Wednesday, October 25, 2017

You Wound Me!

Tis but a scratch
Death sucks in D&D 5th Edition.

Not just because death sucks in general, because it does that too. But death in 5th edition is usually a result of a death spiral. The players don't realize they are in a situation over their heads, and when someone drops, they aren't really in a good position to run, since now the group has to drag a body out of there.

Which means party death usually isn't a result of heroism but of poorly-executed retreat.

That's not how a good death system should work. There are ways to avoid this, which include giving players a better late-combat buffer or setting up story to warn players away from bad encounters.

However, I have found a good mechanical solution that doesn't involve changing much in the existing system.

The best rules work as minimally as possible within the existing system. Why add psi points when you can modify an existing class? Why add a class when you can add a subclass? Why add a subclass when you could add a feat? Why add a feat when you can add a magic item? A lot of "homebrew" stuff (including the stuff I write on this blog) could be massively simplified.

But let's first dig into why the 5th edition system is broken.

Curb Stomping

There's a hidden aspect of death saves and failures that doesn't come up at first glance, since the rules for this scenario are nearly 100 pages apart.

First, look at the rules about to dropping to 0 hit points:
  1. "If damage reduces you to 0 hit points... you fall unconscious." - PHB pg. 197
  2. "If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure." -PHB pg. 197
  3. "If the damage is a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead [of one]" - PHB pg. 197

Then, look at the rules for being unconscious:
  1. "Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature" - PHB pg. 292

Which means that orc warlord stepping on an unconscious creature's head? 2 failures. Wolves that attack the body? 2 failures. Literally any competent enemy performing a Coup-de-grace? Yup, goodbye character.

Though that might be "realistic", it means that saving a character is extremely difficult. 0 HP becomes a death sentence instead of a mechanic to enhance the narrative.

Plus we get the hilariously unrealistic trope that a character with 1 HP remaining can still fight and move at full capacity, but one more shot and suddenly they're on death's door.
From fighting to dead in 0.1 seconds

Changing the Game

So how can we modify this with the very least amount of change?

Well, I don't want to alter how death saves work. I don't want to add "wound HP" to the character's HP pool, or remove the threat of taking damage while you're down.

But what we CAN do is simply add a new condition.

  • A wounded creature is prone and cannot stand on their own. Their only movement option is to crawl.
  • The creature has disadvantage on Strength and Dexterity saving throws.
  • An attack roll against the creature has advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature. Otherwise, the attack roll has disadvantage.
  • The creature may only take the following actions: hide, help, and use object

This condition would replace unconscious in the first rule for death listed above. It is similar to prone and stunned, but with some leeway.

Otherwise, use the same rules for Instant Death, Death Saving Throws, and stabilization. Exactly like the normal, stabilizing a creature doesn't remove the condition (wounded, in this case), but does prevent the need for further death saving throws.

There are several advantages to using this condition.

First off, you can still move at half speed. This is a very common trope in film and video games - a wounded character crawls away from the fight. Or crawls back into the fight, and assists with their last breath. The actions a Wounded character can take reflect this: hide (for fleeing) or help and use object (for grabbing ankles, pulling levers, or activating devices after they can no longer fight).

Not only does this make a creature at 0 HP able to contribute to the narrative, it continues to heighten the tension while allowing the players more freedom to engage the enemy. The ability to crawl away and hide allows the rest of the group the opportunity to end the combat or draw the enemy away from the downed character.

On the other hand, if the group is nearly victorious, the help or use object action can tip the scales of victory and make the entire group feel awesome. A Wounded character assisting in the victory condition while the rest of the players distract the villain makes for great dramatic tension.

Finally, since the "hit=crit" rule is gone, an enemy can now behave realistically towards a downed character without killing them outright. A merc can sic his wolf on a Wounded character and still give the players 1-2 rounds to respond. A death knight can pin a wounded character to the ground and let them die on the sword instead of killing them immediately.

Overall, much cooler.

Brushing with Death
Who would wouldn't want to be this guy?
And while I'm on the topic, I think there should be some lasting effect of being wounded. You know... a wound!

Hit points are fairly abstract. It's more a representation of stamina than actually taking injuries. But when you're wounded, there's no tiptoeing around it - you're getting a wound.

Fortunately, the Dungeon Master's Guide already has a table for lingering injuries. Unfortunately, rolling on this table means that a level 1 character can lose a hand, eye, or worse. Maybe that's cool in your games, maybe not. I like to give the players a bit more leeway.

Every time a character becomes wounded, they reference the next line on the following table. So the first time they are wounded, use line 1. The 15th time, use line 15. If the injury from the Lingering Injury table doesn't make sense, increase the number rolled until a feasible injury is obtained. If a player goes down more than 20 times, keep using line 20.
  1. Bruise (heals in 1d4 days)
  2. Bruise (heals in 1d4 days)
  3. Bruise (heals in 1d4 days)
  4. Bruise (heals in 1d4 days)
  5. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d4+15
  6. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d4+14
  7. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d6+13
  8. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d6+12
  9. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d8+11
  10. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d8+10
  11. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d10+8
  12. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d12+6
  13. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d12+4
  14. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d10+4
  15. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d10+2
  16. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d8+3
  17. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d8+2
  18. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d6+1
  19. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d4+1
  20. Roll on Lingering Injury table: 1d4

And what if a player actually dies? What if that third death save failure gets bubbled in?

Well, as per any epic fantasy story, they get a single, final action and can utter their final words. So make it count!
"Bury me.... with my gold..."
Thanks for reading!

Edit: as redditor /u/dammit_rab pointed out, the wounded condition makes it easy for a character to swig a healing potion and stand back up. I think this could be detered by sticking to the lingering injury table: is standing back up worth taking another scar? In a high-magic setting, wouldn't everyone just carry around healing potions for this exact reason?

I actually like this, flavor-wise. If you have the means to get back in the fight, you should. You'll probably take more scars for doing it (what are the chances you'll survive a full round of combat with 2d4+2 HP?), but if the fight is worth it, a character will have a chance to push themselves. In the current system, it's more like "sorry, you passed out in the middle of combat, despite everything we know about adrenaline and fight-or-flight responses. Now you get to do nothing, and I can coup-de-grace you immediately." I prefer a system that allows the player to make a value decision.

Props to /u/dammit_rab. Go upvote his stuff!

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