Thursday, December 8, 2011

Health and Health Levels

by shrff
Health and Health Levels
by Tobie Abad
Originally published 2009

A little fiction first:
The Cainite struggled to her feet. Although blood, think and red, pulsed down her legs as if coating them in an armor of liquid the Lasombra called Imen Diabolos ignored the pain. She knew victory was close to her grasp.

"Bleeding bad, Keeper?" the Gangrel spat as he showed of the gleaming claws. "Not even your Sire could ignore the sharpness of-"

The sentence went unfinished for Imen had manipulated the shadows to grapple her foe. Twisting and struggling, the Gangrel cursed voicelessly and lunged its claws at the tentacles that seemed to be made of darkness itself.

"Do not ever tarnish my Sire's memory," the Lasombra, now triumphant, reminded the Wanderer before stabbing the sword of her sire down the Gangrel's chest. Although the Cainite heaved in pain, and blood poured out of its broken flesh in torrents rivalling those brought by rain, she knew that all she had bought herself was time.

Now the game stuff:
The Lasombra had been sliced up pretty bad. Although system wise, she had taken in 5 health levels of damage which were aggravated too, I envisioned the claws only causing small wounds. Compare the Gangrel taking a mere 4 levels of lethal damage. The image is worse, but that is considering the size of a sword being forced down into someone's chest.

My point?
The amount of Health Level Damage does not have to relate to the visual amount of damage visible.
Another common mistake in many roleplaying circles is assuming "the greater the amount of damage, the more damaged the target looks." Thankfully, this does NOT have to follow. Common role-playing sense itself can show you that someone stabbed with 7 daggers causing only 1 damage each time and someone punched for 7 levels of damage will look radically different, EVEN if the amount of damage as far as system goes is the same.

To allow more visual and graphic freedom in showing the dramatic and action element in a game.

Take your typical hero, rushing into the fray and fighting his way to rescue the stereotypical damsel in distress. When the villain calls upon lightning and strikes the hero in the chest, and the player discovers his beefed up hero takes only one measly point of damage... what happens? Did the lightning simply give him a slight jolt? Or do you go for the drama and describe how the character is struck back by the intensity of the bolt, pain coursing through his body and the sizzling fear of heat doubling into his heart... only to suddenly fade as the force is subdued by the strength of his determination to rescue his love.

Wasn't that better than simply saying, "Oh, you're still okay... what do you do?"

Use the Health Levels as merely a chart to see if the character is dead. But by all means, make him look as bruised, hurt, injured or bloodly messed up as you want!

Imagine a Mafia Overlord stepping out of his office after struggling against an Anarch. So what if the Anarch's potence dealt 5 levels of unsoaked normal damage? Have the Mafia Overlord merely have a trickle of blood down the chin where he was punched, and a bit of messed hair.

Why should the Tzimisce assaulted by his own Vohzd look untouched by the creatures multi-fanged maw? Ignore the measly one level of damage the creature dealt and describe the Fiend to having flesh torn open and blood slowly gushing out of the body. Describe the torn muscles and the hanging skin. Just keep in mind, as far as the character is concerned, it DOESN'T bother him much. In fact, it can easily be healed.

The system is used to simply keep track of whether or not the character is dead. But it shouldn't restrict the creative process of describing the scenes.  After all, the wound penalties are actually the only thing that affect the character's performance.

by graciehagen
This is most awfully true for games like Dungeons and Dragons where a character can have anything from 4 to 500 hit points.  The number of points does not represent how much a human pincushion a person should become before arrows kill him.  It merely represents how good the hero can ignore the wounds inflicted upon him before he drops down and dies.

Recall those movies where the Hero is pushed out of the elevator, then punched on the face, kicked in the chest, hit with the butt of a rifle then taunted... just before the hero, with an unknown source of strength, slams the telephone on the villain and rises to push him out of the window to fall to his death.

The Hero actually took 1 level for the elevator, soaked the punch, soaked the kick, got another for the rifle and yet was described as tired, weak and struggling to breathe. System wise, he could have simply ignored the damage (a measly -1 wound penalty) but instead we play on the dramatic and have it described as above.

Consider also targeting locations.
I never understood why 7 levels of damage must be accomplished to slice away someone's arm. Shouldn't that kill the target? Or does that mean each part of the body has its own health levels?

As a storyteller, I simply decide if the part is affected in a manner fitting the scene. Tossed a filled ashtray into the incoming Nosferatu's face? Okay, the Nossie is temporarily blinded (which is no problem since most are adept at acting in the dark). Used the staple gun on the Toreador's hip? Okay, the Toreador limps for a turn. A crusader lunges the axe at the Brujah's arm? Goodbye sword arm!

The hell with necessary health level requirements.

Thankfully, this idea has been better approached with the new World of Darkness combat system which assumes all normal strikes are intended to be vicious, and any called-location attacks are intended to cause other effects other than damage (like blinding, or disarming, etc)

Go for drama!

Granted not everyone would be too keen on such an approach. Many are used to having "realism" in a game. But when a game is intended to be more dramatic than real, with more action and mood than actual resolutions and scientific accuracy, then go for the most visually effective approach...

...and let the system take the back seat.


  1. Hey, thanks for your comment over on G+. I think I agree with you that some systems don't necessarily intend hit points to be directly reflective of actual damage taken, and trying to understand them that way isn't very productive. Better to focus on the drama of the situation and just have fun.

    I think part of the issue is how much control you want to have. In some games, the fight is abstracted enough that it's really the dice and GM fiat that decide what your character actually did. The action is "I attack" and the actual specifics of the attack itself are up to the GM's imagination. "Oh, I did a double-spin slashing move? Cool." In others, it's all narration, so the player gets to describe it all. If they want to do a double-spin slashing move, they just do it. Maybe dice are rolled to decide how much damage the move does, or maybe some kind of metagame currency is used to decide how successful the action is.

    I lean towards the latter. As a player, I imagine myself in the character's shoes, raising his sword and hitting his foe in a specific location--or trying to. I want that decision to be up to me, not chance or GM fiat. And I want to know, if the hit succeeded, what exactly it did. As in, torn muscle, broken bone, etc. -- not just 7 hp.

    1. Quite true. Admittedly, for me a large part remains in the hands of the genre and drama expected.

      For example, I can imagine an attack tearing away at one's stomach, causing ones intestines to spill out.

      In a modern horror game, with players being humans caught in supernatural events, that guy probably will die very soon.

      In an over-the-top wuxia game, however, that same victim would probably still keep fighting, use his intestines as weapons even, and possibly still win the battle.

      So ultimately, while the Players can narrate a lot of things, I still, as the GM, rule things out to match the expected and agreed upon genre whenever deemed necessary.


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