Rob Hobart

Author, Game Designer

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Heroes of Rokugan I

Heroes of Rokugan II

L5R Homebrew

Wounds and Death Part 1

When L5R 1st Edition came out, it shocked players with its lethality – not just the fact that PCs had very limited numbers of Wounds (that concept had been around for a long time, going back to the 1970s, but tended to be found mainly in sci-fi and horror games like Traveler and Call of Cthulhu), but also the fact that the Wound Ranks/Wound Penalties system imposed a bleakly realistic degradation of capability on injured characters, a notion almost completely unknown in fantasy RPGs up to that time. Much of the unique tone of the game was created by this system – though, as I’ve noted, it also created problems with its internal clash between heroism and random mortality.

(In this regard, it is instructive to read James Clavell’s pseudo-historical novel “Shogun,” which influenced early editions of L5R. In Clavell’s book, the faceless samurai troops – the equivalent of low-Rank PCs – die in job-lots every time there’s a fight. If you play L5R 1st Edition strictly “by the dice” with no GM mercy, you’re pretty much playing those guys.)

John Wick is famous for talking about how much he hates the concept of “hit points,” and his later indie designs abandoned the concept -- as have many other Narrativist games such as FATE. L5R itself, as I noted, has moderated the base system’s harsh lethality in a number of ways – adding an additional Wound Rank, adding a “Earth x5” Rank, switching from die-penalties to less debilitating TN penalties, and adding the ability to negate Wounds with Void Points.

However, to my mind these modifications were going after the problem from the wrong direction. They were trying to fix things from the Wounds/reactive side of the issue, but the more I’ve thought about the problem over the years, the more I’ve become convinced that the source of the trouble is on the other side of the equation: The random damage rolls.

Why do RPGs use random rolls for damage? After all, you’ve already got uncertainty and dramatic tension from the attack rolls – why add another step, one that slows down play and introduces all sorts of chaotic, unpredictable, and frustrating effects into play? (For example, it is not uncommon for a seemingly-decisive hit to be neutered by a mediocre damage roll, or vice-versa.) The short answer is that RPGs roll for damage because that’s what D&D did (and still does). And the reason D&D rolls for damage is because D&D started its life as a wargame, and wargames roll for damned-near everything in order to simulate the chaotic, unpredictable nature of warfare – especially tactical warfare.

Of course, D&D quickly grew beyond its wargame origins to become the first RPG (well, unless you count Metamorphosis Alpha, which I don’t), and countless others followed in its wake… but the “roll for everything” approach which D&D inherited from its wargaming roots stuck around and became the standard for the new hobby. Only in the last couple of decades, as Narrative game designs have multiplied and proliferated, have RPGs really started to free themselves from this mentality.

So L5R 1st Edition had everyone rolling for damage, because that’s what RPGs did. And we’ve been struggling with the consequences ever since.

Once I decided this was the real problem, I started thinking about ways to approach damage and Wounds – in my own home-designed RPGs and then in L5R -- that would be less random and more narratively interesting. Ironically, one of the things that inspired me was the flawed but interesting design of 7th Sea. That game had a convoluted system of first rolling damage (“flesh wounds”) and then having the targets roll Brawn to resist their flesh wounds, the end result of which was to generate a few discrete “Dramatic Wounds” whose total number was compared to the character’s Brawn stat to determine if he was crippled or taken out. A typical character was weakened/crippled after taking 2 or 3 Dramatic Wounds and taken out (though not dead – this was 7th Sea, not L5R) after taking 4 or 6; for the very strongest character possible in the game, the numbers were 6 and 12.

It suddenly occurred to me… why bother with all that earlier die-rolling? Why not just specify how many Dramatic Wounds an attack inflicts? (Amusingly, Wick would later have the exact same idea – his 2nd Edition of 7th Sea used a similar mechanic.)

The moment I thought of doing this in L5R, I loved it. “Wounds” would now be distinct things rather than “hit points by another name”, the amount of math and die-rolling in the game would be sharply reduced (in the process, creating “room” in the design for combats to be Contested Rolls), and Wounds could be directly tied to die penalties and compared directly to Earth to determine crippling/death. I also liked the idea that this eliminated a lot of the finicky arguments over weapon Damage Ratings – weapons could now be simplified into a few broad damage categories, with only a handful of special rules to represent unusual weapons like kusari-gama.

After trying this idea successfully with my own home-made RPG design, I applied it to L5R roughly as follows:

-- Attacks inflict a “base” of 1, 2,, or 3 Wounds, depending on the weapon used. The standard “Medium” weapons such as swords, spears, and arrows inflict 2 Wounds; “Heavy” weapons (the Crab stuff) inflict 3, while knives, unarmed attacks, and the various small/weird/eccentric weapons are categorized as “Light” and inflict 1. -- In keeping with the concept of callinng Raises after the roll, every margin of 10 by which the attacker beats the defender’s roll inflicts an additional Wound, unless the attacker decides to use the Raise for something else. (I actually came up with this specific mechanic for combat long before I developed my other refinements of the Raise system.)

-- Each Wound that a character suffers iis a 1-die penalty to Skill rolls. So a character with 3 Wounds is down 3 dice on all Skill rolls, turning a 7k3 roll into a 4k3 roll. (The specification of “Skill rolls” is important – and in case you’re wondering, casting spells should be a Skill roll, Spellcraft/Ring. More on that later.)

-- A character whose Wounds exceed his EEarth x2 is Down, unable to act under normal conditions. At that point, another hit will kill him. And a character whose Wounds exceed his Earth x3 dies instantly. If you want to go just a bit tougher/grittier, apply these effects when the Wounds equal these levels, instead of when they exceed them.

-- If one wishes to retain the “Void tto negate damage” rule (probably a good idea if we’re going Narrative and not grimdark), a Void Point negates 1 Wound.

-- A character at the start of his turn may negate his Wound/Down penalties and effects for one Round (e.g. until the start of his next turn) by either (a) spending a Void Point, or (b) making a Willpower roll at a TN based on how many Wounds he has. Depending on how harsh you want to be, this TN could be Wounds x5, Wounds x10, or some variant thereof. Regardless, this rule represents a PC gritting his teeth, summoning his chi, and going into heroic mode. (A corollary to this is that I think any PC who does get killed should automatically get a final action on which they can spend any and all remaining boosts.)

A few sub-aspects of this idea that may be of interest…

-- If damage is no longer rolled, what hhappens to the Strength Trait? Answer: It is now an attacking Trait, used for Heavy Weapons (that Hida +1 Strength finally makes sense!), Polearms, and perhaps other weapons as well – Staves might be appropriate, for example.

-- Although this approach to weapons andd damage makes weapons much more “generic,” one can still add flavor in a number of ways. For example, chain weapons would have the ability to make Melee attacks “at range” and to entangle foes; also, certain weapons could be put into weaker or stronger categories to make them more distinctive, e.g. the ninja-to is probably a Light weapon, the Masakari axe is probably Medium, a Dai-Kyu arguably should be Heavy, and so forth.

-- Some of my playtesters objected to thhe greater damage-dealing power of Heavy weapons, on the grounds that “everyone will use Heavy weapons.” I didn’t agree with this assessment, since I felt the correct statement should be “power-gamers will use Heavy Weapons” and I don’t tailor my designs to the abuses of power-gamers. However, there was another aspect of my approach – namely, my reworking of Kata – that I felt would significantly counteract this tendency if it did occur. (More about this later.) Regardless, it seemed to me that if we weren’t going to just have all weapons inflict a generic 1 Wound per hit, there needed to be some sort of representation that a dai tsuchi was more likely to cripple or kill you instantly if it connected.

-- The ability to inflict additional Wouunds by beating the opponent’s roll by margins of 10 means that a highly skilled/capable character can be super-deadly with any weapon. Some players will be fine with this, but others may feel that it devalues the distinctions between weapons too much. The rule can be tweaked in various ways if desired – for example, I had the rule that Light weapons can’t inflict extra Wounds or can only inflict 1 extra Wound, and also experimented with capping the maximum total Wounds with any weapon by the attacker’s Void Rank.

-- Finally, note that it is possible forr characters, especially high-Earth characters, to accumulate so many die-penalties from Wounds that they are functionally helpless despite not being “officially” Down. I am actually okay with this. A high-Earth character is harder to kill, but shouldn’t be super-human – and the above-mentioned “fight through the pain” options allow all characters to continue participating in fights when they are badly hurt. However, if you really dislike the idea of a high-Earth character getting rendered nigh-helpless by large numbers of Wounds, you can always opt to cap the die-penalties at 5 or so.