Grand Adventure and Damage

A couple of posts called “What’s Your Damage” are up, but not public. I want to talk about consequences, wounds, harm, damage, hit points, whatever you want to call it, and how Grand Adventure deals with the underlying issues that these posts discuss.

What problem are you trying to solve?

From part one of the article:

“Watching Indiana Jones would suck if every time he got clocked he just fell over unconscious. But it would also suck if every time the bad guys shot him he just grit his coughed and wiped the blood off his chin. It would also suck if every time Indy was shot he just didn’t get hit at all, but a sudden, mind-blowing revelation in the plot happened.”

I agree with all these things. We don’t need to agree that all Challenges will play like this, only that we ought to organically get this outcome when we play a lot of the time. So where does that leave us?

  1. Plausibility: Indy needs to emerge from a Challenge battered but functional.
  2. Vulnerability: Indy can’t be seen as invulnerable, either mechanically or narratively.
  3. Endurance: By extension, Indy can’t just keep doing his thing until he wins. There must be a point where he needs to stop, reverse course, or accept some other compromise.
  4. Scale: Bigger Challenges should logically be scarier threats to the PCs. The drama should logically escalate the scale until a payoff is achieved.

In short, the question is an economic one: "what am I trading now and what do I then get, or give up, later?" It’s a barter across time for some mixture of narrative and mechanical outcomes.

Solving these problems with damage systems

The problems of Plausibility and Vulnerability are the reasons we typically think “hey, our game needs a damage system”. We understand that hit points provide these things during play, and our first instinct is to include them for that reason. Grand Adventure leaves Plausibility in the hands of the narrative, because Challenges can result in any number of consequences. Vulnerability is achieved by making players spend dice from their Pools for every Action they take, and tuning Action costs to ensure that there’s a net drain on Pools in a typical Challenge.

Damage tries to solve the problem of Endurance from one direction: the end. “You take action, but you receive damage,” a game will say. "Take enough damage, and you can’t take action any more." Grand Adventure starts from the other end. “You can’t repeat any action you’ve taken already,” it says. “If you punched the guy, you can’t keep punching him forever. Find something else to do, or find another way to punch him.”

Typical damage systems mean you take more damage from bigger threats, fulfilling the problem of Scale. In Grand Adventure, Scale is provided by difficulty rating and endurance. Higher difficulty costs more dice, while more endurance costs more Actions or more dice. Because your Pool dice are limited, you’ll automatically need to dip into Twists more often to progress through a tougher Challenge.

Good or bad, now or later

Going back to the economic reframing, we can ask a few things about what we trade now and what we trade later.

Are they primarily mechanical, or narrative? Are they good for the PC, or bad for the PC? Are they long-lasting, or temporary? How does the player feel about this?

Let’s look at Dungeons & Dragons hit points as an example. In D&D, you lose hit points now to continue fighting, and you must get healing later (or sooner, depending). Healing comes from cleric spells, rest at the inn, potions, or whatever. HP loss is primarily mechanical, and many forms of HP recovery are as well. Both now and later are negative - losing HP is bad, spending spell slots or healing potions is bad, resting at the inn takes time, whatever. Finally, there’s no benefit to the player to lose or regain HP, other than the sense of danger and risk. Your character is on the line. But if you lose too much HP, your story might be over.

Grand Adventure assumes that what’s bad for the character doesn’t have to be bad for the player. Players spend dice from their Pools, or from Twists that they accept from the MC. A Twist might be something like “you do a thing, but there’s a cost or complication”. Another Twist might be “you did a thing especially creatively, so unexpected things emerge”. Regardless, taking a Twist gives you dice, which makes your action more successful - in the mechanical sense. Even if the Ogre swats you away as you run to attack, you the player are still rewarded by making progress through the Challenge. So what you get now is positive. There’s also no lingering mechanical elements, like Fate Aspects. You get your dice, you roll them, you’re done.

Twists come with conditions. “If you fall into the slime-soaked waterfall, you’ll get sick later”. That’s now a true thing, and it will affect the direction the story goes. The player gets to negotiate that Twist with the MC, and players can reject Twists without penalty. Thus, if that condition happens, the player has bought into it. Making this work is contingent on both player and MC agreeing on a given Twist’s condition. However, that’s the same sort of negotiation that happens all the time in any RPG.

Going back to Indy

So let’s go back to Indiana Jones, and see if this works for him. We’ll create him as a Clever Determined Adventurer, giving him starter Words: Resist, Avoid (two stars), and Outwit.

There’s a golden idol in the cave, and Indy wants it. The first part of the cave is filled with spiders, snakes, traps, and all manner of ickiness, but the main thrust of it is that it’s creepy. Indy Resists the Challenge as his first Action, spending two dice and getting 2 and 2 - enough to pay for “Resist”. “One of my competitors was in here,” Indy says. "What if there’s more shenanigans waiting?" That sounds interesting to the MC, and this Twist’s dice pay for the Challenge itself. Indy gets 1 die back for his one-star rating on Resist.

There’s more traps, and the idol itself is on a pedestal that will trigger poison darts. This time, Indy Outwits it, using a bag of sand. Indy’s only got one die to roll of his own, and he’ll need a minimum of two. “You set off another trap, but you can keep hold of the idol,” the MC says. Indy rolls a 4, paying for Outwit, and this Twist gives him enough dice to pay off the Challenge too. He gets one die back, leaving him still at one.

The MC announces that the final trap is a giant stone ball! Indy can’t effectively Resist it anyway, and he’s already Outwitted the Challenge. Nothing left to do but run! “Avoid Trapped Cave” is Indy’s last Action, and he rolls his one die. "You’ll get out of the cave, but you lose something valuable in the process," the MC says. Some negotiation leads to a betrayal by Indy’s NPC, Sapito, who is then killed by the earlier traps. Outside, the player has another suggestion. "Hey, I set up a rival earlier. What if there’s another one? If I have to lose the idol, I want it to be to a guy that I could get it back from later." The MC agrees, and Belloq is the result.

Indy gets two dice back, because Avoid has two stars, so he’s now at full Resolve again. But he lost what he came to get, and the cave was a series of near misses. He’s battered but functional; he definitely wasn’t invulnerable; and he never once spammed his best skill or highest stat. Every moment of the Challenge was different.

I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty good about this turn of events.

Conclusion

In short, if Twists work as intended, the economic exchange will be a mechanical benefit at the moment it’s made, in trade for a narrative penalty (or benefit) later. The voluntary nature of Twists should ensure the player feels good about them.

Because Twists aren’t a negative consequence for taking action, but a positive reinforcement for succeeding at an action which then drives additional story, they can feel like a reverse of traditional damage systems while still trying to solve the same sorts of problems.