Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Why I Made the Switch to Death & Dismemberment

                Death and how it is played out is always a funny and contentious topic for people playing RPGs. Many people want to stick to the letter of the law in the rulebooks, and many others think that harsher rulesets spoil people’s fun. There is no correct answer to this little problem, but there is a correct answer for your particular table. In the past few years I have experimented with several types of systems regarding death in my Old-School Essentials games. We really need to ask, “What purpose does death serve in the game?” Death is a mechanic, just like AC, so why is it needed? We could just as easily have characters always get knocked out, and come back to the game right after the fight. Is it to “punish” the bad players for making stupid decisions? I’ve found that many players play the game extremely smart, but bad luck can kill a character, so is that fair? If a character can go down in combat and get back up with no consequences whatsoever, do they have a motivation to play in a reasonable manner? Answering the question of “why” we have the mechanic in our game can give us an idea of what type of mechanic to use.

The first thing that I did for a while was go back to my 2e roots and allow characters to go to -10 hit points before death. I had them bleed out at a rate of 1 hit point per round unless bandaged. The pros to this system are that it can create some form of desperation on the battle field as a companion is bleeding on the floor. Since the range is so big though, 10 points, I often found that people would say, “Don’t worry, I’m only at -2 I’ve got like 7 more rounds.” This kills suspense and is basically an abuse of the mechanics, but it is hard to avoid. Overall the system felt a little too generous and players could abuse it only really having to worry about death with an unlucky critical roll.
Next I swung the opposite direction and just had players who hit 0 hit points rolled a save vs death. If they succeeded they were knocked out, if they failed, they died. This certainly created a lot of death in the game. I was averaging 1.5 PC deaths per session. This definitely created a sense of caution in my players, but almost to the point of stagnation. Players would endlessly debate options because everyone knew they were a single roll away from death and PC reset. Life was cheap and so were the characters that my players were creating. This also gave an advantage to classes like the Dwarf who have a great Death Save versus other classes. Dwarves were downright unkillable, especially the one who got a Ring of Protection.

This caused me to really think about what I wanted out of the death mechanic and I decided that I wanted the death mechanic to serve as a PC clock. The PCs start the game fresh as a daisy, but as the clock ticks, they gain scars, injuries, and possibly death. I decided to use Goblin Punch Death and Dismemberment v.23 as my go to death mechanic. This has some of the best features of the previous two systems, and eliminates a lot of the things I did not like about them too. The other great thing is that it is compatible with almost any OSR system.
For those that are not familiar with Death & Dismemberment rules, characters who reach 0 hit points are not automatically dead. Up until that point they are taking superficial damage, once they hit 0 hit points they are taking massive hits. They now run the risk of losing limbs, becoming blind, gaining massive scars, etc. This also can lead to some cool moments, I had a character battling several enemies, and he lost the use of his shield arm, had a concussion, but still battled on. Characters don’t want to go below 0 because major injury can happen, so the fear is still there, but death is not assured. They still might bleed out over the floor, but the time frame is much quicker and desperate. I now have some heroes with some great war stories, and the wounds to show for it. Over time their characters are becoming richer, but also are becoming more mangled and might have to retire. My players love this system compared to the previous versions I have used and it is right for my table.

I would highly suggest taking a look at the death mechanic that you are using and does it do what you want it to do? What do you want out of a possible PC death? Do you want it to be more dramatic? More cut and dry? Or for it to have lasting consequences. I prefer the latter, but I believe there are situations where all 3 are viable.

Goblin Punch blog can be found here and has lots of great content.

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  1. My problem with the go to -10 hit points was that it was too predictable. The players could say, "I've got 7 rounds. I'm fine." I wanted a sense of urgency but also a bit of tension due to incomplete information.

    So, when a character reaches 0 in my game, they go unconscious. They get a pool of d6 equal to 3 + their Con modifier with a minimum of 1. On their turn, the player rolls their pool of d6's. Any dice that come up 1 are removed from the pool. When the pool has no dice in it, they are dead. Any healing (magical or otherwise) stops the rolling of the pool and brings them to consciousness.

  2. We do the unconscious at 0 and dead at -10, but with a minor twist. After reduced below zero the PC is dying and has a number of minutes equal to CON score to be brought above 0. But that's dependent upon making a trauma or CON check every round. Fail one and you're dead.

  3. I like your post on this, and the Goblin Punch article. I always use the DMG Massive Damage rule and Lingering Effects (like the Goblin Punch one). Death happens as follows:

    If a player is reduced to 0HP or below, to negative HP = CON bonus x LEVEL, the character is dying until stabilized by another player or NPC. They make Death Savings Throw (PHB), and subtract their negative HP from the roll. They do this until they fail three saves, then they die. They cannot stabilize from a successful save.

    If they go below 0, and take more damage than CON Bonus x Level, they are dead.

    I also use Powerful Blow rules. If the player take a blow that does damage matching or exceeding their Level + STR bonus, they need to check against a Shove Contest or get knocked Prone by the hit.

  4. I think what concerns me is playing a character with a useless arm. Obvioulsy, each table has different expectations but I just don't think my group and myself would enjoy permanent injuries like that.

    However, I appreciate that you shared your ideas and will contemplate them.

    Have you looked at how 5th Edition handles Death?

    1. I think it makes interesting characters. Was Jamie Lannister more or less interesting after he lost a hand? I am not a fan of 5e Death Saves, way to merciful.

  5. Dungeon World has a great mechanic for this:

    Last Breath

    When you’re dying you catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the Black Gates of Death’s Kingdom (the GM will describe it). Then roll (just roll 2d6, +nothing—yeah, Death doesn’t care how tough or cool you are).

    On a 10+ you’ve cheated death—you’re in a bad spot but you’re still alive.

    On a 7–9 Death will offer you a bargain. Take it and stabilize or refuse and pass beyond the Black Gates into whatever fate awaits you.

    On a miss, your fate is sealed. You’re marked as Death’s own and you’ll cross the threshold soon. The GM will tell you when.

    1. I like DWs take, but I have run it enough that people end up on a 1st name basis with Death. Like, "Hey dude, what are you doing here again?" It is fun in a different way.

  6. The dying systems of Starfinder and Pathfinder 2E work enough to achieve that goal for me.

  7. I find the basic mechanics behind have a profound affect on the style of play. I run a cyberpunk style game using house rules, but combat is very lethal, even the heavy cyberized combat wombat of the team can be killed in a single round if it goes against him. Basically the idea is bullet can kill you! Being shot once is enough to kill the average man in the real world so it applies in the game.
    The result is my players knowing that combat is deadly, will do their best to find other ways to deal with a problem. In theory smarter ways. The campaign has just started its third year, and while there hasn't been a pc death yet, they are all still very worried about the fights they get into. The threat of death has been the important aspect not the realization of it.

    1. Yes a single mechanic can easily set a tone of the game.