Friday, November 29, 2013

GURPS 101: Dying is Hard to Do

The lethality of GURPS can be a positive and a negative. As a positive, it makes for tense combats, adds real risk to decisions, and gives a lot of believability to injury. As a negative, it totally sucks to have your character, who you worked hard on to make, just roll badly and die. That tension - characters take effort, but can die easily - makes for the feel of the game. Still, no one likes to die, so let's look at how easy or hard it really is, and ways to avoid it at the last moment - the roll not to die.

This is at least partly inspired by the death toll in my fantasy game, and by Douglas Cole's excellent look at skill levels in GURPS. Also check out Doug's look at the pricing of HT in GURPS.

In GURPS, getting grievously wounded is pretty easy. Most fights in GURPS, in my experience, turn suddenly when a telling blow gets through and changes one combatant from "just fine" to "potential death spiral" in a single moment. Miss a defense roll, watch the other guy roll a critical hit (which gives you no chance to defend), or get hit by surprise or an area attack and you could go right down.

Looking only at GURPS Basic Set. Shock (p. B419), Major Wounds (p. B420), Crippling injuries (which are also Major Wounds) (p. 420-422), Stunning (p. 420), Bleeding (box p. B420), Hit Location effects (p. B398-400), Consciousness rolls (p. B419) - all of these things make it hard to stay above -1 x HP (or below) and not have to roll to see if you don't die.

Not only that, but you don't get a lot of HP. Everyone starts with 10 HP, but getting even twice that is somewhat uncommon except in high-powered play (where it's very common), and you don't get more unless you keep buying more.

But, especially in 4th edition, it isn't easy to actually die.

First, you don't automatically die until you've gone down to -5xHP . . . meaning you can take as much as 1 point shy of 6 x HP and still live.

Second, there are way to deal with even missing a HT check against death. In 3e, if you missed a Death Check (a common but not-official term of art for the HT roll to see if you die or not), you died. Have a 15 HT and roll a 16? Oooh, time for Resurrection or superscientific revivification or a new PC. But 4e has Mortal Wounds, which means you can miss the roll and still be alive enough to get better, given enough medical or magical support.

This significantly changes the odds of death.

Let's look at death, the odds of death, and how much HT you need to reasonably avoid it.


The first thing you want to do is, avoid getting to -1 x HP or below. But once you are there, you need to start rolling to avoid dying. GURPS Basic Set p. 419 makes most of these pretty plain, and I won't re-hash those rules here. They are also on p. 29 of GURPS Lite, which is FREE, so go get it!

How many times do I roll?

One thing that GURPS Basic Set p. 419 doesn't make crystal clear, IMO, is how often you roll against HT to not die. For example, if you have HP 10 and take 30 damage, you are at -20 HP. Do you roll once for -10 HP and another time for -20 HP?

Yes, you do.

What makes it clear is the example of Bruno under Hard to Kill (p. B58), who takes 45 damage and passes two death check thresholds, and must roll twice.

How do I recover from a Mortal Wound?

Surgery skill + time, or the Stop Bleeding spell (no, seriously, I didn't know that second bit until recently either.)*

How much HT do you need?

Read "HT" as "HT including any bonuses." Advantages like Fit (+1 to HT rolls) or Very Fit (+2 to HT rolls) and Hard to Kill (+1 per level to HT rolls against death, a miss has some special effects) make it harder to die. Just add your HT plus your bonuses when you look below. Ex: A HT 12 guy with Very Fit and Hard to Kill 1 rolls against a 15 not to die.

Death checks are very rarely penalized; while unconsciousness checks get cumulative penalties for injury Death checks don't. So to not die you really don't need a huge amount of HT, or worry about counteracting penalties.

Below is the HT, the chance to live (without problems), chance to live or be mortally wounded (with potential issue during or post recovery, per B.423), and chance to die outright.

Percentages of success are taken from p. B171 for consistency.

Remember that in GURPS, a 17 is always a failure and an 18 is always a critical failure (not a big deal on a death check) (per p. B343 / GURPS Lite p. 2) However, it could make a good ruling that if you have a total HT of 16+, a roll of a 17 is a Mortal Wound and a 18 is death. You could further rule that if you also have Hard to Kill you appear dead (although you're still Mortally Wounded). However, an 18 would still failure regardless of your HT, HT bonuses, advantages, and/or Mortal Wounds.**

HT 9 or less: No one takes these; suffice it to say it's easy to die and you don't want HT 9 or less.

HT 10: Roll against 10 to live; a death check at 11 or 12 means you are mortally wounded. 50% chance of being okay, 74.1% chance of being either okay or mortally wounded. 25.9% chance of death.

HT 11: Roll against 11 to live; a death check at 12 or 13 means you are mortally wounded. 62.5% chance of being okay, 83.8% chance of being either okay or mortally wounded. 16.2% chance of death.

HT 12: Roll against 12 to live; a death check at 13 or 14 means you are mortally wounded. 74.1% chance of being okay, 90.7% chance of being either okay or mortally wounded. 9.3% chance of death.

HT 13: Roll against 13 to live; a death check at 14 or 15 means you are mortally wounded. 83.8% chance of being okay, 95.4% chance of being either okay or mortally wounded. 4.6% chance of death.

HT 14: Roll against 14 to live; a death check at 15 or 16 means you are mortally wounded. 90.7% chance of being okay, 98.1% chance of being either okay or mortally wounded. 1.9% chance of death. Note: Maximum HT needed to live on a 16 or less including Mortally Wounded.

HT 15: Roll against 15 to live; a death check at 16 means you are mortally wounded. 95.4% chance of being okay, 98.1% chance of being either okay or mortally wounded. 1.9% chance of death.

HT 16: Roll against 16 to live; technically you can't be mortally wounded anymore because a 17 or 18 still fails. 98.1% chance of being okay, 1.9% chance of death. Maximum HT needed to live on a 16 or less without needing to resort to Mortally Wounded.

However, Sean Punch appears to state that on a net HT 16+, you should treat 17 as a Mortal Wound, 18 as death. So in this case it would be a 98.1% chance of being fine, 99.5% of being fine or mortally wounded, and 0.5% chance of death.

HT 17+: Doesn't matter, see HT 16.

So what does this mean for my character?

Basically, the most HT + bonuses you need to avoid death is 16. The most you reasonably need, assuming you're willing to suffer Mortally Wounded as a condition, is HT 14. Total. That gives you the maximum chance of not dying while still giving you the least cost to do so.

How you get there depends on your other goals for your character. Hard to Kill at 2/level is the cheapest way to avoid death, but that's all it does. Fit and Very Fit are good if you want a bonus to the roll and want to recover lost FP faster (or lose them more slowly, too). HT is best overall because it gives you the roll, plus marginally improved Speed and more FP, too, but it also costs the most (10/level).

But if you ever wondered why 4e monsters have HT 11-13, and most templates for really hardy types rarely exceed HT 13, it's because that really does give you an excellent chance to avoid death.

What if that's not enough for me? 1.9% Sounds high . . .

Get enough HT + Fit/Very Fit + Hard to Kill to not die, buy Luck, and save one use for a re-roll. Or buy Luck with a limitation that restricts it only to HT checks not to die. And try to avoid getting hit in the first place.

Are these odds realistic?

Wrong question, since GURPS put a slightly heroic blush onto PCs. It makes them believably fragile but also throws the odds of dying a bit in favor of the character. It's a game, after all, and matching easy death with detailed character generation is a mix that makes death especially harsh and not-fun.

Doesn't this mean GURPS characters are too sturdy?

No, not really. It's depressingly easy to go from HP to -5 x HP and just die. It's depressingly easy to bleed out out or be too injured to escape. You can drown or suffocate or suffer a heart attack from a truly horrid supernatural attack or fright. And, per p. B423, you can just die automatically from a slit throat, etc. if you're helpless and time is taken. Even HT 16+ and Hard to Kill won't help you there.

Good luck not dying!

* As a house rule, I also allow the Healing advantage to do this.
** I like this and I'd run it that way.


  1. Very nice layout of all of the odds.

  2. I think the odds of Mortal Wound or OK on HT 13 should be 95% or so? HT13 +2?

    Also, totally agree on the comment that HT gets the discount to keep PCs alive. I broke this down in "The Price of Fitness" and it completely supports your point.

    1. I'll add a link to that article in the post above.

      Paul Stefko caught my cut-n-paste error on HT 13 so I edited it. I was duplicating to get the same format and got distracted and didn't change the odds.

      I should note the odds are per B171, too.

  3. Nice article. Very useful for those of us that are weak on our rules and worried about running tough combats without slaughtering PCs.

  4. Sadly, I kind of feel that this makes Death Checks something of an unnecessary formality. The risk of death in GURPS is actually not that high--the risk of being rendered *unconscious* is tremendous, but as long as the whole party doesn't go down, that's not usually a big deal.

    OTOH, *IF* you want to "remedy" this "problem," it's not hard--simply invoke the rules from MA about Bleeding. If you are playing with magical healing or superscience healing, then it's usually moot, but that's an intended design of playing such genres. If you are playing GURPS: The Walking Dead (and why wouldn't you, with GURPS Zombies freshly released??), and you invoke the MA bleeding rules, you need a VERY skilled surgeon to Not Die from a single GSW to the won't die immediately, and as the above shows, you likely won't die from a failed Death Check (if you are anything like a heroic PC), but you WILL bleed until you hit -5xHP...and then it's all over!

    After...what is it now, 3 years of straight GURPS, this is what I've noticed, anyway.

    1. I don't know - unconsciousness is a big worry, but you can recover from it. Especially in my games, it's a temporary problem until someone whips the Awaken spell on you. In a game without supernatural problems, it is a predecessor to death. Especially, as you say, if you dig out the harsh reality rules from GURPS Martial Arts.

      But in my games at least, Death Checks are never a formality - everyone stops to watch the dice fall. Everyone runs the numbers. Everyone cringes at any 5 or 6 that comes up on the dice before the others stop rolling. It's a moment of extreme tension.

      Unconsciousness? People just say, "Don't blow it" and worry about what they'll do if you do. Death Checks are like yanking on the emergency break. Not a huge risk of failure, but the consequences of failure are just awful.

  5. Good article. I can testify that opponents with high effective HT are really hard work to take down; my group recently faced five opponents with 15+, who all had to be taken to -5*HP. They also provided a reminder lesson in high-tech tactics: nobody can expect to survive a five-second advance over open ground against skilled riflemen.

    1. Yeah, HT 15 is what I sometimes call the "Do you really want to play chicken with death?" level. At HT 15 you'd stay up and fighting until -5xHP and then just die.

      I hopefully made clear above, 15+ is pretty close to excessive if not already excessive. Especially if you stay conscious on a 15+ because you stay a potential threat until someone kills you. It's often better to pass out and stay down!

  6. Thanks for the article!
    I'll be DMing my first dungeon fantasy game soon and these odds remind me the value of having higher HT. I'll be able to communicate this information to my players now, and allow them to make educated choices for their character's survival. =)

  7. IMHO a high HT actually makes it more likely to die.

    what what what!!!

    Being stunned or even falling unconscious means an opponent might leave you alone. Might.

    This is a niche case, but I'd say the extra small chance of not dying outright is less than this window. I'd say this starts to kick in at the HT 14 or higher level.

    Also at different points more HP is more efficient than HT.

    I haven't done the maths, but that bell curve drop off at HT 14 and higher means its probably better to max out HP rather than go any higher. HP has no bell curve (interesting that HP and FP are the only two stats with no bell curve which along with advantages, disadvantages, perks and quirks means their value to point cost is completely at odds with skills and every other stat.

    1. You have a valid point. But I'd say that's more of case of "HT might get you to get yourself killed." Nothing in a high HT score, and higher resistance to being knocked unconscious, means you can't surrender, run away, drop and pretend to be dead, or something else to keep you alive. It gives you that option. If you refuse to take that option because you're depending on failing a HT roll and then being spared by a foe, that's on the player. So it's more of a behavior issue (while I'm awake, I'm a threat so you should kill me, and while I'm awake, I will remain to be a threat) than a rules issue.

  8. That's also a valid point.

    I'd still say HP or even ST becomes a much better deal than HT after about HT 13.

    I'd even suggest that before that:

    Having a very low HP (sub 10) and a moderate (10) HT is very bad idea (for survival)

    Having a moderate HP and HT is the (obvious) baseline.

    HP and HT are approximately balanced choices at the 10 to 13 level. Probably HT is still more efficient.

    After HT 13 the utility drops off very sharply and HP, ST (and hence HP), DR and even Luck etc become MUCH more efficient choices for points related to not dying.


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