You Died. Would You Rather Not?
Ludonarrative dissonance refers to when the narrative and gameplay of a game contradict each other. This is common in tabletop adventure games, especially in the many versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Hit points in these games can cause ludonarrative dissonance, as a high-level character may be able to survive multiple attacks that would kill a low-level character. This can be particularly noticeable in the OSR, although it is not as extreme as in 5th edition due to characters having reduced HP.
This raises the question of how to incorporate the gameplay mechanic of hit points into the narrative of the game. One option is to describe each attack as potentially lethal and have the higher-level character endure more of them. However, game masters often just state the amount of damage taken without addressing it within the narrative, possibly for the sake of convenience or due to the inconsistency with the story.
DM: You are hit for seven points of damage.
The AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide suggests ideas for handling combat in the "Encounters, Combat, and Initiative" section.
Damage scored to characters or certain monsters is actually not substantially physical — a mere nick or scratch until the lost handful of hit points are considered—it is a matter of wearing away the endurance, the luck, the magical protections.
—AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide
As well as the above the Dungeon Master's Guide recommends interpreting combat as taking place over a period of time, with multiple attacks and defenses occurring before a potentially lethal blow is dealt. This is why combat in AD&D is divided into 1-minute rounds, during which multiple attacks may be made. In OSE, rounds are 10 seconds long, which allows for multiple attacks but may not justify multiple potentially lethal blows. However, it can be easy to forget to incorporate this into the narrative of the game, especially during long combat with many attacks being exchanged.
The solution I am experimenting with follows the pattern given in this title: "You died, would you rather not?"
This method borrows from story games like Ten Candles and allows players to describe their own successes in the game. The process involves describing the intent of the attacking creature and the damage the player must take (or rolling for it), then allowing the player to narrate their response as they see fit. The game master can approve the narration or provide an alternative if necessary. This approach helps players adapt to the idea that not all damage is physical harm and allows for more natural storytelling in the game.
- Describe the lethal intent of the attacking creature and inform the players of the damage they must take [or simply roll it for them].
- [Allow the player to roll this damage], and narrate as they feel appropriate.
- Approve the narration (by moving on), or quickly provide an alternative if you feel they overstepped.
This change in narrative control helps players quickly adapt to the idea that not all damage is physical harm and makes the transition feel natural. Consider the following examples. First before this transition of narrative control.
DM: "you bash the goblins dagger out of the way, take 3 damage."
Player: "from what, you said I bashed the dagger out of the way."
DM: "the process of bashing."
And then after the transition of narrative control.
DM: "The goblin plunges it's dagger directly into your heart. You die... would you rather not?"
Player: "Uhhh sure?"
DM: "How do you avoid the goblins dagger? taking only d4 damage instead, keep in mind how close to future death the dagger is making you."
Player: [rolls d4: 2] "Umm, I'm left on 1 hp, so I guess I'm able to move so the dagger only goes between my lower ribs, instead of killing me."
DM: "Alright, next up..."
This process of describing how damage is lethal and then avoided should not be repeated each time damage is dealt. It can be used as an introduction for each player and then, once they are used to it, they can narrate their own harm avoidance as they see fit.
DM: "The goblin plunges it's dagger towards your heart for 1d4 damage."
Player: [rolls d4: 3] "I bash the dagger away with my shield, losing 3 hit points."
The character in the above example is a level 9 fighter, and so those three damage put them in much less harms way than the low level magic-user from our previous examples. As such, they describe the combat as far less impactful.
This system also allows either the game master or the player to roll damage.
DM: "The goblin plunges it's dagger towards your heart for" [rolls d4: 3] "three damage."
Player: "I bash the dagger away with my shield."
This system also allows for a new phrase that the game master can use when a player is reduced to zero hit points: "How do you want to die today?" This allows the player to narrate their own epic and heroic demise in the way they wish. This idea was inspired by Matthew Mercer's popular phrase "How do you want to do this?" for defeating monsters. This lets players craft the epic death scenes their characters deserve.
Some people might argue that armor class and hit points are different because armor class represents a player's ability to avoid harm through dexterity, armor, or a shield, while hit points represent physical wounds. However, the advice in the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide suggests a different perspective. Armor class can be seen as a measure of an enemy's ability to fail to harm the player, while hit points represent the player's ability to avoid death.