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I'm working on a unified conflict system for a lightweight setting-agnostic RPG ruleset. The beta version is available on my website, although I have changed a lot of rules since that was released. My conflict system is heavily inspired by the way it's done in the FATE system. Characters inflict stress on opponents with attacks and characters can take relatively few points of stress before being incapacitated. The system is the same for combat, social conflicts, or intellectual debates.

I'm having trouble figuring out how to make interesting rules for headshots and other drastic actions. In my experience, in any game, players will often want to aim for the head with a gun or do some other action which will immediately remove an opponent from a conflict. Typically, this happens when a player feels her character has a high amount of precision but perhaps less stopping power, or when a player feels an opponent is unusually threatening and resistant to normal approaches.

From what I can see, there are three unsatisfying approaches to headshots:

  1. Disallow them. Your character is already "trying as hard as he can" to hit them in the head or other vulnerable spots. Definitive, but a cheap solution.
  2. Allow them, but give them a disappointing result. Shooting someone in the head doesn't kill them, but just makes them skip their turn or take double damage or get a penalty to act. Tends to hurt suspension of disbelief.
  3. Allow them, with dramatic effect, but at a low success rate. If headshots kill instantly, you can give them a massive to-hit penalty to keep them from becoming a dominant strategy... which makes them pointless to use and takes away their possibility for interesting play.

Is there an approach to this sort of attack that I'm missing? Any systems that do this in a narratively interesting way?

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I don't think option 3 is so bad. Make the headshot into a hail mary pass. The players always have that option if they're desperate enough, and when it actually does work out it'll be pretty memorable. –  valadil Oct 26 '12 at 20:25
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I suggest saying "Boom!" when one occurs. I can't imagine that not making it more interesting. –  corsiKa Oct 26 '12 at 22:48
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Keep in mind that anything the players can do, their enemies theoretically could do as well... and there's a lot more enemies than there are players. –  Tacroy Oct 26 '12 at 23:04
    
2) is not really unrealistic. There are loads of people, that survived after head show/shrapnel to the head (maybe call it a brain shot, huh). Also, if gun damage is substantional, doubling it should pretty much kill instantly. –  Vorac Oct 29 '12 at 13:41
    
Valadil: True enough. Something I hadn't really thought through is that if a headshot would effectively do X times the damage of a normal attack, it's perfectly reasonable for it to have 1/X the chance of success. The expected value is comparable, and the extra cool factor will make up for the low, low chance in many players' minds. –  Gregory Avery-Weir Nov 6 '12 at 23:32

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Since you are building your system with inspiration from FATE, let's look at how this could be done in FATE as it is written. I'll assume the Dresden Files iteration of the rules as that is what FATE Core is being based on.

(I'm also going to address the general case before dealing with the specifics in your question).

The thing to remember is that headshots are hard (and should be, see below). You need to deal enough stress to the target to blow past their stress track and force them to at least take a consequence. This requires some manoeuvring, for example…

  • Go shopping for a nice sniper rifle (gain a weapon that deals +3 stress)
  • Also get a good telescopic sight (manoeuvre, resources check, telescopic sight on my gun)
  • Hide (manoeuvre, stealth check, he'll never see me coming)
  • Aim (manoeuvre, guns check, in my sights)
  • Wait for the perfect moment (manoeuvre, discipline check, standing in the open)

Then the PC fires. They get their gun skill, the roll of the dice, +3 stress from the weapon and have 4 aspects they can tag for free. Assuming they are Good with guns, that's an average of 14 stress less whatever defence the target manages to put up. Say they have a stress track 5 boxes long and net out on 2 for the defence, that's 9 past it and they have to take a moderate and a serious consequence to avoid being taken out … and at that gives two more aspects that can be tagged for free. The shooter could also spend fate points on whatever other aspects they have available to them.

Alternatively, if the GM agrees, tag the aspects for effect and narrate the one shot kill. The player earned it with all the manoeuvring in advance.

On the other hand, the PC might be facing some mooks (really not the situation you were talking about, but I'll mention it for completeness). They only have a couple of stress boxes and can't take consequences, so there is nothing wrong with narrating them being taken out as taking a bullet to the face.

Earlier I said that headshots should be hard. If they were easy, then there would be no point in being good with guns. You can just take headshots all the time. (It's the age old problem of balance, if there is a cheap but effective tool, everyone will take it at the expense of interesting alternatives).

And your specific points, and how they relate to what I just wrote…

Typically, this happens when a player feels her character has a high amount of precision but perhaps less stopping power

In a system modeled after FATE, stopping power is represented by the weapon bonus and is layered on top of precision. The trick is to make sure that the precision really is good enough, and that is what I dealt with up above. Getting a snap shot off at somebody's head is difficult, so it requires a really high result to pull off.

or when a player feels an opponent is unusually threatening and resistant to normal approaches.

A simple exchange of gunfire isn't going to the job. Taking an approach that isn't normal means manoeuvring. Get cover, get distractions, get help, get the opponent stuck in tar, and so on. Build the aspects up and then exploit them.

Allow them, but give them a disappointing result. Shooting someone in the head doesn't kill them, but just makes them skip their turn or take double damage or get a penalty to act. Tends to hurt suspension of disbelief.

A disappointing result isn't a bullet in the head that has little effect. It is a shot almost hit the target, but (because they moved) only winged them causing blood to run into their eyes, or shattered the mirror beside them causing them to turn to look at what happened and be distracted, or exploded the bag of flour next to their head and filled the air with dust.

Allow them, with dramatic effect, but at a low success rate. If headshots kill instantly, you can give them a massive to-hit penalty to keep them from becoming a dominant strategy... which makes them pointless to use and takes away their possibility for interesting play.

This is one reason I like the FATE system so much. The precise details of what happened come after the roll and the use of aspects. It doesn't give a binary result. An ideal result is that the bullet kills them. The worst case result is that it misses entirely. But there are many positions in the middle that hurt the enemy without being a complete success … and if the bullet misses, enters their shoulder, angers them and makes the PC who fired the shot a target … well, that's dramatic.

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Thank you; I'll be using an approach like the one you discuss, I think. The necessity of preparing for a headshot is an interesting concept, and I appreciate the reminder that an attempted headshot can sometimes result in a partial success and still be satisfying. –  Gregory Avery-Weir Nov 6 '12 at 23:32

One really interesting technique I've seen for this kind of thing is the use of a kind of scatter diagram. I'm not sure in exactly which system I saw first described. It may have been Millenium's End.

Millenium's End, by Charles Ryan, has a mechanic of transparent overlays which show the spread of hits which are put on silhouettes of targets.

It requires two props:

Prop1: A transparent sheet with a circular ringed target drawn onto it. On the target there are a number of bullet holes marked - each one with a hit bracket on it. So the one in the bull's eye might be 20+ and then the one close to the bull may be 18-19 and as they go out from the centre, the numbers get smaller until the outside ones are 2 and 1. The bullet holes are kind of randomly distributed round the rings like a scatter shot with the best numbers clustered in the middle.

Prop2: An outline of a human (or the creature you're aiming to hit) drawn on a bit of paper.

The basic system is that you'd then allow the player to place the target overlay any way they choose on to the person they're trying to shoot at. They then make the skill roll and you select which bullet hole is the 'Hit' and decide where the victim has been shot (or if the mark isn't on the victim, then it's a miss). (obviosuly, if you don't roll well enough to get any of the dots - then it's also considered a miss)

If they put the cluster of best shots near the head - they have a better chance of a head shot, but the lower numbers will more likely be misses - to place the overlay such that the maximum number of possible hits are within the victim you need to focus on the T shape of body and shoulders - hence making head shots less likely (but potentially still possible with a carefully placed overlay).

A slightly simpler, but similar system, is to have the outline of the victim and just select a target point, and then do a deviation based on the roll - so move the hit 0.X inches in a random direction from the target based on margin of success or failure.

The Babylon Project, by Joseph Cochran, has a standard hex-map of the body, with misses recorded as number of hexes off from your target location.

With this kind of system in place you could use location based effects for damage - such as knockdowns for the legs, disarms for the arms, and double damage or knockouts for the head - and then let the players choose how to aim to get the results they want.

I have used this technique for gunshot attacks - and I think it could well work for melee as well with a little thought - however it does tend to be quite slow if you require it for all attacks - so it may not be suitable to a combat heavy game or system. One option for added speed that I have tried is to only require the overlay for "Aimed Shots" and have "Snapshots" simply miss on the lower rolls and hit a random location on a success.

It can be fun drawing the outlines for different victims too - and makes hitting small targets like bats pretty difficult without needing special rules for "Small object" modifiers.

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+1 I like the scatter idea. Aiming for something as small as a head, coupled with the fact that the head isn't the center, means that there'd be more misses in the mix. –  LitheOhm Oct 27 '12 at 22:01
    
Very interesting concept. I think this would be really cool in a more simulationist system; mine's very lightweight and story-focused, so this is a bit complex for me. –  Gregory Avery-Weir Nov 6 '12 at 23:33

Consider option 4: Allow them to try, with a penalty that's non-trivial (i.e. more than just -1) but also not crippling (so no more than a -5 on a d20), but the character has to spend some relatively slowly recharging resource just to try (so they lose it whether their attempt succeeds or fails). I'm not familiar with FATE, but in D&D 4e I'd say make it cost an action point to try; in nWoD-Hunter it would require you to risk a willpower dot, and you'd forfeit the normal bonuses for doing so. Alternately you could simply introduce a new kind of narrative currency, "badass points" or whatever you want to call it, that allows characters to attempt highly effective stunts like this; players would get 1 badass point per session or so (adjust this based on how powerful they are).

The advantage to this approach is that it allows the players to do cool things that are high risk high reward, but moves some of the risk away from "you fail and accomplish nothing" into a resource specifically designed for doing cool things. It also explains why NPCs aren't headshotting the PCs all the time: they don't have badass points (or whatever) to spend, because they're not special the way characters are (bosses should have a point or two, but they should generally use them for impressive AOE attacks instead of one-shotting a single PC).

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Having "cool fuel" is often a fun idea. In my case, I have re-roll fuel like Savage World's bennies, which serves a similar purpose and lets you increase the chances of a high-risk maneuver. –  Gregory Avery-Weir Nov 6 '12 at 23:34

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