July 23, 2013
A while ago, I reviewed the crunch of the Dresden Files RPG, still one of my favorite games on the market, despite (or maybe because of) its rather light rules set. In this game, rather than losing hit point/life points when you take damage, you take consequences when you cannot resist the stress caused by various attacks. If someone is able to inflict a mild consequence on you during an argument (a Social combat) you might have a consequence that reads “becoming irritated” or “embarrassed,” whereas if you take a severe physical consequence for getting smacked around by a Winter Court Troll, you might gain something like “broken ribs and spitting up blood” or “internal bleeding.” These do not have any direct effect on the mechanics of the game, but directly affect how you are playing your character, as well as give your character new aspects that can be tagged for greater effect. Using the “broken ribs” example, an enemy might try to take advantage of that by tagging that aspect for a +2 to their Fists roll, describing it as punching you in your already wounded side (what a jerk). Recently, I was contemplating these rules and, in addition to finding out just how much I like them, realized that consequences are a fundamental aspect of all gaming, especially when looking at the difference between storytelling and door-kicking.
Basically, the difference between the two comes down to the consequences of the actions of the characters. In a door-kicking game, the only consequence to players wading through a dungeon, killing monsters, and taking their stuff is the material rewards of the loot, the experience gained from the battles, and the admiration of the local village for slaying the monsters. In short, it’s all positive. The only negative consequences the characters face are directly related to combat. Failing a reflex save against a dragon‘s breath weapon has the negative consequence of being set on fire. Characters in door-kicking games do not have to deal with negative social consequences for their actions. The villagers never accuse them of bankrupting their entire town through the sale of overpriced magical loot. The monsters never have families that seek vengeance. The players never have to acknowledge that they might have been in the wrong for their actions, forcing them to suffer the consequences for their rash actions. For some games, this is fine. As I have said before, door-kicking games are not my style, but that does not make them bad games.
In contrast, storytelling games focus on the negative consequences of the actions of the player characters, even if those actions were themselves good. When a wizard sets a barge full of vampires on fire, he might have to deal with the fact that those vampires had human hostages hidden down below he was not aware of. Yes, he killed the vampires, but those unfortunate hostages were also killed and he is to blame. This is not to punish the player for making the “wrong choice,” though. Quite the opposite. It is meant to encourage that player to overcome a challenge put forth that cannot just be solved by swinging a sword or casting a spell. Guilt, self-loathing, doubt, all of these things make for powerful role-playing moments, and the character is all the more glorious after overcoming these challenges.
Characters dealing with the consequences of their actions are what make for a memorable game and even more memorable characters. It’s great when these consequences are positive, but they are all the more personal when you have to suffer through the negative ones.
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