Limit Breaks

A mechanic that has been pretty popular over the years has been the concept of Limit Breaks.  I believe this stems originally from the Final Fantasy Series, and the Final Fantasy Wikia confirms that the term was first coined for Final Fantasy VII, but the concept originated with Final Fantasy VI as “Desperation Attacks.”  From the same source:

Limit Breaks are often among the most damaging moves at a player’s disposal, typically capable of destroying enemies. Several Limit Breaks have developed into various characters’ signature moves… Limit Breaks usually rely on the damage the player takes in some way. When the player takes enough damage to fill up a power meter, or they enter critical status, they may perform their Limit Break.

The mechanic has been very successful for one of the staples of the video game RPG genre.  I’m considering something similar for Lost Worlds.  My first thought was to allow a character that has died one more action, a “limit break” action, that would allow them to perform a powerful attack that would help ensure a memorable death.  Upon taking enough damage to die, the player could decide whether their character will go “out” to potentially recover after the fight, or to use their Limit Break.

The downside is that players would only get to access limit breaks when their characters were 100% going to die.  The upside is that this helps take a little of the sting out of character death, and lets characters die as heroes rather than ignominiously in a meaningless combat.  It also helps the players recover from a shift in combat where suddenly the enemies have too much firepower to overcome, leading to an eventual party wipe if the GM doesn’t have mercy in some overt way.

Marvel roleplaying introduced a mechanic whereby a player could utilize the damage they’ve taken as a bonus on a roll, called “Exploiting your Stress.”  Doing so allows the character to use their pain as a weapon, but it also automatically steps up their damage to the next damage level.  So, if you have 4 wounds before you are dead, and you currently have taken 2 wounds of damage, you could take a +2 bonus on your next roll, but you automatically go to 3 wounds of damage after doing so.  To take advantage of this, you’d have to make wounds and your core mechanic work on the same order of magnitude (damage in HP in 3.5, for example, would be a bad choice as a to hit bonus).

I’m thinking that every class will have its own limit break damage output, and the actual instance of the limit break is narrated by the player.  So, maybe the thief can automatically hit an opponent with a critical hit sneak attack, and narrate how the final blow took the hero down, but the enemy wasn’t prepared for the hero to stand back up one time and thrust their sword through its back.

The exploiting your stress mechanic seems interesting as well, and could escalate and speed up combats, giving players a way to add dramatic tension when appropriate.  It has to be carefully balanced though so that it’s useful in a desperate or dramatic situation, but isn’t simply used ad nauseum.  

Another way of implementing this could be a power that activates in a similar way to a power that activates based on an escalation die from 13th Age, but based on something more “real” to the game, like damage taken.  For example, you might be able to use certain “Desperation Powers” when your health is below 10 hp.  This would help delay some dramatic/climactic powers to the end of combats rather than always firing the cannons at the beginning, which was one of the benefits I noted in the escalation die.

4 thoughts on “Limit Breaks

  1. Andy

    I think almost-dead “limit break” powers are a better option than dead limit break powers. If we use energy using your limit break power should immediately reduce you to zero energy. I personally wouldn’t be that enthused to tell some heroic way my character died if I just got killed by a skeleton. My character failed. That’s part of the game and I’ll take a new character sheet and get rolling, but my mindset wouldn’t be “what a cool way my character died.” Especially if EVERY character gets to have a limit break in that way. Plus its another dissasociated mechanic. WHY was I able to act out of turn when I already died?

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      I know we talked about this in person, but just to clarify, a player would have to actually choose to die rather than just be knocked out in order to utilize it. If they died after being knocked out, they’re just dead. The “limit break” type action would occur only if the player decided that their character was going to go down with an epic death.

      I agree, it’s a little cinematic, but I don’t see it being used very often since most players aren’t going to want their characters to die if they can just be knocked out of the combat instead. It is a way to help fight back against the some early bad luck in an encounter snow-balling into an avalanche of total party kill.

      It is disassociated and a little cinematic, but I think it’s just little enough and just interesting enough to try out.

  2. Andy

    GOT spoilers ahead – Don’t read if you haven’t seen/read season 1 of GoT. Overall I don’t feel like limit breaks make much sense in the low magic/low superpowers type of campaign setting we are trying to build. Ned Stark didn’t get to do some type of amazing once in his life power to take down Joffrey when he was getting executed. The fact that his death just happened unexpectedly is what made the event so dramatic. Final Fantasy this makes sense. Marvel this makes a ton of sense. GoT I don’t see it.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Yeah, I wouldn’t allow it for a character who was restrained, down, burning/suffocating, asleep, etc when they die. There are some moments throughout novels, even ones that focus a bit more on realism, where someone does something above and beyond awesome – and it’s usually in a desperate situation like one where you’d actually choose for your character to die instead of getting knocked out.


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