As I've been revising the foundational rules of Karma in the Dark for my first full release of Crossing Worlds, I've been reconsidering the utility, theme, and synergy of every mechanic. I found myself stuck on what to do with Harm for weeks. In the basic Forged in the Dark engine, harm is one of five possible consequences from a roll that doesn't get a 6 result. If you take harm, you write a short description in the box. Level 1 means you have decreased effect, level 2 means you have -1d, and level 3 means you need to push yourself or get assistance for actions.
Harm as it stands achieves three main purposes: narratively, it captures more long-standing injury; during scores, it creates a penalty for failure; and during downtime, it acts as a time/money sink because it requires downtime actions to recover.
Examining each purpose through the lens of Crossing Worlds, it didn't seem to fit.
Working in reverse order: downtime has been changed in CW (the name may even be different). Downtime/Build phase is about customization: you craft unique gear with professional skills, build up new contacts and relationships, and fight back at the status quo through your specific rebellion. It is much less "downtime" and much more "shaping the campaign world." Having recovery primarily as a time sink doesn't support this feel.
Harm as a penalty for failure creates two points of disconnect and a burden. First, the game focuses heavily on values and identity. A consequence of "you get shot in the shoulder" while "realistic" doesn't necessarily reinforce the focus on identity or values as the point of attack. Second, the GM decides the type of consequence which means they decide if a PC takes harm for a failure. In CW, there is a big emphasis on the players deciding what costs their PC's pay—what they are willing to compromise, and what they do not. While this can be said of any consequence, for harm the question of resistance feels less open than a complication or worse position; after all, harm as written will always have an ongoing mechanical penalty and time sink; it seems you should almost always resist it, making it a shallow choice. Finally, the penalties of harm add an additional cognitive burden to the already complicated process of action rolls. Now you need to remember you have less effect or -1d or need assistance. The penalty (in my view) isn't interesting enough to warrant the additional complexity. Especially in Crossing Worlds, which already has a heavy emphasis on a baseline of limited to no effect.
Once I looked at harm, I knew I wanted to revise it. But how? In Tides of Gold the answer was simple: modifiers are already a core part of the roll system, so make harm about negative modifiers. For Crossing Worlds it seemed more complicated. How could I make harm feel interesting in terms of resistance, penalty, and recovery?
I decided I wanted harm to use existing mechanical systems, not add new ones. The first choice was to make harm a progress clock. It has four segments, and once you fill the clock you are incapacitated. The next question became: what happens when you fill each segment? I decided I wanted harm to play into the core debate of "do I live out my ideals when it is hard, or sell out to make it easier?" I already had jaded qualities defined for when you overstressed. What if harm somehow made you act in a jaded way, but temporarily? Then resisting becomes more of a choice: I can resist and take stress, or accept and act more jaded, likely putting my PC or team's ideals in conflict. I (on brand for me) had a number of overly complicated systems for this over the past two weeks but didn't want to settle on any of them because they were complicated.
Inspiration for a solution came from a discussion on the Gauntlet forums about alternatives to harm in Powered by the Apocalypse games. One person mentioned harm limiting or impairing access to moves. While this doesn't translate exactly to FitD, it raised the question: what could I limit? And how would jaded instincts play into it?
My current solution follows.
You have a 4-segment progress clock. When you fill a segment, you lose access to the related trait unless your action embodies a jaded instinct.
Each clock segment is labeled with the associated trait; the player decides the order they fill in the segments. The possibilities are each attribute (cortex, meatbod, ego) or your soul (i.e. special abilities). If someone would take a fifth harm, they are removed from the action instead. With attributes, losing access to a trait means it acts as if you have 0 dice in the related actions. If you use those actions, you would roll 2d6 and keep the lowest. With your soul, it means you lose access to your special abilities.
In all cases, you can "regain" access, i.e. ignore the penalty, by describing the action in line with a jaded instinct. You can pick any of the listed jaded instincts and change it each time. So you could exploit someone in one case, coerce them in another, and act out of distrust in another. This way the player has many options to ignore the harm penalty in a flexible way that fits the narrative. However, every option is effectively selling out and risks advancing the team conformity tracker.
Jinx tries to con her way through a security checkpoint. She rolls a 2, 3, 4, on her perform. With a 4 she does it, but there is a consequence. Since she was in a desperate position, the GM decides she takes harm. Jinx's player fills in the harm-clock segment "meatbod" because it's the attribute she uses the least. She explains, "I think they let me through, but rough me up first, so I'm bruised and feeling extra cautious."
Later in the mission, Jinx needs to escape a group of pursuers and describes trying to parkour off a building. This uses Maneuver, a meatbod action. Her player has to decide: roll with 0 action dots, or work a jaded instinct into the action. She decides to use the "exploit" instinct; she grabs the unconscious security guard on the roof and uses him as a body shield as she backs towards the roof edge. Since her action exploited another, she can roll with her usual Maneuver dice pool.
Recovery in this system will happen during the Downtime/Build phase, but it will focus on the jaded aspect of harm. PC's will need to help another person, or accept help from another person, in order to clear harm. This means they still need to spend time recovering, but it will use contacts or teammembers to do it. The intention is to make recovery more narratively interesting, while also focusing on the existing system of contacts and teamwork, and theme of community.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.