Quite some time back, the estimable Tim Baker sent me this:

I had an idea for a topic or maybe even a series that you could consider covering in the future.  I’d love to hear your take on damage, dying, and death in D&D (how’s that for alliteration?).  Healing could be included in the topic, too.  It’s an age-old question, but what are hit points?

How do different people interpret them, and has D&D interpreted them differently, either explicitly or implicitly, over the editions?  What damage/death rules has D&D offered over the years?  Optional rules?  What about D&D offspring, such as Dungeon World’s “Black Gate” move when a character is dying?  13th Age’s optional “meaningful death” rule?  D&D 4e’s optional wounds and recovery?  5e’s gritty healing optional rules?  I think there’s a fair amount of variability to talk about, and maybe it could be tied back to the way these different rules impact the overall feel of the game.

Since we were just talking about this in the comments of my most recent article, I decided that I’d take a week off from the series on monks to tackle this. (Next week will be Unearthed Arcana, and I’ve got a new Plane Shift to cover.) Oh, and toward the end of this article, I propose a Wounds track to handle times when a wound shouldn’t heal overnight.

 

OD&D

Looking back to three-booklet OD&D, Gygax writes with the unswerving assumption that the reader owns a copy of CHAINMAIL, and thus doesn’t need any deeper explanation of hit points, death, or a whole lot of other topics. Rather than worry about digging up CHAINMAIL, I’m going to skip forward to the Rules Cyclopedia, which saves me from going through all of Mentzer’s BECMI individually. Hit points here are summarized as, “Your character’s hit point score represents his ability to survive injury,” and “an experienced character lasts longer in a fight or other dangerous situations”.

Many rules in the Rules Cyclopedia refer to natural healing, but if there are rules on the rate of natural healing in the book at all, I can’t find them. Characters normally die at 0 hit points, but there are optional rules (under a header for, perhaps ironically, “Keeping Characters Alive”) for 0 hit points being a “dying” state. The character makes a saving throw vs. death ray immediately upon falling to 0 hit points, and every turn (10 minutes) thereafter, and every time he takes additional damage. The character is dead-dead after one failed save. Still, this is the recognizable antecedent to 4e and 5e rules – note that this system doesn’t track negative hit points at all.

Magical healing looks pretty similar from OD&D on through 3.x, with some exceptions that I’ll note along the way. Clerics, and later other divine classes, with occasionally a Simbul’s synostodweomer or 3.x’s bard class for arcane healing, are your sources of healing with cure sucking chest wounds, raise dead, and so forth. The dice values for healing output have risen incrementally over the years, not really keeping up with increasing hit point totals and damage output.

 

AD&D 1e

In the 1e Player’s Handbook, Gygax goes to greater lengths to explain what hit points mean, probably because he got tired of explaining it in response to fan letters. Just a guess.

A certain amount of these hit points represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained. The remainder, a significant portion of hit points at higher levels, stands for skill, luck, and/or magical factors.

I’m quoting this in detail because it’s the crux of the argument I plan to present in a little bit. So, you know, keep it in mind. Copy and paste it. Paint it on the walls of your gaming room. Whatever helps you out. But even having defined hit points as “skill, luck, and/or magical factors,” Gygax goes on in the 1e DMG to assert, “However, having sustained 40 or 50 hit points of damage, our lordly fighter will be covered with a number of nicks, scratches, cuts and bruises. It will require a long period of rest and recuperation to regain the physical and metaphysical peak of 95 hit points.”

Gygax is therefore saying that the heroics of large hit point totals are slow to recover. We could imagine that for some reason the 1st-level commoner takes a day to recover from nicks and scratches, while a high-level fighter takes weeks to recover from nicks and scratches, but for all that it would make my argument easy, I have to admit that that’s a spurious misreading of Gygax’s idea. Instead, he takes the fundamentally arbitrary view that the indescribable heroism of large hit point totals recovers slowly, even though you may not outwardly show wounds anymore. But since he’s asserted that 50 absent hit points – greater than 50% of the character’s health – doesn’t represent a missing limb or two, there’s no one major wound that should (in the simulationist sense) keep the character down for days.

He doesn’t make an exception for “what if the fighter lost all 50 of those hit points to one blast of dragonfire?” or the like. The undefinable heroism that Gygax requires weeks of rest (or a lot of healing spells) to restore could just as easily come back overnight, because skill, luck, and magical factors can do whatever makes for good gameplay – we don’t have outward signs of what they’re simulating.

Okay, enough about that. Let’s talk about just how slow 1e natural healing really is.

  1. You recover 1 hit point per day of total rest.
  2. BUT on the seventh day of rest, if you have a Con penalty, you deduct that from the amount you’ve healed. To be fair, the extreme example of a -2 hit point adjustment only shows up for a Con of 3. (There’s no benefit to having a Con bonus in the first seven days.)
  3. On the fourteenth day of rest, if you have a Con bonus (Con 15+), you add that to your total healed for that week. Repeat this on the twenty-first day of rest.
  4. Regardless of the number of hit points a character has, 4 weeks of continuous rest will restore any character to full strength. (sic)

 

In Which I Digress Somewhat

Guys, let me tell you something. This probably doesn’t come up a whole lot. What happens instead is the cleric player gets pressured to do nothing but cast healing spells and save spell slots for healing. Lord knows I saw this continue into 2e and 3.x, so I see every reason to believe it was a major part of OD&D and 1e.

  • Day 1: Dear Mum, today we got our teeth kicked in as part of that good adventuring we was doing. Fortunately our cleric buddy, whose name I cannot be arsed to learn because it is degrading for a lordly fighter like me to have to learn the name of a first-aid kit, spent his sacred magic keeping our insides inside and our outsides in one piece. But we was still cut up pretty good at the end of the day, so we rested up. We did not heal any from natural healing, as you well know, mum.
  • Day 2: Dear Mum, today our cleric buddy spent his sacred healing magic patching us back up. We are ready to go back to burning, pillaging, and doing those two things in a more appropriate order, because we are full of hit points, piss, and vinegar. Our cleric buddy looks sad and says that he has no more of that good sacred healing magic to keep our insides inside, &c. We could either rest another day, which is very boring and also won’t go super good because of 24 hours of resting is like eleventy billion wandering monster checks, or we could go have some fun and our cleric buddy could suck it up and just be the first aid kit that his gods made him to be.

My point with this little story is that a large percentage of the gaming populace was reluctant to play clerics for years, but every party needed them. Some number of the people reluctant to play clerics were uncomfortable portraying religious characters for reasons of their own personal convictions, but I’ll suggest that that was a tiny minority. The rest didn’t want to play clerics because they didn’t want to have all of these spell slots but get treated like a first-aid kit on the hoof – to have their main class resource demanded of them, when they have a ton of other spells they might like to cast today. (If you don’t believe me, I would go on to suggest that you are living in a very narrow segment of the broader gaming community, or you are kidding yourself.) At the same time, every party had to have a cleric, because healing is so vital to gameplay. This started to change in 3.x, but got completely revolutionized in 4e and 5e.

But I digress; back to death and dying in 1e.

 

1e has a Death’s Doorstep kind of rule (as 2e calls it), in which you’re unconscious at 0 hit points, bleeding to death at 1 hit point per round, and dead at -10. Any character can stabilize a dying character without serious difficulty. However…

You don’t just pop back up when healed, including when magically healed (with an exception for heal). Instead, you’re in a coma for 1d6 turns (remember, that’s 10-60 minutes), and must rest for a full week, during which time you can do nothing more than move slowly, eat, and sleep. In short, the adventure is 100% over for you. Go home, you’re lucky you get to keep this character at all. If the rest of the group wants to keep adventuring, well, that sucks for you, because you’re going to be sitting this one out.

Also, if you fall to -6 hit points or below, you might be horribly scarred or lose a limb or whatever.

I’m not sure if I want to call this ironic, but something very similar to this has come back into vogue in one particular area of gaming: tactical squad-based games where the player controls a large stable of characters, such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2, and Darkest Dungeon. All of these are working within a consciously retro space, but their use of this mechanic is about pushing the player to have some depth to their bench, as it were – and to make sure that even victorious missions have consequences for anything less than perfect play.

Oh, and 1e definitely has the rule where getting raised from the dead costs you a point of Con; also you have to pass a Resurrection Survival percentile roll.

 

AD&D 2e

I don’t think 2e gets real fancy in ever trying to explain what hit points represent, or at least not in the core rulebooks, beyond acknowledging that hit points are a convenience and abstraction to make the game fun: “To allow characters to be heroic (and for ease of play), damage is handled abstractly in the AD&D game. All characters and monsters have a number of hit points. The more hit points a creature has, the harder it is to defeat.”

Natural healing gets more generous: light activity restores 1 hit point per day (which can include travel, as long as there are no fights or chases), while total rest restores 3 hit points per day, and at the end of each week you can add your hit point bonus from Con to the amount healed in that week. (There’s no reference to slower healing for low Con scores, though some readers may find it implicit.)

Charmingly, the Nonweapon Proficiency section of the Player’s Handbook flat-out contradicts this – having the Healing proficiency and the Herbalism proficiency grants the values listed above. I assume this was an editing error, in one direction or the other.

By default, characters are dead as a post at 0 hit points. The optional Hovering at Death’s Door rule in the DMG (which I casually assume that more than 75% of tables used, though I can’t back that up) involves unconsciousness and bleeding to death at 0 hit points and death at -10. Here I should really point out that damage output in 2e, for anything short of the really big dragons, is a lot smaller than what you might expect if 3.0 and later are all you’ve played. That 10-point threshold of death means a hell of a lot more here than it does in 3.0.

Anyway, if you get healed at all, you go to 1 hit point, and you are stuck at 1 hit point until you get one full day of rest (with, again, an exception for heal). Also, you lose all memorized spells, even with a heal spell. Falling to 0 hit points still ends this day of adventuring for you, though if the party can hole up for around 24 hours, you can get going again. This is a huge increase in the design emphasis on keeping the adventure and the fun going, rather than bringing it to a halt for one player, or everyone. Hint: we’re going to see that trend-line continue.

Here as in 1e, raise dead and greater spells cost you a point of Con, and involve a System Shock roll. This is the last edition that decides to die on the hill of, er, dying on a hill – that is, that wants permanent death to be on the line basically all the time. Oh, sure, there are permanent death effects in 3.x, but they’re special monster effects or corner cases, not baseline rules.

 

3.x D&D

This edition goes back to some of Gygax’s explanation of hit points:

Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one. For some characters, hit points may represent divine favor or inner power. When a paladin survives a fireball, you will be hard pressed to convince bystanders that she doesn’t have the favor of some higher power.

Because hit points represent your capacity for avoidance, there are coup de grace rules for when the defender is helpless. Note that with larger Constitution scores and modifiers possible, and with full Hit Dice values continuing above 9th or 10th level (unlike in earlier editions), hit point totals in 3.x are comparatively stratospheric, and damage gets rescaled somewhat to match… but that’s a topic for another day.

Natural healing has bumped up to 1 hit point per level for a full night’s rest, or 2 hit points per level for a full day-and-night of rest. This is starting to acknowledge the 2e oddity that a 1st-level fighter can’t really need more than 14 days to heal at 1 hit point per day (and even that is unlikely), while a high-level fighter might take 3-4 weeks and still not be at full hit points. Instead, hit points healed scale by your character level, just as your maximum hit points do. Of course, since you regain no hit points if your rest is interrupted, and DMs seem to love nothing so much as a nighttime campfire attack, you don’t want to go to bed with any hit points missing – then you’re both facing the encounter in a weakened state and not recuperating. But since the game isn’t really playable without a primary healer or a whole mess of wands of cure light wounds in the party, most players never directly encounter the natural healing rules. In the twelve years that I played and ran 3.x and 3.x-adjacent games, I would guess that PCs recovered hit points through natural healing (not counting nonlethal damage) fewer than half a dozen times. We should have topped off hit points with natural healing more often, but never bothered to learn the rule… and that full-day-of-rest thing was just never going to happen.

I guess I should talk about the wand of cure light wounds and how it became a logistical answer to the cleric’s gameplay problem. 50 charges, caster level 1, spell level 1, so 750 gp, or 15 gp per 1d8+1 – after a certain point in the game, which is probably at or around 5th level, this is the way to keep your party healed. When it runs out, buy another, because that’s 3.x for you. Oh, sure, good and neutral clerics can spontaneously cast healing spells, which means they can prepare more exciting spells… but who wants to dump the exciting spells for healing once you’ve made that choice? No, go for the wand.

Characters are Disabled at 0 hit points (only bleeding out if they try something strenuous), bleeding at 1 hit point per round from -1 to -9 hit points, and dead at -10. With these larger damage totals, it’s entirely likely and common to go from hurt but still fighting to completely dead in a single unlucky hit (such as a x3 crit or a big evocation). House rules and 3.x-adjacent variants generally expand this range, as with Pathfinder’s “negative amount equal to your Constitution score,” and Arcana Evolved’s somewhat more complicated values (since AE also expands the Disabled range).

A dying character has a 10% chance to stabilize naturally each round, and also stabilizes with a successful DC 15 Heal check, or with even 1 point of magical healing. If you’re healed back to positive hit points, you’re fully functional again. No lasting cost, except for the 15 gold pieces for that cure light wounds charge.

Raise dead and resurrection cost treasure and a character level, or if you don’t have any character levels to lose, 1 point of Con. Falling behind in XP feels absolutely awful, though, and by making you weaker also makes you more likely to be the next one to die. It’s a long-form but intensely literal death spiral. True resurrection costs a whole lot more treasure, but dodges the XP loss. So yes, that’s the one you want. (Though in 3.x, cash is also a progression mechanic for your gear, so while it’s less visible, you’re still suffering a permanent loss of some kind.)

 

4e D&D

This edition declares (as is not the least bit controversial by now) that hit points are “more than physical endurance” and represent “skill, luck, and resolve.” The bigger shift is in magical and natural healing, though I’ll need to drill down to exactly what we mean by “natural” here. In 4e, characters have healing surges, which represent their own capacity to recuperate. Healing surge values scale by level. Most of the common forms of healing involve spending a healing surge, regaining hit points based on your healing surge value (possibly adding a few d6s to that), and going on with the fight.

All characters have a self-heal called Second Wind, and every leader class has a ranged heal that they can use twice per short rest (this number eventually goes up). Most leader classes also have daily utility or attack powers that let one or more characters heal, with or without spending a healing surge, and so on. Once you’re out of healing surges, there aren’t a ton of ways to recover hit points. Importantly, the core healing feature of each leader class spends uses out of a pool that can’t do anything else, and uses a part of the action economy that most of their other powers don’t need. If you want to pick up the few additional healing features with your utility power slots, that’s on you, but the game doesn’t put a ton of pressure on you to do so.

This is where “natural” healing starts to get hinky. A warlord’s healing feature is not magical, within the game’s fiction – it’s a surge of restored hit points that are about restoring lost resolve. That’s also the fiction behind a lot of temporary hit points.

What we usually mean by natural healing, though, is also part of the game. During a short rest, you can spend as many of those healing surges as you want to replenish your hit points, and since each healing surge is roughly a quarter of your total hit points, it doesn’t take a lot to figure out that you can heal yourself from nothing to full hit points more than once in a day. (Classes gain varying numbers of healing surges depending on their role – the more you get punched in the face for a living, the better you are at shaking it off.) At the end of a six-hour extended rest, you recover all hit points and all healing surges – you’re always ready to go the next day.

4e introduces death saves as what you do while you’re dying, rather than ticking down negative hit points. There are a lot of design reasons for this, starting with negative hit point accounting being sort of dull, and also taking the pressure off of the conscious PCs to aid their dead companion – even if you don’t go for transparency in hit point totals, 3.x PCs know they probably have several rounds to get to you before you’re dead, and it’s usually better to finish the fight before worrying about you.

Failed death saves accumulate between extended rests. Any three failed death saves – even with healing between them – mean you’re stone dead. Successful death saves only forestall the inevitable – no change in your condition. Only on a death save result of 20 or higher (possible through magic items or various powers) do you stabilize and heal. You also die if your current hit points are less than or equal to half your hit points as a negative number. (That is, if you had 100 hit points, you are dead at -50, or at 3 failed death saves.)

Getting raised from the dead takes a ritual, and that ritual’s cost hinges on your current tier (heroic, paragon, or epic), because the Raven Queen or other death-god is more interested in keeping you on as a house guest if you’re famous. Heroic characters cost 500 gp to raise, which is expensive but not unbearable, while paragon increases by an order of magnitude, and epic does as well; considering the treasure scaling of 4e, this is wisely done. 500 gp is rounding-error cash to an epic-tier character here. To stop death from being a total non-event, the newly-restored character has a -1 penalty to all attacks, checks, and saves for three milestones (six encounters). That’s, um. Not a lot.

In most regards, 4e is the high-water mark of getting rid of every kind of impediment to playing the next encounter and letting the game move along. Tim asked about optional wounds rules; while I’m not aware of an “official” version issued by WotC, there are enough community-created house rules for wounds that I’m not sure where to start. Sorry, Tim, I’m skipping this one.

 

5e D&D

“Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” Since there’s nothing objectively observable in real life about any but the first of these, I think it’s just as reasonable to imagine that a character regains their mental durability, will to live, and luck after resting as over any other span of time. (Lost reserves of mental durability and luck suggest that any stressful situation, including failed social encounters, might plausibly cost hit points, though 5e doesn’t follow through on this.)

Natural healing works in both short rests and long rests. In a short rest (one hour), characters can spend Hit Dice (and add their Constitution modifiers) to regain hit points. This is the first time in any edition that Hit Dice are something you expend, in addition to being how you calculate your hit points. A bard’s Song of Rest gives this a big boost. The Healer feat also allows creatures to be healed for 1d6 + 4 + the creature’s maximum number of Hit Dice. The feat’s ability to help you is renewed when you complete a short rest.

Long rests restore all of your hit points and half of your maximum hit dice. This means that you have the hit points you need to go get in trouble, but might be missing a bunch of the recuperative ability to let you keep doing it.

Taken together, these natural healing rules greatly reduce the healing burden on spellcasters. Only the Life cleric stands as a pre-eminent healer in the Player’s Handbook subclasses; otherwise, clerics are on roughly equal footing with bards and druids. Thanks to the reduced healing demand, even paladins could potentially serve as a party’s primary healer. This is a huge boon to the whole experience of playing any of those classes.

At 0 hit points, a character begins dying, rolling a death save each round on their turn. A successful death save is any roll of 10 or better on a d20. Three successful saves stabilizes you, three failed saves kills you, a natural 1 counts as two failed saves, and a natural 20 restores you to 1 hit point and consciousness. Taking damage immediately causes a failed save, and critical damage (such as the automatic crit of an adjacent creature hitting you with a melee attack) causes two failed saves. Oh, and if you take enough damage that you would go straight to your negative hit point total, you die (this is not common, except maybe in very long falls). A stable character that isn’t otherwise healed regains 1 hit point after 1-4 hours.

There are a variety of options for restoring the dead to life. Revivify is for when they’re only barely dead; it is comparatively inexpensive and non-traumatic. Raise dead is 200 gold pieces more expensive, and leaves you with a penalty to attacks, saves, and checks that fades over the course of your next four long rests. It’s one of the only cases of a flat numerical penalty to rolls as the result of a temporary effect. Reincarnate is another 500 gold pieces more expensive and is exceedingly likely to race-change you, but it’s not otherwise traumatic. But hey, at least all of the possible races are bipedal humanoids with rules in the Player’s Handbook in this edition! Resurrection is also expensive and traumatic, but has much higher tolerances for dismembered bodies or the creature having been dead a long time. Then there’s true resurrection, which is 25 times per expensive than resurrection, but has far more generous parameters on how long the target can have been dead (up to 200 years) and how much of the body you need (none whatsoever, if it has been destroyed). Dead for a long time and trapped in Grazzt’s backyard? No problem!

There are also a handful of optional rules in the DMG for slowing down (8 hour short rest, 7 day long rest) or speeding up (5 minute/1 hour) resting, and for changing what you get from completing a long rest (Slow Natural Healing – you recover no hit points through a long rest, only Hit Dice). The text calls out that Slow Natural Healing is for “grittier, more realistic” campaigns without the benefits of magical healing. Let me tell you, Slow Natural Healing would mean a lot less in a party with a bard or a Life cleric. Also, spoiler, I am going to offer some additional healing and suffering-not-getting-healed options in this article.

 

Now for a quick survey of D&D-adjacent systems.

Dungeon World: The Make Camp move restores half of your maximum hit points and consumes rations; consuming rations is a bigger deal in DW than in D&D. The Last Breath move gives you a chance to avoid death or make a dire bargain with Death. Clerics also have a Resurrection spell that is costly, possibly extremely costly. Death is definitely not a joke in DW, but hit point totals are also small enough that your worst case short of death is two days of rest.

13th Age: This game’s approach to natural healing is largely subsumed in its mechanics around pacing – after every four encounters, you get a full heal-up. Full stop. (You also have healing surges for in-combat healing.) If you take a full heal-up before you should, it costs you a campaign failure, which means whatever the situation at hand says it means.

The most interesting bit is the rules around the cleric’s Resurrection spell. You can cast it a certain number of times in your whole career. It starts off quick and easy, and gradually becomes slow and costly – the fifth casting costs you your life, and has only a chance of restoring your target. Since it’s a 7th-level spell anyway, this intersects a little oddly with what may be only a few remaining sessions of the campaign.

There are also optional rules for lasting-wounds (sic), which reduce your maximum hit points until you clear them on a full heal-up. The optional Meaningful Death Rule stipulates that only named villains can kill PCs; any time you would otherwise be dead, you instead slip into a coma until your allies bring you out of danger. I want to emphasize that interpreting this from a simulationist perspective is meaningless. 13th Age is nothing if not an opinionated game, and it is impressionist and gamist rather than simulating anything at all.

Adventurer Conqueror King System: Severe wounds (that is, being deep into negative hit points) require a roll on the Mortal Wounds table, which has a pretty good chance of killing you on the spot. There are all kinds of permanent drawbacks that can come from this table, many of which may leave your character so mangled as to be unplayable in your current class. You can then try to get someone to fix these things with magic, which forces a roll on the worryingly-named Tampering With Mortality table. (I’m sure it’s fine.) The results here are more spiritually gruesome, but there are a small number of beneficial outcomes as well. All told, this is cool and flavorful stuff, though I would tweak a few results for personal taste. Adapting it into 5e would take some thought, on account of a lot of small penalty values that 5e mostly rejects as an approach (or, you know, you could just deal with it).

 

Wounds System for 5e

Over in Harbinger of Doom, I created a collection of Alternate Threat Tracks to parallel 5e’s Exhaustion track. I propose to do the same with Wounds, a subsystem that allows longer-term wounds that increase your risk of catastrophic failure (i.e., death), but let the adventure go forward rather than grind to a halt, and don’t increase the burden on the healers to spend a whole day of spells healing you.

  • Gain a Wound when you fall to 0 hit points.
  • Optionally, gain an additional Wound each time you fail a death save.
  • When you roll a natural 20 on a death save, one of your Wounds wasn’t really that bad after all.
  • Heal a Wound when you take the Recuperate action.
  • Heal, mass heal, and regenerate each immediately heal one Wound.

 

Wound Level Effect
1 Your maximum hit points decrease by an amount equal to your character level.
2 Your DC for death saving throws is now 13.
3 You gain one level of Exhaustion that you cannot remove through rest until your Wound level drops below 3.
4 When you regain hit points from magical healing or spending a hit die during a short rest, you regain half as many hit points.
5 Your DC for death saving throws is now 16, and you gain a second level of Exhaustion that you cannot remove through rest until your Wound level drops below 5.
6 When you leave initiative order (at the end of an encounter), and when you begin a long rest, roll a death saving throw. If you fail, you immediately fall to 0 hit points and begin bleeding to death.

As you see, this draws significantly on the Exhaustion table. There’s actually no reason you couldn’t use the Exhaustion table for this, but track Exhaustion (which is easy to gain and easy to lose) and Wounds (much harder to heal) separately. I’ve deliberately avoided having Wounds kill you outright. Instead, they sharply increase the odds that something else will get you, but an attentive healer can keep you alive, even if it means some meatball surgery in the 4077.

This optional rule is not for all campaigns, possibly not even for very many campaigns, but I think this or something like it is a better solution to lasting wounds and carrying over injury from one day to the next. It’s good for death to be meaningful in games, but getting knocked out of commission for multiple encounters is a recipe for that player to have a miserable game session.

 

Conclusion

The general statement of what hit points represent in D&D has, to my surprise, changed barely at all since Gygax wrote the 1e Player’s Handbook. A cursory glance at D&D memes and conversations around the game suggests strongly that a minority of players have read and internalized the idea. Hit point totals have changed, and 2e to 3.x was a huge mathematical shift that had all sorts of obscure knock-on effects, but overall, this is pretty consistent.

The rules around death and dying have gone through all kinds of changes, on the other hand. There’s a steady trend-line of designers trying to avoid situations that stop the flow of the adventure, or block a player from having fun. Balancing narrative stakes against not wanting to get kicked out of having fun is incredibly tough, and I’ll take this opportunity to remind readers that threatening the characters with death is usually the least interesting option – when you carry through with that threat, they can’t keep struggling with the problem (unless you’re in Ghostwalk), but if you systematically destroy everything they love… well, the Feels Train keeps on chugging.

Shares
  • I quite like your suggested Wound Track. I will be completely stealing it for a future campaign.

    • Thank you! I realized this morning that I forgot to add handling for when a character would take a seventh Wound. I’ll try to add that into the article today.

    • I feel like that’s the death condition of this particular doom track. Do not pass Go. Azathoth appears and the game is over.

    • I was trying to avoid having this track end in anything that was, in itself, catastrophic failure, because THAT becomes the point at which the adventure has to stop, and it stops for at least three days because that’s how Recuperate works. This is less of a problem in the Exhaustion track because the main source of Exhaustion is exploartion challenges, and having to camp for several days before you can proceed is essential to exploration fiction and the resource management of overland travel.

    • I dunno, after you’ve failed half a dozen death saves and been riddled with sword holes that many times it’s probably okay to bail on the dungeon and go spend a week patching up. At the point you’re still going with 6 wounds, you’re either absurdly unlucky or just a glutton for punishment and daring your GM to kill you.

    • You’re not wrong! I’m just grappling with some competing priorities here. =)

    • Long as it’s not 3.x grappling, you’re fine.

    • Needs more megadamage

    • crimfan

      IMO the Exhaustion system, much like Inspiration, were grafted onto D&D, which has essentially never had such things, and weren’t really thought through. In principle they’re OK as a way to represent accumulated wear and tear that doesn’t just heal up with some rest, but in execution they have some real potential to unass your game. For instance, the fact that there are essentially no ways to eliminate or even ameliorate Exhaustion levels is a great equalizer but also has a huge potential to alleviate the “five minute workday” problem because high level characters can accumulate those right quick and then have to go sit things out for a week, so narratively it’s annoying.

      There’s also a lot of missed potential, too. Spells might give Exhaustion, failing a death save might, some monsters might do Exhaustion damage… but no, none of these things.

      Your alternate tracks are nifty, especially for a horror or survival oriented game.

    • I’m a pretty avowed fan of the Exhaustion rules – have we talked about this before? – because of how they intersect with exploration challenges. I think that could have been tightened up a tiny bit more, mostly on the presentation side.

      For ways to remove Exhaustion, there’s greater restoration and its 100-gp consumed component. It’s kind of surprising that heal and mass heal don’t do anything about Exhaustion at all. I could see introducing a lower-level spell that had a chance to remove one level of Exhaustion – something like “roll 1d6; if it is less than or equal to your current level of Exhaustion, reduce Exhaustion by 1; affects up to X creatures, +1 per spell slot level.”

      The only way I’ve really seen to rack up a lot of Exhaustion quick is the Berserker’s Frenzy feature, which I hasten to agree is hot garbage. Are there other common combat sources that I’m forgetting?

      The issue really is that Exhaustion 1 is manageable, 2 is super annoying, 3 is a BAD problem (especially for rogues!), 4 is all but murderous by itself, and 5 brings gameplay to a halt. The whole subsystem exists to give exploration challenges some real teeth; the more Exhaustion is easy to acquire, the more it needs to be easy to remove, and that can only erode its sense of threat as part of exploration.

    • crimfan

      I have no inherent problem with Exhaustion and also agree that it helps reinforce the hazards of exploration, but IMO the fact that there are essentially no ways to deal with accumulated Exhaustion, not even temporarily, short of resting is a problem. Basically you’d need to use a Wish spell to deal with it. The very fact that Wish has ad hoc rules and doesn’t actually use the Exhaustion rules themselves tells me that WotC grafted it on without thinking it through.

      Here’s an example of a way to help and allow it to be more commonly applied: Have Bardic Inspiration (bleh what a horrible name given Inspiration, or vice versa) allow you to eliminate some Exhaustion for a while (say 10 minutes) or the like. You’re burning resources for it, but you can power through in the short run. However, if you cross to 6 Exhaustion you’re dead.

      You could also allow Inspiration to eliminate some Exhaustion, or burn hit dice to do it. In fact one way to represent Exhaustion without the massive game slowdown aspect that’s set up now would be for it to start burning hit dice.

      More commonly applied Exhaustion without the huge nasty character-crippling aspect has a lot of potential: Use it to allow casters to get around the need for Concentration or Attunement. Undead could do Exhaustion damage. etc.

      I consider Exhaustion as currently written a massive lost opportunity.

    • Well, again, greater restoration can do some heavy lifting and appears on the bard, cleric, and druid lists, though you’ve got to be 9th level if you want to see 5th-level spells going around.

    • crimfan

      Yes, that’s true, but let’s see… you can raise the dead(!), talk to your god, or remove 1 level of Exhaustion…. That’s why I think it’s implemented in a badly thought out and thoroughly gamist fashion. Those parts of 5E—Concentration, Attunement being the big two—are the ones I dislike the most.

      By the way, Raise Dead does not use the Exhaustion rules. 😉

    • crimfan

      If you want exploration to have consequences, why not just use the damage system and/or stat damage?

    • I’ll handle those two options as separate questions, just for clarity.

      Why not damage? WotC is imagining an exploration system in which you travel for multiple days, on a scale not entirely unfamiliar to hobbits of the Shire, and don’t have a combat encounter each day – in fact, you may have only 1-2 exploration challenge incidents each day. Since they’ve already settled on a long rest healing 100% of your hit points, that means that each night, any accumulated damage gets wiped away and you go about the next day as if nothing has happened.

      The Exhaustion system, by BEING hard to get rid of, has a chance to accumulate 1-2 levels each day… over the course of weeks of travel. The days that you accumulate one level, great. You suffer penalties for some of your rolls, maybe increasing the chance that you navigate off-course or whatever, but for the most part you sleep that night and you’re fine again. You’re incrementally increasing your chances of either taking still more time in your journey, or of gaining a second level of Exhaustion in that day. Once you accumulate 2 levels of Exhaustion in a day, one is going to carry over to the next day and you’re starting to have a problem on your hands.

      Why not stat damage? There are like two things in all of 5e that use stat damage, which means they fell juuuust short of fully expunging stat damage from the rules for some reason. Stat damage seemed like an interesting new idea and a nicely literal expression of concept when we first saw it in 3.x, but it is the very worst because recalculating bonuses on your character sheet on the fly is terrible, and the totally uneven way that various stat losses affect characters by class is sort of miserable until you get right down to the last few points of that ability score. I would not vote for stat damage for dogcatcher at this point, much less a go-to mechanic.

    • crimfan

      Journeying I’d be with you if they’d bothered to put in anything like AIME’s journey rules, but they really haven’t. Or if they did I don’t much feel it. As to consequences, hit die loss is definitely a problem that lasts across days. Characters who start their day down several hit dice definitely have a problem on their hands. It would be even more so if they’d kept something like requiring hit dice for in combat healing from 4E (one of its better ideas).

      Stat Damage I agree that stat damage is problematic due to recalculation. In that case get rid of it for the things that have it and use some kind of Exhaustion rules (not necessarily the ones they did) that stack up particular kinds of penalties, or even add your alternate wound tracks to represent different kinds of consequences—those are good ideas.

      They didn’t.

      They ended up with a bizarre mixture of isolated bits of stat damage, ad hoc consequences, and Exhaustion which triggers… when? IMO they just bungled it, as indeed they bungled a lot of the “new” things in 5E. Of course to watch Jeremy Crawford everything’s just peachy-keen….

    • I generally agree that the DMG doesn’t teach DMs how to structure exploration or social challenges, or how to establish the stakes of those sequences. This is where a rebuild of 4e’s skill challenges could carry a lot of water, but they didn’t do that. See, where I think they could have hammered out a bit more was the establishment of skills and viable consequences for failed checks, or extended challenges. They were consciously leaving this pretty loose on the skills front, so that you wouldn’t spend a ton of sequences calculating DCs and thumbing through the skills section – one of the user-unfriendly parts of 3.x skills, in my view.

      Speaking to the edition as a whole, though, I can’t agree that they bungled Exhaustion; it’s one of the better examples of stake-setting for overland travel. A lot of your examples are things they never wanted it to do, because they planned to use other tools for those things. I’m also still a strong proponent of the system as a whole, and don’t agree that they bungled a lot of 5e’s newer design tech. Fortunately for both your view and mine, it’s a hacking-friendly edition, and we can readily rework it to suit our tastes. =)

    • crimfan

      generally agree that the DMG doesn’t teach DMs how to structure exploration or social challenges, or how to establish the stakes of those sequences.

      Absolutely. I’ve hacked a version of the old skill challenge system but they blew it off in 5E, which I think is a pretty major flaw in 5E as written.

      Speaking to the edition as a whole, though, I can’t agree that they bungled Exhaustion; it’s one of the better examples of stake-setting for overland travel.

      It would be if they bothered to put in such rules, as you said. 😉

      To be utterly clear, I agree that exploration and social could use some stakes, so were 100% on that. What I disagree with is that the rules as they are currently presented give that, primarily for the reason you laid out perfectly: Lack of a system or any examples.

      They hardly ever set DCs even to the extent of giving examples. I don’t mind leaving things loose enough to let the DM adapt, but there’s a big difference between “loose” and “no system”. Right now IMO really except for combat there’s little to no system.

      In my view, the fact that rules like Exhaustion aren’t integrated with really anything else is a sign that they didn’t think it through. Ad hockery is always, invariably the spoor of bad design and 5E has a good bit of it floating around. D&D always had more than most games, of course, but I think they missed some opportunities or threw away ideas from 4E and 3.x to make things more integrated. The sum total of the Exhaustion rules are a sidebar in an appendix in the PHB and the one time it appears in the rules, the Berserker. There’s nothing connecting them to the skill system. I mean Medicine and Survival are no help… really?

      The ideas you’re pursuing have merit, IMO. Have different conditions have tracks and then skills like Medicine and Survival can actually matter by making recovery come faster or avoiding the conditions in the first place—that would really make having a character with skills like Medicine or Survival in your party valued. Right now I can’t think of a more useless skill than Medicine. This would help make the exploration aspect of the game actually have some stakes that matter.

      Then the condition can be appropriate to the challenge faced and failed. Have an exploration rule that imposes saves or skill checks, with failures giving such conditions until something removes it (rest, spell, potion, skill check by an ally, etc.)? So for example, if the characters are in a desert, they could face challenges that include sun stroke (Poisoned) or glare (Blindness), along with damage from heat. Escalation of these leads towards Prone and eventually Incapacitated. The benefit of having Fire Resistance could be pretty obvious (Advantage on the save, maybe ignore saves up to a certain DC, etc.).

    • Tim Baker

      So what did you decide should happen when a character would take a seventh wound?

    • Let’s go with:

      7: You die after one failed death save rather than three. You cannot take more than 7 Wounds.

    • Tim Baker

      Works for me!

  • Colin McLaughlin

    Did you ever look at the Black Company 3.x source book? The wound system there is one I have used a variation of in the past. I don’t remember it in great detail, but I recall it being excellent, if horrible.

    • I have the book on my shelf, but I haven’t cracked the cover in years.

  • Jimmy Deuce

    In 3.5’s Unearthed Arcana, there were two variant systems proposed that may be noteworthy:
    The injury variant has you make a fortitude save every time you’re hit in combat, with results depending on whether you fail and how much you fail by. A basic failure imposes a mounting penalty on the save for subsequent instances of damage, while failing by 10 or more makes you disabled, and if disabled any further failed save will leave you dying. There are no hit points. This is basically an adaptation of the damage system of Mutants & Masterminds and possibly other games.
    The vitality and wound points variant more explicitly splits your hit points into a pool related to your grit, will to live, luck, etcetera and a pool representing actual injury. The former scales much like hit points in the base game, while the latter barely scales. When you run out of vitality points, you’re fatigued and start taking damage to your wound points.
    There’s also some other variants on healing, massive damage rules, and death and dying, including something called reserve points that looks like a prototype of healing surges, somewhere halfway between those and natural healing.

    As you note, the idea that hit points aren’t supposed to be just physical injuries doesn’t have very much penetration, and I believe it’s in large part because the various editions of the game aren’t very consequent in reinforcing that idea after it is established once in one line, somewhere in the rules you read approximately once. It ends up feeling a little bit like lip service when there are, for example, mechanics which have you react to yourself or another character taking damage and this is framed basically always as actual injury. That kind of thing creates a disconnect, even when you accept it’s ultimately always going to be an abstraction first and foremost.

    • I somehow parted company with my treasured copy of the 3.5 Unearthed Arcana. Of all the books I’ve owned and cannot now find, only my hardcovers of Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles cause me as much aggravation.

      There are, as you suggest, a ton of variant systems for everything I’m talking about here – I also haven’t covered Ghostwalk or the Lingering Injuries system in the 5e DMG (which, to be fair, I just forgot about). For that matter, there’s a 5e Unearthed Arcana of variant rules that includes a Vitality system, but it is a hot mess of bookkeeping and failure to scale with level. I cannot recommend it in the slightest.

      I agree that there’s a lot of room for disconnect with the abstraction of hit points, and it’s hard (especially when trying to narrate a sequence dramatically) to remember that none of this stands up to close inspection, and it isn’t meant to.

    • crimfan

      I played with Vitality/Wounds quite a bit, not only in Star Wars D20 Revised but in some 3.5 games. It has its ups and downs. Criticals, for instance, went right to Wounds and thus were really nasty. Magical healing worked on Vitality as advertised but only quite slowly on Wounds, representing the decidedly non-Gygaxian reasoning that you could get your I don’t know… je ne sais quoi? back quickly but damage to your meat would take a while. It could be a bit painful at times, though, because it could be tricky to know how to deal with different situations and monsters. I’d usually just give them Wounds = Con and compute their Vitality from the rest of their hit points, which worked OK, but I did run into a few problems. 10 years have gone by so I can’t say I recall them all.

      Having had to heal from some serious injuries IRL, including major surgery, I have to say, I *wish* I recovered as quickly as PCs do, even in 1E!

  • Syd Andrews

    A fantastic article about a topic that interests me greatly. Good job!

    Looking at the comments below, it seems that the 3.5 alternate wound/injury stuff was brought up already (the stuff from 3.5’s UA supplement). I remember reading that and saying, “Oh, that’s interesting” and then moving on. And your article (and the comments) brought up the Ghostwalk book from 3.x, which I also thought was completely fascinating (and thoroughly too much work to implement in my ongoing game).

    I’ve always seen hit points as an abstraction. I recall many times stating to my players, “It is a game mechanic, not a reflection of the real world.” I used this same statement about other things as well. There are all kinds of things about hit points that really strain credulity when one stretches them to unconventional extremes. I’m always amused by the example that a 1st level 1e Magic-User had a non-zero change of being killed by one swipe of a house cat’s claw (1d4 HD for a L1 M-U, with a potential Con penalty, vs. 1d4-1 damage from a cat). So I think that ANY hit point/damage system will have issues if one is trying to be “realistic” (which is an argument I find absurd when used for a game with dragons, magic, and other non-realistic things).

    I think that in the case of establishing the “life or death” of dangerous combat, injurious traps, and ferocious house cats, one has to accept abstract methods of accounting for it. Otherwise, one would have to come up with a system that takes into account all the different ways that a weapon or spell could injure a victim, what those injuries mean (in terms of game mechanics), what defines death, differences for injuries on different species/races, and so on. For the sake of game flow, I think a system of “realism” is less desirable in this application than the abstract-but-efficient hit point method.

  • Alex Mitchell

    My biggest problem with damage and dying in the game is that there is still no (mechanically-supported) slope in the effectiveness/danger felt by the player in combat. You are as effective at 100 HP as you are at 1 HP, but when you hit 0, you’re instantly in mortal peril. Then when you’re healed above 0, you’re perfectly effective again. As a DM most interested in creating a memorable and rewarding story for my characters, I don’t like having to choose between no-risk combat, and combat that has a very real chance of ending the story for someone. Death is always a risk, but it doesn’t need to be the only real penalty of combat.

    For me, any additional or alternative rules ought to address this.

    Injuries have long been one such way to deal with the problem, although I like the idea of a wounds table that randomizes penalties rather than a chart that ticks upwards. Random penalties introduce an element of chance that I feel reinforces the risk associated with combat. I might experiment with a random wounds table that triggers at 50% HP, and again at 0 HP. I’d like to make these wounds harder to heal with magic, to remove the easy “undo button.”

    The newest house-rule I’ve instituted at my own table is a cushion below 0 HP equal to the the character’s largest maximized Hit Dice. If you go below 0, you’re unconscious, but not rolling saves for your life. This makes running a table of 1st level characters slightly less frustrating as a DM, and creates the only (mechanically-supported) way I know to render a character unconscious naturally without risking their life.

  • Alex Mitchell

    My biggest problem with damage and dying in the game is that there is still no (mechanically-supported) slope in the effectiveness/danger felt by the player in combat. You are as effective at 100 HP as you are at 1 HP, but when you hit 0, you’re instantly in mortal peril. Then when you’re healed above 0, you’re perfectly effective again. As a DM most interested in creating a memorable and rewarding story for my characters, I don’t like having to choose between no-risk combat, and combat that has a very real chance of ending the story for someone. Death is always a risk, but it doesn’t need to be the only real penalty of combat.

    For me, any additional or alternative rules ought to address this.

    Injuries have long been one such way to deal with the problem, although I personally like the idea of a wounds table that randomizes penalties rather than a track that ticks downwards. Random penalties introduce an element of chance that I feel reinforces the risk associated with combat. I might experiment with a random wounds table that triggers at 50% HP, and again at 0 HP. I’d like to make these wounds harder to heal with magic, to remove the easy “undo button.”

    The newest house-rule I’ve instituted at my own table is a cushion below 0 HP equal to the the character’s largest maximized Hit Dice. If you go below 0, you’re unconscious, but not rolling saves for your life. This makes running a table of 1st level characters slightly less frustrating as a DM, and creates the only (mechanically-supported) way I know to render a character unconscious naturally without risking their life.

    • crimfan

      A number of games have had a “death spiral” built in. The D6 system (Star Wars D6 and other WEG titles) and White Wolf/The Onyx Path’s Storyteller/Storytelling (World of Darkness, Exalted, Adventure/Aberrant/Trinity) are good examples. There are nice aspects to death spirals but they have issues too. The penalties in a death spiral game can really add up. This is really frustrating for the player because over time their character gets progressively more useless. It’s OK, to some degree, but it’s definitely “a little goes a long way”.

      The D&D family of games has had a few different attempts at a more realistic damage system, most notably Wounds/Vitality, which did have some degree of death spiral attached to it.

      Like you I find the amazing fragility of 1st level characters frustrating. As a consequence I usually start a few levels up.

    • In general, I find that people treat the death spiral as something to be strenuously avoided in design, though as your several examples indicate, that’s far from universal. I see the main problems of death spirals as:
      1. PCs almost certainly have better access to in-combat healing than the NPCs do, so one side can largely avoid interacting with the death spiral system while the other side is taking it on the chin.
      2. As a direct result, after the midpoint of an encounter, you rapidly shift into just mopping up. That is, the encounter probably becomes a foregone conclusion and loses its tension, just because one side has a pile of penalties and the other doesn’t. (In a lot of ways, 13th Age’s Escalation die pushes the same end result, but in a more exciting way – one side has a pile of bonuses and the other doesn’t.)
      3. If you have an opportunity to push someone from full health to some penalty level of the death spiral early, you’re getting even more benefit out of alpha-striking the biggest threat in any encounter. D&D as-is rewards alpha striking pretty significantly, since you can gain an edge in the action economy; ramping that up is hard to see as a benefit. (13th Age’s Escalation die specifically exists to discourage alpha-striking, by starting PCs “in the hole” and giving them bonuses to climb out. In case “alpha-strike” is unfamiliar slang, it means using your biggest attacks in the opening round, focused as much as possible on one high-value target.)

      There may be other points for this list as well, but that’s what comes to mind.

      On the fragility of 1st-level characters – I start everyone in my campaign at 1st level, and all characters receive +5 maximum hit points. It’s amazing how much of a difference just 5 hit points makes in turning the corner from feeling fragile to feeling capable.

    • crimfan

      You lay out the PC side advantage of a death spiral game, where mostly you’re playing to cripple the opposition. Vice versa in games where healing is hard, death spiral penalties can really hurt the PCs, much as too many criticals to in a regular game. I guess that’s the point, but it gets annoying and often has the effect of really slowing the action down.

      Note that both WEGD6 and Storyteller date to roughly the same time (late ’80s) and were both reacting very much to games like 1E.

      There are other death spiral games around, most of which are variations on WEGD6 and Storyteller, such as the AEG house system first in L5R and later in Seventh Sea. I’m sure there are others.

    • Alex Mitchell

      I hear what you’re saying here– and I think that 5e’s philosophy of treating PCs differently from NPCs and monsters would be the way to go. I can’t imagine that the book-keeping would be worth it for the limited verisimilitude. One reason I like the idea of a very modest PC “death spiral” (scary name!), is that it discourages a style of play where the players jump headlong into fights and don’t see the danger until it’s too late. I think it’s a more fun story if the characters finish a big fight bruised and limping, rather than dead or unscathed.

      After all, the DM can always have the goblins decide they’re too injured to continue the fight and abscond, but it will always be harder for PCs to make that choice when there isn’t anything mechanical backing it up. Why not fight yourself to 3/4 health of you have plenty of healing?

      I just mentioned this above, but I remember an interesting “grievous wounds” system in the OGL Ancients book. The mechanics seemed a little clunky, if memory serves, but it’s definitely been an inspiration for me.

    • crimfan

      I think it’s a more fun story if the characters finish a big fight bruised and limping, rather than dead or unscathed.

      In Adventures in Middle Earth, Cubicle7’s 5E OGL port of The One Ring, long rests are rare and hit dice attenuate quickly, so that represents it pretty well without making the characters feel like they suck at their core competencies. Moral of the story: To make 5E more low fantasy, cut back on healing magic and make long rests less common. PCs caution up right quick, even at high levels.

    • Alex Mitchell

      I played a lot of White Wolf back in the day, and I guess I must have appreciated that aspect of the game. I recall the OGL Ancients game having an interesting “grievous wounds” system as well.

      In a 5e-style game, I don’t think you would need to be particularly brutal, just add any sort of step between operating at 100% and dying. I’m imagining something along the lines of a randomized table with options like halving your movement, making a certain save at disadvantage, or a gnarly scar that effects social interactions until healed.

    • crimfan

      I played a lot of WW too, and it works for games like Vampire, which really aren’t heroic and where running from battle, even if you’re an insanely tough vampire of some sort, might well be the right thing to do. I think it becomes problematic in a game that’s as multi-scaled as D&D, though you’re right you can certainly add it on to a certain kind of game, sort of a “gritty” mode.

      In 2E we used to play with penalties that happened if you were driven far into negative hit points but didn’t die. It’s a sop to realism, of course.

    • Alex Mitchell

      I don’t think I really want to run what I’d call a gritty game, or even a low-fantasy one. I just want my players to feel like combat is dramatic and harrowing (and to bear some mechanical and in-game evidence of that)– without maybe accidentally killing them. If dropping PCs to below 0 HP is my only choice for mechanical consequences of a typical fight, then I need to be prepared for that character to die. As a DM, I’m unafraid to adjust my plans (and sometimes even my rolls) if I think it will make a better experience, but death saving throws are totally out of the DM’s hands (probably by design)– so I am loathe to trigger them except in the most epic of fights.

      I guess what I’d really like is something like 40% relatively easy fights where the PCs can feel powerful, 50% medium fights where maybe one or two characters are injured, and 10% deadly fights where multiple characters are injured, and there is a small possibility of death.

    • crimfan

      WotC’s “solution” to this is to make Revivify a level 3 spell and Raise Dead a level 5 spell, so obviously they think death ain’t what it used to be.

    • Alex Mitchell

      That’s a good point. And I don’t so much mind making death a non-final thing even at low levels, but I am insistent that it mean something for the characters and players. For me, that means that it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, there are some game-world consequences. I don’t feel the need to penalize characters directly in this case, but coming back from the dead is not a matter I want to be taken lightly: it provokes interest from powerful entities, may go against the beliefs of certain groups, and at the least should be accompanied by appropriately interesting special effects as a character is pulled back to the land of the living after having seen the afterlife that awaits them.

    • crimfan

      Oh I agree with you, I am not a fan of easy resurrection.

  • Episteme

    Your digression is great. Hooray for mighty Dum Fiter!

    BTW, “Lost reserves of mental durability and luck suggest that any stressful situation, including failed social encounters, might plausibly cost hit points, though 5e doesn’t follow through on this.” actually could lead to some good house rules. Given how damage and HP are the major scaling level in 5e and how some old-school folks aren’t huge fans of the larger totals, having a sort of “social combat” mechanic that can cost HP (or even award temporary HP with successes) expands the use of that metric (and perhaps offers some use to the player with lots of HP but little skill – the barbarian might not expect to make a solitary nonproficient d20 roll, but he could hold out for more attempts, basically putting up with the sort of ridicule a more worldly character wouldn’t while trying repeatedly to get his point across).

  • Mikey Kromhout

    Personally I am always amazed by how many people do not realize that HP is not just physical damage like a cut. You can see it every time the conversation comes up in a discussion and it often gets nasty.

    If you go back into classic Dragon mag or even the Strategic Review it was true then too so it is not a new problem.

    I will say though while it is true that it feels like it sucks t0 lose XP in 3e due to the weirdness that is the 3e XP system being behind in the XP can actually put you ahead of the party after doing some fights depending on circumstances. I remember this phenomena from the artificer discussions where making items cost you XP but in losing that XP and levels you could actually gain more XP from the encounters you fought in and it was possible that you could come out ahead. 3e XP tables are weird. .

  • I like the stacking effects you’ve got going in the Wounds system. I think that the DMG Lingering Injuries could be a lot of fun too though – if you expanded the wound list and restricted wound healing to high level magic slots.

    I can’t get over the plummeting cost of Revivify and Raise Dead in 5e. Raise Dead used to cost like 5,000 gp in 3.5e.

  • Wyvern

    As it happens, I was just thinking about hit points the other day. I’ve been playing a CRPG called Conclave which, when you beat a foe in combat, tells you they’ve been “defeated”. In most cases, the implication is “killed” — but after one recent fight it said “Beaten and bloodied, the boggarts drop to the ground and beg for mercy.” (I suspect this is because you were attacked due to a case of mistaken identity, and it wouldn’t make a good story if you killed them over a misunderstanding, even if it was self-defense.)

    That got me thinking: what if hit points were just the tip of the iceberg? What if we interpreted 0 hit points not as “mortally wounded”, but simply “down for the count”? That would go a long way towards explaining why D&D combatants can fight at full effectiveness until they drop. It would also justify more rapid recovery. (Paradoxically, this could mean that a high-level PC is actually *closer* to death at 0 hit points than a low-level one, because they were able to stay on their feet for longer. Which in turn would provide a rationale for why they take longer to heal to full hit points, if you’re using an older edition.)

    The other major consequence of this interpretation is that it would mitigate the issue of “heroic” PCs leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. It also means that PCs would have to deal with the ethical question of what to do with defeated enemies — which could be a plus or a minus, depending on the particular group of players and their style of play.

    • crimfan

      That’s a pretty cool idea, though it could get kind of stale in a campaign that had a lot of fighting in it… oh no, we need to decide on the fate of another defeated enemy…. In a game where out and out fighting was less common, though, or, say an Arthurian-oriented campaign, it would be pretty good. You get lots of captures and surrenders (and ransoms), including of PCs, and the moral dilemmas fit the game perfectly.

    • This is specifically why most NPCs don’t use the death save rules. They recognized that some campaigns had a step in every combat where the PCs had to decide between going from body to body slitting throats, or to leave enemies potentially-alive who might come for vengeance. (Also, asking the DM to track negative hit points and bleedout for every opponent, even in theory, is tedious.) The slitting-throats step is one that some groups accept without blinking, while others want to play more heroic characters who may kill people, but don’t go out of their way to make absosmurfly SURE that dude is dead-dead-dead unless that dude is a named villain with a track record of no-corpse-no-kill. Because it’s potentially a real bummer and time-waster in some tables (I was in a lot of groups where this was an issue) and a tedious piece of bookkeeping in a technical adherence to the rules (that most DMs, I think, didn’t do), they cut it, and most NPCs die at 0 hp unless you declare nonlethal damage while using a melee weapon.

      Circling back to Wyvern’s comment, your PCs can still open the door to that set of questions if that’s what they want, by going the nonlethal route (spellcasters can’t play along except by using sleep to finish people, or otherwise developing nonlethal spells). Otherwise, D&D wants to help you get to the next scene faster, by embracing the general convention of heroic fantasy that we don’t think real hard about the trail of bodies.

    • crimfan

      Yup. The way I do it is that if you, by happenstance, reduce an enemy to exactly 0 hit points, they aren’t dead, they’re just knocked out. It happens infrequently enough that it doesn’t present much of an issue but occasionally has an enemy that survives to be questioned, set on parole, or whatever.

      This doesn’t work for summoned creatures, constructs, undead, or the like. Those are dispelled when they hit 0.

    • I don’t know about you, but I find that enemies drop to exactly 1 hit point, and stay there long enough to possibly get one more attack, a wildly improbable amount of the time.

    • crimfan

      The way I run it you don’t need to be reduced to 1 hit point first then take 1 hit point of damage, which would be highly unlikely, just be reduced to exactly 0 from any starting point. For example, you have 21 hit points left, then take exactly 21 damage, you’re knocked out, not down and dying. It’s not super common, but it does happen. I’m not using this to keep critters alive for extra time, it’s so that there’s the occasional survivor that wasn’t just a matter of player choice. IRL there would be way more people who are in such circumstances, but I don’t want pointless and endless moral dilemmas about what to do with POWs in most games.

    • Oh, I understand what you’re suggesting, I’m just observing the statistical improbability of NPCs doing what we affectionately call the one-hit-point dance. I’m sure it is not at all a matter of confirmation bias.

      Ron Howard’s narrator voice: It was a matter of confirmation bias.

    • crimfan

      The 1 hit point dance does happen in the sense that they often get to get one more round off, but it’s not super common. However, the “I could be killed by a bit of effort” dance is not at all uncommon, especially if the players aren’t good tacticians and don’t mop up the weak in a smart way, or if the DM presses them with too many targets, which is smart tactics.

      I play with some people who are really good tacticians and pretty much never let that happen but I also play with a different group who really aren’t that good at team tactics and they don’t do the smart thing nearly often enough.

  • Tim Baker

    4e’s optional lasting injuries system was detailed in Dungeon Magazine 204. I used it for my 4e campaign, and it worked really well for my group.

    • Ah, gotcha – I didn’t see that among the top of the Google search results. Looking it up now, it seems like a pretty interesting approach, and much as I’m doing here, it emphasizes injuries mostly after combat, not accrued during same.

      It’s interesting that it’s explicitly about not killing the PCs – it’s supposed to be an alternative to death, but I suppose that makes sense. After all, there’s no amount of hit point loss that inconveniences a 4e healer for longer than one short rest. (Well, a paladin healer maybe.)

      Thanks for pointing this out to me!

    • Tim Baker

      Sure thing. I actually created a variant where characters could still die, and they accrued an injury when they fell below 0 hp. So it’s even closer to your wounds system than what’s presented in Dungeon.

      To capture this feel in 13th Age, I give PCs a negative background when they drop below 0 hp. So they may have “-5 wrenched back” or “-5 torn ligament.” For psychic damage, I’ve used “-5 severe migraine.” To prevent a death spiral, these backgrounds work just like any other background in the game — they impact skill checks, not combat. So the heroes find a way to press on and ignore the pain during combat, but when their adrenaline levels return to normal and they’re faced with a challenge, it’s harder to achieve success. I’ve noticed that many players turn to these backgrounds as a rationale for failure when they miss with an attack. “I swing with all my might, but my back spasms at exactly the wrong time, allowing the orc easily sidestep my attack.” Again, there wasn’t a mechanical impact of the injury during combat, but because it’s written on the character sheet and on the player’s mind, it gets incorporated into the narrative.

  • Tim Baker

    I wanted to mention an interesting approach to PC death from Dungeon World. On page 74, when a character misses their Last Breath move, they don’t necessarily die right away. The timing is up to the GM.

    “However, sometimes Death comes slowly. You might say ‘you have a week to live.’”

    The way my GM interpreted this was that the PC would survive the adventure but die soon afterward of internal bleeding or something similar. I liked that it didn’t make the fun come to a halt, but still gave the threat of PC death a real concern.

  • Tim Baker

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up! I appreciate you diving into each edition and providing an in-depth analysis. You do a great job of listening to your readers’ suggestions!

  • Tim Baker

    The question about how OD&D handled natural healing is an interesting one.

    In the original boxed set’s 3rd book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, the following rule is given for natural healing:

    “On the first day of complete rest no hit points will be regained, but every other day thereafter one hit point will be regained until the character is completely healed. This can take a long time.”

    I just gave the old Holmes Basic rules from 1977 a read. This little tidbit of information appears under the section for rolling hit points when creating PCs:

    “Each day of rest and recuperation back ‘home’ will regenerate 1 to 3 of his hit points for the next adventure.”

    Considering Holmes Basic only went up to level 3, this seems to me to indicate that Holmes allowed one hp of natural healing per PC level. It looks like this approach wouldn’t be taken again until 3e.

    However, Moldvay interpreted this a different way when he updated the Basic set in 1981. The Healing Wounds section states:

    “To cure wounds by resting, the wounded creature must relax in a safe place, and may do nothing but rest. Each full day of complete rest will restore 1-3 hit points (roll 1d6; 1 or 2 indicates 1; 3 or 4 indicates 2; 5 or 6 indicates 3).”

    Cook’s Expert set doesn’t have anything more to say about healing. So a 1st level PC will heal far faster than a 14th level PC (proportionally speaking).

    In the Rules Cyclopedia, while I couldn’t find a rule describing natural healing, I did find the following definition of regeneration:

    “includes all creatures that regain more than 1 hit point per day by rest or other means.”

    This implies that non-regenerating creatures regain 1 hit point per day.

    In the 1991 Dungeons & Dragons Game boxed set and the 1994 Classic D&D Game boxed set, there’s yet another variation on natural healing:

    “For each full day a character spends resting, which means doing nothing but lying in bed, he recovers 1d4 hit points.”

    • Shows what I get for rushing my research. Well done, and thank you for filling in the gaps. =)

  • Jafin

    Regarding the contradiction in the 2e rules… the entire chapter on Proficiencies has a big giant Optional plastered onto it. The assumption was that, if you used the proficiency rules, they overwrote what was written elsewhere.

    Despite all it’s inelegance… I really love 2e. There’s something appealing about the complexity… even if it is ultimately bloated and somewhat poor game design.

    • I loved 2e when it was in active publication – it was the first tabletop roleplaying game I ever played, aside from some games of my own creation. I wouldn’t go back to it for rules, but the Player’s Handbook and DMG do a surprisingly good job of expressing a compelling tone for a world of adventure, with richness and verisimilitude.

      That said, I am not sold on the idea that adding in the NWP system was consciously intended to reduce the natural healing rate. I think it was probably an editing error.

    • Tim Baker

      I hadn’t considered that adding NWP was a case of “specific overrides general” to use 5e parlance. If that was the intent for natural healing, I suspect many tables that used NWP overlooked that they should use a different set of natural healing rules (for example, my group used NWP, and I don’t remember referring to that section for natural healing rules, rather than the general rule). Then again, maybe natural healing just didn’t come up that often.

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