A New Horror Damage Idea
Here’s another post for the May of the Dead blog carnival put on by the Going Last Gaming Podcast. I was recently thinking about how to handle damage in a horror game. Naturally, it depends on what sort of horror game we’re talking, and I’m overly fond of Delta Greens-style games (at least when they actually respect the “horror” side of action-horror.)
In my ideal horror games, it starts by emulating Unknown Armies: the players never know how badly hurt their characters are. The GM keeps track of that secretly, which means two things:
- The players can never fully calculate the risk factor of a given moment — not just because they don’t have the numbers, but because they’re relying on the GM to tell them what they perceive due to pain, injury, etc. Which could always be better or worse than how the body actually is.
- Having the communicate through description rather than through statistics makes for better horror.
But that comes with a problem: persistence. being told an awesome bit of description won’t help with traction unless we record it — we’re not physically experiencing our characters, and another exciting thing can (and for some people with attention span disorders, certainly will) cause us to forget our character’s state.
You ever have that moment where everything is suddenly wrong because you remembered about an injury, but you’re in the thick of narrative? “Wait, you couldn’t have run up the hill, your leg was injured…shit, uh, let’s not ret-con the last 15 minutes, just remember for next time.” Yeah, that. So recording it is still to our advantage.
We can record experiences just as easily as we can record numbers, like so:
So when the rules state you’re injured, the GM determines that (see the next part) and describes what happens. You then draw it on the part of your character sheet that has a body outline. There could be space underneath that for other descriptors, like “acid burns on right arm.”
Even psychological ones like “I think I’m seeing ghosts” could be recorded, in a space underneath.
(I’m certain I’ve seen this idea — or at least parts of it — before, but I cannot recall where. Maybe the chart for Godlike? Or Deadlines?)
As for damage itself, I have this crazy and possibly unworkable idea: first of all, as with Unknown Armies, the damage is hidden. That means the GM does all damage rolls behind the screen, from and to the Threat.
People can get scared of all sorts of things if they’re only experiencing part of the story — like hearing a bunch of dice rolling, rather than just one, and wincing. That makes me want to play with disinformation in the form of making unpredictable damage:
- 2d10, pick the highest
- 5d8, take the two lowest, describe intense agony — the pain is worse than the wound
- roll 5d6. Damage: 20, regardless.
- 2d8. Describe no pain or wound, aside from a weird goo on the skin where it came into contact and some numbness
The goal isn’t to be cute, but to attempt a representation of the alien nature of what the team’s facing. If one week you’re up against something and you hear four dice rolling when it tries to eat your face, the next week you’re up against something radically different, four dice shouldn’t feel the same.
Now, I don’t know what the baseline health is, and whether I’m looking at a countdown system like HP, or some sort of wound threshold system where every X wounds, you have to make an increasingly more difficult unconsciousness/death check. I’m leaning toward the former, to keep it slim. If the latter, it’ll be something the GM does, I think. I dunno.
I would take the same approach to defining the Threat’s reaction to weapons:
- Firearms: 3d6
- Knives, etc: 2d6
- Flesh: physical contact with bare flesh is extremely violative. 4d10, keep top two. Apply same damage to attacker.
- Fire: 1. But it’s very afraid of it.
- Salt: a large amount of salt on its “skin” will immobilize the muscles around that area
This would be flexible enough to allow a GM to figure out what the hell to do with a player comes up with some different way of harming.