Monday, February 11, 2013

Death by Exposure: Hypothermia

A lot of energy gets spent trying to suss out the best way to handle environmental damage in D&D. Here's my take, using hypothermia as an example. I'm kind of fond of this method: so much so that I've considered using the same process for disease and poison.

Anyway, here goes.


I track environmental damage using a made-up mechanic called "Exposure Levels". Every time your character gains an exposure level, I hand you a poker chip. When you get too many poker chips, you're dead.

Here's the key that makes this tense: you don't know how many poker chips you can take before the condition kills your character. Maybe two chips. Maybe five chips. Maybe thirteen chips. Who knows?

Before the game, I prepare a sheet like this. It tells me how many exposure levels you can take, and what kinds of bad things happen to you when I hand you a poker chip. It also tells me how these exposure levels can be removed. As you might have guessed, it's mostly just stuff copied off the internet.

Hypothermia in this example is a three-stage condition. When I give you one poker chip you're shivering and just can't get warm. When I give you a second poker chip, you're violently shivering and stumbling around like a drunkard. When I give you a third poker chip I'll probably roll to decide what other bad effects happen to you: maybe you'll feel warm and want to strip down for the beach, or maybe you'll go into a fetal position--who knows? And of course when I give you a fourth poker chip you're dead, although--fun fact!--your brain will live on a little bit longer due to decreased cellular blah blah blah.

Got it? Great! Now go out there and explore the great white north!

Who's influencing me at the moment: Wikipedia, Telecanter


  1. Interesting. The tension of not knowing seems like it has a different flavor than knowing and desperately trying to avoid. The latter would allow for more informed choices. The former might make people actually fear messing with the wilderness at all. Thanks for sharing that.

    1. General information about each stage of the condition gets telegraphed to the party via the party ranger or through an NPC. So they're not totally blind as to the relative severity of the condition: they just don't know mechanically how far it will go before it kills them.

      IMC, the upshot of this uncertainty was that mild conditions get taken very seriously, instead of the "Eh, just 6 temporary hp--40 more to go. Think we can make it, guys?" which I felt resulted from the other methods of condition tracking. And truly dangerous behavior, such as swimming in very cold water, are undertaken only after considerable planning and hand wringing.