I’ve been playing Echo Bazaar pretty constantly since I started a couple of months ago, and it’s what brought this to mind for me, but Samhaine pointed out that Smallville did the same, and as I thought about it I realized that it’s not a new idea, I just happen to really like Echo Bazaar’s implementation of it. At the same time, I’ve been thinking about different ways to fix the save-or-die spells and effects that so dominate high-level 3.x D&D. An increasing number of indie games are embracing the inclusion of multiple damage tracks: ways other than just hit points to knock a character out of action, lethally or non-lethally, without creating a single save-or-die situation.
Smallville and Mouse Guard, among others, track things like bad moods that a character may suffer – Angry, Tired, and the like. This works well for tracking consequences of conflicts, so that an argument or a physical challenge don’t necessarily result in hit point damage or nothing. Ultimately, though, I think they’re a little more granular and specific than I’m particularly interested in stealing for other games.
D&D 3.x introduced “new” damage tracks to the game, in the form of ability score damage and negative levels. These mechanics were interesting and new takes on simulationism when 3e first released, but over the course of several years and a great deal of design work (monsters, magic items, spells, even a revised edition… you name it) it became increasingly clear that they slow down play egregiously, because so much recalculation takes place. In my experience, players repeat the math process for each separate roll that involves a reduced ability score or negative level. It’s the same kind of mental slowdown and “no wait that should have missed” that beneficial spell effects like bless and prayer cause, but with the added difficulty of lost spell slots, spell DCs, and spell access. In short, adjusting ability scores has cascading effects throughout the rules that can be all too easy to overlook.
I wonder if it would actually represent simplification to count ability score damage upward in the form of “damage” scores, in much the same way that negative levels count upward. For example, a character has 16 Strength and fails a saving throw against Medium Spider Venom (1d4 Str/1d4 Str). What if the result was 16 Strength and 4 points of a Weakened stat (-2 to attack, damage, and Strength saves)? This would make it so PCs don’t lose feat access when they no longer meet feat prereqs (but then, that’s almost always overlooked anyway), but still become helpless when their Weakened stat equals their relevant ability score. It would similarly not change spells prepared in any way, though there’s no reason it couldn’t apply to spell DCs. (But seriously, do yourself a favor and turn all spell DCs into attack rolls against fixed defenses so that that’s actually intuitive.)
But this isn’t quite on the mark of what I mean to cover in this post.
In Echo Bazaar, characters have (in addition to other stats) four negative statistics, called Menaces. Menaces are rated from zero to eight or higher; if they get to eight, you experience some non-voluntary content – that is, your character goes directly to jail without passing Go. Each Menace has its own “jail;” only Suspicion (the tracker of the constables investigating your illegal activities) is actually described as a jail. Other Menaces include Wounds (this is pretty much your hit points; only about a quarter of all challenges threaten you with Wounds), Scandal (the cost for failing social challenges), and Nightmares (the cost for seeing or knowing That Which Man Wert Not Meant to Know).
If your Wounds reach 8 or higher, you take a trip down the River Styx or something like it, but death isn’t permanent in EB. Scandal of 8 or higher compels you to go to “the tomb-colonies,” which is pretty much EB’s version of celebrities going into rehab to show willingness to reform. Nightmares of 8 or higher send you to the Royal Bethlehem Hotel – an insane asylum, that is. There are also actions you can take to reduce your Menaces to a particular threshold: food or rest reduce your Wounds, laudanum eases your Nightmares (but may cost you in the Wounds department), going to church reduces your Scandal, and… well, getting rid of Suspicion is kind of a bitch, actually, but there are occasionally good ways to do this.
The applications of these Menaces in a tabletop game are what interest me. Plenty of games have included a Sanity mechanic, going all the way back to the venerable Call of Cthulhu, so what’s new about this? Well, for one thing, calling it Nightmares rather than Sanity makes it applicable to more games, and directs the imagination to more “troubled sleep” rather than “too busy gibbering in the corner to be playable” as a consequence. They’re both about increasing derangement and delusion, but EB and most tabletop games (though not CoC) want logical ways to recover from insanity, particularly if the player is willing to sacrifice time or resources for it.
Then there’s Scandal and Suspicion. I’d like to see Scandal used as a consequence for failing social conflicts – in 4e, for example, failing a whole skill challenge, not a single roll. The tough part here is getting PCs to understand, as part of the setting, that running up your Scandal doesn’t just mean you can play as a rebel against society – it has to be as complete of a penalty, if not as final, as running out of hit points or Sanity. This means that you need PCs to be dependent on NPCs in the setting for adventure hooks, rewards, or information in general.
Suspicion is the kind of stat that will vary wildly by campaign and party, but a lot of games with any kind of urban activity may put PCs in a position of doing legal-but-suspicious things like crawling around in the sewers or showing up on the scene of unsolved murders. Much like Scandal, they would also have to accept that when the cops come to arrest them, they can flee the city (another kind of exile) or they can accept being thrown in jail for awhile, but they can’t resolve the situation by fighting the group that shows up to make the arrest. The other cool thing here is that “we need to reduce suspicion and show what good people we are” can be a motivation to accept adventure hooks that PCs might otherwise ignore. All in all, though, if you’re not running the kind of game where Suspicion is a problem, just leave it out.
Watching The Return of the King last night brought to mind a great way to use Menaces. Do you want the PC to roll for something, but it’s going to really suck for the flow or logic of the story if the PC fails and has to retreat in ignominy? Have one of the character’s Menaces increase. The RotK example was Aragorn’s encounter with the Dead Men of Dunharrow. In a game, I’d like to include a die roll here, but… well, I don’t really want to see whether the PC succeeds or fails. We’re not rolling to see if Aragorn is Isildur’s heir, after all. No, we’re rolling to see what it costs the PC to assert his control over these horrific beings. There might be a slight increase in Nightmares for succeeding (spectral undead!), and a much worse one for failure (as you spend the rest of the scene escaping the chamber, including an avalanche of skulls). There are also scenes throughout the films that can be interpreted as reducing Aragorn’s Nightmares stat, typically scenes involving dream-interaction with Arwen.
Another way to use Nightmares is a nod to CoC’s Sanity mechanics: make Nightmares a cost attached to some spells, for whatever cosmological reason you like. Maybe all Vulgar magic causes Nightmares instead of Paradox. Maybe breaking the Dresdenverse’s Laws of Magic causes nightmares; all of the things that are forbidden seem like they might be sources of horror. If you do this, just make sure you introduce interesting but costly ways for the character to ease his troubled mind again.
I also have ideas along these lines for things like Doom Tracks and Terror Tracks, as used in Arkham Horror. Those will have to wait for a future post, however.