Sunday, June 4, 2017

How To Design Death

From a game design standpoint, the purpose of a Death and Dismemberment Table is four-fold. 

Death Table as Death Dealer

When players start Losing The Game, the Death Table delivers the most final punishment the game offers: death.  It is probably the most obvious knobs a game designer has when they want to adjust the difficulty of their game.

Actual death is the most permanent form of punishment the system offers.  You don't get to play the character you've grown attached to.  There are smaller versions (unconsciousness, petrification, etc), but Death is the big one.

Death Table as Urgency Modulator

So one of your companions just got dropped.  They're lying on the ground, bleeding out.  How urgent is it that your PC runs over there to heal them?  It depends on the system.

  • Some games, dropped characters always revive as long as you get to them eventually.  
  • Other games require 3 death saves, or negative HP at a certain point.  Either way, these systems allow the other players to gauge how near death their companion actually is, and react appropriately.
  • There's a third option, where a dying character has a small chance of dying each turn unless tended to.  I can't think of any examples, but it's the one that I am going to playtest next.
But think about this when you're writing your Death Table (or the section of your rules titled Death and Dying). Because it has a big effect on gameplay when there are 1-2 characters laying on the ground, bleeding out.  

This has a big effect on how hard it is for a party to bounce back from a losing comeback.  How much do you want to encourage/discourage comebacks?  (And it's easy to say, yeah, comebacks are exciting and fun, but those same mechanics also make near-death experiences feel a little shallower and less impactful.  If the whole party bounces back to full HP within 10 minutes of half the party getting dropped by Gutripper Demons, it makes combat's effects only last as long as the combat.)

Death Table as Behavior Driver

I'm talking about what happens after your character recovers from the near-death experience.  Injuries, basically.

You can approach this from a simulationist point of view, and start thinking about all the different types of injuries its possible to get, then think about how you'd model that in your system.

You can approach it from the maximum chaos point of view: what are all the possible effects I can invent?  

You can approach it from a gamist point of view, and think about what sort of behavior do you want to encourage after a player nearly dies, then think about the fiction that supports it.  This is where I'm at right now.)  You think about what kind of behavior is worth encouraging when the party is getting their ass kicked?
  • Example: if survivors get adrenaline rushes and extra attacks, 0 HP doesn't become as uniformly dreadful.  It encourages (okay, allows) parties to come back from near-TPKs (easier).
  • Example: if survivors get permanent, crippling injuries, it (hopefully) encourages them to retire their character.  But in the short term, it doesn't discourage them from pushing deeper into the dungeon.  If there is no mechanical advantage to retreating and healing up, why retreat and heal up?
  • Example: if survivors get short term penalties, they (hopefully) will retreat and rest until those injuries heal.
So you can build Rules for Dying that incorporate any or all of these possibilities.

Where I'm at right now, I think I want near-deaths to be strong suggestions that a party should get the fuck out of the dungeon and go rest somewhere safe.  (I've mostly given up on having different hit locations and tracking the duration of different, ongoing injuries.  You'll see.)

Death Table as Scar Giver

Near death experiences can reinforce the character's story (i.e. series of comedic mishaps).  if your character is missing a hand, hopefully they can remember where they lost the hand.  They can be used to strengthen a character's identity.

GLOG Death Rules (Version 26)

When you take damage in excess of your HPs ability to absorb it, you roll on the Death Table.  Roll d20 + excess damage and look up the result on the table.

Natural 1 = Regain 1d6 HP.  Gain a cool scar.
5 or less = Prone and Disarmed.
6-15 = Knocked Out. Beaten for 1 day.
16-25 = Dying. Beaten for 1 day.  Gain an ugly scar.
26+ = Dead

No effect beyond the cosmetic.  Write them down on the back of your character sheet.


  • -2 to Attack rolls.
  • 20% spell failure chance.
  • When you roll on the Death Table, add +10 to your result.

Knocked Out

  • At the end of each combat round, make a DC 11 Con check.  
    • If you succeed, you wake up.  (You are still Prone and Disarmed.)
    • If you roll a natural 1, you lose a point from a random stat. 
  • If anyone spends a standard action tending to you, you wake up.

  • At the end of each combat round, roll a d20.
    • Natural 1: you lose two points from a random stat.
    • 2-9: you lose a point from a random stat.  
    • Natural 20: your condition improves to Knocked Out.
    • If you've lost more than two stat points from this injury, you die.
  • Anyone can attempt to stabilize you with a DC 15 Heal check or a DC 17 Int check.  Once you are stabilized, your condition improves to Knocked Out.
Magical Healing

Magical Healing always restores your HP from the regular floor of 0 HP, eliminating any Knocked Out or Dying conditions.  (A character healed for 3 HP will be left at HP 3.)  You remain Beaten, however.


The big driver of behavior here is the Beaten condition.  It does two things.
  • It erodes a party's ability to kill things without diminishing their ability to run the fuck away.
  • It makes future near-deaths much, much worse.
Those two things, hopefully, should motivate the affected player to seek shelter for the night.  I've played removing one of those two bullet points or the other, or making it stacking, but I think it's bad enough as it is.  

Players are free to push onward, but they'll do so knowing that they are putting themselves at risk.

I don't like players dropping to near-death on one turn and then popping back up on the next round like a jack-in-the-box.  Getting dropped to dying is probably going to be at least 3 turns of downtime: one round spent getting out of Dying, one round getting out of Knocked Out, and one round standing up and recovering your dropped sword. Magical healing can shorten this to 2 rounds, and that sounds about right.

Is it too difficult to revive a dying character?  My back of the napkin math says that an average character has ~75% chance to save a person from death, if they act immediately.  If multiple characters are helping, the chance is even higher.  (There is a high amount of variability, though.)

The stat loss should feel awful because dying is awful, but at the same time, the GLOG gives characters three chances to improve a stat whenever they level up, so stats that get lowered tend to not stay low for long.  Stat loss isn't as dire as it would be in other versions of D&D.  This is the part that puts the "mangled fingers" and "concussion" in the fiction.

I also stepped away from my Just-In-Time philosophy of resolution (the effects are tested at the end of the combat round, rather than at the beginning of the players turn) because I want dying to be a little more predictable.  If a character drops from Dying to Dead, I want them to see it coming, not have it pop out of the blue.

This rewrite also has the advantage of being simple enough that I can memorize it, which I like.


  1. Is there any reason you don't incorporate more crippling injuries or permanent disabilities?

    My absolute favorite part of the Warhammer 40k RPG line were the critical damage tables. If you dropped below 0 wounds, you started to take progressively worse injuries that could mean anything from a loss of consciousness to losing limbs or even a very, very messy death. It made dying exciting and potentially had explosive repercussions for your allies around you.

  2. While I am fond of crit tables, magic has a bad habit of making them irrelevant so I can't say I'm sad to see that go. I do like that magical healing can't be used to fuel a pc indefinitely.

    Version 26!? I'm starting to think the GLOG pdf's might be getting a bit out of date. Any chance of a 2e?

  3. I handle death at 0hp by what my players started to call 'elementary staunching'. Effectively it's battlefield first-aid. The first thing is determine CON of the PC who's gone down. This is the number of ten-second rounds until they die dead. As long as their companions get to them in this time, their wounds can be patched. Then they make a CON check; if it's passed, 1pt of CON is converted to 1hp. From then on, normal healing is possible. If they fail they die. Only something like Resurrection will get them back. Obviously if they make a habit of dying their CON is going to irrevocably decline. It means that they never'fully' heal from catastrophic injury.

    I've toyed with making them take a penalty on another stat too, but haven't yet enforced it. This would represent either a physical or mental debility caused by their injury. Maybe they don't quite get mobility back in that arm (DEX) or they have a hideous scar (CHA) or they have something like PTSD (which seems like it could affect WIS). But as I say I've not yet brought this rule in. If I did, I think I'd make it player choice. It's their character, and I think it's fair enough to give them some control over how their character develops. Not so realistic maybe but it is only a game.

  4. What does DC 11 CON check mean?

    1. Roll above an 11 on a d20, adding a constitution bonus to the roll.
      Unless you were being sarcastic in which case sorry.