Continuing from last week to hit the big four system elements identified in part 3:

The Damage System

In combat, the shifts past the target’s defense becomes damage. If you roll a 3 and the target only gets 1 on defense, you did 2 damage. That’s about the point the damage system stops being typical.

In Spirit of the Century, player characters start with a base of 5 wound levels (called Physical Stress), and can get up to +3 from the Endurance skill and +1 from stunts. These don’t work like hit points: the damage dealt is the number of the stress box checked off, but all other boxes remain untouched. So, for the 2 damage hit above, the target would mark off his second stress box, leaving the first one empty. If the target takes damage that would fill an already-checked box, however, the damage “rolls up” and fills the next highest empty box. If the target took a second hit for 2 damage, the third box would be checked.

If the target has to fill a box higher than one on his sheet, he must take a Consequence: a temporary Aspect representing a wound or other complication inflicted by the attack. Consequences are the only thing that persists through the end of a combat: once PCs have time to take a breather, all Stress gets erased. Consequences rise in severity as more of them are taken, and the fourth (without stunts that increase this number) takes the character out (either killing or otherwise incapacitating as the attacker decides). Instead of waiting to be beaten to death, the target can, on taking a consequence, offer to concede: the target is incapacitated before he would technically have to be, but on his terms (typically a good idea when death is on the table in a fight).

This method for handling damage is more or less unique in RPGs, and, on paper, is an amazing tradeoff between the constant schizophrenia of RPG combat design: how do you create a damage system where heroes aren’t afraid of getting into a fight but targets can still be killed in one shot by weapons that should have that power?

In practice, even for a pulpy game where heroes are meant to take blow upon blow without complaint, the SotC damage system has some problems.

The first issue is simply that there are too many Stress levels: all PCs have 5 boxes at a minimum, and can have up to 9 if they make Endurance their best skill and take the stunt. In an even fight, beating a target by two is a significant accomplishment, so typical opponents must be hit successfully 3-7 times before they even start taking consequences (i.e., the only damage that will stick with the character between fights). In my experience, PCs almost never took a consequence unless they were completely outclassed by an enemy, and any NPC not using minion rules (discussed next week) wouldn’t go down until dogpiled for several rounds by every PC.

The second level is more of an inherent problem with the method for assessing damage: rolling up tends to quickly invalidate high-shift hits. If a target gets hit for a high number of shifts amidst several minor hits, the high shifts are effectively wasted: three 1s and a 4 is identical to four 1s for most purposes, because the fourth 1 would roll up to 4 anyway. In my combats, I would frequently see one lucky high roll against a target that would eventually be washed away by all the lower level boxes filling up with minimal hits. Since hits of greater than 2 only happen on lucky rolls, when a bunch of tags get piled on, or when the target is way outclassed anyway, a target’s stress boxes frequently mean, in practical terms, “you can take this many hits of 1+ Stress, don’t worry about how much more than 1 the total is unless it’s a lot more than 1.”

This seems to be largely a strange evolution of how challenge ladders worked in FATE 2.0: extended challenges worked in much the same way as damage, except levels could have multiple boxes. Rolling high and skipping lower levels is more significant in:

  1. OOOO
  2. OOO
  3. OO
  4. O

Than it is in:

  1. O
  2. O
  3. O
  4. O

Ultimately, I feel like Stress boxes kept an interesting mechanic between 2.0 and 3.0, but lost an important element to keep that mechanic useful.

The Tactical System

The last major element core system of a FATE game is how combat is laid out, tactically. Unlike most games with tactical movement in combat, instead of using a grid, GMs are encouraged to lay conflict areas out in zones: interesting small areas within the larger combat where opponents can reach one another. Zones can be of variable size more or less defined as, “the maximum amount of space required to fit a fistfight.” Zones can have boundaries such as walls that make them harder to get between, and other barriers like doors that are also difficult to get through. In principle, you should be able to take a floorplan for an area and carve it up into interesting places to have a fight, and each of those becomes a zone.

Zones are easier to handwaive in a game than a D&D-style grid structure with adjacency effects, but they’re useful to keep in mind as they’re the major limiter on movement and range. When moving around the battlefield, moving around in a zone is free, moving into an adjacent zone (with no barriers) is automatic and imposes a -1 penalty to your action when you get there, and moving more than 1 zone (or through a barrier) requires your action to make an Athletics roll with the Shifts determining how far you can move (I did find myself house ruling that you can always move 1, even if you blow your Athletics roll, for the PCs with low Athletics*). You can only attack people in the same zone with hand-to-hand combat, one zone away with thrown weapons, and 2+ zones away with firearms (one of the major benefits to guns in a game where everything does the same damage).

In my experience, zones are a really fun way of providing some level of tactical action in a fight without focusing too much on specific positioning; it’s probably as close to having a positioning system for combat that still feels freeform as pen-and-paper games are likely to get. Unless everyone in the fight is a hand-to-hand fighter (where, like in all games, the tendency is to drift into a big burly brawl), it also keeps things moving around the map.

My only real issue with it was primarily just my own difficulty finding useful, 1920s-appropriate floorplans of locations that lent themselves to being so divided. In theory, the system works way better with cluttered areas that feature doors and walls, but I often found myself with a more open warehouse, airstrip, or whatnot basically divided into a bigger variant of a grid. But that was my own problem having trouble coming up with really exciting places to have a fight.

* Edit 2-18-2011: On rereading the Athletics rules, I realized this was, in fact, not a house rule, but the actual rule. My bad.

Part 6