Push Yourself to Your Limits

By | July 26, 2014

Strain.

There are a lot of games out there that use some kind of mechanic that allows your character to strain, giving you more success or more benefit or more action in exchange for draining a limited pool of resources.  This is a mechanic we’ve always rather liked, but there always seemed to be something missing.  Some element of danger.  Because straining yourself can leave you vulnerable.  It is a risk, and it should feel like such.  And for us, Strain in most of the games we’ve played that have it never felt like there was danger involved.

A large part of the reason why is because strain generally deducts from a pool that is used only for straining.  The risk here is that when I run out of “strain points,” I can’t strain again.  Ah well, I got my benefit out of it.  Sometimes this strain pool has extra detrimental effects if it reaches 0: you can be knocked out more easily, etc.  This still didn’t feel potent enough.  And that’s when it hit me: the Resolve mechanic in Forthright Open Roleplay is literally a character’s will and ability to keep fighting.  When a character strains, why not deduct straight from that?

This was a big shift – Ray and Sarah thought for sure nobody would ever use Strain if we deducted it directly from our version of “hit points.”  After all, you’re hurting yourself to maybe hurt the other guy sooner.  But isn’t that what Strain is all about?  Pushing yourself to your limits because the detrimental effect you lay on yourself isn’t as bad as the detrimental effect the other guy is going to lay on you?

So we started internally testing it.  The original notion was that there would be a bunch of different dice used for a bunch of different types of action: you could maybe take a d4 Strain to open a door or window, a d6 strain to take an extra movement action, a d12 strain to take an extra martial action, and so on.  This was reflected in some early Talents that Hindered Strain damage in certain situations.  The problem with this was, it was terrible and confusing to have to keep track of all the different die types and what they signified.

And we needed to ensure that the damage you take from Strain was still an attractive alternative option to the damage you would otherwise take from who you were fighting.  Because if Strain was too much of a risk, Players would (rightly) never risk Straining themselves.  After some number-crunching and some playtesting, we found a sweet spot at 1d6 and 2d6.

So a character can now Strain for 1d6 in order to Bolster attacks or Stunts, Hinder enemy Resists, deal extra damage or get extra partial movement.  Spellcasting characters can Strain in order to create persistent magical effects (such as a wall of flame that will remain in place after spellcasting), effectively replacing our old “Mana” mechanic.  Characters can alternately Strain for 2d6 to attack up to four adjacent targets (a “Burst”) or get an extra full movement.  No extra actions are granted through Strain; instead, these effects are applied to the action being Strained, and Strain must be declared before you take an action.  This prevents a character from swinging and missing an opponent, then choosing to Strain to roll again.

Because it directly taps Resolve, Strain is solely a combat mechanic; the Skills in Forthright have already been factored with such low difficulties (compared to the difficulties faced in Combat) that is is already presumed by the skill subsystem that you are “trying your hardest.”  And physically straining yourself in a conversation would. . .well, it would look weird and probably scare people away.  Who wants to have a conversation with Goku when he’s powering up?

The Strain mechanic neatly replaces some other rules we had that carried over from Forthright‘s origins in d20 such as Cleave, and allowed us to streamline our magic subsystem by removing Arcana such as Persist and Burst. Strain also allows magical and non-magical Fighting Styles to gain the same benefits: a Warrior can Burst 4 adjacent targets within his melee range just as a Wizard can Burst 4 adjacent targets within her magic range and an Archer can Burst 4 adjacent targets within range of its arrows.  This is, in fact, the only way characters can target multiple opponents at once.

Some Roles can Strain more than other Roles.  For example, Mystics and Wizards reduce Strain on Persists and Bursts under certain circumstances, while Soldiers always take half-damage on Strain because they’re used to pushing themselves to the limits to gain more benefits.  But doesn’t that mean that Soldier should be the Vocation Role any combat-minded Player should take?  Perhaps. . .but the Soldier only gains that benefit when a character is Best at being a Soldier, so that same character can only at most be Good at his or her Fighting Style.  So they’ll be able to Strain more, but they’re more likely to need to.

Strain provides an interesting tactical advantage: if you use it early in a fight, you can potentially take out enough opponents to be able to easily defeat an encounter.  On the other hand, if your opponents are tougher than you realized, you may have just given them a tactical advantage by reducing your own Resolve without reducing theirs as much.  And your enemies can Strain as well, providing some extra danger (or, potentially, an easier fight).  The tactics behind Strain are not “oh, well you should always use it in every situation,” they are instead “is it worthwhile to take this risk in this situation?”

But, you might ask, what about Straining when the chips are down and the battle isn’t going my way?  At first, it might seem that this is exactly when you would want to Strain. . .and, because you are probably already low on Resolve, it is also when you would not want to Strain.  This is the heart of Straining: is it more sound to try and push harder, because maybe with this push your swing will be enough to end a fight?  Or is it more logical to gather up what strength you can and run from a battle that is too difficult for you?

That’s a decision that will need to be made with every battle.  There is no “100% correct solution.”  And that’s what we like most about Strain.  It can be good for you, and it can be bad for you, and it all depends on where you find yourself in the game and what enemies you’re facing.  Do you hit hard, but burn out sooner?  Do you endure, and thereby drag fights out longer?  Do you push yourself to do something unexpected, and maybe change the tide of battle?  The choice is yours: there is no right way to play.

(Well, somebody will probably eventually perform mathematics that identifies that there is, in fact, a mathematically optimum methodology to Strain use. . .but what can you do?)

Thanks for reading!  If you have any comments or questions, please let us know in the comment section below!

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