CanonIn WoD canon aggravated damage (agg) is a really big deal. Most supernatural creatures can heal non-aggravated lethal or bashing damage quickly with only moderate cost. Aggravated damage however, takes days and willpower to heal. Normal damage still matters but you get really scared when aggravated damage comes around. Also, almost all supernaturals have a method of dealing aggravated damage. Werewolf claws, vampire teeth, and many powers all cause universal agg damage. It is moderately easy to come by and it hurts.
Is the history of SA agg has worked a number of different ways. It has generally been utilized to prevent a supernatural from using their natural regenerative properties to get back up after being beaten down. There was a time when only if the hit that took you down to 0 was agg damage would you be unable to get back up. Most recently agg comes out in the form of exposure damage (fires, sunlight for vampires, or being staked with an agg weapon) or from weapons and powers. It getting hit with agg once you are at 0 health or by the hit that takes you to 0 health prevents you from using your innate regeneration. This means you can walk through fire from 10 health to 1, then if you get stabbed, all that fire doesn't matter any more. Additionally, most highbie characters have the regenerate power and they can just get back up even with the agg.
Examining ProblemsIf you can't tell from my notes above, I feel the current SA system is broken. Someone swinging agg should be among the most terrifying opponents in the game. I'm sure that for some characters it is. But once you have the "survival set" of powers, it simply doesn't matter any more. This isn't how it should be. When someone comes out throwing fire I want to have to run and hide, or grow a set and decide to rush in against the deadly onslaught. There needed to be a significant way to convince me
One of the first thought I had was of the Wounds system in an old tabletop game called Earthdawn (I believe Shadow Run has a similar system). In this system a major hit could cause a wound which decreased the dice on all your rolls and took some serious time to heal from. This felt more like aggravated damage but debuffs are significantly problematic in LARPS. Having a -1 or -2 in a d20 system is a fair and good way to work. Having -1 damage in SA is massive, but having -2 or -3 would be crippling. It's difficult to balance out in a LARP setting.
There was also some talk of immediate death if you get hit with agg while unconscious, rather than the weird staking or throwing in the fire rules we have now. In the end this was decided to be serious overkill, but there were aspects of the idea that had merit. If you're a werewolf, and I have a silver weapon, at some point me stabbing you should kill you, like dead dead.
Getting Hit with AggIn the end we needed to clarify more than just how agg works and instead rework the dying process so that it makes more sense. This lead us to a pretty major thought about agg. Aggravated damage is how you kill supernaturals. There's a couple of other ways, but really, you beat the hell out of them with whatever they are "allergic" to. Agg should be just as dangerous at any phase of the awake and dying cycle. Though repeated exposure should kill you at the dying side.
Our final picture on agg is that each time a target is struck with aggravated damage their maximum health is reduced by one. This is per strike not per damage. So taking "fire 4" as a vampire would only decrease their maximum health by one. The primary way to kill a character would become doing agg to them a number of times equal to their maximum health. Thereby taking their maximum health to 0, which is dead and unable to be healed. This means that a character who takes a couple of balefire shots will go into future fights with lower maximum health.
We liked this idea specifically because it gave another way for people to be come worn down over the course of an event. After one good fight you might be down a couple of points, after two you're down a handful and are very concerned about getting into a third. It also made agg scary. If someone throwing fire could reduce my maximum hit points. I'd want to be really careful about how I engaged them. However, with the new combat rules, this isn't as terrible as it sounds. You're only dealing one attack per second so it's not like you'll get jumped and suddenly be down at five maximum health. But there were still a number of issues we had to work through.
Problems with this SystemWhile we really liked the idea of this system we encountered a number of problems with it. First off, agg is really fairly common. People wielding flaming weapons could essentially kill anyone quickly (10 seconds). The current fire sword power was also broken powerful with these rules but remains frustrating to use. However, we had already discussed this particular problem when we were looking at powers that were overly complex. We had agreed that fire sword needed to move to the same as silver claws, 1 energy for 1 swing with the "fire" type. Also flaming weapons needed a similar power down basically granting the fire sword power to that specific weapon. This allowed us to remove many of the free sources of agg in the game. This means that in order to kill a supernatural through powers means you'd have to intentionally spend 10+ energy. With the changes we were looking for the energy system, this is costly, but worth it sometimes.
The second major problem was the idea of a character being stuck at 1 or 3 maximum health for the rest of the event. While this may be fun for some players to be the severely wounded character, for others it would make them want to climb into their car and drive home. Clearly there would need to be a way to heal agg. Not a quick and instant way, but a way that it could be healed back up to a playable level. Interestingly enough, we haven't decided exactly how this will be done. Our discussions so far have really been focused around willpower a big part of the healing agent. We want willpower to play a bigger role over the course of the game and give people multiple ways to get warn down to become susceptible targets. But exactly what this will look like hasn't been decided yet. If a player can use willpower to heal or have some means to buy healing through potions or the like then a character becomes weakened, but not unplayable which is the feeling we're going for.
Finally, there's the issue with Regenerate. In our early discussions it was clear we didn't like this power. This power is currently one of the biggest sources of metagaming in the game. Characters with the regenerate power who are beat down to unconscious are basically still conscious enough to be able to decide when to regenerate. It's unrealistic to expect players to make unknowing choices for their character at this point. While this leads to some thematically appropriate jumping up and escaping, it's bad gaming. Regenerate is a big power in the game. In most of our calculations regenerate along with immunity powers is what extends the kill time on characters to unreasonable levels.
In the end we decided to make regenerate equal to +4 maximum health pool. This means that someone trying to decrease your maximum health to zero would have to spend four additional energy to do so after beating through four additional health points. We feel that this is still a very strong power that many people will want but it no longer has the game shattering effects of Regenerate. With this power even after taking four hits of agg is at the same maximum health as a character without this power.
Making it WorkFor lower XP characters I see these changes having an interesting positive effect. While a character may be struck with a few points of agg over the course of a weekend, someone being dropped by Fire 3 (going down after 4 hits) would need to be worth spending an additional 6 energy to kill. In this case getting dropped is just as easy as today, but actually killing the character requires sustained interaction as well as significant energy expenditure. Meanwhile a high XP character who is in their 3rd or 4th fight of the day may find their maximum health dropping to dangerously low levels making their death a more real possibility.
We are quite aware that this will require a significant change in how NPCs are built. No longer will the group of 2 Baali throwing balefire be a small roadside encounter. There will be lasting effects of each notable combat that will leave those involved significantly weakened. This will also open up the opportunity for characters seeking to get revenge upon a adversary more time to do it. Even characters with a significant Willpower pool will be weakened notably after a decent fight. This leaves some time in which the wounded individual is quite vulnerable before healing.
Finally, we hope that this brings back some of the atmosphere that is removed by slowing down combat. If each blow means more the sudden flurry isn't as necessary to make the game scary. We did a number of battle tests with this system and we liked the results we saw. Being a character that gets into 3-4 big fights every weekend is going to be more dangerous, but I think that in reality that is good for the game. When combat erupts, more people will run away, rather than towards the fray.