The Problem of Hit-Points

The issue of hit-points, and exactly what it is that they represent in D&D, is something that has troubled me over the years.

Not that it's troubled me much, you understand — I certainly haven't ever lost any sleep over it.

Anyway, what are these "hit-points"? To what extent do they represent actual physical damage, and how much is luck, fatigue and so forth?

  • Clearly, they largely reflect a level-based increase in defensive skill, luck, the protection of the gods, or whatever. It's ludicrous to think that an experienced warrior would be able to absorb ten or twenty times as much physical damage as an inexperienced one. Granted, physical training and combat experience does bump up one's ability to soak up the smacking, but not to that sort of extent.
  • Clearly, the loss of a single hit-point must mean that the character (or critter) has taken some physical damage, however slight. Otherwise the venom/poison mechanisms wouldn't work, and would have to be extensively rejigged — and frankly, bugger that for a game of soldiers.
  • Clearly, they have little to do with fatigue. If they did reflect fatigue, a heavily armoured knight wielding a greatsword should take more hits per successful attack than an equally fit but unarmoured yokel with a knife. Also, if hit-points were some sort of fatigue mechanism, the character's fighting ability should decrease as hit-points are lost (i.e. as fatigue builds up). That isn't the case; a character fights as well at one hit-point as they do at full health (although they do gradually become easier to kill, I suppose).

I'm sure you get my point; I won't belabour it any further.

Anyway, the point of all this preamble is really just to introduce the method I intend to introduce for rationalizing hit-points and damage. Note that this method is hardly startling or original; I'm sure there are dozens of systems that do something like it.


Hit-points primarily represent luck and defensive ability. The loss of a hit-point does indicate some slight physical damage (so that venoms still work), but it is confined to largely irrelevant scratches and bruises. Apart from making it easier for the next blow to kill you, the loss of hit-points has no mechanical effect. Hit-points are easy to heal.

A character's actual physical resilience is represented by their Constitution, and actual physical damage is taken directly from CON. When a character reaches zero CON, they die. CON damage is hard to heal.

Such situations include:
  • When attacked by surprise in a back-stabbing situation — you'd get a saving throw to take the damage as normal hit-point damage instead.
  • If you are attacked when completely helpless (the old dagger-through-the-visor-of-the-paralyzed-knight trick)
  • When you have no hit-points left. This would be the most common situation; damage is taken point-for-point against CON. If you have 3hp left and take 6 points damage, you'd take 3 points of CON damage.
  • When you take falling damage — damage is determined normally at 1d6 per 10' fallen to a maximum of 20d6; if a die shows a 1 it does no CON damage, 2-5 does 1 point of CON damage, and a 6 does 2 CON damage. This system could also be used when immersed in lava, or doused with acid, bleeding from a Sword of Wounding, or whatever.
This list is not by any means exclusive.

With this method, high-CON characters do get a double-bite at the cherry since they not only get more hit-points, but can also take more below-zero hits without dying. Personally, I don't care about that. So having CON is good, so what?

This system still doesn't address the deleterious effects of fatigue, but meh, shrug. If it's relevant, it's a simple matter to apply a progressive penalty to all die rolls.


  1. Good post.

    I've thought about something similar, but also thought of having certain percentage losses of HPs mean "real" wound damage (i.e. CON based) and speeding up the healing time of hit points.

  2. This is more or less exactly like the Wound/Vitality system as presented in the Star Wars d20 system. From the top of my head, the difference is that in SWd20 a critical hit also dealt Wound (Con) damage.

    That said, I agree with you on all points. Vanilla HPs goes a long way towards ruining the suspension of disbelief for me.

  3. A similar system turned up in White Dwarf 15. You got back CON points at 1 point per full day of rest. HP recovery was much quicker on an almost a turn by turn basis, when resting on the second and successive turns folks regained 4 or 5 hp (forget which). CON was damaged as pretty much as per this post but any hit roll that was more then 5 pts over the required roll did CON damage instead of HP damage. There were some modifiers to combat rolls for losing HP at certain percentages and CON loss, such modifiers add even more complexity.
    To keep players encouraged and engaged in such a system you have to keep track of monster HP and CON so you are adding more record keeping to combat.
    PC's end up getting 10 more hp at 1st level. Orcs, goblins and kobolds are harder to beat (if monsters get treated as do PCs)
    I like a system similar to this but it does add complexity to the game.

  4. Here's the Wounds/Vitality system from Unearthed Arcana, if it would help:

    With Regards,