YOU DIED... Would You Rather Not?
2023-04-20 Update: A new, evergreen version of this article is available on Horizon.
There's always a bit of ludonarrative dissonance in gaming. It's something that's always impossible to avoid—when the narrative of a game and it's gameplay disagree slightly.
The biggest place I find this happens in tabletop gaming is with hit points. Especially in D&D and it's various offshoots, versions, and the OSR.
Now keep in mind the OSR doesn't have anywhere near as extreme HP bloat as 5th edition, but it still has this sort of strange occurrence where a 9th level fighter can take 8 blows—any one of which would be enough to kill a 1st level fighter—and still be standing.
Now, this creates the question of how to reflect this in the narrative. Yes you could describe each blow as lethal, and simply have the higher level character take more of these blows. But more often than not game masters simply resort to "you are hit for seven points of damage" and ignore the in narrative resolution, possibly simply to save time, but also I think due to the ludonarrative dissonance.
Looking for inspiration in some typically useful places, the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide (in Encounters, Combat, and Initiative under Combat) has the following to say:
Damage scored to characters or certain monsters is actually not substantially physical — a mere nick or scratch until the lost handful of hit points are considered—it is a matter of wearing away the endurance, the luck, the magical protections.
This gives a clear indication of how this is meant to be interpreted. This whole passage is full of useful advice for running combat as well, as it informs us that many attacks take place over the span of time, with combatants parrying and dodging each other many times before eventually one has the oppertunity to deal potentially lethal damage. It is for this reason that in AD&D combat is divided into 1 minute rounds in which multiple attack might occur from each character towards each other combatant. In OSE (B/X) round are each ten seconds long: which is plenty of time for multiple blows to be exchanged, but the smaller timescale might provide a strong justification for why rarely multiple potentially lethal blows are exchanged (player characters have no capacity to multi-attack).
However despite this advice given on how to reflect this damage in the fiction, it's easy to forget to do so: especially in a long combat with many different attacks being exchanged constantly.
The solution I am experimenting with follows the pattern given in this title: "You died, would you rather not?"
Borrowing from story games such as ten candles, players may describe their own successes. Not dying to a blow that to a less experienced adventurer would mean death must certainly be counted as a success, so let us play around with this idea.
- Describe the lethal intent of the attacking creature and inform the players of the damage they must take [or simply roll it for them]
- [Allow the player to roll this damage], and narrate as they feel appropriate
- Approve the narration (by moving on), or quickly provide an alternative if you feel they overstepped.
This transition of narrative control achieves two things. It gets players to quickly adapt away from the idea they may have had instilled in them by previous game masters that all damage is physical harm inflicted upon them, without it feeling unnatural:
DM: "you bash the goblins dagger out of the way, take 3 damage".
Player: "from what, you said I bashed the dagger out of the way"
DM: "the process of bashing"
The second issue it resolves is the primary issue of the ludonarrative dissonance itself. Consider the following example:
DM: "The goblin plunges it's dagger directly into your heart. You die... would you rather not?"
Player: "Uhhh sure?"
DM: "How do you avoid the goblins dagger? taking only d4 damage instead, keep in mind how close to future death the dagger is making you."
Player: [rolls d4: 2] "Umm, I'm left on 1 hp, so I guess I'm able to move so the dagger only goes between my lower ribs, instead of killing me."
DM: "Alright, next up..."
Obviously, one would not want to repeat the process of "YDWYRN?" every time they deal damage. This should be done once or twice for each player as an introductory example, from that point on they should get in the swing of simply narrating their own harm avoidance as they see fit.
DM: "The goblin plunges it's dagger towards your heart for 1d4 damage."
Player: [rolls d4: 3] "I bash the dagger away with my shield, losing 3 hit points."
This player is a level 9 fighter, and so those three damage put them in much less harms way than the low level magic-user from our previous example. As such, they describe the combat as far less impactful.
With this system, you can freely substitute players rolling damage for the DM rolling damage as normal.
DM: "The goblin plunges it's dagger towards your heart for" [rolls d4: 3] "three damage."
Player: "I bash the dagger away with my shield."
This also has the lovely benefit of something I've been considering doing in my games for a long time, but have yet to have the opperutnity or confidence to try. Matthew Mercer has popularised the phrase "How do you want to do this?" for killing monsters, but I'd like to introduce a HDYWTDT of my own: "How do you want to die today?". If a player is reduced beneath one hit point, they automatically are in a position to begin narrating their own demise; in the exact epic and heroic fashion they wish for it to occur.
Now, people might challange that this all comes up to armour class versus hit points. Armour class is the player avoiding harm (DEX) or their armour or shield absorbing it. While hit points are physical wounds. Hopefully reading the advice given in the AD&D1e DMG helps abate this stance a little. For me, I follow a simple line of reasoning: AC is a measure of an enemies capacity to fail to harm you, hit points are a measure of your ability to avoid death.
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