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A War of Attrition

What you hope to see when you take out the big bad…

Roleplaying games are this sometimes weird mix of game and storytelling. In old games, story was almost a reluctant side effect of the game’s mechanics, so trying to recapture the magic of certain types of stories in RPGs could be a struggle. Over the years, RPGs have gotten much better about designing mechanics that facilitate the style of story the creators intended, but there are still some areas that struggle to seamlessly merge the line between game and story. For this particular article, I’m pondering on damage mechanics and how they work against the heroes’ last-minute triumph in the final fight.

In many of the stories that inspire our games, the climactic battle finds the heroes getting a severe beatdown from their antagonists, but just as it looks like the villain is going to win, they suddenly find it within themselves to do something spectacular to win. Whether the hero has an epiphany about why they do what they do, or they realize if they fail everyone they love will pay the price, or perhaps they suddenly put together how they can use the villain’s weakness against them, or whatever the reason, they dramatically dig down into themselves and find the reserves to save the day.

Thing is, most RPGs handle damage as attrition of resources. Either you’re losing points off of some kind of health meter or you’re losing the ability to do the things listed on your character sheet. In D&D, you lose hit points. Mutants & Masterminds saps at your ability to stay in the fight by piling up negatives on your roll to resist damage. Savage Worlds also piles on the negatives and leaches away your precious bennies. Various PbtA games use one variation or the other. Masks piles on the negatives as the characters get emotionally battered. Dungeon World essentially has hit points. By the time you reach that pivotal, climactic moment in an RPG, the chances of the character being able to actually land a spectacular finishing blow are often minuscule and not nearly as dramatic as the stories we’re trying to emulate.

This isn’t to say that this type of dramatic moment never occurs in games. Many of the most memorable games people have in their repertoire of gaming war stories involve moments like these. But they tend to be happy accidents rather than purposefully crafted by the mechanics of the game. 

This isn’t to say that this type of dramatic moment never occurs in games. Many of the most memorable games people have in their repertoire of gaming war stories involve moments like these. But they tend to be happy accidents rather than purposefully crafted by the mechanics of the game.

Now, not every fight in a game needs to or should follow that style of story trope. Sometimes a fight is just a fight and whatever happens is fine. Also, not every player or GM cares about capturing the essence of story as much as I do. I’ll admit it is kind of an obsession on my part. Most of the mechanics we have for damage in games work fine, I just get a little frustrated during those final boss fights when the damage mechanics discourage players from leaning into the drama of the story and going for those big, bold moves.

I don’t really have a particular solution in mind to this issue. I could stick to strongly narrative games where the rules encourage leaning into the drama of the story, but to be completely honest, I find myself sitting in the middle between indie narrative games and traditional playstyles. I’m trying desperately to make some sort of mash-up between the two into my preferred style of game.

I do have a little bit of advice for anyone else pondering these things too:

Players, recognize the tools the game offers to help you along the way and try saving those for the big moments of the game. Many games have some kind of mechanic in place to get a boost or a reroll, so as a player, the key is to just recognize the right moment to utilize that mechanic. It can be tempting to use it on your first failure, but they’ll be more satisfying to use when the stakes are at their highest. The dice might still be fickle and still stymie that awesome moment, but at least you stand a better chance than if you’d spent them on something trivial.

GMs, if you’re interested in encouraging this type of drama in your big boss fights, there are things you can do to help your players go for the big finish. You know your game and campaign better than anyone, so you’ll have the best understanding of when a fight has dramatic importance to the game’s story. Throw yourself into narrating the set up and emphasize the importance of the fight. Heck, pretend you’re backed by dramatic music and you’ll probably get the right feel. In addition, don’t be afraid of rewarding your players for creative thinking or dramatic roleplaying. It’s not going to break the mechanics to toss them a bonus to the roll, another inspiration point, or more bennies. That last minute reward can be enough to make the player throw their character into the fight with renewed vigor.

Damage mechanics may be a war of attrition on character resources, but you can still find ways to make those final fights dramatically worthy of movie’s climactic scene. What methods do you use to try and encourage that big, bold finale?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "A War of Attrition"

#1 Comment By rycfyjvg On September 21, 2018 @ 4:54 am

Big bad maybe are beyond hit points and defeating them is about using knowledge, items, positioning and timing.

To kill the red dragon lord you can’t beat it up – it melts armies with its breath. The fight is in the high kings castle the inner courtyard a death zone and the heroes scramble to defeat this menace. Puny swords and magic are near useless until the rogue has an idea.

A quick huddle and a desperate plan is set. Distracting attacks let the rogue get close enough to attempt to blind the beast which fails and the dragons wrath is upon her. Flames erupt and she dances on air avoiding them magics flaring around het. She heads for the gates hoping to escape the now rushing dragon. She is incredibly fast thanks to a potion and heads out the gates. The dragon sticks it’s neck through to eat her. The dwarf brothers and the old barbarian thier Strength almost spent let the great portculis go smacking and I’m paling the dragons neck. it’s writes and dies foiled by a trick and timing.

#2 Comment By Lugh On September 21, 2018 @ 9:22 am

There are, of course, dozens of specific pieces of advice that could be offered here, and dozens of specific game mechanics that could be called out. I’m going to call out a couple.

First, your point about bennies is a good one. This kind of narrative is precisely what the drama dice/fate point/action dice/etc. mechanic is supposed to support. Making a success happen when it matters the most. You need to find the fine line between spending your bennies too freely so that you win the inconsequential fights but lose the important ones, and hoarding them to the point that you never make it to the important fights or make it through the important fights with still a fistful of bennies in the bank. This has far more to do with understanding your GM than it does understanding the game mechanics.

Second, the GM can do a lot to strongly enable these moments. One of the classics is to make the damage to the villain invisible. She laughs as she casually parries your thrust. Your bullets bounce off his armor while he monologues at you. But mechanically, the damage is racking up. When the final blow lands, you switch the description up to the hero’s final desperate blow penetrating the defenses against all odds. Mechanically, it was just the hit that scratched off the final dozen hit points. Narratively, it was the only blow to prove that is was only nigh invulnerability.

Third, this is a good time to use invisible teamwork, too. A good example for this is Disney’s Three Musketeers (the one with Chris O’Donnell). The group gets split up. D’Artagnan is in a desperate, emotionally fraught duel with Rochefort. He’s been disarmed. At the last second, Constance, hiding on the stairs, hands him back his sword. Sure, maybe that’s Chris spending a fate point for his character. But maybe it’s also Kiefer recognizing that Athos doesn’t need the fate points he racked up for all his compels regarding De Winter, and he spends one to help out D’Artagnan. Normally, you aren’t supposed to spend fate points on scenes you aren’t in. But big climax scenes are ones where those kind of rules should be relaxed.

On a similar note, Fate introduced to me the idea of using bump-set-spike in combat. It’s not something that D&D supports well, but I’ve noticed it popping up in other more modern games. The idea is that you will have party members that just aren’t that great at combat. But they can contribute by taking actions like distracting the big bad (q.v., Star Lord at the end of GotG), giving the hero a rousing speech, or dealing some minor damage that creates an opening for a bigger attack (like a hostage stomping on the villain’s foot). Rather than having these actions deal damage of their own, they either give the hero a bonus or the villain a penalty. Then the super combat hero gathers up these bonuses to deliver the climactic blow.

#3 Comment By Rob Abrazado On September 21, 2018 @ 10:02 am

I’m thinking that to mechanically support the pursuit of that kind of dramatic finishing battle, it’s not unreasonable to make that literally a part of the system itself, to treat those fights differently. Like…imagine as a GM you’re ramping up to a climactic fight to end the session, and you get to declare, “Boss fight!” The players settle in; they know it’s serious! And now a new suite of rules activates! When a PC takes damage, they get a bonus on their next roll! Death is suspended until the fight ends! Lots of other things with exclamation points! I Maybe it’s less about finding one system to straddle the line between the things you’re trying to mash up, and more about literally just switching to a different style when the time comes in the game. If you want mechanics to support your kind of story, make mechanics that support your kind of story! 🙂

Like, imagine you’re playing a normal D&D session. You’ve been dungeon crawling, fallen down a few pit traps, killed a few goblins, drank a few potions, looted a little loot. Now you’ve finally made your way to the center. You’re down a few hit points, a few arrows, a few spell slots, but you kick the doors open anyway, because you’re adventurers. Your DM speaks. “All right, listen up. There are no more hit points. Tell me what actions you’re taking, but we only roll for the epic, dramatic moves. If you hit, you hit. Five hits take out Big Bad. If you miss, make a death save. If you fail, you take a killing blow meant for someone else, make a whispered, heartfelt speech to them, and then die in their arms. They get a bonus on their next roll. If you succeed the death save, say which major magic item you own saved your life and describe how it did it, lose the item, and get back to the fight. Once during the battle, you can automatically succeed a death save by describing a brief speech or flashback revealing why the fight is personal for your character. Everyone ready? BOSS FIGHT!”

#4 Comment By Steve Rakner On September 21, 2018 @ 12:33 pm

The first thing that comes to my mind is, maybe a different system would be more appealing for these cases. Fate has a great lightweight damage system dealing with Wounds and Consequences. This leads to much faster-paced combat, where characters wounds aren’t healed the second their head hits the pillow. Another system that comes to mind is Seventh Sea with “Dramatic Wounds” (Although I haven’t gotten a chance to play it yet.) Some systems just lend themselves better to narrative-based combat.

To make high HP systems more narrative, I think you hit the nail on the head when you were talking about the Big Bad monologuing. Having the damage still apply, while it narratively does nothing is a perfect way to start an intense battle, showing his strength. However, I think you can expand by taking it one step further.

Typically in systems like D&D, I like to incorporate what I’ve started to call Combat by Scenes. Think of boss battles in video games, when you’re attacking they start out with some level of difficulty, and specific moves. Then after they take a quarter of their HP in damage, they change. They move faster, have different moves, sometimes they will throw your character to a new location and the terrain changes around them.

I find that the real problem with high-HP systems is the monotony of “I attack, roll damage”. Really, you don’t have to break that formula or change much to break the monotony, all you need to do is make the fight *feel* fresh or new a few times during the fight.

#5 Comment By Mike P. On September 27, 2018 @ 11:18 am

This sounds like a job for Tenra Bansho Zero!

It’s the only RPG I’ve seen where there is actually a REVERSE Death Spiral. Characters have four damage types: Vitality, Light Wounds, Heavy Wounds, and Critical Wounds. Whenever they take damage, they may allocate it however they like among all their damage boxes.

Vitality is what determines whether you are still in the fight — when you run out of Vitality, you are KO’d or otherwise taken out (but explicitly NOT killed, more on this later.) Vitality comes back extremely quickly — once the scene is over, all vitality is restored and everyone gets back up. Vitality is your “will to fight” essentially.
Light Wounds are just extra boxes you can check that come back slower than Vitality. You won’t generally get your Light Wounds back unless something happens to heal you. Light Wounds are cuts and scrapes and bruises and dramatic cheek cuts.
Heavy Wounds are not just extra boxes that take a longer time to heal. If your character takes a Heavy Wound, they get +1 die on everything from there out… until it gets healed. Heavy Wounds represent relatively serious injuries.
Critical Wounds are worse and better. When your character takes a Critical Wound, they get +2 dice on everything until that wound is healed. They also “bleed” one Vitality per round, so now the stakes are higher! (Though you can’t collapse/self KO from this Vitality loss.) Critical Wounds are the icky chest wounds that make you cough up blood that anime protagonists seem to survive anyway.

Since the player determines what boxes to check, they get to decide how invested they are in this fight. If they want, they can just take all their damage as Vitality, and let the fight go to the enemy, and then pick themselves up and deal with the consequences. Or they can take some combination of wounds and have a better chance of winning, at the cost of a reduced damage pool later (and/or higher pressure from Critical Wounds.)

And then. Then there’s the Dead Box.

Unlike other damage types, each PC has One And Only One Dead Box. Anytime your character takes damage, you have the option of checking that box. This negates ALL the damage from that one hit, and gives you +3 dice on all rolls until the box is cleared (Which is easy outside of combat, but nearly impossible in combat). The downside? Now if your character runs out of Vitality, they are dead. Maybe you’ll get to have a dramatic death monologue after the fight, but you’ll be dead by the end of the scene if you run out of Vitality. So you have to ask yourself. Is this a fight my character is willing to die for?

This is only one of the two awesome systems in this game — the other is the Aiki/Karma system (aka “the Zero System”) which is what you would get if Savage Worlds bennies had an anime training montage and then went Super Saiyan. Oh, and they’re driven by your character doing the stuff they believe in.

So if this is a problem you want to solve, you should get yourself a copy of Tenra Bansho Zero, because it has solved it.