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You Wound Me: Another Wound System
As part of my preparation for an upcoming campaign, I completely overhauled Taiao’s ailing and outdated wound system (as well as the layout and flow of the rest of the combat chapter, but that is much more boring work to discuss). Limited statistical analysis suggests good results, but genuine playtesting would require a meatgrinder beyond my ability to produce. Here were my goals:
Quick: The design should be simple. It should take ~10 seconds to obtain an immediate result, maybe another ~20 for the victim to write it down.
Diegetic: The design should create specific wounds with clear effects. None of this generic “wounds” nonsense. I want people to lose their eyes.
Real: The design should approximate reality to an acceptable degree. Do you know how hard it is to chop someone’s arm off? It’s pretty hard. Most limb loss is due to necessary after-the-fact amputation.
Lethal: Taiao uses an HP system. Wounds tend to involve extending the period of time you’re active (because an arm cut doesn’t mean you can keep fighting). The system should not triple the number of hits a 1 HD creature can sustain before collapsing, as another & looser goal of mine is that the whole system is to be roughly backwards-compatible with other OSR modules (stat conversions notwithstanding)
So let me elaborate on that last point, because it’s the reason I have a wound system in the first place. While Taiao has HP, I try to be very consistent about what it represents: HP is your ability to fight back. It’s not meat points. It requires active protection & awareness. Sneak attacks (or traps), unavoidable environmental hazards such as gas or heat, and forced called shots can all bypass HP if the character can’t react to prevent it. This is why it’s backronymed to “Hit Protection”.
So wounds need to be capable of crippling someone without totally crippling someone. You shouldn’t die because you took a blow while unable to defend, but you should be at a pretty serious disadvantage. And they should still be capable of killing you eventually.
Let’s see if I can translate this to something system-agnostic.
When you take damage, it can be roughly split into two categories:
Damage you could have theoretically protected yourself from (getting stabbed by an enemy you knew was there, even if you didn’t know exactly where; a dragon’s breath while you’re holding a shield).
Damage you realistically have no way of stopping (a sneak attack from a completely concealed enemy whose presence you were unaware of; a dragon’s breath when you’ve got nothing to hide behind).
The first kind drains your HP (until you run out). The second kind inflicts wounds. The first kind will also inflict wounds, but only once you run out of HP.
When HP drops to 0, the overflow damage is turned into a single wound. A wound sounds something like “Broken Left Arm 3”. The “Broken” part is the effect, “Left Arm” is the location, and “3” is the severity of the wound, which is called Shock. For every 5 points of damage you take (or part thereof), add 1 point of Shock to the inflicted wound. So if you take 11 damage at 3 HP, you’re reduced to 0 HP, and the remaining 8 damage becomes a Shock 2 wound.
Wounds caused by physical damage have location-based effects, but elemental wounds affect your whole body. For physical damage (blunt/slashing/piercing) whose location is not already known, roll:
1d8: (1: Head, 2-4: Torso, 5: Left Arm, 6: Right Arm, 7: Left Leg, 8: Right Leg).
Compare this against the Wounds by Shock/Location/Type tables and write down the effect:
And here’s the list of effects:
Finally, every time you take a wound, roll a Will save (substitute Constitution in other systems), using five times the wound’s Shock as your TN1. If you fail, you become incapacitated. If you critically fail, you die.
So, in short:
Calculate overflow damage and translate it into a Shock score.
Determine location if not already known.
Make a Will save to not become useless/die. You might have to make a second save or else roll a d6 depending on the wound.
Write down the wound, location, and Shock.
Nameless NPCs are automatically incapacitated if they ever have a total Shock equal to or greater than their HD (including if it’s split across several wounds).
That’s the basics. That’s everything that absolutely has to be handled the moment a character takes a wound. In practice, this system works pretty fast. I can resolve wounds in about 30 seconds and the player who suffered can write it down in the meantime. All additional effects are deferred, to avoid taxing the GM’s mental spoons and to provide tension/suspense - note the absence of a definitive wound duration.
Now here’s the extras that make the system work.
Blood Loss & Bleed
At the start of your turn, you take 1 damage per point of untreated Shock from blood loss/internal damage at the start of each of your combat turns. If any amount of blood loss would cause a wound, you instead tick up a Bleed score by exactly 1 point and then make a Will save as if you had received a wound, using the blood loss damage as your TN.
Your Bleed score is subtracted from all checks and saves.
Outside of combat, and while incapacitated or otherwise unconscious, the rate of blood loss is reduced from once per turn to once per 10 minutes.
Wounds may be treated on the field with medical supplies, 2 AP (one full turn), and an Intelligence check. Using makeshift medical supplies (such as torn clothing) forces disadvantage (or a –4 penalty). The check’s TN is equal to five times the wound’s Shock. Treated wounds do not cause blood loss/Bleed but are not set to recover yet.
Characters can attempt to mend their own wounds if they are capable of taking action (i.e. not incapacitated). It takes 10 minutes for a wounded character to treat a wound of their own.
Incapacitated characters are unconscious, or effectively unconscious - they could be screaming and writhing on the floor, or simply stunned, so long as they cannot take useful action or process what’s going on. Incapacitated characters can roll a Will save (Wisdom? There isn’t a great equivalent to Will in the standard SCDIWC lineup) every 10 minutes to recover control over themselves.
After the Combat
“So,” you say. “This system doesn’t seem to achieve several goals so far.” And if you’re thinking that, you’re right. So you take bleed-out damage every round and it can stack a bad penalty. That’s not gonna keep you (or the vampire) down. You can fight for at least five rounds past 0 HP before Bleed stacks up to a –5 penalty, assuming you pass all of the Will checks (and don’t critically fail and die - a more likely outcome than you think). Why wouldn’t you?
The answer is that after you’re wounded, you’re not done making saving throws. A lot of deaths in ancient/medieval combat came from after the skirmish was over. Your real worst enemy isn’t the wound, it’s the…
Treated wounds have stopped causing further damage, but may still fester. At the end of any day where a character obtained a wound, or any day when a treated wound is exposed to putrid materials or a disease-fostering environment, they roll a Strength save once to avoid infection. If they fail, a disease takes up residence inside a random recent wound.
Diseases are predatory spirits. They want things: a laugh, for powerful men to die, wealth squandered, to spread themselves, a more tragic victim. You can bargain with them like a spirit, if you can find a priest or doctor able to commune with them like one. For each day that a wound festers, characters must pass a Strength save (plus their doctor's skill/proficiency bonus2; Constitution save for other systems). If they succeed, the disease is cured. If they fail, the wound's Shock increases by 1.
Death by Infection & Amputation
Once a festering wound has reached Shock 3 or higher, the wound cannot be healed. From here on out, the daily Strength saves made against the disease are for the victim’s life - if a save is failed, the victim dies from complications.
The only cure for a terminal infection is amputation - and for a head, torso, or elemental full-body wound (none of which can be non-lethally amputated), a desperate prayer to a god might be the victim’s last hope - or a real tough bargain with the disease responsible.
Healing Wounds & Bleed
Your Bleed score heals by itself at a rate of 1 per day, but wounds only heal with rest and care. A wound is considered rested if the party is moving at no faster than a slow pace over land (4 hours spent traveling per day) and the character doesn’t strain or test the afflicted body part in any way.
Once per week, characters may attempt a Strength save for each rested wound they have, adding their doctor’s skill and proficiency bonus. The TN is five times the wound’s current Shock. If they pass the check, the wound’s Shock is reduced by 1. When the wound’s Shock has been reduced to 0, it is removed and the character may gain a curious scar. If a critical failure occurs while testing to reduce the Shock, the wound is removed regardless of the Shock level, but the effects are permanent. Lost limbs, organs, and other permanent effects are always permanent even if the wound that caused them is cured.
Wounds do not inhibit HP recovery. You can regenerate HP even while wounded.
Characters who die may have a funeral held by a priest to alert a psychopomp to ferry them to an afterlife (if any is granted by their god). This recovers 10% of the deceased’s XP for any surviving party members (and in the case of player character death, for the player’s next character).
If no funeral is held, souls will eventually fade, slip quietly into the sea, and sink down towards Hell’s abyssal mouths.
If a death was particularly violent, ironic, or absurd, a ghost may be created as the soul departs. A ghost is a curse-like effect upon the local environment that simulates and inflicts the cause of death upon others.
This is something that I believe I borrowed from a mixture of Arnold (K) and the Angry GM. I believe Arnold had a much stronger influence here.
When a character heals a wound off entirely or survives a near-death experience, they gain a curious scar and advantage to save vs whatever caused the wound. If a hydra burned them, they gain advantage vs fire. Death rays give advantage vs magic, etc. Stretch this if you must. If they were mind-controlled but then stabbed (nearly) to death, give them advantage vs mind control attempts. If you absolutely cannot find a way to grant a suitable save bonus, give them something like +2 HP or +1 Health or +1 Luck.
You can only get one curious scar per specific near- death experience. Even if you get multiple scars from a single fight with a hydra, only one of them will be a curious scar. If you get into another fight with a hydra, however, then you might have a chance at a second curious scar.
How Does It Work Out?
In my simulations? Surprisingly well. In practice? My players appear to be too wily to take many lethal blows (and if they do, it is usually due to profound folly that inflicts instant death). We’ll see once things get rolling.
First, let’s talk about criteria. How does the system hold up against my original design goals?
Quick: This is actually relative. Is it fast to generate a wound on-the-spot? Yes! It’s remarkably quick - if you have those location/wound tables in front of you. I intend on preparing a print-out to be included as a printable to go with the system book. That’s the one hangup. Everything else is deferred until later, so it’s really fast for the variety of prognoses it produces.
Diegetic: The design does, in fact, create specific wounds with expected effects, largely due to the tables of severity/location/damage type. You might need to jot down some shorthand to remember an effect by the wound, though.
Real: It’s hard to judge reality, but the range of effects and the prognosis of a given set of wounds roughly matches my own expectations regarding the lethality of certain effects, and it also gives plenty of chances of success or failure that can occur well after the wound is received. So I’d say it’s good enough?
Lethal: Surprisingly lethal, especially if you bleed out too much, have a bad doctor, or have poor Strength/Will scores. How do I know? Let’s talk about some math.
I made some diagrams while plotting out the routes a wound could take. The one above is for all wounds. Some basic rough numbers for a person with absolutely no modifiers:
A Shock 1 wound has around a 34% chance of resulting in death. Torso wounds are disproportionately more likely to cause death due to the penalty to physical aspects they cause (but also because amputation is impossible).
A Shock 2 wound has around a 50% chance of causing death. Torso wounds, again, are slightly more likely, but it’s fuzzier since Shock 2 wounds have a wider range of possible effects.
A Shock 3 wound has around a 75% chance of causing death - limbs can be amputated, but head wounds are instant death and torso wounds have a high probability of succumbing to infection.
Surprisingly high, right? Don’t you only die on a critical failure when you take a wound? Why’s it so lethal?
It’s infections. Infections cause the vast majority of deaths. If you don’t die instantly, odds are you’ll get infected. And what do infections cause? Repeated Strength saves over the next few days to avoid worsening the infection. Shock 1 wounds have three saves (save vs infection, save vs Shock 2, and save vs Shock 3) before they reach the terminal Shock 3. Shock 2 wounds have two saves. Shock 3 or greater wounds only get the initial save versus infection - if a Shock 4 wound gets infected, it’s already over.
These percentage odds are, again, unmodified. Odds are you won’t have a flat 0 bonus for your Strength saves. You may have anywhere from –4 to +4 thanks to your Strength score/modifier, but you’ll also likely have a doctor and possibly some Health from your class ranks to add to your saves.
A curious thing about the source of the lethality (repeated STR saves) is that modifiers have a much stronger impact on the lethality of low-Shock wounds. If you have a Shock 1 wound, a +2 modifier will be somewhere around 2 to 3 times as useful for surviving it than a Shock 3 wound, because it gets added to not one but three distinct saves, each of which can potentially save you from a grisly death. If you have a good doctor and decent Strength, the lethality of a Shock 1 wound plummets to as low as around 13%. The lethality of a Shock 3 wound is not quite as strongly affected.
The Role of Bleed
The Bleed score provides a counterbalance for players who want to keep fighting past the point when they should have quit. Its real lethality is hidden from view: you can fight for three turns at a –1, –2, –3 penalty; but can you pass three Strength saves with that penalty? The math says you won’t want to try. Your heroism might save your friends in the short term, but it might cost you an arm and a leg tomorrow. Or your life, if you’re unlucky.
Of course, Bleed also has a continuing ongoing odds of killing you anyways. Every point of Bleed causes a new Will save versus incapacitation, with a 5% chance of death on a critical failure as usual. Not a risk I’d really want to take.
If you get a critical failure while saving to reduce a wound’s Shock (during the recovery cycle), the wound’s effects are permanent. What does that look like?
Well, it’s not so pretty. Recovery checks are made against five times the wound’s Shock value, so low Shock wounds are far faster to heal - and wounds get quicker to heal as time passes, since a success on a Shock 2+ wound just reduces its Shock by 1 point. But there’s still a possibility you might have to make that check again. And even a Shock 1 wound will always have a 5% chance of becoming permanent. That is, for every single Shock 1 wound, you have a minimum 5% chance of sustaining permanent brain damage, torso injury, or limb dysfunction.
That’s pretty nasty. How do you minimize it? The answer is that it’s hard to. The best you can do is either reduce the Shock level of the wound faster (as every failed check is another 5% chance of permanency) or somehow get advantage on your checks. Advantage is tricky in cases like this, as it’s normally reserved for immediate situational bonuses rather than permanent effects (which are usually numerical modifiers, which do not reduce the odds of a critical failure).
That said, the chances of a permanent wound are somewhat offset by curious scars. You actually have a good chance, if you survive the infection, of coming out from a wound with a bonus. It might not be enough to offset a permanent broken limb, but hey - that’s what we’ve got magical prosthetics for, if you can afford one. And if your players still don’t want to play a cripple, I’ll be redoing some retirement rules too.
This system works according to my design goals. But is it suitable for your game? It’s comparatively lethal, but I’m not sure it’s more lethal than the system that most GMs already use. For NPCs with a lot of HD, it’ll give them a few more turns to live on, but it gives the same thing to your players. The difference is that for players, those turns might end their careers a few days down the line when the Bleed penalty catches up to them.
Also, incapacitation saves will eventually cause a character who’s bleeding out to get knocked out anyways, and NPCs with low HD have no additional resilience as they’re automatically incapacitated once their total Shock is at or above their HD - so there’s little mental math required for the mooks.
I expect it will maintain strong tension, both in and out of combat. If you’re in a dungeon, and it’s a few days back to civilization, you’re on a race against the clock to get to someone with proper medical knowledge. Wounds are more deadly while in the sticks than they are in civilization.
Jot down a character. Give them a Strength and Will modifier from –4 to +4, and roll 2d10 (take the lowest result) to generate their doctor’s competency. They take a wound of 1d10 severity and bleed out for some number of rounds. Run through the procedure, and figure out when they get infected and if they survive or perish, and then share their misfortune in the comments. Tell me how it feels.
And, of course, tell me if you try it in person.
Target Number. See: Difficulty Challenge, etc.
For your reference: Taiao has a freeform skill/proficiency system that goes from +1 to +8. You can have a Medicine skill, but a proficiency is more like a job title (“Doctor”) and grants a flat +2 bonus. With a master-class skill of +8 and a relevant proficiency for +2, the most you can ever hope to gain is a +10 bonus; substantial enough to trivialize most checks that aren’t especially hard for some reason, but in practice difficult to obtain without a passion for that skill.