The Coup De Grace Rule in Forbidden Lands, Player Agency, and Playing to Find Out What Happens

Coup de grace mechanics are a common feature of many tabletop roleplaying games, and generally represent an easy way to deal massive damage to helpless opponents. It’s worth noting that this more “traditional” way of handling a coup de grace occurs within the basic framework of the game’s combat rules – enemies have hit points (HP), and a player character (PC) needs to deal enough damage to exceed those HP in order to kill the enemy. There is a trend, however, in more modern game design to favor narrative and speed over simulationist attempts to have rules that cover everything. In many lighter systems a coup de grace would be an example of when not to invoke game mechanics. The philosophy here is that if you’re standing over a helpless enemy with a lethal weapon, there wouldn’t be a ton of uncertainty with regard to the outcome. Rolling dice typically only occurs when the outcome is uncertain, and therefore you don’t need game mechanics or dice rolls for this situation.

The crew of the Split the Party podcast has been playing Free League’s “Forbidden Lands” over the last several weeks, and the coup de grace rules in this game don’t follow the above pattern. To summarize, in order to perform a coup de grace in Forbidden Lands you must first roll an Empathy check and fail. Empathy is one of the four ability scores in this game, and roughly corresponds with Charisma in D&D (in this case, the wording is quite apt). If the roll fails you’re able to perform the coup de grace, but you still have to spend a point of Willpower (an important mechanical currency in this game), and suffer a point of damage to your Empathy (killing in cold blood isn’t so easy). After all that, you successfully kill the helpless target.

Now, it just so happens that my character in this game is a deeply traumatized necromancer who has sworn vengeance upon those who have wronged her. I was daydreaming about a potential future scenario that might come up in-game (like you do when you’re an obsessive nerd) where she comes face to face with the person who she would most like to kill. This person tortured her and did unspeakable arcane experiments on her, but he also happens to be an immediate family member. My first reaction when I realized the coup de grace rule would come into play here was “that’s bullshit, she has every good reason to kill this dude and by causing me to make a roll to see if I can go through with it this game is taking away my agency!” After all, a player in a tabletop RPG is supposed to have a pretty high degree of freedom to determine what choices their character makes. But then the Powered by the Apocalypse mantra of “play to find out what happens” came to mind.

I created this character, sure, but do I really know everything about her? And more importantly, as a player who ranks discovery really highly as a type of fun (see Split the Party episode 82), do I really want to know everything about her? Am I so certain that she’s capable of killing a family member in cold blood, even after everything she’s been through? Whether or not I would hypothetically pass or fail that Empathy roll during a game session, the existence of the coup de grace rule has forced a dramatic moment further out into the light, and added an element of suspense to it. What an interesting direction the story might go if she couldn’t go through with it and missed her chance at vengeance. Would she come to realize that a life consumed by vengeance is hollow, and find comfort in knowing that despite all of her suffering she’s not the monster that he is? Or would she end up cursing her weakness in the moment, being wracked with guilt at any future deeds he commits because when her moment came she failed to do what needed to be done?

Ultimately I think I come out in favor of this coup de grace rule (with caveats), despite being the type of player who doesn’t like the D&D version of the coup de grace. The difference, of course, is that it’s not interesting to find out if stabbing an unconscious mook deals enough HP damage to take him out. Common sense says he’s dead. But the character drama of finding out whether you can kill a helpless person in cold blood is interesting, and in my opinion worth having a mechanical option to represent it.

Now for those caveats, though. To get the simple one out of the way first, I don’t think that spending a point of Willpower is a good component of this rule. This is because you’re not guaranteed to have a point of Willpower at any given time, and to have such an important behavioral choice hinge on whether you have this abstract and somewhat arbitrary meta-game currency takes away player agency. The game isn’t asking you to roll to find out what your character is capable of, it’s removing the option to ask that question altogether. There’s no good reason for it in this case. Willpower is designed to limit usage of powerful character abilities (like spells), so keep it in that silo, please! If I were running a game of Forbidden Lands, I would absolutely modify the coup de grace rule to no longer require a point of Willpower.

My other caveat might be pretty obvious to all of the murderhobos out there. What if your character is already a seasoned killer, like an assassin or war veteran (both popular tropes)? If the player isn’t interested in playing out the psychological ramifications of taking a helpless life, the mechanic would just get in the way. Worse yet, the game anticipates that some players will want to make such characters, and gives them a talent called Cold Blooded. In my opinion this talent is a poorly-designed trap option. Getting all three ranks in the talent is XP-intensive, and you don’t even get much mechanical benefit from it. A helpless opponent is no longer an obstacle anyways, at least not until they’re no longer helpless. Most egregious is the second rank of Cold Blooded since it gets rid of the Willpower expenditure which I think is bad design in the first place. An argument could be made that this talent mechanically reinforces a narrative of a character becoming a cold-blooded killer, but that kind of mechanical support should not cost XP!

At this point I’ll clarify that I’m not advocating for a murderhobo play style (although if everyone in your group wants that, more power to you). I actually really like mechanics that put limits on this sort of behavior if it’s setting-appropriate. For some well-designed examples look to the Shadow and Hope dichotomy in The One Ring (Cubicle 7), or the Morality system for Force users in Star Wars (Fantasy Flight Games). Forbidden Lands doesn’t have the black and white morality of these settings, though. At the end of the day I think the game provides a neat but flawed option in the coup de grace rule if you want to explore that aspect of your character, but falls really flat with the Cold Blooded talent. Like any rule in any RPG system, use it if it helps support your story, and ignore it if it gets in the way.