Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Conditional Injury Deep Dive

Check out Douglas Cole's Site Here
If you’ve followed my material for a while, you may have noticed something of a love affair I have with the works of Douglas Cole. At one point, one my patrons joked that the general topic poll was “What Douglas Cole article do I want Mailanka to talk about this month?” It’s not really personal; I’ve gotten to know him and he’s a great guy, but this is purely business: the material he puts out regularly hits exactly the right notes for me, and reshapes how I run games. I’ve used his material in Cherry Blossom Rain, G-Verse and, yes, Psi-Wars.

So, this month, my Patrons voted for A Deep Dive into Conditional Injury, the latest optional rule by Douglas Cole that made it into one the last pyramid issues to see print (Pyramid #3/120). It entered Psi-Wars canon officially as a rule in the Action Vehicular Combat system, where I use to greatly simplify vehicular damage, to make normal vehicular damage look an awful lot like GURPS Spaceship Damage, and to more closely track vehicular damage as a series of destroyed systems, rather than an ever mounting escalation of concerns. Today, I’m going to be looking deeper into the article, its implications, what I’ve learned since I started using it, and in what ways we could spice it up.

I’d also like to add that in working on this article, I had a chance to speak to Douglas Cole himself about it. I’ll note some comments he made throughout the body of the article and clarify some points. One thing that Douglas wanted clarified was that he didn’t playtest these rules. Thus, if you wanted to use these rules, I wouldn’t worry too much about sticking to exactly what he wrote because he rigorously proved that they worked. Rather, see the article as a detailed exploration of an idea.  

Also, if you're not already aware, Douglas has a kickstarter program that's coming up.  If you like his stuff, or you like what you see here and are curious to explore more of his ideas, check it out here.

The Basics

Before we go much further, I want to explore how the actual rules of Conditional Injury work. As usual, when I do these sorts of Deep Dives, I need to walk the line between spoiling the article so completely that you don’t need to read it, and discussing abstractions that leave you lost and confused unless you have the article on hand. Thus, in this case, I’ll be showing what it looks like to use the system for someone or something (we’ll use an HP 10 person and a huge, 3000 ton, HP 1000 spaceship).

The first thing we need to do is track their “Robustness threshold.” In the case of an HP 10 person, that’s an RT of 4; for the HP 1000 spaceship, that’s an RT of 16. Then, when the character takes damage, we find the “Wound Potential” of the attack by comparing the damage to a chart. We then subtract this Wound Potential from the Robustness Threshold to determine wound severity.

Anything below -7 we can discard. For an HP 10 person, no damage can be ignored; an HP 1000 spaceship, however, could ignore up to 84 points of damage.

At -6, we inflict a “Scratch.” This is enough to inflict some form of shock, but does nothing more (and doesn’t even “accumulate,” if you’re using that optional rule). For an HP 10 person, that’s 1 damage, while for our Spaceship, that’s between 85 and 120 damage (or, roughly, 10% of its HP in both cases).

Wound Severity -5 to -3 is a “Minor wound.” These can “accumulate” and inflict reasonable shock. For a human, this is 2-3 points of damage, while for our spaceship, this is between 121 damage and 360 damage.

Wound Severity -2 is a “Major wound” and this can stun a target. For a human, this is 4-6 damage, and for our Spaceship, this is between 360 and 600 damage. Thus, this is any damage that is about 50% of your HP.

Wound Severity -1 is “Reeling,” and this inflicts the halved move of being at almost no HP in the normal system. For a normal human, this is 7-8 damage, and for our spaceship, this is 601 to 840 damage.

Wound Severity 0 to 1 is “Crippling.” This can knock you unconscious and does bad things if applied to your limbs (which gain a +2 severity, thus you can achieve this level with what would be a Major Wound to the torso). For a human, this is 9 to 18 damage, while for our spaceship this is 840 damage to 1600 damage: in short if you take about as much damage as you have HP, or more, you’re in a bad way.

Wound Severity 2 to 3 is a “Mortal Wound.” You could die from this damage. For a normal human, this is between 19 and 36 damage, while for our spaceship this is 1801 to 3600 damage. In short, if you take about twice as much damage as you have HP, you could die.

More damage than this (more than 36 damage for a normal human and more than 3600 damage for the spaceship) will kill you dead, no questions asked.

For healing you concern yourself with only the worst injury (though you might differentiate per limb) and rather than heal X HP per day, you heal a specific injury in a given amount of time (for example, a Severity 1 wound takes 3 weeks to heal). Special tricks like regeneration or medical skills reduce this time.

Wound accumulation is an optional rule and not one I think I understand well, but the idea seems to be that each time you take a wound equal to or less than your current level of wounding, you roll HT at an inverted penalty (a -5 severity wound means you roll HT+5; a severity +1 wound requires an HT-1 roll. If this roll fails, you increase “the wound Severity by one level.” This might mean the new wound (that is, if your worse wound is at wound severity 0 and you take a -5 severity wound and fail your HT roll, that wound becomes -4), but I think its more likely that your worst wound increases by a level (ie, you are at Wound Severity 1). When I discussed this with Cole, he confirmed my approach. It’s best to think of your character as having a single abstract wound level, at least per location. If you have one Crippling wound, you can ignore all the minor wounds you get that don’t accumulate, other than shock effects and such.

When it comes to Pain you can use the normal “Shock” rules. It has values for those. But if you’d like, it has a new, optional rule for treating pain as an affliction (which is nicely unifying) as well as rolling HT to resist pain. Once you’ve been wounded, you roll HT in an attempt to resist (lessen) the affliction, but once you have the affliction, you suffer it for the rest of the battle. You can take a concentrate maneuver to ignore the penalties from your wounds, but this lasts until you take another wound (it doesn’t say, but I expect it doesn’t matter what the severity level is; if you’re at Wound Severity -1, and someone Scratches you, your concentration is broken and you’re in Terrible Pain again).

Bleeding covers the slow collapse of a character thanks to too many wounds. In this case, you take the worst wound level of each location and roll HT-2 per wounded location with a penalty equal to the inverted value of the wound severity. So, if you have a -5 severity wound on your hand, and a +1 severity wound on your chest, you roll HT+3 (HT-2+5) to resist bleeding on your hand, and HT-3 (HT-2-1) to resist bleeding on your chest. Failure costs FP and reduces maximum FP.

Example of Play

Let us suppose we have a DF knight. Such a character has 14 hp and thus a Robustness of 5. He’s armed with a broadsword that deals 2d+1 cut or 1d+1 imp, and he has sufficient armor for DR 5, but not in all locations.

He’s fighting a bunch of dagger-armed goblins (1d-3 imp) who each have a Robustness of 4 (DF3 lists them as HP 10, so they’re as tough as average humans. If you wanted smaller, nuisance goblins, they’d have a lower robustness), and an absolutely massive Hobgoblin armed with a maul (3d+5) and a Robustness of 6.

Let us suppose that our knight leads with a slash against a goblin. He averages 8 points of damage, which is Wound Potential 3, but cutting attacks add +1, giving us a total wounding potential of 4. Against a goblin, this is severity 0 attack, which is Crippling. After a single slash, such a goblin is at -4 for shock or must roll HT or suffer Agony (which effectively puts him out of the fight). If he succeeds, he’s reduced to Terrible Pain (-4 to all DX and IQ rolls). The goblin must immediately check for unconsciousness, and if that passes, check for knockdown and stunning. Even if it passes all of this, if you’re using the optional rules, to reasonably function, it’ll need to take a further Concentrate action to eliminate the pain penalties. Thus, an ST 14 knight vs an HP 10 target without armor is pretty close to an instant “game-over.”

Imagine the goblins attack the knight. Most will fail to penetrate the armor. However, imagine one manages to get through or strike at a gap. The minimum damage for an impaling weapon is one, which is wound potential -2, which isn’t even a scratch for our knight (he has a robustness threshold of 5). Fortunately for the goblins, impaling weapons gain +2 wound potential, increasing their wound potential to 0, which gives the wound a severity -5, which is a minor wound. The knight is either at a -1 from shock or most roll HT or suffer Mild Pain. The attack is irritating, but not devastating.

Imagine the goblins continue to stab at the knight. Each such successful stab inflicts either the -1 shock penalty or the HT roll vs mild pain. Most annoying! If we use Wound Accumulation rules, each additional attack requires an HT+5 roll; a DF knight has HT 13, so he’ll fail only on a 17 or worse, which means he can shrug off most of these stabs; they’re annoying, but not very dangerous. If he fails one, then he escalates to a Minor Wound with -2 Shock or an HT roll vs Moderate Pain, with a success reducing him to Mild Pain. At this point, we’re beginning to break his concentration and focus a bit. Incidentally, stabbing his hands, arms, feet or legs won’t do much better: they get +2 to severity for the purposes of gross effects, but their wound potential always drops to 0, which is the same as he’s suffering on his torso.

Let us imagine that the Hobgoblin lands a blow on the knight. 3D+5 averages to 15 damage, but our knight has DR 5, reducing it to 10 damage. This is a wound potential of 4 vs the knight’s robustness of 5, giving him a Severity -1 wound, which means he’s Reeling. His movement is halved, he must check for stunning and knockdown, and he either suffers a -4 from shock or roll HT or suffer Terrible Pain (Success reduces him to Severe Pain). He’ll survive this, but he won’t be happy.

Imagine the Hobgoblin lands a second such blow! Our knight is, once again, Reeling. He must roll for stun, pain, etc, but must also roll HT+1 (14 or less) or increase the wound severity, in this case, to Crippled (in which he needs to roll for consciousness). On average, the hobgoblin would need to hit the knight ten times to cripple him, but it’s also possible for the goblins to do it at this point too. The knight will shrug off their attacks an average of 50 times, but they’re probably also stabbing him a lot more.

Let’s say the knight stabs the Hobgoblin and does so through the vitals with an Extra-Effort attack. This would deal an average of 6 damage, or a wound potential of 2. An impaling attack to the vitals will add +3, giving us a wound potential of 5 vs a robustness of 6, which inflicts a Severity -1 wound, meaning the Hobgoblin is Reeling. The knight might follow up with an extra-effort slash (average of 10 damage, or severity 4) to the arm (+2 for gross effects), inflicting a Severity 0 wound, which cripples the arm. Then he might make a similar swing for the neck, inflicting another Wound with Severity 0, and this knocking the Hobgoblin, perhaps, unconscious.

After the battle, let us assume the knight has a Severity -5 wound to the arm and the severity -1 wound to the torso; he likely has other wounds, but these are the only ones that concern us. We check for bleeding. The arm wound will cause him to lose fatigue once every minute on a failed roll against HT+1 roll. His torso will bleed on a failed roll against HT-1. He can bandage the chest wound with a First-Aid +1 roll, and his arm with a First-Aid+5 roll, halting the bleeding. He can further treat the arm-wound (but not the chest wound); success reduces it to a Scratch. Healing from the -1 severity wound requires 10 days of natural healing; a physician could lower this to a week; the Rapid Healing advantage could lower it to 5 days; and a magical healer… is pretty hard for me to understand; if we use the “time recovered” alternate rule, then a healer who would normally heal 6 HP worth of damage reduces the recovery time to 4 days.


So, having seen it in action, what are some conclusions that we can draw from it? How would it play in game?

Tables, Tables

The first thing I notice when I play with it is that I need to check tables a lot. For things like a character’s robustness threshold, this isn’t really a problem because HP doesn’t change that often: you consult the table once and you’re done. Damage is a bigger concern, because it’s variable. If you roll 3d+5 and you could inflict anywhere between 8 and 23 damage which is… how much Wound Potential? We have to check! The answer, as it turns out, is between 3 and 6 wound potential.

Personally, I’d be inclined to remove damage variability, determine the average value and write that down as the wound potential: a 3d+5 cr weapon becomes wound potential 5; 1d daggers become wound potential 3, etc. This way, we check only once. We can get our wound variability out of the Variable Injury optional rule, which tends to favor characters with higher HT, and possibly a +1 or -1 to wound potential with a secondary random roll (1d, 1-2 = -1 severity, 3-4 +0 severity, 5-6 +1 severity). This, however, does not scale well with armor (one might say that you simply find the DR on the wound potential table and then subtract that from the severity, so in our case, DR 5 applies a -2 to severity, but wound potential doesn’t work like that: if the character takes 1000 damage, that’s wound potential 16; 995 damage is still wound potential 16, not 14). So we’re left with some problems which might require us to always look at a table.

We can get around these problems a bit by noting that there’s a hard relationship between wound severity and HP. In practice, if you take less than 10% of your HP in damage, that’s a Scratch. If you take half or more, that’s a Major wound. If you take your HP or more, that’s a Crippling wound. This simplifies our calculations and means we don’t have to check tables every time someone gets hit, but we lose some nuance (such as the minor wounds, or the fact that you can be crippled when taking slightly less than your HP in damage).

Finally, we can hand the tables over to the PC. Each character can know what their wound thresholds are. For example, for our HP 14 knight, rather than worry about his Robustness Threshold, we just give him the following table:


Wound Severity




Minor Wound (-1)


Minor Wound (-2)


Minor Wound (-3)


Major Wound (-4)








Instantly Fatal


Total Destruction

Then we can just take damage (“He rolled 15 damage”) and subtract DR (-5 DR) and see the results (that’s a 10, so he’s Reeling).

Damage Threshold Tiers

One comment I see a lot for the Conditional Injury system is that it makes people “more resilient.” In one sense, this is demonstrably untrue: the minimum damage necessary to kill our HP 14 knight in Vanilla GURPS is 28, while in Conditional Injury, it’s merely 25. The difference, though, is that in conditional injury, our knight can take 24 damage over and over again without dying. In vanilla GURPS, you can kill the knight with 28 separate 1 damage wounds, while with the Condtional Injury system, you need a minimum of one attack that deals 25 damage in a single blow.

This means maximizing your damage becomes your chief priority. Weaker characters who specialize in lots of smaller attacks become much weaker than a single character who inflicts a catastrophic amount of damage in a single attack.

This is partly the fault of the wound accumulation system and other systems similar to it (such as the bleeding system). In Vanilla GURPS, 1 point of damage is 1 point of damage, but in Conditional Injury, 1 point of damage is exponentially less threatening than 10 points of damage. For example, if you take 1 point of damage and it’s a scratch, you can take an infinite number of scratches without dying. If you take 2 damage, there’s suddenly a finite number of wounds you can take before you die, though because you’re rolling at HT+5, the numbers involved necessary to kill you clock in at the hundreds (you’ll fail once every 50 rolls or so, and you’ll need to fail about 7 times before you die, requiring 350 hits before death, on average). If 10 damage is a 0 Severity wound, then you’ll accumulate wounds if you fail an HT roll (which is much closer to 50%) and you only need to fail once before the wound becomes mortal.

One thing I did to solve this was remove the Wound Severity modifier from wound accumulation rolls. You’ll fail to stop wound accumulation with a -5 severity wound as easily as a +1 severity wound. What protects you from dying from accumulated -5 severity wounds is the amount of time it takes for them to stack up into a mortal wound, not how difficult it is to fail the HT roll.

I talked to Douglas quite a bit about wound accumulation. He liked my proposed solution, but he also had a second one, which you could use in place of my optional rule, or in combination with my optional rule: Save vs DEATH!

The problem, as he points out, is that HT is generally too good. The damage system in vanilla GURPS ensures that you’ll be knocking on Death’s Door soon enough, but if someone wants to kill you, in my experience, most of the time, it requires bringing you to -5×HP unless you get very unlucky. At HT 12, you’ll fail a survival roll only once out of four rolls, on average, and if you have much higher than that, you can functionally ignore death rolls (and consciousness rolls will only cause a problem because after 30+ seconds of success, you’ll have to fail at some point), especially if you have luck. He introduced his Defend vs Death to make higher levels of HT more meaningful, instead of “Everything over HT 14 is basically the same” and to make those rolls more meaningful. They could easily do the same for wound accumulation, making it harder to avoid increasing your damage threshold. The main reason people tend to dislike systems like Defend vs Death is GURPS already makes it too easy to die, but that’s a function of how HP works. If you combine it with Conditional Injury, then you need to take some serious damage, or accumulate a lot of wounds, before you risk death, and then you’d want to meaningfully risk death, as opposed to passing a roll you know you’re going to pass anyway, especially when it comes to dealing with NPCs.

I do want to note that I’m neither criticizing this nor praising it. You just need to understand how it works. It creates situations where when you box with someone, often inflicting 1-2 points of damage, that not a lot will happen other than making the other guy hurt and, if you’re lucky, accumulating into a more serious wound. In practice, you’ll tend to launch small attacks until they hurt your opponent enough that his defense suffers or he’s unlikely to attack for the turn, and then wind up and hit them for a real injury. In ultra-tech games, which balance character HP on a knife’s edge of damage vs DR, this system might make it more forgiving for characters who get hit by multiple shots at once: if one phaser burn cripples you, then three phaser burns probably still leave you crippled. If, however, you never have enough damage in your arsenal to really kill your target in a game that expects to be lethal (such as certain horror or war genres), this sort of system can become tedious pretty quickly.

The Wound, not the Damage

One pertinent thing I noticed pretty quickly while working with Conditional Injury was that I didn’t need to track damage anymore. Once you know the effects of wounds and how wounded a target is, that’s all the information you need to know. This makes handling NPCs a lot easier: instead of knowing that THIS orc has 8 hp left, and THAT orc has 7 hp left, you know that both have a Minor Wound and that’s all you need to know. If they take another Minor Wound, you can roll for accumulation and if they take something worse than that, then that becomes the wound they have (“Oh, now THIS orc is Reeling”).

It also tends to focus attention on the wounds themselves. You can’t kill a target with a thousand cuts, so you focus on the one or two injuries that matter “the most.” This can become especially interesting when you make those wounds interesting. I’ve seen a system similar to this in Legends of the Wulin, and Conditional Injury reminded me a great deal of the GURPS Spaceships system where damage could damage or destroy subsystems. In both cases, each time you seriously damage a target, something interesting could happen. In Legends the Wulin, the character suffers a chi condition that might represent a gross injury (a broken arm, a cracked rib, dazed from a head injury) or something weirder (“He punched me so hard, he knocked my chi off: I’m no longer able to use my Wood chi!”). Spaceships does something similar: a wound might cripple your guns, or open up a hole in your armor, etc.

The problem with HP-based games with GURPS Spaceships or Legends of the Wulin is that the interesting bit, what wounds you have, quickly becomes eclipsed by your HP totals. For example, if I damage your ship for 75% of its HP, sure, I just destroyed one of your systems. If I do it again, well, the fact that I destroyed another system is less relevant than the fact that you failed your HT roll and your ship is non-functional. With this system, if we say every such hit disables or destroys a system, then we sit there ruining one another’s systems all day long until one side can no longer fight back.

We still run into the wound accumulation problem with this set-up, though, especially if we don’t have some access to some superior damage (ie “I’ve got him on the ropes, now it’s time for my ULTIMATE ATTACK!”). If you can never do enough damage to kill your target, and he has enough HT to brush off wound accumulation, then you’ll just keep firing until you destroy all of his systems, but inflict no “structurally meaningful damage.” That might strike a lot of players as particularly tedious.

Another suggestion that came up in our discussion was letting go of the notion of fighting to the death. Sure, it can happen, but generally, history has shown that once an opponent has been wounded to incapacitation, which doesn’t necessarily mean unconsciousness, most fighters turn to more important matters rather than hacking the guy to death (which can actually take a surprising amount of time, certainly more than the mere seconds of GURPS combat). Once you’ve taken a Severity -1 or 0 wound, you’re basically done. You can keep fighting, maybe, but your opponent should have no problem at that point taking you out, especially if you use the new pain rules in Conditional Injury. Instead of requiring NPCs to “fight to the bitter end,” have them surrender, or flop to the ground and mewl piteously after they take a nasty wound, which is realistic. Death tends to come in the form of bleeding out if they don’t receive medical attention.

A Game of Pain

In addition to focusing on the wound in combat, players can start to use the wounds to their advantage to defeat their opponents. You begin to concern yourself not with whittling your opponent down, but with destroying their ability to fight. If you pair this with the new wound system, bleeding and the Last Gasp, some interesting synergy arises.

Let us say we have two martial artists fighting one another. They both have a Robustness of 5 and their basic “Defensive” punches inflict an average of 2 damage (-1 Minor wound). Their light, defensive attacks are enough to inflict a severity -5 (Minor (-1) wound) on one another, their more committed attacks are enough to inflict severity -3 (Minor (-3) wound), and they both have Finishing Power-Blows that can inflict severity +0 (Crippled wound) but require a few seconds of wind-up and leave the attacker vulnerable.

If we assume their combat skills are roughly evenly matched, then they’ll block most attacks and if they get hit by a light, defense attack, they can probably succeed at their HT and ignore the pain. If they fail, though, that creates an opening: suddenly they’re at -1 to DX, IQ and Self-Control. They can stop and concentrate, but defending while concentrating is a risky task and they cannot attack, which means their opponent is free to All-Out Attack and inflict that even greater severity wound. Thus, they’re better off going with All-Out Defense until a lull, forced by the Last Gasp.

With the Last Gasp, once an attacker has weakened his opponent, he has a choice: he can keep pummeling him at the cost of his own action points and/or fatigue, or he can take it easy and move slowly, allowing his opponent to recover from his pain more quickly, but possibly getting a bigger hit in.

If the character can launch a committed or all-out attack and get it through their opponent’s defenses, then they’re suddenly in a lot of pain, and such wounds might accumulate over time into a Major wound, which could stun them. While stunned, they’re vulnerable to the lethal “wind-up” attack, which would cripple them and end the fight.

So by combining these, we can create a system where fighters try to outmaneuver one another not just physically, on the battlefield, but also physiologically, using pain and fatigue to overcome their opponents. These two systems combined go a long way to making HT a more vital part to winning a fight: high ST characters can inflict the damage necessary to trigger serious wounds; high DX characters can get around defenses, inflict pain more quickly and target harder-to-reach vulnerable points, and high HT characters can outlast their opponents, shrug off damage and pain, and afford to take greater risks or absorb more mistakes.


Is Conditional Injury any good? Well, I wouldn’t be using it if I thought otherwise.

Conditional Injury isn’t perfect. People currently complain about how lethal GURPS is, and if you use Conditional Injury, you’ll likely get complaints about how non-lethal it is. You’ll also get complaints about complexity.

Like most of Cole’s best rules, it’s more a toolkit and something you’d need to integrate into your entire ruleset for it to work properly. You also need to work with those implications to create an interesting tactical space, which is often what Douglas is trying to do with his games.

To make full use of this system, I would encourage tinkering with wound accumulation, embracing the long-term pain rules and/or tinkering with additional wound effects (destroyed subsystems, chi conditions, a gruelingly detailed wound chart). I’d also encourage tiers of attacks: light, safe attacks that might trigger a death spiral on your opponent and major, lethal-scale damage that is slow and leaves you vulnerable.

I would be cautious about directly importing it into any GURPS game you’re running without some thought. Games that already have highly lethal attacks might see their combat simplified; GURPS Action games should be okay, and Monster Hunters might perform well. Games that focus on whittling your opponents down, such as GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, might perform poorly. I’m not sure about After the End, though I think most such games tend to be more worried about bleeding and infection than whittling targets down until they die, and tend to have fairly lethal attacks anyway. With enough tinkering, though, I think Conditional Injury could work well in any genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...