May 08

Updated: Negative Growth in RPGs


This article was written as part of the January 2016 RPG Blog Carnival I hosted. My chosen theme was Gates and Portals, but I broadened out the topic in later essays. This is the second of those essays.


Growth and transitions are embedded within RPG games. One of the core principles of D&D is the idea of “levelling up”, the incremental process of improving the Hero. There are, however, more avenues of personal growth within RPGs than just the accumulation of levels. This essay explores the negative growth which may be inflicted upon Heroes.


Negative growth

Not everything which happens to a Hero during a game is desirable. There are many ways a character can suffer growth in an unwelcome direction. The addition of insanity, made famous in RPGs by Call of Cthulhu, is a clear example of character development dreaded by most Players. Other possibilities include curses, scars and an accumulation of interfering enemies.


Such negative growth is all part of many campaigns. Heroes cannot leave a trail of bodies behind them without slowly acquiring reputations and blood feuds. Indeed, I have known CoC Players who embrace the psychosis of their Investigators as an inevitable part of the setting.


For all their drawbacks, these unwelcome additions to a Hero link the character to previous events in the campaign. They provide a degree of continuity and often drive subsequent quests. I firmly believe the actions of Heroes should have consequences, and these examples of negative growth bring home the impact of previous actions.


Physical Scars at Your Table

There are several ways to bring home the negative consequences of events at your table. Firstly, you should keep track of the major injuries suffered by Players, having each one result in a scar, or other long term effect. Roll on the physical scars table below, or choose something appropriate to the nature of the injury suffered. As with any table, the GM may need to improvise the minor details to fit with the exact circumstances in your game.


d12Nature of the Scar
1Long white scar
2Jagged red scar
3Scar to scalp, hair does not grow
4Scar across the eye, changing, or removing, the pigment in the eye
5Missing fingertip, no loss of manual dexterity
6Loss of finger, minor loss of fine manual dexterity
7Missing tooth
8Scar down neck, change in pitch of voice
9Tip of ear lost
10Scar down leg, walk with a slight limp
11Broken bone, heals slightly misaligned
12Joints stiffen in wet weather


Emotional Scars at Your Table

Heroes can suffer emotional scars too. Close encounters with powerful beings, or hideous monsters, may have a lasting emotional impact. Dragons, deities and creatures from beyond the veil force a Hero to face their own mortality, or insignificance. Even if the encounter ended positively for the Hero, it may still leave an emotional scar.


Monitor the impact of events upon the Heroes in your game. After a notable encounter, whether life-threatening or not, hand out one or more of the emotional scars from the table below. Many character-focused Players will savour the emotional depth these quirks give to their Hero.


d12Emotional Scar
1Recurring nightmares
2Bouts of insomnia
3Fixation on the trigger event, or creature
4Mild fear of trigger event
5Need to drown sorrows with ale
6Unwillingness to be alone
7Disturbing flashbacks
8Mild shift in personality
9Limited ability to laugh
10Obsession with weapons, to be better prepared "next time"
11Talks to self about the trigger event
12Powerful hatred of the trigger event


Please note these emotional and physical scars are intended to have minimal impact on the capabilities of the Hero. Unless you want to reproduce the gradual degradation of Heroes common to games such as Call of Cthulhu, you should keep the mechanical impact of these scars to a minimum. Rather, treat them as additions to the narrative of your games and interesting character quirks.


Social Scars at Your Table

The final type of negative growth is the social one. This is the reaction of society to the actions of the Hero. Authority figures could respond with warrants of arrest, bounties or just issue summons for the Hero to explain themselves in a court of law. Whatever the response of the local government figure, and it need not be wholly negative, there will be some reaction. Rulers are unlikely to simply ignore the presence of an elite group of warriors in their territory. These responses are potentially quite extreme when dealing with “murder hobo” groups.


Alternatively, society as a whole may react to the actions of the Heroes. Reputations, feuds and rivalries can all spring up as a result of an adventure. Once again, these consequences may be positive or negative. However, they will be primarily beyond the direct control of the Players, and could have a considerable effect on the story moving forward.


The social scars table below presents another batch of 12 outcomes. These are split evenly between the reactions of authority figures, and those of broader society. Most are the negative consequences of unwise actions, but I have included a couple of positive outcomes too. Choose, or amend, according to the events in your campaign.


d12Social Scar
1Arrest warrant
2Taxation writ, on all the accumulated, or assumed, gold
3Bounty for capture
4Summons for an "interview"
5Offer of employment, which ought not be refused
6Target of official spies
7Blood feud declared by a family
8Bloodthirsty reputation, scares children and many gentlefolk
9Rival warrior seeks a duel
10Spurious legal claim issued, grasping for a share of the Hero's wealth
11Unwanted marriage proposal
12Mantle of folk hero, bringing with it all manner of social and political baggage



While scars are not always desirable for the Player, they reinforce previous events. A heavily scarred Hero, with a burden of physical, mental and social scars, is closely linked to campaign events.


How would you use scars in your campaign? What emotional scars work best for your Players? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Happy Gaming



The Updated series of posts are articles taken from my archives, given a fresh edit and generally rewritten in light of my current GM style. I doubt I can update every post on the blog, but I am pleased to give a least a few of my essays a new lease of life.


To save memory space, I plan to remove the old version and re-direct links to the updated essay. If you spot a broken link, then I would appreciate a quick email notifying me of the problem.



1 ping

  1. […] Updated: Negative Growth in RPGs […]

Leave a Reply