Critical Wounds

It is the end of a long day for halfling wizard and raconteur, Bosco Budgins. He has spent seven rounds in the grip of a bugbear strangler, fallen eighty feet onto a large poisoned spike, been swallowed by a purple worm and sat upon by a dragon. Now, alone in the dark and bereft of any companions, healing surges or other restorative magic, he is attacked by a multitude of battle axe wielding grimlocks who proceed to chop him to within an inch of his life. Nursing a single hit point, Bosco crawls to the centre of the teleportation circle and is transported to his comfortable living room hundreds of miles away. With the last of his strength, the hobbit collapses onto the sofa and falls asleep. Six hours later he wakes up and all his wounds are healed.

D&D does not have have the most realistic system for wounds and healing. There are no hit locations and the characters have far too many hit points for them to simply represent actual physical damage. The fourth edition rules spell this out better than previous editions: hit points are a mixture of fatigue, luck and skill as well as stamina. That is why non-magical classes have healing surges. A character using the second wind action isn’t healing wounds, he’s proving to the GM and the rest of the players that he wasn’t that wounded to begin with. A little grit and determination was all that was required.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. I used spell points for years, so magical healing was always easy to come by in my games; I can’t remember the last time my third edition party actually ran out of resources and couldn’t fully heal by the end of the day. My problem with the healing rules is that an extended rest automatically heals all damage the character has sustained.

Now, I can see why this is the case. The rule is there for games where there is a tremendous amount of combat – dungeon adventuring at its finest. It makes the game run smoother and more quickly. It’s part of the minimalist ethos that drives fourth edition. But it doesn’t actually make any sense.

Every physical wound is healed after six hours rest. Everything. Extrapolate that out to society as a whole. You break a leg? Just sleep on it, you’ll be fine in the morning. Sucking chest wound? Well, if it doesn’t kill you immediately, you’ll have regenerated all of those organs by tomorrow. This rule might speed the game along, but it creates a world in which there are no long term wounded. You can’t be suffering from old war wound, because that old war wound disappeared about six hours after you got it.

Yes, you can argue that the PCs are special and that the rules that govern them do not apply to NPCs. Well, that’s just a bit silly isn’t it? And what if I want to hamper the PCs, to really make them sweat? There is definitely a niche in the game for critical wounds. Expeditious Retreat Press are publishing the Advanced Player’s Guide in a few days. That will contain their rules for debilitating wounds. I haven’t seen that book yet, so I thought I’d present my proposed house rule in advance of getting a copy.

The Problem of Critical Wounds

The last thing we want to do is make combat any more complicated, or make it take any longer. Fourth edition has done a grand job of streamlining play, and I don’t think that we should mess about with it. Therefore house rules that involve hit locations, excessive book keeping or extra die rolling within combat is out of the question. The powers already make combat complicated, we don’t need it to be any more complicated.

There are rules on the web for using the disease track for critical wounds. They were first suggested by Keith Baker (the creator of Eberron) over on his blog. This is a good idea, and it is undoubtedly the best way to treat something like a broken limb in 4e, where mere hit point loss temporary at best. I may well use rules such as this, but I don’t think I want to use them all the time.

One could see the scenario. Every time you are struck with a critical hit (or some other trigger that we can determine) you roll on a random table to see what critical wound you pick up. Maybe you’ve lost an eye, or you’ve been disemboweled and tripped over your own intestines… it all sounds evocative on paper, but in play you are in danger of recreating Rolemaster.

It’s just a bit too complicated. It involves rolling too many dice, and it would just slow play down too much. I’d be happy to use those rules outside combat to adjudicate what happens to a character with a broken leg, but I’m not sure that it’s something I want to deal with in the middle of combat when I already have twenty things to worry about. I also don’t want to completely cripple PCs if I can avoid it (remember, I’m a nice GM).

My proposed solution, and this is only proposed so feel free to disagree with it, is to introduce a system that has the potential to hamper PCs, but in practice is not likely to come up very often. It acts as a way to explain how characters in the setting can gain lasting wounds. It’s not perfect, but it is quick.

Proposed House Rules

On the Iourn character sheet you will remember that there is a box for “Current Max Hit Points” and for “Critical Wounds”. Both of those come into play now. Here’s how it works:

  • Every time you receive a critical hit or are reduced to zero hit points or less during an encounter, record it in the “Critical Hits” box. I refer to each of these hits as a critical wound.
  • After the encounter is over (so once we are out of combat) make a saving throw against each critical wound you have sustained.
  • For each failed saving throw reduce your maximum hit points by 25%. If you fail four or more saving throws then you maximum hit points is now 1.
  • You current hit points cannot be more than your maximum hit points (unless you have temporary hit points of course), so reduce that figure accordingly.
  • Record your new maximum hit points in the “Current Max Hit Points” box.
  • The difference between your normal maximum hit points and your current maximum hit points is called your “lingering damage”.
  • Lingering damage does not heal if you take an extended rest.
  • Healing surges, and any magical or similar effect that utilises healing surges (lay on hands, healing word, inspiring word) do not heal lingering damage.
  • Spells and prayers that restore hit points “as if the target had spent a healing surge” such as cure light wounds heal lingering damage normally.
  • The day after a character receives a critical wound make an Endurance check at DC 5 + 5 for each critical wound he sustained (so one wound is DC 10, four wounds is DC 25 and so on). Another character can substitute a Heal check instead of the Endurance check. If this check fails then the lingering damage will not heal normally. If it succeeds then the lingering damage will heal to the tune of 1 hp per day.

What I like about this system is that it takes all the book-keeping for critical wounds out of combat. All you need to know is what your current maximum hit points are. I don’t think it’s particularly brutal for PCs, but there is the potential of every fight leaving a lasting mark on the PC. It doesn’t affect things from the GMs side, as PCs kill most foes they fight, the prospect of inflicting a lingering wound is far less likely.

So what do you think? Workable? Desirable? Necessary?

Comments on a postcard.


7 thoughts on “Critical Wounds

  1. I like it. You are right, it is a simple enough idea, and easy to incorporate.

    My only fear would be that it is too brutal. I would expect PCs to be picking up many critical wounds (typically, there will be more ‘baddies’, so more chance of crits against them), and in the games I have found, an average of two PCs falls to the floor at some point in each battle. Even talking on 1/2 of these critical wounds, for the next battle, the party will be severely hampered.

    Could this cause them to fail their next encounter even more so? 25% of HP is a significant loss.

    So – I like the idea. However, I would also like to make it a little bit less severe. Lowering Max HP by 25% each Critical Wound makes the party that much more flimsy, and easy to kill.

    (also, I understand the reasoning behind inspiring word not working – it’s just a command, nothing magical – but why don’t lay on hands, or healing word heal? They are both divine magic in essence, aren’t they? I would also expect a healing potion to work, yes?)


  2. Seems fine to me, I like a more gritty feel to a roleplaying game and as we don’t encounter too many combat situations I don’t feel that this should hamper us too much. That being said who in our current party can actually perform true magical healing? A rule system like this might make a cleric an absolute essential for a party whereas at the moment they are not (which is nice as you can’t always trust those religous SOBs!)

  3. Thanks both for your comments.

    hvg3: I chose 25% because it is the same value as a healing surge (unless you’re a Dragonborn) and therefore nice and easy to calculate. It’s already written on the character sheet. It might be too brutal. I am hoping that the saving throw will mitigate that. On average you will only take lingering damage for half the “critical wounds” you suffer. I don’t know where it’s worth playing with the 25% and then deciding if it needs to be lowered.

    In singling out healing surges, I was trying to come up with an easy way to rule what did and did not heal lingering damage. My instinct was to say that only time or magic can heal lingering damage, but then defining magic is a little tricky in 4e.

    And this is where I start to answer your point, James. At present, no one in the party can perform true magical healing.

    I would prefer to say that any magical healing would cure lingering damage. In that case lingering damage could be healed by a cleric’s healing word ability, by a paladin’s lay on hands and by a healing potion.
    A warlord’s inspiring word (and other class abilties) wouldn’t cut the mustard.

    However, this does rather single out the warlord (and the healing powers of the fighter and other martial classes) for special censure. It lessens their effectiveness markedly. Of course, they can still bestow temporary hit points, but what does that do to game balance? Does it do anything to game balance?

    Should I follow my instincts and say all non-magical healing, or do we stick with the limitation of not using a healing surge?

  4. As to the 25%, it just sounds very dangerous to me :p Of course, we might have more combat in our games than you. If they were only at 50% (two critical wounds) for max HP, my players would not want to go anywhere near a battle.

    3rd edition, dropping HP by half dropped the CR by 2. I am not sure what the rules are now (or if there are equivalent ones), but part of becoming “elite” is doubling in HP, and doubling in XP…that could suggest that PCs with only half the HP were (roughly) only half as effective…

    Anyway, for healing, I would go with the “any magical healing”. Yeah, it might dampen the warlord’s ability a bit, but it is flavourful. And it makes sense :)

  5. The jury is still out on whether we adopt this. I think we’re going to give it a few more weeks of 4e with minimum modifications.

    We probably do have less battles. Two sessions of 4e into the new campaign and there’s only been one fight so far. That’s likely to change next week I think, though. The warforged is getting antsy.

    Any magical healing sounds right to me. Yeah, I think that’s what I’ll do.

  6. A thought I just had – instead of starting them off with less HP (and running the risk of easy deaths), penalise them by making them loose surges.

    So, with three critical wounds, start the next day with three less surges to spend. Thus, they aren’t hampered immediately (by having a ‘glass jaw’), but have to take it more carefully until they can fully recover.

    Another option would be to make them automatically loose two surges, or loose just one on a save. This could work if you wanted the more gritty feel, but I think it could be a bit too dangerous…


  7. Darn it, sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this. My life is ridiculously busy at the moment.

    My intention in reducing the number of hit points available to the PC is not to penalise them receiving a critical wound. It’s to simulate what happens in the real world when someone is wounded, and to explain how there can be NPCs out there in the campaign world who have suffered wounds that they have never recovered from.

    It’s a house rule born of my own need for verisimilitude, which given the nature of 4e may be a little misguided. Your idea of reducing the number of healing surges available is more in keeping with the game. Anyway, we’re not using this rule in the weekly game at the moment anyway as we’re still running 4e pretty much as its intended.

    We’re giving fourth edition a fair shake of the stick, but I have to say that the group as a whole is growing less impressed with the game as time passes. I think we could be heading towards a tricky dilemma.

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