I ran Solar System for the first time last night, and I found myself really unsure about how often to include Harm in the stakes of failure.
I've read advice which says, "Go for it! Definitely assign Harm in the stakes of failure." The booklet says, "Harm 1 for an annoyance, Harm 6 for something that would break a man."
I found that, in play, I really wasn't sure whether to assign Harm, and never did.
If there is danger of physical harm, that makes sense--it's obvious enough: "This could hurt!"
But when do you assign Harm in social situations, contests of will, etc? In a seduction attempt? In a chess match?
That's much less clear for me.
Experienced Story Guides, what do you find works best?
I suggest that you should assign Harm in all important conflicts. Harm is an important resource mechanic which lies a bit unused if the SG doesn't push it. Give out Harm 1 for any conflict where failure would frustrate the character and attack his confidence (that is, anything the character himself finds important) and scale up from there.
I myself still often forget to do this, so this is advice I'm learning myself. But as far as I know, you can never have too many conflicts with Harm as long as you set it at the appropriate level.
Provocative thought: If you don't know why losing a conflict would cause Harm, there is no clout in the conflict.
I'm gonna disagree on Eero's suggestion, but it's purely a "season to taste" scenario, and you should do what works best for you.
I tend to assign Harm in situations where I want there to not just be some sense of loss immediately in a scene (i.e. you didn't get the girl, or win the contest, or solve the puzzle) but when I want a sense that there's a stinging, lasting repercussion. That said, any of the scenarios I have above could be Harm-appropriate ones, but it's all about the feel I want for the contest. Harm comes out when not getting the girl would result in having the PC mope around and being off his game for a while, or when not winning the contest comes with a certain amount of shame in the eyes of everyone around you, or you won't be able to get that crazy puzzle off your mind.
In that line of thinking, Harm should come out when you want the opponent to not just fail now, but to have lasting repercussions that mess him up in a future scene. If fighting the bear means he's badly scarred and it's going to interfere with his ability to climb the mountain, or appear at the fancy dress ball, consider pushing Harm into the stakes. If he takes the Harm, and needs to get out of it, it's time for pool expenditure or a Refresh scene, both of which add to the game, either through it's resource mechanic or adding a fresh scene.
No matter what, I say if there's Harm as a stake, you run the risk of an odd BDTP scenario. If Harm 2 is the stake of a conflict, a PC who doesn't want the Harm but fails the check might go to Bringing Down the Pain, but he'd be smart to yield by the time he gets to the second filled Harm Level, because otherwise he's taking more Harm through this BDTP scenario than he would have been from just losing. That sort of paradox can be a little wacky, but can result in interesting scenarios... if I have Harm 5, and you're threatening me with Harm 2 as a stake, I should probably opt for BDTP if I fail, and then yield at the end of the first round no matter what. My Harm Levels will collapse/shake out, so I end up with less overall damage than I had before.
Not that that's guaranteed to happen, but if contest after contest has Harm as a stake, they become as much a source of healing as they do more damage. Then again, that might be what everyone's looking for, as it means things keep changing and being exciting, and makes for a very "Die Hard" kind of scenario, which is very pulpy.
-shadowcourt (aka Josh)
Lots of great advice here!
My intuitive interpretation is more or less what Josh wrote, and I think I'll probably just go with that: taking Harm in a conflict is a way of telling the group, "the consequences of this conflict are lasting". That gives me a measuring stick for when to apply Harm and when not to.
I'd love to continue discussing this, though, if anyone has more advice or any stories to share.
For instance: do you ever assign Harm without indicating a Pool? I could see this decision being awkward sometimes, and it's not necessary for Minor Harm.
The funny thing you mention with Harm in stakes and BDtP is curious. I think that, when I play, I would let both parties rephrase their intentions when BDtP begins, possibly even escalating the conflict. That's suggested in the SS booklet, and seems more interesting and more flexible.
I definitely always keep Harm marked by a specific pool, if only because it's useful shorthand for what kind of negative effects the Harm should have (in terms of penalty dice, for instance), and tells the player very clearly what they need to use to heal that Harm. Changing types of Harm (by pool) can be a very effective technique when you've got the measure of a foe, in the same classic D&D technique of sending all your Will-save effects against the big dumb ogre, but probably trying to use the poison cloud type spells against the enemy wizard; targeting your opponent's weak pool can be a handy way to keep him down or make the conflict go faster.
I've also had some games where Harm is marked by specific pool mechanics which are outside the traditional Instinct/Vigor/Reason, which ties in nicely with some of Eero's discussion of alternate pool mechanics in Solar System. For instance, the Stone Age game I currently run has a fourth optional pool, called Taint, which is all about black magic and practices beyond the comfort level of the community. For those willing to unremittingly turn towards witchcraft, skin-walking, and other methods which put the individual ahead of the community, there are Taint mechanics. In terms of Harm levels, if you're unlucky enough to be injured by something which seethes with corruption, you end up with a Harm Level which is marked with two pools, i.e "Vigor/Tainted". Beyond the normal pool expenditure required to heal the Harm, you also need to get yourself purified somehow, typically by the intervention of a shaman or other form of spiritual sanctification. It hasn't come up much, but when it does, it's creepy and fun.
I've sometimes tinkered with ideas about how to even make Harm levels linger a little, to represent characters who are carrying around some sort of wound which we want to come up later. The results have been mixed, and it's sometimes at odds with my own desire that Harm doesn't linger forever and keep a player from ever participating in exciting meaningful conflict in the future, for fear of all the Harm he remains burdened with. In truth, it's probably best to maintain any idea like this as an Effect on the part of the aggressor rather than lingering Harm on the part of the wounded. If I want it to come up again in a game, it's ready-at-hand as that Effect which has been maintained; otherwise, it's gone because we've lost interest in it and the plot has gone elsewhere.
Additionally, you're right about the issue of Harm-as-stakes being sorted out during the negotiation stage when stakes are set in the opening salvo of BDTP. I've never really run into this as a problem, and it'd probably have come naturally to me in that circumstance.
-shadowcourt (aka Josh)