Designing PbtA without Harm or HP

@Warriormonk Roleplaying the wounds and incorporating them into the narrative is a given (at least in my games).

What I am looking for is a simple system that will remove the basic GM’s fiat in deciding when the character is wounded or dead (of course fiat will still exist even with a crunchy and/or tight system, but that’s not the time or place to discuss that :stuck_out_tongue: )

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Thanks! That’s nice to hear. I look forward to hearing more about what you think of these different options.

If you feel committed to using the “one move” approach, you could also try to work in terms of “MC principles” or “MC moves”. Under what circumstances does getting wounded mean you might roll? Is it to overcome the shock of the wound? If you try something strenuous and difficult while wounded, might you pass out?

You can come up with guidelines for yourself - when you ask the players to roll or make a certain move - rather than having codified player-facing move.

For example:

  • A monster, trap, or danger which attacks a PC will wound them in an appropriate way. Describe it appropriately, but only as a wound.
  • The PC can try to do something desperate and/or risky to get out of the way (if it makes sense to be able to do so), but then, on a miss, it will be worse, and you get to make another move. Under these circumstances, describe the harm as more severe and choose 1:
    -The harm is so serious that it will eventually kill the PC (if medical care isn’t available).
    -The harm is incapacitating.
  • If a PC is incapacitated, unconscious, or otherwise unable to defend themselves, describe the incoming harm to be as serious as it could reasonably be, up to and including death.

Alternatively, you can mechanize the description of harm/death on the MC side, too:

  • Assign any threat a “threat level”, from 1 to 5. When a PC suffers a wound, look at their last roll (or roll yourself, if you’re OK with the MC occasionally rolling). For each die which shows a number equal to the “threat level” or lower, choose one:
    -The harm is potentially lethal, and will get worse without care.
    -The PC is incapacitated.
    -A limb or other important organ is permanently damaged or destroyed.
    -Something important is destroyed.

So, for instance, the ogre brings down a giant mace against the PC, who rolls to get out of the way and leap over the side of the boat, and gets a 9, with a 2 and a 7. If the ogre’s threat level is 2 or higher, instead of just narrating a wound, you can pick one of the above.


I’ve recently been working on a one shot thing and trying to tackle a similar problem. I ended up going with single-roll combat. Basically it’s Hack and Slash, you roll +Toughness, subtract your opponent’s toughness. From there you choose beneficial outcomes from a list (3 on a 10+, 2 on a 7-9) and the GM chooses undesirable ones (1 and 2, respectively). They’re things like: the enemy is defeated, disabled or at your mercy, you suffered no serious injury, nothing got hurt or destroyed, you attracted no unwanted attention and so forth.

I’m not sure exactly what should be in each list (or if there should only be one, a list of drawbacks, and you automatically have the enemy at your mercy on any hit).

It’s worth noting that the game is not combat-centric and very much abides by Disney-logic (no one should die).


Thanks Paul, those are some awesome pointers.

I really like the threat level approach, I think there is something really good there. It’s like a nugget, I know that if I will keep poking at it, some real gold can come out. So, I will keep poking at it :wink:

Even the idea that being wounded makes the threat greater for this character is making my gears spin. It is such a clean and simple mechanic and fits very well with the feel of the game I am shooting for.

I will mull it over for a bit and try to write up something concrete. The GM move/principle approach will be the best course of action. It still lets me claim: “the game begins with a single move” but still lets me have a little more rules there. Anyway, I am not trying to make it just a clean cut PbtA hack, so I don’t think I should even worry about that :stuck_out_tongue:

Again, you rock!

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(e.g., using something shaped like food – or heck, actual cookies or cereal pieces, if you like – to track rations)

I remember playtesting a game with @Jmstar years and years ago that did this. (Open Boat? In maybe like 2005?) Characters were castaways on a life raft. Rations were represented by goldfish crackers or something like that. If we decided to eat one of the other castaways, those rations were represented by beef jerky.

If we at the table absentmindedly snacked on the ration counters, so did the poor castaways, IIRC.

Lego figures were brought up above… I’m a hobby ceramicist, so my mind immediately went to little clay dummies in a super-similar way. Make a little doll out of play-dough or whatever. Mangle it up as it gets injured!


Just a quick update on my progress after playing with my f2f group.

My group seemed to enjoy the Threat system. It definitely helped the player who was against a strong GM bias deal with the consequences. I haven’t written it down properly yet, but here it is in a nutshell:

Characters can be either fine, disadvantaged (wounded), incapacitated or dying.
I assign a threat rating to things that can cause harm the character on the fly. Things like narrative positioning, being wounded or wearing armor adjusts the threat level for the character. When the narrative the and dice decide, we check the dice values of last roll and compare each die with the threat rating. If it was a “hard move” if any of the dice is equal or less than rating than the character gets wounded. For soft moves both dice have to show values equal or less to count as a wound.

If a wounded character gets wounded again, they get to choose if they are incapacitated or are still standing but dying. If they are dying, next wound means death.

It reads very fiddly, but plays smooth. Hopefully I can streamline the text more.

I know I am probably catering to much to a single player in my group (others are fine with letting being wounded, dying based on a hard move as a result of a roll). I guess it is not bad to have a fail safe…

Also, @Paul_T I finally got to read the whole of The Silver Dragon’s Tear and I am so stealing really inspired by the tragedy/incursion idea. It fits so well with my game!

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That sounds great! Nicely done.

I’m glad the threat level idea is working for you.

I also think the “survive a calamity/recover from a calamity” concept could work pretty well as a GM-facing principle with a single roll system, for what it’s worth. You know, if you decide to experiment with other approaches.

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I am planning on giving survive a calamity/recover from a calamity a go our next session. After reading the whole Story Games topic and your math behind it, I think I can use it to convince my “GM-bias averse” player to it.

This would be my preferred approach, as it is cleaner and I can turn it into GM’s advice on how to use the standard move to resolve those two situations.

Groovy! I think it’s much cleaner/smoother, as you say, but somehow it looks/sounds scarier (everyone has this reaction to it, it seems!).

Personally, I think the way it’s “scary” adds to the charm - nothing wrong with being scared of a terrible death when you’re playing a game like this!

The threat level concept is cool, too, but sometimes it can lead to weird “non-events”, if a character is hit by something dangerous but it doesn’t “qualify” as a wound, and it’s impossible for someone to be killed unless they’re hit three times. (This could, of course, be a plus or a minus for your group!)

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I’m curious if you ever did end up using the Silver Dragon’s Tear method in your game, or not. Let us know!

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We are using the Silver Dragon’s Tear method right now. The two other moves are not really player facing, just moved into GM’s advice on how to handle death and calamity.

I also use a “wound” trait for some calamities (traits are a big part of my game). Basically there is a GM’s hard move to cause a wound, which will make player roll with a dissadvantage.

Actually, wiriting it now, I will rename the wound to calamity, as it can be caused by non combat stuff as well. Anyway…

Currently I abandoned the “threat” idea, but I am planning on giving a simpler version of it a try for powerful foes. We will see how this will go, I think I might just end up with having a move attached to the foe.

Please do share! I’m glad these ideas are working for you.

Tell me more about how it feels in play, and whether you are enjoying the results.

How do the wounds work? Can you give an example? Do they interface directly with the Silver Dragon’s Tear calamity and recover moves?

What’s the simplified threat take?

Sorry for a long post, will answer your other questions in anothe post:

Ok, let me explain the game a bit, so you can see how it all fits.

So the game I am making/running is a weird fantasy, pretty low on the heroic scale. I wanted the combat to feel chaotic and deadly. To do this we don’t use any initiative or hit points - those create order in combat (also are not super blind friendly, which is another design goal for me). Instead all of it is handled through narrative alone.

Attacking/going agro on someone is risky(there are edge cases of course), so it calls for a roll. You roll + stat with dis/advantage based on traits. Traits are just a catch-all for any descriptor that is not a stat. They are a part of character that can be permanent (Grown up on the streets of Bergen) or temporary (Armored, Cracked Ribs). So a wound is just a temporary trait.

Now when you get a complication (7-9) or fail (6-) a roll in combat, you can get a wound. Right now I am kinda handwaving it, just following the narrative. A comlication from a powerful enemy will cause a wound, while a more evenly matched foe might wound you only on a miss. This is like soft and hard moves.

The wound will now factor into future rolls, the characters will probably roll with disadvantage. This is important for my design goals, because this mini death spiral signals to the players that shit got really serious, and retreat might be a good idea.

Rolling against calamity and defeat (as in Silver Dragon’s Tear) is for me something like a Super Hard move. If a player failed few times against the enemy (and that is more likely with wounds causing disadvantage on the roll) the narrative escalates to the point where they can be defeated - then I ask them to roll the second move (If your character ever suffers a terrible calamity…) and that will escalate according to the roll (6- roll for defeat).

We haven’t had a chance to roll on defeat yet. I got a 7-9 on calamity for one player when the group was trying to get pass an angry mob, which resulted in another wound and the other characters grabbed him and run.

TL/DR: Wounds are traits that will probably cause the player to roll with disadvantage, causing a mini death spiral. This death spiral makes rolling for Calamity and Defeat more scary.

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So right now I kinda eyeball the severity of the threat/enemy. It works for me really well, but I have a player who comes from very trad approaches and likes to rules lawyer (which is quite helpful in playtesting a system).

Because of him I am thinking of making the approach more mechanical. I am thinking of giving enemies (maybe other challenges) a threat rating, kinda inspired by OSR hit dice and levels. A simple farmer would have a rating of 0, while a chaos demon would be like 5.

This is still in limbo, but to defeat someone you would need to roll its threat value or above it on both your dice (so roll 5 or 6 on both your dice to just defeat the Chaos Demon). If you land a hit, but any of your dice are below the threat rating, you just decrease the threat rating by one.

Also a monster threat value could be a factor if you have an advantage or disadvanage against that enemy (if you have more applicable traits than the threat value - advantage, equal - normal roll, less - disadvantage).

This is getting close to HP and heavy bookeeping, which I want to avoid. If I can’t find a good way to put in words how to escalate combat with the narrative alone, I might look more into this threat idea. We haven’t tested any of this yet.

I am curious what you think about @Paul_T?

We are enjoying it. As we are using it now (without the threat mechanic) combat does feel really chaotic and deadly. The removal of HP works really well in making the players think twice about picking a fight, and it lets me just focus on the narrative parts of combat, which is cool.

The players seem to enjoy it as well (even the rules lawyer, I just spend a little more time describing the enemies, so I can declare dis/advantage for the rolls). What I really like is that the Silver Dragon’s Tear system + wounds makes the players approach combat like I imagined it: Make sure you have an advantage, or fight only as a last resot.

Thanks for the detailed replies! It sounds like it’s working for you, but you’re leaning more on the “wound” mechanic than the actual moves. I can’t tell from your write up when you actually decide to go to “rolling for defeat” instead of assigning wounds. Sounds like it’s just a subjective choice, based on your gut and your assessment of the fictional situation. If I’m right, why don’t you feel comfortable doing the same thing for your enemies?

Do PCs often suffer multiple wounds? Are any of the “wounds” ever temporary things, like fictional positioning? Say, “your shield is trapped in its teeth”?

The way you flipped around my “threat rating” to make a hit point alternative for your threats should work fine. I’ve done that kind of thing before. (And note that all these techniques work for the total of the die roll as well as comparing each individual die! You can use a 2-12 scale instead of 1-5, and that works, too.)

However, it also seems close to what you were trying to avoid.

Here’s an alternative you could try. It comes down to eyeballing it, like you’re doing with PC defeat, but it gives a more disciplined way to do it:

  • By default, an enemy is defeated when an action that could put it down is carried out successfully. (If there’s a roll required, then this must be successful, of course.)

  • However, more dangerous enemies have one or more special features that make them much trickier to handle. To defeat such an enemy, you must find a way to neutralize each special feature.

For example, the Red Duke is a Legendary Swordsman. You can defeat him, but not in a fair sword fight. Unless you’re a legendary swordsman yourself, you’d have to disarm him, spend a long time studying his moves, or catch him off guard without his weapon, perhaps, before you could have a shot at defeating him. Otherwise, you’re just rolling to avoid having him take YOU out; he’s that dangerous.

A more dangerous enemy will have more. Perhaps that Chaos Demon you mentioned is cloaked in Hellish Flames, wears Demonforged Plate Mail, and regenerates any damage within moments.

To defeat it, they’d have to get creative. Maybe lure it into a consecrated space (where it can’t regenerate), douse it with holy water (putting out the flames), and tie it down so they can find a gap in its armor to make the blow which will send it back to Hell.

Of course, you can accept just about anything that seems like it would have a chance of working, and just make them roll for it. If they can come up with something that seems like it would neutralize all the monster moves/features in one move, then that’s great! Good luck, though.

In this format, your prep for each monster/enemy is just a list of features or moves. It could feel very organic. If you want to avoid writing things down, grab some tokens for the monster when a fight starts, and discard one each time they figure out how to neutralize a move or feature.

And it means learning about your enemy is important and useful to the players!


I love this! I think this is what I was missing. Dude, you rock! :metal:
The list of features for enemies mirrors the traits the player characters have, which makes the love it even more.

As for the wounds and rolling for defeat. They kinda work in tandem. You don’t have to get a certain amount of wounds or anything before having to roll calamity or defeat. Wounds for me are just a hard move that leaves a lasting concequence (either forever or until healed, rested, etc.). If anything, the changing state of rolling with dis/advantage is what I am leaning on more.

Recently we have been focusing on different parts of the game (implementing anti-canon into mechanics), so our games were not very combat heavy (although when I’ll introduce the enemy features soon, we will have few more fights), but this is just how wounds work in my mind right now:

Players can have multiple wounds at the same time. This only means that they are more prone to roll with disadvantage (as they might have a trait or two to cancel out a disadvantage from a wound for the roll, but the more wounds you have the harder it will be to cancel the disadvantage). They also have narrative consequences.

Super temporary “wounds” like “your shield is trapped in its teeth” are possible, but I would rather handle it just through narrative: “your shield is trapped in its teeth, either loose the shield or your combat roll will be at a disadvantage.” It technically works just like a wound, just a really fleeting one. You wouldn’t write it down like you would a wound.

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Yes, I see! The wounds accumulate and make things significantly harder. That’s much more blow-by-blow than I had envisioned, but I can see that working nicely. There is a nice symmetry with the monster features, as well. Do you come back and let us know how it’s working out!

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Yeah, I wanted to keep some of that blow-by-blow combat. You can still resolve a lot of combat via single scene roll, but I wanted to also have some “showpiece” fights.

I am currently (albeit slowly) writting the game down. Once it is complete enough to be understood without me explaining bits, I will also post it here :slight_smile:

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Another way of thinking about designing for people who can’t see is to use tactile things.

For instance, if you think of a character sheet as a physical artifact with physical properties, you could employ those. So, for example, HIT POINTS or HEALTH could be represented by the left hand edge of the character sheet. A paper-clip can be slid to the top left to signify “full health”. As health decreases, the player would slide the paper clip down. Reaching the bottom left corner represents death or unconsciousness.

If the character sheets are made out of cardboard, you could cut a notch out to represent each unit of measurement. So, if hit points ranges from 10 (full) to 1 (empty), you’d cut 10 notches into that part of the sheet.

This system could be used for experience points, loot, attributes. Whatever can be represented by a sliding paperclip.

Another hack for players who can’t see is to signify different scales by using fewer or more paperclips. For instance, one paper clip might represent hit points. On the other side of the sheet, two paperclips might represent loot.

Lastly, such a system might also be interesting for players who can see. It adds visual and tactile interest.

(If I’m recalling correctly, I came across this paperclip idea in IRONSWORN.)

Something just occurred to me… stacking paperclips could be used to represent accumulation of things. So, 1 paperclip might mean you only have 1 unit of something. Whereas 5 paperclips might mean you have 5 units. This might apply to things like skill levels, where you don’t need a sliding scale, but just need a reminder of the magnitude involved.

Along the same lines, you can find giant paperclips, normal paperclips, small paperclips, and shaped paperclips. These can all be assigned to different things or categories.


I really likethe idea of making abstract concepts like HP tactile.