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I've always been bothered by the way resistances to non-damaging 'bad effects' are designed in RPGs, and I'd like to know if there are better ways to design it (before actually trying to do anything of my own). I'm talking about such effects as (usually non-damaging) temporary stunning, paralysing, blinding, charm, itching, loss of attributes or the like, primarily meant to be used in a conflict (most commonly a physical one).

I'm aware of two main approaches to designing them: save-or-succumb (which isn't the subject of this question, as I find it too easily subject to 'rocket tag' effects) and deplete-a-resource-to-resist (such as use of Willpower to resist being persuaded in Exalted 2e, or the way Control Points work in GURPS Technical Grappling and derivative mechanical frameworks).

The second design approach seems to solve at least part of the 'rocket tag' issue of save-or-succumb, but at least in the more simple implementations, has a bunch of common issues of its own:

  • If the resource doesn't regenerate meaningfully in a timeframe of a conflict, then full depletion of the resource can be pretty much equivalent to fully running out of HP - i.e. a complete loss in the conflict. At a minimum, this seems likely to lead to a full 'stunlock' of some sort.
  • It seems to be very easy to create a perverse incentive when multiple afflictions coexist in the same conflict, no matter which approach to balancing them amongst each other is chosen:
    • If all afflictions deplete the same amount of resistance resources, then this encourages having a cheap affliction whose sole purpose of depleting the resource (and not actually afflicting some negative effect of its own).
    • If afflictions cost the same but the one with a milder effect depletes more resources, it is incentivised to serve in the same role.
    • If afflictions with different degrees of effect nastiness cost the same and deplete the same, the 'weaker' one becomes pointless much of the time.
    • Note: for the purposes of this discussion, 'cost' may mean either literal cost in character creation points, or the cost in mana to cast, or even the more abstract 'cost' of being accessible on different levels in a levelled framework. It's not relevant which for the purposes of the analysis.
  • Conditional recovery of the depleted resistance resource pool (such as found in some non-tabletop RPGs) seems like it can easily lead to designing an overengineered system that's not very playable.

Are there system design patterns, principles or approaches that solve those common issues?

The way I see it, it should produce conflict cycles which look something like this (in simplified terms):

A and B, along with some other non-enumerated actors, are opposing Z.

  • A does some affliction, putting Z closer to being crowd controlled using A's methods.
  • B does some affliction, putting Z closer to being crowd controlled using B's methods.
  • Z does whatever attacks, afflictions etc.
  • A does some affliction, putting Z closer to being crowd controlled. Because of the effects of previous afflictive actions of both A and B, instead of merely becoming closer to crowd controlled, Z is actually crowd controlled this turn.
  • B does a normal attack.
  • Z either skips a turn or acts at a penalty, whichever is appropriate due to the crowd control, then recovers from the affliction. Recovery also means that Z regains most or all of the ablative resistance that was lost on the path to becoming crowd controlled by A.
  • A does an affliction again, bringing Z closer to crowd control, but most likely not achieving it for a second time yet.
  • B does an affliction, bringing Z closer to being controlled. Thanks to prior progress towards CC, this now does in fact lead to successfully crowd controlling Z.

If it's possible to achieve without making the pattern unwieldy and overengineered, it would be nice for there to be some synergy from the fact that both A and B are trying to crowd control the same target in close temporal proximity.


Directions that I think are more likely to help with the question:

  • A design pattern that would solve the listed issues / produce results similar to the described desired ones.
  • A set of principles from which such a pattern can be derived.
  • A worked example from any existing system that can be used to figure out the traits such a pattern should possess (and doesn't reintroduce the 'rocket tag' issue of save-or-succumb).
  • Possible frame challenge: a radically different approach / framework of resistance, which is neither save-or-succumb nor resistance-as-ablative-resource, and solves the issues of the latter without reintroducing the issues of the former.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not entirely sure what you're looking for. Is an accurate paraphrasing of the question something like Many RPGs use binary defenses, ablative defenses, or a combination; is there a third path? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 3 at 15:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ You seem to be missing one very very important case in the "balancing afflictions against each other" section. Notably, afflictions with higher degrees of nastiness costing more and depleting more (so a slow might cost 1 action and remove 1 defensive layer, where a paralyze may cost 3 actions and remove 3 defenses). Is this omission intentional, or is it an answer to your question? \$\endgroup\$ – Delioth May 3 at 15:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ What are you actually trying to do? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells May 4 at 1:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify on a technical, terminology level, you’re asking after the existence of a successful design pattern, right? And separately from that, I agree with Mark Wells that this question lacks a statement of purpose apart from seeming like just design noodlin’: what’s the practical application you’re working on that you haven’t stated? Lacking context undermines the ability to answer usefully. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 4 at 1:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with SevenSidedDie, this would be far more workable if we knew the concrete scenario you were dealing with instead of trying to resolve this in the abstract. However an additional problem is the last bullet point: the request for any other alternative system at all is an extremely broad request which will give us an endless list of answers recommending some form of system some game used to represent statuses which is neither of the systems you've described. (Which is a lot of them, because a lot of systems have statuses, and a lot of them don't handle them this way.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener May 4 at 10:35
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There are two mechanics I've seen commonly used in various games (some tabletop and some video games):

  1. Linear Interpolation: Partial application of a status effect (where appropriate) can be used instead of "pass/fail" effects. (Linear Interpolation between "No Effect" and "Full effect" based on resistance strength)

  2. Severity Reduction: Resistance downgrades an effect by one "severity level" if you have related afflictions which differ by degree.

As a couple of examples from video game RPGs:

Desktop Dungeons

Desktop Dungeons has both Magical and Physical resistances, expressed as percentages. For damaging effects 30% physical resistance makes you take 30% less damage from physical sources, and 70% magic resistance makes you take 70% less damage from magical sources (as you'd expect).

With non-damaging effects that cannot be reasonably partially applied (teleportation magic from point A to point B), magic resistance is used as a % chance of failure: the spell either completely succeeds or fails (save-or-succumb).

Other non-damaging effects can be partially applied, like "Poison X" (which, unlike many systems is not damage, in this case it means "prevent next X points of a creature's natural regeneration"). If you cast "Poison 50" on a creature with 50% magic resistance, it will have half the usual effect, and only block the next 25 HP that it would regenerate.

Morrowind

The same approach was used here, where Paralysis was an example of a save-or-succumb effect, but effects like Blindness could be partially resisted. "Blind 100%" on a Player Character with 50% magic resistance would always darken the screen by 50%.

Unknown Tabletops

I need to do some digging to remember exactly which game had this, but creatures and equipment had effects like "anytime you would be stunned by an effect, you are staggered instead", where "stunned" completely prevented you from acting for 1 round, and "staggered" imposed a disadvantage on your attack rolls, but did not prevent movement and as such was a strictly "less bad" status effect.

Parallels for other traits might be "anytime you would be paralyzed by an effect, your speed is reduced to 0 for the duration instead" to allow casting and attacking, or "anytime you would be silenced by an effect, you are afflicted with "Slow Speech" instead. Slow Speech: bonus action spells with a verbal component take a full action to cast and full action spells with a verbal component cannot be cast"

I've also seen traits organized into families like frosted (small disadvantage on attacks), chilled (mediocre disadvantage on attacks + movement), frozen (can't move or attack), and "Cold resistance" would reduce frosted -> No effect, chilled -> frosted, frozen -> chilled.

Building on this

Linear Interpolation

If you change from status effects which are naturally thought of as binary ("Paralysis", "Blindness", "Stunned") to effects which naturally have degrees ("Slowness", "Obscured Vision", "Dazed") where "Paralysis" is actually just the special case of "Slowness 100%" and "Blindness" is "Obscured Vision 100%" and "Stunned" is just "Dazed 100%", AND determine some method for figuring out what the mechanical impact of "Obscured vision 70%" is (could be as simple as 70% of being treated as Blinded, rolled per action), then you still have meaningful resistances below immunity, you have no more save-or-suck effects, and you also have no more consumable resistances. This can still feel awkward or clunky (you're still saving or sucking on a per action basis, but its very different from one save deciding your entire fate).

Severity Reduction

Building families of related but distinct traits is obviously a lot more work than just creating a few unique effects. There's more to write, more to test, and more for rules lawyers to argue about.

Neither of these are silver bullet solutions. Both of them complicate the game, and have the potential to slow down gameplay, but could be worth it depending on how much effort you're willing to expend to fix the game's previous resistance system.

P.S. For Linear Interpolation, I don't recommend making the % resist into a corresponding % reduction in duration. While its absolutely the simplest way to adjudicate what permanent % resistances might mean in a RNG-less way (no save-or-suck) that still plays smoothly, my experience with trying similar house rules and adaptations is that being paralyzed for 5 round is not just half as bad as being paralyzed for 10 rounds. Resistances become meaningless until you reach 80-90% if you go this route.

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A moderately common and very simple approach is to let players choose when to expend their 'resistance' resources.

For example, in Chronicles of Darkness 2nd Edition, many conditions that can overpower or shut down a character will allow spending Willpower to temporarily mitigate their effect — e.g. if you're frightened by a Nosferatu's supernatural terror, you have to cower or run screaming but can take a different action by spending Willpower.

Or, look at how Fate Core characters suffer harm in conflicts (this is "damage" but it also represents a range of "non-damaging" effects from other games — your D&D mind-control mage's abilities may use the mental stress track if you adapt the character to Fate Core, for instance). When you're hit by an attack, you get a choice of whether to use stress (your short-term 'ablative' resource), consequences (wounds and other negative effects, potentially long-lasting), or a mixture of the two. When the fictional positioning is right, players often take a minor consequence before burning all stress because it represents a setback that's easier to live with than whatever they expect they might absorb with their stress boxes next round.

Per your criteria:

  • Complete loss is likely to mean defeat: still true, to a point, but you get to choose when "complete loss" happens. Resource attrition is a big deal but you can stretch your resources with skillful play and hard choices.
  • Cheap affliction effects to deplete resources: now, these present a meaningful choice: do you buy off the condition in order to operate at peak efficiency, or accept some moderate penalty or constraint in order to have more of a buffer against big effects later? (Combined with some "sensible" stacking rules — e.g. Nauseate on a target that's already Nauseated has no additional effect — and you provide a safety valve against spamming low-cost/low-value condition effects while actually keeping those abilities useful because they are more likely to actually apply their penalty than they would be in a purely involuntary 'ablative' system).
  • No special need for complex conditional recovery mechanics.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was going to say Fate as well. What also works in Fate is the combination of placing Aspects offensively (which is essentially setting up lesser effects in hopes of getting a big pay-off) and defensively (which is essentially spending your actions to get rid of active annoying afflictions) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik May 11 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fate's is my favorite approach, because it gives players a lot of agency. How to deal with damage becomes a source of dramatic tension. \$\endgroup\$ – neontapir May 11 at 14:01
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"Joke's on you; I actually love being body-slammed by one dozen perfect wrestlers."

...and similar sentiments from games with what I will call a crisis mode - that you grow stronger the closer you get to defeat. All these games have a single unified "you're getting close to defeat" track, which you may not want to model necessarily, but tying these mechanics to multiple such tracks may lead to people deciding that they have enough bonuses from being stabbed in vital organs and trade sparring partners with the guy who's partially transformed into a sheep.

Here's a round-up:

Tenra Bansho Zero

Because nobody fights stronger in bandages than an anime. In addition to a pool of hit points that will drop you out of combat on your own terms when they're gone, you have a smattering of wound boxes: light, heavy, and critical, that you can check off instead. They get tougher to recover from as you climb, but taking a heavy wound adds a bonus die to your rolls, which are usually a die pool in the high single digits. Taking a critical wound gives you two bonus dice instead, and bleeds you out one hit point a round (though you can't die, just from that, unless you want to).

There's also an "I'm willing to die" box, because of course there is, and it will soak up any amount of damage and give you three bonus dice instead. Oh, and also you don't go out on your own terms when your hit points run out. You die.

So if you just want to stay alive as long as possible you take as many hit points as you can, then decide when you drop out based on how many additional wound boxes you're willing mark. Or you just go direct to heavy or critical wound for the power, try and end the fight fast, and pay for it later.

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine

Based on past experiences you are probably not ready for this much Jenna Moran, but it's in here for completion. Because turning into a statue is terrible, but turning into a statue only when you stop concentrating on not being a statue can actually be pretty dang useful in the elbow-drop department when all's said and done.

Chuubo is not an extremely combat wombat game, and its characters have an unusual degree of narrative plasticity because after all they are wishing people, otherwise they would still be drowned in darkness. Characters start out with basically two minor slots and one major slot (that clears the minors) and if they run out their future is out of their hands for now, but actually putting something in that slot lets you write the truth of what happened in whatever way makes the most sense for your characters and makes it easier to take acts in accordance with the wound (or charges your miracle power when it hinders you).

So, you can't escape from Lady Deathibelle's skeletons, and she casts a love spell on you, and now you love Lady Deathibelle. Well, great. But your opinions on skeletons, skeleton armies, and skeletal giants devouring the sun haven't changed, and you like the sun, the sun bought you ice cream that one time and it was great. Your bond with Lady Deathibelle actually makes it easier to drag her out of her manor and into the sunlight because that artisanal blood sausage place she likes has terrible lines after dark and so what if the "hideous day-star" is hampering her control of the dead, most people can't control the dead at all and they get on just fine and really it'll just be a nice date on the town, won't it, love? (Or, you know, if that's not your speed, maybe she pulls out your heart, but somehow you stand up just fine after she's gone and it doesn't seem like your body is functioning any differently, but your emotions feel so far away and you're cold, cold.)

Again, probably not useful to you in most regards, but relevant to the problem at hand.

Danger Patrol

This one's a slight variant. Taking damage doesn't power you up; powering up exposes you to more damage. The idea is that you're a two-fisted robot detective from the future, or whatever, and when you take action to save a plummeting aircar or tussle with the dragons of Saturn, one of the things you can decide is how much additional risk you'll expose yourself to. Even if you don't want any, most things you do are naturally risky and most of your panoply of dice have a chance of failing, but risk dice are 50/50.

Fails on your part increase your danger meter, and at certain breakpoints in it you get tokens that let you use your character powers or trade for more generic bonuses. But as your danger meter increases, the class of wound available to you also increases, all the way up to knocked out and then vaporized. You can take two kinds of wounds - grazes, which fill your lowest box, and crits, which fill the highest box available on the danger meter. Eventually even grazes will add up and knock you out, even if your danger meter doesn't go up, and if you have KOed or vaporized exposed you roll some extra basic dice and can get more successes... but, y'know, KOed and vaporized are exposed.

So, acting riskier means you get a higher effect or charge up your character powers, and charging up your character also exposes you to greater backlash.

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