Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Done With Wounds

[I realize the last couple posts have been a bit "whimsical;" sorry, but I'm easing my way back into the whole blogging thang...]

Previously when considering alternative combat systems to B/X, I put forth the idea of cutting out attack rolls altogether. At the time, my reasoning was this: one works so hard, sometimes damn hard (at low levels) to even hit some critter, then you just roll a “1” for damage anyway? Wouldn’t the monster lose 1 hit point (call it “fatigue”) just dodging all those previous “missed” attacks?

The idea was “just roll damage.” And while I still see SOME merit to the idea, I never bothered to implement if for two reasons: A) too complex and B) too slow. Fact is, B was directly caused by A, and since part of my whole thing was “making combat faster,” well…you see how it goes.

So now, I’m working (working, working…oh so busy!) on my space opera game and I’m kind of looking at combat through the opposite lens of the spectrum; namely, do we really need damage rolls?

No, really. Do we?

Now, I will be the first to argue (and have argued in the past) that random, abstract damage (especially in an “all D6 damage” world) is not only desirable but downright realistic…or as close to realism as one might come, representing damage in an abstract fashion. Sometimes a sword nicks you, sometimes it runs you through your gizzard, and only heroic luck (i.e. “high level hit points”) is going to save you from the well-placed blade.

Good. Great, even. For a game like D&D. How about a space opera game, like one that might model Star Wars?

Let’s take a look at this: in the films we see a lot of blaster fire traded between protagonists and their opponents. Sometimes there are misses, sometimes there are hits. How many times does an enemy stormtrooper get tagged and say, “whew, that was close…just a flesh wound.”

Um, never.
Getting hit by a blaster is a “no one gets up from that” kind of proposition.

In fact, there are only two instances (in all six films) where a character is hit by blaster fire and survives (no, Grievous doesn’t count…he was toast with the first shot; Obi was just being a sadist when it came to shooting him again). The first time occurs in Return of the Jedi when Luke gets tagged in his cyborg hand on-board Jabba’s sail-barge. The second time is Leia during the battle of Endor. Neither hit puts our heroes out of the fight…or even slows 'em down much.

By contrast, everone else who gets tagged by blaster fire is dead-dead-dead. At least, if they did survive, their recovery took place “off camera;” we never saw their faces again.

Blasters are freaking deadly…makes one wonder why stormtroopers even bother wearing armor (hint: see the rock-throwing natives on Endor). But this is pretty much par for the course when it comes to “lasers” or energy weapons in space opera. I don’t remember anyone in the original Battlestar Galactica ever walking away from a laser burn…and victims of a phaser in Star Trek tend to be burned to a crisp (unless the weapon was “set to stun”).

So why do you even need a damage roll for a space opera game? Characters are hit (and killed) or missed and fine…OR characters are heroic protagonists that aren’t killed by weapons fire.

That’s right, the same rules do NOT apply to player characters…because in space opera, PCs are really and truly larger-than-life heroes. Whether we’re talking Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Luke Skywalker or Mr. Kinnison and family from the Lensmen series.

If we don’t need damage rolls (and I’m telling you right now I think we do NOT), if we don't need damage rolls, do we need hit points?

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the answer is “no.”

How do you want to kill your opponent? With a blaster? With a lightsaber? With a curvy knife (a la Vin Diesel as Riddick)? The question, for the most part, is not “how much damage do you do?” And that kind of quantitative one-upsmanship is the kind of TWINK QUESTION that just starts the whole game on a downhill slope towards 4th edition and their “one encounter per session” system.

No, the question is more (or should be): can you get things done? Can you rescue the princess? Can you blow up the Death Star? Can you free your buddy from the bounty hunter’s clutches? Can you take out the Sith Lord in hand-to-hand combat?

There seems to be three types of mortal combat that need to be accurately modeled in order to make the space opera game work, and none of them really require hit points or damage rolls:

Shooting scrapes: blowing holes in each other with guns. One Shot = One Kill…but characters (PCs) can get off a number of shots and get a number of kills. As Han Solo said, “Pray they don’t have blasters.” Because folks with blasters tend to put people in the ground.

Starship combat:
more involved in some ways because ships can take various amounts of damage with decreasing functionality before being destroyed. At least the good guys’ ships (and some of the bad guys’ ships, too). Back when my space opera game was still B/X based, I had an excellent way of modeling this…now I’m thinking it may need to be worked out along different lines, more similar to personal combat.

Sword duels and hand-to-hand combat: mano-a-mano, that’s what it eventually boils down to, right? Whether we’re talking Skywalker versus Vader or Malcolm Reynolds versus the Nameless Agent or Shatner versus Lloyd the Klingon, eventually you get up-close-and-personal with your nemesis and forced to “duke it out.” Jockeying for advantage, wearing down your opponent, looking for that chink in the other’s defenses…that’s a bunch different from simply shooting a hole in the target.

Certainly with laser blades, the chaff can be reaped as easily as with a repeating blaster (see Skywalker versus Jabba’s goons or any of the prequel Jedi versus the droid army). Against a similarly armed opponent with a bit of moxie, though, things get a lot dicey-er. If one actually bothers to time out the action sequences in the Star Wars films (and a Big Nerd like myself has, let me tell you), the personal combats can be broken down fairly easily into 10 second “beats” (or as we call it in the B/X business, “rounds”). The final fight between Dooku and Obi-Wan/Anakin takes 9 beats (90 seconds) from start to finish. Between Mace and Sidious the fight lasts approximately 8 beats (plus 4 beats of electro-shock therapy). The final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar takes roughly 20 beats depending on how you count time during the cut-away scenes with Yoda.

The thing about these duels is that there IS damage taking place, even before the final “cut” (that singular blow that severs limb or torso or whatnot)…generally, there are body blows and telekinetic slams and falls and bruises and bloodying. Again, though, this type of drawn out combat only takes place with prominent antagonists. Jango Fett has no problems gunning down a nameless Jedi at close range and Obi-Wan slashes through multiple droids with a single sweep of his blade.

Anyhoo, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately (the last 48 hours or so)…having hit “points” gives you the ability (from a design perspective) to do a bunch of fun, crunchy math bits with the numbers…but is it necessary for game play? Does it FACILITATE game play? See, if it doesn’t, maybe it needs to be thrown out. I’m tired of all these “default RPG presumptions.”

Hell, I already got rid of “initiative” for the game.
; )


  1. D&D stat-like folks have a STR score to determine if they've been knocked on their butts in hand-to-hand, and a Constitution score to see if they can shrug off a blaster hit as "just a flesh wound". So, yuo really don't need hitpoints.

    Without hp yuo run into the realm of "realism" with some folks. The same people who can deal with a 2 hp dagger thrust or 40 points of dragonfire doing the same thing to a characters HP score can get picky about wounds and their effects when the hp aren't being deducted.

  2. I love the way Old School Hack handles this. Minions get 1 wound, "guards" get 2 wounds, "characters" get 5 wounds.

    You get into a big fight, then bam! Every time you hit a little guy, they're down. Hit a tougher guy, they're probably still down if you have a big weapon or hit them in the face. And for characters, fights take a little longer.

    It's easy, it's clean, it's fun... I think Kirin Robinson solved the problem that vexes you here.

  3. Ultramicrolite20 uses a similar 'hits' system, doing away with hit points. Most monsters only take 1 hit to kill, though big baddies can get multiple hits.


    Ed Green

  4. I am very happy to see a good old fashioned, meaty JB post! Thanks so much, as usual, for your unique approach to our hobby, my friend! This was great stuff!

  5. @ Drance: Oh, it's not over...
    ; )

    @ Ed and Fictive: Yeah, this is the approach I've kind of taken (might post more later), though for now I'm retaining hit points for PCs.

    While I'm not very familiar with OSH and ML20, to me it's practically a throwback to Chainmail, making this take on space opera VERY 'old school.'
    : )

  6. Isn't giving PCs multiple "hits" basically just saying they have 5 HP to the stormtroopers' 1 HP?

    If your game ONLY has deadly weapons, you could say they all kill on hit, but what if someone throws a rock at you? You should be able to fit into a middle zone of "debilitated but not dead".

    You could say you roll under CON to survive, with a penalty based on the weapon type. But then weapons have a "CON Penalty" stat and you're right back at the complexity of HP damage (albeit without damage-tracking).

    Luke got his hand cut off and survived. I'd call that "taking damage". But what if that system was something like: Defender rolls 4d6 and gather the three lowest dice together. If the total of all 4 is under CON, it was a clean miss. If the three lowest dice are under but the fourth bumps it up above CON, you roll on the Nasty Wound table (cut off limb, etc). If the lowest 3 are over CON, you died.

    There is still the problem of complexity: this trades tracking HP for a defense roll. You could always use the defense roll instead of an attack roll, which does simplify things.

    In any case, you still have an attack roll, which must be modified by skill of the attacker at the very least, and probably by skill and armor of the defender.

  7. I like the "wounds" concept that goes with the Warhammer table top game (not the RPG) where a "wound" is the amount of damage a standard troop can take before being unable to fight. So your tough guys get 2, and up from there.

    It gets rid of granularity that I think is unhelpful. In Warhammer, tough guy leaders, generals, monsters, etc. are the only ones that have more than 1 wound.

    I'd start PCs off with 1 wound and only give them more if they develop tough-guy abilities to allow them to take at least twice as much punishment as the average soldier--should rogues have more than one? It's an interesting question.

    I took a middle road for survival horror treatment in People vs. Creatures, my modern hack of OSH. First level, 1 wound. Second level, 2. Third level, 5 and up; you've made it this far.

  8. The WEG Star Wars RPG used a system where there were only 4 states of health a character could be in: Healthy, Wounded, Incapacitated and Dead. Weapons were deadly. You roll 56 for a blaster and subtract your health dice plus any armor dice. The difference is consulted on a chart. The greater the difference the more severe the damage. Seemed like a pretty good system to me. Car Wars also gave unarmored humans 3 hit points. At 2 HP you are wounded and suffer penalties, 1 HP you bare unconscious and 0 HP is dead. Given that shotguns did 2 points of damage and light pistols did 1, humans without cover or body armor tended to fall down pretty fast.

  9. oops, make that 5D6 for a blaster. Stupid "d" key is getting stuck.

  10. @ Pavo: I own both Car Wars and WEGSW so I know what you're talking about. Neither system quite "does it" for me, though: CW doesn't go far enough (pistols should kill, too) and WEG is too complicated (I don't need the extra damage roll against stormtroopers).

    @ Everyone: Hey folks, I've got my system now...I'll be playtesting tonight. I'll write up some feedback in the next couple days!
    : )

  11. fictivefantasies above already mentioned Warhammer Wounds. I'd draw a comparison with the old "Hits to Kill" of OD&D (or possibly First Fantasy Campaign, I misremember which) which became HD in later iterations of the game.

    Why not keep it simple and say that a strike causing 1d6 damage = 1 Hit? Larger creatures, that do multiple dice of damage, cause 2 or more Hits per strike. Quick, abstract, minimal bookkeeping.

    If you want to make duelling a little more 'nicks and cuts leading up to a final lethal blow' allow a duellist to exchange Hits taken for a numerical and/or situational penalties. This represents a character being worn down and his lucky finally running out as the accumulated penalties finally do him in.

    (This "Take the damage, or take the penalty" mechanic is an old favourite borrowed from http://webamused.com/bumblers/2009/07/31/super-simple-combat-maneuvers/ ).

  12. @ Chris: That's pretty much exactly what I am doing.
    : )