Why Kill When You Can Maim?
  • Why Kill When You Can Maim?


    Back in Ye Olden Days, when I was first starting out running RPG campaigns, I sincerely believed that the worst thing that could happen to a player-character would be for them to die. This belief was encouraged, in part, by the mechanics of the games I was running at the time, particularly AD&D, with its classic binary Hit Point mechanic: positive Hit Points mean the character is healthy and mobile and all that other good stuff; zero or negative Hit Points equal death (or, at best, a discommodious unconsciousness).


    Character death can certainly be an upsetting experience, particularly if that character represents many sessions' worth of adventuring and experience. As I expanded my repertoire of games and began running games like Call of Cthulhu and King Arthur Pendragon, which feature mechanics modeling, respectively, mental and physical deterioration accruing from repeated encounters with implacable foes, I began to notice an interesting phenomenon: my players, rather than despairing over their characters racking up a host of traumatic scars, actually seemed to enjoy the process.

    "Wrong!" Westley's voice rang across the room. "Your ears you keep, so that every shriek of every child shall be yours to cherish—every babe that weeps in fear at your approach, every woman that cries 'Dear God, what is that thing?' will reverberate forever with your perfect ears." —William Goldman, The Princess Bride

    Well, perhaps "enjoy" is a bit of a strong word, but they certainly didn't react with the same level of upset that a character death might bring. Despite the fact that they were watching beloved characters slowly fall to pieces before their eyes, they were somehow less traumatized than they would have been by a quick death. And indeed, for some players the process of mental and physical maiming did in fact draw them further into the game. Scars provide character, as they say. Telling tales of "how I lost my eye," or sad reflections on the price paid to keep the darkness at bay for just one more turning of the stars, provided a measure of pathos and emotional investment that might otherwise have been lacking.

    That is why, to this day, I am drawn to systems with some sort of mechanic that allows for mental and/or physical deterioration over time. Having the option to maim a player-character instead of killing them outright remains one of the go-to tools in my GM bag of tricks.

    Even in games like Dungeons & Dragons which lack such mechanics, it is quite easy to house rule your own. Many critical hit systems out there present opportunities for characters to lose sundry vital body parts. An even simpler option is to institute a house rule whereby reaching 0 Hit Points does not necessarily mean death. Instead, a character so wounded who is subsequently stabilized (or who makes a saving throw) is maimed in some way. Excessive damage (say, in excess of the character's level or Constitution score) would thus be the only way a character might die.

    A quick Google search for "D&D death and dismemberment table" will turn up several options to choose from. And for games with an even grimmer tone, consider implementing sanity/madness rules. (The 5e DMG presents an optional rule for doing this very thing.)

    It may seem counterintuitive, but there's a good chance your players will find themselves loving the opportunity to eventually play that salty old veteran over in the corner of the tavern: the one with the twitchy hand and nasty scar who will tell you all about the horrors of the Underdark for the price of a tankard or two of ale…

    contributed by David Larkins
    Comments 16 Comments
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Death to death!

      I haven't played CoC or KAP, but it stupefies me that D&D has a problem with death. What other genre has ghosts, lightning-animated corpses, wishes, gods, unicorns, and a plethora of other things that can keep a character in the story after death?
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      I agree that it is odd that D&D lacks an injury system. It seems like an element most games developed to the point of D&D would have, maybe not a mandatory one but at least an optional one. But then again, I don't know if it's an element of the sort of heroic fantasy D&D typically emulates. D&D has always had a much more "meat grinder" approach to fantasy, not that sort of slow hope-crushing grindstone that some other games emulate.
    1. 3catcircus -
      The out of print Twilight:2013 did a decent job of simulating wounds/injuries, going into shock, bleeding out, and maiming if you don't heal correctly.
    1. ddaley's Avatar
      ddaley -
      To me, D&D seemed to be influenced by Greek Mythology. From what I remember of Greek Mythology, Greek heroes didn't deteriorate... they remained imposing forces until the point when they finally met their match.Also, deterioration adds another level of complexity to the game, which would challenge my group. Deterioration would be yet another thing to track and to figure into combat/skill calculations. My group shies away from anything that slows down the game play.
    1. 3catcircus -
      Yes, but unless they were the main protagonist, they pretty much met a grisly end. Odysseus maiming Polyphemus by knocking out his eye? Polyphemus eating a bunch of guys? Antinous getting a bunch of guys killed. Heck, they even have a dog die on a pile of dung...

      I don't think that taking is cue from the main heroes in greek mythology should be the basis for any RPG unless the genre of the game leads to it. While D&D tends to go that way as you get into higher levels, there isn't really any support for a more deadly style at lower levels.
    1. Kail11's Avatar
      Kail11 -
      All about the maim!
    1. Yaarel -
      D&D works well as a wound system.

      Reaching zero hit points means an enduring wound, and if failing all three death saves, the loss of a bodypart.

      Only catastrophic damage equaling half-full hit points, kills.

      5e could import the coup de gras to kill an incapacitated creature that is already at zero hit points.

      The wound system can be as simple as that.

      But it invites tinkering. For example, each failed death save could mean a more serious enduring wound that inflicts a higher level of Exhaustion. The last level is permanent loss.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      I’ve encountered a few players that would throw the proverbial tantrum if a character got maimed. One even had their character commit suicide. On the other hand, I’ve seen players have characters lose a hand and say “I can’t wait to get a cool magic prosthetic,” then go into a deep sulk if their character got killed.

      Players can be really weird sometimes.

      That being said, I think maiming instead of killing is perfectly cool. You don't get to high level without taking some hits.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      I've run WFRP 1E, Rolemaster, Spacemaster, and several of the 40K RPGs... maiming is common in them.

      And only a few players find it a problem.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      The problem with wound systems is Heal, Greater Restoration, etc. There are spells that would eliminate the meaning of these wounds once the party his certain levels. One of the oldest complaints about the system is how Raise Dead cheapens death. And this system makes death even harder to happen. Just tacking on a wound system isn't enough. You have to modify the spells too.

      And ultimately, if there are systems that do this better, perhaps if you want such outcomes, you should play one of those other systems.
    1. Steffen Haeuser's Avatar
      Steffen Haeuser -
      Reminds me of the german "Midgard" RPG System (oldest German RPG System). A critical hit was basically a roll on a serious injury table (in worst case, even with 1% chance only, it could be instant death). As well if you got down to 3 Life points in one battle (or was it one hit? Can't remember, right now). Actually when we played it we soon replaced those tables, as the chance that someone getting a "bad chance" hit was useless for the rest of the fight (or even game-day) were pretty serious, and sitting asides while the others fight is not fun. We kept the idea of the injury-table, just lightened it up.
    1. Connorsrpg's Avatar
      Connorsrpg -
      We have minor and major drawbacks in our game. I have talked about gaining a random major drawback instead of death.

      This is a choice for a player and they must use an Inspiration token. (In our games we have a collection of Benny-like Inspirations rather than just the one and players stockpile a few).
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by sirlarkins View Post
      my players, rather than despairing over their characters racking up a host of traumatic scars, actually seemed to enjoy the process.

      "Wrong!" Westley's voice rang across the room. "Your ears you keep, so that every shriek of every child shall be yours to cherish—every babe that weeps in fear at your approach, every woman that cries 'Dear God, what is that thing?' will reverberate forever with your perfect ears." —William Goldman, The Princess Bride

      Well, perhaps "enjoy" is a bit of a strong word, but they certainly didn't react with the same level of upset that a character death might bring.
      Well, that certainly doesn't describe me.
      I tend to spend considerable time creating a new character, thinking about his background, personality and motivations, and where that might lead him. Being unexpectedly maimed will usually throw a monkey wrench into my well-laid plans unless the system makes it feasible to recover lost limbs. It's the kind of arbitrary change to a pc that I consider extremely unfun. There's a very high chance, I'd just retire the character and create a new one.

      I guess it may have been different when I was still new to RPGs. There was a time when I considered it 'cool' for a game to use a critical hits table. These days I'm convinced it rarely contributes anything meaningful to a game and is basically just punishing players undeservedly.
    1. darkbard's Avatar
      darkbard -
      The most interesting implementation of longterm injuries in the game (not every such example need be an amputation) I've seen is 4E's Injury Deck optional rules introduced in Dungeon 204. There are several variants presented, but, essentially, when a character hits 0 HP, the player rolls a save to see if the character acquires a minor or major injury. While such injuries present certain, minor penalties until healed, one variant allows the PC also to "profit from drawback," essentially exploiting the injury for a temporary bonus with a more severe penalty thereafter.

      For a conversation about this topic and its system, see: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthr...-Cards-in-play
    1. JacktheRabbit -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      Well, that certainly doesn't describe me.
      I tend to spend considerable time creating a new character, thinking about his background, personality and motivations, and where that might lead him. Being unexpectedly maimed will usually throw a monkey wrench into my well-laid plans unless the system makes it feasible to recover lost limbs. It's the kind of arbitrary change to a pc that I consider extremely unfun. There's a very high chance, I'd just retire the character and create a new one.

      I guess it may have been different when I was still new to RPGs. There was a time when I considered it 'cool' for a game to use a critical hits table. These days I'm convinced it rarely contributes anything meaningful to a game and is basically just punishing players undeservedly.
      The main problem is there is no benefit to players to add this to a game.

      It may make players act a little more intelligently but then by the same token I demand the same from the DM. How many DMs would love this system because it will make players act more "real" but then turn around and have every goblin in the raiding party fight to the death when in reality they would break and run when even half of them are killed or wounded.
    1. 3catcircus -
      Quote Originally Posted by DocMoriartty View Post
      The main problem is there is no benefit to players to add this to a game.

      It may make players act a little more intelligently but then by the same token I demand the same from the DM. How many DMs would love this system because it will make players act more "real" but then turn around and have every goblin in the raiding party fight to the death when in reality they would break and run when even half of them are killed or wounded.
      Thats whyI use optional morale rolls for the npcs...

      I roll when any npc leader gets to half hp, when the first npc minion dies, and each time an npc leader dies or half the minions die. Gives a nice feel for when troops are routed or if an npc leader decides to issue the order to retreat (or if the npc is a weasel and decides to save his own skin).
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