How do character creation, binary-vs-wounding Hit Point (HP 📖), and morale systems interact?
Nestled in my blog post is what I consider the important point:
I suspect that players view the time it takes to make a character as directly proportional to the perceived durability of their character; Dice and random elements are less likely to take out of play a higher durability character than a lower durability character.
If your game has a long character creation (or you put a lot of time into your charatcer creation), make sure you understand the durability of your character. As written, characters in Old School Renaissance (OSR 📖) games are not durable, Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition (5E 📖) characters are more durable, and Burning Wheel characters are more durable than both.
Yet, OSR games telegraph this fragility. You die at 0 HP (or somewhere close to 0 HP). Prior to that, you are at full efficacy. Note: In some variants, critical hits do not do additional damage. That is a feature.
D&D 5E obfuscates durability. You die if: damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum; Or you die if you drop to 0 HP and then gain 3 failed death saves before stabilizing (and you can gain failed death saves by when you sustain damage). At low levels, the specter of instant death looms—Especially when you include critical hit damage. As in all editions of D&D, until you hit 0 HP, you are at full efficacy.
Burning Wheel, you die when you sustain a Mortal Wound and you don’t have—or choose to not spend—a Persona Artha. For someone to inflict a Mortal Wound on your character they’d need to typically get 5 successes above the number of successes you got; And your armor would need to fail you as well. Along the way, as you sustain minor injuries, you lose dice from your dice pool, and must make Steel tests.
The design decision of binary-state HP is a valid design decision. It is hard to enter into a proverbial death spiral—Where hurt compounds on hurt, and its hard to take action. It remains incumbent on the player to assess, based on murky information, whether they should press on or bow out.
In OSR games, the point of no return is clear; Don’t get within one weapon strike of 0 HP. Some incarnations in the OSR do not deal extra damage on a critical hit; In other words, playing the odds becomes far easier. You have something solid from which to make a decision. In D&D 5E, that line is less clear— From the action economy, it often makes sense for your character to drop to 0 HP and let healing magic pop you right back up.*bleck*.
The rules for wounds should telegraph the impact of sustaining a wound. In Burning Wheel, you make a Steel test. Failure means you have one of four options: “Stand and Drool”, “Run Screaming”, “Faint”, “Drop to your knees and beg for mercy”. None of those are attractive options, but the rules inform the player “Something serious has happened. Right now, you can’t press on. Consider your options.”
Enter the Morale Check
With its fight to the death mentality, D&D 5E is a system lacking a de-escalation mechanic. You fight until one side collapses. OSR games bring front and center the rules for morale. Yet morale is something for non-player creatures.
I’ve introduced the optional Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG 📖) morale mechanics for non-player creatures. I like it, as it provides an unbiased and random mechanism to determine the response of non-player creatures. I’ve circled around adding morale related mechanics for player characters, but have held back—There is an assumption that characters are near super-heroic. They dive into the fray, unscathed (until they hit 0 HP) and fight ever on.
A tactical group should shift towards triggering morale checks; Hit hard early in the fight. Without a morale mechanic for Player Characters (PCs 📖), they push fights hard; Again falling back to the “Oh well, if I drop to 0 HP, someone will shoot a bonus action heal my way, and I’ll be right back at it” mentality.
D&D has a long history of not forcing morale type checks on PCs—except for fear spells. Burning Wheel puts this front and center with Steel tests; PCs and Non-Player Characters (NPCs 📖) alike.
And here-in lies the connection:
If you are interested in character durability—in building out and seeing a character play out over a long running campaign—then look to how game system supports this desire. OSR games provide clear, albeit stark, guidelines. 5E guidelines are more ambiguous.
Without a morale mechanic for PCs, players are left navigating the more convoluted death conditions (eg. things that take characters out of the game) without de-escalation mechanics such as morale and it’s sibling reaction rolls.
The solution? I’m looking for my game to provide tools in 5E that further telegraph that durability. I’m not entirely certain 5E is the game for me. It is close, but the behind the screen Dungeon Master (DM 📖)-ing in 5E creates a far greater cognitive load than many other games I’ve run. The Steel Thyself mechanic I introduced, honor’s player agency with their characters, while providing a mechanism to increase durability and draw attention to the subsystem that triggers when a character drops to 0 HP.
What are other options that you see? Is this a problem for your games? Drop me a line.