Friday, July 12, 2013

Defying Death

A few things have had me thinking about what happens when characters are reduced to 0 HP or less. In OD&D and most versions of Classic D&amp:D, characters by the book are dead. AD&D gives a countdown to -10 HPs.

Most of the time when I'm running, characters taken down to 0 hit points are in fact dead. In large part this is because I've been dissatisfied with the behavior that letting PCs go down to -10 HP causes, where PCs will take bigger risks and rather blithely go down to negative numbers. The OD&D rule creates more paranoia. But at the same time there are interesting possibilities for giving a PC a chance to be "not quite dead yet."

The Dungeon Crawl Classics rules have a Luck check for "recovering the body" where the PC may be dead or not. If they aren't, they have 1 HP and a permanent loss of one point to a physical statistic. That's not a bad start, but I think there are more interesting and flavorful ways to go about not quite dying.

What I have in mind is the idea of defying death. Basically: once in a character's life, they have a 3-in-6 chance of not being dead when reduced to 0 or fewer hit points. This permanently subtracts one from Constitution and one from Charisma. However,they have stolen a life from the gods of death, and owe them a death. Failure to deliver will bring about the character's death by seeming accident.

Now, simply killing your own enemies doesn't seem thematically right for this. I like the idea that, somewhat like in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the life stolen has to be repaid by killing at the request of another. Anything that can be perceived as cheating, like having a fellow party member ask you to kill that orc over there, could draw the ire of the death gods. Ideally it will be a deed the player doesn't actually want to do, and result in some trouble that will create an interesting adventure.

I'm tempted to limit this to people who have gained a level. It would seem to me that there is some degree of heroism that makes such a thing possible. The curse is more for fun; my main concern is to make the idea that not being dead is a one-time thing with a real cost.

What do folks do for defying death in their games? What do you think about this idea?


  1. I think I like it--you could even stipulate that the reason the owed death has to be problematic for the PC owes to it being a token spiritual excise tax of sorts. An effortless kill doesn't balance the ledger, cosmologically speaking.

  2. I prefer to use the Trollsmyth Death & Dismemberment charts when you get down to 0 HP. You might die immediately, or after a short while, or lose a limb, or even get a surge of adrenaline. It's all chancy enough that I haven't felt that players were exploiting the "cushion" of safety that -10 HP (or -Con, another common variant) give. And I like that it gives a way for permanent disfigurement without breaking the abstraction of HP.

  3. WFRPG had a great chart for rolling on when you dropped to 0. It was possible to drop to 0 and still be conscious and fighting but every time you took another hit you'd have to roll on the chart again, taking the chance of something really bad happening.

  4. I've started making my games more lethal, as well. In a way, this is why I like White Wolf's Storyteller combat system. I was running an Exalted game (the PCs were playing mortals) and one of the characters, who happened to be a great swordsman and almost never got hit or wounded... was killed in one hit. Eight levels of lethal damage AFTER accounting for armor soak. Done. First strike of the combat. And in Exalted DEATH IS PERMANENT. Needless to say, the rest of the PCs broke and ran even though they still could have probably taken the thugs (and had successfully killed dozens of thugs just like them).

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  6. Given that in the older editions of D&D hit points are supposed to represent things like fatigue, luck, the wisdom of experience in combat situations, etc. (see Trollsmyth's article here I view reaching zero hit points as the exhaustion of the character's ability to avoid a potentially killing blow in combat. Now the question is did that blow result in a fatality? Rather than taking the time to look up a table any time a character's hit points are reduced to zero or less, I have the player roll a save vs. Death Ray. If they make the save the character is unconscious, but in no danger of expiring. If they fail the save, the rest of the party divvies up their character's gear and equipment.

  7. There's an appendix in Gary's Dangerous Journeys/Mythus RPG about replacing dead characters with another version from a parallel reality. The character is almost the same, but might have a few different skills, etc. This can only occur a number of times. In an Appendix N setting like DCC that borrows from Moorcock and the like (and appears to have dimensional and time travel as campaign norms), it seems like an idea to adapt.

  8. This is what I do

    Though we don't do the short rest to gain HP like it says in that post. And it works like Hedgehobbit says above, once your at zero you stay at zero and have to roll on the chart if you get hit again until you heal/rest.

    I also really like this idea

    I kinda feel though that this ought to be in the Player's court. It's your character, you ought to have to think of something to cheat death if that's the way the dice fall.

    Another option would be to have the surviving PCs go to the underworld and get him back

  9. In my games, PCs get a save versus death at 0 HP. If they succeed, they are knocked unconscious. If they fail, they are killed. It's one of my favorite house rules. It gives PCs a second chance without really diluting the fear of death, as there is no reliable buffer (even a high level character can fail a saving throw).


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