"Harm" consequences way more damaging than other kinds?

Hello to everyone!

After GM’ing our first session, it seems to me that “Harm” Consequences are WAY more impactful, long-lasting, and limiting than Complications, Lost Opportunities etc. (the other varieties of Consequences). Am I the only one to feel that way?

Consequences other than Harm tend to create interesting twists of events, temporary nuisances, attract more foes, create unexpected troubles and other FUN STUFF, which is awesome, and difficult to overdo (even if players suffer A LOT of those Consequences, this will just create some havoc and chaos, which seems true to the spirit of the game).
On the other hand, “Harm” Consequences tend to create… a simple penalty to many actions, which in some cases might be conducive to new, unexpected play opportunities, but in many cases… will just limit the opportunities available to players, or if they’re severe enough, make them hope that the Score will complete as soon as possible so that they can Recover.
Moreover, even though Harm has some specific countermeasures (e.g., Armor) not always available to other kinds of Consequences, this seems to be more than balanced by the fact that Harm is dangerous because it “stacks” (ie, if the Harm slot is already filled, you’ll get a more serious Harm).

The reason why this bothers me it’s not that Harm “breaks the game” (it doesn’t).

It’s just that the game says that as a GM I should be “honest” and never “pull my punches”, which presumably includes being able to freely choose among the Consequence options. And also, the game has a whole mechanism about Position, which is very nice as it often asks players to choose between riskier and safer options. But working your way to be in a Risky Position rather than in a Desperate one seems less meaningful if what will really determine the seriousness of a Consequence is the GM’s whim (in choosing the type of said Consequence), rather than the Position declared in advance.

Asking about this issue to other people who play BitD, an answer I got was that “Harm” Consequences are MEANT to be more severe, and they should be reserved for the most severe cases, when the situation seems really dire and characters are already in trouble. The idea would be to encourage players to avoid direct conflicts, and favor “sneakier” ways to act.

This did not convince me very much, for two reasons. The first is that physical “Harm” outcomes would often feel appropriate in the fiction, even when the players have not been looking at all for a direct confrontation, and in fact they’re not in combat at all (e.g., it seems a natural consequence of many athletic feats typical of “thieves”, such as climbing). The second reason is that the game explicitly includes “mental” or “social” slights as Harm examples, not only physical ones. But it seems to me that by choosing to frame the Consequence of a “social” failure as, say, “Harm 2 - Utterly Humiliated”, rather than framing it, say, as a Complication, as a GM I am not merely being “expressive”; I might actually be “punishing” a character much more seriously than I intended.

Am I missing something?


I don’t think you’re missing anything! Harm is the most-often hacked or homebrewed system in Blades in my experience, in a large part because of exactly what you’ve identified here. After one session, you probably haven’t even gotten to the fact that Harm is incredibly resource intensive / a pain in the ass to recover from, so in addition to the fact that it feels like a halt in momentum compared to other consequences, it can also spread that halt through downtime and beyond.

I think Harm has an important place in the game, still. The threat of Harm is really valuable for a lot of the same reasons you’re pointing out: it sucks a lot to get it, so the threat of it encourages some amount of caution, and it makes rolls feel like they have bigger stakes.

I’ve found when GMing that I’m almost always looking for something other than Harm to give out as a consequence, and I basically only give it as a last resort. I also sometimes “divide up” larger consequences between harm and other things, i.e. if someone fails a risky roll, instead of level 2 harm or a big complication, I might do level 1 harm and a small complication. It’s also perfectly reasonable to let people resist a whole block of harm in one go rather than simply dropping it one level, or to drop it from 3 to 1 or whatever–unlike harm, stress and trauma are really interesting to get in my experience.

If you keep feeling this way, then when you do get to Harm recovery, I recommend looking up some hacks for that system, too. Scum and Villainy’s harm system is pretty solid while still being very close to home, but simple stuff like letting a recovery action auto-fill the clock can also make Harm less of a pain.


The threat of Harm is really valuable

It surely would be; how do you “threaten Harm”, though?

My main issue is the fact that “Harm” will be a surprise, since as a GM you cannot “threaten Harm” specifically; you can threaten a severe Consequence (by framing the Position as Desperate), but the game does not tell you to decide and declare in advance that, in case of failure/partial success, you’re going to pick the “Harm” variety of Consequence.

Oh, I think fictional context tends to strongly imply whether Harm is on the table, though I very very rarely give out non-physical-injury Harm. In such circumstances, it’s obvious whether Harm is possible: are the guards shooting at you? Are you trying to leap to the next building over and might fall? Harm is on the table. Are you talking to Lord Strangford at a dinner party? Harm is not on the table.

But if that’s not working on its own, I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with just telling people ahead of time whether Harm is in play for a given roll.

This approach seems reasonable, yet the rules state the opposite :slight_smile:

(from page 31, in the very explanation of the Harm system)
<< Harm like “Drained” [level 1] or “Exhausted” [level 2] can be a good fallback consequence if there’s nothing else threatening a PC (like when they spend all night Studying those old books, looking for any clues to Lord Scurlock’s weaknesses before he strikes). >>

Which makes it 100% clear that Harm is meant to represent “mental” damage and temporary exertion, not just physical wounds; and also that Harm is not meant to be reserved for especially dire situation, but can be a “good fallback” when you don’t have any better ideas.

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Oh absolutely, this is why the first thing out of my mouth here was that Harm is the most hacked system in Blades in my experience. It’s not ideal! I definitely recommend messing with it, and what I’ve tried to do in this thread is lay out the ways I’ve found it can be deployed to reasonable effect.

You should absolutely come to the conclusion that the book’s intent leads to the bad stuff you noted in your initial post, because it does. From there it’s about figuring out how to mitigate those effects while keeping the good things Harm can bring to the game, or change the game to remove them.

I do think almost the entire the rest of the game runs extremely smoothly, so I’d strongly recommend not giving up on the game entirely after one session and noticing these things about Harm. But yeah, they’re not the best. Fix them, remove them, break them, or ignore them!

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I do not plan to give up such a great game over such a small detail, don’t worry! :slight_smile:

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my 2p is that if the PC is in a fight with someone, then the opponent is likely to be threatening the same kind of harm to them which they are intending to inflict.

More broadly, the fictional position should indicate whether harm is likely - and I’ve found it really useful to agree with players the likely consequences of an action before they roll the dice - so they know what they are signing up for, as it were.



I see your point. In our first session, though, we found ourselves in several situations that were NOT a fight, yet an Harm consequence seemed very appropriate.

A couple of examples:

  • Climbing, but also running away and sometimes even just sneaking around, could always cause an Harmful incident.
  • Many “social” Actions, like: if you try to bribe the Bluecoats but you do something wrong or insulting, they might beat you instead. If you try to be received by some important NPCs, their guards or henchmen could teach you a lesson.
  • Anything arcane, since an evil or dangerous ghost could always screw your mind or whatever; in fact, it seems to me that the examples in the book make a point of repeatedly showing “arcane-flavored” Harm as the typical Consequence when a player is involved with spirits and ghosts.
  • Any kind of situation, if nothing better comes to mind. The book literally says, at p. 31: <<Harm like “Drained” or “Exhausted” can be a good fallback consequence if there’s nothing else threatening a PC (like when they spend all night Studying those old books, looking for any clues to Lord Scurlock’s weaknesses before he strikes).>>

In fact, it seems to me that a Harm consequence can be appropriate for the vast majority of Action Rolls you’re likely to encounter in BitD, not solely for fight scenes.

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I think it’s telling how many other FitD games have tried to rework how healing works.

I think its worth looking at some of the assumptions a lot of us make about harm and healing, saturated as we are by games and modern media of all types.

Blades offers three levels of harm (four if you count death), and each of them is tied pretty closely to a Position. That would make level one something like “a painful but inconsequential flesh wound” and level three something like “the worst thing that could happen to you short of death.”

Serious harm in real life can take months or years to overcome. Really sprain your ankle? That can be worse than breaking it. After you can even stand, expect to limp painfully for 3 months, and only really get back to normal after 6. Even then you’ll probably have twinges. Have your heart really broken? Again, it might be months or years before you’re right again.

Modern media and games are filled with completely unrealistic depictions of how much hurt people can take and how quickly they can recover from it, and I do think that bleeds into our expectations and assumptions. I think Blades is written with a starker understanding of harm.

But, part of this is how we set up position and effect. I think it’s fun to set up a desperate roll – it offers xp, it’s exciting. But really, you’re saying that the worst possible outcomes are on the line here. And everyone should understand that and be on board. If you don’t really mean that, maybe the situation isn’t desperate?

Really, in terms of Blades mechanics, I think most harm we see in modern action films is only Risky at the most, offering Level 1 or 2 harm. Or, as has been said, there are multiple consequences offered together to make a big consequence. Indiana Jones is fighting Nazis on top of a tank and fails that risky roll? Maybe it’s only level 1 harm, but he’s also been kicked off the side of the tank and risks being crushed against the rocky wall the tank is passing (change to desperate situation). Either of those or both could be resisted. The player has options, the gm gets to be creative, and the fiction is cooler than “You take harm.”

One thing in Blades that I’ve wrestled with is the results of harm – the mechanics of losing a die or effect. Honestly, my issue with them as a gm is that they are on the players’ sheets, and as I can’t see them easily I almost never remember to use them. I think the effects themselves (-1d/effect) are elegant and in keeping with the rest of the game’s mechanics, but that they’re simply clunky to include as part of the conversation in my experience. There are already so many points to touch on when setting up a roll that it’s easily missed.

I’ve been experimenting with an idea that John Harper posted on here a while ago – making harm an addition to the XP track “you struggled with issues…” This means we don’t deal with harm penalties unless it comes up naturally in the conversation, and the players have an incentive to include it themselves. I’ve been enjoying it, and would recommend giving it a try.

Also, while the fiction of the game as written is grim when it comes to recovery, that can be changed in the game. Your players can invent cures, magics, therapy, etc, that might help them recover faster than the rules normally allow. There are a lot of options within the mechanics for changing that stuff.

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This specific passage is specifically about setting effect, but I think it applies to consequences as well:

By assessing effect and describing it in the fiction, the players understand how
much progress they’re making and how much they’re risking. By understanding
effect, the group understands how many actions (and risk of consequences) will
be needed to achieve their goals. (p. 27)

I think the RAW encourage some discussion between player and GM around effect and consequences. In my experience the game can be bogged down if you spend too much time discussing position and effect, but some discussion is wise. I try to make the consequences clear ahead of time where it’s obvious. If someone is climbing, what is really at stake? Are they going to be late to join the rest of the gang (complication)? Are they going to be spotted by a guard (clock)? Is the climbing surface slick, making a harmful fall possible (harm)? Telling the player what they are risking before the roll helps establish the right position and effect.

I find I use harm as a consequence pretty often, but it’s also far-and-away the most resisted consequence. I think the need to heal from harm (or deal with the debuff) really makes downtime actions more consequential. For me, hard choices make fun play!

I also forget the exact passage right now, but John mentions a few times that how you as a GM set position and effect and which consequences you choose to deal out has a subjective element. How “hard” you go and in what direction determine the tone of the game and should be discussed with players. You might do a very harm-heavy game that emphasizes gritty violence and cheap life, or you might got a more intrigue direction that leans heavily on clocks and fictional complications. If you think harm is too hard on the players, I’d suggest checking out one of the hacks mentioned earlier, or just using it more judiciously.