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Thread: Ask a GM [06/09/2009]: Permanent Damage

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    Ask a GM [06/09/2009]: Permanent Damage

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    I want to tackle something that came up recently in my game and I am sure has vexed GM and player alike in many a campaign -- character altering debilitation or disfigurement. This may be something that has an actual game mechanics effect, such as the character loosing a hand, or it might be something that purely affects the image a player has of his character, such as a nasty battle scar. What are your thoughts for or against inflicting permanent damage on a player character?

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    Well, I have never actually gotten to the point where something like this could have or did take place in a game. Usually becasue the group fell apart before the conclusion of the campaign for whatever reason. I would not be against this happening, though I would lean toward it not being something that happens very often. Would seem to take the dramatic effect from it if used too often. Although, I would think that a carefully worded Wish spell could "fix" this condition, however, I am sure that there would be a major cost factor to obtain this.

    Now, in my "Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth" game, there is a character that has some damage that has not been able to be healed by either of the clerics in the party. This is due to the damage was inflicted by a Clay Golem, and the clerics are not of high enough level to heal the damage. This is due to neither of them being 17th level. When they tried to heal the damage and were unable to, the player of each cleric did an excellent job of role playing the situation and were awarded some additional XP for doing such. This situation is as close to being permanent damage in any game that I have ever run, but, the campaign has not ended yet. We will see what takes place as they search the lower level of the caverns.

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    In games where magical healing is available and (typically) abundant in the hands of adventurers permanent damage or disfiguration is a pretty rare thing. There is always a ritual, spell, magical salve, etc. that you can find to cure it. At worst, these things tend to be temporary.

    So, for me, having it be an actual permanent thing relies more on the story and consensus with the player behind the character. If he/she wants his character to be covered in scars from the fights, any healing received does not heal enough to prevent scars. For something worse, missing limbs and whatnot, it's a huge story thing for it to happen, and then a huge story thing for it to fix. Whatever rules impact may come from it is going to be ad-hoc and situational.

    This is definitely not something I expect most rules systems to handle, and also something that I wouldn't ruin a character over in the rules. Some things might be more difficult, but not everything I can consider due to the loss.
    --
    Grimwell

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    As the themes of "risk" and "consequence" are concepts that I always try to keep in mind when running campaigns, events such as dismemberment or "scarring" (physical, mental or emotional) are options that I like to keep open.

    Ultimately, it very heavily depends upon the genre, play style, themes and goals of the campaign. Some genres lend themselves more readily to such permanent changes. Take a dystopian future, street-running type of game like Cyberpunk 2020. It is virtually expected that people get hurt if they get into a fight and that hurt can often lead to irreversible impairments, much like in real life. This is because a game like Cyberpunk tries to keep the brutality and serious nature of combat intact. Have your hand run over by a car and be prepared for some bad news when the doctor starts talking about amputation.

    But there are other games that have a different "tone" to the action and that emphasis a different level of punishment and recovery. In a super hero campaign, a character might have his legs pinned beneath a 20-ton dump truck and then be walking around just fine the very next scene. It's about the context and the expectations of the game.

    In a general sense though, such permanent disfigurations can make for a very dramatic statement and one that can leave your players with amazing stories to tell...if done right. It should usually be very rare that it happens and often only in a moment of very climactic and oppressive action:

    "You burst into the chamber to rescue the divine scepter from the clutches of vile Nazarakt's fortress when you are taken by surprise. Standing beside a gruesome altar with fresh offerings to the dark gods, Nazarakt himself waits patiently, as if expecting your arrival and the scepter is nowhere in sight!..."Foolish mortals! I knew of your plan the moment you left the city walls! Your own king did not even realize that he has been in my service since the beginning! And now that you are here, my curse can finally be undone!"...Nazarakt lifts a single, decrepit finger at you and a stream of hellfire boils around you. You feel the flesh on your neck and face warp and crack as you fall to your knees screaming and struggling to extinguish the agonizing flames."

    Maybe a little melodramatic, sure, but this will likely be a moment never to forget and you can bet that if the evil sorcerer somehow escapes death this time, the character (and player ) scarred by his devilish magic will carry the grudge to his grave.

    Villains are more memorable and exciting if they can actually threaten the players in some way besides simple *death* or *kidnapping a relative* or some such. But if a villain's actions kill the hero's loved and trusty steed...you have just laid the foundation for many sessions worth of gripping, player-driven role playing fun!

    Like all tools, it should not be overdone. But used sparingly and dramatically, it can have an impact on your game that you can't get by simplying rolling 10d6 damage.
    HARRY DRESDEN WIZARD
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    This topic always reminds me of an era in ancient china that has peaked my interest over the years....

    In a battle in 198 A.D. between Cao Cao and Lu Bu, Xiahou Dun engaged Lu Bu's officers Gao Shun and Cao Xing in combat. After feeling dominated, Gao Shun fled. Dun pursued him on horse deep into enemy territory. Cao Xing fired an arrow from a hidden position which struck Xiahou Dun in the eye. Without even letting out a cry, Dun pulled the arrow out of his head (with the eye hanging off of it) and in front of numerous enemy troops he ate his own eye. This action terrified the enemy troops. Most of them fled. Dun in a fit of rage, charged Cao Xing and impaled him right in the face, killing him instantly.

    Xiahou Dun went on to live nearly 22 years after this incident, becoming the top general in Cao Cao's army. He was feared throughout the land.

    Disfigurement is all in how you play it...

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    You have to be caareful how you play this. As previously mentioned, some systems handel this better than others. Also some players handel this better than others. Another thing to consider, is that scars, difigurement, and dismemberment are differant orders of magnitude.

    WARNING: Long winded. Last paragraph is a summary.

    Scars are something that can be worked around, covered up, or even proudly displayed. They affect carracter apearance only, not functionality. Scars are noticeable, but not nessisarily ugly (Ex: Harry Potter). You can work with your players to adapt their character to the change in thier apearance as they see fit, and as previously mentioned, many settings and enviornments have ways to eliminate scars if one choses from plastic surgery to magical healing. In short, scars are customizable consequenses, and you and your players can make as big or little adeal out of them as you wish. An example of scarring: I am currently playing in a Drow campain run by Cyotte5. One of the PCs, through a divine gift, has gained the ability were he can see peoples scars 'glowing' through their clothing. This alows him to get a sense of differant characters histories (do they have battle scars, scars cause their parrents beat them severly. etc...). In fact, some of our advesaries are using a magic ritual to enslave minions for cannon fodder. The use of this ritual results in a scar, and this alows the character to identify these people who are using the ritual with abandon by a simple glance. It has also gotten the memebers of our party to examin weather or not theor characters have scars from their backgrounds and activities, and what those scars might say about them.

    Disfiguement is far more serious. Like scarring, it does not change the physical mechanics of how a character functions, but it radicaly alters their appeaacne in a way that cannot easily be hid, and significantly affects social interacton (ie. roleplay). A good example of this is The Phantom of the Opera. Some characters will be more affected by this than others. Unlike scarring, there are no easy fixes to disfigurement. Disfigurement is generaly too sevear for plastic surgery to totaly correct, nd only the most powerful magics can remove it. That being said, it is possible to correct, but it is still a big deal. Before including this in your campain, you should probably discuss it with the players. Are they willing to deal with this as it happens, or would they withdraw the character? Some may be willing to work with this, others may consider it worse than character death. Ultimatly, you and you players need to decide if this is a viable 'lesser' alternative to killing a charter, or if this is to be considered a penalty as great as character death.

    Dismemberment is a grave and serious consequense, and depending on the system, setting and nature of the wound, it ranges from a dire inconveanience to a compleatly non-functional character. An example that happened to me. I was playing in a supers campain, and was playing a mutant that specialized in infiltration and steath. One of its prized abilities was its ability to mimick finger prints. Second outing with the party was foiling a bank robery. All of the other characters were playing heavy hitting, super tough builds. My character was fast and agile, but did little damage. Like I said, emphasis was on steath and infiltration. The GM felt compeled to use super tough bad guys that could survive a few rounds woth the other PCs. My character could hit them, but couldn't damage them. They could only hit me one time in ten, but that one hit was likely to be fatal. Long story short, the supper-powered battle caused an explosion that blew off my characters hands. No fingerprint power, couldn't pick locks or crack keypads, couldn't use fire-arms (the one potential chance I had to increas my combat output to standard party levels), and was prety much therefore screwed. Cybernetics and magic were not options in that setting. They existed, but were so rare there was no way for my character to get acess to them, in fact the standered was for us to beleave they were both fictional. In this case, the dimemberment was esentualy the same as character death, as their was no way for that character to continue that campain. I wasn't happy about it, but loss of character is a risk you take. I realized that that type of character just wasn't going to work in that champain. Such a charater could not participate very well in the high powerd combats, and that was the main focus of the chamapin, as was desiered by the other players. I had to move on to something else. In that case, the desmemberment was extreamly sever. It doesn't always have to be. For example, a mage looses a leg. Even if he dosn't have the magic or medical technology to replace it, a simple peg leg is not nessisarily game ending. While his mobility will be significantly reduced, it will not overly affect his powers and abilities, which are the critical things that make him a mage. By contrast, a melee fighter would be seriously hampered in his abilities with that loss of movement. Or what about a D&D 3.5 wizard who was to lose both hands? He wouldn't be able to cast spells with a somantic component, and he'd have a hell of a lot of troupble pulling material components out of his spell pouch!

    SUMMARY: Scarring is not to serious, can be a fun roleplaying element with the right player mindset, and is easily worked around if a player decides he/she can't or won't handel it. Disfigurement and dismemberment are far more serious, and you should be prepared to treat them as character deaths. Character death is something risked in nearly all games, and players should be prepared to encounter it. So you should take the same attitude to using disfigurement and dismemberment as you would to character deaths. Shit happens. Some of your playres might surprise you, and play through it. Other will retire the character, but you, and they, should be prepared for them to take that option. If you're not, or you know they will have too much trouble handeling that situation, then you probably shouldn't incluce these consequences.

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    Disfigurement

    This may sound a little touchy feely but I think it boils down to what kind of impact it will have on the players enjoyment. If you think they can handle it and turn it into a cool character hook, go to town. If the player would find the character loses it's appeal then maybe not. How about this. Try it. If they really hate it, provide an NPC with the appropriate "ritual" that can fix it...for a price. If they really hate it, heal them first then collect payment. But if they can hang for a little while then play out an adventure with it hindering them. Hell, if it's done right and received well, they may just decide that they don't want to be healed in the end. Kinda Disney but still cool.

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    I am in agreement with everyone else that in most games disfigurement doesn't normally come up, and probably wouldn't if it wasn't a story point, especially in games with magic all over the place, and healing magic. But for my point, I'm going to mention a game that has no magic whatsoever, Aces and Eights.
    Say your character is shot in the face. Were this shot to do 11 points of damage, he's dead on the spot. But let's step one step down, to 10 points of damage. The effects of that are:
    DEX temporarily -7
    Unconscious
    DEX and LOOKS (yes there's a looks stat, it has a direct bearing on CHARISMA) permanently -3
    Severe Bleeding (extra damage per minute until healed)
    Bullet Lodged (extra damage per day until healed)
    DEX check or lose an eye (reduction in accuracy, among other things)
    CON check or internal bleeding (extra SECRET damage per day if left untreated or undiscovered)
    Gain Facial Scar (had you chosen to begin play with a facial scar, which would harm your LOOKS stat, you'd gain additional Build Points to advance your character, but in this case you receive none)

    If you get a doctor you might just survive... but even that's a long shot.

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    a thief of ours lost his hand, but that was because of his own stupidity. Also, I lost a head.

    If the player brings it upon himself, then I say it is ok. But I wouldn't inflict it unless it is warranted.
    "I'm not going crazy. I'm going sane in a CRAZY world!"

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    I'll chime in and agree that is a matter both of the story and the group's preference. In some games, due to the realities of the system, permanent damage is a GM imposed, ad hoc sort of thing. In others, where the death count in general is high, permanent damage, scars, or whatnot are common.

    In general, I'm against GM's doing things simply to demonstrate their authority. The GM runs the world, picking on the players for the sake of picking on them isn't really in keeping with the fun of a cooperative game. That being said, it is the GM's job to challenge the characters, and therefore the players. The thrill of victory can't be had if there are no penalties for failure. For some groups I supposed scarring or limb loss is a great way to do that. For others simply having the antagonist get away will be plenty.

    As a GM, I tend to apply "real-world" consequences to character actions. That means if my players say the wrong thing in front of powerful character X, they should expect X to dislike them. If they show up outside the hotel of a paranoid vampire and begin planning to stake and kill her, expect her to notice and attack first (yeah, it happened). I also allow for the possibility of phenomenal victory. If my players manage to circumvent some great plot and get loads of XP, treasure, or simply defeat a BBEG I planned on using over and over, great. They did it, they deserve it. I can always make another BBEG.

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    It goes with the job. Hell even KODT has it's one legged dwarves
    Anyway chicks dig scars

    In one of my games the player rolled really low on their Physical Beauty (4) and then later rolled that they were in an accident and ended up rolling an 8 to subtract from the sta. He had a natural horror factor starting out. He made children cry and adults vomit. And the player used it beautifully in his story

    Another example is a Physical Training was beating down a guy with Alter Physical Structure Metal (think Colossus). THis guy had been really nasty during the session and made the player atack and nearly kill another character. One of his big things in aligments and personality was that he was never to betray a friend and he went ape shit on him. Hetackeled him and began to beat him in the head, which was also covered in horns. But that's a PT insanely tough and focused. So even when his 8d6 punches didn't beat the baddies Natural Armor Rating of 17, he kept going, his rage fueling him. I made him roll a pain check each hit as he pounded the guys head into a metal bowl shape. At the end of it he was left with two ground beef nubs.
    Fortunately for him the people he worked for were able ot give him cybernetic hands, but he hated them. PTs are suppose to be purehuman dynamos, human ighting perfections and cybernetics taint this, making them less human, and it gave way to lots of good role playing.

    I have subtracted PB scores for particularly damaging attacks

    I allow magic to rebuild lost tissues up to whatever healing ability the character might have. However if they can't do it in one casting then they do not get the full extent back.

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    I've only used it once, to my knowledge at least. In my Sandbox game, during the 2 Ed. times, one of my players actually had his eye ripped out by a goblin trap, as the party closed upon a goblin camp in a mountain pass. The trap set off the alarm and thus combat ensued. The party did everything they could to help him out but the destroyed eye bit was lost in the heat of combat. Great RP came out of it and everyone involved felt much closer together after the event.

    I would use it if it promoted the growth of the game and was received well by the majority of players.

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    Musing of an Ole Man

    Long ago I played with a DM that did that, we had 1 pc, a fighter loose a hand and continued on, attained several levels like that. I don't do it as a matter of course, but if it seemed relevant and the player understood and agreed I would allow it pending on how it was going or how it happened. If if can be dealt with logicaly I think it is cool.
    Windstar - Escapee from the D&D'ers retirement home. Trust in the Shadows!!

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    I'm with Grimwell here. The normal campaign world is filled with stuff that can 'cure', 'heal', or 'dispel' conditions.

    If a player wants a cool scar, wear an eye patch, have a hook for a hand, or have a peg leg, then that's their choice.

    If a situation comes about that calls for minuses to stats, then those are often temporary or listed as permanent. However, dispel curse/magic or greater restoration normally fixes that.

    So for my worlds, it's normally up to the player whether or not they want to keep or lose something.
    "And then you wake up."

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    Depends mostly on if both the GM and the player can come to some agreement on it beforehand. It is nice for a GM to tell the players that this could happen to their characters and for them to give the GM their responses and opinions. After all both parties need to agree, and therefore be comfortable, to the campaign style of play before they dive right in to character creation.
    "Those who earn the title great do so only by having power and NOT abusing it."
    -Persian Proverb

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