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Skip Navigation LinksHigh Fantasy HERO>Content>Campaign Guidelines>Lethality Options>Built In Options
Lethality Options

Lethality Options

System Bias Built In Options Unofficial Options Design 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 Champions and Fantasy HERO in particular cover this topic in more detail. Below are my views on the basic "more lethal" options provided in the main rulebook.
By default damage is "generalized"; it's abstracted to a certain extent rather than applied to a specific body part. Generalized damage has a lot of advantages; it's 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 extra bookkeeping.
  • 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.
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 optional rules.
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 or forever.
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 options.
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 by throwing their own Haymakers, 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).