I’ve been a tabletop RPG gamer for decades. No, I’m not going to toss out how, gosh, I’m so old-school ’cause I know how to calculate THAC0, and that makes me better than you. I mean, I do know how to calculate THAC0, but I never played 2e D&D.
Wait. Actually, if I never played it, but I still know how to work THAC0 . . . I can’t figure out if that makes me a better nerd, or a more pathetic one. You know what, I’m not going to think about that one too deeply. Moving on.
The point is, I’ve been gaming for a while, and most of that time has been as the GM. I liked running narrative games; games with a high degree of story, where exploring the world and its issues through the eyes of the characters was more important than loot or monster stats. I actually got pretty well-known in the DC area as someone who could craft Dungeons & Dragons, a game built around kicking in doors and boosting stats, into a game where players cared more about the NPCs they would meet than their next magic weapon.
Then I switched to the Fate RPG, a game built around narrative play, and I’ve never gone back. I have, however, tweaked it a lot over my seven years of play.
The game is built for that; the designers refer to it as “turning dials,” and actively encourage fans to mess about with the rules. I have variants on health, actions, invokes, story montages, magic systems, and more, and I’m going to post a series on alternate rules for anyone to use. Today, I’m going to look at the health system.
In regular Fate, you don’t have hit points. Instead, you have stress boxes and consequences. I found them both to be quite intuitive, and they create a surprising tactical challenge when facing danger. They’re good for both the kind of combat gamers are used to in something like D&D, and also for social encounters that most gamers only encounter as part of a LARP or a very narrow specialty game focused on social challenges. They even work for non-conflicts that create a lot of effort, where the “fight” is against something abstract like repairing your starship, researching a magic ritual, or modeling a courtroom drama.
The problem is that even though I found it intuitive, and obviously a lot of Fate players did as well, it was consistently the biggest stumbling block in explaining the game to new players who were used to traditional hit points.
If you’re not used to Fate but you’ve somehow gotten this far, you can read about the health system by clicking this shiny and lovingly-crafted link. I’ll give you the TL;DR version here, though.
Every character starts with a certain amount of stress boxes. In the simplified Fate Accelerated Edition, which is where that link goes, you have three stress boxes; in the main Fate Core RPG, you have two but can get up to four. Either way, each stress box holds one more point of damage (called a shift). If you take 2 shifts of damage, you can absorb that with your #2 stress box. If you take another 2, however, you have to use your #3 stress box. Once that’s marked off, your #3 is full, and can’t hold any more — so you’ve “wasted” the ability to absorb that extra point of stress.
And you can only use one stress box per hit; any excess, any at all, and you’re “taken out.” Done. Finito. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dead, but you are defeated and unable to continue.
However, you can also take consequences. They’re a separate damage track, and come in sizes of 2, 4, 6, or 8. Taking a consequence absorbs that amount of stress, and there’s no limit on how many consequences you can use for a single hit. That means that, in the above example, the second 2-stress hit could instead be absorbed by a mild consequence.
The trade-off is that stress boxes are automatically cleared at the end of a scene, while consequences linger. Many gamers are used to effects, such as magic or health packs or something else, completely restoring their HP bar in time for the next fight; but once a “healing” effect is used on a consequence, it takes game time for it to get cleared again. Each progressive level of consequence takes more time to clear. On top of that, consequences can limit what your player can and cannot do (though there’s some very nice built-in incentive for that; if you’re curious, look up “compels”).
In this way, stress boxes (the first type of health) are actually ways you avoid taking damage, things that wear you down but you recover once you catch your breath. Consequences (the second type) are the “real” damage, something that lingers and is hard to shake, and creates openings for enemies to exploit. This system is far more dynamic than a simple health bar, and keeps the narrative at the forefront of something that in most games tends to break immersion rather than support it.
But how do you streamline it for people used to concrete numbers and have trouble with the change to a fundamentally abstract system? Well, I have two answers for that. The first just changes some terms and shifts thinking slightly, while the second is an entirely new health system.
Alternate Rule 1: Pass/Fail Health
Years ago, before Fate Core came out, Fred Hicks, one of the principle brains behind the system, wrote about alternate ways to use consequences. This particular rule is a riff on that concept, combining it with the idea of the Extra Effort rule from The Fate System Toolkit. In this version, because we’re specifically looking to describe things in a manner more familiar to “crunchy” games, we’ll rename stress boxes as avoidance, and consequences as wounds. While you can use the Fate health system for more than just physical injury, I’m going to stick with wounds just because it keeps the idea of serious injury front and center. It’s a lot easier to start with the concrete and move to the abstract than it is to go the other direction.
Using this system, a player will roll a defense against an attack as normal, which obviously determines success or failure. This roll can be affected by invokes, as normal, which adjusts success or failure accordingly. If a player would still fail the roll, however, he or she can then check off avoidance. This raises the total result by the value of the avoidance used, and the player is able to negate what is still technically their failure. A player can only avoid once per roll.
GM: “The orc charges at you, stabbing his spear at you with a” [rolls] “Great attack.”
Lisa: “I try to dodge, and” [rolls] “I get a Good defense. So you beat me by 1.”
GM: “By 2, actually. I have Weapon:1, so I get an extra shift when I succeed.”
Lisa: “Okay, I’m out of invokes and fate points, so I’m going to avoid it.” [Lisa checks off Avoidance 2.] “That makes my total go from 3 to 5. The spear narrowly misses me, and I stumble backward trying to keep him at a distance.”
A wound functions in the same way: it raises the total number without making it a success, and so keeps the exchange based on a single set of numbers (the amount rolled) rather than trying to juggle abstract concepts. In effect, it just merges stress with armor (or replaces it, if your game doesn’t use armor values).
This alternate version only reskins the default system, though. It takes the default and rephrases it for a positive result focused on the dice, and phrases stress as “effort expended” rather than kinda-sorta “health lost, but not really, but in a way.” It’s a halfway point between the abstract Fate style and the more concrete health bar used by the majority of gaming systems.
Alternate Rule 2: Hit Points
If a player is still having trouble with the move away from hit points, there’s an easy answer: just use hit points.
The problem with this is that the reason to use the normal Fate system is the way it weaves damage into the narrative focus of the game. If you just use hit points, there’s no real difference between being at maximum HP versus 1 HP; sure, you can add in certain effects that are locked to certain levels (25%, 50%, etc.), but that loses some of the tactical draw of the Fate stress/consequence system. How do you combine the two? Are you willing to take multiple mild consequences, giving an enemy more invokes, or do you want to take a single severe consequence even though it’s going to hang around for several sessions? Even if you keep consequences in the system, having a single HP bar just means that players have no incentive to take consequences until they’re almost at 0.
This was my dilemma when I started running a Fate game for a D&D crowd, reskinning the original Dresden Files RPG to run a Second Edition-era Forgotten Realms game. I loved the stress tracks and the way magic ran off of mental stress (which meant doing too much magic and having to take consequences meant overusing magic could literally drive you insane), but I was really the only one in the group who did. The others put up with it, but they kept wanting me to bring back hit points. At the time, I couldn’t figure out how to do it, but eventually I got it. It’s gone through some variations since then, but here’s the version I currently use.
Every character has two health bars: Stamina and Willpower. The value of each, in my games, is generally between 4 and 8, depending on abilities selected. This is roughly equivalent to the total amount of stress in Fate Accelerated (6, when you add up all the boxes). Like stress boxes, these bars don’t represent how close you are to death, but rather how close you are to injury. Each health track notes the half-health mark, rounded down: so if you have 7 Stamina, you’ve reached half-health at 3, rather than 3.5 or 4.
If any hit were to take you below your half-health mark, you are forced to take a wound (a modified consequence) or be taken out. Stamina and Willpower are not restored at the end of the scene, but rather once the character is able to take a breather, a short scene where they catch their breath, have some rations, grab some coffee, watch a little TV, etc.
A wound functions effectively like a consequence, but with a slight twist inspired by Fred Hicks’ old essay that I linked to earlier. Taking the route that it should feel positive, a wound restores health rather than negates damage; therefore, a severe Stamina wound would restore 6 Stamina.
(Though, as a side note, I personally use different names. I call the four levels minor, moderate, major, and massive, as alliteration and assonance are always awesome.)
Now, if a character with 7 Willpower were to take damage that drops them to 2 Willpower, and they restore 6 using a severe wound, that would take them to 8. In this system, they keep that extra Willpower until they take another hit or until the end of the scene, whichever comes first. This is balanced by how I have wounds last longer than normal: 1, 3, 6, or 10 rests, depending on the severity of the wound. A rest is an eight-hour period, theoretically a full night’s sleep (though there’s an option for rolling to count a smaller amount of time as a full rest: the difficulty is Average, +1 per hour of lost sleep). This means taking a wound is a bigger deal, but it also makes it more attractive in the moment — and definitely cinematic — to take a bullet to the shoulder in order to get closer to the Russian gangster who kidnapped the mayor’s daughter.
I linked this to rests rather than sessions because I wanted the focus to be on the character rather than on the metagame. There are pros and cons to each, of course. In standard Fate, a session is a variable amount of time that depends on the narrative, and the default system includes the ability to delay full recovery so that it makes sense for that same narrative. Linking it to rests means recovery is linked to time. If a major wound is a broken leg, then it doesn’t make sense that it would get healed in a week.
However, there’s an additional factor: if a player willingly ignores a rest in order to prolong a wound’s recovery, they get a free fate point over and above any compels on that wound’s aspect they might receive.
One of the reasons I like this particular system is that I also link it to certain character abilities, allowing for additional benefits by spending Stamina or Willpower. For example, a character might activate a stunt by pushing themselves to their limit, spending an amount of Stamina or Willpower to move faster, cast a spell, generate a quick invoke, etc., trading a momentary advantage for an immediate benefit. That, however, will be covered in another post.
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