Hit Locations - the ultimate subversive game element

I've been thinking a lot lately about the very different nature of some game systems, especially as it pertains to how they deal with combat situations.

The oldest school of thought has players declaring a broad, general course of action. Dice are rolled to determine the specific mechanical impact of the course of action. The action is then narrated based on the results, providing not just the specifics of the results but also the specifics of the action.

"I attack the orc" - "roll to hit" - "I got a 13" - "that's a hit, roll damage" - "rolled a 4" - "okay, you bypassed his shield and scored a nasty cut across his forearm, raising a snarl of pain..."

The other method is much more specific. A specific course of action is laid out. Rolls are again made to determine the outcome on a mechanical level. Narration follows, but as the action was specific, there's less need to improvise along the way.

"I swing my sword at the orc, targeting his weapon arm" - "roll to hit" - "a 9, that's a possible hit" - "he tries to block with his shield, but a 14 isn't good enough, roll damage" - "rolled a 5" - "minus 2 for his armor, x1.5 for a cut means he takes 4 points of damage, so you bypassed his shield and scored a nasty cut across his forearm, raising a snarl of pain..."

What struck me was that both can get to the same result, but that the former demands a greater emphasis on improvisation, where the latter actually leads to greater player agency as the direction of the outcome is laid out in advance. A middle path is one that follows the former pattern, but calls upon the player to narrate the results of the scene. I tend to shy away from this due to a combination of personal dislike of placing that responsibility with the player and concern for the player overstepping the bounds of what the results ought to be, forcing a potentially ugly confrontation.

But more to the point, the thing that tends to separate systems along this axis seems to be the introduction of a hit location system. This might be a random location system, allowing the GM to insert more randomness and less improv into his results narration. This is subtle, and tends to have less impact than other scenarios. But the introduction of the hit location system almost immediately devolves into questions about targeting specific locations. Which leads, inexorably, to the question about why a blow to the head did so little damage, after a blow to the left leg was so extraordinarily successful.

Eventually, the dominoes begin to fall, and you find yourself with a chart full of damage modifiers or multipliers, and location-specific injury results, and before you know it you've added long-term injuries and bleeding rules and modifiers based on the type of weapon that did the damage...

You see? All because someone thought it would be clever to include a hit location chart.

Subversive.

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