Don’t Roll Your Hit Points Until You’re Hurt

One of the notable house rules in the White Sandbox campaign is that hit points are rolled only as necessary to absorb a PC’s wounds, making it hard to gauge how much damage a character can or can’t take until their luck is put to the test. I find it easier to show how this works than to explain it. At the table I talk people through each step the first time they’re hit, like so:

Lotur the Scurrilous Cur is 3rd level, so he has three hit dice. We imagine each of these as representing a different aspect of his ability to stave off death: mental, spiritual, and physical. Because he was fully healed since his last adventure, we don’t know how many hit points he gets from each dice.

Not five feet into the dungeon, Lotur is hit by a gnoll’s arrow and takes six points of damage. The player notes on Lotur’s sheet that he has taken 6 points of wounds, and starts rolling his hit dice to see if he can absorb the blow.

If Lotur rolls a 6 on his first (mental) hit dice, it absorbs the wound fully. He crosses out that hit dice – we imagine that he’s run out of plans for dealing with gnoll ambush – and leaves the other two untouched and unknown. Unfortunately, he only rolls a 2. He crosses out his mental hit dice, and has four points of incoming damage left to absorb. He rolls a 1 with his second (spiritual) hit dice: he crosses it out. We imagine that he is demoralized, and still has three points of incoming damage.

For his last (physical) hit dice, Lotur rolls a six! He subtracts the three points of incoming damage, and notes that he has three hit points left on this dice. However, at this point we imagine that he is actually bleeding and has an arrow sticking out of him.

Oops, here comes another arrow! This one rolls a 2 for damage. We already know that Lotur has three physical hit points left, so he doesn’t need to roll any hit dice. His player crosses off two of the hit points remaining on Lotur’s physical hit dice, and increases his total wounds taken from 6 to 8.

Salvation arrives in the form of a cleric. Each point of healing delivered by the cure spell will subtract one from Lotur’s wound total. If the cleric rolls eight or more points of healing, all Lotur’s wounds are erased and all three of his hit dice are reset. However, the cleric only rolls a 3, so Lotur increases the hit points remaining on his physical hit dice from 1 to 4, and decreases his total wounds from 8 to 5.

Note that poisoned arrows have to get through to the physical hit dice to be effective, so there’s a benefit of having that dice untouched; and some kinds of healing will add to your spiritual or physical hit dice, but won’t work if those dice have been crossed off.

To answer some questions that tend to come up:

– When a character has more or fewer levels than they do physical/spiritual/mental hit dice, we assign extra or missing hit dice to one of the three categories depending on class. A fighter gets an extra physical at L4, a cleric an extra spiritual, etc. Then spread out until at L6 all classes have two of each.

– Once a character’s hit points have all been rolled, these rolls are kept only as long as they have wounds. When all wounds are removed, hit dice reset to unknown.

– High constitution provides a buffer after you run out of hit dice. Characters that are tough get 1 HP per hit die of buffer; exceptionally tough characters get 2 per die. So if a 3rd level PC rolled 12 for their HP, a tough one could actually take 15, and an exceptionally tough one 18, before collapsing.

This idea was inspired by Zulgyan’s method of rolling monster HD, and realizing that most of the d6’s I have are either red, green, or white, which I assigned to physical, spiritual, and mental.

I like this approach because it makes taking damage an exciting dice-roll contest between player and monster. As per Gary’s house rules we’ve started with third level characters, so when a PC is hit by a lizardman spear for 6 damage, there’s a dramatic sequence of rolls: does their knowledge of fencing techniques cover this? No, they roll a 2 for their mental hit dice, so there’s 4 points of damage remaining, and their plan for survival is in shambles. Is their esprit de corps sufficient for them to simply knock the spear aside? No, they roll a 2 for their spiritual hit dice, so there’s still 2 points of incoming damage and they’re demoralized. OK, are they hale enough for them to survive this thrust? No, they roll a 2 for their physical hit dice and die!

I also like the way that doing this helps imagine what different states of being wounded are; it helps systematize the idea that hit points represent divine favor and luck as well as sheer toughness.

In play it does take a little longer to resolve PCs taking damage than if players were just subtracting a number from the HP written on their sheet. It did mean that the math involved was a lot easier – take the # of damage dealt, subtract from 1 to 6, repeat. Plus, I feel like the risk of a player dying is worth spending extra spotlight time attending to, and I like how not knowing what your hit points are before they’re tested means that every wound carries the possibility of death. If a 3rd level character rolled a string of 1’s for their hit dice and was going to be stuck with that forever, I’d certainly let them re-roll, but this approach means that although such bad luck might mean your character gets sent to the graveyard, it doesn’t mean that you might as well roll up a new one even before they start adventuring.

15 Responses to “Don’t Roll Your Hit Points Until You’re Hurt”

  1. 1 Eric
    February 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Suppose a character was particularly tough or weak, Constitutionally speaking. How would that affect “end game” hit points?

  2. February 27, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Good question, so much so that I edited the post to answer it above!

    As is often the case with my house rules, having a good score gives you more benefit than the penalty from a bad one. I don’t kill frail characters when they’re down to 3 HP, or exceptionally frail ones when they fall below 6! Instead I’d use those descriptors for situational things. Note also that since we use “will withstand adversity” checks to survive falling to 0 HP or below, having a poor constitution penalizes you that way.

  3. 3 James
    February 27, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Tavis, correct me if I’m wrong: in this system, all classes have the same hit-dice at any given level.

    Is there any compensation for Fighters? One of the few advantages of playing a Fighter rather than a Magic-User or Cleric is that a Fighter, statistically, is harder to kill.

  4. February 28, 2010 at 5:56 am

    What’s a “will withstand adversity” check?

  5. 5 rafial
    February 28, 2010 at 8:47 am

    This is very cool to read. I’ve also been toying with a “roll when hit” system for my own house rules, although quite different in intent & execution than the one described here. It’s cool to see how different people remix the inspiration of the early rules in so many different ways. Of course that does lead to the question, at what point do we wind up reinventing Runequest? ;)

  6. February 28, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    James: yes, we are using another house rule that characters of all classes get hit dice equal to their level. Note that clerics and fighting men would get the same hit dice in 3LBB OD&D anyway until 5th level. The compensation for fighters is being able to use missile weapons, magic swords, heavy weapons, or two weapons, and automatically being mighty. So my house-ruled fighters are indeed slightly more focused on damage output than absorption. Note that giving magic-users an edge on getting the tough descriptor also makes them tougher than their non-house-ruled counterparts.

    cr0m: in OD&D, Con 15 or more or 6 or less affected your hit dice. In-between, it gave you a “chance of survival” without defining what that meant; a con of 13 or 14 meant “will withstand adversity”. We decided that falling into a negative hit point range equal to your level (i.e., -1 to -3 for a 3rd level PC) wasn’t necessarily fatal – emergency care could revive you from your critical state, but this was adversity you might not survive even if there was a way to give you back the missing HP. You can rationalize the percentages as 70% at Con 10, +/- 10% per point above or below.

    rafial: There is indeed nothing new under the sun! For me the question is “at what point do I read Runequest and realize that it already did much of what I thought was original,” and the answer is probably “once getting my hands on Griffin Mountain, Duck Tower, and other Jaquays RQ stuff causes me to get into the system.”

  7. March 1, 2010 at 7:49 am

    Fascinating… reading Tavis’s game I realize how little I know about OD&D.

  8. 8 rafial
    March 2, 2010 at 2:19 am

    @tavisallison just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that your “roll hit points after” is a mechanic used in Runequest (by my recollection, it’s not), but rather that just as Runequest evolved out of a set of D&D house rules, we now have a new set of “seed” OD&D games busily evolving there way into new and different things. So my question is semi-rhetorical, and more along the lines of “when does a set of house rules stop being OD&D, and become something entirely different.” I suspect there is a large gray zone involved.

  9. 9 Greengoat
    March 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I feel honored that Lotur was singled out for exemplary abuse.

  10. March 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I picked on Caswyn for my next example of PCs suffering abuse because I was afraid Lotur would use his pity power to ruin the fun.

  11. 11 Bombshelter13
    March 28, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I’ve been trying to make a ‘roll when hit’ system work in LL, but one aspect eludes me: what happens when a character suffers a single massive attack, such as a fireball or lightning bolt? Roll when hit seems to work great when the attacker and defender are both rolling one die, but I can’t for the life of me determine how to make it work without making a Mage throwing a 7d6 lightning bolt instantly lethal.

  12. March 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Well, that fireball is lethal! PCs in this system have the same number of hit points on average as they usually do – or if they don’t, you can use the same tricks here you usually do. Max HP at first level = always make the last dice you roll before dying max value (or the first dice if you want to have a little trad-HP zone before bringing the pain). Reroll hp at each level and keep the new if it’s better = roll twice for each HD and take the better result (or something like that).

    Just to speed things up, though, if that fireball does 21 points of damage I’d have the player roll 4 hit die at once if they’ve got ’em, since you know they’re going to have to tap at least 4d6 to soak 21 points.

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