7 September 2013

Mortal Wounds and the Double-Kill: Towards Descriptive Damage

Something I've been wanting for a while is a *descriptive* damage system, as opposed to a simply numerical one. My reading in SPADA II about how damn resilient the human body is to damage has brought this to the forefront of my mind again.

One of my main goals with this experiment is to make the results of a combat more "role-play-y". This isn't about realism, it's about getting players to really be able to imagine what their character is going through. A result like "his thrust pierces your mail - your belly is all wet and sticky" seems a lot cooler to me than "he hit you for 5 damage". Currently, I rely entirely on my own imagination to generate results on the fly, but I always find random tables help with spurring inspiration.

I've included a bleed-out mechanic that adds a certain tension to combat and post-combat medical attention. I had been working on something when I came across this on Metal vs. Skin, which is a pretty elegant solution. I think I'm going to go with what I'd been working on (detailed below), but Metal vs. Skin's is pretty cool, and worth checking out.

So, what I've come up with here is pretty complicated - I'm working on simplifying it. I don't think many people will find this useful because of that, and that's fine. I'm mostly just spitballing here.

The game I'm running right now is a low-magic, low-combat game where fighting should bring devastating consequences for one or both parties, and for that kind of game, I think this might work well.

I'll be playtesting this over my next few games and refining it. If any combat comes up...
Hit locations
  • legs 1-2
  • torso 3-5
  • arms 6-9
  • head 10
Wound levels (i.e. severity) 

Use this table to interpret your damage rolls (explode your damage dice, so on a natural 6 roll another d6 and add that total. Continue in that fashion until you don't get a 6.).

1-3: Flesh wound (no mechanical effect, risk of infection, still requires treatment or risk increases a lot) - 1 wound level
4-6: Serious flesh wound (will bleed out without treatment) - 2 wound levels
7-9: Severe wound (bone, tendon - bleed out and disability without treatment) - 4 wound levels
10-12: Mortal wound (major organ or arterial involvement, dismemberment or decapitation - rapid death without rapid treatment) - 8 wound levels
13+: Instant death ( heart pierced, spine severed, brain stem destroyed, head cut off)


If you take more wound levels in one round than your Con score, you immediately collapse and are hors de combat.

Bleed-out time

Once you're wounded, you start the bleed-out timer.

Each wound level moves you one space down the bleed-out track:
7 days / 1 day / 12 hr / 1 hr / 30m / 15m / 10m / 5m/ 3m/ 2m / 1m (6 rounds) / 5 rounds / 4 rds / 3 rds / 2 rds / 1 rd / Collapse (Death in 1m)

Once your time is up, you collapse. You now have 1 minute until death.

First Aid

After a battle where you get wounded, you're going to need First Aid. This is handled abstractly, and requires someone with some knowledge of First Aid. Fighters and Burglars are assumed to have knowledge of First Aid.

First aid is sufficient to stop the bleeding of any Flesh wound, Severe Flesh Wound, or Severe Wound. Move back up the bleed-out track if you receive First Aid for a wound.

For Mortal Wounds, surgical care is required.

First Aid requires:

5 minutes / wound level
First Aid Supplies

First Aid supplies consist of things like clean water, rags, splints (if bones are broken), knives, fire (for cauterization).

Surgical Care

Surgeons were known in the Medieval Era, and knew much, much more than many would think. See my recent article on Medieval Battlefield Medicine for more on that.

If you've suffered a Mortal Wound, you will die unless you receive surgical care. This requires 1d6 hours, a trained Surgeon (training to be a surgeon in the Medieval era was much like today - it took about a decade of combined classroom and practical learning), surgical tools, dressings, etc.


You can heal 1 wound level per wound per 2 weeks of rest, if you're getting proper medical attention. Otherwise, you heal 1 wound level per wound per 4 weeks.

Obviously, some serious wounds will never fully heal - a chopped off hand is not going to grow back.

Infections / fevers

For every wound (not wound level) you have that hasn't received prompt proper medical attention, you have a 1-in-6 chance of getting a serious infection in the next week. So, total your number of wounds and roll a d6 modified by your Con bonus. If you roll is equal or less than your number of wounds, you develop a serious infection, are feverish, and more or less useless.

For wounds that have received proper medical attention, you have a 1-in-20 chance per wound of developing a serious infection.

More to come on infections and disease, this is an area that I want to do a lot more work on, so this is very preliminary.


  1. I like this, especially for the kind of campaign you are describing, and it really doesn't seem all that difficult to run, especially compared to some other games. Wound levels work a lot like the health systems of games like Cyberpunk 2020, with a universal sliding scale of damage.
    While this would need tweaking for a lot of high fantasy games (i.e.: more heroic adventures and large combats, etc. Where characters should be able to stay conscious more effectively), but for anything with human-level characters I would definitely try this out.
    What I wonder is how this would scale with level. Would you depend on better or magical armors, potentially with damage reduction? Or would there be some system to expand the number of wound levels or damage it takes to move between them?

    1. In my system, Fighters get more Defence (analogous to AC) as they level up.

      Just like real life, though, people don't get any sturdier as they get more skilled.

      This is definitely for a gritty, high lethality campaign, though - for a more heroic game, I might recommend sticking to hit points.

  2. What about blunt weapons? I've seen broken fingers, toes, jaws, and arms in bouts and they really get folks attention and were they fights to the death who would have died wasn't hard to figure out.

    I've also seen someone being a show-off perfoming a weapon kata with a cheap sword sharened just past the factory edge slap themself in the leg; it was a long not very deep wound but it still required many stitches. Despite all the blood it was a fairly light wound. The show-off learned to listten to other folks say "uh don't do that with a sharepened sword until you've had a lot more practice."

  3. Definitely snagging this.

    @JDJarvis, due to the rather vague nature of the descriptions, there is nothing to indicate one way or the other that it primarily intended to used with trenchant weapons.
    You can get dismemberments with blunt weapons, you can cause cuts with blunt weapons, case in point there is a 17th-18th century pug game that involves a stick with the winner being declared by drawing an inch of blood from the other man's head, this is also why pro boxers get vasoline smeared on their faces to protect protect from cuts. Blunt weapons can and will cause internal bleeding.

  4. Question: A character takes a mortal wound (8) will bleed out in 5 minutes (dead in 6). If First Aid takes 5 min / wound, he'll be long dead before you finish.

    One of the things I've done is have random and secret bleed out times. This creates more time pressure among the PCs as they won't know if somebody is ok or about to die until after combat is over.

    1. I was thinking that once you started receiving first aid, I'd give you a gimme and pause the bleedout timer, just to keep things simple. But I do kinda like the idea of someone being so badly hurt that they're beyond saving. It's something that bears more thought.

      Random and secret are both good. On the secret front, I haven't explained the details of the system to my players, so it's kinda always secret!

  5. I like this a lot, though I find it funny that you write "continue until you don't roll a 6."

    If you roll two 6s in a roll it's instant death. No need to keep going. =P

    Come to think of it, it's actually impossible to get a result of 6 or 12 using this method. Did you take that into account when determining the ranges? (flesh wound has a range of 3, while serious wound has an effective range of 2)

    1. Damage reduction is applied before checking the wound level, so you should generally keep rolling, even though the odds are very small of rolling more than two sixes in a row.

      And while 7 and 12 are going to be less likely, they can occur either through damage reduction or damage bonuses.

    2. To whit, since implementing this system, I had a character in a game decapitated by the tail of a giant salamander that rolled three sixes in a row, despite the character's 4 points of damage reduction from their plate mail, resulting in a 13+ once dr was accounted for.

  6. Hi Charles,
    the more I read of your system the more I like it. Like the secret bleed out time.
    I have some questions regarding your wound severity table, mostly about scaling for size:

    Are all your weapon dice d6?

    Do you vary the wound severity table for different mass/size opponents?
    ie different effect of 13+ on a bull elephant or a rat
    and the other way:
    is there greater chance of 13+ wound from giants attack / lesser chance from a rat bite?

    Is it true to say that your wound severity is a combination of damage dealt and physical location?
    so 13+ on a leg hit cannot have hit the foot/toes but would presumably have amputated the leg, cut the femural artery.
    Again this would seem to need to be differentiated with size/mass difference... destroying the dragons tail may not kill the dragon
    while smaller opp may have multiple location hits from one strike.


    1. I missed this comment when it was posted.

      Yes, I use only d6's for damage, but small weapons use 2d6TL and two-handed 2d6TH.

      I'm still working on varying this for non-humanoid opponents (which are rarer in my game than most others).

      Wound type is a sort of common-sense thing based on body part and severity, so yeah, mortal wound to leg would be a serious arterial involvement if not total dismemberment. The exception to the system is "instant death", which, from my research, can only result from the listed things (i.e. brain stem, spine, heart destroyed).

  7. Magicians wouldn't know something about First Aid, too?

    1. My concept of a Magician is as someone with a great deal of esoteric knowledge, also perhaps languages, classics, theology, etc., but little practical, hands-on, real-world experience.

      So no :)