This is a post about a general topic, inspired by an issue I’m working on in Et in Arcadia Ego. I’ll start with the specific.
In Et in Arcadia Ego, conflict and drama revolve around social issues. The question of duels is still an open one, but generally speaking, no one is going to throw a punch. So, that said, I’ve been thinking about what kind of harm and consequences one can derive from such a conflict. To do that, I’ve had to think about what I mean by “harm and consequences”.
Consequences are easy enough: when something changes in the story, like a character goes from alive to dead, or well-respected to mistrusted, or leader of the squad to infected by the zombies, you have a consequence. It can have mechanical implications (in many games, being dead precludes you from making any rolls, for example), but it doesn’t need to. In Apocalypse World, for example, while some consequences include things like “take –1 ongoing”, most others are simply that the MC gets to do what they threatened to do a moment ago, like have your character get imprisoned by the cultists, or have another character fall in love with yours.
Harm, then, I tried to define as incremental approach towards a consequence. This works for things like hit points in D&D, where the consequence is “dead”, and hit points act as a buffer against that consequence. Given that the consequence “dead” is kind of uninteresting in practice (“great, now I can’t do anything for a while”), a buffer is good: there’s a lot more interest in approaching that consequence than in reaching it, and a binary consequence/no-consequence system can’t make you approach it.
But that definition left something out. What about, say, wound systems like in the various World of Darkness games, where you take a mechanical penalty as you take harm and approach the status “dead”? Sure, you can view that as harm that comes with consequences, but there’s something more interesting going on. First, the consequences are typically scalar: increasing dice penalties tied to increasing fictional hurt (in old World of Darkness, “bruised”, “hurt”, “injured”, etc.). Second, they do something to the way conflicts play out. They provide a sort of momentum system, whereby losing a conflict snowballs into more losing, and winning a conflict may come at a price for future conflicts, making many-victories-in-a-row hard to achieve. They, in a word, let you wear someone down.
So, my intuition has been that Et in Arcadia Ego needs a system for harm, to complement the (so far) satisfactory consequences system. When I viewed harm as simply a countdown to big-and-unpleasant consequences, there seemed to be no call for it. But when I saw the momentum aspect of harm, I realized that room for it existed already: the players’ hands of cards. I’d been viewing it narrowly, and even the countdown to a consequence part of it was appropriate and present.
You use cards to engage in conflicts, playing big numbers to win when you can, and playing small ones to lose when you must. There’s a system for continuing to engage in conflicts when you’re out of cards, but being in that state is undesirable—you’re mad, and act erratically. So, in a sense, your hand is your hit points, the resource you expend to exert your will on the game world. Any conflict costs you some of it, and that keeps you from steamrolling from one conflict to another. When you run out, you’ve hit a big undesirable consequence (though one that you can recover from more easily than death).
So all that remains is to figure out ways of causing additional harm, recovering from harm, and playing this to make sure it works in practice like it works in my head.