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House Rules Evolved: Death and Dismemberment

I’ve got limited time to blog today, so here’s a quick post. See my previous house rule updates,Better Battle Tactics and Languages and Fluency, for my House Rules V2.


The Original:

Death and dismemberment started as an amalgamation of the various death rules from a few blogs I follow (Goblin punch, Ten foot polemic, and Hack & Slash off the top of my head). I wanted to simplify things a bit while still using the graphic table of death a la Courtney Campbell. The purposes of this was four-fold. Players would be able to survive more hits, be able to stay involved in combat even while wounded, get some crazy-cool wounds, and create some interesting penalties relating to those wounds.

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Survivability would come into play because it would require on average 4-5 solid hits at 0 hp before a player really risked death. In the vanilla game, the 0 hp threshold immediately drops a player unconscious. They cannot return unless their death saving throw is a natural ‘20’ or they get healed. This often had the effect of knocking the player out of combat, stuck in combat limbo, while everyone else got to continue fighting. This could contribute some tension if a player was risking imminent death, but often would break immersion as players get up from small healing only to be knocked back down like whack-a-mole. A death and dismemberment table keeps the player in combat, albeit with increasingly dangerous wounds, and gives some permanence to having gone down in the first place. By the time I implemented this house rule, my players were already of a high enough level to have magic to heal all wounds short of death nigh-instantly (and even death was fixable given time and a valuable diamond). I was not able to see how the long-term disabilities came into play.

The Problems:

While I can’t deny that the system is cool, it mostly had the effect of making players deathly afraid of going below 0 hit points. They saw that giant table of gore and avoided it like the plague. instead of increased survivability, they simply became cautious to the extreme, taking many rests to heal up. When it did come up, it was often too fiddly and hard to remember. The rules were simply too complicated to be used for how irregularly they came up. Tracking lots of different colored dice wasn’t particularly interesting and although it kept a player who would otherwise be unconscious at 0 hp in the game, it came at the cost of major slowdowns to play, negating any benefit from keeping a player out of combat purgatory. The wounds never became notable, with high-level magic easily healing them. Players were much more likely to remember their paranoid conspiracies of monsters in the campaign world than any cool scars. Jokes held a higher place than joint pains.

The Changes:

My main goal with a revision is to strip death and dismemberment down to the bone. Disembowel it, if you’ll pardon the gory pun. I decided to return to the vanilla rules of death saving throws at 0 hp. Doing this streamlines it with the expected rules and allows me to introduce a twist without overburdening the players with errata. When a player takes a blow that reduces them to 0 hp, they are staggered and only able to take one action a round as they go into shock. Each round, they roll a death saving throw and if they make a DC 10 Constitution save, they regain 1 hp. Once back up to 1 hp, they can see the results of their wounds, that shock and bodily delays had made impossible to diagnose at the time (remember, combat rounds are only 6 seconds each!). Interestingly, this increases the importance of good tactics to triage any wounded party members to ensure they get back above 0 hp as quickly as possible.


Now, players still get injuries, but it is based directly off of their death saving throws. The injury dice are there as reminders of the penalties associated with injury. By combining by the decision of the duration, the severity of the wound, and the location all in one roll, the whole process is streamlined. The injury is decided by dropping a d6 on the body diagram, with higher numbers meaning a more severe injury within the severity category. That same is also used to determine the length of healing time required. Some of this requires some narrative decision making on the spot, but it should be readily apparent what sort of injury occurs based on the attack type and location.


The low saves and simple system makes players a little more hardy, if wary about injuries. Being staggered while at 0 hp keeps players in combat while shock holds their body together until they see just how bad the wounds are, with tension rising the whole time. Reduced recovery times and die-drop chart should make getting injured quicker and more fun.

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