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Skip Navigation LinksHigh Fantasy HERO>Content>Campaign Guidelines>Lethality Options>Design Options
Lethality Options

Lethality Options

System Bias Built In Options Unofficial Options Design Options
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 at the campaign / setting level by design rather than by implementing specific combat resolution options.
The HERO System favors a defender over an attacker, and this bias is perhaps most significantly expressed by the relative expected values of defenses vs damage.
The math behind this is simple; every 1 increment of resistant damage subtraction (DEF) cancels the average BODY damage result of 1 Damage Class (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, with a chance of failure.
And to further complicate things, in HERO System combat defenders do not have to statically stand around on the attackers turn waiting to get hit. There are a plethora of defensive options available to avoid or reduce damage at the cost of an action such as Abort to Dodge or Dive For Cover.
The net result of this is that if two characters have equal points spent on attack and defense, the attacker needs to successfully hit the defender and also roll high above average to do direct harm (though secondary / collateral harm might still be inflicted such as Stun, Knockback or Knockdown, or an effect such as a trip).
All of this obviously strongly favors the defender.
I can't stress this enough; in my opinion the central dynamic of relative average DEF to average DC is the single most important consideration for tuning lethality for a given campaign and thus should be carefully monitored by the GM for all HERO System campaigns.
The simple expedient of keeping a very tight reign on defenses (particularly resistant defenses) available within a campaign results in an immediate increase 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 more lethal.
By enforcing one or more campaign restriction affecting defenses, the GM can easily shift the intrinsic bias of the HERO System from favoring the defender towards a more neutral bias, or even further over to favor the attacker.
  • Some of the ways a GM can accomplish this are listed below:
    • Flat Total DEF Cap: a simple approach is to just set a flat limit on total DEF allowed to characters. I don't recommend this approach as it fails to take into account nuances, but it has the virtue of simplicity.
    • Real Cost Cap: the GM can place a cap on how many character points can be spent on defensive abilities. Like all point caps, this comes at the cost of extra bookkeeping, so it is not without overhead. This also has limited impact in a gear does not cost points setting.
    • Active Points Cap: the GM can place a cap on how many active points defensive powers can have. Beyond the normal bookkeeping hassles, this penalizes the Hardened Advantage which can be exploited.
    • Combat Luck Restriction: either disallow Combat Luck (and similar non-gear DEF granting abilities) or impose a cap on it. I typically do this in a gear does not cost points setting.
    • Gear List: a very direct and effective approach in a gear does not cost points setting is to amend the list of available Armors to not include higher DEF items.
    • Market Forces: a similar but more nuanced approach to modifying the gear list is to arrange things so that higher DEF Armor is either less available or is prohibitively expensive to buy / maintain, or both. This is generally my preferred approach as it is very "natural", but it puts the onus on me as the GM to be consistent across the duration of a campaign.
A side note on campaign caps in general, is that I prefer to avoid them due to the extra bookkeeping and constant math checking on characters to ensure that they conform to the limit. There is also a strong tendency for campaign maximums to also become defacto minimums as players will have a natural tendency to prioritizing buying up their abilities to the limit "to be competitive". If no cap is formally declared and instead more subtle means are used to disincentivize stat inflation, this sort of "keeping up with the joneses" creepage is avoided.
Consider the real world for a moment. Guns are much more common and available than body armor of any sort, with the most common form of body armor being a so-called "bullet proof vest" which provides only very limited protection at best, and which is usually not commonly available to the average person.
Since almost no one actually has any 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. As modeled in the HERO System, in a setting simulating a real world distribution of weapons and body armor, even a 1d6k weapon such as a small caliber pistol or knife is dangerous, and the typical 2d6k "gun" is absolutely deadly.
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.
The obvious corrolary to decreasing defenses is to increase the damage of attacks. The basic math of DC vs DEF applies here, and it is perhaps the more intuitive approach to pursue when seeking to increase lethality. Also, human nature tends towards the fallacy that more is always better and thus there is a tendency to prefer options that add rather than options that take away.
However, this can be a rather naive and problematic approach as there are other side effects caused by raising average damage that decreasing defenses by an equivalent amount does not incur. I briefly touch on many of these side effects below.
  • Invalidates Equipment Lists: 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.
  • Material World Issues: objects and materials in the campaign world 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 many 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 simulated "reality".
  • Batter Up!: Knockdown and Knockback become much more prevalent and significant.
  • Yahtzee!: More dice thrown means more dice counted which means more time spent on combat.
  • Variance Is A Bitch: 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 extreme damage roll.
  • Overly Advantaged Advantages: The impact of Power Modifiers such as AP and Penetrating on attack Powers that increases the effect of each die's results increases as more dice are being rolled.
  • Bigger Booms: AoE's and Explosions get bigger and thus more attractive and also more time consuming to resolve.
  • Damage Is King: The importance of tactics other than "strike first, strike last, strike hardest" and many non-damaging abilities is sharply reduced.
  • Flat Cost Beats Scaling Cost Mitigation: The utility of a few flat-cost abilities priced against the normal expected damage spread are greatly increased in effectiveness vs scaled DEF. Abilities that allow complete evasion of damage such as Invisibility and Desolid are the most obviously improved options. Damage Reduction becomes very efficient for its cost. Missile Reflection improves considerably in utility. DCV is strongly increased in importance over PD, ED, PowD, and FD. And so. This dynamic is very significant.
  • I'm A Mobile Weapon Platform: 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 when considering decreasing defenses or increasing damage, the later option is something I generally don't recommend as it tends to make the game LESS realistic rather than MORE realistic, which is usually part of the goal of upping deadliness.
Having said that, in the context of the Fantasy genre, there is a scenario where upping damage can be beneficial for modeling a particular feel. Namely, some very "High" Fantasy settings have more in common with the Supers genre than the gritty settings of Conan or the Grey Mouser.
So-called "Plate And Capes" Fantasy often features larger than life characters with incredible superhuman abilities. In that sort of setting running the game using the rules for Supers, with gear bought as Powers and increased Active Point limits will result in characters throwing around big damage effects and mechanically will play much the same as a Supers campaign with just a cosmetic difference.
A variation on increasing damage that avoids many of the kinds of side 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.