Almost all games have a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’. In adventuring role playing games, a character death is seen as at least a setback, if not a loss.
How do you tell if a character is dead, though? How ‘dead’ do we really want that to mean?
Damage and Death
In many old school games, ‘has no hit points left’ means dead. That’s it, the character is done, roll up a new one or find a cleric. If the character does get revivified, there could be consequences such as a lost level, permanent Constitution loss, or a strange case of hobgoblin, if the reincarnate spell says so.
‘Modern old school games’ such as Dungeon Crawl Classics have a mechanic I really like. At 0 hit points, the character is out of the fight. After the fight is over, allies (hopefully allies, I mean — enemies could do it too) can ‘roll the body’ to see if the character is actually dead, or just severely inconvenienced.
Depending on circumstances, ‘severely inconvenienced’ could have long-lasting effect. Rather than dealing with specialized rules for maiming and the like in fights, being reduced to 0 hit points can mean that a character comes away with a permanent injury. I like this much more than the level loss or Constitution loss, to be honest.
Some games allow a buffer, some number of hit points below zero where a character isn’t dying rather than dead, and might even stabilize and pull through without help. I’m not such a big fan of this mechanic, especially when combined with rules that make in-combat revivification easy.
Other Damage Mechanisms
Hit points aren’t the only means of tracking damage. Fate has multiple stress tracks and consequences, Hero system has two damage tracks (STUN and BODY) to track different kinds of damage.
I don’t plan to use them, so I’m not really going to explore them here.
Take it as given that characters and other creatures will take Damage. There has to be some way to get over it, or the game becomes a matter of attrition before a character gets used up.
This can be a potentially interesting mechanic. In Call of Cthulhu, you can take and recover from physical damage (if you survive it in the first place), but sanity tends to spiral downward until you join the other team.
I don’t think this is where we want to go right now, though. Let’s see what our options are.
Way back in the day, natural healing was very slow. One hit point per day, or one hit point per day of rest (not adventuring), or one hit point per night of rest, plus one more if you didn’t adventure the next day.
I remember reading a story — rec.games.frp.dnd post most likely, but perhaps a letter in Dragon Magazine — where a PC bought his high-level dwarf grandfather a heal spell simply so he could finally be at full hit points for once. (Well, full hit points after using the spell and a cure light wounds, what with heal restoring all but 1d4 hit points.)
When D&D 3e came around, they increased a day’s rest to restore hit points equal to the creature’s Hit Dice. This was still freakishly fast, from ‘nearly dead’ to ‘fully restored’ in a few days, rarely more than a week unless you were a barbarian who had lucky hit point rolls. It was at least consistent at all levels, more or less.
Magical healing was always preferable. In old school games it was way faster than natural healing, but hard to come by. Clerics had surprisingly few healing spells available, even if they focused on such magic (and for practical reasons, most did).
In D&D 3e and onward, healing spells weren’t as relatively good as you gained levels, but you could have so many of them… especially once you took wands of cure light wounds into account. In many 3.x games and after, once you bootstrapped far enough to get a wand of cure light wounds, and found a way to get them reliably, going into a fight without full hit points usually indicated you made a mistake or were in trouble. The extra adventuring you could do before exhausting the healing stick almost always could make up for the cost of buying a new one.
Rests and Healing Surges
Starting with D&D 4e (and arguably with Trailblazer, which came out about the same time) there was a ‘rest mechanic’. Simply by stopping to take a breather, bind your wounds, and so on, you could get some hit points back. In Trailblazer, you would get back half your maximum points, with D&D 4e you would get back about a quarter of your maximum hit points.
Both games have limitations. With D&D 4e you had a number of healing surges per day, which were used for all sorts of healing (via resting, or potion — a potion wouldn’t work for you unless you spent a healing surge on it, as I understand it). In Trailblazer, all persistent effects such as buff spells expired.
Some classes have features that allow hit point restoration, such as a paladin’s lay on hands. It’s not a spell, but I’m still going to call that magic.
Certain specific injuries such as from caltrops can be fixed with a successful skill check, some rules allow a skill check to straight up restore hit points, in other cases a successful skill check improves natural healing results. Sometimes a skill check won’t give back any hit points, but will just stop a dying creature from losing more hit points.
The skill-based rules tend to be largely overlooked because frankly, they’re really not worth much. I mention them simply because I don’t want to get called on leaving them out.
I decided before I even started to use a damage and healing system I devised years ago. It has proven to work exactly how I like, and I have no reason to abandon it.
- Hit points, similar to D&D.
- Most damage is ‘normal’ and recovered easily via a rest (which takes time and causes buffs and the like to expire; it’s not quite free).
- Systemic damage such as poison and death magic does not recover by normal rests, they take natural healing (i.e. days of rest) or magical healing.
- No healing sticks, wands of cure wounds.
Regarding ‘death’, I have never liked the ‘negative hit points’ model. I find the ‘roll the body’ mechanic a much more elegant solution. I’ll be using or adapting that.