The Impossible Dream
#7: Assessing Damage
by Hunter Logan
Last installment, I claimed this installment would be about play samples. I changed my mind.
I think people who read this column know that play samples are scripts of a play session
and that play samples are good for demonstrating how a game works. Going on about that for a whole
installment seems like overkill, so let me sum up: Use play samples because they're good
and helpful. Now, on to something infinitely more interesting: Assessing damage in
A designer has at least four practical considerations that should underlie decisions about
damage in a game system.
Damage and Play Flow
- Complexity: The number of steps and the difficulty of completing
those steps, elements that Brian Gleichman calls Complexity of Implementation. As
a designer, you can make the means for handling damage as simple or complex as you like.
- Lethality: The amount of punishment a character can take before
falling out of action. In a very lethal implementation, players might actually avoid combat because of the real
threat to a character's life. In a less lethal implementation, players might want to fight a lot, especially
if fighting is rewarded.
- Realism: The true-to-life aspects of damage in the game. A
realistic implementation will bring results that approximate what would happen in the real world.
In that respect, greater realism brings increased lethality. Yet, I maintain that producing truly
realistic results is extremely difficult. The best a designer can do is to produce
consistent, believable results.
- Satisfaction: The player's satisfaction with the methods and
results for handling damage. Satisfaction is an intangible result and not strictly limited to
issues of damage assessment.
Like any other aspect of an rpg, the rules and mechanical processes for handling damage can be expressed
through play flow. A lot of this overlaps with rules for combat, but I've decided not to approach
combat as a subset of game rules for two reasons. First, I think most people have their own ideas about
how combat should run. I don't really know what I could add to that. Second, combat is not the only time
characters give or receive damage. So, I want to concentrate on the ways and means for assessing damage.
Here is an example:
Two Specific Issues
- Event: A character is faced with an otherworldly horror, a creature so bizarre and disgusting that no words
could express the reality of seeing it.
- Decision: The player doesn't want his character looking at any horrific monstrosities. He declares,
"I try to get the hell out of there as fast as I can, and without looking at that thing!"
- Device (unopposed): The GM has the player roll dice to see whether or not the character looked directly at
the monster while the GM rolls dice to see if the monster looked directly at the character.
- Evaluation: The player rolls poorly while the GM rolls pretty well. The monster and the character
look at each other.
- Device (opposed): Looking into the face of such a monster can cause a person to go insane. Thus, the
player must roll against the monster's effect to avoid psychological damage. This is an opposed die roll.
- Evaluation: The player rolls against the GM and the monster wins. The GM determines that the character
takes 9 points of Horror against his Stability attribute. The character runs off in a panic,
screaming the whole way.
I want to address two specific issues related to damage: Armor and the death spiral.
Designers decide how armor will protect a character. I have seen three common
methods for treating armor. The methods can be combined as desired.
The Death Spiral:
- Makes the target harder to hit: This idea causes consternation for some people, because good
armor is heavy and wearing heavy armor should make a person easier to hit. Yet, good armor should make it
harder for opponents to injure the person wearing it. So, making the character harder to hit as a result
of wearing armor is one way to abstract the entire relationship. The trouble is, a miss might not really
mean an opponent missed. It might just mean an opponent's blow bounced off the character's armor.
- Reduces the damage inflicted: This idea seems to make people happy. This way, good armor
can be heavy. It can even make the person wearing the armor an easy target, but the armor will absorb some (if
not all) incoming damage.
- Absorbs damage until destroyed: This idea always struck me as being very strange. Armor should be
destructible. It's just that most designers who treat armor this way fix it so that the
armor takes all the damage until it's completely destroyed. Then, its value as protection is
completely gone. I think it's better to treat the armor as a means for reducing damage; but after so many hits,
the armor becomes less effective. Eventually, the armor will need repair or it will wear away to nothing.
Each time a character takes damage, the character becomes weaker and easier
to kill. Death spirals are often enforced with loss of character ability and penalties to the die roll.
As a designer, you have to decide for yourself whether or not a death spiral is appropriate for
The Deal with Damage
Damage is a universal phenomenon in rpgs. Most every game has rules for hurting PCs,
smashing monsters, and destroying stuff. The means for doing that are part of the game's rules.
The best way to figure things out is to answer questions.
- What sort of damage will the players have to track?
- How is damage inflicted?
- How is damage quantified?
- What effect does damage have on the recipient?
- How is damage avoided or reduced?
- How is damage repaired?
Not all damage is the same. The sword slash that hurts the body is different from
the bad news that damages the psyche or the blast of ghostly energy that pierces the
character's very soul. In the end, I think designers choose from four types of damage:
Means of Inflicting Damage
- Physical harm is simply damage to the character's body. This happens when
a character is shot, stabbed, smashed with heavy objects. This may result in bruises, contusions,
broken bones, assorted internal injuries and a whole lot of pain. Physical harm is by far the most
common sort of damage in rpgs. It may affect the character's ability to do things.
- Psychological harm is damage to the character's psyche. This is practically guaranteed to
any character in a Call of Cthulhu game. This may cause the character to lose
his grip on reality or just go insane. Psychological harm is less common than physical harm,
but it shows up in a surprising number of rpgs.
- Spiritual harm is damage to the character's very essence, spirit, soul, or whatever. This most
often happens to characters that leave their bodies behind and project themselves into other dimensions;
but certain monsters in various games are capable of bypassing the body to inflict direct spiritual harm.
- Material loss is damage to or loss of a character's stuff. This happens whenever a weapon breaks,
a crash trashes a vehicle, or a character loses the use of any piece of equipment. Players like
to give their characters toys, and sometimes those toys get broken.
There are plenty of ways to inflict damage, but most of them fit in four categories.
- Weapons include fists, feet, and any sort of tool or device intended to kill people and blow
stuff up. These are a primary means of inflicting damage in many games.
- Character Ability includes cast spells, psionics, or any other means a character can use to
project or trigger an effect without a weapon.
- Unknown forces include all the creatures of dream and nightmare that may or may not exist in the
game world. Even seeing one of these things might be enough to harm a character, though it might be enough
for the unknown forces to see the character.
- Player decision includes all the things a player decides to have the character do in the game.
Certain decisions may damage the character, but the player will have the character do these
things anyway. This is a causal relationship that usually has more to do with psychological or spiritual
damage than physical damage; but anything is possible. A character that uses performance-enhancing drugs
may develop a dependency; a character with too much cyberware may edge toward psychosis; and a character
who delves too deeply into the Necronomicon will surely go insane.
Once the means for inflicting damage are decided, a designer needs means for quantifying damage.
Here are some possibilities.
- Hit points express damage as an abstract unit. No one really knows how much damage
a hit point represents. For a small creature with a few hit points, a single hit point of
damage is a serious wound. For a powerful monster with dozens of hit points, a
single hit point of damage is a scratch. It doesn't even really matter how much
damage a hit point represents. All that matters is one simple relationship: The more
hit points a character has, the more punishment he can endure.
- Attribute reductions express damage as a direct reduction in the recipient's
attributes. A light wound might reduce a single attribute by a point or two. Serious
wounds may cause several attributes to drop simultaneously. Of course, this is really
just a variation on hit points. Instead of subtracting the damage from a pool
of points, the player subtracts the damage from his character's attributes.
The big difference here is that an effect is immediate. Lowering an attribute
reduces the character's capabilities.
- Damage monitors express damage in levels with descriptors. They are represented
as a table on the character sheet. A light wound might count as a bruise or scratch.
Mortal wounds put the character near death.
- Descriptions express damage verbally. This might well be the most explicit way to express
damage. It is often used to support other methods of damage measurement.
- Combinations allow the designer to use more than one method to produce a more
complex, more complete method of quantifying damage. A designer might combine hit points with verbal
descriptions or damage monitors with attribute reductions, and so on.
Once the damage is measured, it usually has some mechanical effect. Here are some possibilities.
Avoiding and Reducing Damage
- Reduced Resource: Many games include some sort of damage-absorbing resource, such as hit points.
Damage causes a reduction in the resource. When the resource is completely spent, the character falls out
- Special effect: The damage produces a specific effect with undesirable consequences.
Special effects may make a character extremely vulnerable using results such as stunning,
holding, petrification, or loss of limbs. They might also radically affect a character's behavior,
inspiring fear, confusion, or changes in allegiance.
- Reduced abilities: As the character takes damage, the character suffers a reduction or
loss of abilities. This is a real problem. As the character's abilities are reduced, his
likelihood of suffering further damage increases. This results in a death spiral.
- Increased abilities: As the character takes damage, the character's abilities actually
increase. I haven't seen this in too many games, but it seems the idea is to make characters
more determined to succeed, more motivated, and more dangerous as they approach the end.
- Altered player decision: As the character takes damage, the player may have to alter his plans
or make decisions about the plight of the character. A player has many motivations and the situation
certainly plays a part, but adding damage to the equation may make the player more cautious, more daring,
or more willing to sacrifice the character.
In game terms, damage is usually best avoided. If a character can't avoid taking damage, the player can
at least take steps to reduce the amount of damage. Of course, a lot of this is up to you as the designer.
You can provide the means for reducing or avoiding damage as part of your game design. Here are some
- Character Ability: The designer provides abilities that allow characters to reduce or
avoid damage. A very stealthy or invisible character may be able to vanish from enemy view. A very fast
character may be able to dodge attacks. A heavy, thick-skinned character may be able to ignore or absorb
attacks. A very skilled character may be able to outmaneuver enemies, never giving them the opportunity
to do any harm.
- Expendable resources: The designer provides hero points or other expendable resources that
allow characters to avoid or reduce the damage taken in a situation.
- Equipment: The character employs a startling array of equipment for reducing damage including
personal armor, energy shields, magical rings, potions, spells, or advanced technology that allows
a character to avoid taking damage. All this stuff has the net effect of increasing character ability.
- Player Decisions: The best way to avoid damage is to stay out of situations that result in
damage. That includes combat and the dark, terrible places in many game worlds. Of course, the GM
might have something to say about that. If the situation is unavoidable, some characters may still
choose not to participate. Players can always have characters hide, run away, or surrender in order
to avoid the situation. The designer can't really control player decisions, but the decisions
a designer makes about damage will influence player decisions. If characters can take a lot of damage
without much trouble, the player might make different decisions than he would if character performance
really starts to suffer after just one or two hits.
Once characters take damage, players will want some way to make repairs. This might
also extend to pets, vehicles and other important equipment, because a player may consider
a character's pet, vehicle, or equipment as an important aspect of the character. Thus, when
any of these take damage, the player will want to repair them, as well.
- Time: Given time, most wounds heal. Depending on the wound or circumstances in the game world,
the character may suffer some sort of permanent effect as a result of the injury.
- Expendable Resources: The player may be able to spend points or use disposable
items such as healing potions or stim packs to heal the character's wounds.
- Character Ability: Just as a character may have the ability to inflict damage, a character
might also have the ability to repair damage. Doing this may or may not require parts and equipment.
- Extraordinary Means: When the inflicted damage is beyond normal means for repair,
the player may still have options. The GM may thoughtfully provide more extensive healing and/or repair
facilities for rebuilding characters or vehicles, such as hospitals and dry docks.
Designers can really tweak game play by choosing appropriate methods of assessing damage. This is
an important part of an rpg design; and good design is a matter of conscious thought, logical choices,
and deliberate decisions. I can't tell you how you should design your games; that's up to you. All
I can do is offer a way of thinking about design. I'm interested in your opinions about this article;
so don't be shy about posting. Next time, I'll go one step further and talk about designing death
into a game. Thanks for reading.