Damage models and excitement in [SF] RPGs

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.

I think you’ve just earned yourself an acknowledgement in the Project With No Name (which is not Project Unnamed, that’s someone else’s).

To dig at the miniatures wargaming side a bit, in a classic wargame an individual soldier is basically fine or out of the battle – it’s the body of troops that takes casualties. It’s the extension of that unit model to cover individuals that gives us progressive hit points at all.

In action films your wound states are something like fine — cosmetically hurt — limping — immobile/near dead.

Ooh! A James Bond 007 adventure module!

When the movie The Untouchables came out in 1987 my circle of ForeSight players quipped that Malone dragging himself back into his house after being [spoiler]ambushed by Frank Nitti[/spoiler] was “Running at -4”.

The heretical suggestion is that perhaps a bunch of little damages shouldn’t add up to the same as a big damage. (Not very heretical; I’m sure I’ve met systems that did this.) What does it break? Classic resource management, sure, but is that really important?

Again I think the Star Trek/Westerns one shot=one kill trope comes from the limitations of telly and movies, as much as plot and pacing. Choreographing complicated gunfights and doing the make up/costumes for wounded actors takes time and money. Having someone shout “Aaargh!” and fall over dead is cheap.

Modern action movie heroes can be punched into a wall, slammed to the floor, kicked down the stairs and smashed several times in the gut and head, and in game terms suffer no noticeable dice penalties. I think they are all secretly Terminators. :slight_smile:

United Earth Defense: You Are the Resistance (read it, not played yet), is a fairly simple system with an option in combat called “Tactical Move”. Forfeit your attack this round to do something which will give you a +2 bonus from next round onwards (player describes what and how). One of the ‘leader’ character class’s special abilities is that they can give their +2 to other PCs instead of themselves. The assumption is that players will use these options a lot. Because:

  1. dice are a limited resource, so you want to give yourself the best chance of success before you spend a dice by rolling an attack
  2. if you are fighting the aliens, they are much, much harder than the average PC, so you need to make sure you hits and damage them
    The player can also - to a certain extent - decide who goes when in the initiative order.

Cortex+ kind of simulates it too, because players again decide what order they (and the enemy) go. Plus there are special abilities to benefit yourself or your allies, or to disadvantage the enemy. Some player will just go shooty shooty every round, but others will be giving themselves Precarious Position complication to get above the enemy for a bonus to sniper shots, etc.

A few years ago here in Australia we had a spate of manslaughterers acquitted on a successful plea that they could not reasonably have known that one punch can kill or seriously injure.

The daughter of one victim¹ responded by organising a fund-raising effort to run a program of ads on TV and the sports pages that said “one punch can kill”, with explanatory text underneath. Her idea was that now no-one will be able to claim that they could not reasonably have been expected to know that.

¹ If I recall her cae properly her father was killed by her former brother-in-law, having arrived to collect her son from a custodial visit with her ex-husband. The policeman² who investigated chose not to bring any charges at all, on the grounds that there was no evidence that the dead man had not agreed to fight. I never found out what happened at the end of that.

² Queensland police.

@whswhs commented to me a while ago that he lost his last trace of interest in the “James Bond” movies in the Madagascar sequence of Casino Royale, when it became clear that Bond is not a human being but a toon.

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Make sure that with good shot placement you can get a big damage. I’ve come across rules in which knights cannot kill dragons.

You do remember that my personal domain is firedrake.org, right?

One consideration is whether the tiny weapon should be able to do the big damage in the right person’s hands. In Torg you add your margin of success to your damage, so if you stab the battleship with your dagger just right you can hope to bring it down. For me that goes over the edge from “dramatic” to “silly”. But having something that doesn’t allow that, but does still allow suitably heroic knights to kill dragons…

From the damage perspective rolemaster put a lot of work in this with each weapon affecting each armor type differently and criticals being an order of magnitude more important than cumulative concussion hits.

I have rolemaster modern weapons at home but haven’t looked at it in some time. I remember it having good covering fire rules but not much on positioning.

Greg Porter’s EABA does that. It becomes increasingly harder to seriously hurt a character by just ‘chipping away’ at them, rather than hitting them with something serious all at once.

I think you need to make up your mind early as to whether this is modelling reality, or movies, or what.

If it’s realistic then almost anything can happen in the short term. There are plenty of stories of people continuing an attack despite having had limbs amputated by bullets, though I assume they probably died later. Or there’s the case of Steve Tuffen at Goose Green.

It seems to me that in most movies, on the other hand, there are fairly clear rules as to how guns work. If someone has a gun on you then you can’t reasonably rush them, unless they are clueless or someone helpfully makes a distraction or something like that. In a gunfight, characters shelter behind whatever objects they see, which provide protection regardless of whether they would stop a bullet in real life. They poke their heads up occasionally to snap off shots. This can lead to the heroes being “pinned down”, which seems to be bad, even though none of them have been hit and enemies are dying with satisfying frequency to their front. Being pinned down demands some sort of response lest something terrible happen. Someone who wants to get something done may ask their friend to “cover them”. Heroes also run out of ammunition.

I don’t think I have ever seen an RPG that even tries to make gunfights work like they do in movies. Instead I see brief spasms of decisive violence in which shooting first wins the fight, or Lanchester’s equations. Neither of which is much fun.

I would like to see a mechanic where during a fight you establish a superior or inferior position, and if your position is inferior your options are limited. Suppressing fire ought to be crucial. The FFG idea of having a “strain” or whatever hit point track is part way toward it, but it should be a track that goes away at the end of a fight.

I think a similar mechanic would work in melee combat rules, where a fighter can be off-balance or forced into defensiveness.

Shooting models - “it’s my attack and I choose who to attack and cause damage” - are a bloodless mechanic but every RPG seems to use them.

(Among other thing)

I remember the frustration of playing Necromunda (a surprisingly good skirmish game) which had the rule that your (largely untrained) gang fighters can only attack the enemy unit closest to them.

Various thoughts…

Twilight 2013 has a rule (amidst its many, many other crunchy rules) about Threat Level during a combat. Various things added to the threat level as the fight progressed. e.g the enemy is using lethal force, one of your side has been hit, you personally have been injured, you are now outnumbered, etc. When your Threat Level was more than your Coolness Under Fire, your actions were limited to fleeing, cowering or doing a few other non-combat things. It was more crunchy than this explanation makes out!

Maschine Zeit sets out to mimic movie logic on wounds. It has 5 wound levels. But if you’ve taken a level 2 wound (for instance a minor stab wound), there are no game effects for any other level 2 wound you take (minor fall, minor burn). It’s only when you are hit by something that does level 3 or above damage (e.g. chainsaw, rifle) that new game effects kick in.

Knights not being able to kill dragons. Well that’s the movie monster thing creeping into games, or vice versa. Not only is James Bond a Terminator/toon, all dangerous animals in movies and games are either:

  1. Unstoppable killing machines which are immune to bullets (e.g. dinosaurs in Terra Nova & Jurassic World, various giant shark movies, the big aquatic predators in Blue Planet game), or

  2. Are secretly trees in disguise

I say trees, because like the Giant Redwood or Mighty Scots Pine, you have to hit them with your axe a hell of a LOT of times to make them fall over. :roll_eyes:

Now dragons may have some sort of magical protection, and many are obviously breaking the laws of physics to get airborne with their wings and body size as depicted. However, I get really miffed at ‘normal’ animals like dinosaurs, which apparently have more armour than a Glyptodon, yet can run as fast as a cheetah. Grrr.


No, it’s very simple. Mere chemical energy isn’t enough, so they run off nuclear transmutation. (This also explains the traditional blasted wasteland around a dragon’s lair.)

I think that most vaguely normal people, if they find themselves suffering from even quite a small bullet wound, will tend to sit down and say “ow” rather than carry on with what they were doing – unless it was something about which they feel really strongly, such as running away or defending their children. In other words the morale/pain checks should usually take them out of the fight before the raw damage does.

Yes. People not doing that is one of the conventions of D&D and a lot of other games that focus on combat. GURPS at least makes a small exception in having initial shock from a blow and deteriorated performance after reduction of HP. But I don’t think it has quite enough emphasis on broken morale.

I’ve met plenty of gamers who get very irked about anything that restricts them from playing their characters the exact way they want to – even something like mental disadvantages in GURPS which are quite explicit about how they work. I wonder whether that’s the D&D power fantasy thing; certainly some sort of morale system isn’t unusual in wargames.

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Perhaps it’s because wargames aren’t about a single character, whereas RPGs let you identify very closely with an alter-ego.

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Savage Worlds yet. You can be Shaken or Wounded by damage. Shaken lasts until you shake it off, Wounds are more long term. Mooks can only take 1 Wound before going unconscious (you check for death after the fight, generally) while Wild Cards (PCs and special NPCs) can take a few Wounds before dropping, with each Wound giving a -1 penalty to all actions.

The new Torg mitigates the punching a battleship to death problem by having margin of success only give bonus d6s to damage, up to two on a really good roll. The thing is, the d6s explode, so you could still theoretically get a really ridiculous damage roll an take out a helicarrier with a pea-shooter.

This IME does lead to stun-lock problems, if one side’s significant combatants outnumber the other’s.

I have always assumed it was a deliberate decision to reflect that particular kind of heroic story. The Right Person with the tiny little dagger that belonged to their grandfather can stab the armoured dragon to the heart, etc.