I’ve been thinking about health mechanics in ttrpgs. Why do they exist at all? Obviously various games have different justifications for them (simulationist, gamist, narrative). They perform a different job in all of these types of games. Sometimes the distinction is muddy.
Because I’m working on a PbtA sci-fi game right now, I want to discuss health, damage, and healing in narrative-forward games. Why am I marking wounds? Some thoughts:
1: Setting stakes. I don’t think this is why.
PbtA and other storytelling games do a great job of setting stakes other than character injury and death. Every roll should have stakes. Scenes should have stakes other than “I’m hit!”
2: Measuring Pass/Fail of an encounter. Probably not, but I could be convinced? Encounters in PbtA don’t usually end because all the PCs are at 0 HP or they had to withdraw before a TPK. And the outcome of an encounter is rarely correlated to unspent harm. On the contrary, spending some harm (or other resource) is often the price paid for victory, not the result of a defeat.
3: It’s a dramatic pacing tool.
For my game, I think this is it. We track a session roughly to an episode of serial sci-fi TV. Multiple sessions make up longer arcs. When my players have a lot of close calls left unmarked, action feels free and fun. As they start to wear down (marking close calls and wounds), the action and regroup scenes start to feel dire. The action is rising. Players seek out respite and they have the kinds of scenes that tend to lead up to climaxes on these shows. Because we refresh wounds with plot armor, players try to generate it. More often than not, this is done through character moments and setting up plot details to resolve later in the episode. This simulates the pacing of the TV show well.
By the end of the episode, when most characters have all their close calls marked, the climactic battle seems dangerous even though the threat hasn’t changed much. It falls at the end of the episode and is therefore important. It will resolve things.
This counts double for long plot arcs where players can be worn down more from session to session.
So what does this mean for the Showrunner (our term for GM)? How should this affect how they run the game?
It means they should be thinking about close calls and wounds as a pacing tool, and therefore healing opportunities, weapons, armor, bacta tanks, and anything that effects how close calls are marked and cleared are pacing tools! Not problem-solving tools for the players.
If the players are not generating a lot of plot armor, maybe you should give them some real armor. Otherwise, the pacing of the episode will suffer.
If they are exhausting all their close calls well before the climax, a medical suite might be needed for the ship. Essentially, we look to in-universe solutions to solve dramatic problems.
Does this jive with what you’ve seen at the table in your narrative-first ttrpg play?