Negative hit points Must Die!

Over in his latest post, Bruce Cordell asks the question Should a character at negative hit points who receives healing add those points numerically to her total until she reaches consciousness, or should healing always grant positive hit points?

That is, in my opinion, the wrong question to ask.

A far better question would be Should negative hit points exist? The answer to that one is a fervent no.

I have never liked the idea of negative hit points. Even though they’ve been a part of the game (both officially and unofficially) for almost the length of the game, it still feels like cheating. It’s as if the player is at death’s door and says “oh look! I’ve just found a whole other bunch of hit points I didn’t know about! That was a close one.”. They’re just a meta-game element, and an unnecessary one at that.

At the same time, dying when you get to 0 is no fun either – these are heroes, dammit, where Death has a revolving door. Here’s what I propose. It’s neither original nor ground-breaking.

Any additional damage after your character reaches 0hp comes directly off CON. When CON hits 0, you’re dead. While the character is at 0 hit points they are unconscious (or otherwise incapacitated) but certain characters (barbarians, half-orcs and anyone else too dumb to know they’re out) may be able to take a single action before dropping.

Lost CON is considered to be temporary and does not affect the attribute modifier. A hero with CON 18 (+4 modifier) who is knocked unconscious to 0hp and takes a further 4 damage is at temporary CON 14 but still retains his +4 modifier. This keeps the in-game book-keeping to a minimum but the hero is still closer to death than he was before. If you want a real world rationale, this reflects that fact that a healthy guy with a broken arm is still healthy (but with a broken arm).

Any healing recovers lost hit points and re-awakens the character, but the damage to CON remains. This is recovered between adventures at a rate of 1 point per week (or per day, if you prefer a less gritty campaign). While a low-level Cleric can take away the pain and stop the blood coming out, these wounds take longer (or more powerful magic) to heal fully.

What this does is add a role-playing opportunities to the game. Does the hero who is down to CON 4 press on valiantly, or suggest returning to the safety of the nearest inn and chicken soup? Even though he is back at full hit points (thanks to a passing Cleric) the shadow of death is hanging over him. What would you do?

The advantage to this system is it could apply to anything which drains attributes. The same rules regarding recovery could apply to the STR Drain touch of certain undead, INT Drain from reading Tomes Man Was Not Meant to Know, and CHA Drain from appearing on Reality TV. If the poor hero is suffering from multiple stat loss, these recover at a rate of 1 point per stat per week. For example, a Wizard hit on the head by the Necronomicon and knocked unconscious (hey, it could happen) could recover both CON and INT at the same time while he recovers from the shock.

The in-game effect of this is that CON is no longer a dump stat for any class, and that’s a Good Thing. There should be no dump stats at all in the game, only choices. CON should be just as important to a Wizard as it is to a Fighter. If you want to play an unhealthy (low CON) Wizard this should be a conscious choice, and be prepared to take the consequences.

What say you?

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21 Responses

  1. Joshua says:

    Six of one, half a dozen of the other. One of the common variations on negative HP is giving characters a buffer equal to their CON instead of a fixed amount. This is just that with a different notation, though the bit about having it not heal with ordinary healing magic so there’s a limit on how many times you can rely on it is a nice twist.

    The problem, as I see it, is that 0 HP = dead is too deadly, even for non-heroes (I’ve been working on a post on that for over a week, but too busy to finish it). On the other hand, unless you introduce criticals or system shock saves or something, an HP buffer larger than what a sword or dagger can do means that it’s now impossible to kill somebody in combat with a single blow… the most you can do is incapacitate them. Maybe not even take them out of the fight, if they’ve got healing magic on their side.

  2. Every time somebody drops to 0 hp and when ever hit there after, roll on the Death and Dismemberment table. Works for me!

  3. Michael Lee says:

    I find myself frequently irritated by this conversation, as it has become all about which gritty, simulationist system feels right to the GM. Almost no one is talking about how it feels to have it rubbed in your nose that your character isn’t a real hero or how it feels to sit out a couple of hours of combat because your character got wrecked. in my experience, simulationist mechanics tend to be more fun to talk about than actually experience.

    • Mike Monaco says:

      Whoa, this comment is baffling on so many levels. I must be misreading it, because I think you are saying: heroes can’t die or be KO’d, sitting out of a fight is unacceptable, and maybe there should be no risk of death from engaging in combat. WTH?

      Heroes never die? Really? Death, or at least losing the fight, can’t be heroic? Seriously? Guess all those Viking sagas are about chumps because they die at the end.

      Regarding “sitting out of combat for 2 hours” — I may roll more old school but even when I played 4e, a combat was less than 2 hours. Still, even if it is a considerable amount of down time, you have the option of enjoying the game as an observer. If you’re saying it’s no fun to hang out at the table with your friends, I’d suggest you try playing with people you like.

      Also: are you really saying combat shouldn’t be able to result in a dead PC? I honestly don’t understand how it can be fun to fight with no prospect of ‘losing’. Remove the danger and you’re just wasting time, say ‘we win again’ and move on…

      • Kosovodad says:

        I’m all for doing away with negative hit points, but think the CON system here swaps one bit of math for another. If you want CON to affect your ability to take damage directly, then just add CON to your hit point total. Don’t bother making it a modifier. I do like the “3 strike and you’re out” system in 4ed, and you could start that when you reach 0, with no “take this much and you are dead” total needed…which never really added to the enjoyment for me anyway.

  4. Joshua says:

    @Michael Lee I’m not sure where that’s coming from, since the point of all of this seems to be making characters *more* survivable and heroic than stock “0 HP and you’re dead, roll a new one.”

  5. mutantbiker says:

    Save vs Death Ray (or Death Magic or nearest non-OSR equivalent) when a hit would take you negative. Succeed and stand at 1HP, fail & die. Keep getting hit, keep saving… keep on fighting.

    Call it “Death’s Doormat”.

    Play up the agony of being on Death’s Doormat verbally in subsequent exchanges (some bar patrons repulsed by your brown, blue & violet sky looks, others strangely attracted by the purple & hurtful).

    • Joshua says:

      Just a suggestion: “Death’s Doorway” sounds kind of cool; “Death’s Doormat” suggests Death is wiping its feet on you…

      • Aaron says:

        I agree with “Death’s Doorway” as the name, but also think it would be comical for someone’s character to frequently fail this save and thus be dubbed “Death’s Doormat.”

  6. The Old School retro-clone ‘Crypts & Things’ uses CON as the ‘negative’, much as you suggest.

    ACKS, the latest clone, have a table similar to the infamous ‘Death & Dismemberment’ table, which you roll on once the fight is over and you’re tending to the wounded. I like these best I think.

  7. Oz says:

    On one hand, it doesn’t get rid of book-keeping, you just book-keep a different number, possibly for weeks of in game time.

    However, I do like the idea of nearly dying having long-term consequences. The trick is how to keep it simple (and your suggestion is fairly simple), gritty enough to be consequential but not so bad that your players spend weeks at a time holed up in an inn licking their wounds.

    Now I have to go and chew on my homebrew rules to see how I can adapt this idea and if I like the results.

  8. I say the same thing you said to Bruce: should CON points even exist? And answer it the same way: no. Because it’s metagame-y, and CON already affects hit points, anyways.

    I don’t even like *subtracting* damage from hit points. I prefer adding up all damage. When it’s greater than or equal to hit points, the character is dead or dying. The surviving adventurers have one turn to figure something out to stop that. If the dying character receives any healing at all, the excess damage (greater than hit points) is ignored, since “damage” doesn’t really represent physical damage at all, but potentially deadly events.

    And although this may still seem pretty gritty, I allow mundane actions a chance to restore 1 point of damage, so even a party without a cleric can try bandaging wounds. I even have a “comfort” rule where doing something like drinking wine, cooking a full meal, or listening to a minstrel perform has a chance of restoring 1 point, but you can only get a max of 1 point per day from “comfort” situations (you can try as often as you want until you get that point, though.) I had one PC escape death a couple months ago because another PC gave him a sip of wine.

  9. Ed Dove says:

    I say I like this idea and am going to use it. It’s simple & easy, but also makes sense and seems realistic, too. The best of all worlds. Thanks for posting it!

  10. Todd says:

    Beacon is based on D20 but with fewer stats (Str, dex ,mind, charisma) When a character reaches 0 hp an recieves damage they start loosing points off these these until Str is 0. They gain back the stats points at a rate of 1 per day per point below their total. So 2 points str would take 2+1 days to heal but 9 points would take 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 or 45 days. This makes hp represent daily ‘fatigue’ while the stat represents real physical damage that takes longer to recover from. Hp is recovered As usual so it is common to be fully recovered from fatigue but still have penalties due to stat losses from those scrapes with death. If I was house ruling a long term od&d campaign I might consider using this approach where con 0 is death but for shorter games a death and dismemberment table might be more suitable.

    Not really useful to directly compare system mechanics out of context but it interesting to discuss approaches to this topic.

  11. drow says:

    “die at -CON hp” was a common house rule in my 3e games, while my 4e games have been going more or less by the book. negative bloodied seems too generous, even with the three failed saves rule. i’m pretty sure my 4e campaign won’t wrap before Ne is available, but if i had to start another 4e campaign, i might change it to “unconscious at 0 hp or lower, dead if you get hit again”

  12. Bunkerclub55 says:

    I read this rule somewhere and I use it for LL
    HP 0 unconscious (can be healed and can back to fight)

    HP -1 to -10 (roll system shock if failed he dies, if successful he’s unconscious, can’t be healed, after 1D4 turns he will stand again with 1 HP, if at the end of the fight his body is left on the field he’s dead/captured)

    HP -11 dead

  13. The advantage of this rule over the traditional -con is that it represents a threshold for getting knocked out multiple times, without having to do the bookkeeping of recalculating your constitution of alternate systems. I think this strikes a nice balance between the ‘gritty’ and the ‘heroic’ – you have to be careful about being a punching bag, but your character isn’t so fragile that you have to fret over every nick and scratch being fatal.

  14. Liam C Brennan says:

    Can’t stand the bookkeeping myself so I houserule that if a PC is reduced to zero or less HP he’s “mortally wounded”. A mortally wounded character can’t do anything except take movement actions and any additional damage results in a save-or-die saving throw. Healing assumes that the PC has zero HP while mortally wounded and must make a successful saving throw after a day’s full rest before normal healing begins to kick in.

  15. Kirwyn says:

    I do not really like negative hit points, so much so that I was an early adopter of the 4E save or get worse die rolling. I do not count negative hit points, keep track of them or anything. I have had players die from falling with these rules so I think they’re gritty enough to bring tension and drama to the table. I start healing at zero, because D&D is a lot like sex, more fun to play than to watch. I like that system because it is simple, retains the “Heroic” feel of hero’s and is minimal book keeping.

  16. Ben McKenzie says:

    I agree that negative hit points are a complication we can maybe do without, but I think your CON damage system is more complicated. Negative hit points aren’t additional hit points: they’re a simple mechanical way of limiting the maximum damage a dying character can take without actually dying. If we’re getting rid of them, I think it’s best to do away with beyond zero point tracking altogether.

    I’m a big fan of the death save mechanic; at 0 HP you’re dying, but no-one knows how long you’ll last, creating real tension in combat. The only reason negative hit points also exist is to allow the bad guys the option of outright killing unconscious characters, and to give them a chance of failure (i.e. will they do enough damage with their attack?). You probably do need this if you want to differentiate between KO’d and dead, so here’s my suggestion:

    * stop counting HP at zero;
    * keep death saves;
    * provoke a death save whenever a dying character is damaged.

    This last one is essentially a modification of coup de grace rules, and adds to the tension; sure, your unconscious and bleeding half-orc die might die (i.e. fail an extra death save) when the dark elf twists the knife in his back, but there’s a small chance (i.e. rolling a 20) that he’ll be shocked into consciousness and get back in the fight.

    I like 4E’s damage rules precisely because they’re simple while preserving a real danger of death, and the tension when you get to zero hit points is something I’d never experienced in earlier editions. And if you want lingering injury, it’s kind of already there in the death save system: fail one and that failure hangs around until you get to properly recuperate, making you more likely to die. Easily represented in the fiction as a damaged organ or fractured bone. For a more complex system that takes longer to heal, I like the disease rules, though how they’re inflicted is largely up to the DM.

    • Rob says:

      I think you’ve got this bang on Ben.

      I was thinking the same thing myself as I was reading the OP and comments and then “whoa!”, someone had already posted for me ;)

      Think I’ll implement this even if they don’t use something very similar for DDNext.

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