First off, let me say that this system shouldn’t be implemented unless the DM and all of the players are very experienced and interested in a much more dangerous version of the game. I find the idea quite intriguing, but however tempted I may be, I don’t think I would ever use it in my own game.
What Are HPs
Hit points are a measure of how difficult a creature is to defeat. Not only do they indicate how much physical abuse a creature can withstand, HPs also represent the creature’s fighting ability (ability to dodge, parry, anticipate). This abstraction serves a vital purpose in that it allows us to quickly and easily resolve conflicts between individuals or groups and allows resolution to be weighted towards the more powerful combatants.
However, by including a representation of fighting ability, the current HP system inflates the creature’s ability to withstand physical damage. For instance: falling off a cliff, being crushed by a falling stone block, or other situations where there is no way to mitigate the damage through avoidance or fighting skill. It makes no sense for a 10th level fighter to have a greater chance than a 1st level fighter of surviving a 100′ fall. But there is no way for the current HP system to distinguish between different types of damage like this.
An Alternate System
In SPI’s Dragon Quest, hit points were represented by endurance and fatigue. Endurance was essentially the amount of physical damage the creature could sustain, while fatigue more-or-less represented the ability to fend off attacks and prevent them from causing “real” (i.e.– endurance) damage. This is perhaps a poor description of what went on in Dragon Quest but serves as an example of what I drew from it.
Hit points could continue to be the abstract damage counter that they are today, but with a distinction between actual damage and the ability to mitigate damage.
What I would suggest is something similar to the following. Note that this idea is designed to be conceptual, not a tested system. Specifics would need to be tried out and adjusted in order to develop a method that works. I’m only trying to lay out the fundamental ideas here.
Add a new attribute called Vitality (or whatever else you wish to call it). This is how much physical damage the creature could withstand. A creature’s vitality score would be based on its size (see table) plus its constitution bonus. Vitality would not change as the creature gained class levels.
HD, in large part, increase in order to give bigger creatures more HP. Since vitality is based on size, HD could be ignored (using both would be redundant). However, if desired, a number of systems spring to mind that could incorporate HD as well. Since I advocate ignoring HD, I’ll avoid that tangent. It should be noted though that HD also determine a creature’s effective level and fighting ability, so when I say ignored I mean just in as far as they affect HPs.
Hit points would then represent only the creature’s ability to mitigate damage (fighting ability, etc). I would probably calculate HPs as before, but leave con bonus out of the equation. At the beginning of a fight, a combatant is fresh and raring to go. She dodges, parries, and otherwise avoids damaging attacks. But these maneuvers take their toll on the individual, represented by a corresponding drop in hit points. When hit points are exhausted, the individual is unable to maintain the effectiveness of those moves, resulting in attacks against her causing physical damage (reducing vitality) instead. When vitality is reduced to zero (or -10 or -CON, whichever is used), the combatant is dead. So far this doesn’t show any difference from the existing system.
Where the difference comes in, is the ability to cause vitality damage before hit points are exhausted. I would suggest that this is possible in the following scenarios:
- Falling damage
- Crushing damage from falling stone blocks
- Poison damage
- Critical hits
- Coup de grace
- Attacks that hit the opponent by 10 or more above the required amount.
There are probably a number of other situations, that don’t immediately come to mind, that would cause damage directly to vitality instead of hit points.
- Characters become much more fragile. All characters, regardless of level, would have a vitality of 8 (small creatures) or 16 (medium creatures) plus their con bonus. A single critical hit could potentially kill them.
- Traps would become much more deadly. Greater caution would be required when adventuring.
- Even low-level opponents would become dangerous, as a single lucky blow could be devastating.
- If poison does vitality damage, protective and curative supplies will become significantly more important.
There shouldn’t be any noticeable change in complexity, nor should this slow down combat in any way. Except for the situations described, everything should actually work exactly as before. However, this system does address a number of inconsistencies inherent in the abstract system we currently use.
The biggest drawback, which some may see as a benefit, is that it makes life much more dangerous for the adventurers.