“This is fucking bad,” Dyck said. “This is way fucking bad.”
“You’ll be okay.” Mads searched his memory for what Harvey Keitel had said in that movie. “It takes a long time to die from a gut wound. Hurts like hell, but you’ve lots of time. We’ll get you patched up. It’ll be good.”
In Thicker than Water, Dyck takes the kind of hit that knocks even the toughest player out the game. In a story, that’s one thing. Like death, serious injury for either impact or mandated by plot logic is just part of the narrative. In a game, Dyck would be someone’s character. What happens to that player and that character?
In many fantasy campaigns, traumatic injury need not remove a character from the game. This is due to healing magic. Most fantasy systems have some kind of rule for the quick and often–though not exclusively–magical recovery from even the most serious of injuries. This might even cover death.
However, in my modern campaigns–and in those modern campaigns in which I have played or to which I have been privy–magical healing simply is not part of the dynamic. Fantasy campaigns run through an internal logic, whereas many modern campaigns are heavily influenced by an external logic, that of the real world.
Oddly enough, while throwing magical spells or fighting demons doesn’t seem to damage players’ willing suspension of disbelief, insta-healing does. This could be the effect of repeated viewings of the nightly news and some of the more serious dramas and movies. A lot of the action cinema we watch portrays damage as doing little to slow or incapacitate the hero, which is also replicated in some systems, but still toe the line when it comes to recovering from this same damage.
And so we are left with the downtime required to recover from fists, clubs, and bullets. Even in those games in which accrued damage has little mechanical effect, players likely won’t want to put damaged characters back in the line of fire as they could be more easily killed. So it’s hospital time, or a reasonable facsimile there of. And that ain’t any kind of fun. Then there are those situations when only one or two characters are heavily damaged. Does the action continue without them?
If damage is inevitable, the GM should probably decide how to handle it before the campaign even gets off the ground. As with most things, this could be the subject of a group decision. Get the players involved and get their take on the situation. What happens during that downtime? How can it be handled without killing the game’s momentum?
This is really only an issue in games of ongoing and regular combat. If there is investigation, analysis or some level of interpersonal communications, a damaged character can still do all of these. Thinking in cinematic terms, this is the detective at the crime scene with his arm in a sling, or the member of the negotiating team using crutches or a wheelchair. There might be mechanical penalties of some fashion, but the characters need not be left out in the cold.
But what if you do have a game of combat, in which the fun is kicking down doors and releasing those dogs of war? One option is rotating characters. In a military game, the team might be re-assembled with different members, or a different soldier from the platoon joins the spotlight. A new detective might be assigned to the case, or perhaps a newly graduated Hunter of Evil Stuff replaces the recuperating good guys.
And depending on the players or the tenor of the game, there is always the fast forward button. There’s a caption near the top of the comic panel that says “Two weeks later . . .” If it ain’t fun, don’t play it–skip ahead to the good part.
Taking the hits and feeling the pain are part of the game. If there is not threat, there is no exhilaration when one wins. Damage is like death and taxes, it’s unavoidable (unless you have really good accountants and/or are in league with SATAN!). It’s an obstacle, but it’s not insurmountable.