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.