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?