A New Horror Damage Idea

Here’s another post for the May of the Dead blog carnival put on by the Going Last Gaming Podcast. I was recently thinking about how to handle damage in a horror game. Naturally, it depends on what sort of horror game we’re talking, and I’m overly fond of Delta Greens-style games (at least when they actually respect the “horror” side of action-horror.)

In my ideal horror games, it starts by emulating Unknown Armies: the players never know how badly hurt their characters are. The GM keeps track of that secretly, which means two things:

  • The players can never fully calculate the risk factor of a given moment — not just because they don’t have the numbers, but because they’re relying on the GM to tell them what they perceive due to pain, injury, etc. Which could always be better or worse than how the body actually is.
  • Having the communicate through description rather than through statistics makes for better horror.

But that comes with a problem: persistence. being told an awesome bit of description won’t help with traction unless we record it — we’re not physically experiencing our characters, and another exciting thing can (and for some people with attention span disorders, certainly will) cause us to forget our character’s state.

You ever have that moment where everything is suddenly wrong because you remembered about an injury, but you’re in the thick of narrative? “Wait, you couldn’t have run up the hill, your leg was injured…shit, uh, let’s not ret-con the last 15 minutes, just remember for next time.” Yeah, that. So recording it is still to our advantage.

We can record experiences just as easily as we can record numbers, like so:

1: Fresh, undamaged

2: Chest clawed

3: Shoulder shot

4: Leg ripped off

So when the rules state you’re injured, the GM determines that (see the next part) and describes what happens. You then draw it on the part of your character sheet that has a body outline. There could be space underneath that for other descriptors, like “acid burns on right arm.”

Even psychological ones like “I think I’m seeing ghosts” could be recorded, in a space underneath.

(I’m certain I’ve seen this idea — or at least parts of it — before, but I cannot recall where. Maybe the chart for Godlike? Or Deadlines?)

As for damage itself, I have this crazy and possibly unworkable idea: first of all, as with Unknown Armies, the damage is hidden. That means the GM does all damage rolls behind the screen, from and to the Threat.

People can get scared of all sorts of things if they’re only experiencing part of the story — like hearing a bunch of dice rolling, rather than just one, and wincing. That makes me want to play with disinformation in the form of making unpredictable damage:

  • 1d6
  • 3d6
  • 2d10, pick the highest
  • 5d8, take the two lowest, describe intense agony — the pain is worse than the wound
  • roll 5d6. Damage: 20, regardless.
  • 2d8. Describe no pain or wound, aside from a weird goo on the skin where it came into contact and some numbness
  • etc.

The goal isn’t to be cute, but to attempt a representation of the alien nature of what the team’s facing. If one week you’re up against something and you hear four dice rolling when it tries to eat your face, the next week you’re up against something radically different, four dice shouldn’t feel the same.

Now, I don’t know what the baseline health is, and whether I’m looking at a countdown system like HP, or some sort of wound threshold system where every X wounds, you have to make an increasingly more difficult unconsciousness/death check. I’m leaning toward the former, to keep it slim. If the latter, it’ll be something the GM does, I think. I dunno.

I would take the same approach to defining the Threat’s reaction to weapons:

  • Firearms: 3d6
  • Knives, etc: 2d6
  • Flesh: physical contact with bare flesh is extremely violative. 4d10, keep top two. Apply same damage to attacker.
  • Fire: 1. But it’s very afraid of it.
  • Salt: a large amount of salt on its “skin” will immobilize the muscles around that area

This would be flexible enough to allow a GM to figure out what the hell to do with a player comes up with some different way of harming.

– Ryan


23 Responses to A New Horror Damage Idea

  1. John Harper says:

    I like it!

    For the wound threshold thing, maybe there’s a roll the PC can make to keep going if the GM says the wound puts them down/out. And maybe there’s a roll the PC can make to lessen a catastrophic wound. So the GM just continues to say what happens, and the player is the one who monitors when to make toughness/grit/fortitude rolls, since they’re the most motivated to save the character’s bacon.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I’mma chew on that. Can’t argue with the emotional impact rolling that on your own is.

      – Ryan

  2. Gareth says:

    I think you’re remembering the ‘fill in damage on an outline’ from Puppetland.

    I’m unconvinced of the virtue of keeping damage hidden – there’s something to be said for BIG NUMBERS AGH THAT WAS HALF MY HEALTH. Maybe show the players the dice you’re about to roll, but roll them (and do dice tricks) behind a screen?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I never played Puppetland, which has been something I’ve wanted to correct for a while now.

      Normally, I agree regarding secret information like that. But years of playing horror — especially Unknown Armies — has shown me that this technique rocks on toast. Not that it’s for everyone.

      I wouldn’t want that in my D&D game, for sure.

      – Ryan

  3. metaDM says:

    I love this. As far as health, I dig life bars that double as a condition track from healthy to death. Dunno if you read DCCRPG yet but they do a cool thing with their random tables. The lower numbers are less bad, higher numbers are terrible. DCCRPG uses scaling zocchi dice d4->d6->d8->d10->d12->d14->d16->d20 but you could do something similar with dice pools. would be cool if you could be in a shock/unconscious state and rose one last time do shoot a bad guy or save someone else like you see so often in horror flicks. You mental conditions sound cool too. you cood choose between them like, you take a claw mark to leg or a menntal wound like you must immediately flee the room the monster is in rest of game, you cannot aid any teammates or you have the overpower urge to procreate no matter how great the danger.

    Just throwing shit at the wall here.

  4. metaDM says:

    Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG.

  5. metaDM says:

    Please say “defecate in your pants” is valid damage type.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Everything under the sun is open, except for anything that forces a complex reaction from a character — so, yup, “shit their pants” is on the table. But I would personally only put it on a monster than manipulates bowels. Still, all is fair game in the horrified, unnatural world. :)

      – Ryan

  6. Jesse Coombs says:

    I LOVE the idea of an illustration. I think visual representations of characters on character sheets is a bit untapped. (I’m using something similar for my second game.) I wonder if players will personify more with the wounded image rather than lowered numbers. Could be scary.

    The sound of dice being rolled: also smart. If I were to boil it down, I’d secret-roll one die the first time a character is hurt. The next time, add a die. So the more hurt they get the more cumulative dice you’re rolling. If any come up as a one, then shit hits the fan. The more severe the blow, the smaller the die.

    You’re smart. I tried making a horror damage system using a single d6 and a sharpie. It was weird.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Man, the idea of having damage itself escalate is rich. I don’t know if I want that to be always what goes on, but putting “and each additional time, add 1d10 to the pool” or something would also be disturbing as fuck. Of course, if I keep the scheme above, what that die means can also vary.

      – Ryan

    • Pat Gamblin says:

      Hm, that’s really interesting. If it was part of a system where a single attack has a chance to kill the character the first time they’re hit (but maybe not a huge chance), having wounds add more dice to the next damage roll could ramp up the likelihood of death a bit further each time. In your example, maybe 1s indicate severity. The more that come up, the worse the effect. The more wounds taken, the more dice rolled.

      I gotta think about that more.

  7. Pat Gamblin says:

    I really dig the whole idea of visually-represented injuries. Just wanted to say that.

    The idea of each monster having a set of damage results appropriate to it and the things it can do reminds me of something someone said about designing a monster (wolves I think) for a Dungeon World game they were thinking about. I think that was it, my memory’s a bit foggy. It was the idea of the wolf having not just a single damage move, but other moves, like ‘Drags victim away from the other PCs.’ This may be different from what you meant above, but I could see maybe something similar. Some of the results on the list are different levels of damage, some are other effects that aren’t strictly damage, but do nasty things to the victim.

    I may be reading things wrong, though.

  8. Judson says:

    For Threat rolls, I’m reminded of the old OTE trick: the GM always rolls 6 unmatched (i.e. different colors) d6s, and knows ahead of time which ones count.

    Regarding non-statistical damage, what about the old Sorcery! books? Seems to me that they’d occasionally say something like “turn to page 14, but you can no longer use your right hand.” The outlines are neat, but if there should be a rigid color result as well.

  9. David says:

    I love the idea of the using the dice themselves as misinformation along with a constantly shifting set of rules for how the damage works. I also like the idea of players using a similar mechanic for when they damage monsters – that way they are never sure how effective they are. GM tells them roll X dice, doesn’t explain why or how success will be generated. Players may think more dice or bigger dice have more effect – which could get them to make some bad assumptions.

    Jesse’s idea of escalating damage intrigues me too – being wounded means you risk more damage? Yeah, these are good tools.

    How do you address secrets and their impact on table dynamics? I’ve never played UA (something I need to fix) – does this come up?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      You know, those tools are just in my head. I don’t know where I learned them from. I suspect they’re play-gained techniques that I’ve picked up from other people using them, rather than being told their ins-and-outs. Which has got me thinking. Hmm.

      – Ryan

  10. Chris Czerniak says:

    I love this idea. I’ve played a fair share of ORE and other games with hit location but I like the organic feel of just drawing wounds onto the character. I can’t help but feel that playing with different colors would be fun, too.

    Not too sure what you mean about the hidden damage rules. I understand how UA works but how does damage relate to the drawing?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Huh, I hoped the post made that clear. Just because I say something as a GM doesn’t mean everyone will keep that information in their heads. Thus, recording it. But since you’re recording numbers, you need to record some other way.

      – Ryan

  11. Sean Nittner says:

    I super love the descriptive damage along side a illustration to record it.

    I have the same issue with “sanity points” used in any form. Use them and you risk reducing the terrifying narrative to a bunch of numbers. Don’t use them and people forget “Oh yeah. five minutes ago I saw proof that the dead can walk the earth!!!”.

    Justin Evans used a cool sanity tracking system where each player had a deck of cards to represent our insanity (different decks for each character) and each time we failed a sanity check, we flipped a card. It had a spooky bit of narrative and a new aspect to replace or former horror aspect (this was Fate).

    The aspects worked like consequences, so while flipping a card didn’t actually make the consequence worse, it did give the GM the ability to free compel again.

    Great stuff man!

  12. afategm says:

    this seems like it would work really well for fate-type systems as well, I’m thinking about giving it a try going forward in the weekly dresden game I run at a FLGS

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’d love to hear your experiences with that, since Fate relies on the players knowing how much stress they take in order to trigger consequences or whether to invoke aspects.

      – Ryan

  13. afategm says:

    I’ll know how it worked out in a couple hours, I’m not sure how well it would work for a payer, but from the GM’s point of view I think it will work spiffy since I plan on using it with a plastic sleeve & dry erase markers so I can do stress boxes & just scribble on consequences:)

  14. afategm says:

    lol… or my players will go out of their way to avoid combat for a change. Anyways I had every intention of still using the stress track & consequences, just doing little scribbles to represent the consequences. I think it would have worked great with mooks & such