Monday, February 7, 2011

Debilitating Injuries

Often times as the GM there is a tendency to try and keep damage and injury on the scale that the game uses for it. If you are playing D&D, for example, you keep your damage on the hit point scale. With L5R you would assign wounds. With World of Darkness you would check off wound levels. There is nothing wrong with this. Hell, it is the way that the game was made to be played. However, when you're looking for drama and tension, numbers just don't seem to cut it. I mean sure, there is always the awesome feeling of "man, I only had three hit points left" at the end of the big fight, but for the situations in between it doesn't do all that much. Luckily, as the GM, when the situation calls for it, we can change just how damage is handled.

Now, before we begin let me just start by saying this. This isn't something I have actively experimented with in my games of late. I've tried it here and there sure, to various results, but I've never given it extensive testing. As such, this is as much a discussion and brain storm as it is anything else. So please, feel free to add your own thoughts or idea for this at the bottom (you should feel free to do that anyhow. Comments are open to all for a reason ;) ). That being said, let's begin.

Screw The Numbers
You screw up a landing when you jump off a nearby building, how much damage do you take? No, not in game, in real life? Yeah, exactly. We don't have numbers in real life. Now, in game you get different formulae for handling this. Usually along the lines of "XDX damage per 10' you fell". It works, sure, and it shows how falling can be dangerous, but it doesn't really capture the full impact of falling.

Presumably everyone here has fallen from some height, at some point in their life. It hurts doesn't it? More to the point, it stuns. However, it doesn't hurt all over. Generally it only hurts where you land on it, though the sudden force can be disorienting everywhere. So why don't games try to emulate this? Well, because it is massively over complicated. Can you imagine how nuts it would be to have to track damage per limb or body part? Not to mention that even if you did, you would still need more things. Is this damaging the tissue, the bone, or the muscle? Why? Well because depending on what is being hurt primarily can really change the effects. Tissue will hurt, but you may be able to still move fine. Muscle will impede movement, but some functionality will be there. The bone may just make the whole thing useless.

Reality has a massive complex damage system, just as it has a massively complex system for everything (when was the last time you stumbled walking. How long have you been walking? Yeah, that long walking, and you still mess up on occasion. Weird huh? Imagine if a game did that...) and so to mimic this games simplify it down into numbers. Numbers serve their purpose, but for what we're talking about here, let's leave the numbers out of this.

What Happens When You Get Hurt?
So, what happens when you get hurt? Generally speaking it doesn't feel like your whole body has become closer to dying when you break a limb, or hurt yourself. It can be true, accumulated shock can kill you very easily, but it isn't how it really feels. What happens though is that you lose functionality. I mean, even a tired hand can be a pain in the ass to deal with. In game terms it might not even add up to a single hit point, but in reality it royally screws with your ability to catch, write, throw, and a lot of other things. Tense muscles, sore muscles, chipped bones, all of them hurt, but they also constrain movement and reduce functionality.

This means that, if we're looking to add tension by adding injury, that we are looking to reduce functionality. Some systems do this, they give penalties for using limbs if they've taken so much critical damage. However, like I said above, I don't want to use numbers for this. The idea here isn't to bring the PC closer to death, it is to up the tension of a scene by upping the difficulty.

So, What AM I Talking About?
Picture this. A PC is running from the cops after having just committed a burglary. A cop gets a shot off, and wings the player. You roll out the damage and get a pretty good damage roll. Let's say you do half the PC's damage. However, half the PC's hit points don't slow him down, and so the PC gets away scot free. A couple days later, that PC gets into a fight and they die because some of that damage from the cop hasn't healed just yet.

So what just happened? Well, the PC got killed in a fight that may have been intended to be easy due to lingering damage from a scene, where that damage didn't really do anything to add to the tension or drama of the scene. In other words, the damage system has failed to make one scene exciting, and in fact has made another scene a disappointing end. Now, the second part isn't guaranteed to be that way, and the death could up other tension, but the Player him/herself is probably just a bit annoyed that he was killed because of being winged a few nights before.

Instead, what if you had not used numbers for that injury from the cop? Instead of rolling damage you told the player that they got shot in the right leg, and they can only move at half speed (3/4 if they can make a tough will power check every minute). Furthermore, because of blood loss, they're leaving a trail for the cops to follow. Now, they aren't 'injured', but they have taken a penalty and a wound. The tension for that scene is increased, and has now become a very serious - and potentially very fun - issue for the player to handle. If they get away, they can get patched up and be more or less good to go. They only got winged after all. Now, in that upcoming fight, they have their full hit points. Maybe they still move a bit slower, but they have their wounds to soak up the combat in the real fight.

Now, like I said, this isn't something you would do every time. The damage system in any given system is there for a reason, and works well in the system. However, by switching over from time to time, you get a chance to make some entertaining scenes through variance, while leaving the player unpenalized (or mostly unpenalized) for the big fights that are coming up later on.

Has anyone given it a try? Did you like it? Hate it? let me know in the comments.


  1. I think it would be a great idea to employ, especially as your own custom hit points system. You could roll to see which body part you hit instead of rolling damage and then describe what happens based on that.

  2. Doing this in a free form way as in "You jump down off the roof, it's only one floor up, but you hurt your foot so can't run as fast" can be very interesting but there has to be a way of tracking it so you don't forget an hour later (unless it was minor enough that it did heal).

    I do this automatically in my game with modifiers called Character Difficulty Factors (CDF). If you get wounded in the leg or foot, it effects your ability to run. If you get wounded in the arm or leg, your dexterity and strength is effected. I find it realistic and useful.

  3. Some games do it, and do it very well. The added realism can be great, even in games where realism isn't always the 'answer' like comic book games.

    I mean, you don't often see locational injuries mattering much. Especially not when the crap hits the fan, but you do get those occasional dramatic moments where the hero has to limp away, holding their side, and leaving a trail of blood on the wall. It's rare enough the system doesn't need to cover it, but still a good thing for the GM to keep in mind.

    In general, I'd put this under a good reason to read/try as many systems as possible. Some (like yours Emmet) has little touches like that that could be damn useful in another game.