My group and I have had a lot of discussions recently about the abstraction used for Stress/Damage in my new game, Dream Riggers. It’s led to a few long emails to explain my intention and thoughts, and it’s something I’ve never really done before – I’ve never really tried to explain my take on abstraction and its use in RPGs. Specifically, the abstraction used for damage.
This was mostly initiated because a character received a ton of Stress – used as a measure of negative outcomes that can lead to a character being removed from a scene – after failing to hotwire a car while fearing the police would soon arrive. In Dream Riggers, physical, emotional, and mental stress are all put together into Stress, and enough Stress can remove a character from a scene (the game – like Nefertiti Overdrive – does not have PC death)
Let’s start with conflict resolution. If you’ve seen any of my games, you know that I reserve conflict resolution – when the dice hit the table to figure out the outcome of a task, called a Test in Dream Riggers – for significant actions. One does not undertake a Test to take out the trash. Tests are only for actions that have interesting consequences. Hot wiring a car in an alley when no one is around? No need to roll, unless that car is something special (a police car maybe, or a gang leader’s bullet-proof SUV). Trying to do the same after a major battle while the sound of police sirens approach? In that situation, it definitely needs a Test.
In the game, the character failed. The Stress inflicted by failure is determined randomly, and the character received a lot of Stress, enough that one more failure would likely remove him from the Scene. Recovery of Stress during the game is difficult and requires the use of Fortune Points, a scarce resource. The players wondered about the severe impact of a failed Test, especially when it was psychological rather than physical.
To me, it made sense. Think of giving a speech in front of a crowded auditorium. Will your head blow up? No. But if you flub it, you are generally stressed to the point where you have problems doing even simple tasks – your hands shake, you have difficulty focusing, your thoughts are all scattered. Depending on myriad other factors – lack of sleep, the person before you totally aced the presentation, you have a sick relative in the hospital about whom you are worried – the stress can be greater or lesser.
This is why I term it Stress rather than damage. Failure at a mental task, like trying to debug software or figure out a mathematical equation – can also have severe impacts, sometimes debilitating depending on the situation.
I am consciously trying to keep the system simple. Very simple. Because it is a simple system, it can’t factor in every possible modifier and influence, so it has a very random determination of the amount of Stress failure causes.
This places a separate and significant demand on the players: it is up to them – and the GM – to explain why the failure inflicted the amount of Stress it did. In a fight, that’s easy – low Stress equals a mere scratch while max Stress means a bullet in the chest or throat. It can be harder when it is mental or emotional. However, I believe with some thought and an understanding of one’s character, a good explanation is never that far away.
For the particular situation – the failure to hotwire a car while the police are approaching – and the outcome – a huge amount of Stress – made sense in the context of the character. The player had presented to the character as arrogant and the character’s power (these are superhumans) was that he was a super-genius. In failing at such a mundane task, I could see the character having a bit of a meltdown, unable to grasp how he could possibly have failed. “I’m the fucking smartest man in the world, you stupid piece of shit!”
I like having the threat of removal from a scene implicit to any Test, so to me, this worked out perfect. Of course, your mileage may vary.