For the most part, RPGs deal with damage in a numeric sense, with the most common being the Hit Point. There are other games that explore different ways to represent physical damage, but for the most part damage is a resource mechanic. Take too much damage, you run out of that precious resource, and you are dead. In the real world, we never take 10 HP of damage, we suffer something like a punctured lung, a broken arm, etc. When we heal, we don’t just get back our 10 HP, we go through a process where bones mend, and tissue heals. Games don’t often reflect this type of damage or its healing. When asked by a GS reader to ponder that, I decided to take a look at lingering wounds, and how they could fit into a game.

Thanks for the Idea

A quick shout-out to Tim B who asked me to discuss lingering wounds, the pros and cons, how they interact with hit points, and how to prevent a death spiral.

Every Chest Wound Sucks

In terms of an RPG, a lingering wound is a type of damage that is taken in the course of a game, most likely in combat, that persists beyond the scene. The damage goes beyond numeric damage, and often takes the form of a negative modifier to future actions.

For example: while fighting a dragon, our hero gets stepped on, suffers some HP loss and the lingering wound of Cracked Ribs. Those Cracked Ribs result in a -2 to all physical actions until healed.

What’s going on under the hood?

So using the example of Cracked Ribs, let’s look at what is going on in terms of mechanics. First, the lingering damage has to be caused. This will depend on the game system, but if the system has numeric damage, then something special will occur for lingering damage to be assigned. Often this is the result of some kind of special attack, like a critical hit.

Second, the lingering damage has a descriptive element, which defines what the damage looks like. Often this is to emulate some level of realism of a wound that can be taken, such as being stepped on leading to cracked ribs.

Finally, the damage imposes a negative trait to the character, such as a negative modifier to some or all actions or reduced movement, etc. This negative trait is designed to emulate in game mechanics what the descriptive part of the lingering damage described. So a sprained ankle may lead to reduced movement, or a concussion might lead to a -2 to all mental tasks.

So what do Lingering Wounds accomplish in a game? My opinion is that they are there to create a level of realism in combat. Numeric damage is an abstraction and often regarded as being unrealistic. Afterall, look at the damage a typical fighter takes in D&D while remaining fully functional until 0 HP. Contrast that to the lingering wound and the effect of that wound. It is a way to say to a character there are other consequences beyond the loss of your resource (Hit Points) and those consequences have implications to other actions.

The biggest challenge to the Lingering Wound is the death spiral, or the persistent penalty that occurs after the wound is taken, and the possibility that more than one lingering wound can be piled onto a single character, making the character a walking array of negative modifiers. Each lingering wound applied creates a drag on the character, and if penalties stack, that drag increases with each successive wound. While this makes things feel more realistic, from a player perspective this can make the game very punitive and decrease or kill any fun the player is having.

Who Does This Well?

My favorite game for dealing with lingering wounds is Fate Core. For those not familiar with Fate, let me provide a brief explanation. For a more detailed understanding check out the Fate SRD.

Consequences (lingering wounds) are a type of damage a Fate character can take. A consequence comes in the form of an aspect: Cracked Ribs, Bell Rung, Twisted Ankle. As an aspect, the GM can invoke them to gain a bonus when making a roll against the player. The first invoke is free, but after that the GM has to use their limited pool of Fate Points to further invoke the Consequence. In essence the bonus reflects how the Consequence complicated the character’s ability to do or resist something initiated by the GM. Finally, there are three levels of consequences: Minor, Moderate, and Severe, and they naturally heal at different rates, taking a scene, a session, or several sessions.

Here is what I like about this system:
– The consequence is a lingering wound that occurs when the character takes too much damage.
– The consequence lasts for a certain amount of time (depending on level) and then goes away (provided you did something to start the healing)
– It does not impose a constant negative modifier, but rather the GM decides when to use it and not use it, and using it comes at a cost.

Where Do They Fit?

I think that Lingering Wounds are a fine mechanic, but not a good fit for every RPG. The mechanic fits best for games that have a gritty tone. A game like Dungeons & Dragons, where the characters are heroic, is not a good fit for lingering wounds. It imposes a level of grit that runs counter to the tone of the game. On the other hand, a noir detective game is a great place for lingering wounds, where we want to see our character suffer a bit while chasing down the clues.

I think if you wanted to put them into an existing game, I would look to see what that added level of realism brings, and make sure it’s fitting to the game and setting and not just a new way to penalize characters.

Some possible uses for Lingering Wounds

So if I was going to hack a lingering wound system into a game, I might go about it something like this…

Escape a fight at a cost

When the players want to escape a combat, that is just end it and say they got away, then one or more of them could take a lingering wound, but no more hit point loss. That lingering wound would last for some number of scenes and then go away.
You can escape the horde of skeletons, but Kor twists an ankle and is at half movement for the rest of the day.

Gain a in-combat bonus

When a player wants a combat bonus they can push their bodies past their limits. That injury would last for some duration and then go away.
You get a +4 on this attack, but in doing so you pulled your shoulder, and all your subsequent attacks are at -1 for the rest of the day.

Succeed with a cost

This is the fail forward mechanic, a way to succeed even when the character has failed their roll. In this case the character pushes themselves to succeed but at a cost.
You failed your roll to cast the spell, but Xanar can succeed at the casting if you are willing to take the Mentally Strained condition and a -2 to all spell checks for the rest of the day.

A few tips about hacking this into a system:
1. Decide on how a lingering wound gets applied. Often a critical attack is a good place to hook this into the system.
2. Decide on how many lingering wounds a character can have, or if modifiers stack. Remember each one creates a drag, and decide how much of a drag you want a character to have.
3. Figure out how advanced/magical healing works with lingering wounds. If Cure Light Wounds can remove any lingering wound, then they are not as severe, and may not have that level of grit you are looking for.

Wrap Up and Questions

Lingering Wounds are an interesting mechanic that can help to make things feel more realistic in your game, and provide lasting consequences to a character’s actions. When done poorly the system can seem punitive and frustrating. Like any mechanic it works best when it supports the goals of the game and the setting.

Are you running a game with lingering wounds? Is it native to the game? Was it hacked in? How do the players react to lingering wounds?