Saturday, July 16, 2016

NO, NOT BLACK LEAF! Death, Dying, and Dismemberment in D&D

This quick little post is off the schedule I set for myself in my last post. The ideas in this post have been swimming around in my head for a while. Also, before I get started, this post is not a post about me playing D&D the right way and anybody else who plays D&D being dumb-stupid-wrong-jerks. I got back into older edition, OSR, DIY  D&D after having spent about 18 months playing 4e. And even though 4e is a very un-D&D-ish form of D&D we still had a shit load of fun. I have played most editions of D&D. My first game was played in the back room of my parents house. I had picked up a Moldvay Basic set at a garage sale. It rocked. That was the summer of '88. I got pretty seriously into AD&D, both editions mixed, in '90 after having met a few new friends during my freshmen year of high school. I played AD&D on and off until the late '90s. Then we started up with 3e. The last 3e (PF) game in which I played was about 5 years. And it was great! No matter which form of D&D you are playing, just play and roll some dice. I am not an edition warrior.

A good friend has started up a 5e campaign (I wish someone would run a game around here) and he is having some problems adjusting. The game is not lethal enough... characters are too hardy and the risk of death is not really something characters need to deal with. Many players of older editions of D&D are familiar with this discussion: basically, older editions of D&D are more lethal or at least we remember them being that way, and therefore play them that way. My friend is thinking along these lines. In short, if hit points are the metric which we are using to gauge combat successes, then the threat of losing all of a character's hot points and dying must be ever present. So, if we are going to stick with hit points we need to make 5e D&D more deadly. Strangely, on the other hand, my reaction when getting back into old school D&D was in the opposite direction. I was not used to characters just dying at zero hit points. I was irked in two ways. First, it is pretty final. Even if characters start at 1st level maxed out on hit points... a 1st level magic user starts with only four hit points. Shit... one unlucky dagger stab and he's dead! characters are pretty flimsy. My second issue with zero hit point death is that getting beat up in a fight and just dying steals the narrative opportunity to hand out eye patches and peg-legs. A world without pirates equals hell!

Pirates are sweet... but seriously... to make my campaign work the way I wanted it to I needed to find ways to accomplish my goals of keeping characters alive... at least a little longer, making D&D dangerous and rough... gouged out eyes covered by eye patches, and finally (and maybe most importantly) keeping people playing; I like speedy, efficient chargen (one of the thing which draws me to old-school/OSR/DIY D&D); it is essential if dudes are going to die at your table.

Requirements one and two were relatively easy to tackle. Whenever I start looking for a new hack, the first thing I do is look at the rules and hacks which I have used in the past. To start myself off, I took a look at classic criticals and fumbles. Arduin provided some ideas; I also looked at some old WHFRP materials that I have had lying around. I also tried critical and fumble PF cards which I picked up online. In the end I found something that was pretty simple and was both narrative enough while finding, at least for me, that sweet spot between being fun and leaving characters with crippling injuries: the critical and fumble tables made by up by AJ of Simple DND.

But adding (or keeping) crits was not quite enough to get me to the point where I wanted to be on bloodying up characters. I still wanted a mechanism to hurt them while keeping them alive when they dropped below zero hit points... permanent injuries and sweet scars (with stories to match, of course)
being the trade off for an extended chance at life. Over the years I have seen almost every DM have some sort of system, whether explicit within the ruleset or not, for going below zero hit points. Typically this involved some sort of unconscious/incapacitated state combined with a slowish recovery. It works well enough and is satisfying enough, but it is certainly not heroic and wild, and often feels kind of like a hand wave from the DM on order to keep everyone happy.

In short, unconsciousness rather than death is good enough, but it is certainly not good. After trying a few things that did not work very well, I came upon a post which inspired me and I came up with this great little, house ruled death and dismemberment hack. For me it really scratches my DM blood lust itch while keeping my players alive longer, but sometimes with horrible injuries.

A combination of these (above) hacks hits the sweet spot. It keeps us playing, while keeping combat bloody and dangerous. One of my last gaming sessions I had with my Korea based group had a total of five lost fingers, a gouged out eye, an awesome smashed nose injury, and a chopped off foot. After a while of playing with the death and dismemberment hack, I have realized that I may have inadvertently made my PCs a bit too tough in comparison to their foes, because now they have a cushion of "extra hit points" with which they can go negative (it actually does damage to their CON score). To offset this bump in "extra hit points", I have decided to do the same to the enemies... now most monsters and NPCs get five "extra" hit points before they are killed. But at the same, as the enemies get closer to death, I also impose serious injuries upon them,

Now that I have solved the problem of dying to easily by replacing sudden death with horrible injury, I still have to tackle insuring my players have a speedy chargen method. If you check above, I do have a page for rolling up new characters but it is far from a perfect solution. I am linking four good solutions below which other DIY DMs have put together. They other a variety of solutions.

Zak's One Page Chargen Contest 
Gavin's Post for The Island
Tale's to Astound's Yoon-Suin Chargen Pamphlet 
Ed's Dark Sun LotFP Conversion Doc

All of these solutions are great. I am quite envious of all four products. They span a scale of complexity running from quite simple (KISS at it's best) to complete, leaving out no details. A perfect solution would be having all of these products available to my players. My goal is to start with Gavin's method, move on to the Yoon-Suin Pamphlet product and then the others. I am sure I will never got to the point of having a complete book; but it is a worthy goal to set for myself.

I hope this post helps someone find the point where the balance between life and death hits the sweet spot the campaign's sweet spot.


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  2. The only stipulation is that it must be on the character’s person.

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