I recently read the term narrative damage. It was in a commentary by Griffin McElroy about the Suffering Game arc in the Adventure Zone. Part of his commentary was that narrative damage was still damage.
While I hadn’t heard the term narrative damage before, I knew exactly what it was. The argument in the commentary was that, after characters become high enough level and gain enough equipment in Dungeons and Dragons, they become hard to really hurt. I mean, death can be cured by spells.
However, losses within the framework of the story, those can be a hit a lot harder. In fact, since RPGs are collaborative story telling, they are the most important kind of damage. In some systems (like Fiasco), narrative damage is the only kind of damage. Really, narrative damage is just another word for conflict and consequences.
Truth to tell, every game master I’ve ever played under who was worth their salt used narrative damage. A GM I played with weekly for over ten years very reasonably felt that high level characters have global impact so their choices inevitably have political consequences. In his game, being a murder hobo was a bad idea and being a high level murder hobo made that character’s life a nightmare.
One of my favorite GM’s likes characters to have detailed backstories and be strongly connected to their communities. Our choices and failures and successes has consequences literally at right at home. It was the complete opposite of being a murder hobo.
One player memorably created an orphan with no friends. He made himself as immune to narrative damage as he could be, creating a Batman character. Well, Batman without Alfred or Nightwing or any of the Robins and Batgirls or the Justice League, etc. And he had fun and did neat stuff but he ended up not being in the game as long and not having as much impact. He had no investment.
Because when we play RPGs, we are telling a story. And a story where nothing bad ever happens to the main characters is really boring. So many players I’ve played with have actively sought out narrative damage because it makes for a more interesting story. (Okay, I’ve done it too) The biggest murder hobo in that ten plus year campaign? He went looking for that trouble to keep things interesting. He was an instigator.
If I were to talk about narrative damage to almost every GM I’ve played any length of time and any campaign, they’d find the need for the term silly. Because, at the end of the day, that’s just story telling. It’s not an alternative to losing hit points or stat points. It’s just part of the conflict that is a story.
One of them flat out told me: You dont remember losing 25 hp. You remember losing your base and all your npc friends and family dying.
Unless a game is just a dungeon crawl or the equivalent, where all you do is go from one combat to the next combat, you are going to tell an actual story. And no matter if you call it narrative damage or plot twists or conflict, it’s going to be there.