Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Critical Hits: Live Scarred or Die Pretty...

Conan did a lot of fighting.  A lot.  And it strains credibility to think he wasn't cut open a few times.  You know, deep gashes and blood everywhere.  But if he was, it certainly didn't show beyond the occasional, strategically displayed battle scar.  Ditto for Red Sonya who, much like her Cimmerian friend, displayed quite a bit of flesh (because let's face it, they were both mostly naked half the time).  By all rights each should have been a horrific mass of scar tissue.  Not the stuff of sexy, sensual fantasy, but realistic nonetheless... 

So how did two barely dressed warriors, seasoned fighters who put themselves in harm's way with careless abandon, avoid unsightly harm?  Heroism!     

If Conan were a D&D character, he'd be that one guy who somehow avoided death and serious disfigurement through twenty levels.  Sure, historical warriors have gone to their old-age ends with all their parts intact.  But never under so much exposure.  Assuming all of Conan's adventures (comics and otherwise) are canon, Howard's barbarian has seen more combat than a WW II veteran!  And through it all he stayed, well, mostly unscathed.    

So there's a decision to make.  Is your game gonna be the heroic variety where the characters keep their good looks if they manage not to die?  Or is it gonna be a grindhouse affair where there's a 5% chance per battle of looking like a reject from a bloody Quentin Tarantino movie?  Either approach is fine; but it's also important because it gets to the heart of how the experience ultimately feels.  Each has its pros and cons...

Ultra-violent affairs with homemade critical damage tables can be fun.  I mean, there's a visceral excitement to losing an ear because someone somewhere rolled a natural 20.  But it also detracts, considerably might I add, from any sense of heroic, abiding characters and doesn't always map to the sort of fantasy a lot of us like to read and enjoy playing.  I've heard men scream minus body parts.  Only a privileged sadist finds it entertaining.

Oh, and it can be tedious.  One roll in twenty you're stopping combat to hit the tables, stifling momentum.  Yeah, maybe it's kind of exciting the first few times.  But critical injury on a natural 20 happens more often than you'd think -  and it gets old quick.  Frequent grievous injury can also start to feel unrealistic.  Now this can be remedied with sub-tables where disfigurement is only one of several possibilities.  You can do this, but beware if you aren't one of those people (I'm talking me) who isn't keen on breaking play to consult endless charts and tables.  During adventure prep, sure, but it's not for everyone... 

Now the heroic stuff lets you feel like a bad ass just for not dying.  And it's not without its narrative justifications.  I've long held that clerical healing and potions (clerical at a minimum) actually mend visible wounds.  Scars heal, deep cuts vanish.  The works.  And it's simpler because you aren't constantly checking tables.  Even so, it's possible for combat to lose its sense of danger, which isn't necessarily a good idea.  Battle should be scary. 

Again, either choice is fine.  And it can vary from campaign to campaign.  But for the undecided there's always the mixed approach.  It's simple.  Grievous injury is only possible with certain enemies or from certain traps, with effects appropriate to the situation, be it corrosive attacks or sweeping blades that lop off feet.  Moreover, you can offer disfigurement as an alternative to death.  Sure you can live - but now you've lost an eye and suffer -1 to missile dice.  Clerical healing can eventually set things to right; but in the meantime, players give certain enemies (and situations) the respect they surely deserve.

Keep these rare enough to make them a big deal when they happen.  Oh, and when Zarlathan the Lame comes hobbling up on his staff, you can be sure he earned his moniker through something truly heroic.  That demon lord was almost impossible to defeat, but sacrifices were made and the world saved.  Now that's an abiding and heroic character fit for the sagas.  And really, that's part of why we play.  Of course, Robyn and I don't wish this suffering on anyone in real life, so be safe and try to stay in one piece everyone!

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