Fixed Maximum Hit Points for PCs

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 17, 2012

What if you never got more hit points that what you began with at level 1? Think about it. As 4e is set up now most PCs begin with around 20 hit points. This is enough to take a couple of hits but you are by no means invulnerable. As you get more XP and level up you start to improve and one thing that comes with each level bump is more hit points. But lately I’ve been wondering how things would change if your maximum hit points were fixed. How would this change D&D?

In previous editions of D&D PCs could begin with as few as 1 hit point. Some PCs were extremely fragile and a single hit from anything could, and often did, kill them. Knowing that PCs were this vulnerable forced players to play smarter. If your PC was likely to die from a single hit you didn’t run blindly into a group of monsters, even if they were only Kobolds or Goblins. Tactics were important because they often made the difference between living and dying.

As PCs level their maximum hit points increase. This has been a fundamental part of character design in every edition of D&D. But if you think about it this is actually a really silly concept. After all, an arrow to the chest or a slash from a battle axe is just as likely to kill you whether you’re level 1 or level 20. So what that you’ve been in hundreds of fights and killed countless monsters, that doesn’t make you any less vulnerable to being stabbed. What level advancement should do it give you a better understanding of tactics and let you better prepare for the next fight. It should also provide resources in the form of magic items and gold pieces in order to better equip yourself.

If maximum hit points were to remain fixed throughout the course of a PCs existence things in D&D would change.

  • Initiative

Initiative would become the most important part of combat. If a single hit was all it took to kill the PCs or their opponents, then winning initiative would often mean the difference between life and death. Feats like Improved Initiative or any or power, feat or items that bumped initiative would become that much more desirable.

  • Tactics

Most 4e combat has two relatively equal forces clashing and battling it out for victory. Through the course of the fight everyone takes a few hits, that’s just part of the game. And because we all know that PCs can take a few hits we often throw any advanced tactics out the window. The heroes line up on one side of the battle map and the monsters line up on the other. When the fighting starts we move in and engage. And this is fine when you’ve got hit points to spare.

But when survival means not getting hit at all you have to change the way you fight. Intelligence and tactics become paramount. Scouting and information gathering are even more important than the ability to swing a sword. If you can learn how many monsters are over the next ridge, their approximate strengths, weaknesses, and whether or not they have archers or Wizards, then you can decide if you’re going to engage or avoid them. Maybe you sneak up, shoot a few of them with arrows and then run. The point is that frontal assaults won’t work the way they do now if everyone involved is vulnerable.

I think that if hit points didn’t increase you’d see a lot more parley and a lot more stealth. Neither side of a conflict would be as willing to fight if they knew that such an engagement would result in huge causalities on both sides. In those situations where fighting did happen, I think we’d see a lot more retreating from monsters and PCs. Better to run and live than stay and die.

  • Defenses

If a single jab from a spear could kill you then you’ve got to think that everyone would be wearing heavy armor and carrying big shields. The higher your defenses the less likely your opponents are to actually connect when they attack you. A high AC could mean the difference between lasting one round and lasting three.

Anything you could do during character creation to give yourself more hit points would become a serious consideration. Assuming that your Constitution (or at least you Con modifier) still affected your hit points then it’s safe to say no one would use it as the dump stat. Selecting a feats like Toughness or anything else that increased your hit points would become almost mandatory for frontline combatants.

  • Weapons

Ranged weapons and weapons with reach will become a lot more desirable – anything that keeps your opponent at arm’s length and keeps you from harm is good. The other trend we’d likely see is everyone using weapons that inflict massive damage, like a great sword or craighammer. If your opponent is only going to have 10-20 hit points then you want to inflict as much damage with each hit as you can to ensure that every blow is a killing blow. Feats that improve damage output will be very desirable for the same reason. Suddenly a +1 weapon can actually make the difference between a wounding blow and a killing blow. Crits will now kill.

PCs that aren’t capable of wielding such deadly weapons may still opt to do so, forfeiting the proficiency bonus. They know that one good hit from a really big weapon will do the same job as two hit from a really small weapon, yet it won’t give your opponent a chance to stick you back between attacks. As PCs advance they’ll likely take weapon proficiency feats to offset poor attack scores.

  • Legendary Monsters

In 3e and 4e D&D, DMs could scale monsters to give their party an appropriate challenge based on the party’s level. This usually meant that the monsters hit points would scale accordingly in order to challenge higher level PCs who could inflict more damage. But what if monsters – all monsters – were in the same boat as the PCs? Imagine a Dragon that has a fixed number of hit points. Whether it’s level 10 or level 20, it still has the same number of hit points. It would still be a lot of hit points, but the number wouldn’t change.

A party of PCs, regardless of level, trying to face off against a Dragon would really have to use smart tactics or get extremely lucky to beat it. After all the Dragon’s probably going to have hundreds of hit points whereas the PCs will only have 20. So even if everyone hit the Dragon in the first round, it would likely be able to kill multiple PCs before round two began. Victory against these kinds of odd is truly the thing legends are made of. If you defeat a dragon everyone will know that you are truly heroic.

A lot of RPGs use a mechanic where the PCs have but a hand full of hit points that don’t increase or don’t increase more than a few points over the character’s lifetime. Admittedly these games tend not to be populated with creatures like Beholders and Dragons, but when such powerful forces are used it’s clear that the PCs should not engage them one-on-one.

Fixing a character’s maximum hit points would really change the way a lot of people play D&D. It would also mean that a lot of people would spend a lot of time making new characters as their PCs died week after week. But as much as I enjoy playing fantasy RPGs like D&D, the fact that a high level PCs can survive multiple stab wounds and a pelting from archers stretches my disbelief a little bit too far. Weapons are deadly. A sword-wielding opponent should be scary and force PCs to consider options other than “attack” when facing this scenario.

What are your thoughts on fixed maximum hit points? Do you think that as PCs level up they should get more hit points? Do you think that an arrow should have the ability to kill, regardless of an opponent’s level? How else do you think fixed maximum hit points would change the way people play D&D?

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1 William January 17, 2012 at 9:56 am

Ameron, if HP was actually the number of times you could be stabbed before dying then yes, everyone would probably have a fixed number of HP and that number would be small. I don’t have a 4e PHB in front of me but I’m sure you’ve read the part where they explain that HP is actually a combination of factors including lucky dodges, glancing blows and other such things. While that would seems to be attached to something like Reflex defense, I think it also indicates that an average person would have fallen to that sword blow, but this Hero isn’t an average person. The Hero has seen enough battles to dodge just a second sooner and suddenly the blow that would kill you or I only grazes the Hero. There’s a hundred other explanations for this type of thing.

When it comes down to it, the Heroes in our favorite fantasy novels often surrive ridiculous odds that normal people could never hope to make it through. That’s what makes them Heroes, and that’s why we play the game that lets us be the Hero for a few hours. I’m a fragile peon in real life, I don’t feel the need to pretend to be a fragile peon every week on game day. Just my 2 cents though, everyone plays differently.

2 Quirky DM January 17, 2012 at 10:12 am

This sounds a lot like the E(x) games that were developed for 3E. (and ported by some to 4E) The game only went up to level X and after that your progress slowed down a lot. You’d still get better, but not so much better that the threats you faced at level X still weren’t challenging.

Your idea definitely shifts the focus to other feats, like toughness and defense. Adding methods of avoiding critical hits become paramount since no amount of defense or hit point increasing feats will protect you from those.

I haven’t tried this before, but I think after a while, offensive powers will become too powerful. Characters will be dishing out huge amounts of damage, but won’t be able to take it. To make an “even” encounter, the monsters will need to be the opposite- take a licking, but have poor attack rolls so the players don’t get massacred.

To offset this, powers should become more focused on defense, mobility and status effects. Being able to control the combat so you don’t get hit. The exponential rise in player damage only makes sense if they can take a similar beating. Two master swordsman facing off should be able to defend against one another’s attacks very well. Without hit points, they will need powers to accomplish this. Perhaps adding more effects like stances, rages and fighting styles would help accomplish this.

3 filthy hobo January 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

As far as i’m aware HP in pre-4th ed D&D were an abstraction and damage taken in combat doesn’t just reflect actual wounds, but a kind of nebulous attrition against a character’s fighting prowess, fatigue and a kind of heroic buffer between you and death, thus to apply the logic of your suggestion you have to re-conceptualize HP in to an actual measure of physical damage a character can take… fine, but wouldn’t that also require re-conceptualizing the “to hit” rolls in to an actual blow rather than an abstract accumulation of all the thrusts and parries of a minute of combat, therefore damage dice of everything needs to be a realistic simulation of the actual damaged cause by an actual hit by a weapon… from abstraction to simulation again… this would get messy… you would probably also need to rethink AC and even the length of a combat round as neither really makes much sense in simulation terms…

A lot of effort to go to… Why not just play a different and better game like RuneQuest and save yourself the bother? I’m not familiar with 4th ed, so I can’t comment there, but I suspect that if HPs go up with level then there is at least some abstraction going on there as well.

However, I do take your point, capping HP at a lower level (maybe not the same as 1st level tho) could inject some tension into high level melees… Although it would totally change game balance… for instance: fireball would be even more lethal…

4 Alton January 17, 2012 at 10:25 am

I am not sure I agree with the maximum HP clause as above, but I do have to agree with you with some of the other points. 4th has spoiled tension for me. I love the game and the simplicity of it, but I am now playing a 24th level scoundrel who has only rolled one death saving throw in his entire career.

I think 4th gave monsters too many HP. Combat drags sometimes. 3.5 had this down pat. even if the CR20 dragon had 400 hp, spells and other damage sources could really hurt the party. I still use tactics for my character, but the rest of the party ruins it for me most of the time. They tend to just rush in, take the damage and loot the bodies. Example, in Death’s Reach, I would listen at the door, open it silently, see creatures, tell the party to stay here, sneak in and try to either surprise these creatures or to parlay with them. Before I get to try it, the door blasts open and in come the fighter and the barbarian.

They are practically indestructible and they know it. It is not their fault.

My fondest memories were with my rogue/cleric/sorcerer and when he would be caught by surprise. If I was not cautious and had proper defenses up, I could have died in the first round when I lost initiative.

The other example, WuJen Level 11, 39hp. Lost initiative, spell cast on me. Instantaneous death.

I was afraid of the higher level monsters. Displacer Beasts scared the living bejesus out of me.

Thanks for reminding me of these times.

5 Joshman1987 January 17, 2012 at 10:35 am

I think capping HP is a bit much for me, but I have definitely considered making HP equal Con score or something to keep the threat high. Likewise, rolling for HP could solve these problems. Wizards roll d4’s, rogues roll d6’s, etc. As almost all healing scales with level, the general lowering of HP should keep the threat high.

I would also lower monster HP by about half as well. PCs should still have a tough fight if the monsters are still dealing the same amount of damage.

6 Toldain January 17, 2012 at 10:56 am

@Alton, it may be that the problem with your game is the social contract. I think 4e has some issues along the lines you mention, but there’s another slant to it – theifly kinds of things tend to be a one-man show.

I think the fighter and barbarian in your group just like to bash things, they are having fun. I know that when I play a plate tank kind of character I get very tired of the sneakers constantly ordering me around, and complaining about how clanky I am.

Ideally, everyone would get a chance to feel that what they do for the party is valuable. They should definitely try to set you up to maximum advantage for flanking, etc.

I ran into similar issues playing MMO’s as an enchanter. Groups didn’t need me to mez or crowd control, they just wanted to tank and spank. Which kind of made some of my abilities useless.

I concluded that as long as the group was having success, I had no grounds to complain. Eventually something changed though. Certain dungeons or encounters were harder, and could not be managed through tank and spank. This was not a rule change, but a change in encounter makeup. This is something a DM could do, but probably it’s best to somehow get player buy-in first.

7 Dennis Higgins January 17, 2012 at 11:17 am

I have two feelings about this and they aren’t so compatible.

First, I like the idea because it eliminates the “I charge in and hit it with my axe without any regard for who or what it is!” school that D&D has moved toward over the last 20-30 years. They style of play you read about in old-school Lake Geneva campaign accounts and the style of play you see in most 4e games show just how much different the game and its players tend to be these days. In D&D, LARPs I’ve played, what have you, I’ve never been too keen on players hiding behind the shield of their bloated stats when making poor decisions.

Second, it’s that it IS that much of a departure of how the game has evolved that makes me leery of embracing that as a change for a game that still wants to call itself D&D.

Looking at a game like Warhammer FRPG 2e, you don’t gain that much in the way of “hit points,” instead increasing your ability to avoid and block shots. I would suspect that if you eliminated the shots that are stopped by higher avoidance abilities and transferring those to hits, the higher level character would have the appropriate level of hit points.

8 Gargs454 January 17, 2012 at 11:49 am

Capping HP is an interesting concept. I have to admit that one of the things I love about Shadowrun is the fact that the run of the mill Corporate security guard is just as deadly two years into the campaign (provided he hits) as he was during the first run.

To make it work though, I think you would need some sort of opposed checks for combat (much like Shadowrun does). Otherwise, it just becomes too much luck of the draw for me. That was actually one of my complaints with 3.x (a game that I still love by the way). It seemed like too often it just came down to who won initiative. Particularly if you just had a single big bad beastie fighting the party. Requiring opposed rolls though (as well as damage threshhold checks like in SR for instance) could make it pretty interesting and would then allow the DM to continue to use goblins and orcs at higher levels without really having to adjust the monsters much, if any.

9 Charles Jaimet January 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm

This exists in other systems like Ars Magica and Apocalypse World. These games are much more geared to RP conflict resolution than kicking down the door. Within the DnD framework, though, increasing HP is not a silly idea at all. It represents the character’s increased ability to avoid damage rather thn sustain damage. Hit points are an abstraction reflecting how hard someone is to kill. Thinking of them purely as a reflection of meat trauma leaves out most of what they are intended to be.

10 Thorynn January 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm

This makes me think of a scene I read recently in Patrick Rothfuss’ A Wise Man’s Fear. In it, a martial arts master asks her student why their order wears red robes. The student replies that when they get hit their enemies won’t see the blood from the wound. The master is pleased with his answer. She continues, “Then why do I wear white robes?” The student is confused. The master continues, “Because if they are good enough to cut me, they have earned the right to see me bleed.”

It could be fun, after awhile it wouldn’t be fun for a 12th level fighter to be cowering from some city guard.

11 Alton January 17, 2012 at 2:40 pm

@ Toldain

I guess it is a one man show to be a thief. I don’t think it helps that everything is done through Teamspeak and MapTools. The virtual group is not the same as in person. I have addressed it with the group that I would like to try this once and awhile, but the modules just do not call for stuff like this. This is why I prefer homebrew.

12 Alton January 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm

@ Toldain

Thanks for the feedback. Love the expression Tank and Spank. Gotta use it in my group!!!

13 Kiel Chenier January 17, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Lots of other non-D&D games have played around with this idea.

Keeping PCs reasonably disempowered (ie, attack bonuses not scaling up, along with HP) ensures that every kind of monster is still, essentially, monstrous and challenging.

More so than previous editions, Type IV D&D is one where there’s a sizable power creep to playing it. Eventually certain types of monsters don’t continue to be a challenge.

I kind of like the idea of keeping HP at a minimum (while other stats and bonuses might continue to increase). It keeps players feeling mortal and vulnerable, while still being capable of performing amazing feats of strength and cunning.

14 Popesixtus January 17, 2012 at 11:57 pm

I remember playing my lvl 1, 3 hp wizard back in the day. I was careful and stealthy, always stayed in the back and had fighters and rangers in front of me, parleyed when I had to, etc. Then some random trap or lucky kobold spear chuck would kill me anyway. Fix that crap and I’m sold.

15 Dan January 18, 2012 at 12:41 am

An interesting and potentially lethal idea. It sure would put the fear of death into the players… But I wonder if a different type of system for addressing wounds and physical damage (one geared specifically toward the players’ characters, not monsters) might be a better idea for getting a more realistic, “one spear thrust will kill you” type of feel to the D&D game. I’m thinking of something along the lines of what Monte Cook wrote about, in a recent Legends & Lore article, regarding skill proficiency and checks. Let me elaborate: If, for example, a character’s combat damage were expressed in stages (i.e. glancing blow, bloodied, maimed, killed) then that would do a few things: 1) It would make character injuries more realistic, allowing the DM to express what happened to the character in role-playing terms, rather than pure numerical interpretation (“the orc’s axe glances off your helmet, causing your ears to ring in the process”), 2) It would speed up combat because the DM wouldn’t have to role damage (dice damage complexity would be gone), instead it could be expressed in terms of proximity to death and DMs could even include body-part specifics or conditions if they wish, and 3) Level-dependent complexities are removed from the game, the system wouldn’t have to charge as the character gains level.

Of course, I’m sure other types of RPGs have variations of this type of system, but I think it could be a great optional rule for a DM that hate to chase hit points and want a streamlined, more RP feel to combat encounters…

16 Sunyaku January 18, 2012 at 12:56 am

I really like this idea– I think a few elements that would also have to come in are the concept of damage resistance and item fatigue. In addition to higher AC, armor should also provide some damage soak. That would make it very difficult for the kobold with club to kill a knight in plate mail. However, an army of kobolds with clubs could kill a knight, so there would need to a method of “wearing down” the knight’s steely defenses (item fatigue).

Also, I think a 5% chance of any creature dying on a crit is much too high, for both players and monsters. Instead of killing PCs (or monsters) outright with critical hits, I’d prefer to see crits go toward something like a d10 or d20 “critical wound” injury table. Maybe “instant death” is one row of the table for players (or more rows for monsters), but something like “taking an arrow to knee” or similar permanent wound would also be on there. I think this kind of “battle scar” system could be really fun. Depending on the wound, I could see the effect being anything from losing the use of certain limbs, reducing attack scores, lowering ability modifers, losing proficiency with certain items, etc. etc. Maybe you could give players a chance to recover (similar to the disease system), but with a poor roll of the die, some wounds would just never heal.

17 BeanBag January 18, 2012 at 7:55 am

Hmm… I like increasing the vulnerability of the PC’s to combat power creep. Especially anything that makes the PC’s FEEL more vulnerable. But since i “Monster Vaulted” all my damage tables monsters are back to being scary instead of meatbags that club for 1d6.

18 Joshman1987 January 18, 2012 at 10:29 am

@BeanBag: I agree. Using the updated damage numbers, monsters can still threaten a PC, regardless of HP. If your PCs are walking all over your encounters, make them harder. Plus five to attack and damage is always a nice place to start.

Also, I’d be a pretty pissed player if after 15 levels some chump kobolds got a lucky shot and killed me. At some points, the DM needs to take priority over the rules.

19 Charles Jaimet January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I like the low hit points for encounter style play and short campaigns, but for an extended campaign I’m going to get invested in my character and I’m not going to want him to be at the whim of a few bad die rolls.

20 Lugh January 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm

One variant system for d20 is the vitality/wound system. It was used in the Star Wars and Spycraft games.

Essentially, you get a number of wound points equal to your Constitution score, plus a number of vitality points roughly equal to standard hit points. Wounds represented actual, physical damage. Vitality represented scrapes, bruises, fatigue, and the similar things that hit points represent.

Wound points never increase. Standard damage is subtracted from vitality first. If you run out of vitality, then you start taking wounds. But, any critical hit goes right past all that vitality and straight to wounds. Also, certain other effects might go directly to wounds.

It keeps a certain level of lethality in the system, while still allowing the PCs to act like action movie heroes.

21 Neotharin January 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm

I’ve pondered doing this in my campaign. The way that I did this and make it balanced was by removing (almost) all level progression.

For PC’s, they still chose new powers but the number of damage dice was reduced to an amount as if it were a heroic level power. They still got ability increase at the proper levels tho.

For monsters, I reduced all HP as tho they were all level 1 based on their role. I used a simplified formula for Solos; 5(2x + Con Score). Where x is equal to the constants for the same role, page 184 of the DMG1. For Elites multiply by 2 instead of 5 as normal.

An example, an ancient White and Red dragon would have 245 and 230 Hp instead of 1145 and 1390 respectively. This might seem odd that the Red dragon lost more Hp but it fits because a White Dragon is meant to be a Brute while the Red Dragon is a Soldier.

The second thing I do to monster is reduce their damage according to the the “Damage by Level” table on page 185 of the DMG1.

Additionally, I handle all crits like a normal hit except that they apply an extra condition that lasts until the end of the attacker’s next turn. For example maces would Daze, while a Slings would Blind.

22 Muz January 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm

In reality, heroes do “gain hit points” as they level up. How many great warriors were killed in battle? You hear of many real life legendary heroes being shot, stabbed multiple times, and still surviving and fighting in the next few battles. It’s just that HP gain in D&D has gone up so fast that eventually players no longer have to think to fight most monsters.

Slow down the HP gain to the point where a fighter would think twice when facing 20 orcs and I think you’d have a great game. And nerf some of the healing as well. I’ve ran a few campaigns where the players didn’t make clerics and it made things very interesting.

23 -C January 23, 2012 at 3:13 am

You’ve obviously hit upon what 4e lost. There’s a progression in the pre-3e games. Use your brain cause it’s super dangerous to fight to can win some battles, to what is the default state in 4e, where you can engage in combat relatively safely – but by 8th or 9th level in an old school game, it’s moved beyond combat and into hexcrawls, campaign management, and mass warfare.

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