Losing a Limb & Game Lethality

I just read an old blog by Omer G. Joel on lethality in gaming.  and it made me think. I disagree with Omer that lethality is the central argument. Omer praises roguelike video games, and seems to imply that tabletop rpgs should emulate them, which is basically saying that he likes hack & slash games. In general, I don’t. I am an old school gamer (i.e. an old grumpy guy) and I agree that D&D 5e doesn’t do it for me. Pathfinder is more fun to play, but there are so many extra rules that it all gets a bit silly. But ultimately my argument with those two systems is that they simplify their worlds too much and to my thinking, cheapen the story. I’m not interested in lethality for its own sake. Sure, these are adventurers and they face horrible danger. But they are also the special ones who overcome such horrors. The victories shouldn’t be cheap or easy, but they should be victories. As a GM, creating a fantasy world gives me joy. The players’ victories usually mean that they rampage through my world. The stories we create together are the reason I keep roleplaying. 

But the lethality issue is one I am currently wrestling with my own combat system. I use a hit location system (arm, leg, chest, abdomen, & head) and when an adventurer loses a limb, there’s no easy way to get it back. The players have invested a lot of emotion into those characters, and they would prefer to have some sort of fix to get back the arm or leg and continue adventuring. On my side, I’ve worked hard to create a credible world for the adventures, where the suspension of reality is not too difficult. Having Healers able to restore limbs quickly changes more than just adventuring — it implies a level of healing where health is pretty much assured, and for some reason that doesn’t sit well with me, perhaps because I also insist that players understand that combat is a bloody affair and shouldn’t be the first thing they choose. 

There are a variety of magic armors that reduce lethality as players become powerful, but beginning characters can’t afford those. My wife argued that instead of cutting the limb off entirely, I could just cut it to the bone, but the whole point of the combat system was to simulate combat, and again, eliminating severed limbs strikes me as trivializing combat. I could make Healing possible but expensive or difficult, and I’d have the same problem that beginning characters wouldn’t be able to use it. That actually might not be too bad, as the effort of creating a viable character who would survive to become powerful would make the achievement more emotionally rewarding. Omer argues that as well. Or restoring a limb might be done only for a geas or quest that is undertaken. That means that limb restoration would not be assured, but would only occur if the GM allowed it. And maybe that’s the way it should be. Such restorations would become another negotiation point between GM and players, something to build a story around. It would sure be better than just telling players they couldn’t get their limbs back.

So now the question is, how should I make limb restoration difficult or expensive? My system is skill-based, but I use magical skills that have prerequisites before they can be learned. Perhaps limb restoration is only available to the very skilled? But even then, those Healers would be unlikely to not heal everyone they could. They would be like a thousand Jesus figures, walking through the countryside. Perhaps there is an expensive spell component that is needed? It seems like limb restoration should definitely be expensive but does not need to be difficult. To fit my world, however, there will be both a level of difficulty and a price to be paid. Like I said, I’m grumpy.

About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
This entry was posted in Journeyman, Navah, Navah Campaign, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Losing a Limb & Game Lethality

  1. Ben Pew says:

    I mostly agree. I don’t have a good rationale to post though, other than all the players and the GM need to communicate and agree.

    My disagreement is that I like 5e as a game. But if we ever are able to play together again part of it will be deciding what to play.

    • lostdelights says:

      Yep. Players and GM communicating to make a good story is key. Why do you like 5e? As a player, I prefer Pathfinder, because it allows more flexibility in combat, or at least structures the combat more so that GMs can run combat in much the same way from one campaign to another.

  2. Porkrind McHamsandwich says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that losing a limb should be costly, but I think it should not be common. It should require a significant power gap or a high percentage of health lost at once to a limb, or maybe just a very high crit. Losing a limb should be a huge, dramatic event.

    I also really like your idea to use quests to restore limbs. Killing or maiming a powerful character is appealing because the event is guaranteed to carry a lot of weight. It’ll make the world scarier, the story more important, and the villain more dastardly. Making it permanent isn’t as fun as winning one’s own body or strength back. It also sets up for avenging one’s self later on, which is always fun.

    • lostdelights says:

      It’s actually not that tough to cut off an arm or a foot, especially when facing a creature larger than oneself. In D&D, people get hit by giants and shrug it off, but in reality, they would go squish. In my campaign, I’m giving them a better chance to dodge those big foes, since otherwise they would be killed quite quickly. When facing someone of one’s own size, it should be much less likely that a single blow would cut off an arm. I’ve speeded up combat so we can do more plotting and talking (a typical combat takes 15 min. in my system, 30-40 min. in D&D, and 3-4 hours in Runequest).

      • How many participants in those combats? I find the more participants real or controlled by me the slower things got. However, for RM Minion has significantly sped up the process, and whilst there is still the down phase where players have to wait while the NPC actions are done, the time taken is far less than before. Typical combat for around 8-10 combatants is <15 mins unless we are really low skill levels or making lots of bad rolls.

      • lostdelights says:

        5-6 players, up to 20 enemies. I started with the RQ system back in the 1980s but those battles took WAY too long, so I kept changing and refining my system. Instead of endless “tings” when the armor blocked the shot, instead there is a damage threshold below which the blow is glancing and above which it becomes serious, grievous, or gory, depending on the amount of damage.

      • Yeah that would slow you down. Sounds like you needed to use war game type rules there. Mind you it is all that individualised personal combat that separates RPG from War games.

      • lostdelights says:

        That size of combat works pretty well actually, and still takes about 15 minutes.
        I have rules for squad and army level combat, but I don’t need those very often.

  3. Its that old question of gritty realism vs gameplay but also of balance in a system. The former is really a matter of taste and how well the system works; you make your bed and you lie in it. What is perhaps more important is balance in your game. Do you evil opponents have just as much chance as the golden heroes in dispatching their opponent?
    If the evil henchmen only ever scratch the hero and the big evil overlord only every inflicts minor wounds, then for me it is not a game of sufficient risk and reward. Yes, the hero will always triumph but that is what I consider breeds hack and slash merchants who are power playing their way to level infinity and beyond. Better for me is to make it so that success is achievable but there is a chance from minion to Evil overlord that life-threatening injuries might happen. As demonstrated in our last adventure where the party fought monsters and survived but then one character was undone by a freak roll and died. Now the gritty realism of no magical healers and instant teleport is our choice. The balance is the risk of death is not just for the foe but also the hero, then again, at least they go down fighting as a hero.

    • lostdelights says:

      Yep. That makes sense. Not only do the villains have an equal chance to the heroes, so do the villagers and all NPCs. The PCs are better than the average villager, but there are heroes who are better than the PCs. The frequency of these NPCs is determined by demographics, as I generate all inhabitants of very village, town, and city. But to me hack & slash is more than the ability of the heroes to control their foes. For me, a game is hack & slash when that is the first reaction to everything. For example, in a recent COC game, a PC slashed a homeless guy because he moved, and because he was the first thing that moved after the PCs had entered a dark tunnel. Just because someone moved doesn’t mean the PCs should cut him down. I can certainly understand the tension of the situation, but the player insisted that he was in the right. Murder hobos murder a hobo.

      • I hate that because it’s not playing for the story. It has been my habit to let players know the bounds of the game which certainly dials down the kill everyone for the points attitude.

      • lostdelights says:

        Heh. I know what you mean. My buddy who DMs the MERP game is all about the story and doesn’t sweat the details. I’ve learned a lot from playing with him. But I still care about the world, so I still detail out everything. Luckily my wife is a computer programmer and has created some lovely town and NPC generators. It takes about 5 minutes to create a city with 20,000 people, fully detailed, with skills, equipment, spouses, children, etc. Then I can have the characters encounter random people, and we can roleplay off what I know about those people. Once I have that level of detail on the world of course, the players can modify the story quite a bit by interacting with different NPCs than I was thinking they would. And that’s what makes it fun!

  4. lostdelights says:

    Oh, I forgot to ask you — how do you set the bounds of the game?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s