1000 Ways To Die – Lethality in DnD


March 15, 2012 by deadorcs

The Dungeon Master rolled her dice and looked over her screen to Jim. Jim’s fighter had been doing fine, but the Bugbear’s last attack had been brutal. Low on hit points, Jim waited for the DM to call out how much damage he’d taken.

“The Bugbear’s axe comes down on you with a brutal slash! The blow does 12 hit points of damage to Cragmore, Jim. What does that bring him down to?”

Jim did the quick but unfortunate math, noticing that his fighter only had 9  hit points left.  “Crud. It looks like I’m down to -3 hit points. I guess that means I’m…”

We’re going to leave Jim and the unfortunate Cragmore hanging here for a minute, because what I’m going to talk about today, has a direct impact on the fate of Jim’s character. Today, I’m going to continue our discussion about lethality in Dungeons and Dragons.

If you’ll remember in last week’s post, I talked a bit about how saving throws might change in the next iteration of DnD. There wasn’t a lot of fondness for my recommendation, but that’s okay. What is clear, is that it seems to be a pretty important topic, and there was lots of great feedback. While saving throws are big part of the lethality equation when it comes to DnD, it’s not the only part. Today, I want to talk about hit points, character death, and how those things factor in determining the lethality of the next version of DnD.


For every single version of DnD, hit points have been the primary means of keeping track of a character’s overall health. Unless you are VERY new to the game, it’s pretty much understood that hit points don’t represent just your physical health, but also your level of fatigue, mental state, and etc. It’s a great way to abstract your ability to carry on the fight, without having to weigh in complicated factors such as specific wounds and the reality of actual swordplay. Hit points for heroes have been getting steadily greater as the versions have progressed. A Wizard in ODnD, for example, could have from 1 to 4 hit points. Perhaps as much as 6 if his Constitution was really high. A Wizard in 4th Edition, however, can have as many as 20 hit points. More, if certain feats are selected. For the most part, the corresponding hit points of monsters has increased as well. A Goblin in AD&D had 1d4 hit points. A Goblin in 4th Edition (assuming a non-minion) can have 25.  Again, that’s about 4 times the number of hit points it originally had.

Why is this important? Well, for the most part, weapon damage (the kind of damage low level characters are most likely to encounter) hasn’t changed much. The result you get is that as the editions progress, you’re likely to last longer in a fight. Hence, the lethality of the game has decreased. Of course, this analysis has been done with a very broad brush, but I think the general principle is true. The issue then is this: should we continue with bloating up hit point totals, or should DnDNext dial it back some?

I’m actually in favor of using CON as the standard for all hit points – regardless of class. In previous editions it was assumed that those character classes taking the brunt of the attacks (Fighters, Paladins, etc.) would have more hit points. Let’s leave this idea behind for the next edition. Base starting hit points on your CON score. Then at each level, give everyone the same hit dice (remember THAT old term). Maybe every character gets 1d6 + CON bonus in hit points at each level. Set up monsters with a separate (but balanced) version to keep up. OR, give monsters a CON score so that appropriate hit points can be configured (which I believe is a system similar to what 3.x used).


Rule #1 – Hit points run out. Rule #2 – Players can’t change Rule #1. It’s true. At some point, the hit points that you’ve dutifully added to your character sheet are going to run out. Healing spells notwithstanding, at some point, that total is going to get low enough that bad things are going to happen. Referring back to the example at the top of this post, we have to ask, “What about poor Cragmore?”

Well, the different editions of the game have answered this in different ways. In OD&D, if you reach 0 hit points, you’re dead – do not pass unconsciousness and do not collect 200 gold pieces. In later editions of the game from AD&D to 3.x, 0 hit points was unconscious and -10 meant death. I also believe (if memory serves) if a single blow brings you to -3 hit points, you’re dead anyway. (I think that was in AD&D, though – feel free to correct me on those). The 4th Edition of DnD really stretched this limit, allowing a character to survive a negative total of hit points equal to their bloodied level. A character with 100 hit points could cling to life at -49 points! While that last bit of hit point math is very generous to players, I have to wonder if maybe the next version of the game could use a return to some older methods.

My own thought (wishful though it may be), is to return to a 0 = unconscious/-CON score equals death. This is pretty close to the way 3.x had it. However, I would add a twist. Any character that drops below 1/4 of his CON score, is going to be scarred for life. How? Ability Scores. As the player wishes, when dropped by such a powerful blow, that player removes 1 point from a single Ability Score. This can represent the player being horribly scarred, physically debilitated, or terribly demoralized by such a powerful injury. At the same time, certain powerful spells (such as Restoration) could be used to heal Ability Score points lost in this fashion. I know Ability Scores seem sacrosanct to some, but I’m all in favor of them being a workhorse mechanic for determining physical and mental effects that occur to the character.

So let’s get back to our scenario. We left Cragmore wounded and dying on the battlefield. By the rules considerations given above, he is at -3 hit points and thus unconscious. The battle continues to rage around him. Finally, the Cleric in the party reaches him 4 rounds later. Cragmore’s lost 4 additional hit points, bringing his total to -7. Cragmore’s CON is 16, so he can only survive unscathed if he was at -4 hit points or better. When the Cleric finally heals him, Jim (Cragmore’s player) must now decide what Ability Score he’ll remove a point from. Jim decides on CHA, and figures the Bugbear’s blow left him with a horrific scar that now terrifies small children.

I have feeling that no matter how hit points are handled in the next edition of the game, it will be somewhat less generous to the way the 4th Edition does it now. That’s neither a good or bad thing, but players might want to start thinking twice before charging into that room where above the door, “CERTAIN DEATH AWAITS” is written for all to see.


My name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game.



2 thoughts on “1000 Ways To Die – Lethality in DnD

  1. Alphastream says:

    I enjoyed this read greatly. It led me to finally update my own blog with a combination of thinking about D&D Next and looking back at the first Holmes D&D Basic set.

    Overall, I really like 4Es advances. And I remain absolutely convinced that 4E can be a very lethal system. In fact, I like that the PCs have the insulation against damage that gives me greater time to create a narrative around the combat and the challenge. You aren’t just getting hit and dropping in round 1 and dying; the battle is evolving and the pressure is mounting, all while various resolutions can take place (search the idol, stop the fleeing cultist, undo the curse, etc.). The survivability of PCs helps make that possible. In both my campaign and organized play I see bloodied PCs and exciting challenges everywhere.

    But, I also recognize that for most DMs this isn’t the case. The game doesn’t teach DMs how to tweak 4E and the earlier releases (MMI and MMII, etc.) play poorly. The result is many tables where the challenge level is dissatisfying and DMs feel powerless. I don’t blame any one 4E innovation, but rather the whole of them additively. The set ends up being too strong. For D&D Next I would like to see small tweaks, not massive upheaval. I really like the bulk of the innovations and find they jive with current play styles (such as a narrative around the PCs instead of just the adventure).

  2. David says:

    Some interesting ideas. I too think DnD has become too generous with the hit points.

    I have been playing a number of other systems as of late which handle death and dying in different ways. In retrospect, I think one of my favorite aspects of some of these systems is how difficult it is to raise ones hit points. You dont get more HP at regular intervals. It is still possible to increase survivability, but it is more a concentrated choice to do so at the expense of other things. In Fantasy Flights Black Crusade, you can spend experience on a talent(read: Feat) that gives you 1 more hit point. Outside of that, there are very few ways to increase the stat outside of gear (which provides damage reduction, not hit points).

    Not gaining hit points as one levels would be an ENORMOUS paradigm shift for DnD, but it is something worth thinking about – Combat is more tense and this amplifies the other aspects of your character. I have always thought it was silly that a level 10 wizard could beat up a level 1 fighter using melee attacks.

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