Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hit Points as Confidence (Lost Songs of the Nibelungs - design post)

With the 400 pound gorilla out of the way (pun intended) I can start concentrating on other things that need attention. Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, for instance. There have been some changes and one wrong turn with the latest update for the f2f-group. I won't talk (yet) about the wrong turn, that problem is solved, and I already talked about Skill Ranks a couple of weeks ago. Today, though, we'll talk about an epiphany I had regarding hit points (Health) in Lost Songs. Let's get at it ...

Hit Points, what art thou?

This is an discussion as old as the hobby, I believe. Every now and then I see someone tackle the topic to define the logic behind it. Is it luck? Or just brawniness? How do you explain that a low level character gets killed by knocking his head on a door frame while a high level character can get chewed on by a dragon and still walk away smiling? Some would say, experience is what makes all the difference.

I mean, look at professional athletes failing. It almost always looks horribly hurtful. And yet, more often than not, they seem to make their save for half damage and walk away with a scare. It's fascinating what the human body is capable to avoid instinctively, if he's trained. Look at Shaolin monks how far training can really get you.

They are not kidding ... [source]
It's something I learned from Judo training, so many moons ago: I did that for almost 9 years, starting pretty young (I had been 8 or 9) and one of the benefits of the training (like getting thrown on the floor constantly and all that) will result in a hardened bone structure. Because the body just reacts, over time, to the new constant challenges it is facing. Especially when you are still growing (it also results in short legs, but that's a story for another day).

What I'm saying is, training and experience will have a body handle damage differently on so many levels, that "hit points" are actually a good way of reflecting this. Without training or, in other words, without people constantly hitting you with pointy metal sticks, you'll get hurt so much easier. And yes, that also explains why a wizard shouldn't get so many hit points, since the brain is his muscle of choice.

We could start a discussion about thieves now, but we won't ... Okay, a short one: mechanically speaking, the thief is great in avoiding damage before it occurs, sneak attacks will shorten a fight from the beginning, high DEX will give a good natural AC and great saves against physical damage will all, theoretically, result in a lower damage average than, for instance, your basic fighter will have. So lower hp are somewhat justified. If it's a d4 per level, as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia suggests, is still a matter of debate.

(Liquid Courage house rules make total sense in that context, btw)

Hit Points in Lost Songs, though ...

Never change a running system, right? Unless you write your own system. I mean, Lost Songs still has some strong ties to D&D. It's not obvious, but it's there. So the change in terminology from "hit points" to "Health" was merely cosmetic in the beginning. But it didn't jive right with me. As a matter of fact, it'd been the one of the things that just never made sense in the game. And here is why: the core concept of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is about reducing a character's ability scores. That's where the hurt is. "Health" was merely a buffer, a resource a character could deplete without much harm.

In a way that still is what I described above. The buffer grows with experience and it takes longer before it gets to a character. But calling it Health made less and less sense, because a character would lose those points in a fight, and if that's all he lost, he'll regain it with a night's rest (if that). Only damage in the ability scores would take longer to heal, so he wasn't losing Health at all ...

It's been a bit frustrating, to be honest, as those things tend to threaten the integrity of a game every time you can't explain how that "Health" damage isn't even a scratch. Well, I guess the title gave it away, but it wasn't until a couple of weeks (months?) ago that my good friend +Mark Van Vlack compared Health in Lost Songs to something like confidence. And boy, did that resonate with me!

What Confidence does for you

This solved several problems at once. For one, it explains well in the narrative the game tends to produce. Those early hits the character takes? They don't deal physical damage, but instead damage the confidence. Imagine going pumped into a fight, all confidence and balls, and then you realize that last strike came pretty close and the next might hit ... That's how you get the opponent to make mistakes: you make him insecure. It mirrors quite effectively how fights actually tend to go down. It builds up until one gets lucky or makes a mistake, then it escalates very fast.

Both hit, both fail their Saves ... [source]
I also want LSotN to be a game where you can taunt an enemy into doing something stupid enough to have a direct impact in a fight. Reducing an enemies Confidence before the first hit is thrown is very much that. It all makes total sense.

There's more to it, though. Another thing LSotN was lacking, although connected, was to find a fitting mechanic that allows a character to regain some of that "Health" damage. With the change to Confidence, it got quite obvious what tat could be. Because how do you gain confidence? When things work out, that's how. So a new rule now is that if a character rolls a successful Save, he regains as much Confidence back as he rolled over the difficulty.

Which leads to the fourth consequence of this simple change of terminology, because characters can not only recharge their Confidence, the can over-charge it. In other words, characters can get "Overconfident". That's neither a bad nor a good thing.

Overconfidence, blessing and curse

The good is, they can ignore any disadvantage on tests (active rolls), so they can run, swim and generally stay alive in this state. He'll even get an additional d6 to his rolls. That's what adrenaline does, it's a natural high that keeps you functioning. So you basically can regain your Confidence in Lost Songs by taking a breather (depends on a character's level how often he's able to do it, though).

Now imagine a character on the run. He's hurt, no Endurance left and he gets that break. Sitting there, breathing heavy, he realizes he's still alive and has a chance (regaining Confidence and Endurance, in this case). So after 20 minutes or so, he decides to pull himself up and try once more to get away. DM demands a Save here, because he still is hurt and all. Right now the character pulled it together somewhat. His Confidence is back, his Endurance, too. If he doesn't make the Save, his body demands more rest, but if he makes it, he'll also gain Overconfidence (unless he just hits the difficulty, that is) and can ignore his aching body for a bit longer.

Every test he'll make, will reduce the overconfidence, though, because that d6 he gets to roll with his tests works as a bonus, but reduces Confidence, too. And any disadvantages he has still apply on Saves (mirroring the danger to overdo it due to Overconfidence). So this could save a character's bacon in a tough spot, if at a price, and it also helps describing what a character is going through.

But there is more. While overconfidence makes you ignore disadvantages and helps you overcoming challenges, it's also that kind of stubbornness that brings it own kind of problem. So the rules here are that Overconfident characters can't share dice in Combat (give or receive) and that they won't get a benefit from Skill Rank group effects (because they don't listen!).

[source]
And that's that

There's a moderate amount of Saves in the game and only part of them will result in Overconfidence, but it is something that characters could use to their advantage, force even. The picture I have in mind here is barbarians screaming at each other with all the aggression they can gather. In Lost Songs that could force an easy Save, which would most likely result in Overconfidence, exactly what they are aiming for. It might give you the edge you need to win a challenge. But it also works to motivate soldiers in a trench to make that last attack ... It does a lot.

And it's a shift that, once more, underlines the style of gaming LSotN supports. The player nurtures his character, helps him, manipulates him and makes the necessary decisions to keep him alive. Characters are entities on their own. They feel or hurt or are stubborn. Players work with that by giving them a good time every now and then, feeding them and do all kinds of stuff to keep their characters happy instead of just alive.

It's a bit more involved, but sometimes that the kind of story I want to tell. And it helped intensifying our game, in my opinion. 

Could work in D&D, too

There are already house rules out there, using Constitution as the real death zone for a character. It'd be where damage goes when the hp are gone. And once that's zero, the character is gone for good. With a rule like that in place, you could use the rules described above without any fuzz. Only problem I see is that damage stays linear in D&D as the hp grow, while Lost Songs has a high variety in that regard (from not-so-much to lots of damage), but there are rules for exploding damage out there and all kinds of other shenanigans one could use to make it work, so I'm not worried.

It'll change the game a bit, though, as fights start out as battles of wits, getting ugly only in the end. It'll make slaughtering low hp critters look so much crueler, too. All I'm saying is, it'll work.

So here you go, that's one of the biggest changes Lost Songs has gone through and it was only by changing a word. Funny how that goes sometimes. Ideas and impressions are, as always, very welcome.

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And also, if you haven't heard already, I managed to get a module out there. It's a PWYW "balls to the wall gonzo" procedural junglecrawl called Monkey Business and you can get it here.

5 comments:

  1. It sounds like what you're talking about is Morale - not D&D morale as in the point where a monster decides to run - but actual morale of the kind that Generals arrange USO shows for.

    Of course, the bulk of D&D playing humanity already knows the word Morale to be that thing which gets enemies to run. Sometimes it's easier to get people to adopt a new word rather than give up an old one, so who knows? Maybe Confidence will work.

    But I wouldn't get over-confident about it :-)

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    1. You are right in a D&D context. Might be a hard sell there. In Lost Songs it's just one of those things you use because the rules say so. If Lost Songs is ever going to be played by anyone else, chances are that they won't be aware of the origin story of that specific term ;-)

      Thought about using Courage first, but decided against it. Confidence is a good word for what it does here and how it's intended to be used in the game, I think.

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  2. I think Confidence is a good term for the mechanic. Morale would work except that gamers already use that term in a different way. Elan is another possible term.

    I like the way you have described Confidence as functioning. It captures what Hit Points are said to model, stamina, wind, little scratches, near misses, will to continue fighting, all the things that put you in or out of a fight with actually doing gross bodily injury. The latter is what I presume reducing ability scores represents.

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    1. Thanks! And yes, exactly. Confidence would range between an average of 3 on level 0 to an average of 33 on level 10 (quite low, but there's a lot of wiggle room). After that it's going straight to Grit (the equivalent of CON) where it could deal light, severe and permanent injuries (needing hours, days or months to heal).

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  3. My character thought he had the gods favor one rainy night. So confident as to boldly seek out the source of ominous scratching noises. Only then did he learn that the gods had indeed favored him with shelter just as he had asked, but he failed to mentioned safety.

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