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Wind in the Flowers: Re-inventing a Game

Systems Change

R. Sean Borgstrom
February 13, 2002  
The new edition of Nobilis needed a stronger combat system. The game itself does not depend on action or physical conflict, but stories of combat play a big part in roleplaying games and speculative fiction in general. I consider the old combat resolution system a bit weak, and that's unfortunate. Many people enjoy roleplaying combat a great deal. So we revised the system for greater usability and excitement.

In building a new combat system, I set out to avoid a phenomenon I think of as "the death of a thousand cuts." In many roleplaying combat systems, if you bruise or nick a character seven, or twenty, or even a hundred and fifty times, the character eventually falls over dead. With proper design, such systems are realistic. Properly managed, they can produce dramatic results. But I don't like this phenomenon in Nobilis.

Characters in Nobilis transcend biology. Even ordinary humans have a mythic, spiritual element to their nature. The Nobilis, the main protagonists and standard PCs, have a bit of the divine in them as well. If the immortal spirit plays as large a role in sustaining life as proper liver and kidney function, slow accumulation of minor mechanical damage shouldn't kill a character off.

The first principle of the new combat system is simple. It should always take at least one significant blow to bring a character down. An assortment of scratches does not suffice to kill someone. There must be an actual mortal wound.

Other systems have implemented this idea. Traditionally, a character can take an arbitrary amount of damage in these systems, with normal deleterious effects, but cannot die without taking a level of the deadliest form of damage.

In a way, such games reprise the "death spiral" seen in various early and modern systems. The more damaged a character becomes, the easier it becomes to suffer further damage. Eventually, the character falls to the center of the spiral - incapacitation or death. Healthy characters are extremely hard to kill, however fell the blow. After taking a few hard knocks, however, the character becomes vulnerable.

Realistically, this makes sense. Certainly, very few character types actually get better at avoiding damage when they become wounded. The talent is rare and specific and, in Nobilis, players should purchase the talent as a player-designed Gift. It does not belong in the main combat system. The death spiral also makes dramatic sense. Systems built around a death spiral tend to make sure that characters do survive one or two blows before death. Finally, it makes the character's injury more real for the players if it has a mechanical impact on the game.

The standard death spiral bothers me, however, for the same reason that nicking and scraping characters to death does. As characters descend the spiral, it becomes ever easier to inflict that fatal blow. This undermines the purpose of requiring at least one significant attack. To me, if someone beats a character into helplessness with a series of minor blows, and then finishes them off at leisure with a gun held against their eye, it's not the gunfire that killed them. It's the minor beating that left them unable to stop their enemy from shooting their head point blank.

The first unusual element of Nobilis' new combat system works as follows. It's not the last blow that must be particularly lethal to take one of the Nobilis down. Taking a deadly wound isn't the final indignity for a player character. Instead, a character begins to suffer the game mechanical effects of damage when they take their first terrible injury.

From a traditional perspective, Nobilis' new death spiral curls backwards. A character has one to three Deadly wound levels. When they suffer a truly horrible wound -- damage to the heart, a terrible fall, a bullet to the head, serious burns, a lightning strike -- they lose one such wound level. Until they run out of Deadly wound levels, lesser damage has no game effect. A character also has a few Serious wound levels. After they run out of Deadly wound levels, significant damage costs them a Serious wound level.

Finally, characters have a few Surface wound levels. When they run out of Deadly and then Serious wound levels, even a modest knocking around costs them a Surface wound level. When they run out of those, they die. Characters have between four and nine levels all told.

Before I discuss this any further, I must admit to one obvious flaw. It is unintuitive for mortal characters to completely ignore any number of Serious wounds received while they still have a Deadly wound level remaining. You can lay open all their limbs with a knife, cut their stomach, shoot their feet, spray them with mildly toxic gas, hurl them into a cloud of angry wasps and then roll them through a fireplace and they'll still be good to go. Not just fit and unimpaired -- they won't lose even a single Serious wound level, since they still have a Deadly wound level left.

I don't have a solution for this. It's an intrinsic part of the system. I do have some reasons to think it's acceptable, however. From the dramatic perspective, when a character suffers a Deadly wound level, it serves as the "cue" to the audience -- the players -- that the character is now genuinely at risk.

For those more oriented on realistic results, you might wish to think of the miraculous energy that pervades the Nobilis as "ablative vitality." Their sheer natural health simply transcends damage insufficient to inflict a wound level. Like physical armor, a Nobilis' vitality must be pierced before the Noble themselves can suffer impairment.

From my perspective, and hopefully the players', this wound system has one significant virtue. The damage that characters suffer is "honest." In a traditional death spiral, when a character takes a trivial wound early on, it could mean the difference between life and death later. In this system, a character cannot suffer a trivial wound until they are on their last legs -- when they know exactly how much closer to death it brings them.

Consequentially, when the characters take that deadly wound dramatically necessary to bring them close to death, they have time to react to that information. This honesty does reduce risk, but the person running the game can compensate with increased danger. It also reduces chaos, allowing both players and those running games greater control over the game world.

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What do you think?


Other columns at RPGnet

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