Monday, June 16, 2008

Playing with Death and Dismemberment

Hit points are supposed to be an abstraction that model a character's defensive combat prowess, physical stamina, and will to persevere. Traditionally, however, most folks play them like they measured a character's biological structural integrity. Every roll of the d20 was a swing to hit. Every roll for damage came from a successful to-hit roll, so it represented how much physical trauma the strike caused to the body.

I want to get away from that and back to the idea that hit points are an abstraction of, yes, physical trauma, but more than that, of being worn down by your foes and mental and physical exhaustion. One of the neatest tools I've seen for doing this is the Classic D&D Injury Table over at Robert Fisher's web page.

The idea behind the table is simple: any character reduced to zero hit points, or hit after being dropped to zero, must suffer the results of a roll on the table. A character reduced to zero hit points is not necessarily out of the fight. Rolling a 2 results in no effect, while any result below 6 has the character still conscious, and able to potentially return to the fight. This makes it quite clear that the "hits" your character has taken up to this point have been mostly flesh wounds and minor strikes. But once your hit points are at zero, you're no longer able to effectively defend yourself. Every attack is potentially lethal now.

I like Mr. Fisher's table, but I'm an inveterate tweaker and just had to make one of my own. Keep in mind as you read it that only the PCs and possibly very important NPCs get to use this table. If you bring your average orc or troll to zero hit points, they simply die.

(My apologies for the difficulties with this table. For some reason HTML does wacky things when filtered through Blogger. This is my third attempt to make it easy to read. Clearly, the only workable solution is to replace the table with a picture of a proper, legible table. Grrrrr...)



2 or lower

instant death (decapitated or other grevious wound).


fatal wound (gutted, stabbed through lung, broken back, etc.) die in 1d6 turns.


severed limb (DM's choice or roll randomly) will die in 3d6 rounds unless tourniquet applied, wound cauterized with fire, or Cure Serious Wounds cast (CSW used for this will not restore lost hp).


broken bone (DM's choice), 2d4+9 weeks to heal.


knocked out for 2d6 rounds, unless wearing a helm. With helm, only stunned for 1 round.


stunned for 1 round, unless wearing helm. With helm, only knocked down.


knocked down.


no effect.


a surge of adrenaline returns 1d4 hit points per every other level (1d4 at 1st and 2nd, 2d4 at 3rd and 4th, etc.) At the end of the combat, the adrenaline drains away, hit points are reduced to zero, and the PC faints for 2d6 rounds.

As you can see, a lot of this table is swiped wholesale from Mr. Fisher's table. However, I've also given some love to the lowly helmet, and I've included a "rally at the last minute" option as well. It might seem a bit too Buffy, but it fits the genre, whether you're talking Conan or King Arthur.

UPDATE: Norman Harman reports success with the Table of Death & Dismemberment, but finds it too wussy. Behold his table of Deadlier Death & Dismemberment!


Sham aka Dave said...

Good stuff. I'd been meaning to read Robert's system since I was referred there by Randall.

How would you handle someone going from say, 2 HP to -7 HP in one round?

I like this type of system, my only pause has been altering the standard D&D HP totals by not, at the very least, removing the PC from combat once thay are at 0.

I think my favorite version of this type of approach, so far, is Zeb Cook's one used in Conan/ZeFRS.

trollsmyth said...

How would you handle someone going from say, 2 HP to -7 HP in one round?

If a single attacker did that, the PC's hit points stop at zero (there simply are no negative hit points in this system), and the player rolls on the table. If the PC does not die and doe not receive any healing, every attack that follows incurs a roll on the table.

EXAMPLE: Mighty Bucket ("That's pronounced boo-KAY, you ignorant savage!") is locked in combat dire with an gnoll. Bucket has 2 hit points left, and the gnoll clobbers him for 9 points of damage! Mighty Bucket's hit points descend to 0 and stop there. Mighty Bucket's player rolls 2d6, and after adding Bucket's Constitution bonus, the result is an 8. Luckily for Bucket, he remembered to wear his helmet, so he's not knocked out, but the ringing blow to his helm leaves him stunned for a round. Unfortunately for Bucket, the next round, while he is still reeling, the gnoll continues to savage him, and lands another hit. There's no need to roll damage; Bucket's hit points cannot descend below zero. Bucket's player instead rolls on the table again, hoping to get a 12 before the poor fighting-man ends up getting too many limbs lopped off or broken...

And yes, this does make PCs a lot more resilient. With lucky rolls, a PC could fight round after round at zero hit points.

The threat of dismemberment, however, is serious. There's nothing in Moldvay/Cook that regrows limbs other than the wish spell. Losing an arm or a leg is a serious handicap for an adventurer. Losing both arms pretty much ends a PC's career.

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

Awesome! Great example. I really like your system. It's simple, elegant and logical. I'll be testing a lot of variations of HP rules soon, and I might very well settle on something like this.

trollsmyth said...

Cool! I'll be looking forward to seeing what you finally settle on.

- Brian

Chris said...

Is the wounds at 0hp table an intentional WFRP-ism, or just the result of parallel evolution of ideas?

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I'm so stealing this. Thank you! (And to Sham for pointing this out as well...)

Alex Schroeder said...

I used for the first time today and it worked like a charm. Great stuff.

trollsmyth said...

Danke, Alex. Very glad to hear it. If you find it needs alterations or adjustments, let me know.

Anonymous said...

I also like your table. Is it possible to translate the table (in German - yes - we get a German LL version!), blog it and link to your original?

trollsmyth said...

Is it possible to translate the table (in German - yes - we get a German LL version!), blog it and link to your original?

Absolutely, please do. And go ahead and drop a link to it here, either in the comments or using the "add a link" thing.

Stuart said...

Very nice! Pitty I missed this until now... I'd consider adding a cumulative -1 per additional roll on the table. If the Gnoll keeps hammering on Mighty Bucket the odds for him are going to get worse each round.

rainswept said...
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Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Sorry to Necro your almost 2year old post But I wanted to say I recently used your table in a couple of Labyrinth Lord games of B2. I really liked the simplicity of roll on table at 0 hit points. And the idea that once all your (don't get) hit points are gone you're liable to get a serious wound.

I missused it slightly (letting simple magic heal broken bones and severed limbs), which contributed to it's popularity with the players :)

Overall it was a great success.

But, for me, I wanted something deadlier and more likely to knock character out of combat / usefullness. So, Deadlier Death and Dismemberment.

trollsmyth said...

Mr. Harman: Not at all! I love the fact that my old stuff still gets hit regularly, and it's even better that it's getting good use in people's games.

I'm only sorry I managed to miss both games. Sounds like y'all had a great time. I so need to get my weekends free again... :/

bombshelter13 said...

I'm curious, perhaps I'm missing something, but, if Constitution bonus is added, getting a 2, the only death result, is impossible for any character with a constitution bonus.

How can a character with a Constitution bonus be killed without it being like the black knight scene in Monty Python's Holy Grail?

trollsmyth said...

bombshelter13: Originally, I was going to follow this up with a list of negative modifiers that would have made it possible, based on the HD of the foe or the bonus on magical weapons.

But that turned out to be too fiddly for me, so I dropped using the CON bonus and just roll flat-out on the table now with no adjustments to the roll.

Zac in VA said...

Reading this makes me think it's (actually *more* useful for con play or one-shot play than a campaign.

I have a con to attend this weekend (Ice Station Nerdly, Alexandria VA) and I'm imagining the difference between "you break your leg" and "okay, the fall kills you. Now what?" It might not be that long before a badly wounded character bites it, but it puts more tension and tactical constraint in there first, before he's just out of play altogether.

This, I shall use, and let the dice fall where they may with confidence. Thanks!

Zac in VA said...

follow-up: this table is awesome! Everybody was excited about using it, and there were cheers when one of the dwarves rolled an 11.
It added some awesome tension, and took away some of the fear of failure (as opposed to just accepting failure when it happens). Rock!

trollsmyth said...

That's great to hear! :D

Here's another tip I've found useful: a broken bones result does not need to be an arm or a leg. It can be things like cracked ribs or the like (-1 to all dice rolls, or move at half speed, that sort of thing). These days, I roll a d4 for that: 1 = arm, 2 = leg, 3 = hand, 4 = ribs.

Alex Schroeder said...

How do you heal broken bones in your games?

trollsmyth said...

Alex: The principle method for healing is time, as outlined in the chart. However, I tend to make it a non-debilitating break: broken finger (-1 to attack rolls) or cracked rib (-2 to all rolls) or something like that.

Also, a wounded character, even one with a broken bone, can have their healing time cut in half if they are under the care of a witch.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

@Alex probably weren't asking me but...

I've dealt with healing differently depending on the style/atmosphere. Currently going for gritty, deadlyish, magic is "mystical".

So, broken bones, injuries from the D&D chart take days/weeks to heal and typically result in missing limbs, deformities, and permanent stat loss. Magic reduces healing time from weeks to days and from days to hours. This is the big advantage of magical cures vs herbs, stiff drink and days rest. All of which restore hit points but don't help healing.

When character hits 0 and rolls on chart they may not die outright but they're likely to be "out" of current fight and maybe "out" for this and several future sessions.

Other "weird" healing rules I'm currently using:
- A decent (hot food, warm fire) nights rest restores all hit points.
- Spells/etc that heal X dice of damage the die rolled is the injured characters hit die. So curelight wounds heals d4 on a mage and d8 on a fighter.

trollsmyth said...

Norman: - A decent (hot food, warm fire) nights rest restores all hit points.
- Spells/etc that heal X dice of damage the die rolled is the injured characters hit die. So curelight wounds heals d4 on a mage and d8 on a fighter.

I've been doing something similar to that first one, and I may very well steal that second one. It makes a lot of sense, considering what hit points are supposed to be.

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1d30 said...

Again, I wonder about this in practice: PC gets mashed by a giant's club and has a good chance of survival, okay I can see being knocked around instead of squashed flat. What about a fall from a cliff onto jagged rocks? How about this:

An attack that would have dealt your entire MaxHP in one blow only gives you a 1d6 roll on the table instead of 2d6. This applies whether you're currently at MaxHP or at 0 or whatever. This is your Massive Damage Rule.

I'd like to see this mapped to System Shock or CON, but I can see why the anti-modifiers would get fiddly.

I waffle between liking and not liking the fact that 1 HP damage attacks against a 0-HP target inflict deadly wounds. Part of me says that 1 HP is a big deal to an injured 0-level farmer. Another part says being nicked by a dart shouldn't cut off your arm. Then again, a hit point of damage is NEVER just a nick, so the minimum dart damage of 1 HP is actually a good solid stab into flesh. Maybe that severs the artery in your arm or whatever.

I also like quick recovery of HP but slow recovery of wounds. Healing spells and magic are more about vitality and morale than knitting flesh and bone together. It also helps cut down on the 15-minute adventuring day.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...


A lot depends on how you view hit points/damage. With this system I feel they are very abstract. HP represent stamina, luck, skill at avoiding deadly blows (one reason they increase with level). The only actual damaging blows are when you have to roll on D&D table.

But, mostly I don't think about it much and use it cause it's fun and cool!

trollsmyth said...

Pretty much in agreement with Norman here. This is a quick-and-easy way to include the sort of events you normally find in critical-hit rules without the issues critical hits often create, make hit points feel less like "structural integrity points," and make combat a touch less deadly while still feeling exciting.

It's overly simple, I'll admit, in many ways, but that's the price I'm willing pay to keep things quick and simple.

Unknown said...

Can I use these rules in my project? I am not sure will it only be for my personal use only, will I share it or might it even be commercial product some day :D

Asking permission without knowing what I will do with this in the end heh. Have written this in the file though.

trollsmyth said...

Thaumiel Nerub: Ack! I missed that you posted this. Yes, please, absolutely, feel free to use this in your rules. I'd appreciate a tip-of-the-hat somewhere in the book/file, but even that's not entirely necessary, since I'm really riffing on the ideas of others.

Lloyd Neill said...
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