Optional Rule: Dolorous Wounds
This is an idea I have played with a lot, but never felt I had a good home for it or a final version of the rule.
New Optional Rule: Dolorous Wounds
Dolorous wounds are an option rule that both explains why the dead and undead are sometimes depicted with injuries sustained in life (if magic can make a skeleton get up and walk, why can’t it fix chipped ribs and cracked skulls?), and to give GMs another option to deal with questions of PC mortality and resurrection other than raise dead and similar spells.
The dolorous wounds rule assumes that some wounds are so deep, so horrific and life-threatening, that they damage the life force (or “soul) of their targets. Dolorous wounds never fully heal of their own accord, and because the wounded creature’s life force is also wounded, healing magic cannot restore them to full health. As long as the wounded creature’s soul has a piercing near its heart, for example, the creature’s heart will never be at full strength.
When using dolorous wounds, when a character would normally be killed, the player may instead choose for the character to suffer a “dolorous wound.” The dolorous wound produces some physical ailment, agreed upon by player and the GM (normally a -1 penalty to one category of skill checks, most often Str, Dex, Con, or Cha-based skills, though a penalty to range modifier for losing an eye or a reduction of movement rate for a limp are also appropriate). In general, the penalty should be to skills of an ability score that is one the character’s 3 highest, and that have related skills the character has put at least a few skill points in – a 7 Charisma fighter who never uses any Cha-based skills shouldn’t think he’s immortal because he’s willing to take penalties to social efforts and UMD.
A dolorous wound is so severe the damage is duplicated on the character’s soul, making it impossible to heal with normal magic. A special ritual may be able to fix a dolorous wound, but it has at least the cost and difficulty of a true resurrection spell. You cannot use the dolorous wound rule to escape death as a result of a coup de grace.
The dolorous wound rule should only be used for player characters and major NPCs. (In some campaigns it’s appropriate to restrict dolorous wounds to creatures with heroic class levels). These rules allow a game to make magic that raises the dead very rare, without having players constantly have to replace a favored PC (or GMs come up with a new master villain) when someone actually dies. The penalties for a dolorous wound are severe enough to encourage players to avoid dying, but not so great at to make characters unplayable. A campaign that allows dolorous wounds makes death a much rarer occurrence among players, and thus prevents it from losing all meaning and impact. A campaign using this rule can even eliminate such spells as raise dead, presenting a world where death is permanent (or much more so than in a typical campaign), without making it impossible for players to keep their PCs after a major defeat.
Alternatively, dolorous wounds can be a background rule, something the GM makes players aware of but largely as something that explains why the king has an old war wound while surrounded by 13th level spellcasters, and why some undead come back missing heads, arms, or other body parts. Dolorous wounds as a concept—injuries that inflict damage on the target’s soul and thus defy standard healing, can be useful purely for story purposes.
Patreon Exclusive Content
Over at my Patreon, I added an undead template, the gan ceann, which turns any corporeal undead into a headless monstrosity due to a dolorous wound preventing them from being whole, even in death. It’s a minor patron exclusive idea, check it out!