I’ve talked a little bit about tiers of ability in the past, but I was reading some old copies of Mage (the comic, not the RPG) this weekend and it got me thinking about handling them for super powers, or at least for toughness and damage type. The idea was inspirec by this: the hero of Mage is basically invulnerable – there are some caveats to it, but it really boils down to that – but he ends up getting severely injured when one of the bad guys manages to catch him off guard and nail him with his poisonous bone spur.
This ends up being a big plot point, life and death, yadda yadda yadda, but it also raises an interesting question of dramatic physics. It’s a long-standing game idea that there’s damage and then there’s extra-damage. in the World of Darkness it’s “aggravated damage” but the idea is something you see in a lot of supers games. Bullets bounce harmlessly off the hero but when bad guys throw bolts of energy around it may be enough to actually bring some pain. Of course, it probably won’t be enough, but there might be some things that are badass enough to do the damage.
Now, a lot of games will handle this with straight-up math. Invulnerability 7 vs. energy blast 4 works out badly for the energy blast. But me, I’m lazy, so I throw this back into a tiered approach, and it all really breaks down into three tiers: Normal, exceptional and named. Let’s take the idea of damage here. Normal damage is everything you might normally think of – guns, knives, car crashes and so on. Exceptional damage might be anything from flamethrowers to lasers to energy blasts to vorpal swords. Named damage is the category that either makes immediate sense or seems a little odd.
Assuming you find it odd, comic books are awash in excellent examples of this: compare superman’s heat vision (exceptional) with Darkseid’s Omega Beams (Names). Yes, in the math of comics, the omega beams are more powerful, but the important difference is that the Omega Beams are something that’s talked about as their own things. SImilarly, compare a magic sword with Excalibur.
On the flip side, you can establish resistances along the same lines. Speaking broadly, a character might be resistant to normal damage, Exceptional damage or Named damage. THis ends up working interestingly depending on ho you handle the damage tiering. The normal assumption is that higher tiers do more damage, but that’s not necessary. A laser beam is not going to make you _more_ dead than a bullet, but
Now, by itself, this isn’t that useful except in the broadest of strokes, so it need another layer of tweaking, which breaks things into categories. Impact, fire, poison or whatever. The exact granularity of the categories is a function of the needs of the game. A concrete list is an option, but it’s also easy to do this in an ad hoc fashion. To come back to the Mage example, you have a hero who is resistant to normal and exceptional damage, but the bad guy has one special “named” attack.
This is still only part of an idea, but I wanted to lay it out there because I feel like this is the edge of something that may yet fall into place.
1 – Invoking this reveals another tier – non-lethal damage. It’s not really a part of this model because it’s something of a one-off, but it’s easy enough to make this a 4-step model.
2 – There’s some unintentional overlap with the Amber DRPG item system here – it uses a similar tiered approach, and it’s pretty elegant (if abusable, in its existing form) so its one of those things that’s always rattling around in my head. Its biggest flaw is that it breaks its own rules in implementation, introducing further tiers to make NPCs more awesome.