BUILT IN COMBAT OPTIONS
The Combat & Adventuring section of the main rulebook provides
numerous options to make combat more realistic and dangerous
under "Optional Effects of Damage". Various genre
supplements provide further expansion and discussion around
these options and occassionally some new ones as well as appropriate
to their subject matter. Dark Champtions and Fantasy HERO in
particular cover this topic in more detail. Below are my views
on the basic "more lethal" options provided in the
By default damage is "generalized"; its abstracted
to a certain extent rather than applied to a specific body part.
Generalized damage has a lot of advantages; its easier to resolve,
avoids ugly questions of collateral / impairing effects of damage,
works well with Area of Effects (AoE's) and basically keeps
combat at a "higher" level. It has a lot of disadvantages
as well; it naturally detracts from a sense of realism, it makes
called shots largely meaningless, and removes a level of tactical
decision making from characters in combat.
Fortunately for those wishing more grit, the HERO System also
offers an "optional" but well integrated Hit Location
based combat resolution. As you might imagine, the Hit Location
rules add another level to hit resolution to determine where
an attack strikes specifically and then alter damage up or down
based upon what location is struck based upon multiples (including
sub-one multiples such as [* .5]).
Multiples are applied to damage after defenses
are applied, and in addition Stun Multiples are fixed rather
than randomized as they are in generalized damage. Under this
system Head shots do considerably more damage than hand shots,
and so forth. Some locations are harder to hit than others,
as measured by differing to-hit penalties.
Hit Locations are a major and important step towards increasing
lethality in the HERO System and also immediately adds a more
granular set of tactical options (at the cost of additional
complexity in combat resolution), but there are pros and cons,
the most significant of which are summarized below:
- Slows Down Combat: using Hit Locations absolutely will slow down your combat
encounters. Adding an additional 3d6 roll for location and on the fly math to adjust
damage will cause each attack to take longer to resolve. True, if head shots and vitals
are common, the total length of a combat encounter might be lessened in theory as targets
get put down from fewer total attacks, but in practice this rarely works out.
- Encourages Sniper / Head Hunter Tactics: a campaign using Hit Locations favors
snipers optimized to land head shots from afar, particularly vs unaware (0 DCV) targets.
Similarly melee combatants that take penalty skill levels or focused combat levels to
help them make called shots will have an edge over melee combatants that don't optimize
to leverage Hit Locations. Depending on the nature of a given campaign, this may be a
pro or a con.
- Streaky: though some locations
such as head and vitals take more damage than normal, other
locations take less. There is more variance (higher highs, lower lows)
but if you average it all out across all locations and probability of hitting each
individual location over the modifiers, the net effect on deadliness
isn't as great as might be thought.
- Defenses Must Be Tracked By Location: using Hit Locations
forces defenses to be tracked by location, which is more complex
(fiddly, even). This complexity pushes back onto gear tracking, and
thus indirectly also has an impact of encumberance if it is being tracked.
It also is no longer possible to just say "my guy wears medium armor"; more specificity is
necessary...and due to the different benefits of protecting certain locations
this also influences optimal choices for armor to be worn, putting rules over concept;
for instance breastplates, helmets, and some kind of groin protection have mechanical
benefits over other options and selecting armor based on concept or flavor despite
it not offering competitive damage mitigation will "gimp" a character.
If you like this sort of gritty detail, then it is a pro, otherwise it is a lot of
- Called Shots Are All Or Nothing: using Called Shots against Hit Locations
is an all or nothing proposition, which can be very odd in actual
play. Characters that are highly skilled and accurate who declare Called
Shots will either hit exactly what they are aiming at or miss
entirely. Aiming for the head, if you miss by say 1 or 2, you won't instead
hit a shoulder. You just miss completely. This can be mitigated by taking "high shots"
and "low shots", which has the unusual side effect that less accurate characters calling
"high shots" can do greater consistent damage than more accurate characters calling "head
shots". Mechanics over concept strikes again.
However there is another aspect of Hit Locations that must be
considered; it is effectively a gateway to further optional
systems that make damage more persistent (i.e. long term injuries). There are two
separate options for this presented by the rules, Impairing and Disabling.
While these options don't cause immediate death, by making injuries
stick around over time characters become increasingly impaired and thus
subsequent combats become more difficult.
IMPAIRING & DISABLING
These two sets of optional extensions to Hit Locations are similar, with Disabling
being more extreme than Impairing. You can use them together
or individually. Both result in long term damage to particular
body parts; whether temporary or permanent.
The benefits of these rules are it makes combat a very dangerous
affair to enter into and makes for an extremely gritty game.
However, the cons are notable; either option will slow combat
even further, and many players will not enjoy having their characters
get seriously, even permanently messed up.
Most significantly, as the principal
focus of a campaign, PC's are much more likely to suffer
from the effects of these rules than NPC's. NPC's come and go, so
chopping off a leg of a disposable GM puppet isn't really that impactful (usually),
but a PC losing a limb is a significant event.
Wounding is, in my opinion, misnamed. I think of it as "Shaken"
as its effects are more morale oriented. Basically if the Wounding
rule is in effect injured characters have their ability to take
offensive actions inhibited unless they can make EGO rolls.
I've personally found over the years that the Wounding rules
stack the deck versus small groups of PC's since if the
group all take damage in close segments, it can cripple their
ability to react and make a bad situation unrecoverable.
In a larger group this isn't as likely to happen and in fact
encourages a team dynamic as it provides a very good reason
to have teammates -- to cover you when you get hit.
In my opinion this option is most appropriate to the most gritty and "realistic"
of games and not appropriate at all for more cinematic games.
For most types of games I would not recommend this option, as it strongly impairs the ability of individuals
and small groups to sustain against bad odds. But for a squad based game where the
GM wants to strongly encourage acting as a unit, it's a very useful tool. For instance,
running a Space Marines vs Zenomorph in Spaaaace! campaign or a classic brutal Dungeon Crawl
where the GM wants to strongly discourage splitting the party might benefit from these
Bleeding is a more immediate side effect of damage than Impairing
/ Disabling that has a very easy to implement impact on increasing lethality.
Using this option individual wounds can continue to bleed out,
which makes every injury potentially lethal if bleeding occurs
and cannot be stopped. Note that this is different from and
in addition to "bleeding out" when below 0 BODY.
The big con is that this option requires more administrative work to
keep track of damage in discrete increments (per wound), and can thus
slow the game.
The big pro (from a lethality is good perspective) is that each
wound inflicted is more dangerous and potentially harmful, and
it is rarely necessary to administer a coup de gras to a casualty
to finish them off as left untreated they will bleed out on their own.
Allow me to stress that this is a very dangerous option to employ.
I personally consider it to be appropriate for really ultra-realistic,
"normals" level games deliberately attempting to simulate reality.
It imposes severe consequences to combat and even a minor encounter
can remove a PC from play for either a prolonged recovery
A potentially inobvious but very effective way of increasing damage inflicted
and thus lethality is the built in Haymaker Maneuver.
There are a lot of pros, mechanically speaking, to leveraging Haymaker
as a way to increase lethality. For starters, it is just a Manuever and doesn't
carry the baggage of needing a special rules subsystem to be employed to add it
to a campaign.
Additionally, everyone can use the Haymaker Maneuver, and while it can be optimized
for somewhat by min / maxers, generally speaking it offers a pretty even playing field
for all characters.
In 5th Edition Haymaker also received increased scope as it
adds its Damage Classes as effect to a lot of different effect based
Powers, making it much more broadly applicable.
Thus if players in a given campaign can be encouraged
to use the Manuever more often, lethality will increase due to the extra effect
granted by Haymaker with no work necessary for the GM or introduction of more complex
So, if it is so awesome, why isn't Haymaker used more often?
The timing difficulties paired with the stiff DCV penalty it
imposes are the main reason. However non-intuitively the more widespread
the use of Haymaker becomes, these downsides become less significant overall.
In other words, from a game theory perspective if one character uses a single
Haymaker in a given encounter their side suffered the penalties asymmetrically.
This is why using Haymaker to end a fight offsets its disadvantages as the encounter stops
and the DCV penalty is not impactful, and thus Haymakers tend to get used primarily as a finisher move.
However if characters on both sides of a conflict use a roughly symmetrical number of Haymakers,
the overall penalties largely washout and are also offset by the increasingly beneficial
impact of Haymaker's bonus effect.
Thus a good way to subtly encourage players to use Haymakers more often
is for the GM to simply have NPC's frequently use Haymakers against the
PC's. Players will eventually tend to retaliate with Haymakers of their own,
without the GM ever having to say a thing about it; this is just leveraging human
nature to respond in kind. An equilibrium will be reached where PC and NPC groups
use Haymaker in a roughly equivalent frequency, and overall damage / effect will rise
accordingly; the more the GM initiates with Haymakers, the more likely the PC's will
respond accordingly, thus the GM has some indirect / subtle control over this strategy...
but so do the players as the opposite holds true as well. Thus this is a very balanced
overall approach and I recommend trying it.
If a little natural encouragement doesn't do the trick,
the GM can instead offer some incentives. The most direct approach
is to simply replace the Haymaker stat line with the stat line
of the Martial Maneuver Sacrifice Strike, which is basically
just a better "Martial" version of Haymaker that removes
the timing component and reduces the DCV penalty.
Along the same lines as Haymaker above the GM could allow characters
to Push their Strength for the purposes of doing more damage
as a matter of course.
I personally am not a fan of Pushing
or allowing its use as a casual matter, but some play groups
routinely do this. I don't like the mechanics of it, particularly the
bias it offers to Strength based characters. It also isn't relevant
in games where the main means of inflicting damage is not Strength based
(such as guns, for instance).
It is an option and it might work for a given group, but I don't
personally recommend it.
The Deadly Blow Talent presented in Fantasy HERO, Dark Champions,
and other supplements is a very direct and easy way to dial
up lethality, but make characters pay for the privilege. This
will result in characters that have invested in being deadly
being more lethal than other characters, but this is consistent
with the point-buy mentality of the HERO System and works well
in practice. I strongly recommend that if Deadly Blow is used
that limits be placed on how many levels a character can have,
and on how it interacts with inanimate objects (which I discuss
in detail here).
I'll also point out here that one level of Combat Luck roughly
counters one level of Deadly Blow, which should be considered
if you are allowing either one of them in your campaigns; I
personally see them as companion options as allowing one but
not the other will skew your game towards one extreme or the
other (assuming characters take the abilities).