Hello everyone, and welcome to TotA Dev Blog #7! Over the past few weeks, I've mentioned how every character in Tales of the Arcanimus has ten hearts - no more, no less - and how combat has much faster paced action compared to the damage sponge fests of most games in the genre. Today, I'd like to focus on the challenges of designing a game where it is inherently easy to be killed.
If you think ten is low, you should have seen TotA before: we use to allow everyone only five hearts! And now we have options like shields and magical barriers that help reduce incoming damage. But the fact remains that a couple hits will drop you. However, even if you're going for "difficult" or "challenging," being outright draconian in player punishment is generally not good design. Thus, we had to look for alternatives to "You Die" for when a player's health hits zero. Even the narratively less harsh "falling unconscious" is a bit much for our purposes; being completely removed from a fight after taking only a few hits is not a very engaging experience.
One of the things I personally do as a game designer is look to all of my experiences, particularly ones outside the genre I'm working in if I face a particularly tricky challenge. For work in tabletop RPG's, this means looking to video games for inspiration. "You can't do that!" people have said to me, "Digital games have absolutely nothing to do with this!"
This is the part where I prove them wrong.
A common trend in recent first-and-third person shooter games is the concept of "down but not out." I recall games such as Left 4 Dead and Gears of War, but it is a thing in many more. When you run out of hp, you retain a reduced ability to still do things, and you have a chance of an ally coming over to help you back up. That last part is particularly important, as TotA has no "healing magic" with which to bring you back to positive hp like in other games.
When you lose all of your hearts in Tales of the Arcanimus, you make a check to see if you remain consciousness. Your odds of success are directly proportional to the amount of damage you have taken, so if you were pushed over the brink by a light tap, you are most likely better off than if you were hit by, say, a falling boulder. While you are downed, you can crawl around at a reduced speed and attempt basic actions, but don't expect to be fighting in this condition. Some characters may be able to use small weapons like knives to continue dealing damage, but you're best bet is to get help from an ally. When you are picked up, you can act normally again, but beware: you still retain your total damage. Generally your odds of staying awake on first drop are fairly decent, but as you continue to take more hits, the odds begin to favor you less and less.
Ironically, I've found that TotA's fast and brutal combat works to pace sessions out. GM's are more likely to give players roleplay scenes in between combat encounters in order to give them time to naturally recover in TotA's world without "instant healing," and players develop a tendency to approach situations in ways that either minimize combat, or otherwise set things up to swing dramatically in their favor.