Rules Bit (D&D): Real Hit Points for Real People

Intro: “Can I have some real hit points, please?”

As we all know, D&D has that “hit point thing” going on. I’m not here to put it down or even debate it. In fact, I’m fine with D&D hit points as some opaque, totally unrealistic luck-plus-heroics-plus-partial-defense cinematic furball, as long as the game presents it as such, and players accept it as such. I wouldn’t design a new game, even a cinematic fantasy one, using hit points in the same way, true – but still, where’s the harm?

It’s hard, though, to like the tremendous disparity in hit points, especially at first or second Level. Any “normal” human, even a beginning PC (hero material, mind you!), is quickly dispatched by anything resembling combat. Even, infamously, a tussle with a house cat.

When I heard years ago that D&D 3rd edition was coming, I had a small idea for making low-Level hit points more palatable. Now, I’ll admit I’m way out on a limb with this one. I haven’t even played D&D since its “Advanced” days, and for all I know, my “suggestion” below is already widely discussed (and debunked?), or house-ruled, or even an official part of some other d20 offerings. And it’s only an idea for a rules nugget, needing fleshing out by an actual D&D player.

But with nowhere else to record this idea, here it is:

The rule

  • Starting HP for any Level 0 character equals Constitution.
  • For large and small creatures, multiply Starting HP by the Carrying Capacity multipliers (Player’s Handbook p142), rounding up.
  • On top of starting HP, add normal Level-based HP.

Variants and options

Would negative Starting HP make a good death threshold, rather than a flat -10 HP? (Or am I misremembering that -10 from older versions and/or legend?) I don’t have the answer, so discuss among yourselves.

When to use it

This is intended to inject some GURPS-like sensibility into the HP matter. All creatures will gain sensible – dare I say “realistic”? – minimum HP, determined by overall size and health. Even huge monsters will automatically have appropriately impressive HP, with or without high levels to boot.

Yet Levels will continue to pile on their usual added HP, representing luck and defenses and what not. You’ll still achieve astronomical HP in high-Level PCs, if a more modest multiple of “normal” human HP.

Overall, it seems a naturally good idea for a D&D game, leaving fewer Level 0 peasant corpses in Garfield’s wake. Yet there’s a big piece missing:

Status

It’s nothing more than an idea; I haven’t played it. And before anyone does, a D&D rules whiz should examine it with an eye toward game balance at low Levels. Is an overall little boost in damage (for weapons, spells, punches etc.) called for, now that low-Level humans have HP 10 instead of 3 or 4? Or are swords and knives still sufficiently dangerous to HP 10 normals? I’m not a good judge.

Designer’s notes

Nothing more!

Conclusion

I’m curious: do “d20 Modern” or other variants already use HP based on Constitution or Strength or some such, rather than D&D-like Level alone? If so, then I’m only re-creating an existing idea; sorry.

In any case, I’m glad to finally write this down. 🙂

8 Comments

  • tussock

    Star Wars d20 used Con for Hit Points, forever. HP for level were called Vitality. Until you ran out of Vitality only surprise attacks and critical hit could damage hit points. It caught on for a while in various games, then died out as ever more PCs went down to crits and surprise rounds at mid-high level.

    DnD presented optional rules in Unearthed Arcana that did similar.

    The newer Star Wars Saga edition starts “heroic” characters (all PCs and leader-type NPCs) with triple maximum class HP, 18/24/30 + (0-4) Con bonus. Weapons are more deadly than DnD for average characters, but still weak compared to a 1/2 Orc Barbarian with a greataxe. SWS characters automatically do more damage with weapons as they improve (+ half level, over 3d8 base for a blaster).
    4th edition DnD is going to copy that to some extent, at least for HP.

    That’s mostly copied from Iron Heroes d20, I think. Seems a lot of people were skipping 1st and 2nd level play, so characters are made start out more like 3rd level for survivability.

    Negative HPs are gradually being changed too, typically to be used as a fixed 9 round counter for those who’ve run out of HP, with every attack while helpless like that needing a save to avoid dying but not otherwise affecting the counter.

    Personally I’ve house ruled similar for a while. Heroes start with 2nd level hit points (mooks still only get around 5), and once you’ve run out you start suffering limited amounts of Con damage, needing a save each round to stay active, and need to save or die vs any attacks (including the one that removed your last HP). Con can also be lightly damaged by spells and critical hits.

    Sounds more and more like GURPS, really. 8]

    • tbone

      Yeah, your description of Star Wars d20 sounds like exactly what I had in mind: start with some “realistic” measure of HP, and let the cinematic “heroic luck” HP stack on top of that. (And I’m not at all surprised that someone else – even a major game – had the idea long before me; it seems an obvious one. Oh well, I don’t get to claim any originality credit here. : )

      It sounds like a pretty workable solution for a Star War-type game: the heroes will normally not get hurt in any real way (loss of Vitality only), but theoretically could be hurt by, say, a knife in the back. It’s interesting that it didn’t work out so well in practice (as you note).

      Well, how to keep the PCs in mortal danger yet not actually dead – it’s the eternal RPG challenge!

  • crispythemighty

    I’m going to try to stay on topic and not rant about the different parts on DnD that bother me.

    I like this idea. If for nothing else the effect it has on your average NPC. Those human peasants might actually have enough hit points to survive an attack from an orc or gnoll band when their town is attacked. Larger monsters don’t need to be really high level (which effects attack and saves) to have some staying power.

    Although it has some effect on the survivability of the smaller race (which usually have something to make up for it). Halfling rogue’s hit would have 13 on average (3/4 of con+6+con mod) where a human rogue would have 16 on average. It is still a boost and I personally like smaller races getting less from this… it just makes sense to me.

    The kitten verses level 1 commoner battle changes a bit (still in the kittens favor with higher AC and attack) with the kitten having 9 hit points and human commoner having 12 hit points instead of being tied at 2 hp.

    Overall it makes a good house rules at low levels. Makes no real difference in the long run to PCs.

    • tbone

      Turns out it’s not an original idea by any means (see other comments), but it’s likeable all the same. Glad you agree.

      How do you figure the kitten HP? From size, it’d be Constitution x 1/2. Actually, that’s for a cat; a kitten would sensibly have less, though the game doesn’t provide for a kitten-sized multiplier just under x1/2. I’d adjust it by fiat, as DM, or start the kitten with a lower Constitution than a cat. Either way, I’m thinking you can easily set the kitten to 4 or 5 HP, assuming modest Constitution, unless I’m missing something else that resulted in your 9.

      4-5 HP still seems pretty robust for a kitten, unless system-wide damage is also boosted a bit to compensate for this rule’s overall HP increases. (I imagine that’d be a pain to implement!) But any widening of the kitten/human HP gap beyond existing RAW numbers is a good thing, so I think this article’s new rule suggestion is a nice one, regardless of implementation details.

      (Only 2 HP for an average non-hero human under existing rules? Wow, that’s about the same as a Car Wars human! : )

  • Esteemed Visitor

    If you base hit points on Strength in D&D like you do in Gulliver and Gurps 4e, instead of Constitution, it’s a lot better I think. For instance, cats have a Strength of 3. and a normal rat has Strength of 1, which is and should be well below your average person.

    • tbone

      A good suggestion. Use ST as the initial HP base, and all creatures will have reasonable HP (before additions for level).

      The only downside is that HT ceases to play a role in HP for these creatures. I suppose the answer would be to create some HT-based multiplier for those starting HP. Then again, it’s not terribly important, either; it’s not like D&D’s HP represent some sort of detailed simulation calling for precision calculations!

  • Matthias von Schwarzwald

    It may interest you to know that PCs (and NPCs built as PCs) in D&D 5e automatically get the max roll on their Hit Die at 1st level and can take the average (rounded up) at each subsequent level. Also, wizards and sorcerers now use a d6 Hit Die instead of a d4.

    A human commoner only has 4 (1d8) HP, though, so a character with 16 Strength (entirely reasonable for a 1st-level barbarian, fighter, or paladin) can knock out (or kill) one with a single punch.

    • tbone

      I know the business of “max HP at 1st level” has floated around as a house rule or option for some time; I didn’t know it was a 5e rule. And I didn’t know that magic-users got a Hit Die upgrade. Interesting!

      It still leaves me wondering why randomly-rolled HP exists at all, though. Two fighters each progress to Level 10; one has HP 57, the other HP 63, through luck of the dice alone. What’s the point of that? What good does that difference serve? (Same with randomly rolled stats, too: Why? What’s served by that?)

      Well, file that away under “Generic (and really old) dissatisfactions with D&D”. From an avowed point-buy partisan, anyway.

      Thanks for the comment!

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