Wednesday, June 21, 2017

House Rules: Death and Dying In the Desert

So one of the things I’ve always been irritated with DnD about is the abstract and completely divorced from reality nature of hit points and dying. In the current edition, you drop unconscious at 0 hit points and then have to make death saves. Which are DC 10 d20 rolls  where you either stabilize or die. Three failed death saves in a day and you die. There are other rules for rolling bad on death saves, being attacked while at 0 hit points, rolling a natural 20, and so on and so forth. But here’s the thing that really bugs me, the thing that has always bugged me. Regardless of what your current hit point total is, how many death saves you’ve failed today, and how many hit dice you have left, you are as fine as you are when you’ve just finished a long rest. You operate at peak efficiency regardless of how numerically rough your health is at a given moment. I understand it, but it aggravates me. There should be a cost to getting into combat repeatedly and throwing yourself into the meat grinder with wild abandon, and there isn’t.

On a side note, would you like to know the name of a system that abstracts health and wellness and death and dying but has statistical penalties for having low hit points and low reserves of energy and treats combat like it is always a dangerous thing to engage in? Fucking GURPS.

GURPS treats combat like it is deadly and risky and you can get pretty fucked up in any fight because fights are chaotic and deadly and you’re never a giant sack of hit points. You can always die by being stabbed once or twice and a super high HT only serves to make it slightly easier for you to survive being grievously injured. GURPS was designed to make combat difficult and dangerous. DnD has a different design goal. DnD rules are designed to have X amount of encounters each scenario with the assumption that each encounter will consume Y of the party’s resources with only combat encounters that are specifically designed with a certain level of difficulty in mind having the risk of player death. Basically, DnD is weak sauce easy mode. Which has been the case for the past few editions. In 2nd Edition do you know what happened when you hit 0 hit points? You died. No death saves, no you can still be healed and pop back up, etc. You died. You ran out of hit points and you died and the group's Cleric had like six spell slots total. You still operated at peak efficiency whether you were at 1 hit point or 90, but still. Anyway. 

So my goal for The Seasonal Arc has been to portray Hasta as a deadly world of harsh deserts and murderously hungry desert creatures. Part of the way I want to portray that is to make the creatures tougher and nastier, the combats more difficult, and the death and dying rules a little more aggressive. I also want to slightly increase the player’s capabilities to show that the races of this world have evolved to be tougher just like the beasts have. 

The way I’ve decided to show that being at low hit points is bad is by leveraging levels of exhaustion. There are six levels of exhaustion and at level one your ability checks (skills) have disadvantage. The negative effects scale up until level six, which is death. So I’ve instituted a house rule that says when you’re at half your max hit point total, you gain one level of exhaustion. This level of exhaustion is removed when your hit points rise above half your hit points. This makes it risky to remain at low hit points in battle. But it’s not something that will completely cripple a character and mark him for death immediately. 

The other aspect of health and wellness in DnD is death saves. There’s no real mechanic for showing that you’re in rough shape if you’ve failed two death saves. A character with max hit points, max hit dice, and no failed death saves should be in better shape than a character that’s used a bunch of hit dice and and has failed two death saves. This is all abstract, but it should feel like that second character is closer to death, shouldn’t it? I feel like it should. But that’s just me. 

There are two ways I’ve thought of going about this. The first, and this is the one I currently have listed in my house rules for The Seasonal Arc, is to say that every failed death save you have imparts one level of exhaustion. This means that a character at 0 hit points with two failed death saves will have disadvantage on ability checks, their speed reduced by half, and will have disadvantage on saving throws and attack rolls. The second way I’ve thought of doing this is that each failed death save you have reduces your maximum hit point total. So one failed death save reduces your maximum hit points to ¾ normal and two failed death saves reduces your maximum hit points to ½ normal. 

Part of me, the sadistic part I suppose, is screaming to do both. I feel like both is too much though. With access to unlimited healing, the reducing of hit points isn’t that much of a penalty. It just ties up the characters with cure wounds and healing word studs more, which has value I suppose. I think we’ll just stick with the levels of exhaustion for failed death saves. It’s the quickest and easiest and doesn’t bog down combat with a bunch of “how many hit points do I have right now and how many can I have total” questions and math. 

The main point of this post is to figure out what I want to do with hit dice. I have instituted a house rule that says long rests restore all your hit points, but only restore hit dice equal to your Constitution modifier, minimum of 1. But that’s not really a penalty. If characters have access to unlimited healing magic, they won’t really need to spend many hit dice. So the rule is effectively pointless. But hit dice are tied to health and wellness and recovery and stuff. They represent reserves of energy, I think. So I need to represent that in some way. 

The easiest way to do that is to say when your hit dice are low, you gain a level of exhaustion. Just like with hit points. But again, we run into the issue of hit dice aren’t going to be used as much because of unlimited healing magic. We could go the 4th Edition route and say that healing is done by curative magic allowing you to spend hit dice and boosting the effect of spending them. But that’s silly to me and fuck 4th Edition. It does tie in with what we see in a lot of fantasy novels where healing exhausts the person being healed. But that’s not really the way magic works in my universe. 

Another option is to take a note from GURPS where prolonged periods of exertion like combat and stuff drain your hit dice. But this runs into the problem where in a group of characters, the Wizard with a Constitution of 8 has the same amount of energy reserves (hit dice) as a Barbarian with a Constitution of 16. Fourth level characters will all have four hit dice, regardless of hit points and Constitution and whether or not they are a physically tough class or a physically fragile class. I like the idea that hit dice represent a reserve of physical energy. I like the idea that if they run low or out, maybe just out, it would impact your overall physical capabilities. When you’re exhausted, you don’t run or fight as well as you would you’re well rested and full of vitality. 

Hit dice are a restorative mechanic in 5th Edition. They’re useful because the game isn’t designed for characters to have unlimited access to healing from magic. So it’s pretty safe and easy to completely change how you gain them and what they’re used for. 

So let’s do a little spitballing here. They’re not really dice anymore, but let’s keep calling them that because I feel like it. How about each character has hit “dice” equal to the highest number on their hit dice. So Barbarians have 12 hit "dice" and Rogues have 8 and so on. Let’s also say that you increase/decrease your hit “dice” by your Constitution modifier. So the Barbarian with a 16 Constitution has a total of 15 hit “dice” and the Wizard with a 8 Constitution has a total of 5 hit “dice.” Let’s also say that when you run out of hit “dice” you gain a level of exhaustion. Because you are exhausted.  

Ok, hold up, I’m being stupid. 

So we’ve established that, at least in my opinion, hit dice exist as a form of more limited healing for characters to recover from fights because healing is not infinite. They’re not used for anything else as far as I can tell. So in the first place, limiting their recovery and having negative effects for using them is kind of pointless. They’re not something that’s going to be used often enough to really have an impact except in that one irritating instance where the group splits the party in the middle of the desert and can’t safely take a long rest or walk into a clinic in one of the towns or cities. In talking about this all with some other DMs, Lance also made the point that hit dice and the healing they provide are a mechanic designed to help prevent the 15 minute adventuring day where healers would expend all their spells on healing and then everyone would rest and reset all of their abilities after adventuring for an hour or two.

So if hit dice are essentially useless in a campaign setting where the PCs have access to unlimited healing and spell slots, why bog down the game with additional mechanics tied to hit dice and how they affect you when you run low on them? A more sensible solution would be to just remove the hit dice as a mechanic of the game. This also serves to make those extraordinarily rare situations where the players do not have access to unlimited healing more difficult and a little tense because the players and their characters know that they can’t spend an hour resting and restore all their hit points with their hit dice. 

I like it.

This has been productive. I’m glad we were able to do this. Usually I spend so much time adding rules to games and modifying existing rules. It’s kind of a strange experience to be removing a major mechanic like hit dice from the game. 

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