The other day — maybe yesterday? — I was following a on-line discussion about either classic Traveller or one of the Star Trek RPGs, and someone pointed out that either phasers on the screen in Star Trek or anything stompier than a snub pistol in classic Traveller is either seen to be or turns out to be a “miss or kill” weapon that ends a fight with one hit. Glass cannon were mentioned¹, though I have always preferred eggshells armed with sledgehammers.
At this point a participant of unusual perspicacity² pointed out that the six-shooters in western movies (and the swords in Basil Rathbone films, for that matter) are pretty much one-hit-kill weapons, too. In the climactic fights in High Noon and The Mark of Zorro the excitement and building tension comes from the combatants’ manoeuvres and stratagems and they contend for position to strike a decisive blow. The character who takes a solid hit but perseveres to victory (or comes back for a jump scare and a decisive defeat) is far from unknown, but the attritional slugfest that D&D hitpoint-grinding suggests is basically unknown except in boxing movies and naval combat before Jutland.
D&D inherited rolls to hit, rolls for damage, and stockpiles of hit points from miniatures wargaming, where they were very abstract. And in the day of the one-minute (or even the ten-second) combat round it did little to support visualising them as individual attacks which actual hit locations. This succeeded (well!) in D&D because (I think) dwindling hit-points and runs of lucky or unlucky hits could bring luck and uncertainty to the table in the way that moving a counter or figurine from place to place on the table or mat could not, and because hit points were privileged as definite and permanent in a way that the GM could not capriciously take away, which being unobserved or in cover could not³.
But when it comes to phasers or battle rifles it is really hard not to wonder whether a figure has actually been hit or not. “Just generally banged up a bit” is all very well for a fistfight or where heavy armour is involved, but it doesn’t well fit the case in which a .303 or one of Jack Vance’s explosive silvers is resisted only by worsted suiting. At very least such weapons demand a death spiral mechanic, and no-one but me likes those⁴.
So, fellow-travellers! What RPGs handled concealment and cover, observation and movement well enough for sneaking and cowering until you get in position for a decisive shot with a phaser to be an engaging and exciting combat system? Which ones it any gave it rules that were hard and fast enough that players would say “okay, we can take these guys” and not feel that they were in the hands of GM whimsy?
¹ Not this kind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGftsRH7A2w
² No, it was not I.
³ DMs and GMs for some reason are not prone to “suddenly, half your hitpoints are gone!”, though I suspect many of them of fudging monsters’ hit points. They do, however, sometimes think it makes things interesting and exciting for a guard or ninja to suddenly be where they negate one’s hard-won concealment and cover.
⁴ If you ever design a James Bond 007 adventure, bear this in mind. Characters may take a light wound and continue to victory, but if they ever take a medium wound or worse other than in a final fight they are out of the adventure. Think of them as having failed but made a saving throw v. death.