The Scholar's Book Shelf

Copyright Laura Trauth 1999

Well, when last we met we were discussing all sorts of horrible diseases and poisons for a GM to turn on her players. This month we're starting out on a similar tack with a look at serious injuries.  The book in question is Body Trauma: A Writer's Guide to Wounds and Injuries, by David W. Page, MD. Sounds impressive anyway, right?  And it is quite useful to the GM interested in realism and detailed description. After that we'll take a quick look at a different sort of resource, The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England from 1485 to 1649 by Kathy Lynn Emerson.

Both of these books are published by Writer's Digest Books, and the former is part of their Howdunit series for mystery writers, like the Deadly Doses book we discussed last time. In case you were getting worried, I'm not on their payroll (good idea though....). I just feel that writers' resources can be of great use to the aspiring GM. Fiction writers create dramatic engaging stories and that is our goal as GMs as well. We may use a different medium, but that doesn't mean we can't benefit from each other's resources.   And so, on to this month's reviews...


        So what is a Sucking Chest Wound anyway?

 Injuries.  Criticals.  Body damage if you're from the Champions school.  They happen to the best of our characters.  Arguably, injury and the risk of injury is essential to the heroic tale. How can a character's actions be heroic if he or she faces no risk, overcomes no great odds?  It's not heroism when Indiana Jones pulls out a pistol and expediently shoots his sword-wielding opponent, it's comic relief.

But why should a devotee of Rolemaster (as I suspect most of you are) want any more information on critical damage? We're rather overwhelmed with it already aren't we? Well... no.

Yes, there are many critical charts in the Rolemaster system, but the descriptions they give are necessarily brief and limited to the short-term game effects of injuries.  The critical reads, "Strike to foe's chest breaks several ribs.  Foe is at minus 40 and stunned for three rounds."

Straightforward. Simple. But what happens to the character after the fight? Did continuing to fight worsen the injury? If no healer is available, will he be able to recover? Read through Body Trauma and you will discover that serious rib breaks need to be stabilized immediately or the victim is in serious danger of organ damage. The shattered ends of those bones are sharp and can be pushed into the lungs, liver or kidneys, and any of these results can cause death.

Now adding this extra degree of realism to your game is work, but it has several uses. First, the cunning GM will find that she can frighten characters more with less serious injuries. They will remember the last time someone had a compound fracture of the ribs and died slowly over a period of hours from the associated injuries.  They may decide to surrender when before they'd have fought on and they may begin to underestimate non-human foes who have the capability to magically recover from such an injury before it becomes life-threatening all of which will increase the tension and excitement of the session.

A deeper understanding of bodily injuries can equally serve as a deus ex machina for the Game Master, however.  Say you set up a battle between your players and the villain's minions as a lead up to the "big battle" lurking on the horizon.  But your players, through a run of bad luck, end up losing to these minions, totally derailing the plot you had in mind.  Many of us would chose to leave the plot off the tracks and proceed from there, but if you prefer to intervene, simply have one or more of the minion's minor injuries progress to a more serious stage. Realistically, it might well happen.  Likewise, if you are more aware of the consequences of a given type of blow, you can delay a character's death by decreasing the severity of the strike.  An instantly lethal blow to the head becomes instead an epidural brain hemorrhage that will kill within hours.

While Dr. Page doesn't, of course, phrase discussions of these injuries in game terms, he is very descriptive, both of the injuries and of their effects on the patient.  For example, the Intra- cranial hemorrhage mentioned above would probably lead to:

So the character is knocked out by the blow, comes to but is woozy and at significant mental and physical minuses, then passes out again and probably remains unconscious until death or healing. But why bother?  Why not just kill the character and have done with it?  Kindness, of course. But even the practical and ruthless GM might want to consider one of the maxims of modern warfare "kill one man and you have removed one enemy.  Incapacitate one man and you have removed him as well as all the people required to care for him..."

Body Trauma also provides you with psychological information on injuries as well as forms of injury you may not have even realized existed.  An example of the former: what parts of the body cause the most psychological harm when they are damaged?  The hands and face. These parts of us are uniquely human, and we react much more strongly to threats to our hands and face than just about anything else.  And the latter?  Well, what is going to happen to your player's characters when they travel from their lowland home to the nearby mountain towns? Believe it or not, they are going to spend the first few days at higher altitude feeling... hungover. Yes, Acute Mountain Sickness causes hangover-like symptoms including headache, insomnia, and vomiting.  Fun huh?  Well, maybe only for the GM!

Body Trauma is both easy to read and thorough.  There is a good glossary and chapters on everything from head trauma to chest trauma, bites, impalements, amputations, temperature injuries, and sexual assaults. There are also numerous line drawings to illustrate the concepts the author discusses.

A similar volume, Cause of Death by Keith D. Wilson MD will also provide the Game Master with useful information. Cause of Death deals solely with fatal injuries rather than all serious injuries. As you can imagine, there is some overlap between the two books, but Cause of Death will provide you with more information on nearly-always lethal occurrences like hangings as well as descriptions of what happens to the body in the hours after death useful for those GMs who like to incorporate "whodunits" into their plots.  How do you tell a murder by strangulation from a suicide, anyway?

So if I've convinced you that there are good reasons to learn a bit more about how the body reacts to injury, take a look at Body Trauma and perhaps Cause of Death.  Introductory paramedic and nursing manuals can also provide solid information, but books like this, geared to the non-specialist, are definitely  the place to start.

Back To Top


 "He puts his upperstocks on one leg at a time, just like every one else.."

         What if you want to add some engaging detail to your world but would prefer to avoid books dripping with gore?  Then there is another series by Writer's Digest Books you may want to look into: the Everyday Life books.  These books are detailed descriptions of historical periods designed to let an author (or Game Master) write historical fiction.  Writer's Digest currently offers books on Renaissance England, the Middle Ages (in general), the Victorian period (good for those sherlockian mysteries and "gaslight" horror games), and later times as well (such as prohibitions, for those of you running pulp games)  Etc etc.

Obviously if you are running a historical or nearly historical game set on earth, the relevant book will be invaluable to you.  But even if you are not running a game set in, for example, Elizabethan England, they are quite useful.  Let's take a closer look at the Renaissance England volume by Kathy Lynn Emerson.

What Emerson attempts to do is provide a detailed introduction to almost every area of life in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  As a historian of this time period, my verdict is that she is, by and large, successful.  No, this isn't the be-all and end-all of reference to Shakespeare's world.  But where Emerson is limited by her need to be general, she compensates by providing a decent bibliography for further research.  Honestly, you probably won't need this.  For the typical GM looking to spice up any game, with a "European" feel, Everyday Life in Renaissance England provides more than enough information on its own.

Emerson looks at how people dressed, what they ate, who they slept with, the language they used, the crimes they committed and how those crimes were punished as well as many more topics.  So your game isn't set in London.  You can still add flavor by calling brothels 'stews' and huckster's marks 'conys' or rabbits.  You can still have your players victimized by clippers' (criminals who trimmed the edges off of coins in order to remelt the clipped mettle into counterfeit coins) and they might be a little less light-fingered if they know they can be hanged for any theft of goods worth more than twelve silver pennies [they'll be relieved to know, no doubt, that lesser thefts are punished only by public whipping].

And what about such modern conveniences as flush toilets and "bathroom tissue?"  Well, if you decide to take a page from Emerson's book, these are non-existent.  Toilets for the upper classes consisted of large lidded boxes.  When the lid was lifted, it revealed a cushioned seat with the necessary central hole.  The contents of the box would, of course, be removed by one's servants.  Contemporary toilet "paper" consisted of salt-water washes, bunches of herbs, a sponge on a stick or a bundle of down.  And that, of course, is if you are well-to-do.  What about the poor?  I'll leave that to your imagination.

Emerson's book abounds with such details.  Incorporate them into your game and you will find it much easier to shake your players out of the modern mind set.  If they realize exactly what they are wearing [no zippers, no velcro, plan on an hour or more just to get dressed by yourself], what they eat, what coins they have to spend, and how long it takes them to travel, and so forth, they can participate more fully in the flavor of your world.  Soon they'll begin calling their whiskey 'aqua vitae' their bedrooms 'chambers,' and the local healer the 'cunning man' and then success   you'll know that your world has taken on a life of its own to them!

There are of course, some games which probably won't benefit much from any of the Everyday Life books.  If you are going for a non-European flavor for your world: Eastern, Precolumbian, etc. or if you are running in a world with a very definite pre-defined flavor such as Middle Earth or Shadow World, I'd recommend searching out other resources. But if you are trying to create a mood or a feel of your own, take a look at this series for some valuable assistance.

Back to Top


Amazon.com listings for reviewed and related books:

Editor's Note

Post your comments on this article on the General Discussion Board.

Back To Top