The Art of War, Part I (Pain Hurts)

This is the first of a two part blog detailing the peculiarities of combat within the Mythological Earth.

Combat, as outlined in the rules of Faerie Tales & Folklore, is nasty business and death is always a possibility (if not likely). In truth however, violence REALLY is nasty business and death really is an ever present possibility. The consequences of violence are not confined to death or dismemberment, but also infection, healing, and the difficulties of acting while wounded. In this blog, I am going to examine the deadly nature of combat in the Mythological Earth and how this danger is mitigated in ways that are meaningful to the story. (Continued Below)

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I would like to open with the most basic measure of violence, the hit. Unlike most other OSR titles, Faerie Tales & Folklore uses the “hit” as a measure of what keeps a character, or creature, conscious rather then the more common hit points. “A Roleplayer’s Guide to the Mythological Earth” defines a hit thus:

“In the most simplistic terms, a hit is considered to be a fatal blow in a man-sized creature.”

This paints a clear picture of what a hit actually is, a fatal blow, and frames it within the context of a man-sized creature. Most creatures and characters either have, or begin with a single hit. One hit, by anyone or anything, and they face the throws of a death spiral. Characters gain more hits as they gain levels, and many creatures begin with more, but a hit none-the-less indicates no “mere flesh wound”.

In Faerie Tales & Folklore there are two types of hits, cumulative and simultaneous. Most creatures and characters have cumulative hits, which accumulate without healing in a manner similar to hit points. Simultaneous hits are possessed by higher level characters and creatures of great power. These hits are replenished after each set of turns (a round) and thus require such characters or creatures to by depleted of all their hits in in single round. For characters, hits switch from cumulative to simultaneous after a level specified by their class (4th for fighting-men or 8th for magic-users and sneak-thieves). This jump to simultaneous hits is usually preceded by the ability to engage in mythic combat one level earlier (listed in the level benefits as “hero -1”). This step in character advancement is important, allowing players to engage creatures of much greater power, while acting as a deterrent for lesser characters.

Beyond the separation of cumulative and simultaneous hits, Faerie Tales & Folklore uses a mechanic called the “hit penalty” to simulate the impairment of serious wounds. Each hit a character or creature takes adds another point of hit penalty, and each point of hit penalty applies that penalty to all d20 rolls made by that character or creature. Unlike hits, hit penalty is not removed each round for those with simultaneous hits. Hit penalty can lead to creatures being pummeled into ineffectuality by stalwart adventurers. Even though it is not specifically stated in the rules, a creature or character who has acquired a hit penalty of 20 has most likely been rendered useless, but not dead or unconscious. Hit penalty, once accrued, can only be removed with time and healing.

This brings us to the save or die roll. This mechanic was created to uphold the “single arrow fells the great dragon” trope common in literature and film, while also providing a way to avoid such a fate. The war game used as inspiration for many of Faerie Tales & Folklore’s mechanics contained many ways for even multi-hit characters to be killed with but a single die roll. Though this concept works fine for a war game, it can cause issues in games where the story is central. The save or die roll is simple, you are allowed a number of saves equal to your remaining hits, each failed save results in a lost hit, and a successful save stops the series of the saves.

Example: A character with 4 hits and a constitution of 10 is hit with a critical strike. The character rolls save #1 (of 4) and the result is a 12, thus causing a loss of a hit and forcing the next roll. Roll #2 (of 4) results in a 15, causing the loss of a second hit and forcing the next roll. Role #3 (of 4) results in 9, a success and ending this save or die roll with the loss of 2 hits and 2 points being added to hit penalty.

There are many causes of save or die rolls in the Mythological Earth, though the most common is the ever present 5% chance of a critical hit (as shown in the example above). A critical hit, scored by any combat roll that results in a natural 20, triggers a save or die roll using the constitution attribute for the save. Poison, spells, and using two handed weapons against lightly armored targets are other example sources of save or die rolls. This mechanic is useful in both maintaining the highly dangerous feel of combat, even as the players acquire more hits, and protecting important creatures and characters from some measure of bad luck. (Continued below)

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Healing is problematic within the Mythological Earth, and we wont even get into the chance of infection (rule hidden on page 278). Without any form of aid, the process can be inconsistent at best and even with aid, it is slow. Magical healing, even by way of potion, cannot be used regularly enough to radically alter this issue. Furthermore, hits must be healed before hit penalty, thus extended the effects of that penalty. Players are likely to come to the understanding that being injured is not easily remedied and that major injuries can force a character to be out of action for a while. This alone can be a good reason for a player to bring along hirelings, as they can offer something to do if the their primary character is presently out of commission.

At this point, it should be clear that getting in a dust up while adventuring in within the Mythological Earth can be quite dangerous. In fact, it would be wise for players to keep in mind that any engagement, or hit, can be fatal. This sense of danger is intended to provide more meaningful combat by creating a greater sense uncertainty and tension during any given battle. This uncertainty should (and I stress SHOULD) provide players with cause to seek other solutions to problems then violence, though violence cannot always be avoided. So what possibilities exist to mitigate the deadly nature of combat within the Mythological Earth? Beyond the classics of raise dead, reincarnate, etc there are two, maiming and plot armor. Both of these options can be used to the benefit of the ongoing narrative when a death might otherwise complicate the story.

Maiming is the more grotesque method of avoiding a death, and the option I encourage using when a player is facing death more from poor choices then bad dice rolls. Using this option almost irrevocably changes a character, providing a nagging and constant reminder of the misadventure that led to the injury. Even still, this presents an option to death that can benefit a strong narrative rather then destroy it. Such characters are often forced to rise beyond their handicaps to become even greater then they were before the event. The myths of Tyr and Nuada Airgetlám are examples of such injury.

Plot armor is gained through good roleplaying, the use of virtues and vices, along with one’s introduction line. At the end of a session, players can award other players story benefits for roleplaying their dramatis personae, or character, well. One of the uses of such story benefits is to buy an instance of “plot armor” to avoid a death. I tend to prefer using the plot armor option in situations where the character is facing death by way of chance rather then poor choices. This option leaves a character in a death spiral (so death may yet occur) but alive.

Story benefits and plot armor can be also be used to encourage a player to act more like the character they intended to play. Even when a course of action might not be in the characters best interest. In this situation, it is not the players poor choices that has the character facing death, but who the character actually is– That makes for good storytelling and should be rewarded.

Example: A player has created a fighting-man who has the berserkr ability and the vice “I react violently when taunted or slandered”. This character is insulted at a mead hall, he attacks the man insulting him (not knowing the man is a great hero). In the ensuing fight, the player’s character receives a mortal wound from a save or die roll, which allows no death spiral. However, since the player was fond of playing the character as reckless as he was written, the player had a story benefit available (from the last time he charged a slanderous tongue). Using this benefit to buy plot armor, the character instead entered the throws of a death spiral and slowly recovered after the great hero afforded him a bit of mercy by not finishing him off. Thus, the very thing that kept this character alive was the continued poor choice of attacking people who insult him.

The idea of “plot armor” is intended to keep important characters alive after a run of bad luck (or good roleplaying) in order to prevent the loss of a good storyline. Plot armor can only be gained through story benefits however, so a player needs to earn them before this option may be used. Even then, this use of a story benefit can only be done once per month of game time. This option fills a great many classic narrative tropes, from the classic “Oh no! Our hero is mortally wounded! Tune in next week!” to the death and rebirth cycles found within the hero’s journey. Since recovering from such an injury “in-game” takes time, this option offers a great opportunity to “reinvent” a character to keep them fresh. Change a virtue, or vice; alter their introduction line; etc allowing a character to organically evolve from a serious defeat can sometimes reinvigorate a player’s interest in that character.

The two options presented above offer interesting ways to handle an unexpectedly deadly fight. These options should not end up being a regular rescue from poor choices though, hence their limitations. Both options aid in the mitigation of an extremely deadly combat system in ways that are beneficial to the story. Most importantly, these options do not seriously detract from the danger of violence in the Mythological Earth. Each of the aforementioned facets of how violence is handled in Faerie Tales & Folklore adds to the gritty nature of the game. The looming shadow of death keeps the game tense and the outcome of combat uncertain. It is through these simple game mechanics that I hoped to provide combat with what I viewed as an efficient level of detail.

Narrators should come to understand the deadly nature of the Mythological Earth and have the creatures and characters under their control act accordingly. Most creatures are not going to fight to the death when an escape route is available. Creatures and characters with magical abilities are likely to bring the full weight of those to bear in an attempt to stay alive. Enemies will run, hide, fight dirty and otherwise “do what it takes” to survive, and it is advised that players take a similar approach (unless prohibited by the previously mentioned “good roleplaying”). To be clear, the quick and deadly nature of combat should be mirrored in how the narrator approaches the actions of the creatures and characters they control. Half of the battle against “murder hobos” is not providing the setting where being a murder hobo works. When a party has to deal with enemies who surrender, run, or otherwise break the mold of “fight and die”, that party is likely to face more complex and morally difficult scenarios then the classic “hunt monster, kill monster, collect the monster’s loot, rinse and repeat”.

It has been my intention to offer some insight into why the combat system in Faerie Tales & Folklore works the way it does. I hoped to shed some light on some of the underlying mechanics I needed to create while moving ideas from a war game into a more narrative format. In the end, my desire was to reinforce the savage and unpredictable nature of violent encounters, while providing mechanics that encouraged more realistic behavior from the inhabitants of the Mythological Earth. My success is likely a matter of both opinion and debate but I have found the results enjoyable, I hope others do as well.

Enjoy your time at the game table friends, and remember… Pain hurts.

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