2020-05-08 Desperate Fights

In episode 53 of Daydreaming about dragons, Judd Karlman talks about the fight between Fin Razel and Queen Bavmorda in Willow and how the fight had a certain desperation about it, and how to bring that to role-playing games.

It’s an interesting question.

I don’t think counting down hit-points gives us desperation. In games with a lot of fighting, possibly with a lot of characters at the table, I see desperation mounting when characters drop out of the game. That’s when we get nervous.

If characters are dead when they drop, this requires a game with a lot of retainers that die first. This may or may not be your kind of game.

The alternative is a game where dropped characters aren’t dead by simply dying, either because they only die at -10, or they roll stabilisation dice, etc. As you can see, this is the route AD&D and D&D took.

The problem with these kinds of approaches is that some players are out of the fight and then they sit around and do nothing which is acerbated when fights are long affairs. It reminds of the problem many board games have unless they’ve been designed with Eurogame sensibilities: people who lose first must leave the game and then they sit around waiting for their friends to finish.

In my experience, death spirals also don’t result in the desired effect. By that I mean games where getting hit reduce your chances to win the fight: the consequences (if playing in a Fate like game) keep accumulating and you’re slowly dropping out of the fight. It’s the same as before, except more tedious.

Here’s what worked for me: a Death & Dismemberment table! That is, a table where we roll for dire consequences with the following properties:

I find that having to roll on the table already underscores how desperate the situation is, even if many of the rolls are harmless or indicate minor consequences. Furthermore, some of the long term consequences are horrible even if not mechanically relevant and people react to that, too.

Or, to put it in different terms: desperation is when you keep hovering at the end of the line, always fearing that the next breath might be you last, without making it impossible for you to still turn the ship around.


See 2020-04-20 To specialize in combat for an example of such a table. See 2013-09-18 Broken Ribs for a great scene resulting from its use.



Desperate Role-Playing Moments.

Jeremy Friesen 2020-05-08 18:50 UTC

I’ve been fiddling with a similar wounds table but I’m nervous about the effect of serious long-lasting wounds. I fear that my players will feel ineffective in a way that detracts from their fun.

How has that worked out in your game? Are players upset about having a character with a broken arm for several sessions?

deadtreenoshelter 2020-05-09 21:52 UTC

Yes they are. But we also use the traditional rules for retainers: every main character can have up to 4 + Charisma bonus retainers (1–7). Those play a more important role, then.

And yes, we’ve had a bunch of characters retire because they lost both legs, both arms, or both eyes. It’s harsh and gives the campaign a Napoleonic veteran vibe, as the party can return to a town to find former party members trying to make a living. It’s rare enough to not feel like a relentless grind and still happens often enough to make an impression.

I guess the alternative would be to simply roll up a new character. Players always have that option, too. In my game those new characters have 0 XP, though. The players will always opt to promote a retainer to their new main character.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-09 22:11 UTC

I have used retainers less (mostly I’m afraid they’ll bog things down) but I can see how they would mitigate a PC being semi-crippled. I’ve wanted to try a more old-school approach to hirelings but my usual group of players is already so indecisive...

During COVID I’ve been mostly running Mork Borg (<0 HP = DEAD) with a different group with a faster play style and so I may give it a go.

deadtreenoshelter 2020-05-10 02:05 UTC

You are absolutely right. I said above that we use those Charisma limits but in actual fact most players just run one, two, or three retainers and when things are important I often ask, so who is on the flying carpet or giant turtle or whatever, and then I write down a little list of characters, retainers, and pets. That still gets me about ten to twenty party members, and that is a lot. Fights need a certain discipline and feel like they’re long by the time they go into the third round. These problems are acerbated if you have an indecisive player who is obsessed about playing it safe. Due to that player, we have instituted a rule at the table whereby we can still have the number of retainers and pets as determined by Charisma, but we can only ever take up to two on adventure. This guy was so undecided, and so slow at rolling dice, it bogged everything down.

So yeah, there are drawbacks, definitely.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-10 07:21 UTC

The blog post got mentioned in a reply show. 🙂

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-22 21:50 UTC

Hi! I found your blog from the Daydreaming reply show. I am currently working on my own Frankenstein of a ruleset for a hexcrawl game I hope to start running soon. I love the concept you’ve detailed here and I am going to steal it. It seems a lot more exciting than just dropping unconscious at 0 hp and I love imagining HP as a combination of luck, stamina, and will to survive. You mention losing eyes, noses, etc, but I don’t see that outcome on the tables you linked. Do you have an updated table that you use now?

– slimefool 2020-05-23 12:23 UTC

how about this...

5–6 serious injury; roll 1d6: 1 – broken sword arm, 2 – broken shield arm, 3 – broken leg, 4 – gouged eye, 5 - cut off nose, 6 - shattered teeth ; broken limbs heal after 1d4 weeks (sessions)

In addition to adding the more “cosmetic” injuries, I altered the healing time to fit the tone of my game more. The only playable ancestry is Dwarf so... maybe they heal faster?

– slimefool 2020-05-23 16:24 UTC

Welcome to the blog! 😀

Yeah, I do have an updated table. Below is the table I use right now. If I remember correctly, my problem was that 6 comes up pretty often and so I had way too many player characters that were “unplayable” because of broken bones. My players even joked how it would be easier to just amputate the broken limb and use a hook or a wooden peg instead of waiting for it to heal. So now broken bones only happen on a 5 and I use something less severe for 6.

page 13

(I discussed this page on my own podcast, episode 15, in case you’re interested.)

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-23 17:45 UTC

Reaction by Dead Trees, No Shelter.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-06-05 13:18 UTC

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