I’ve never been much for systems that use “succeed at a cost” mechanics. I prefer the binary of pass or fail when it comes to skill checks most of the time. Largely, both have to do with stakes. What is lost if you fail? What is gained if you succeed. What might be the consequences of succeeding but at a cost? The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of what I’ve learned about stakes in games really comes from Amber (as usual) where most often, the question isn’t do I succeed or fail but rather, what am I choosing between?
Resource based systems of attrition (like HP) are great abstracts of getting worn down in a fight or during your adventures, but they are not very good at conveying stakes. Especially in games with healing on demand. You go into every fight at full HP or you don’t go into the fight. HP (and similar wound structures) are not often seen as a spendable resource but rather as a gauge with only two settings: full or “not full.” My theory on this is twofold. The obvious answer is that gamers will always seek to maximize their advantages and limit their disadvantages. Makes sense. But I think the other part is that players don’t spend the resource in most cases… it is taken from them.
In D&D, you get into a fight, you get hit by a monster, you lose hit points. If you lose all of them, you are out of the fight. But what if you chose when you’d lose hit points? What if the player chose to spend the resources to stay in a fight – or go on to the next one – rather than having them simply mark off hit points in reaction to an attack?
I’m not 100% sure where this is headed, it’s just a thought I’ve been kicking around for a while. I have seen some systems that implement versions of this but not necessarily in a way that makes the decision one with real weight. It’s always still a very sterile mechanic rather than a connected mechanic that stays with the character in some way.
Usually, I prefer a kind of strange style of game at my table. I really like the mechanics of a game to feel like they are part of the way the story gets told. I like the idea that a confluence of random events and player choices can force the story in unexpected directions. Often, I find that a lot of the games I like (Shadowrun, D&D, etc.) do a surprisingly poor job of connecting the mechanics in that way.
During this process as I attempt to put the finishing touches on a game this November, this is definitely an idea I still need to wrap my head around. I’m still not sure how it plays out, but I feel there is something here… I just have to grasp it completely.