for our party), then I have no attack strategy/tactic left. Why does my build matter if combat is highly unpredictable? I might know next to nothing about first aid and be an aggro character, only to find myself repeatedly being removed from combat to stop bleeding. Or, maybe I’m the tank healer who just sucks up attacks and keeps everyone else alive … who gets critted repeatedly or who fumbles parries repeatedly or who takes a head shot and gets immediately knocked out.