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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?