You Broke What? – Describing Your Character’s Injuries

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 22, 2011

Rarely in D&D do we keep track of where our character is wounded. When he gets hit we just record damage and move on. In order for combat to run smoothly this is a compromise we’ve accepted from day one. Until you PC falls below 0 hit points you just assume he’s got full control over his entire body.

Last week I broke my arm and it got me thinking about how to introduce a system into 4e D&D that represented damage to specific areas of the body. The real trick was to do it in a way that actually added value to the game without just slowing things down or adding unnecessary new rules.

The way I see it, tracking specific damage can be handled in one of two ways: 1) strictly from a role-play perspective; or 2) as an actual mechanic that affects the numbers.

I’ve played in many games where players chose to use the first method. They simply state that their character walks with a limp because of a previous leg injury or wears an eye patch because of a nasty head wound. In these cases it’s more of an affectation than anything else, intended to make a character more memorable. Rarely would anyone choose to give a character an injury from the outset that would affect his numbers. But things happen during an adventuring career and over time PCs will sustain numerous injuries.

So what conditions need to occur before a player is willing to accept that his PC has sustained an injury that will affect the numbers? If there’s only a down side then why even introduce this idea into the game? So with that in mind I found an up side.

By accepting an injury that affects you PC’s numbers in any way he regain hit points during a short rest as if you’ve spent a healing surge without actually spending the surge. For example, let’s say that your character has suffered a broken arm. The down side is that he looses any benefits from an item in his off-hand and arm. This affects his numbers because he can’t use a two-handed weapon and can’t use a shield. By accepting this drawback the PC regains hit points without spending a healing surge and continues on in his wounded condition.

This is not something that I’d expect a lot of players to jump on, however, in my home game and at D&D Encounters we’ve seen a lot of issues where PCs are running out of healing surges after just a couple of fights. Using this new rule allows PCs to keep fighting after they run out of healing surges by accepting that they’ve taken a more serious injury. This injury remains in place until the PC takes an extended rest and is administered first aid or some other medical attention.

There may even be cases where a player will take advantage of this new mechanic and accept a serious injury to his character while he still has a few healing surges remaining. In theory a PC could suffer a broken leg during the second encounter, and rather than blow the last of his healing surges before going into the third encounter he accepts that the leg is broken and advance to the next encounter with the injury and all penalties it entails. The up side is that he still regained some hit points but didn’t expend a healing surge. I’d say the broken leg reduces his speed by 2, he cannot run, jump or charge, and suffers a penalty to Stealth checks.

Determining the exact nature of the injury, and any repercussions that injury carries, is up to the DM. If you group embraces this new mechanic then I’d suggest creating a set of standard injuries, record all of the penalties it imposes, and when a PC is willing to accept something more than a few cuts and bruises you simply roll to determine an injury randomly. That is, of course, unless the role-playing clearly indicates something specific is called for.

I’d rule that a PC can only sustain one injury of this severity before he is just too hurt to continue fighting. So this mechanic will at best proved PCs with the equivalent of one extra healing surge. Considering the down side I see this as a fair and balanced compromise.

Do you see players at you table ever willingly accepting this kind of injury for their characters? Do you think it’s balanced? If not is it too beneficial or too punitive?

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1 Erik February 22, 2011 at 9:50 am

My current group rarely has a problem with running out of healing surges, so there would be no incentive for a character to accept any kind of injury related penalty other than good roleplaying.

My two previous groups were a bit extended-rest-happy, so this system would not have benefited them either.

That being said, I do think it’s a clever idea and some players might find it neat. However, my gut instinct says that you will usually only have one or two players per table that embrace this, rather than the whole table jumping on board, due to the mix of player types that most groups have.

2 Alton February 22, 2011 at 10:03 am

I don’t see myself or any of my players using this system. It reminds me of the start of the fumble table or the critical hits table in 2nd edition. I find (personally) that it will slow game time and players may not be happy. I would just rather keep it simple….for now anyways.

I could see myself introducing this system if my players were a little more into roleplaying, but they are not and I see no point in introducing something cool that will only be used to get extra healing surges.

3 Camelot February 22, 2011 at 10:29 am

I’ve tried my hand at a subsystem that does this: Of course, I created it, so I can see all the holes and flaws in it, and I would probably never use it in my own game. However, it’s a good chart for rolling to determine location hit. And you can make up whatever results you want from that roll.

4 Debora February 22, 2011 at 11:45 am

I think I’m the lone pbem geek here, so I’ll chime in for that format. For me, it’s pretty much essential to the story that characters’ injuries are described and played out. Just counting up hit point loss can’t make you fully engage in a gripping battle scene the way trying to bring down an Ogre when your char has just lost the use of his sword hand does. I’d find it harder to care about what happened to my chars if they weren’t taking “real” injuries. I get that it’s a different dynamic in tabletop games though, where time constraints are more of a factor in gameplay.

5 Tourq February 22, 2011 at 6:31 pm

I’m all for the option you’re suggesting, but I think you’d have to be careful in how you word your injury. For instance, my version of a broken leg and your version of said injury could incur two different penalties. Some may say that a broken leg makes just about everything impossible, while others would say, “so what if it’s broken, adrenaline, man!”

I’d be more inclined to say that a certain body part has been injured severely (with penalties of some kind), but not go into too specific of details, because then you can get different people at the table arguing over what is “realistic.”

6 Sunyaku February 22, 2011 at 7:13 pm

I’ve randomly used rough mechanics like this before, but I like the idea of expanding and formalizing a system. I have a d12 that lists various body parts that I roll on occasion. In one fight a few sessions ago, a bloodied monster was trying to flee to warn others up ahead. The rogue hit with an opportunity attack, I rolled the d12, and it came up “leg”. I decided that the rogue had managed to slash the enemies hamstring, and so it was now slowed… and ultimately was unable to flee.

7 Naz February 22, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Really, couldn’t you simply use already existing rules, and describe them as what has happened to the player? If the attack of the evil paladin causes the character to be weekened/slowed/or such, describe it as “you feel bones in your wrist snap under the pressure of the attack” or “you’re pretty sure the hit from the heavy axe just broke your tibia”. Maybe the attack would normally be until the end of the players next turn, but instead say its a “Saving Throw Ends” and depending on how much you want to play it up “oh, with a -2 to the save roll”. Most players accept that enemies can cause status effects and other odd “abnormalities” so just add some dramatic flair to the combat, without having to change much in the way of “rules”.

8 Mike Karkabe-Olson February 23, 2011 at 7:50 am

Cool idea. I like the fact that it is voluntary, and if you also allow magical-type healing powers (i.e. a cleric’s healing word or a paladin’s laying of hands or a healing potion) to immediately heal the wound properly, eliminating the penalties once administered, I can see the players more willing to embrace the system. Your system also benefits from simplicity: I don’t seeing it slow down the game much, if at all.

9 Mike Karkabe-Olson February 23, 2011 at 8:14 am

Another idea: perhaps if you gave the players the option to use their second wind again, even if they don’t have one left (instead of giving them a free healing surge), the players may be more apt to embrace this system. I agree with Erik, above, that players (especially fighter-types) rarely run out of healing surges. At least that has been my experience with the games I run.

10 Mike Karkabe-Olson February 23, 2011 at 8:19 am

To expand on my last idea I would improve the wording by saying they can “recharge” their second wind for free if they accept a more permanent injury. That way they have to wait a turn before they can use the recharged second wind (it’s not available in the turn they receive the injury).

11 Ameron February 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I admit that what I’m calling an up side certainly won’t appeal to all groups or all players. But I’ve found that introducing something like this can often have very beneficial role-playing side effects.

I agree that this kind of change to damage and healing can certainly slow things down, something I was very conscious of and wanted to avoid. Any penalties incurred from a broke limb should be simple to apply. Broken arm = no shield, -1 to AC. Quick and simple.

Way back in AD&D 2e we tried specific hit locations and it was too much extra record keeping to be practical. It did encourage a lot of descriptive combat sequences, but in the end we scrapped it. I do like the idea of rolling for a specific something extra on a crit, though. I can see myself using that idea in my current campaign. And if that became too much work the idea still adds role-playing flavour.

Agreed. Where time permits more detail is always better. The more descriptive the events the more you can get into that character just as you’ve described.

You’re right that different players will have differing opinions on how an injury should affect their PC. That exactly why I suggest recording the effects of each injury on the PC. If everyone knows the effects ahead of time there should result in fewer arguments. But I know a few gamers like you describe who will want the free healing, take a broken arm, and then try to justify why they can still use it.

I’m all for playing fast and loose with specific hit locations. I think if this is used in moderation, say only during big boss fights, it will have more impact on the players. But if you find you group embraces this kind of additional randomness, and it doesn’t get in the way, then use it as often as you deem it appropriate.

I see a lot of what you’ve described happening already with great success. And I think it’s a great way to add flavour to combat. My suggestion of the new rule merely represents a more sever injury that can’t be fixed with a minor healing power or first aid between battles. It’s certainly not necessary to go to all this trouble if you don’t want to, but by giving it tangible ups and downs I expect more of the heavy number crunchers will get into it.

@Mike Karkabe-Olson
I like both of you suggestions. I really like the idea of accepting a broken limb to regain the use of Second Wind during combat. Since it still requires a standard action that doesn’t seem at all overpowered to me. Great suggestions.

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