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Debilitating Conditions at the Table

Last Survival – Art by Filip Storch – Licensed for the Dreamchaser RPG

Thirty minutes into the session, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, our unlikely heroes finally catch up to the malicious war band that ransacked their village. In the events of a single hour, our characters lives were forever changed by the savage pillaging for their war effort. They didn’t just steal gold and weapons from the village. They stole the lives of the people our characters cared for most. They may as well have stolen our characters’ lives as well. It was never going to be the same for them ever again.  

One bad die roll into our party’s fateful clash with their campaign’s most dire enemy and a player character is near death. A fate arguably worse than death at the table, the player character is now incapacitated and unable to act unless they “push” themself. Unfortunately, this isn’t a game with magical healing and we’re just thirty minutes into the game session at the start of a big scene.

How do you keep that player engaged at the table when they are resigned to their current fate? When they are resigned to the notion of “What CAN I do?” or “I’ll probably fail with a -1 die penalty to all my rolls.”

Rules as Written

I run a lot of different RPGs. So, I’m inclined to follow the rules as a GM and to see where the system takes us. I want to know what experiences the mechanics bring out in play. It isn’t like me to play with the same group very often, so I can’t always rely on pegging my players for their play styles. Whether I’m running games at conventions or online, I’m always catering to a large swath of different players that rotate through. As a game designer, I like the looks or insights I can take away from the variety of players I get to see at the table.

I don’t know about you, but I have a handful of horror stories at the table that stem from debilitating conditions. Depending on the game, this could be called harm, damage, trauma, stress, fatigue–you get the picture! Many games penalize player characters for getting hit, for rolling bad, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (as if the GM had no say in that). While I never miss hit points in games (they can seem so inconsequential, especially as they rise and rise), I’ve found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place as a GM. How do you help a player get enough spotlight at the table when their character is heavily restricted by penalties like -3 dice (out of 4)? You know, the kind of modifiers that render player characters null, their actions void.

Character death is almost easier. The player isn’t in such a difficult bind to figure out how they can contribute–how they can play.

These are the one-size-fits-all moments when a game system kind of betrays you (as written). It’s when the system, like some kind of Master to their pupil,  hands over the reins to the GM and says, you deal with it. These moments need a fine touch, a skillful storyteller’s hand, and some preternatural judgment. In other words, they are easy to fumble.

Once you know what this looks like at the table, you can see it coming. Not from a mile away, but just before it happens. At that point, you can’t necessarily avoid it unless you fudge the rules, but you do have enough time to make the “sacrifice” shine at the table. You can encourage the player to soak up the moment and roleplay the heck out of it. You can slow things down in the narrative and help to prompt the player to make the most of the moment. But, what then?

Let’s call the player Katy. I want Katy to be involved. I want them to act. Instead, they don’t know what to do. They stare at their sheet and see that any action they take is likely to fail due to the harsh penalties stacked against them. They resign their character to give up and fight again another day. But, the group still has so much to do–and the show must go on!

In theory, I love the idea of debilitating conditions. Player characters need to be threatened and put in difficult situations. Debilitating conditions remind players that their characters are mortal. They add risk. They force players to problem solve–to act. Until they don’t.

Player characters need to be threatened and put in difficult situations. Debilitating conditions remind players that their characters are mortal. They add risk. They force players to problem solve–to act. Until they don’t.
Unlike simple hit point systems, there are a great variety of debilitating conditions that can add flavor and description in addition to damage. They give a player more detail to work with. You didn’t just suffer a wound, you are now bleeding and disoriented. Lose two hit points per round until you stop the bleeding and suffer a 1 die penalty to any checks that require your character to think critically or notice details. These effects further define the experience, they’re evocative, they cater to the imagination. What’s more interesting, take 3 damage or having your character blinded in one eye (for the scene)?

The rules are here for you (GM), they are a tool, not law. Rule Zero, you see it in the beginning of many RPGs tucked in the “What is Roleplaying” section. As a GM learning new games, I feel like you have got to try out the rules first, right? Step in the mud and realize what to do better next time. But, I hate apologizing at the end of a game session for how I let the game rules dictate the amount of time a player actually got to play. You did something cool, you took a chance, and now you don’t get to play unless I retcon or fudge the rules in front of the players (removing an element of risk from play).

So, what do I do?

What do you do when the game has decided their character has done enough…

Voices of Reason – Art by Pui Che – Commissioned for the Dreamchaser RPG

I have a friend that once told me that you have to pace each session so that truly dangerous moments only happen towards the end. I remember thinking, that is ridiculous! Why should every meeting start slow? Does that mean that GMs need to hold their players back from the most dire moments, too? Should I pepper in obstacles to pace play in fear of a bad roll?  Not to mention, I hate being predictable! How long will it take for my players to catch on?

Now, I’m not so sure. Running a lot of one shots, I generally find myself following some sort of three act structure. Is that so different? I guess it would only be weird when used for subsequent sessions, when players are already in the thick of the action. Are you like me, always reaching for a cliffhanger ending?  If it has teeth, have you already set yourself up to fail? Clearly, I’m still working through this.

Going Forward

Setting clear expectations: At critical moments, take the time to explain to players what is on the line for them. We often do this with player characters but we don’t always step back to talk about how this could affect the player themself–how it could affect Katy.

The best advice? You should probably hold back any penalty that is going to totally debilitate a player unless the moment is right. Blind for a round? That’s ok. -2 modifier to hit? No big deal. -4d to all rolls (out of 5)? You may as well kill the character–or at least knock them out. Save the crushing blows for when the time is right, in the story and at the table.


How do you avoid players removing their character from the game?

How do you encourage a player to play when their character cannot fight (flashbacks, moral support)?

Do you have tricks for how you pace play to keep your players safe?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Debilitating Conditions at the Table"

#1 Comment By aetherspoon On February 22, 2021 @ 9:32 am

The c-word used in the title of the blog post and throughout it is generally considered an ableist slur. Perhaps you should rephrase things?

#2 Comment By Pete Petrusha On February 22, 2021 @ 11:42 am

Thanks Aetherspoon for pointing that out. I hadn’t considered that. I changed the word to debilitating to be more respectful.

#3 Comment By aetherspoon On February 22, 2021 @ 1:40 pm

Thank you! The content was otherwise great, so I appreciate that.

#4 Comment By Pete Petrusha On February 22, 2021 @ 1:57 pm

You’re welcome! Thank you for saying something. 😀

#5 Comment By Blackjack On February 22, 2021 @ 11:47 am

When a character is disabled or killed quickly in a combat scenario, I agree something has gone wrong. But it could be any of three things:

1) The player made really poor choices.
2) Terrible luck of the dice gave this result.
3) The scenario was poorly designed.

I list #1 first because IME lots of game-table tragedies stem from players being foolish. Sometimes players just won’t take the game seriously. Other times they take it seriously but didn’t understand the risk. The former, there’s not much to be done about. The latter is a miscommunication problem. I head off most of those mistakes by warning players, both in-character and by calling their attention to mechanics (e.g., “The rule for Jumping that 30′ chasm gives you about a 20% chance of success, are you sure you want to try?”) before they have their characters take an unusually large risk.

#6 Comment By Pete Petrusha On February 22, 2021 @ 12:01 pm

Do you feel like it is your responsibility to get that player back into the game quickly as a GM? That’s really what I’m struggling with. No matter their choices, we are all here to play a game. I don’t want a player feeling sidelined for more than ten or fifteen minutes, even if they made a poor choice. The problem is when 10 or fifteen minutes turns into an hour because you don’t want to skimp on the “epic” scene for everyone else.

#7 Comment By Blackjack On February 22, 2021 @ 3:01 pm

I see it as my responsibility as GM to design an adventure that keeps players engaged. That is different from your proposition of rushing players back into action if their characters have been sidelined as a consequence of poor choices. I led with issue #1 above because that really is the source of the problem of many of these situations in my experience. Furthermore, it’s my experience that when I try to bend the rules to help a foolish or selfish player escape the consequences of their actions, it irritates the other players. “I’m playing by the rules, how come Tony gets a free pass?” “You let Tony reroll, I should get a reroll, too.” “You’re showing favoritism to Tony!” “I see this game is not really serious; people just clown around and are given unearned rewards. I’ll find another group.”

#8 Comment By Pete Petrusha On February 22, 2021 @ 3:13 pm

Yep, that’s the rock and the hard place! I don’t want to cheat the other players by speeding up a good scene or by fudging rules that make players lose a sense of risk. I also don’t want one player sitting out most of the game session, either. Thank you for your comment!

#9 Comment By Logophylia On February 26, 2021 @ 3:02 pm

I’m curious, when you describe a player who “just won’t take the game seriously”, what does that behavior at the table indicate?

I know that sometimes I have an idea for the theme of a game, like ordinary people struggling against great odds, but my PLAYERS just want to be Big Damned Heroes.

Is it possible that what we as GMs may see as poor choices or not properly seeing the risks may be a signal that the players want to make bigger actions or tell a different story?

I think it’s worth considering if the Debilitating Conditions are a STORY element, a rules-artifact, or a “punishment” that we are meeting out because the player “didn’t play the game right”. If it’s a story element, then overcoming it or changing your actions because of it can be very interesting, but if it’s either of the latter, it bears consideration that it may not be our responsibility as a GM to “get them back into the game” and more a question of “why were they removed in the first place?”

#10 Comment By Pete Petrusha On February 26, 2021 @ 3:55 pm

That’s a great point! Especially, if you haven’t checked in with your players in a while to see what it is that they want out of their game. In a campaign it is easy to lose some players at a fork in the road or just due to a change in mood. I’m sure 2020 had an influence on some gaming groups and the kind of content they wanted at the table (less doom & gloom).

#11 Comment By CYnistrategus On February 27, 2021 @ 10:52 am

I don’t know if there are other games like it, but EABA leans into the action trope that the heroes do their most momentous work the closer to death that they get.l, and so they get bonuses. It’s a reverse death spiral. That would help with these issues.

#12 Comment By Pete Petrusha On February 27, 2021 @ 9:58 pm

Interesting! Thanks for the tip Cynistrategus, I’ll have to dig up a copy. 😀

#13 Comment By Zach w. lorton On March 2, 2021 @ 11:08 am

I love it that RPG systems don’t normally dictate what the PCs can do *between* rolls. I ran a short D&D campaign a few years back, and we didn’t run into too many situations where characters were sidelined, but there were plenty of opportunities for them to abandon one another. Thankfully, all of them kept by the side of at least one other PC during times of combat. There was a moment when someone rolled a 1 for a stealth communications check, and ended up poking himself in the eyes. He was debilitated for most of the scene, but never completely down and out, so he was able to get some hits in. He also took a bit of damage and missed a couple shots.

I very much prefer narrative-driven RPGs to stat-driven for this very reason. Sometimes the rules surrounding the way the characters interact in relation to their stats are too narrowly defined.

#14 Comment By Pete Petrusha On March 2, 2021 @ 2:33 pm

That’s a great way to put it, “too narrowly defined!” 😀