Musing - Wound Penalties, Do We Really Need Them?

Most rules systems create an inverse relationship between a character’s current wounds and his effective attack skill – you’ve lost X hit points, you take Y penalty on your roll. And we don’t question this because it sounds realistic.

But, unfortunately, this also enforces an inverse proporition between a character’s current wounds and his ability to participate in the story – as wounds increase, drama decreases. That’s a problem, since, when a character’s wounds increase, the scene gets intsense, and the player’s interest in the scene tends to intensify as well.

So what if wounds somehow increased the opportunities the character has to affect the story?

This is how it works in the movies. The more beaten-up a character gets, the more driven he is to succeed – and sometimes more spectacularly than would seem possible for an unwounded character.

Lots of rpg systems simulate this same effect with a will stat, bennies, or a berserk-when-wounded feat/class feature, but I have to wonder if those things are just bubble gum, patching up what’s essentially a broken concept. After all, all movie heroes are berserk-when-wounded – and not because it’s a class feature or a finite pool of points they can spend. It’s because a character triumphing at his lowest point – even if he dies in the process – is what we go to the movies to see!

What if that’s what we go to rpgs for, too? My operating theory here is that people come to the rpg table to impact the story. When we talk about death-spiral, I think we’re really talking about ineffectiveness-spiral: I’m much more willing to have my character die than to have my time wasted by a story I can’t participate in. There’s nothing worse than rolling high, only to have your roll penalized into nothing because your characer was wounded. As a player, that just gives me “Dr. Manhattan syndrome.”

"Why would I save a world I no longer have any stake in?"

So, should wounds give a straight bonus for each wound? Should it be some kind of ratio? Or a bonus that only kicks in below a certain number of hit points? Should wounds unlock special moves? I don’t know. The conservative part of my brain worries that this will just incentivize PCs to hurt themselves. But then, would that really be a problem? Increased impact on the story = increased risk of death, and vice versa. Sounds like an appropriate tradeoff to me.

With conventional wound penalties, the gamble you make when you go into combat is this: your character survives and impacts the story (best case) vs. your character doesn’t get to do much because he’s injured and/or killed (worst case). But with wound rules that increased his impact on the story, the gamble becomes this: your character impacts the story by living to fight another day (best case) vs. your character impacts the story by getting injured and/or killed (worst case). If I’m going to invest as much time as an rpg usually takes, those odds are a lot more appealing. Even if I “lose” the game, I’m still doing what I came to do.

UPDATE: Gnome Stew has an amazing article on a related issue - character death.  Check it out here!

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