Sane Pain

It may have been a thread on rpg.net that had something about Savage Worlds that got me to thinking about hit points, aka wounds, aka …

I’m going to focus on cons, as the pros of various things are largely the cons of others.

D&D

I’ve played some 4e.  I have not actually played any 5e.  Come to think of it, I haven’t played a number of other D&Ds. So, when I say D&D, I typically think of AD&D 1e and d20.

Cons:  Combatants are at full offense until they keel over.  Hit points are exceedingly gamey.

The latter doesn’t actually bother me.  I know I complain about how gamey mechanics are, especially when it comes to PC build components.  But, on the other hand, I am so, so, so, so not into realism when it comes to games.  That hit points are abstracted, mechanicized, or whatever really means nothing to me.

So, what about how hit points only matter when you run out of them?  This is something I can be concerned about.  But, not because of PCs.  Because of what PCs fight.  That a PC never weakens, just manages the accounting of their life points, well, it’s actually something I see as a pro.  A pro not just because it means PCs get to do stuff until they become fine red mist but also just the game accounting of this one stat.  It’s simple.  It doesn’t feel weird to me.  It does mean that players have to manage a resource that matters.

That monsters and crap fight full power until they are ashed, though, can be pretty ugly.  It’s not just on the GM side, where the GM has to think through what it means that an enemy that doesn’t retreat will just keep swinging.  It’s ugly that the incentives are all in favor of assured annihilation.

This was the strength of L5R 3e/3r, when I played it a lot.  You actually had a reason not to focus fire on your enemies.  Well, at least, some of the time.

Conan was my big D&Desque experience.  While it wasn’t always peach smoothies with whip cream to deal with my 120+ HP character’s management of HP (or how annoying crap like drowning took away the only thing the character was good at in combat – damage sponge), I didn’t think badly of HP.  A counterargument, though, is that HP weren’t clean in Conan – that the massive damage save rule meant you could have hundreds of HP and still explode before losing them all.  Then, some of the most tedious enemies (all of the most tedious enemies besides those that could grapple for free?) were like chopping down giant piles of wet wood.

Savage Worlds

You thought I was going to go to something more … Asian?

Cons:  Shaken is moronic.  Wounds often seem too much “oh, whatever … aaauuggghhhh”.  Where’s the healing?

Current thread on rpg.net about people’s SW combat experiences.  My first(?) experience was not pain, it was excruciating agony.  I spent 30+ minutes just toggling back and forth between Shaken and not Shaken.  I may not care a ton about combat, but I do care about doing things.

That’s what really inspired this post.  Doing things.  Doing things is necessary.  Doing things is why you do things, like play games.  Rolling dice just to achieve recovery from a condition that stops you from doing anything is … a sign that someone didn’t playtest better.  When I ran Solomon Kane, I houseruled a change to Shaken without ever running RAW.

The flip side of being in Shaken lock is not achieving any progress.  That’s the thing about D&D style hit point loss.  It may not matter that my 126 HP PC loses 50 HP in a fight, but it still feels like something happened.  If I never achieve better than Shaken, have I achieved anything at all?

RuneQuest has been like this.  Do nothing a bunch of the time, then Oh My Gods!  Of course, there, it’s usually much more brutal to the PCs.  Getting back to SW, as much as I’ve seen characters flail about, I’ve also seen the “take 3 wounds, soak?” situations.  While one wound is okay.  Three puts a damper on doing anything.

Maybe it’s just the genres of SW I’ve played, but I also find that healing isn’t quick enough.  Now, to be fair to SW (SK), I don’t recall it being that big of a deal for my Solomon Kane PCs to heal back up.  I’m not exactly sure why that was; I’ve managed to forget quite a bit about running SK.  I know that I just found reading the healing rules to be frustrating.

RuneQuest

Why not?

Cons:  Bleeding sucks.  Losing limbs sucks.  Hit locations suck.  Unconsciousness sucks.

As I recall, bleeding was an optional rule.  But, we used it.  Again, I don’t give a crap about realism.  Bleeding, as a mechanic, has never worked in my experience.  If anything, it produces ludicrously unrealistic actions, like cauterizing wounds and wasting time not trying to kill something that’s trying to kill you and carrying around a bunch of healing stuff just with the idea of stopping bleeding.

Hit locations are something I have never found to be remotely interesting.  All it does is create more complication for more variance without offering anything I can see to make combat better.  The loss of use of a limb in RQ was just obscenely common.  And, yet again, produced incredibly gamey player incentives.  Have to run around with Heal-6’s to make sure you got your limb back.

Unconsciousness, in and of itself, is not the problem.  It’s a problem when you achieve it while still in positive life boxes.  That screws up my math all of the time.  The “unconscious at zero, dying at negatives” is far more intuitive to me.

Feng Shui

Speaking of dying.  Death checks.  SW has them, too, of course.

Cons:  Loss of combat prowess with the AV mechanic can be brutal.  Feels sudden to go into penalties.

I guess 1e FS has similarities to SW.  I just didn’t feel the Impairment penalties as much.  Sure, I was in death checks at times, really should have died in one session where someone fumbled Medicine while I was in negatives.

I don’t think the concept is wrong so much as the execution.  Maybe what it needs to be is something like thirds.  First third, fine.  Second third, minor loss of functionality.  Third third, what?

Legend of the Five Rings

Had to get here, eventually.

Cons:  Which edition?  Let’s say 4e.  Lots of wound levels.  Overreliance on magical healing.  What do wound penalties affect?  Wound chart is oriented to getting you killed (unlike 3e).  Damage varies a lot.  Little ability to defend without help.

I’m sure I’m missing some things for what is the game I’ve examined the most.

Lots of wound levels means some sort of death spiral.  Sure, the windows can be so tight that you are rarely in a particular level.  So, it’s not always a death spiral.  Sometimes, it’s a “why are there so many levels of penalties” situation.

4e is particularly bad about focusing on magical healing for recovery given the crappiness of Medicine, but that’s not so much an indictment of L5R, as plenty of RPG systems just assume magical healing and have horrendous natural healing rules, as it is an indictment of 4e vs. 3r.

The different application of wound penalties in my L5R play is a perfect example of why you put in more examples of mechanics and combat in core books.  Sometimes, they would only apply to physical actions.  Sometimes, they would only apply to “actions”, even though I don’t think action is defined anywhere.  Sometimes, they applied to certain rolls but not others whether it was to prevent a death spiral or not.

My view is that wound penalties should never apply to surviving.  Keep in mind that RPGs are incredibly asymmetrical when it comes to combat.  Players don’t typically care whether NPCs survive and GMs may or may not.  Meanwhile, survival is often a core goal with players for their PCs.  If you make survival harder, you basically just screw players.

By the way, what are wound penalties supposed to apply to in 4e?  Anything with a TN.  Full Defense – no TN.  Damage rolls – no TN.

Damage in D&D or SW or RQ or a whole lot of things can vary immensely.  But, there’s just something that feels uncontrolled about damage with L5R.  With RQ, the frustration is that my normal damage doesn’t take out my enemies until after I’ve direct interventioned to get resurrected, not that the variance is crazy.  Conan could be lopsided in damage output, though that was a lot of poor choices in PC builds, but it felt like you had an idea how badly something would hurt.  With L5R, it’s pretty hard to have a good feel for how much something will hurt when you have one kept die explode five times.  The long tail is a many tailed beast just because of volume of rolls.

Interestingly, powerful defenses can be one of the worst things about combat in L5R.  Be the Mountain, Kami’s Strength, Hida with the right kata in the previous edition giving you like +100 TNtbH, Reflexes 5 with shugenja stance and Defense 5 and armor, Daidoji force fields – these are some pretty annoying things for a GM to provide challenges for.

But, for a normal bushi, there’s often little you can do but hope for a magic buff or someone to guard you.  Even if you have the ho hum Reflexes 5 and Heavy Armor, you don’t get shugenja stance, you don’t get Defense 5.  You swing and hope you kill faster.  I experienced just how dramatic it can be when I switched from being a guarder to being a swinger with my REF-5 Hare.  Even just armor is this massive deal, which I find really annoying.  Though, I also find the idea that AD&D characters run around in +2 Chainmail with +2 Shields to be rather obnoxious, too.

Points Greatest Hits

So, what do I want?

I don’t want characters to be unable to act, including being unable to reasonably move.  Now, that’s up to a point.  I actually don’t mind unconsciousness if the timing of it is good.  While it can be a huge suck to be unconscious when everyone else is fighting, theoretically, combat speeds up as combatants drop while character death is rife with issues.

Character notdeath being highly manageable.  Conan was actually a fairly forgiving system due to Fate Points.  I think that worked well.

In general, I’d take it another step and say rather minimal impact of having wounds.  Should this be different for PCs than for others?  Perhaps.  I haven’t gotten to running a vassal combat for AtDY yet.  I kind of hate mooks in Feng Shui, though extras in SK weren’t as bad.  So, having PCs and majors on a level of being minimally impacted sounds good … up until you start thinking about monsters.  Should Shadowspawn, the monster that inspired my thinking of things as giant piles of wet wood, be easy to cripple?  Probably not.  But, do I want the massive incentives of focus fire and maximizing damage output to be in my experience?  Not particularly.

Does D&D do it right?  Not quite.  However, it may be a lot more righter than more modern wound mechanics.  There should probably be some sort of mechanic to make one feel like something is happening besides number loss, though I’m not entirely sure what that mechanic should be.  As much as I disdain D&D 4e, there is something to the idea of being Bloodied being a good thing.

Maybe, instead of getting weaker by damage, the key is to get stronger.  No, it really isn’t.  Anyone who has played much knows why.  When you make things get stronger as they get closer to being taken out, well, any serious fight sees PCs also getting closer to being taken out when their enemies are, so that stronger enemy just creates a different type of death spiral.

A resource that mitigates wound penalties?  That’s a use of Void Points that I vastly preferred in 3r versus 4e.  VPs were more common in 3r, but they were still a limited resource.  (Actually, PCs were likely to have more, which is yet another reason having them do things like nullify wound penalties was awesome.)  4e wanted to make Fear and WP strong.  Well, it succeeded.  Not sure why that’s fun.

RQ tries to have damage be part of its economy (at least, in my play, which is incredibly economic).  You buy potions to counteract damage.  In no way does this sound like a good idea to me, though it does tie into how much old school FRPGs seemed intent on being money obsessed.

I’ve often really enjoyed being close to death and fighting as hard as possible.  Conan provided a lot of that, where I was often in negative HP and still trying to do stuff.  That Conan often had an out against HP beasts (like my character) was a good thing.  Still not perfect, but I’d prefer Conan d20 mechanics over oD&D.

Beyond just how hit boxes are handled, having options for defending that aren’t just a form of suicide (I’m looking Fading Suns and how awful Dodge is) that anyone can use is something to keep in mind.

Finally, I have a sense that many a system doesn’t really realize what it does to PCs with wound mechanics more “realistic” or whatever than D&D HP.  Whether it’s impairments so crippling that a PC can’t do important things anymore or making wound systems messier such that it gets hard to sense how much trouble you are actually in or systems that make recovery dependent upon money or magic, they actually take a step back in the fun department.

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