Turning the Gears: System Shock and Severe Injury

Welcome back to Grinding the Gears, where I put my attempts at game design up on display.  Last time I talked about the lingering effects that death can have, even after resurrection.  Today I’m going to be talking about a rule for things like severe injury and dismemberment in the Pathfinder RPG.  Now, I know that this combined with my last post kind of paints a picture of my gaming style as grim and gritty, but the reality is that… yeah, that’s actually about right.  This mechanic is very complex, and while I feel it adds depth to combat, I wouldn’t judge anyone who decided they did not want the extra level of complication in their game.


Unlike my last effort in “Grinding the Gears,” this mechanic does not exist to change an existing rule.  It is instead intended to fill a gap that seems at times to have been unintentionally left empty.  The Pathfinder RPG has multiple methods within the rules as written to reattach or replace missing limbs.  You can do it with regeneration, certain healing spells, and there are even some books with prosthetics to replace missing limbs.  However, there are no general mechanics that account for people having their limbs removed, not even as a natural consequence of combat. Furthermore, there’s a lot of cool stuff that happens in a fight that you never see represented: broken legs, concussions, crushed ribs, punctured organs of various kinds, severe bleeding, the list goes on.  The goal of this mechanic is to add an extra level of realism to combat and allow for some awesome moments in battle by providing an opportunity to reflect occurrences mechanically.

This mechanic is written from a martial combat standpoint, and only contains rules for the mundane damage types (Piercing, Slashing, and Bludgeoning).  I may expand it in the future to include rules for energy damage as well, but I did not consider those to be as important at this time.


The principle behind this mechanic is that when an attack is particularly gruesome, it should have the opportunity to do more than hit point damage.  The way this is represented is through a new attribute called System Shock, which interacts with damage from critical hits and sneak attacks.  Why only critical hits and sneak attacks, instead of damage above a certain threshold?  Because if it was any type of damage then at higher levels everyone would be rolling system shock all the time.

System Shock

System shock is a type of damage that players suffer as a result of critical hits and sneak attacks.  Each creature has shock resistance equal to double their character level plus their constitution modifier, so a level two character with a constitution of 14 would have a shock resistance of 6.

Whenever a creature suffers from a critical hit or a sneak attack, they suffer system shock equal to the damage taken.  The creature then makes a fortitude save with a bonus equal to their shock resistance, reducing the system shock that they suffered by the result.

Example:  Bill is a level 2 fighter with a 14 constitution, and has a shock resistance of six.  He also has a fortitude save of +5.  He suffers a critical hit at the hands of an orc wielding a maul and takes 20 damage and an equal amount (20) of shock.  Frank then makes a fortitude save with his shock resistance as a bonus, for a final roll of 1d20 + 11.  He rolls an 8, which becomes a 19 with his bonus and reduces the 20 shock he would have suffered to 1.


When a creature fails a fortitude save against shock, they suffer an injury based on the type of damage taken and the amount of shock suffered.  Roll a d% + the amount of shock suffered and compare it to the table for the appropriate damage type below. If an injury affects an appendage such as a hand, it is assumed to affect the non-dominant appendage first (Example:  A broken hand would affect a character’s off-hand before affecting his dominant hand).   Warning, incoming tables.

Damage Type: Bludgeoning

1d%+Shock Injury Sustained Effect
1-30 Dented Ribs The target is sickened for one round and becomes fatigued until healed.
31-50 Broken Hand The target suffers a -4 penalty on all rolls that require the use of both hands.  The hand cannot be used on its own until healed.
51-65 Broken Leg Reduce the creature’s base movement speed by half..  Their carrying capacity is reduced by half and they suffer double the effects of armor check penalties. They also suffer a -8 circumstance penalty to acrobatics, swim, and climb checks. A broken leg must be treated by a DC20 Heal check before magical healing can restore it.
66-80 Broken Arm The arm is rendered unusable for holding or carrying objects. The target must make a DC 20 fortitude save or be nauseated for one round from the pain.  While the arm remains broken, the player suffers a -8 circumstance penalty on all rolls that would require use of both arms, including Climb, Acrobatics, and grapple checks.  A broken arm must be treated by a DC 20 Heal check before magical healing can restore it.
81-90 Crushed Ribs The target must make a DC 30 fortitude Save or be Nauseated for 1d6 rounds from the pain.  The creature also becomes exhausted until they receive treatment and suffers 1d6 Strength and Dexterity damage.  Repairing crushed ribs requires at least one days treatment with a successful heal check (DC30) and at least fifty points of magical healing.
91-100 Severe Concussion The target is knocked prone and must make a DC 35 fortitude save or be knocked unconscious.  If the creature is knocked unconscious they suffer 1d6 damage to their intelligence, wisdom, and charisma scores.
+100 Cracked Skull The target is reduced to -1 hit point and is dying.  They also suffer 1d10 damage to their intelligence, wisdom, and charisma.

Damage Type:  Piercing

1d%+Shock Injury Sustained Effect
1-30 Bleeding The target suffers 1d6 bleed damage.
31-45 Punctured Hand The target suffers 1 bleed damage and a -2 penalty on all rolls that use the injured hand.
46-60 Punctured Arm The target suffers 1d10 bleed damage and a -6 penalty on attacks and checks that use the affected arm.  Reduce this penalty to -4 if the creature is using both arms for the check.
61-75 Punctured Leg Half the affected character’s land speed.  They suffer 1d10 bleed damage and suffer a -6 penalty to acrobatics, climb, and swim checks.  If all of a creature’s legs are punctured, it falls prone and may only crawl.
76-90 Severe Bleeding The target suffers 6d6 bleed damage.  Once the target suffers severe bleeding, cure spells only remove bleed damage equal to the number of hit points restored unless the target is first treated with a heal check (DC = Amount of total bleed damage).
91-95 Lost Eye The target is flat-footed until they are treated with a DC 25 heal check.  They also suffer a -6 penalty on all rolls.  This penalty is reduced by 2 every week of game time, but the target will continue to suffer a -2 penalty on ranged attacks and sight-based perception checks.
+96 Punctured Vital The target suffers 1d6 CON damage and is then reduced to 0 hit points.

Damage Type: Slashing

1d%+Shock Injury Sustained Effect
1-40 Lacerated Hand/arm The target suffers 1 bleed damage and a -2 penalty on all rolls that use the injured limb.
41-70 Lacerated Leg The target suffers 1 bleed damage and a -2 on all climb, acrobatics, and swim checks.  Their base movement speed is reduced by 5 feet.
71-75 Hamstrung The target suffers 1d4 bleed damage and -2 on all climb, acrobatics, and swim checks.  Their base movement speed is halved.
76-80 Severed hand The target can no longer use the missing hand and suffers a -10 penalty on any rolls that would require use of both hands and suffer 1d10 bleed damage.  They must make a DC20 fortitude save or be sickened by the pain for 1d4 rounds.  If the target fails this save by 5 or more then they pass out from shock.
81-85 Severed Arm The target can no longer use the missing arm and suffers a -10 penalty on any rolls that would require the use of both hands and suffer 2d10 bleed damage.  They must make a DC 30 fortitude save or be sickened by the pain for 1d6 rounds.  If the target fails this save by 5 or more then they become nauseated instead, and if they fail by 10 or more then they pass out from shock.
86-90 Severed Leg The target can no longer use the missing leg and falls prone.  Their movement speed becomes 5 ft. and they cannot stand without assistance.  They suffer a -10 penalty on acrobatics, climb, and swim checks and suffer 4d6 bleed damage.
91-95 Gutted The target becomes nauseated and suffered 4d6 bleed damage.  The nausea can only be removed by a DC 25 Heal check or 25 points of magical healing.  After being healed the character remains sickened for 1 hour.
96-100 Slashed eyes The target is blinded until they receive either restoration or regeneration spell.
+100 Slashed throat The target suffers 3d6 bleed damage and cannot speak (or use spells/abilities with verbal components).  The target must also make a DC 35 fortitude Save or be nauseated until they receive either a DC 25 heal check or magical healing.  If they fail this save by more than 5, they pass out instead.

Philosophy of Design

I realized early into designing this mechanic that it was going to be a difficult beast to tackle.  The first obstacle was finding a way to make it relatively simple so that it didn’t bog combat down too often.  With any mechanic, you have to balance realism, game balance, and ease of play.  This mechanic is pretty clearly targeted towards people who are willing to accept some extra complexity at the table for some added realism, but if people wanted their combat to require referencing a bunch charts they would probably play something else.  This was probably the most difficult obstacle that I had to face.

Once I figured out how I was going to keep things from getting caught up in too much math, I had to decide how to balance things so that this mechanic would be significant without being game-breaking.  A lot of this meant balancing numbers so that each critical hit didn’t end the world or kill someone, but also so that a character didn’t have to do so much damage to lop off someone’s hand that the character would be dead already.  This is how I decided on the modified percentage roll that you see on the chart, with the options for “+100” letting you do something exceptionally brutal if your rolls were high enough.  I decided not to make any of the options insta-kills (though some of them CAN take you out of the fight and put you on the fast track to the River Styx) to keep players from losing a character to a single, unfortunate critical hit.

The next obstacle was balancing the different types of damage against each other.  There’s already a little bit of damage type balancing, based on how often things get past damage reduction, In this case, though, the most important thing was balancing effects based on how likely a damage type was to crit, how much damage it was likely to do on a successful crit, and what effects I could present with some level of realism.

I tried to give piercing weapons the lowest threshold, with only one or two extremely significant effects, because the most commonly used piercing weapons are x2 modifiers. While there are some outliers with x4 modifiers (Like the ranseur, picks, and the scythe), I don’t expect those weapons to have much trouble meeting even significantly higher damage thresholds.  I gave slashing weapons higher thresholds for most of their effects because that’s where most of your crit-fishing weapons are going to be, so I wanted them to be less likely to get the bigger stuff.


I think this is a pretty solid mechanic, but it’s certainly something that can be refined and built on.  It might not stand up to intense stress-testing, but a lot of mechanics in Pathfinder don’t, either.  The goal of this mechanic is to add an extra level of realism to the game’s combat and allow for some awesome moments that could have mechanical representation, and I think it achieves that goal.

With that said, this may be a mechanic that is best saved for significant encounters.  Cutting off a nameless Orc’s hand doesn’t matter, he probably won’t be around tomorrow to mope anyway, but taking the eye of a recurring vilain?  That’s something that can come up again, and again, and again.

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