07 June 2012

Pen & Paper: Injuries and Consequences

There is no injury to the human body that is remotely important enough to be represented in gaming whilst not being of consequence to the injured persons overall ability to function on a physical and/or psychological level. In this post, I'll get into the topic of health points, injuries and the consequences they may or may not have on gaming in pen & paper. Let me state this beforehand: This is about pen & paper. In video-games, where gameplay is (ideally) what draws you to the game and the options of how to deal with any given situation are dramatically more limited than what a storytelling-based game around a table allows for, the following arguments do not usually apply (except in roguelikes. They get away with anything hurting the player-character in my book...)

So, the age-old question on hit-points in games. What do they represent. Different things in different games, I guess. In early DnD, miniatures used to start out all war-game-like with a hit-point each. Having more than one HP seperated the heroic characters from the rabble - they'd keep fighting after recieving wounds that would take an ordinary person out of the battle. Over time and editions and different role-playing systems following in the wake of DnD, there was something like an inflation of HP. While HP are a nice way to tell how healthy/injured your character is, there are a lot of problems with them and they have been adressed by different systems over the years. The FATE-system has its consequences whenever you get hurt a lot, for example. While it can be a pain to keep track of a lot of rules, I find it hard to keep up my suspension of disbelief when I'm near-dead but can still swing a sword well. Most systems thus punish injuries by giving you a malus on die-rolls depending on how injured you are.

I like my hit-points to be not too numerous but more than 1, so in the homebrew-system I'm currently GMing, human characters have in between 2 and 10 hit points, depending on their physical constitution. Death does come swiftly in a system such as this, as any hit with a weapon has the potential to kill, just like in real life, giving fights more tension and making the players think twice whether or not their characters actually do jump into the fray or hide behind the ox-cart whilst the few combat-capable ones among them dish it out with whatever is attacking them this session. I had promised my players a gritty setting and that's what they're getting. But that also includes that there are no inconsequential injuries. Thus far, I have, whenever one of them lost more than one HP on a hit, described what happened to them and how it affects what they can or cannot do for the rest of the battle. And what needs to be done medically to get them back to normal, once the fight is over.

The session before the last, there was a big battle and three characters got wounded pretty bad. I decided that one of them lost an arm, one had her lung pierced and, although she was rescued, has permanently lost stamina because of that. These were GM-decisions by me, saying "you lost 4 HP in one hit, that's serious stuff that won't leave you intact, if you pull through at all...". They do make me somewhat uncomfortable, as they may make the players feel like I'm preferring some or being unfair towards others. Both girls were hit with the same type of weapon (Naga crossbow) and one of them lost an arm (a roleplaying-thing) while the other permanently lost a very important stat-point (a direct rule-consequence). One might construct a case against me as a GM with that.

So last night, the group got attacked in their nightly camp by a cave-bear. Those who don't know what a cave-bear is: A prehistoric bear, almost twice the size of a grizzly. So as the group fought the monster, it got rather enraged with the knight, who is the leader and main tank of the team. As the bear smashed him to the ground and then ripped him open with its paw, I had to quickly make up my mind what the loss of all 8 HP the man had would mean. Dropping to 0 HP in my game means that you need expert medical care for a few rounds (really well rolled dice) in order to stay alive at all. The two archers of the group shot a volley into the bear and killed it, the now one-armed healer (I did give her an NPC-apprentice as a trade-off though. It makes sense from a story-perspective) rolled 8 successes on her 8 dice (a rather good outcome) and saved the knights life. So what happened, what is the horrible consequence? I got out the critical-table I had made for a scifi-game, the first game I ever home-brew AND GMed. Three times the "torso" chart rolled 6 on a D6, for "instant death". I admit, I fudged these. The healer had succeeded and I just wanted an impartial decision for lasting damage. I got it. The fourth roll came up on "lung pierced". Another one in the party, huh? Well the chart war originally made for firearms anyways.

So the cave-bear ripped through the guys partial plate and chain-armour and ripped into his chest, rupturing a lung. This is bad news for the group, as they now have a badly injured party member in the middle of the wilderness and a cave-bear corpse they cannot eat because the arrows of one of the two archers were (very) poisoned. What they do is up to them in the next session but the whole thing got me thinking. And creating.

I have decided that from now on, in my games, all injuries feature an actual description coming with them. You get hurt on your body, not on your hit-points. I'm currently working on a universal crit-chart. It features a column for light injuries, (1-2 HP in my system), serious injuries (3-4 HP), and horrible injuries (5+ HP), whilst having six lines for the head (to be rolled on a D6), six for the torso, and six for a limb. Light injuries should heal without aid, a serious injury needs medical help and most horrible injuries are life-threatening and/or permanently disfiguring or disabling abilities of the injuree.

This gives me 54 different descriptions of injury that are vague enough to be adapted to different types of injury, while also being clear enough about what happened and what kind of effect is to be expected. Say, a warrior in armour is hit in the chest for 3 damage, I roll on the serious injuries of the body section and get a... "3: Broken Ribs". We can work from there. Movement will be painful but the whole thing should heal if it isn't put under stress. Say, one of the groups archers gets strafed by an arrow, for 1 damage. I don't want to decide where he is hit so I roll a die. I roll a 4, the left leg on my body-area-chart, and then a 6. "Squashed Skin" it says, which is not directly applicable to an arrow, so I re-state it into an arrow that does pierce skin but not muscle, creating a painful wound that should be cleaned-out but isn't immedeatly dangerous. Disracting though, it does slow him down as it is on his leg. Last but not least, imagine someone be hit with, say, a war hammer to the left arm for five damage. A roll on the chart tells me 4, "nerve seperated". The arm is now paralyzed, in addition to the fact that it's obviously broken as it has just been hit with a hammer.

So that's my new system. Field testing starts in two weeks. I'll see how it'll work out.

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