Save or Die revisited

Setting the Stage

Today Jeffro Johnson linked to a post by The Frisky Pagan where the author analyzes in some depth that Hit Points aren’t really wound points, and why. I pointed out what I call “The Quote,” which is found on p. 82 of the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide:

“It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.”

Frisky acknowledged gracefully that reading the original source material is good – in his defense, I think Jeffro has articulated before that no one really knows or can suss out completely all of the gems buried in the barely-edited, scarcely-organized AD&D books.

But that’s not why I’m posting – even though The Frisky Pagan’s post is basically a giant endorsement of the tack I’m taking in Dragon Heresy.

No, the cool bits happened in the comments for Jeffro’s post.

Robert Weaver says:

Take note of the separate “saving throw” system. I recently had some low-level (2-3) fighters take on a group of black widow spiders. Their bite attack is towards HP, but their poison is not. With poison, it’s you (come on now, say it with me) Save or Die. Yes, a higher-level PC has a lower saving throw, but it’s still not HP loss, just death or poison resisted. That puts poison and magic outside the realm of quantified physical trauma. That you can interpret concretely, but HP is more abstracted.

OK, that’s interesting, and a good point. Whereas losing hit points is losing the “commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations,” etc, a saving throw usually represents stuff like “did you get out of the way of the dragon’s breath, or not?” “Did you get hit by the poison needle, or not?” “Did the zombie bite you and infect you, so you’re going to die, or did his teeth not peneetrate your clothing, or some other lucky break?”

Then Alexander Macris, author of ACKS and head of Autarch LLC, chimed in with this:

Alexander Machris says:

This is one of my all-time favorite topics. I think the reason for the confusion about D&D’s hit points system is that the abstract nature of the hp system is not correctly implemented throughout the game.

The upcoming ACKS Heroic Fantasy Companion has a whole section on this topic:
“Hit points are not a direct representation of the character’s capacity to receive physical injury… Rather, they represent a holistic combination of fighting skill, stamina, luck, and the favor of the gods, all of which contribute to helping the character roll with blows and survive attacks that would have killed a lesser combatant. Therefore, the amount of damage a weapon deals must be understood relative to the hit points of the character struck. It is the percentage of hit points lost, not the raw number lost, that indicates how physically wounded a character or monster is… However, in virtually every retro-clone (including ACKS), the elegant abstraction of hit points is marred by an asymmetry between damage and healing. Consider two characters, a normal man with 5 hp and an epic hero with 40 hp. When the normal man is dealt 4 points of damage by a sword, this is a grievous blow (80% of his hit points); when the epic hero is dealt the same 4 points of damage, this is merely a flesh wound (10% of his hp). This is exactly as it should be. Yet when the epic hero is treated with cure light wounds, he recovers 1d6+1 points of damage – enough to repair a light wound, as the spell suggests; while when the normal man is treated with cure light wounds, he is likely to recover from what we just said was a grievous blow that brought him near death….”

To fix this asymmetry, The Heroic Fantasy Companion offers rules for proportional healing. They also include some modified rules for armor class to reflect similar concerns. And I’ve written on the way Saving Throws & HP/Attacks interact.

Doug’s DRAGON HERESY rules offer an alternate method, I would argue even more elegant, of addressing this issues. They are in fact so good I may use them for a future / cyberpunk ACKS.

Well, first of all, knock me over with a feather. I should say that the admiration is mutual – I absolutely stole, with permission, Alex’s ACKS-based domain management system for Dragon Heresy, and updated it for SRD5.1, because it’s awesome.

But this also brings up a neat point about healing potions.

Save vs Impalement

So, the first thing is – not to undercut my own system here – but what if upon reaching zero Hit Points you didn’t just drop to the ground?

Maybe you then have to start making a weapon-based Saving throw every time you’re attacked? Or maybe just Dexterity, or Reflex save? What’s the target number?

The attack roll.

If you fail, you take the damage directly against a wound total. Maybe equal to your CON. Above half, you’re KO’d. Above CON, you’re dead. From 1 to half CON, and you’d need some deleterious effect – a “Wounded” condition. In Fifth Edition, you’d have disadvantage on attacks, saving throws, and ability checks, and your foes would have advantage on attacks against you. In Pathfinder, perhaps you’d take a -3 or -5 to all of those, and your foes would attack you at +5. In OSR games, I’d probably back it down to +/-3 instead of +/-5, due to the relative paucity of bonuses.

But this would make it pretty clear – HP aren’t wounds. And it would also avoid some of the “light switch” behavior you get, where you go from hale and robust to unconscious and/or dying with little or no transition.

You could change the saving throw to be made with your weapon skill (an attack roll) if you wanted, but your skill has run out. That’s the meaning of being out of hit points. So it should probably be something fundamental.

Short and Long Rests Revisited

Again, one of the reasons for the design decisions made in Dragon Heresy was some fairly pointed commentary by some of my OSR friends about the perceived evils of the short and long rest in Fifth Edition.

Well, combine the Dexterity-based “avoid getting impaled” saving throws above with Alex’s proportional recovery concept and you neatly sidestep that. Short rests can only restore Hit Points, never wounds. Long rests might restore most or all of your Hit Points, but a fraction of your wounds. Maybe only one at a time. And maybe only with a CON or Fortitude save.

Again – that’s what I did in Dragon Heresy, though with some differences. Still – now “cure light wounds” might only give you back 10-40% of your starting hit points, or 1d4 wounds. Not both, and wounds get healed first. A Major Healing potion might give back 50-100% of Hit Points, or 1d6+4 x10%, or just 1d6+4 wounds.

Parting Shot

If you combine these, you don’t completely obviate Dragon Heresy. If that were true, I wouldn’t post. (Kidding. Mostly.)

But it would be a way to take the parts that have caused no small amount of head-scratching over the hears and rationalize them with the way folks tend to think about things. Or, to quote my own introduction (part of it) from The Book of Heroes:

The Mysterious Hit Point

Hit Points have always been . . . a bit odd. Gary Gygax noted that it is unreasonable to assume that an experienced character can be physically stabbed with a sword bunches more than a novice. The hit point total represented everything from skill to grit to actively warding off blows, some of this and all of this in combination.

From that perspective, resting to recover your fighting reserve makes fine sense. From another perspective, when one makes a “hit roll,” one often visualizes actually hitting. Other games make this explicit, using an attack roll, an active defense roll, and even after all that, any damage must punch through armor worn to inflict injury. It’s easy to explain precisely what happened, as every step of the way has been made mechanically explicit. On the other hand, that’s a lot of die rolling, and negating a hit with a defense roll can feel like a loss of agency. Both are valid approaches, though this game has chosen to retain a version of the static target number.

If a ruleset could unify the game mechanics with the narrative associated with them, it would leverage an excellent rules base while avoiding some of the cognitive dissonance engendered when the narrative and mechanics are perceived to clash.

3 thoughts on “Save or Die revisited

  1. Healing magic was what lead me to think about this stuff, and that made me read more about classic D&D. My interest in old D&D version is archeological since I’m too young to have played those games, and my experience with RPGs is more theoretical than practical.

    My next post in the series will be about that, and one (there are many) solution to those “problems” (they aren’t really game problems, but interpretation issues) is simply to change the name of the spell. From “Cure [intensity] wounds,” which certainly doesn’t make sense if the damage is proportional to the HP pool of the character, to “Cure a wound” (instead of Light woundS.) More powerful versions could be renamed to “Cure multiple wounds” or simply “Cure wounds II, III, IV” etc., without bothering to imply what is being healed.

    The idea is that an average human will probably be almost dead after a single hit (being stabbed), so the cleric is laying hands or touching the wound and healing A single deadly stab wound. On the other hand, more powerful characters would dodge those potentially deadly hits but would end up covered with minor cuts, fractures, and so on. In other words, what matters is not how deep the wound is, but how many of them are there. So, “Cure critical wounds” wouldn’t heal any critical wound (that depends on the character,) but MANY wounds (critical or not.)

    I also believe that this systems/interpretation works better with the optional rule of negative HP, which are used to simulate those deadly wounds where there is internal damage, and you need immediate medical attention. Anything above that level, however, should be interpreted as minor or moderate wounds or, in some contexts, psychological “damage” or even fatigue. Of course, it’s up to the DM, and sometimes some descriptions work better than others depending on the context.

  2. Star Wars d20 had Vitality Points (which were basically just hit points renamed) and Wound Points (which was … I think … the CON score?) Critical hits went against the WPs instead of VPs, and it did take a bit of reminding to the players that VPs/HPs weren’t physical damage but reflecting nicks and small cuts and light bruises and general exhaustion…

    My face-to-face group is playing the Pathfinder “Kingmaker” campaign and every time I turn around, I keep finding myself disliking “Hit Points” because I always seem to fricking forget that’s not entirely physical damage…

    Looking forward to seeing how you do it with Dragon Heresy (even though I know nothing about 5E at the moment.)

    1. I basically re-invented wounds and vitality. There are some differences in implementation (not just raw CON score, and there are ways to burn vigor to avoid taking wounds), but basically yeah. That system works well.

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