30 June 2009

Pulp Heroes and Damage

The protagonists of classic ‘swords and sorcery’ tales are a remarkable lot.  They are a ‘cut above’ the common stock of humanity, physically and mentally superior to most people, although perhaps sometimes less prudent.  Even this occasional lack of prudence, however, is compensated with superior luck and drive.  Characters such as Conan, Kull, Fafhrd, and the Gray Mouser are capable of overcoming foes and surviving challenges that would easily defeat most common men.  Classic ‘swords and sorcery’ tales focus on highly exceptional and powerful individuals, not the ‘little guys’ of the world.  Even as neophytes, most ‘swords and sorcery’ characters are exceptionally tough and capable. 

To reflect this aspect of the ‘swords and sorcery’ genre, it is recommended that first-level player characters start with the maximum number of hit points possible for their class, plus five additional hit points (modified by their constitution scores, as appropriate).  Hit points should be rolled normally after first level. 

Only player characters and important non-player characters (namely, noteworthy allies and antagonists) should use this system for determining hit points.  The Game Master should roll normally for the hit points of ‘regular’ non-player characters, as well as most ‘monsters.’

Player characters’ hit points represent only ‘superficial’ damage (i.e., exhaustion, light bruises, minor scrapes, and so forth.).  Because of this, all lost hit points may be recovered by sleeping without interruption for eight full hours.  Resting (not sleeping), or sleeping for less than eight hours, will enable a player character to recover one hit point per full hour of rest or sleep.

Cure Wounds spells and potions of Healing do not heal hit points, but only lost points of Constitution (as explained below).  However, a draught of ‘strong drink’ (ale, wine, liquor) can ‘invigorate’ a character, enabling him/her to recover immediately 1d4 hit points.  Game Masters may also want to allow alchemists to sell ‘Elixirs of Invigoration’ for 200 to 300 gold pieces.  Drinking such an elixir might enable a player character to recover instantly 1d6 + 2 hit points.  Only one such draught, whether of strong drink or an elixir, will have this effect per day.

Once a player character’s hit points have been depleted, any further damage is done to the character’s constitution score.  Damage to a character’s constitution score represents ‘serious’ damage.  Every time a character takes damage to his/her constitution, he/she must make a saving throw (versus ‘death’ if using a system other than S&W) or fall unconscious.  In addition, a character that has taken damage to his/her constitution suffers a -2 penalty to all actions (including attack rolls and saving throws).  If a character’s constitution score is reduced to 0 or lower that character is dead.

Characters who have suffered damage to their constitution and have fallen unconscious regain consciousness after eight hours of rest.  If that character’s constitution is still reduced, he/she continues to have 0 hit points and suffers the -2 penalty to all actions until he/she can rest and recover.  Characters subsequently can recover one constitution point for every two days of complete rest (i.e., no travelling or adventuring).  The care of a doctor or other non-magical healer can improve the rate of healing to one constitution point per day of rest.  A character cannot recover any hit points until all constitution points have been recovered.

Game Masters should assume that most non-player characters and monsters are dead or unconscious when they reach 0 hit points or lower.  Only player characters and special non-player characters – important figures in the world, whether allies or antagonists of the player characters – should use the complete rules outlined above.

(Note: This house rule will appear as part of a longer article on 'swords & sorcery' adventures in Knockspell #3.)


  1. I really like this. This would also get rid of the cleric as healbot.
    Maybe you should also alter the HP of fighters and so on, because it also represents the defending ability of a character.
    So it would be more logical, in the sense of the abstract D&D combat system, to give them d6+2 instead of d8 or so.

  2. Thanks for your positive comment, Mr. Castle! It turns out that fighters in 'Swords & Wizardry' do get d6+2 hit points per level (until level 10, at which point they only get 3 hit points per level). If I were using this house rule with Basic/Classic D&D, I would certainly follow your suggestion, and use d6+2 instead of a d8. If I were using this house rule with AD&D, I would use d8+2 (or perhaps even d6+4).

    As an aside, I actually have eliminated the cleric class from my game (I'll explain this in a future post on my 'magician' class).

  3. _Great_ rules. Make a ton of sense. Out of curiosity, though, how come characters stop gaining regular HP beyond 9th (aside from game balance)?

  4. Diminishing marginal utility with respect to human robustness!

  5. Lots of wound/vitality hits/luck type systems But using constitution score as the wounds amount is great addition.

    I like the lose points of ability theme con for physical damage, wis for mental damage.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Norman!

  7. I'm liking this idea more and more. How has it worked out in practice? My only concern is that it makes CON far and away the most important stat.

    Given this idea and Wisdom damage from horror, have you considered any other kinds of Attribute Damage? I'm kind of thinking of Traveller now, where you can take damage to any/all of your physical attributes. It wouldn't work as a straight port (since D&D stats are higher than Traveller stats), but maybe something. Frex, what if failing the Save after CON damage, means you also take damage to STR or DEX as well?

  8. It's worked extremely well in practice, Matt. I don't think that it makes CON the most important stat (although it does create a strong incentive to avoid having a CON less than 10). My players are keen to avoid taking any CON damage, and usually try to heal up right away once they do.

    As for other kinds of Attribute Damage, I often have poisons or diseases do damage to either STR or DEX (I dislike 'save or die' poison effects). That also has worked well in practice.

  9. Akrasia said:
    I often have poisons or diseases do damage to either STR or DEX (I dislike 'save or die' poison effects). That also has worked well in practice.

    I couldn't agree more with you in this quasi-heretical thought. So much so that I felt compelled to make a little post about it:

  10. How do you handle missile weapons with regards to hit points being 'superficial damage'? Do big lethal projectiles like javelins and boulders actually miss on a 'hit'? It seems a bit weird that a warrior can be narrowly missed into submission, or that his armor is arrow-resistant until he runs out of bravado. It's an improvement over pincushion heroics, to be sure, but it's still rather odd.

    It's great idea, all the same. I've been messing around with injury points and sanity and stuff, but I didn't think of using the statistics themselves.

  11. Thanks for your comment, Maroon. I typically describe damage from missile weapons as superficial damage involving exertion from near misses (e.g., twisting awkwardly to avoid a spear), bruises and minor cuts from glancing hits, and so forth. Once a hit causes Constitution damage I describe it as a 'real' hit.

    Not a perfect solution, I admit.

    I'm contemplating changing my 'critical hits' house rule so that a 'critical hit' does Constitution damage instead of hit point damage (thus constituting a genuine 'lucky blow').

  12. You know...you could describe the loss of HPs as a draining experience as well. Combat soldiers are often drained physically as well as mentally after combat. Arrows and missile weapons certainly add to that, as well as nicks, cuts, small punctures, and whatever else, may cause incidental blood loss that eventually adds up to exhaustion.

  13. I have one question. What about damage taken from magic - spells or some magic traps? The explanation for missile attacks is quite ok, but how can I explain full fireball hit as a superficial damage? Do you have some solution for this? I really like the whole idea, but I must find some solution for magic attacks...Thanks a lot.

  14. Good question, Jarilo.

    With respect to magical attacks like fireballs, here is my proposed solution. The PC makes a saving throw. If it is successful, the PC takes half damage to her hit points. It is 'superficial damage' from diving out of the way, being slightly singed, etc. However, if the PC fails the saving throw, she takes half of the damage to her hit points, and half to her constitution. Like all damage to the constitution, the PC then would have to make a saving throw in order to avoid falling unconscious (assuming that she is still alive).

    So if a fireball did 20 points of damage, and a PC failed his saving throw, he would take 10 hit points of 'superficial damage' and 10 points of constitutional 'real' damage.

    Given that such spells are categorized as 'black magic' (if using my 'colours of magic' system), such spells wold be relatively rare, and appropriately terrifying when used.

    Not sure if this is the best solution, so I may have to think about this more...

  15. Thank your for your answer, Akrasia.

    I think that your solution is good, if it works in your games and your players like it. House rules are often created for application in specific settings, so there is no need to make them universal. Of course not everyone will like them, but it´s not important.

    Anyway, I will probably use different rule, but your articles were all very useful!

  16. While I do start 1st-level characters with extra hit points (max of HD + CON bonus + 5/10hp), I don't find it at all necessary to differentiate between actual physical damage and draining of other resources. AFAIAC, everything down to the last 6 + CON bonus hp is considered minor damage, and I describe it as such.

    After reading Philotomy's thoughts on the matter (Abstract Combat, Called Shots, Critical Hits, Damage and Hit Points, and Helmets) I'm pretty much sold on his way of doing things; which, strangely enough, was exactly how I used to do things "back in the day" before being corrupted by AD&D.

    As far as healing goes: I've always allowed players to regain hp immediately after combat -- 1d6 points for resting for a turn, an additional 1d6 points for spending another turn binding wounds, and a final 1d6 points for spending a turn quaffing a beverage and uttering "Blood-letting is damn thirsty work or some such other suitably barbaric quote. While a PC can benefit from all three methods after a single combat, they all have to occur before the party does anything else (so this means staying put for a minimum of 30 minutes). Thereafter, hp are recovered at the rate of 1 hp per hour. Regardless of damage, a good night's rest will restore all of a character's hit points (see below) My D&D has always been more Howard than Tolkien.

    The only exceptions to the above being damage from sources other than weapons (e.g., poison, disease, magic, etc...). Poisons and diseases have to be neutralized/cured first and then a skilled healer can restore 1d6hp immediately. Remaining hp return at the rate of 1hp/day regardless of activity. Magical damage is recovered at the rate of 1hp/day and the only thing that can speed it up is magical healing (VERY rare and expensive in my games).


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).