Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Representing character damage through loss of skills and equipment

I was surprised to come across two recent tabletop RPGs that both eschew "hit points" as a means of representing character damage: Lester Burton's Grok?! and Runehammer's Crown and Skull. Neither cites the other nor any common inspiration, which makes me think that there's an interesting games history project hiding in here: is there a common ancestor or is it convergent evolution?

In Grok?!, the player has seven resource slots that can hold items. When a character suffers duress, there are a few possible outcomes. The player may choose to create, remove, or change one of their items, or they may take a condition that uses up a resource slot. These are intended to be temporary, but if a character has no more slots, then the character is incapacitated and the condition instead becomes a permanent trait. A player may also voluntarily add conditions to their character in order to roll additional dice after failing a check. Grok?! is clearly a story-focused game, using an elegant universal resolution system that invites creativity and narration.

Crown and Skull has an intricate point-based character-creation system in which players determine a character's skills and gear. Taking damage involves crossing off skills and gear, which is temporary, and sometimes destroying gear, which is permanent. Damage is classified by whether it targets skills, equipment, or both, and it is further classified by whether it is a random target or whether players choose. Runehammer describes this as an attrition system, and it's easy to see how it invites more interesting narration than "You lose five hit points." Crown and Skull is presented as a game that the players themselves get better at, learning more about it by playing it. Part of the challenge of the game is learning to create and manage a versatile, robust, survivable character.

I have played a lot of CRPGs, but I don't remember ever seeing a system like this—one where damage is exclusively represented by the temporary or permanent loss of gear or skills. It makes me wonder how well such a design could be adapted into a video game. Could such a system be adapted into a satisfying video game experience, or are these formal systems too strongly coupled with the improvisational storytelling of tabletop games?

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