Supernatural magnitude

(This post has a soundtrack: Ligetti’s Beyond the Infinite—link opens YouTube in new tab—used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also: click any image to expand it in a new tab.)


Much too big (Berserk 1)

In the dark fantasy manga Berserk, the protagonist Guts wields a weapon called the dragon slayer. It is: too big to be called a sword, like a heap of raw iron. Preternatural versus mortal limits is a recurring theme in Berserk. It is a story of humans consistently transgressing cosmic boundaries, both of ability and morality. In this context, the name of the weapon, dragon slayer, has a certain literal meaning which may not immediately be apparent given the somewhat mundane rendering in English and the naturalism of many modern fantasy stories, where dragons are more like powerful, possibly intelligent, carnivores with strange biology. In Berserk, Dragons are dragons because humans can’t beat ’em. Dragon here is shorthand for higher being, creature beyond or outside of complete human understanding. As with narrative fiction, tabletop roleplaying games have a challenge regarding how to confront the supernatural. The two most common approaches, naturalizing the supernatural or protecting it from players by fiat to maintain danger and mystery, have drawbacks. Using fiat threatens the integrity of the game at a fundamental level, at least for the kinds of games I find satisfying, so I will dismiss that option immediately. I will argue that there is another way to approach the supernatural, though it may rely to some degree on referee artistry, perhaps being impossible to entirely systematize.

If there were any (Berserk 14)

What kind of weapon could damage impossible beings? An impossible weapon, or a weapon that would be impossible to use, might have some chance at harming an impossible being. Q: Could… this really kill… a dragon? A: If there were any… dragons. But you know, this ain’t even what you’d call a sword. It’s a meaningless slab of iron you can’t even lift… for killin’ dragons and monsters that ain’t even real. In this way, grasping the imaginary is the first step toward taking on monsters.1

In exploring this tension, Berserk seems to implicitly advocate for the possibility of transcendence. After all, time and again Guts triumphs over demonic, superhuman apostles using only human faculties and ingenuity, apart from the occasional dose of healing elf dust2. There is clearly some sort of categorical separation between the natural and supernatural in the world of Berserk, but humans, or at least some humans if you want to take an aristocratic stance, can, through enduring pain or sacrificing others, break through this barrier. Berserk is in this way metaphysically optimistic, with the caveat that the story is so far incomplete.

Dragons and humans (Berserk 14)

Traditional Dungeons & Dragons models the dichotomy between the natural and supernatural, at least in terms of combat, by differentiating categorically between magical and mundane weapons. The immediate system benefit of a magical weapon is a numerical bonus, leading to the sword +1, but what makes a magic weapon truly magical is the ability to damage creatures from the lower planes or insubstantial undead which are otherwise immune to mundane, physical attacks. Other systems apply hierarchies to damage. Rifts, to model the conflict of different tech levels, has mega-damage, which equates one point of mega-damage with 100 standard damage points. Lamentations of the Flame Princess introduces a hit point system for vehicle integrity, which equates one ship hit point with ten normal hit points. Plus-style magic weapons are unsatisfying due to ubiquity in mainstream D&D, coupled with general aesthetic blandness. Additionally, plus weapons completely fail to capture anything of the tension between mortal and supernatural in Berserk—and, I would argue, some of the most effective weird fiction.

Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)

The ship hit points approach has more promise. Humans can affect the supernatural, but only by dealing damage beyond some threshold barely attainable by human standards. This uses numerical order of magnitude to model supernatural hierarchy. However, using a system based on damage threshold is interactive in that it depends on many other system details, such as whether weapon damage is flat—like in OD&D where all weapons do 1d6 damage or whether a bonus from strength augments damage. The variability of damage available to adventurers will determine how accessible the supernatural becomes to a Guts-style assault. In OD&D, I might make one supernatural hit point equal to six normal hit points, which would make damaging the supernatural attainable to any mortal, but only with low probability, unless players can even the odds through creative play. This would be in keeping both with the themes explored in Berserk and the nature of OD&D.

Nosferatu Zodd wounded (Berserk 5)

In a game like B/X with variable weapon damage and the strength bonus applying to damage rolls, a threshold of 10 might be appropriate, though a damage threshold would make having an average or low strength score that much more of a disadvantage, a game feature which draws attention back toward the character sheet and away from creative problem solving. Additionally, increasing the importance of the strength score could create fairness concerns, though that is at most a minor problem for me. This might be an issue in a game that pushes 3d6 in order while punishing player mistakes lethally. Lamentations of the Flame Princess operates on a similar numerical scale without applying the strength bonus to damage, giving only the largest weapons—and firearms, possibly—any chance of wounding supernatural entities.

Using a damage threshold for affecting the supernatural has some other game benefits. First, it is in line with a general trend toward removing level-based gates on character abilities, such as spells without levels and finding ways to make the endgame, such as building strongholds, accessible throughout play.  Second, a damage threshold increases the potential contributions of fighters in supernatural challenges without relying on semi-magical special move powers, facilitating a less super-heroic, or low-fantasy, tone.


1. There is a parallel here between Guts’ impossible sword and Griffith’s shining castle, an impossible goal for a gutter-born urchin.

2. At least, up until he acquires the Berserker armor, which is arguably supernatural, but Guts pre-armor serves my purposes here.

16 thoughts on “Supernatural magnitude

  1. Aaron Griffin

    Torchbearer uses an Order of Might for creatures, specifying what types of conflict you can have with a creature.

    The PCs are never able to kill a dragon, but can riddle with one or even go to war with it, and an army

    Reply
    1. Brendan Post author

      @Aaron

      The order of might seems opposed to how this sort of thing goes down in Berserk. Guts very pointedly does not need an army to kill a dragon.

      Arguably, the “good idea” rule provides a way to manage exceptions. For example, it seems reasonable to consider blasting a demon with a prosthetic arm cannon (as Guts does to good effect many times) to be something like a good idea which supersedes the order of might. However, the rule is so underspecified, both in terms of immediate text details and suggestive examples, that it is basically just throwing the ball back into the referee’s court.

      Reply
  2. Yami Bakura

    I think this a very good point. Having supernatural creatures be much harder to kill is a good idea. However, one must note that in Berserk, the supernatural is almost hidden from the majority of humanity, with the setting being almost reminiscient of medieval europe pushed through the lens of Japan at times. This allows the Apostles to remain dangerous and special, while not diluting them.

    So for my settings, I like to employ a division between two types of enemies, Paranatural and supernormal. Paranatural things are like Elves, Orcs and Dwarves. Not human, yes, but also on the same level as mortal Human, more or less. If you stab an Elf, they’ll still die.

    Supernormal, on the other hand, refers to creatures that are beyond mortality. These are things like Demons, Dragons, and if my setting had them, Apostles.

    That is the best solution, I think.

    Reply
    1. Brendan Post author

      @Yami

      Re: the supernatural being hidden in Berserk: this is true up through the end of the golden age arc, but following the eclipse the setting becomes more and more phantasmagoric.

      What systems, if any, when player characters interact with the supernormal? Do you have some common approaches, is it all improvisation, do you build custom rules for every supernormal being, something else?

      Reply
      1. Yami Bakura

        I will take your word on that, as I’m currently in the middle of the Lost Children Arc, so I haven’t see much, post-Golden Age. As for what I do, I do make up stuff as I go, but what I mostly do is a merely supernormal characters and creatures on a pedestal, at least a little bit. They are just stronger then mere mortals, so of like how the Godhand is displayed or Bill Cipher is treated by their respective narratives. They just have more power, more presence, and merely by showing up, they raise the stakes.

        For specific rules, I usually just make them impossible to harm with non-magic weapons and some have damage reduction, but I like the idea of a Damage Threshold as well. As long as it is set low enough, such as at 6, that’s not an impossible hurdle to clear but also prevents every single attack from hitting.

        Additionally, since I mostly use supernormal enemies for Boss Fights, you can check the link below, which are my compiled thoughts on the subject, and almost all of what I write there would apply to a supernormal enemy or character.

        http://www.remixesandrevelations.com/2018/06/better-boss-fights.html

  3. HDA

    This is a really cool idea… So if I have some demon lord with a threshold of 10, when the fighter rolls 9 damage it amounts to nothing. But hitting him for 13 would deal 1 Supernatural Hit Point?

    I wonder how the math compares to using a 3.x-style DR 10/+1 or whatever? I guess it really makes a difference with respect to overruns: 19 damage is still 1 Super HP. So it’s actually tougher than DR, which is in keeping with your theme. Although of course this varies with actual HP or Super HP totals.

    Reply
    1. Brendan Post author

      @HDA

      Yeah that’s what I was thinking.

      I think using an orders of magnitude approach like this would work better than damage reduction, but the number of higher-order hit points that a supernatural being has would not need to be very high to still make a challenging monster.

      Reply
  4. Gus L

    I of course like the damage threshold idea, but don’t see it as incongruous with the magic weapon system traditional to D&D.

    Threshold for me works best as a damage reduction that culminates with or interacts with immunity. Thus a pussiant foes – say Slaine in a ‘warp spasm might have a damage reduction of 2 or 3 to all damage, but an immaterial ghost has no reduction, it’s just immune to normal attack but tales normal damage from silver/blessed and magic weapons or spell attacks.

    A Dragon in the Berserk sense might be both damage resistant to a point(s) where only seige weapons can really hurt it, and immune to normal weapons or fire or whatever. A character like Guts might also have a class ability to inflict magic damage and weild an artifact weapon that does ballista bolt damage.

    This give a variety of monster design tools for defense (A.C., immunities, damage reduction (or absorbtion either per round or total)) and magic weapon design (treats all armor as A.C. 5 is something I’d give Guy’s Dragonslyer – it ignores armor, but it’s also clumsy). The only disadvantage here is a lack of rules systemization and the loss of that ‘it’s serious, that mecha can only be hurt by MEGADAMAGE’ moment.

    Reply
  5. Confanity

    Like most of the commenters, I like where this is going. One thing that caught my attention is that it feels like you’re working on inventing and contextualizing the damage reduction (DR) that we saw starting (if I recall correctly) in 3E.

    The main difference is that your version seems to be based on division (dmg/6 or dmg/10, presumably rounded down) rather than subtraction (dmg-5 or dmg-10), as it is in the published versions. At 6hp of damage the effect of dmg/6 and dmg-5 is the same, but after that it’s going to diverge sharply – with subtraction a sufficiently mighty blow will actually threaten the “dragon” with meaningful harm, while with division you’re never going to do more than chip away at their health one point at a time. The latter could, as you say, encourage creative play… but it could also encourage reliance on magic. Why wrack your brains when a fireball does multiple d6s of damage, after all?

    This wasn’t where I was going at the start of this comment, but if Guts really is your model and you want fighters to be contribute in combat against supernatural challenges without turning to 4E-style special moves, then it seems like the subtractive model is actually closer to what you want. (Or is that what you were intending, and I misread?)

    Reply
  6. Justblade

    What’s the point? If you create a threshold where PCs can only do 1/10 damage against supernatural creatures, you’re just turning combat into a long, tedious grind. Or encouraging TPKs.

    Surely, the best way to deal with supernatural creatures is to say that they can only be defeated by very particular means. So perhaps something like a dragon requires seven different types of magic / magical weapon used against it (in a short period of time, and in order) before it can be killed, each type reducing its supernature and bringing it closer to being what we would understand as mortal. This would represent a real challenge to a party, but is still doable. It also entails a lot of set-up actions (what magic / weapons?, where can these be found?, who guards them?, why would they give them up?).

    Other prerequisites for harming the supernatural could include rituals (performed before the battle, or after the enemy has supposedly been vanquished), sacrifices to appeal for divine intervention, potent curses (hurled at the enemy to nullify their supernatural gifts), vulnerability only in specific places/times (perhaps a ghost of a dead warrior can only be destroyed on the battleground and/or anniversary of its death), or to certain individuals (a dragon vulnerable to blows from a certain bloodline – once warriors, now lowly carpenters).

    Reply
  7. the_newdave

    So the dead simplest implementation of this idea would be to just eliminate hit points from supernatural enemies; they only take damage in Hit Dice. Whatever die is used for the creature’s type (if you’re in to that sort of thing) is then your damage threshold. Attainable, but as difficult as killing a regular person with a single blow 5 or 6 times in a row.
    Then, if magic weapons deal one Hit Dice of damage each, this makes them feel more magical in sweeping down hordes of 0-level goons, while making them a good stepping stone toward that higher magnitude.

    Reply

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