Monday, May 17, 2010

Tiers of Damage

I've talked a little bit about tiers of ability in the past, but I was reading some old copies of Mage (the comic, not the RPG) this weekend and it got me thinking about handling them for super powers, or at least for toughness and damage type. The idea was inspirec by this: the hero of Mage is basically invulnerable - there are some caveats to it, but it really boils down to that - but he ends up getting severely injured when one of the bad guys manages to catch him off guard and nail him with his poisonous bone spur.

This ends up being a big plot point, life and death, yadda yadda yadda, but it also raises an interesting question of dramatic physics. It's a long-standing game idea that there's damage and then there's extra-damage. in the World of Darkness it's "aggravated damage"[1] but the idea is something you see in a lot of supers games. Bullets bounce harmlessly off the hero but when bad guys throw bolts of energy around it may be enough to actually bring some pain. Of course, it probably won't be enough, but there might be some things that are badass enough to do the damage.

Now, a lot of games will handle this with straight-up math. Invulnerability 7 vs. energy blast 4 works out badly for the energy blast. But me, I'm lazy, so I throw this back into a tiered approach, and it all really breaks down into three tiers: Normal, exceptional and named.[2] Let's take the idea of damage here. Normal damage is everything you might normally think of - guns, knives, car crashes and so on. Exceptional damage might be anything from flamethrowers to lasers to energy blasts to vorpal swords. Named damage is the category that either makes immediate sense or seems a little odd.

Assuming you find it odd, comic books are awash in excellent examples of this: compare superman's heat vision (exceptional) with Darkseid's Omega Beams (Names). Yes, in the math of comics, the omega beams are more powerful, but the important difference is that the Omega Beams are something that's talked about as their own things. SImilarly, compare a magic sword with Excalibur.

On the flip side, you can establish resistances along the same lines. Speaking broadly, a character might be resistant to normal damage, Exceptional damage or Named damage. THis ends up working interestingly depending on ho you handle the damage tiering. The normal assumption is that higher tiers do more damage, but that's not necessary. A laser beam is not going to make you _more_ dead than a bullet, but

Now, by itself, this isn't that useful except in the broadest of strokes, so it need another layer of tweaking, which breaks things into categories. Impact, fire, poison or whatever. The exact granularity of the categories is a function of the needs of the game. A concrete list is an option, but it's also easy to do this in an ad hoc fashion. To come back to the Mage example, you have a hero who is resistant to normal and exceptional damage, but the bad guy has one special "named" attack.

This is still only part of an idea, but I wanted to lay it out there because I feel like this is the edge of something that may yet fall into place.

1 - Invoking this reveals another tier - non-lethal damage. It's not really a part of this model because it's something of a one-off, but it's easy enough to make this a 4-step model.

2 - There's some unintentional overlap with the Amber DRPG item system here - it uses a similar tiered approach, and it's pretty elegant (if abusable, in its existing form) so its one of those things that's always rattling around in my head. Its biggest flaw is that it breaks its own rules in implementation, introducing further tiers to make NPCs more awesome.


  1. I'm reminded of Dogs in the Vineyards four levels of escalation (which are presented rising from "just talking" to "guns" but can be introduced in any order).

    And now ideas dance in my brain for working that into a four tiered damage system for WoD that takes learnings from this right here (because with WoD's matrix of stats, it cries out for a unified conflict system instead of the old school split between combat and everything else).

    (aka @wildelf)

  2. Cool! You've recreated Champions, with its differences between normal and killing damage, physical, mental and energy damage, and the no normal defence advantage. <grin>

    Properly handled, and in the spirit originally intended it is quite capable of handling that which you mention. The problem though, as with most design systems, it is just as likely to be abused to get the most effective result rather than the most appropriate result.

    Alas in theory, theory is just like practice, in practice...

    But yes, one of the ideas I want to try out with tiered abilities, and hopefully I'll get the chance to do so later in the year, is that of tiered abilities and damage. At the top, legendary tier, it's a case of one-off things, so Excalibur is the legendary sword whilst Lancelot is the legendary knight. Which means Arthur and Lancelot can compete at the legendary tier and will be fairly well matched. But when engaging a lesser tier, their actual ability might not be all that much greater than their opponent, but the effects of applying that ability (damage if you will), would be much more profound and those individuals not up to operating at the legendary tier.

    Lesser tiers in effect become more fragile, much as in the way that many games consider mooks and rabble compared to actual characters, except extending it up through the tiers, depending on what tier the characters actual initiate the challenge upon.


  3. "A laser beam is not going to make you _more_ dead than a bullet, but"

    Holy incomplete sentence, Batman!

  4. This also made me think of Nobilis's inverted damage pyramid, where you had to take enough lethal damage before good old-fashioned "regular" damage would actually count.

  5. This is a heck of a coincidence, because I was just - I swear - thinking something vaguely like this yesterday, and with reference to superhero stuff. More or less, power levels in superhero continuities are as much about the scope of what you can threaten as the power you can bring to bear on any single point. You don't have to give someone 50 points, DC Heroes style, to enable them to smash the world up good. You can give them "10 points, Planetary scale." Or "6 points, Regional scale," or "8 points, Personal scale" etc.

    When the last guy above takes the middle guy on in personal combat, he may have an advantage - 8 vs 6. But the middle guy can do his 6 points all up and down the mid-Atlantic at the same time. The 8 guy can only bother one dude at a time.

    Chad's got one level of this idea working in T&J already, with the way Super-Scale Strength is hell on buildings and bridges, but no worse on an single person than "regular ol' " Strength of that Number. And it's sorta kinda like Fudge scaling in concept, but without multiplying fractions.

    It ties into what you're talking about, I think, because it's also about turning what's usually a scalar quantity in gaming into a vector. And not needing to just keep jacking the number up.


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