Damage Magnet

The party damage magnet is more than just a tank who soaks up punishment–they soak up hits for the team. It can be unintentional, when an inappropriate target (say, the party MU) is selected over and again at random. That can be funny too, at least for one session and as long as no-one actually loses their PC.

Really though the party tank should always be the damage magnet. Not only does it make tactical sense, it’s the role the player has signed up for–a protector of the other party members, and a tough character.

This is where Aggro comes in. MMORPGs and CRPGs use aggro (aka Threat, Hate) to prioritise which monster attacks which PC–and in addition to soaking up hits the Tank often has aggro-drawing abilities (such as taunts) to draw attention away from the vulnerable healers/buffers and high damage-per-second characters.

However taunting often means something different in tabletop games. Sometimes it’s an effect that makes an enemy attack blindly, so the aggro-drawing is implied — but other times it’s a mechanism to mentally disorder the opponent with quips and insults, so the user has an advantage against the target of the taunt (this is a feature of swashbuckling games like 7th Sea, I believe). Overall a taunt (like a lot of RPG powers) has a focus on the one-to-one relationship between fighter and enemy, rather than the many-to-many relationship of party (with its strong and weak members) to enemy unit.1

Let’s consider aggro as a global condition, applying to all PCs all the time–as is the case in WoW.

  • What benefits would an aggro system provide?
  • What situations apply?
  • How to implement?

1. Benefits / System Objectives

We know RPGs revolve around conflict and tension, but conflict doesn’t happen for its own sake (often). Conflict usually happens because the PCs have inserted themselves into a dangerous situation (physical and/or social) for some kind of gain.

  1. Tagging the party members with aggro lets them know they’re under threat.
  2. Tagging individual party members with different levels of aggro has implications of how suited the individual PC is to a situation. All players are equal, but all PCs are not.
  3. Individual PCs may have a different tolerance for aggro compared to others in a given situation; that’s to say they can cope with a higher aggro level and remain safe.
  4. Effects can direct aggro to and from characters–usually this would be the tank raising their own aggro (or maybe redirecting aggro from weaker characters to them)
  5. Aggro acts as a “threat clock”. As characters do deeper into the wilderness, dungeon, or stay longer at the ball, they may attract more attention. The GM can use that to ramp up tension.

2. Scenarios

Martial Threat

The most obvious example, with physical conflict. Enemies target the party according to the perceived threat or tactical advantage; the tank steps in to take the heat off the weaker party member.2

Social Threat

In this case the characters are in a location they shouldn’t be. If it’s a rough underworld dive then the ones who don’t fit in may pick up aggro from the locals. In that case, the threat could be discovery and could turn to physical violence.

Alternatively there are social situations where there is no physical threat, but the characters risk either ridicule, or getting detected before they get their objective (say they’re a bunch of thieves infiltrating a society ball). At the ball the social movers and shakers will spot someone out of place and may question them, humiliate them, or have them ejected.

If the risk is ridicule then the system needs to support some kind of “social hit points”. Examples might be Lace and Steel’s Self Image, or a variable Status trait.

Environmental Threat

“You city slickers wouldn’t last five minutes out here!”

This is the veteran scout escorting city folk through the wilderness trope. The city folk are already at a threat disadvantage compared to the scout; they are perceived as “weak” by the environment, and invariably will be picked off first by any threat that comes their way. Maybe the worst that happens is being stung by a bee or rubbing up against some poison ivy3; or maybe they get picked off by predators. 

In all cases the city folk are assumed to be under the scout’s protection; while they’re with him, he takes some of their aggro onto himself (also maybe there’s a limit to how many he can protect; now you’ve got a need for extra guides).

3. Implementation

To implement this plan, we need some measures.

  • A measure of how well the character copes in the environment, combat or social situation. Could be based on their career (the way Barbarians of Lemuria uses career ratings for non-combat skill rolls), a quality (unisystem), a skill or some other permission.
  • A couple of measures for the location: the base aggro (as in how hostile the place is) and some kind of qualitative description of the kind of threat (“violence”, “predator”, “monster”, “criminal underworld”, “high society”) that helps join the kind of environment with the kind of experience that may help the PC survive.
  • Optionally, some kind of visibility mechanism. Some characters will be obviously visible as out-of-place, particularly powerful or threatening. This may be based on the same stat as the coping measure, or it could be something else (some characters may cope by blending into the background).
  • Powers or skills that divert aggro
  • Bits or counters to track current aggro

The procedure should go something like this:

  1. GM decides the base aggro for the location, as well as the kind of threat. They may also determine a threshold.
  2. Players and GM work out which PC traits apply to the situation.
  3. Each character subtracts their trait from the base aggro. That’s their starting aggro. The GM gives them counters or bits to represent the threat level.
  4. You now have a party with a spread of aggro counters. The ones with the highest aggro are automatically attracting the wrong kind of attention.
  5. Your party tanks can then temporarily take aggro from the other characters. You could rationalise this in any number of ways:
    • In a fight, the tank puts themselves between the weaker character and the enemy, or otherwise distracts the enemy
    • In a social scene, the tank makes it clear that if anyone messes with the PC in their charge, they mess with them;
    • Alternatively in a social scene, when the weaker character is attracting attention the tank causes some kind of distraction that shifts focus back to them.
  6. Over time you can give everyone additional aggro. You can do this automatically as a sort of global countdown (“the search parties are getting closer!”) or you can make aggro a penalty for failing a stealth/blend in roll (if they make more noise, the countdown goes faster for them).
  7. Once there’s a real threat to the party, it goes for the PC with the most aggro. No questions.

There’s still some work to be done with scale and what happens with escalation (e.g. escalating from a social conflict to a physical one). Potentially this could be wrapped into the location-focused City Accelerator tool, using Domain as a Base Aggro and maybe Tension as some kind of modifier.

4. More Than One Kind of Aggro

Supplemental to the above, consider a trad D&D party going up against a Boss plus Minions.

Aggro

In MMORPGs there’s a concept of a radius of aggro. For computer games managing the actual distance from the enemy is part of the game, but mostly we take distance management on trust in tabletop games (unless you play with minis). Still, the concept of an aggro radius is very important, as are the tactical decisions that go along with it. Does the PC have to voluntarily place themselves within the radius, or could they find themselves within an aggro radius by accident (say, by surprise)?

Then there’s the case of how you manage boss fights. Boss fights should present both a “boss problem” and a “minion problem”. Consider the diagram above:

  • PC 1 attracts aggro from both boss and minions
  • PCs 2 and 3 attract aggro from minions only
  • PC 4 attracts no aggro (for whatever reason)

There’s a case for tracking both Boss aggro and Minion aggro. It shouldn’t be hard; you can have red aggro tokens for regular minions, and black ones for the Boss. There’s also an interesting condition that to attack the Boss PC1 must attract aggro from minions (let’s say the party are trying to take down a crime boss in their lair).

That makes PCs 2 and 3’s job very important. They have to tank all the Minion aggro while PC 1 gets an uninterrupted crack at the Boss. This is the classic “I’ll hold them off, you get Dr Evil!” move.

(Meanwhile, what’s PC 4 doing? Are they a sniper moving into position, or a coward hiding in the toilets?)

Final Thoughts

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p>This is just a rough draft, but it looks like aggro could be a useful mechanic. Maybe you could use it to promote a general feeling of unease or of being watched (e.g. everyone gets a point of aggro when they step into the haunted house). Maybe you could use it to victimise a specific character (“I don’t care about the others — get Agent Spiker at all costs!”).

And this is clearly just another way to achieve the same result: exciting, dramatic and climactic scenes. Still, by telegraphing threat the GM may get another lever to force characters to action. We shall see, eh?


  1. I haven’t any experience of D&D 4e — maybe that game does include aggro mechanics, given that it’s been accused of emulating WoW.

2. Normally, aggro grants the players a tactical privilege–that of targeting the enemy’s powerful-but-vulnerable dps units (e.g. an enemy MU cranking out fireballs) but denying the GM the chance to do the same thing to the party. And with good reason: PC on enemy aggro needs to be at (almost) all times in the control of the players, just like every other decision they make for their character. Mind control on PCs is rarely acceptable.

  1. For example, a failed roll on the travel skill in Lace and Steel gives the character a temporary penalty to self-image because they’ve had a miserable journey.
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