I have some pretty strong ideas on how damage ought to be handled in a roleplaying game. But rather than complaining about how boring and unrealistic hit points are, I’ll simply present my current thinking on how I’m going to implement damage in my own game.

I am an unabashed violence monger (well, I might be slightly abashed depending on who I’m talking to), and I love the thrill of a good fight scene. I love knowing all the details of a strike in combat. When it’s my own character getting hit, I want to know exactly what happened to him so that I can imagine how he’s going to deal with it and where the scar will be. When it’s my character dealing out the hurt, I want to know exactly what he did so that I can picture how awesome he is. I want to be able to picture it all in my mind as if it were a movie.

But I also know that every increase in detail comes with a corresponding increase in how long it takes to play out the combat, and that often detracts from the excitement. In order to keep combat fast-paced and exciting, I’ve decided that the result of an attack roll should always translate directly into damage. There should be no extra rolling. The degree by which you succeed on the attack roll determines exactly how much damage you will do.

In my opinion, every strike that actually hits ought to have a concrete and dramatic impact on the fight. No successful blow should come without consequences. To keep things from getting bogged down, I envision four basic levels of damage that matter in the thick of a fight:

Arwen with scratch

  1. Glancing Blows. These are scratches and minor bruises, the type of stuff you don’t even feel in the rush of combat. They’re like the scratch that appears on Arwen’s cheek in The Fellowship of the Ring movie when she’s fleeing the Ringwraiths. It’s just enough to let you know that what you’re doing is dangerous. The fact that you took a scratch instead of getting killed serves to remind you of your badassness and your potentially imminent death at the same time.
  2. Minor Wounds. These are strikes that cause enough pain and damage to impair you, but won’t necessarily end the fight. They’ll probably cause a fairly high but momentary penalty due to the shock of getting your flesh torn up, then fade into a minor penalty after that. We don’t need to know the specifics; whether it’s a torn ligament, a damaged muscle, or a severed vein doesn’t really matter because those details don’t necessarily have a direct impact on the fight. All you know is that you got hit, and it hurts. Your doctor will figure out exactly what’s damaged and how to fix you up later. For now, you’ve got to fight through the pain and take out your opponent soon or else your pain penalties will eventually result in your demise. Minor wounds will comprise a fairly large range of possible results but will all have fairly similar and fairly low penalties.
  3. Critical Wounds. This kind of wound doesn’t kill right away all on its own, but it’s essentially a fight finisher. A severed hand, a stab to the gut, or a shattered femur will put you into instant shock so that even if you keep hold of your weapon, you’re not likely to be able to do much with it. If your opponent is merciful and pauses to let you recover from the initial shock, you’ve probably got just one difficult shot left to strike back. Otherwise, you’ve lost, although you might live to fight another day if you have a good healer nearby.
  4. Death Blows. Some blows spell instant or near-instant death—decapitation, crushed skull, pierced lung. These are the kind of possibility that should keep you afraid of every combat you decide to enter. Unless you vastly outmatch your opponent, you’d better tread carefully. What might have been a glancing blow last time could just as easily have been a death blow if you hadn’t chosen your defense with care.

When appropriate, the exact results of the blow will be looked up on a wound chart. Glancing blows are incidental and don’t need to be looked up at all. The GM or the player can decide where the little scar will be, if they care. Minor wounds only need to be looked up after the fight is over, when the healer is examining the wound. The specifics only matter for the purposes of recovery. Critical wounds and death blows are both fight finishers and should be looked up right away unless the receiving character is unimportant cannon fodder. Since death blows mean that you’re dealing with a death scene, it ought to be imbued with an appropriate level of detail and drama. We need to know exactly what happened.

Wound charts should be detailed and specific to the type of attack being made (slashing, impaling, or crushing). Wounds are also dependent on the location being struck. In my system you will always choose the body part you’re aiming for, and the charts will need to reflect that. Such charts can be found in the excellent book Trauma by Claus Bernich or in the appendices to The Riddle of Steel (identical charts have been reused in the TROS derivative Blade of the Iron Throne).

In my system, each wound is unique and gets recorded on your character sheet separately. Wounds will have three primary characteristics: (1) a pain rating that gives a penalty to all actions involving the wounded location; (2) a blood loss rating that can result in death after a certain amount of time if left untreated; (3) unique effects that depend on the individual location (blindness, internal bleeding, concussion, loss of function). I have been thinking a lot about the role of healers in the game, as well (if I even have them). Detailed wounds could enable healing magic that’s more involved than simply healing hit points and could make things a lot more fun and interesting for people who want to play healers.

Since attack location is important, it also becomes important to keep track of what kind of armor you are wearing. A steel breastplate won’t protect you against attacks to the leg. This kind of detail can add a little extra work, but most of it occurs beforehand and is recorded on the character sheet before the fight begins. But keeping track of armor also adds an extra dimension of strategy to a fight, since you can target your enemy’s weak spots, and you have to be extra careful to protect your own.

What’s your opinion?

RPG Combat: Damage

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16 Comments on "RPG Combat: Damage"

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Good post and many thanks for your kind comment on Trauma. Your thinking is very similar to my own thinking when designing the Fantasy Dice system for Crimson Exodus. No surprise that I agree with your thinking on having a high level of detail and realism post trauma, but keeping it fast to resolve with only a single roll and no tables or complicated rules during combat.It think your 4-level wound division makes a lot of sense. Keep the character sheet neat and simple. Despite being quite crunchy and tactical Fantasy Dice is not that complicated, but I’ve seen some… Read more »
Whoa, great minds think alike! LOL! That’s very similar to the Harm system in the Fudge-based Sword & Sorcery game I’m designing, called “Blood, Sweat & Steel”. The foundation of my system is the “Non-linear Wounds System” by Helge Lund Kolstad. The concept and structure is very similar to what you are describing. The main idea is that each wound has its own set of consequences. There are basically 4 types of Wounds in “BS&S”; Minor, Moderate, Serious and Critical. There is an additional “Gut Check” that uses the Guts Attribute to determine additional information about the wound. A Minor… Read more »
Great stuff. I like the tiered system and the idea of using detail only when it matters to your character. I checked out Fantasy Dice — very cool. Dunno if I can buy it right this instant (being kinda poor and all), but I want to. Claus, I think you just found a new customer. I think I’ll keep an eye on Blood, Sweat & Steel too. I checked out the Google + page, and I like the sound of it, especially how the Qualities integrate character with the game play. I need to look into this “fudge” dice system… Read more »
Stephen A. Watkins
I found this article pretty fascinating. Several years ago, I was working on a game system (it’s a project that’s not dead, but is on extended hiatus… I’m a man with limited free time on my hands, and I have to be selective about what creative projects I spend it on) and I was then contemplating many of the same questions you’ve contemplated here. I like your approach to this. It gets away from the almost meaningless abstraction of Hit Points while keeping things relatively fast-and-simple during combat play (“You got hit… take a penalty!” That’s pretty easy and straight-forward.)… Read more »
Ian Plumb
Another interesting post… I think it is a good idea to separate what happens during the combat scene from what happens during the healing scene. During the combat scene, whatever your damage resolution system happens to be you don’t want to adversely affect scene pacing. During the healing scene it is less about scene pacing and more about providing the Colour that the referee needs to make the scene interesting and the outcome less generic, more specific. During combat, I don’t think it should be a priority that the player knows exactly what happened to their character. They know their… Read more »
Ian Plumb
Hi, BR wrote: As a player, I would find it awfully annoying to have rules that restrict me from attacking when I’m still physically able. … I ought to be able to make my own decision about whether my character will continue fighting. TRoS/Blade already model this through the Pain mechanic. Pain reduces CP (or the other dice pools for that matter). When a dice pool is reduced to 0 at the start of the Round the character cannot function — regardless of what the player wants. Pain doesn’t have to have a linear relationship with damage. A character can… Read more »
Hi, I’ve been bouncing around the web for a week now trying to find a wound system I like for a roll over dice pool fantasy/wuxa game I’m developing (think legolas fighting the dire mastodon thing in the LotR movie) Because characters may be struck many times per round (if fighting multipule skilled opponents maybe even as high as 15-20+ times) I’m trying to keep all rolls to a minimum, IE no roll to damage (set damage based on weapon used) no rolls for trauma or damage soaking etc. and mainly utilizing a “loose a die” and/or increase target numbers… Read more »
I play GURPS (usually as a game master) and I’ve come up with a somewhat complex but very realistic house rule regarding damage. It helps that I have a major at a health science course (pharmacy) and some practical experience in first aid skills. I don’t claim to have any kind of “ultimate answer” on how damage should be dealt with in RPGs, but I guess I’m not very far either. First, I use the GURPS’ way of determining how sturdy a character is: he has a basic value of “strength”, which, in humans (and most vertebrates) translates into how… Read more »