Taking a step further back, there are a
number of campaign-level decisions that
a GM can make and enforce to provide a more
lethal environment by design without resorting
to combat options.
The simple expedient of keeping a very tight
reign on available defenses (particularly
resistant defenses) results in immediate
increases in lethality independently of
any other factor. In many ways this option
is a force multiplier for lethality as it
will make any other options employed even
The math behind this is simple; every 1
DEF resists the average result of 1 DC,
with DC's gaining a slight edge every
6 DC. However 1 DEF costs 3 points while
1 DC costs 5 points. Thus while 6 DC costs
30 points for an attacker, a defender could
have 10 DEF for the same 30 points. An attacker
also has to hit in the first place, and
to further complicate things in HERO System
combat defenders don't necessarily have
to statically stand around and "take
it"; there are a plethora of defensive
options available to avoid or reduce damage
at the cost of an action.
The net result of this is that if two characters
have equal points spent on attack and defense,
the attacker needs to hit and roll high
above average to do direct harm to a target
(though secondary / collateral harm might
still be inflicted). The deck is stacked
in the defenders favor.
However if the GM enforces a campaign restriction
affecting defenses, whether by capping the
points that can be spent on defense, or
by setting a hard limit on max DEF, or by
limiting abilities like Combat Luck or similar
effects that grant non-gear based defense,
or by the subtle expedient of tightly controlling
the available equipment list and only offering
armor with a lower overall DEF (my preferred
approach), or some other mechanism this
intrinsic dynamic shifts towards neutral
bias or even further over to favor the attacker.
Consider the "real" world for
instance. Guns are much more common than
body armor of any sort, with the most common
form of body armor being a bullet proof
vest which provides only very limited protection
at best. Since almost no one has body armor,
the bias is strongly in the favor of an
attacker weilding a lethal weapon since
most hits are going to inflict full damage
with no mitigation; even a 1d6k weapon is
useful, and the typical 2d6k "gun"
Within a fantasy context, in most "higher"
types of fantasy armor is pretty common,
with most people having the equivalent of
around DEF 6 armor and heavier armored characters
creeping up around 9 to 15+ depending on
the prevalence of magic items, abilities
like Combat Luck, and special "feats"
/ heroic knacks / "super skills".
In such an environment 2d6k attacks are
weak; it takes at least 4d6k to be reliably
lethal and only a 5d6k or higher attack
is really scary to the average character.
In "lower" types of fantasy where
armor more serious than DEF 1 or 2 "leathers"
is scarce and even DEF 5 or 6 "chainmail"
or equivalent is rare a typical 2d6k attack
is viable again, and a 3d6k attack is reliably
lethal and frightening.
I can't stress this enough; in my opinion
this central dynamic is the single most
important consideration for increasing or
decreasing lethality at a campaign / setting
level and should be carefully considered
by the GM.
The obvious corrolary to decreaseing defenses
is to increase the damage of attacks. The
basic math of DC vs DEF applies here, however
there are other side effects raised by doing
more damage that are not caused by decreasing
defenses; I briefly touch on many below.
CONS OF INCREASING DAMAGE
The existing equipment lists are effectively
useless and either need to be rewritten
from scratch or tossed out in favor of custom
weapons that do heightened damage.
Objects effectively become much more "brittle"
since attacks are doing more damage which
raise weird scenarios where a character
uses a dagger to carve through a castle
wall and so forth; the "Real Weapon"
Limitation taken on most weapons gives GM's
an "out" to not permit this sort
of silliness but it will force the GM to
make more judgement calls along these lines
across the span of a typical campaign and
can lead to arguments and resentment from
gamist players who feel that if the mechanics
allow them to do something they should be
able to do it even if it doesn't make
rational sense based upon "reality".
Knockdown and Knockback become much more
prevalent and significant.
More dice thrown means more dice counted
which means more time spent on combat.
As the number of dice grows, statistical
variance increases resulting in wider "swings"
in combat; i.e. more random and less predictable
resolution. An entire combat can be ended
with one big 5 and 6 heavy damage roll.
The impact of Power Modifiers on Powers
AoE's and Explosions get bigger and
thus more attractive and also more time
consuming to resolve.
The importance of tactics and many non-damaging
abilities is sharply reduced. Conversely
the utility of a few flat-cost abilities
scaled against the normal expected damage
spread that grant considerable advantage
towards avoiding / mitigating damage become
very attractive (Invisibility and Desolid
being the most obvious, Damage Reduction
less obvious but key).
Characters can become little more
than damage delivery mechanisms. "Alpha
strikes", whereby characters unleash
their biggest, most dangerous attacks at
the onset of an altercation with the goal
of wiping out their opponents before they
themselves can act, become a common occurance.
I could go on. The point is, while the core
DC vs DEF math is the same, increasing damage
is something I generally don't recommend
in the context of increasing lethality as
it tends to make the game LESS realistic
rather than MORE realistic which is usually
part of the goal of upping deadliness.
INCREASED KILLING DAMAGE MULTIPLE
A variation on increasing damage that avoids
the kind of collateral effects I mention
above is, if using Hit Locations, to increase
the multiples for body damage to some or
all locations. For instance, Head Shots
are normally x2 BODY; this can be increased
to x3, x4, x5 etc. (whatever fills your
sails and feels "right" for the
level of lethality you are looking for).
The side effect of this method is that sectional
defense for areas where the multiple has
been increased becomes even more critical.
The prevalence of instant Healing in a campaign
has a big effect on its overall lethality.
In "higher" fantasy instant combat
effective Healing is common, which allows
a group well stocked on healing magics and
/ or staffed with one or more healers to
survive and overcome dangers that would
annhilate less heal-heavy groups. There
is nothing intrinsically wrong with this
dynamic, and in fact is a deliberate staple
of some settings. However it is anathema
if you wish for more lethality.
By restricting or outright banning combat
effective Healing, you will instantly make
your games more lethal, by design. If you
restrict out-of-combat Healing as well your
game will become more long-term lethal as
well since characters will take much longer
to recover from encounters and will often
be carrying residual damage. However, take
care to ensure that you find the right balance;
many players do not enjoy having their character
get "gimped" and will lose interest
if they are constantly struggling with persistent
injuries to their PC's.