Damage, A Game Mechanic

We, as gamers, are obsessed with combat and especially the way our characters take damage. If we haven’t been specifically trying to create a game where physical harm doesn’t come the characters’ way, we incorporate one damage mechanic or another to our system.

Me too. Of all the rules components in New Horizons, damage mechanics have gone through the biggest changes throughout the design process. Despite my efforts to keep combat as secondary element as possible, I’ve focused on it a lot.

Damage and Doom tokens on Move cards

I started with a system that was just Hit Points. Damage is an abstract arbitrary number that goes down on a hit and up when healed. Simple. Fast. A model for combat where you go in a dangerous situation with some numbers and come out with some others, and the actual events of the combat don’t reflect mechanically on the greater story.

But a “black box” combat system trivializes violence. Actions need consequences. In New Horizons, combat is a bad thing. So, I re-did the damage system. This time modeling it after Vampire: The Masquerade. As I have implied before, the redeeming qualities of White Wolf‘s Storyteller system are few to none. I admit I chose it because of familiarity.

Having a mechanical penalty from damage was a simple way to give concrete effects for characters getting hurt. It also allowed me to highlight the teamwork that’s central in New Horizons – you were allowed to ignore the penalties from wounds if you worked together with someone or someone patched you up. Damage was brutal enough. I felt happy and proud.

Now. This would have been the final version if I hadn’t been playing in an Exalted game where I was on the receiving end of White Wolf’s damage system working as intended. That is, working horribly. My character got injured early in the game and I spent the rest of the campaign being pretty much useless, since even small penalties can cause a horrible tilt to the capability to perform anything.

This, combined with the Moves, where success also determines narrative responsibility was horrible. Roll penalties from getting damaged result in a spiral of darkness in the story that would be almost impossible to escape.

So I redesigned. Stole basics from Apocalypse World, and then did the rest of the system myself. When your character is harmed, a Move triggers to see what actually happens. This is to keep me, as a Game Master, from being too calculative with the way I deal out damage. Things can go much worse than I planned.

When the player marks down a point of harm, they assign it to a previously unharmed Stat. When a character triggers a Move that uses a harmed Stat, they have the same success rate as always, but if they act alone, they trigger additional consequences from their actions if they draw a black card from the deck while making the Move. That’s about 60% chance of the GM getting an extra consequence from your Moves if you do them unassisted. If some other character helps you with what you’re doing, it negates the possibility, making teamwork integral at the later parts of a mission when characters have taken damage.

In story terms, the harm marked in Stats is non-remarkable. Bruises and shock. Any character can heal these from another with something on the level of a good pep talk. A successful healing move marks harm in Stats as “healed”, which means the worst edge of that harm has been dealt with. But you can’t mark another harm on a “healed” Stat, and there is still a possibility of consequences if you trigger a Move with it while acting solo. But only if you draw a blue card from the deck.

Once you’ve marked five of the character’s Stats either as harmed or healed, the next time you take a point of harm, it’s Critical. Critical harm is the point where you need actual medical attention, and fast. Getting to Critical triggers another Move and that can cause lots of long term badness (that I didn’t use in the Tutorial, in case my players reading this are wondering) and after that point, you have to apply the black card rule to all Moves you make.

When you get injured while Critically hurt, you’re out. Killed. Dead. While I am one of those people who love long-term character-centric stories, I didn’t want to remove death as a real system-generated possibility. Horror stories are not horror stories if there is no possibility of the ultimate ending. Keeping the stakes real.

As with most system components, damage is there to give the right flavor for your game. Using this particular damage system for many other games I have ran would have been a terrible mistake. Every game needs things that work for them, not things that work for some other game.

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