Somewhere Between Living and Dying

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 27, 2012

Normally there’s no real grey area when it comes to the distinction between living and dying in D&D. If you’ve got 1 or more hit points you’re living. If your hit points are between 0 and your negative bloodied value you’re dying. As long as you’re living then you can act on your turn whether you’ve got 1 hit point or 100 hit points. But when you reach 0 hit points or lower you fall down and start bleeding out.

In some cases taking excessive damage may kill you, dead-dead outright, but most of the time you’ve got a fighting chance of waking up. If you’ve got a leader in the party or an ally with a decent score in Heal, then you’ll likely be back in the action by the time your next turn comes around. Most of the time falling unconscious isn’t even a big concern. After all, the way that 4e is designed makes it practically impossible for PCs to die.

However, there will be those rare occasions when the leader can’t help you and the other PCs are in so much trouble that they can’t take the actions necessary to use their Heal skill on you. These are the rounds when all you can do is roll that death save and hope that you get a 20. Being in this situation sucks! What’s even worse is if you spend multiple rounds in a row making death saves and not getting that elusive 20. I’ve played in a few games where the rest of the PCs can’t or won’t help their wounded comrade and that player does nothing but make death save on their turn. This is not fun.

After this happened in a recent encounter where a player was sidelined for over an hour we decided to introduce a new house rule that would minimize this kind of player exclusion from happening again. The proposal was to create a new state somewhere between living and dying.

Right now when you’re reduce to 0 you fall unconscious. The proposal was to let a PC whose hit points fall below 0 remain at least somewhat conscious. After all, the PCs are heroes. They’re the stars of the show that is your D&D adventure. They already do extraordinary things, so why not muster the stamina to remain conscious when they’re clearly on death’s door? You see this happen in the movies all the time so why not figure out a mechanic for working it into 4e D&D?

We decided to create a new state called Gravely Wounded and here’s how it works.

  • When a PC first falls below 0 hit points they do not immediately fall unconscious, instead they become dazed and on their turn they can take only one action: a standard, move or minor.
  •  At the end of their turn they make death saves as they normally would.
    • 20 or higher – Spend a healing surge. PC regains consciousness.
    • 10-19 – No better, no worse. PC remains dazed.
    • Less than 10 – Strike one. PC is still dazed and cannot take standard actions.
  • If the PC doesn’t receive healing by the end of their next turn they make another death save (like normal).
    • Less than 10 – Strike two. PC is still dazed and cannot take standard or move actions.

By keeping the PC conscious, players are less likely to feel that a turn where they have to make a death save is a wasted turn. In circumstances where they end up making multiple death saves they don’t go for extended periods of game play where they aren’t participating. The dazed effect allows their PC to still be functional but in a limited capacity. They suffer all the normal restrictions and penalties that came from being dazed which seems right for a guy who’s about to die. Since they still need to make those death saves there is still a danger that the PC will eventually die, if not helped.

Giving cumulative penalties (no standard actions then no move actions) for PCs that fail their death saves is reflective of the PCs being that much closer to death. But even in a worse case scenario the PC has enough actions to either expend their second wind or get out of harm’s way, draw a potion of healing and consume it. In the unlikely event that you don’t have a healing potion it gives the PC a chance to emphatically beg for help before they die. In my games I’ve had to enforce a strict rule that when a PC is unconscious the player cannot talk to the other players about the ongoing encounter. Without this rule the unconscious players got really annoying begging every to help them, and then complaining even more when they decided to do something else.

On top of the progressive action restriction that comes with the failed death saves we’ve made a few other footnotes in order to keep the spirit of the condition in check and balanced. The dazed condition that persists while in the Gravely Wounded condition cannot be negated under any circumstances. Period. So feats, powers or items that allow you to shrug off dazed are ineffective against daze in this circumstance. While Gravely Wounded, PCs cannot spend action points or gain the benefit of any other power that would give them another action. They’re Gravely Wounded; they get to do one thing. Warlords cannot command them to act nor can they get a free attack from an item, feat or power. This minimizes the likelihood of abuse. After all, this PC is in really, really bad shape. If they don’t get serious aid quickly they’ll die. It seemed silly to let them take more than one action under any circumstance.

Since this idea sprang up from something that happened at my gaming table recently we haven’t had the opportunity to put it into practice yet. However, the new season of D&D Encounters begins this week and I’m going to allow the PCs are my table to take advantage of this house rule. With lower level play we’ll likely see PC fall unconscious every week and we’ll find out in a hurry if this improves game play or just adds an unnecessary level of complexity. In the end it’s intent is to ensure that everyone has a good time at the gaming table, so if it keeps the unconscious PC in the battle (even in a diminished capacity) and keeps the player happy then I think it’s a good addition to any gaming table.

What are your thoughts on the introduction of a new state between living and dying called Gravely Wounded? How many of you already have some kind of house rule mechanic to get unconscious players back into the game quickly? Do you think that this will make PCs too powerful by leaving them in the combat when they should be on their back?

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1 Quirky DM February 27, 2012 at 11:12 am

I like having some more granularity between full attack power and about to die. I only wonder if anyone would bother doing any healing before they reach 0 hit points. If the gravely wounded character can heal with a second wind (and thus get the rest of their actions back) or get a leader to help out, there’s no penalty to waiting until 0 hit points to heal. The gravely wounded person won’t even fall prone. The only time it becomes an issue is if you need to perform 2 actions to heal, and that seems easily avoidable. So there is no incentive to actually heal before being gravely wounded, unless you’re worried about inst-death due to hitting negative bloodied value.

At low levels, healing is not as easily available, so this might be fine. It will work pretty nice in your Encounters game, I imagine. But later on, I foresee characters being in one of two states: gravely wounded, and just healed from gravely wounded.

I think being gravely wounded needs to have slightly more expensive. Like if you take any actions while gravely wounded, any healing you receive until your next turn is reduced. (pulling numbers out of hat, say by 3 + level) This gives players the incentive to want to heal before they hit gravely wounded, and then have a meaningful choice about if they really want to stumble towards that waiting dragon, or just clamp down on their gushing wound and wait for the cleric to wander over.

2 Dave February 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

One of the things about D&D that always struck me as odd is that you could go from functioning at 100% with 1 hp to functioning at 0% with 0 hp by being smacked with the blunt end of a dagger for 1 pt of damage. D&D seems to have always needed some sort of scale of effectiveness, some sort of consequence for being injured. In 4e, we got “bloodied” as a state, and while it makes us a juicier target for certain bad-guy abilities, it also gives us direct benefits, so it’s more about spicing up combat than reflecting how beat up our characters are.

Gravely Wounded certainly makes the act of dying more interactive and interesting, for sure. But if the character can spend their second wind in that state, or heal themselves, it cheapens it a bit. Players will just save their SW or other healing abilities for that first round of dying, snap out of it, and next round go beg the Leader for some HP love. In the rules environment you describe, where players are not allowed to talk while dying, you need a mechanic like that to keep the player in the game. But that’s a rough house rule: I think part of any game, even RPGs, is the meta-game. It’s unavoidable. People are always convincing other players to do things to the benefit of themselves, the party, or both. Having to wear duct tape for an hour while the rest of the party goes through round after round of combat is just plain mean. 😉

I think maybe Gravely Wounded would be more attractive if it compensated the “blessing” of some extra chances to act with a downside, just as “bloodied” has its balancing factors. Maybe you count as being marked by the bad-guys when you’re GW’ed, which would be sort of like an extension of the “bloodied” state — you’re a juicier target for badguys just for being bloodied, but Gravely Wounded is almost irresistible for them. Or, maybe you get negatives to hit and damage when GW’ed, thus encouraging you to focus on fixing yourself. Maybe you’re also slowed. Also, it’s not really clear from your description what happens after Strike Three — does the character drift into the standard 4e “dying” state, or do they actually die? I think GW needs something to fear, and not simply be used as a litmus of how bad the fight’s getting.

I do like the progressively worse penalties as you’ve written them. You get fewer and fewer actions until at last you get no actions. Good progression.

3 Joe Lastowski February 27, 2012 at 11:36 am

It’s a neat idea, but it takes away the biggest draw for playing a Revenant, as this Gravely Wounded state is essentially their class feature.

4 Anaxetogrind February 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I like it but will probably add a few mods for my own table if my players agree to let it in to the house rules. The best thing it adds is that sense of battlefield carnage and would be great for a fighting retreat type scene. (Aliens acid splash scene, looking at you here kid)

Second wind is a standard for anyone but a dwarf so not too worried there. Self administering a potion takes 2 minors. So at least two death saves to self heal. Not too worried there either.

1. Gravely wounded – you are prone and dying but not fully unconscious. You can not stand on your own even with a move action. Another PC can help you stand using their move. Both PC’s grant CA while helping you stand.

2. Taking immediate actions or AO’s triggers an immediate death roll. You can do it but its going to hurt.

3. Taking free actions for anything but talking triggers an immediate death roll. (This levels the field for Quick Swap, Quick draw, and all those extra attacks you mention)

4. You have a crawl speed of 2 squares period.

5. You are limited to one action and make a save at the end of each turn

– You have 3 possible levels of action (Standard, Move or Minor) based on your last death roll.

– 20 you regain hp if you have your second wind available or regain an action level if not. (If no fails you are stable at 1 hp and can act normally)

– 15-19 you regain an action level (If no fails you may act normally but are still negative in HP)

– 10-14 unchanged

– 1-9 Each occurrence your access to actions decreases by 1. (Only move and minor, then only minor, then dead)

– On the third fail in an encounter you die.

5 Alton February 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Personally, I think applying something like this would be good for organized play only. My reasoning is that in organized play, people come to play, and if they don’t get to play they do not come back.

For home play I would not implement a rule like this. If the player let himself get to the state of unconciousness so early in the game, then either the DM is cruel, or the character took one too many chances and is paying for their mistake.

Regardless of the situation, 4th is such a cooperative game, that allies whould do their best to try to heal the dying character.

Saying it is unrealistic for characters to go from 1 hp full actions to 0 hp and no actions whatsoever, brings up a whole bunch of other points. Characters are dead only a half their bloodied values, or failing 3 death saving throws. Monsters don’t get that, they die at 0, much less get to continue to act after they have died.

It is unrealistic for monsters or NPCs to die at 0hp, they should get the same considerations in death that the PCs do. They don’t because it is a fantasy game. Monster goes below 0hp – dead!

It does seem odd in reality, but it is just a fantasy game. Besides, there are some feats and powers that allow character to act below 0 hp.

Just my two cents

6 Alton February 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I forgot to add that maybe adding some difficulty to encounters would be to add the Gravely Wounded condition in the last 20 hp the character has befor going below 0. It can reflect that they have taken many blows and are close to being fatigued.

7 GeorgeH February 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Paradoxically, I think the Gravely Wounded state would probably lead to MORE character deaths, at least the way I DM. Why? If a character is dying, on the ground, he’s not a threat to the monsters, and I don’t have most intelligent monsters administer coup-de-grace often (I might if they understood the power of the PC leaders, but that’s pretty rare as I play), while unintelligent ones might try to drag him off or something, but they probably won’t try to actually eat him until the threatening situation is resolved. Now, if he’s still on his feet, dazed but still threatening? It’s a lot harder for me to say the monsters won’t take a swing and send him to negative bloodied.

8 Vance February 27, 2012 at 4:39 pm

What about initiating this Gravely Wounded status whenever the PC’s get to single-digit hitpoints? That way you aren’t extending the “dying” phase at all – just adding some excitement to those last few hp’s.

9 Rick Hansen February 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm

What a great idea! I’m going to submit an adjusted version of this plan to my DM this week and see if the rest of our group is on board.

10 Dave February 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Oh, lots of good idea tweaks here. I particularly like the idea of having a Gravely Wounded state in the low-HP range, instead of wiggling it between death and 0, or 0 and 1. Takes care of the “stomping on the Revenant ability” problem, and seems like a more natural progression, although it still results in a PC potentially being out of the action for several rounds, leaving the player bored. Hmm.

11 Bill February 28, 2012 at 12:34 pm

My Pathfinder Half-Orc has very much enjoyed being able to still function for one additional round before collapsing… although normally I spend that action getting the healing I need to keep going.

However it goes, I think the goal needs to be to keep it exciting for the players.

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