Creating a Grittier Tone in SFX!

Kyrinn Eis, who’s currently playing in my Skyships of Atlantis! setting as part of play-testing Zorch! the Fantasy RPG, was asking last night about how you’d run a grittier setting.  The default  in the SFX! games tends toward a fairly light-hearted tone where the protagonists are never in much actual danger.  For example, there are no explicit rules for character death, even for NPCs, just suggestions.  The reason for that is that SFX! explicitly asks the GM and players to consider the tone of the game they’re aiming for, instead of letting it be dictated by the rules.  In some campaigns you might want it to be impossible for somebody to die “accidentally”, that is just because of an unlucky roll, while in others you might aim to have life be cheap and death or career-ending injury be a genuine risk every time you go into combat.  There’s no one right answer.

If you want a grittier tone, or as I believe Kyrinn put it “Success [to be] lubricated by the blood of heroes” there are a number of ways you can approach that with SFX!

The first is to treat Overkill as dead.  Or, if you want to be a little less harsh towards PC, as dead for NPCs and Down for the Count for PCs, with a permanent injury Complication if they’re revived by their companions after the battle.  That alone will up the casualty count and put a real caution about battle in the hearts of the players.

Next, you can adjust the interpretation of Tired.  Tired is largely a condition that characters impose upon themselves by overexerting themselves in taking heroic measures,  by using the cliches Supreme Effort or Failure is Not an Option!  In Kapow! and Argh! Tired generally represents being physically exhausted, but in a grittier campaign it could easily represent being injured, perhaps seriously, since Tired usually lasts until you’ve had significant down-time or gotten some kind of medical attention (which might mean somebody’s healing magic or a stim-pack from their med-kit).  For even grittier, less cinematic play, you could rule out the ability to invoke your character’s Drive to remove the Tired condition; while a staple of comic books and action-oriented movies, being able to use sheer guts and determination to basically ignore a serious injury can run counter to the feeling that the sacrifice that you make in pushing yourself to become “Tired” was a serious one.

Hindered is also open to interpretation in a grittier fashion.  Hindered represents any of a myriad of things that can happen to the character that limits her effectiveness until she or an ally takes the effort to counteract it.  Most of the time that wouldn’t be an injury, but would represent something like slipping, being off-balance, partially blinded by dirt or blood in your eyes, temporarily trapped under a tapestry or having your ankle grabbed by a clutching hand, being momentarily dazed or disoriented… but it could easily be treated and narrated as the kind of superficial wound that requires being bound with a makeshift bandage or temporary sling.  An example might be when John McClane in Die Hard has to run over broken glass in his bare feet; once he’s bound them up, they don’t really degrade his performance for the rest of the movie–certainly not by enough to cause him to mess up any of the spectacular stunts he attempts.

In addition to adjusting the interpretation of the various conditions in the game mechanics, which carries over via the Primary Rule into narration of the types of things that can cause and cure them, Zorch! has a new rule about injury: when you recover from being Out, you have a chance of having suffered a long-term injury.  If you were injured, you are Tired and you get a new Complication (in addition to your existing ones) that describes the nature of your injury.  You can recover from Tired in the usual ways, but the Complication can only be removed by taking positive steps, such as replacing a crippled limb with a prosthetic (which may itself be a Complication).

These guidelines still won’t make the game full of random insta-death, but SFX! was never intended to be Rolemaster.  They do, I think, lead to injury and death that fit in with somewhat grittier genre fiction: death can happen unexpectedly, but injury tends to occur as a result of dramatic do-or-die choices or when the character had a narrow scrape with death.

3 thoughts on “Creating a Grittier Tone in SFX!

  1. Oh! I forgot to mention that you can also adjust Out. Out usually means incapable of action for any reason for 3 turns… in a gritty game a reason could be having to splint your leg or tie a tourniquet…

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