Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wounds and injury in Narrativist game design

[Cross-posted at the Forge under "First Thoughts".]
[Edit: I think I'm going to solve this "dilemma" by keeping the long healing times for physical injuries, but going ahead with the quicker, story-based recovery time for social wounds.]

So I've been playtesting my game for three sessions now, and in our most recent session, one of the PCs suffered a wound. In game terms, this means a loss of dice from the relevant dice pool (the stat and skill used get penalized til the wound heals). Also in game terms, players get to choose whether a particular conflict they engage in will have "you could get hurt, or even killed" at stake. Victor, the player whose PC took the wound, did this all quite deliberately - Kaizo the Herald, horrified that his master was disappointed in him for getting himself taken hostage by foes, attempted to cut his own throat on the knife held by his captor.
This was a great game moment - for once, a PC was engaging in self-destructive behavior because of a story-contribution from the player, not because of player-frustration, which had been my experience most of the time. It fit Kaizo and the concept of noble sacrifice so well, making it a great all-around moment for us.
We rolled to see if Kaizo could get his throat pierced by the knife, and the soldier holding him tried to keep his human bargaining chip from losing its value. He got a success - not an amazing one, but enough to tear himself up pretty good.
From there, I realized that my rules covered how to get wounded, but not how to recover - and now I find myself stuck on how PCs recover from social/emotional wounds as opposed to plain old physical injuries.
I came up with a completely ad-hoc table for physical recovery, one that returns a die worth of "healed" stats or skills to the PC when a certain amount of time elapses, based on the % of the total dice pool that each die represented. To whit: a dice pool of 5 would heal a single die about as quickly as a dice pool of 10 would heal two dice.
That being said: it occurred to me that, not wanting to go too terribly far into the realm of "realism", I wouldn't try to shoehorn psychological care into my Asiatic feudal fantasy setting; instead, I figured that a PC could heal a die of social/emotional damage from experiencing a really validating victory of some kind, particularly if it dealt with someone who had *done* the damage to the PC in the first place.

So! The point is this - I set things up so players could control, or at least influence, the stakes in a situation where they stood to get hurt, humiliated, or killed. The flip side is, well, in some cases they could take months to heal from wounds. Depending on how validating their lives are, social Wounds might not be quite so bad; but I don't want to downplay the impact of dangerous, violent conflict.

So far, it hasn't discouraged my players from using violence, when it fits the way they want the story to go - nobody has shrank away from the chance of losing dice and getting hurt, although this could be in part because I haven't really explained my tentative wound-recovery system yet. I think that letting players control the stakes, and making violence really count for something, will encourage a lot more chatty conflict than stabby conflict, which is what I want as a designer; it makes violence a last resort, like it generally is for us humans. But I don't want players to feel like they're laboring under a crappy, unforgiving system.

- Abby


  1. Should psychological/social wounds heal quicker than violent/physical wounds?

    Some would even argue that psychological scarring takes longer to heal than physical effects?

    I guess this all depends on what you're trying to say with you game though.

  2. Good point! Especially that last bit - that's what became the deciding factor.
    I decided through Forge discussion that I would make social Wounds a carrot/stick situation - if a player wants to heal them, he's got to go out and succeed on rolls he really cares about. Sort of the inverse of my experience-point rolls; for those, failing a roll the player considers important results in getting a point in that skill or stat used. You can only bump up a trait in this way once per Story, a la White Wolf lingo.