This is part 9 of 18 of the series: Hacking New Rules

We’ve Got Fighting Spirit, How About You?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Why do players let their characters die? I mean, I know I’ve said that any time a character dies, it is the GM’s fault. And that is technically true. I stand by that. But, unless the character is outright murdered by a GM fiat or a natural twenty at first level, character death usually doesn’t come out of nowhere. Generally, characters die during combat. And during combat, characters are rarely brought down in one hit (except that critical hit at first level thing).

In fact, I did the math. And the math is really boring. So I’m not going to share the math. But, on average, it takes about three hits to take a character down assuming the party is facing a single creature of their level. Obviously, that can vary depending on the creature’s level, the specific class of the hero, and how many monsters are on the battlefield. It’s just a baseline. But it’s also kind of conservative baseline. The characters who get hit the most during battle are the ones who can take more hits. Because smart heroes plan things that way. And lots of battles feature groups of lesser foes. Which means the number of actual hits a character can take increases. So, three is sort of a minimum.

That means the PCs rarely just drop dead. The have to creep up on death. They have to approach death, one inexorable step at a time. Every successful enemy attack or spell just pushes the PC closer to the end. An end they can see coming because – and this is a subtle and oft overlooked point – THEY HAVE AN ACTUAL MEASUREMENT OF EXACTLY HOW CLOSE THEY ARE TO DEATH RIGHT ON THEIR F$&%ING CHARACTER SHEET.

But players treat every battle as a race to death. Seriously. They don’t care how much damage they take. All they care about is inflicting MORE damage on the enemy. If they can shove the enemy across the finish line before they cross it, they think they’ve won. And, you know what? In 4E D&D they were right! And in 3E D&D and Pathfinder, the party was loaded with so many healing options between spells and potions and wands and spontaneous-goddamned-casting and scrolls, they were right! Survive until the end of the battle and you win! No matter what!

And then there’s f$&%ing “retreat and rest” paradox. Here’s the deal. If the PCs overextend themselves, they will want to retreat and rest. They will want to sleep overnight and regain their hit points and their spells and all their healing. “Fine,” you say, “but the clever GM will create reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t rest.” And sure, the clever GM can do that. And what’s the result. If it works – if the GM prevents the party from resting, all the GM forces the players to do is to kill themselves. Seriously. If the party is f$&%ing limping on death’s door and the GM says “sorry, you have to continue, there’s just NO WAY for you to heal,” the GM is really saying “go to glory and grave, losers!”

It’s kind of like in Demon Souls. In Demon Souls, if you got killed, the game resurrected you but it took away half your MAXIMUM health until you beat a powerful boss monster. Basically, it took away all your health and only let you have it back after you proved you didn’t need it. Yes, that’s fun in a controller-bitingly hard platform game filled with infinite resurrection and fun learn-as-you-go gameplay. But in a D&D game without the whole “infinite resurrection” and “have another try” things, it kind of sucks.

Now, we’re on our seventh paragraph and all I’ve done so far is rant about a problem. So you might be worrying that this is one of those articles where I just piss and moan about a problem and then point out how it’s a part of D&D you just have to accept or reveal in a surprise twist how it’s not really a problem and you dumba$&es should just shut up. But no. This is not one of those articles. This is one of the articles where I have been driving absolutely f$&%ing bonkers by a problem and have been smashing my head repeatedly against a copy of Kobold’s Guide to Game Design trying to find a solution. And that means, four thousand words from now, I’m going to give you a neat rule hack to change basically everything about hit points and death and players and defensive tactics. But that only comes after I analyze the utter hell out of the problem. If you want to skip the analysis, here, click this link and it will go to the part where I fix everything. But for the rest of you. Prepare for the drawn out analysis of why hit points get people killed.

If You’re On the Door, You Might as Well Be in the Lobby

First of all, let’s be clear as we talk about this. I’m not distinguishing between dying and death. See, it’s become sort of de rigueur for RPG systems to dispense with the whole “you ran out of hit points, well f$&% you, go make a new character” system. Once upon a time, that’s how it worked. There were no negative hit points or death saves or any of that other bulls$&%. You had a pile of hit points and if you didn’t take care of them, you got to spend time in the Corner of Shame rolling 3d6 IN ORDER six times and hoping you got the class you wanted.

Now, that’s actually kind of an unforgiving system. There’s no safety net. Lose your last hit point, die, done. So, we decided to add another system UNDER the hit point system. In 3rd Edition D&D, we added the idea of negative hit points. Once you lost your last real hit point, you weren’t dead. You were dying. You were bleeding out. You were critically injured. You were going toward the light. From that point forward, you had a cushion of negative hit points. But those would trickle away unless someone did something about it. There was a slight chance you might stabilize on your own. But if not, someone could heal you by touching you just the right way or by shoving a potion down your throat. Or they could, at the very least rub some dirt in your wounds to get them to clot and you’d wake up a couple hours later.

And at that point, we decided (at least in D&D and Pathfinder but also in a lot of OTHER games) that that was the best we were ever going to do. The problem was basically solved. Everything thereafter was quibbling over details. And so, we invented death saving throws, we played around with how many negative hit points would kill you, we dispensed with negative hit points, we invented three-strikes rules, and on and on and on.

But everything still worked basically the same. Fight until you hit zero hit points, and then fall unconscious and start bleeding. Then, watch as your friends race the clock because they know you can survive at least X rounds before you are really, really dead. Or come back into the fight when one of them grudgingly wastes a healing spell on you.

When you look at it, all this system really does is remove you from the game once you’ve done enough to your character to keep you from doing any more damage to yourself. Once you hit zero hit points, the game basically says “okay, I think you’ve had enough, you’re cut off.” It drops you to the ground, removes you from the game, and also removes you as a target. Unless the GM is a dick and kills you while you’re down. Which some savage monsters would TOTALLY DO in a world where magical healing is a possibility in any fight. And also in a world where a predatory ghoul will totally be happy just dragging off one body to eat while his friends are fighting the rest of the heroes.

But the gods help you if ever use that coup-de-grace attack against a player. You will NEVER hear the end of it.

And honestly, after giving this a crap-ton of thought, I realized that the whole “dying” thing actually doesn’t fix anything. And, in fact, it kind of makes things worse. And it may be the biggest reason why combats are MORE of a battle of attrition than ever before. And it highlights a general problem with the whole hit point system. And it might even feed into the whole two-fold problem of the healer. What two-fold problem? The two-fold problem wherein every group insists on bringing a healer. And wherein any character that can heal is expected to focus all of their resources first and foremost on healing. In 3rd Edition, for example, clerics never got to use any spell slots because any spell slot could be turned into a healing spell. Let’s talk about this.

The Last Defensive Strategy You’ll Ever Use in D&D

In D&D 3.5, there were actually a bunch of defensive options. It might seem like I’m changing the subject, but I’m not. The obligatory “spend your round defending yourself for a big defensive boost” was in there, of course. But there was also an option for fighting defensively. That is, you could take a penalty to attack in return for an AC boost. And there were feats that improved on that. In addition, there’s always been the idea of just switching equipment. Drop your heavy weapon or switch to a one-handed grip, and bring out your shield. But most of these options have been forgotten. The shield/versatile weapon is a cool thing that has gotten a bit of the spotlight in 5E, I’ll admit. But beyond that, as time has gone on, defensive options have fallen out of the game. And they were never very big to begin with anyway. Hell, some 4E classes were built around the fact that damage mitigation was as good as healing for a leader. And no one bought that crap. The 4E classes – the BASIC ONES in the original PHB and PHB2 – actually tried to do a lot of interesting things around the whole defender, striker, leader, controller role. But anything that didn’t align with the traditional “tank, spank, and heal” triumvirate got ignored.

See, here’s the deal. Defensive strategies always come at the expense of offense. The effort you take to defend yourself means the enemy can last that much longer. IN THEORY, there are situations wherein equation works out in your favor. For example, any defender that can exert any sort of zone of control – for example taunting, challenging, divine oaths, or whatever – is actually better off then dropping onto the defensive. While you pin down the enemy and take opportunity attacks when allowed, if you can press your defense high enough, you reduce the enemy damage output to zero while your party can slap it down with impunity. The fact that the enemy lasts longer is counterbalanced by the fact that any number of rounds multiplied by 0 damage still comes out to worthless. And in a situation where you are one hit from dying and need to wait for a cleric to get to you, but leaving your opponent provokes an opportunity attack AND allows the opponent to go cause problems somewhere else or gain another tactical advantage, one round of defense can make all the difference.

And if there were options and strategies and abilities built around these sorts of defensive tactics, it would open them up. Except that no one would use them. No one ever USED Combat Expertise in D&D 3.5. A lot of people took it. It was the start of some really cool feat progressions. But no one ever used it to boost their defense at the expense of their offense. In general, players never fight defensively. And the thing is, the key to an ordered retreat – that is, escaping a situation that has become an emergency – is a solid defensive strategy that lets you survive your retreat.

Instead, there’s only one defensive strategy left in D&D. It’s the strategy everyone uses and therefore everyone thinks has to be used. It’s called healing. Undoing the damage. Tank the damage. Take it all. Deal as much damage as you can as possible. And if you go down, all the damage can be undone. Because when you go down, you have X number of rounds or chances to not die and plenty of ways to be saved at the party’s leisure.

The dying before death mechanic means that the game will jump in and save your life. It removes you from the battle before the battle kills you and gives your friends the opportunity to save you. And then, after that, magical healing, hit dice, short rests, long rests, potions, songs of rest, and all that other crap will get you back up to some level of fighting fitness.

See, D&D should be a really tactically interesting game. Between the freeform nature of all RPGs and the complex synergies and options that could exist in the game’s mechanics, combat should be WAY more interesting than it is in the most strategically interesting video game. And yet, if you look at it, most players don’t take advantage of anything that isn’t just cranking out as much damage as possible and hoping the enemies die before they do.

Every Fight is a Fight to the Death

Now, this isn’t just about combat being less interesting because it mostly becomes a damage race. And because it gradually excises the game of tactical options that don’t fit that standard. It’s also about combat becoming a big game of chicken.

See, once you internalize the idea that every combat is a race to 0 HP with the winner being the loser, combat becomes a game of chicken. You literally can’t swerve because that idea means that doing anything other than damage means you’re going to come in second. And in a two horse race where the losing horse goes to the glue factory, coming in second isn’t a great consolation prize.

It means that every fight MUST BE a fight to the death. So, even if there ARE defensive options and tactics other than “tank, spank, and heal,” they won’t get used. And hell, even “tank” is less useful than “spank, spank, spank, spank, spank, heal.”

The end result is this weird paradox where the worse the fight goes, the more dedicate the party becomes to winning the fight. And where a person dropping isn’t treated like an emergency, but rather a sign that the party needs to crank out more damage.

But that’s not all.

Five Out of Five PCs Disagree on What an Emergency Is

Now, let’s pretend you have one of those parties that actually does consider survival and defensive strategies and retreat. They ARE out there. Or, let’s say that you’re the sort of GM that is going to require that sort of behavior by occasionally forcing the players into confrontations they can’t quite handle. Here’s an interesting problem that those parties get into. And this is a hilarious one that I’ve watched happen.

Hilarious because it involves a lot of bungling and eventually someone dies.

When is it time to focus on defense? When is it time to put survival first? When is it time stretch out the fight and play to outlast the opponent instead of outkill the opponent? More importantly, when is it time to get the hell off the battlefield and try to retreat, regroup, and recover?

No one knows. I’ve watched parties who are totally willing to turtle up or adopt an ordered retreat all glancing around at each other waiting for someone to recognize things have gone tits up and call for retreat. And the call never comes. Because no one is sure that it’s happening. And no one wants to be the one to call the emergency.

The problem is there isn’t really a good sign that there’s an emergency built into the system. It totally comes down to your judgment. And that relies on you knowing how much damage you’re taking and how many hit points you’ve got and doing some probability math. For every other goddamned character on the battlefield as well as for yourself.

And the reason there isn’t a good sign is because of a concept called “Total Existence Failure.”

Total Existence Failure

There was a hilarious anecdote in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books about the Starship Titanic. The SS Titanic was built with a weird form of probability drive that guaranteed that it was infinitely improbable for anything to go wrong with the ship. But, the designers misunderstood probability mechanics and didn’t realize that something that is infinitely improbable is likely to happen almost immediately. So, the moment the ship launched, absolutely everything went wrong all at once and the ship suffered total existence failure.

This got expanded into a pretty crappy book and a pretty fun point-and-click adventure game for the PC that, thanks to way Windows games used to work, is now impossible to get running on any modern PC.

But this ALSO became the name of a certain system of health tracking in video games. Basically, you have a set amount of hit points. And you can lose as many hit points as you like. And you suffer no ill effects from losing hit points. You don’t break bones. You don’t slow down. You don’t weaken. You are totally fine. Until you lose your last hit point. When you lose your last hit point, you suffer total existence failure.

And this is actually the model that D&D has. Now, what’s really interesting is that outside of D&D, in, say, video games, it has a different effect on players. Because that last hit point matters SO MUCH, players tend to get more nervous and cautious as their hit points get low. They also tend to become more desperate for checkpoints or healing. Which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Because, that’s how people would actually behave. The closer to a fatal injury you are, the more cautious and frightened you become.

And if you look back at the olden days, you had all sorts of anecdotes about badly injured parties who were out of healing and desperately looking for the exit to Undermountain. And these parties would resort to any tactic to avoid a fight. But that’s back when avoiding fights was as much or more a part of the game than winning fights.

Of course, in D&D, you generally don’t get another chance if you die. And as the game became more character and story focused and character generation became more complicated, the safety net was added underneath death to prevent zero hit points from killing a character.

It’s just that the weird combination of Total Existence Failure HP and the Dying Before Death Safety Net have combined very oddly to make 0 HP LESS scary than it would be in a true Total Existence Failure system. And the Dying Before Death system also requires plenty of ways to heal and recover. And that’s why we have a situation where undoing damage is the only defensive strategy left.

But the Death Spiral

Now, some games utilize a different mechanic. One that is commonly referred to as the Death Spiral. Basically, as you become more injured, you become less effective. You’re penalized for every hit point you lose. For example, in Savage Worlds, every wound you take gives a cumulative -1 penalty to every action you attempt. And on average, you’re rolling a d6 or a d8 and trying to get a four. So that penalty gets pretty serious.

From a standpoint of realism or verisimilitude or just making f$&%ing sense, the idea of becoming less effective as you get more beat up works. It makes sense. It’s logical. The problem is that, from a gameplay standpoint, it can REALLY suck. Why? Well, for the exact reason that it’s called the death spiral. Say you get unlucky and take a bad hit. Because of your reduced effectiveness, not only are you closer to death, it’s also harder for you to do anything to recover. It’s harder for you to come back OR to beat the enemy. Every hit you take makes it harder for you to win. So once you start losing, you tend to keep losing. And you lose faster and faster. You basically spiral down to your death. Death spiral. See?

Now, there’s all sorts of ways to mitigate that problem. But the death spiral mechanic works best in systems that focus on certain engagements. And, more importantly, systems in which the PCs aren’t expected to take a lot of damage. D&D is NOT one of those systems. On average, the PCs will get hit by about two thirds of the attacks the monsters make against them. And each hit will deal anywhere from one fifth to one third of their hit points. Modern D&D characters take a lot of damage.

So Who Cares?!

Now, before I go on to fixing this problem, I’m going to go ahead and admit it doesn’t HAVE TO be a problem. After all, D&D is generally pretty survivable. As is Pathfinder. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Total Existence Failure Hit Points. And Dying Before Death means that going down doesn’t take you out. It means you can recover from your f$&% ups. F$&% ups don’t kill characters. And kill-or-be-killed is an exciting way to handle combats. And it fits the D&D mode of engagement.

So, honestly, you might not care about any of this. And that’s fine. Congratulations. You’ve read about 3,700 words for nothing. Because it’s a nonissue.

But I’ve reached a point now where all of these petty little annoyances – kill-or-be-killed, offense only, always bring a healer, ignore the downed character for two rounds, dropping characters every other fight at low- to mid-levels – all of those little niggling annoyances are starting to bug me. And I’m looking squarely at the HP system and saying “this is all your fault. Where the f$&% did you go wrong?” Because, to be honest, I HATE the HP system in D&D.

And I’ve dealt with several groups of players in the last few months that have gotten a little tired out by it. They are tired of the argument over who “has to” play the healer. They are tired of being down and up and down again. And waiting for healing. Or rolling to stabilize. And I’m tired of listening to players complain about that crap while I try to point out that there are OTHER strategies and options. But they don’t fit the optimal strategy for kill-or-be-killed.

But all of that aside, there was one last aspect to all of this that really drove me nuts.

Down and Out of the Game

When a PC drops – when they are at 0 HP and dying – that player is out of the game. Now, I have NO PROBLEM with a player being temporarily not on camera. It happens. It’s a group game. You’re not always involved in everything. Being respectful and waiting your turn are par for team sports. What I do have a problem with is an inherently baffling contradiction in the game rules. Get ready for this one.

The game was designed with this state called dying. And the whole point is that the game recognizes when you are in an emergency situation. And it jumps in to rescue you. It removes you as a target by taking you out of the fight so you hopefully won’t take any more damage. And it also takes away your ability to get yourself back into the fight and further endanger yourself until you’re no longer in an emergency state. And those are two very good ideas. I support those very highly.

But it also makes you unconscious. It renders you unable to act. And that means, there’s nothing YOU can personally do to get out of the emergency state. I agree with the idea of pulling you back from the fight and sending you to your corner, but I don’t understand why it also has to break your legs so you can’t get back to your corner.

Now, some of you are saying “well, that makes sense. It’s realistic. You’re dying. There’s nothing you can do.” And you can all eat a bag of d$&%s. Sense has nothing to do with it. If sense had anything to do with it, you’d have had a broken leg, a dislocated arm, and three busted ribs before you hit 0 HP.

That was a game design decision. And there’s no reason we can’t do better. And since we’ve now hit the 4,000-word mark, that’s what we’re going to do. So, here it is. The actual solution.

Down but Not Out: Fighting Spirit

Honestly, from a standpoint of just making sense of things, the solution for this system comes from one of the biggest dumba$& arguments surrounding the whole Total Existence Failure HP System. And that is “what do hit points represent?” How many of you are tired of THAT discussion? I know I sure am. The reason it has to BE a discussion is because, on the one hand, an RPG is about trying to create a fictional reality that actually seems like it could be real. And on the other hand, hit points are bats$&% insane and have nothing to do with how injuries work. After all, barring some exceptional circumstances and individuals, most people are critically injured if you stab them just one time with three feet of sharpened steel. Try it. Go up to someone and run them through with a longsword. They become pretty useless after that stabbing.

But D&D characters can get stabbed a hell of a lot. And, the more experienced they become, the more they can get stabbed. And that’s really weird. I’ve done experiments with high school students, undergraduates, doctoral candidates, and tenured professionals and I’ve discovered there is NO correlation between level of experience and how many stabs it takes to render them useless.

And that is why D&D keeps trying to force this idea down our throat that HP are a combination of physical health, the ability defend oneself effectively, tenacity, pain tolerance, and probably f$&%ing magic too. And honestly, that doesn’t make sense either. Because tenacity and a basic knowledge of parrying are no use when you fall into lava. And yet, the 20th level fighter can survive the fall into lava for longer than the 1st level fighter.

What if we DID separate those ideas. What if, on the one side, we have hit points. These represent physical, life threatening injuries. If you lose all of those, you die. Or you are dying. We’re not getting rid of anything here. We’re still keeping all the 0 HP, dying, death save, death stuff.

What we NEED is a safety net ABOVE 0 HP. We need a state wherein the game enforces an emergency state without taking the character’s agency away. That is to say, we need something like dying-but-conscious. A state where offensive actions are limited, but the character can still take actions to remove himself from the emergency or recover.

But we don’t want a death spiral. We want a binary state. We want Healthy > In Danger > Dying > Dead. And most of the character’s life should be spent in the Healthy range.

And we want to do it without adding too many rules or f$&%ing with anything that exists. And we want it to make logical sense. And we don’t want it to f$&% up game balance. Right?

So, here’s the system. For D&D 5E. Because that’s what I’m running. If you want to run a different system, you can pretty much see the pattern I’ve established and adapt it.

Hit Points Become Fighting Spirit

Here’s the deal. Everything that is hit points now – FOR PCS ONLY – becomes a thing called Fighting Spirit. We’re changing the name. That’s all. Fighting Spirit represents all the bulls$&% parts of hit points. The narrative crap. The tenacity, defense, pain resistance, energy, drive, motivation, parrying ability, training, etc. That’s Fighting Spirit. FS.

So far, so good. It’s a simple change. Just a terminology deal.

At First Level, Each Character Also Gets Hit Points

Now, first level characters also get hit points. Those HP are equal to their HP which has become FS. So, a Fighter begins the game with 10 + Con modifier Fighting Spirit and 10 + Con modifier Hit Points.

Hit points represent actual life-threatening injuries. If you’ve taken hit points of damage, you are visibly injured. But they don’t represent specific injuries. You’re just beat up.

Now, it might look like I just double everybody’s hit points. Don’t worry. I didn’t. I’m smarter than that.

Hit Dice are Spirit Dice

The other thing is that Hit Dice need to be renamed to Spirit Dice. They work exactly the same. But they recover Fighting Spirit only. That’s important later.


Now, here’s what happens when a character gets hurt. When a character gets hurt, if they have ANY Fighting Spirit at all, they take the damage to their Fighting Spirit. It’s assumed they mostly defended themselves or dodged or turned it into minor injuries or ignored the pain or magic. They took a hit, but it wore them down more than it hurt them.

If a character has NO Fighting Spirit, the damage is applied to their Hit Points. They didn’t defend themselves. They are too exhausted. They took a serious injury. Not serious enough to cause specific injuries. Just serious enough to be visible and endanger them.

All damage must be applied completely to Fighting Spirit OR Hit Points. If a character has 3 Fighting Spirit left and takes 7 damage, they now have 0 Fighting Spirit and the spillover damage is ignored. This is SUPER important. Trust me.


Except for spending hit dice, any form of magical or mundane healing can be applied to EITHER Fighting Spirit OR Hit Points. But not both. Pick one or the other. Hit Dice are now Spirit Dice. They only recover Fighting Spirit.

You might decide that specific effects apply to specific things. That’s fine too. If I were designing an RPG from the ground up with this system, I’d certainly think about that. But we’re trying to be as simple as possible and add as little complication as we can. So, in this system, healing can be applied to EITHER FS OR HP but never both. Except Spirit Dice.

Fighting Spirit AND Hit Points are fully recovered at a Long Rest. However, you MIGHT decide that Hit Points recover more slowly. It isn’t strictly necessary for game balance purposes. But I think it might be more interesting if a Long Rest recovers only a certain number of HP.

When a Character is Out of Fighting Spirit

When a character has 0 Fighting Spirit, they suffer a condition called “Dispirited.” Basically, pain, exhaustion, and lost morale is affecting them now. They can’t fight effectively and they can’t ignore the pain of the injuries they do have.

• A dispirited creature suffers disadvantage on attack rolls.
• Saving throws against the creature’s spells, attacks, and abilities have advantage.
• The creature’s exhaustion level increases by one for as long as they remain dispirited.
• A creature that has at least 1 Fighting Spirit is no longer dispirited.

And there you go. Simply put, the creature can’t attack effectively. When the creature makes an attack, it’s at a disadvantage. When the creature forces someone to make a saving throw, the target has advantage. And the dispirited creature is at an exhaustion level of at least one, meaning their ability checks have disadvantage. Of course, if they are already exhausted, their exhaustion level is increased. Incidentally, the reason for the wording is because you can’t make the exhaustion level go away unless you also recover from being dispirited.

Offensively, the creature is now crippled. It is very hard for them to make attacks. And lots of other actions become much harder as well. Actions that don’t require attack rolls, saving throws, or ability checks are unaffected. Such as healing spells. Or the Disengage or Dodge action. Other class abilities that allow for defense, buffing, or tactical cleverness are also unaffected. And, most importantly, unless the character was already exhausted, their defenses and saving throws are unaffected. Defensively, they can still protect themselves. Offensively, they are hurting.

This creates an emergency state that effectively falls between 0 HP and negative Max HP in which the character can do stuff defensively, but not offensively. Basically, a Dying but not Unconscious state.

Also notice that Hit Points don’t recover at short rests because that Spirit Dice only recover Fighting Spirit. And Hit Point damage itself doesn’t carry a penalty. Once you get your spirits up, you can fight through your injuries and be in tip-top shape.

At Higher Levels

At each level, characters gain Fighting Spirit according to the way they gain hit points under the normal rules. So, a Cleric gains 5 + Con modifier Fighting Spirit with every level.

At 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level, characters gain more Hit Points. They gain a Hit Point increase equal to their normal, level by level increase of Fighting Spirit. So, at 4th level, a Cleric gains 5 + Con modifier HP. And then again at 8th level, and so on.

Roughly speaking, once the PCs get beyond about third level, their Hit Points will be approximately one third of the Fighting Spirit. Why? Because I did some math. As I said above, the average PC can expect the average monster of their level to take one third of their HP in a single, successful hit. But that’s a high estimate. Given the way the game works out, it’s usually less than that. That means that, with HP equal to one third of your FS, once you’ve been dispirited, the WORST CASE SCENARIO is that the next hit will be deadly. But usually, you can survive two more hits.

And that’s exactly what we want. We want that emergency scenario that demands defense, healing, retreat, or a change in tactics to be just enough that the PC can only ignore it once AT MOST.

The Impact

I’m not entirely convinced this will lessen the reliance on healing as THE defensive strategy to go to. I’m not sure ANYTHING can completely do that in D&D. But it does give the PCs more agency to deal with their own emergencies before forcing the medic to break off the fight and run to them. If all it does is allow the PC to break off and run TO THE MEDIC, I’ll consider it a success. But I do foresee an upswing in the value of defensive abilities.

Yeah, I said foresee. See, this hasn’t actually been tested yet. See, this is an experiment I’m ABOUT to implement in my game. As in, starting a few hours after I finish typing this sentence and about twelve hours before you will probably read this. But it seemed like such an interesting possibility that I figured I’d share it prematurely.

The thing is, though, I’m not really sure I foresee it breaking anything. The worst it is going to do is let people run around and be ineffective while they should be unconscious. That’s why I added the Hit Points BELOW the Fighting Spirit rather than fractioning them off. So I feel safe in letting some other people try this out while I’m still experimenting. It can’t make things any worse.

104 thoughts on “We’ve Got Fighting Spirit, How About You?

  1. I really like this idea. It reminds me of the old (maybe still works that way) Shadowrun and first edition Deadlands concept of being able to ‘soak’ up damage. So the ‘tanks’, the gunfighters, street samurai etc. could take a beating before they had to pull back or become ineffective. While the spell caster types could never make those type of rolls. But that was offset by the fact that their damage potential was so much higher.

    The one problem is that if you don’t put the same system in place for at minimum the big monsters then the PC’s will find a way to make things work in their favor. Right now it is even, the monsters and PC’s have the same options and reasons to keep fighting. But if one side gets even a little advantage than the other side is toast. I could see how a well-coordinated party would develop a strategy of almost hit & run with this, which is interesting and an inspired tactic. And if that is all you want, to make the combats more developed tactically, than it should work. But I can also see a few really frustrated GM’s trying to figure out ways to attack HP rather than FS, and then the escalation begins again.

    I am interested to read about how it all works. I certainly don’t have a great solution. So anything is better than the status quo.

  2. Sounds like a blast. Two questions:

    1) Since damage can’t spill over from Fighting Spirit to HP, it means that spells that would murder the target once their HPs reach 0 won’t murder then at 0 FS (and thus having 1 FS makes them immune to the worse effects of those), or should they be murdered at that point?

    2) Effects like Power Word: Kill should murder people if their FS is below a certain threshold, or should murder people if their FS + HP is below a certain threshold?

    • I definitely see a problem with the 1 fs immunity. That’s a huge waste of a monster’s attack. I might suggest that the player has resistance to all damage when you transition from fs to hp. Player has 5 fs left and 13 hp. An attack hits for 20 damage. the Character takes 5 fs damage leaving 15 damage to the player’s hp. However for the remainder damage he has resistance so he takes 7 hp damage leaving him with 6hp. I could see something like that working well.

      • It’s not as bad as it seems. I would consider most situations where repeatedly nullifying a single attack keeps a character safe a resolved conflict. Anything(s) capable of dealing damage 2+ times a turn can easily bypass low amounts of FS. (See:Darkest Dungeon)

        The problem I have with this fix is once you do damage to both with a single attack, the PCs can get nicked down until they die without being able to recover with it properly.
        -Fighter takes a defensive action, since he is disadvantaged. Cleric heals moderately for 8 FS. Monster hits for 13, Fighter is back at 0/4, takes another defensive action…

      • What about a damage threshold?

        Say a PC has 1 FS and gets hit by an attack. That attack must deal damage equal to or greater than [total HP? Max Hit Die + Con? or something similar] in order for spillover damage to be applied. This way, the FS would mitigate smaller attacks as intended, but massive damage would still impact HP.

        As for Power Word: Kill and the like, FS should not be treated differently than HP.

        • I personally do not see the Problem with 1 SP left. It’s basically the same as moaning that an attack of a monster is wasted, if a PC just has 1 HP in the normal system. The idea of the system proposed is to establish a state between 0 HP and death, which lasts for an expected value of two hits. That’s the only reason why damage does not spill over. The only thing that you are suggesting is, to give the DM a way to bypass the system. This would simply rob the player from actions he would have gained from the new system, contradicting the reason the system was implemented in the first place.

          To the power word death topic:

          IMO it is just stupide to use such a spell as a DM. It’s the same like letting a 2000kg rock fall on the PC’s head. Since the monster side will still use the old HP system power word death will work as before for players.

          regards moglei

          • You make a decent point comparing 1 SP to 1 HP; however, you are overlooking the instant death mechanic (spillover damage > max HP = death). While uncommon outside of low levels or heavy-hitting boss battles, it is still present.
            Regardless of what the proposed damage threshold mechanic would be, it is necessary IMO to prevent 1 SP from turning into what is effectively a hit negation that would detract from the realism the Fighting Spirit mechanic was aiming for in the first place.

            Also, I would agree that PWK is a cheap shot to take against the players. But it is only “rocks fall you die” if your DM decides to be a dick.
            Say there’s a novice wizard who has accessed PWK through some kind of shortcut (a tome, a magical blessing, an evil opera instructor, whatever), and has been abusing this newfound power in order to bully his way to power in some town. Maybe the PC’s hear of this and investigate, finding out the details of this lame spell and figuring out a way to resist it. Going into this situation with knowledge of PWK makes it interesting and fair – the PC’s know the risk and have hopefully found a way to avoid the consequence.
            It is, of course, up to the DM to make use of this spell and others like it, but it can easily be done.
            Eliminating any spell from the DM’s toolbox only restricts the game.

        • I’ve had this discussion with someone already who tried implementing a similar system. The reason this system is terrible is it highly favors casters. A fighter who hits you 4 times in a turn has just as much impact of a fireball, but under that kind of a system his attacks are typically shrugged off.

          • I would actually wager that it would favor the fighter, rather than the caster (which is fine, considering the capabilities of the caster in comparison).

            The fighter who hits you 4 times in a turn, if the first attack hits you and brings you to 0, his subsequent 3 attacks will finish you off, but a wizard’s fireball drops you to 0 and leaves you with HP to run away with.

            This seems to help in the mitigation of caster power creep as well, in this context.

  3. I use a smaller modification to the standard system. At 0 HPs, everything happens as normal, except that the PC is not unconscious. They can’t move, attack or cast spells. They can at best crawl 5 ft along the ground, maybe to hide in a corner. They can do minor actions such as fumble for a potion. They continue to bleed to death, death saves and all. This way they still have some agency over their condition but without affecting the hopefully ongoing battle. Except if they fell into lava. Then they’re ^&%$ed.

  4. Your solution has a lot of similarities to a system I really liked when I ran the WOTC Star Wars d20 rpg (pre-Saga edition) for a campaign last year. It had Vitality Points as your normal HP, with all the usual characteristics, and Wound Points equal to your Con score. Wound damage imposed the Fatigued condition and a Fortitude save vs unconsciousness. Dropping to -10 WP or below caused death.

    I found it provided a good warning for my players, with just enough of a penalty to make them stop and pay attention. My favorite part was that using the Force cost Vitality Points, which I thought was an interesting trade-off. The rpg had its fair share of flaws, but I’ve always liked that particular system. Might try to throw Fighting Spirit on top of my new Pathfinder campaign, and see what the players think.

    • I liked that system. It was interesting that it allowed them to do something new with rogues by making them deal direct wound damage in rare circumstances instead of vitality damage.

  5. Kind of reminds me of the D&D 4E concept where creatures would become “bloodied” at 50% HP. Unfortunately, there really weren’t any interesting effects on bloodied creatures built into the core system.

    Another way I have considered alleviating this problem is to give characters a permanent penalty each time they drop below 0 HP. The character may have survived, but now they have a “scar” to show for the close fight.

    • I really like this idea. There is a half-orc in my current campaign that died from a mighty blow from a fire giant. The cleric had a resurrect scroll, so they brought the PC back to life, but the DM ruled that his face was completely riddled with scars on one side.

    • Actually, they tried to make bloodied a lot more important. Two core races have features that depends on that condition (Tiefling and Dragonborn), and there is a good portion of magic items in the PHB/AV that works only if you are bloodied, or until you get bloodied.

      After that, the concept kinda was non-existant. Shifters have restrictions to only activate their racial while bloodied, and some monsters can use special attacks when they are bloodied (or attacking a bloodied creature), but the system itself clearly was not trying anymore.

  6. Hey, it’s like the Palladium RPG system where you had buttloads of Structural Damage Capacity (S.D.C.) and only a handful of Hit Points, so when S.D.C. was used up and damage rolled over into HP, you knew you were in trouble. Only much better, since there are actual penalties for being in Hit Points to make players wake up and realize they’re in danger.

    I’m really interested to hear the results of your experiment.

  7. I had this problem come up a lot, but when I started GMing (we rotate GMs) I decided to try something new so I printed off the Runequest essentials PDF. Runequest characters have very low hit points for each limb/body part, making any substantial damage have an effect without making the character useless. I wonder if this kind of HP system could be adapted to d&d.

    Anyway, great article angry, keep them coming.

    • I actually used this system for a campaign I was running that featured advanced tech. The characters basically had mechs which they used to fight a kraken, and each of the mech’s limbs and so forth had separate HP values, that way they suffered adverse effects when a part of their mech reached 0 HP. And of course they had options to “reroute power” by taking hit points from one body part and transferring it to another, but of course that meant siphoning hit points from another piece of the mech. I probably didn’t do a great job explaining it but my players enjoyed it.

    • Dungeon World has the “messy” tag. If a monster with the messy tag does damage, it’s not just a simple cut or pierce, something got shredded or crushed or ripped off and is now probably useless. A low-damage hit by a monster with the messy tag might destroy a hand or crush a foot. A high-damage hit might rip an arm clean off or turn the PC’s torso to ribbons.

      And since much of the mechanics of DW rely on what has happened in the fiction, if your hand is crushed then you can’t reasonably use two hands to swing your sword extra hard, or diving out of the way of a troll trying to smash you will big much more difficult than usual if your foot doesn’t work properly, etc.

  8. For any one else hopped up on allergy meds wondering why they feel so much deja vu– from Ask Angry “Death Spirals”:
    “Imagine, for example, if at 0 HP, you didn’t fall unconscious and start dying. Instead, you remained conscious, but you could only move. If you took any action at all, you had to make a save to stay conscious and not start dying. But if that action was to recover yourself, you could recover. That way, your character still had some options but absolutely couldn’t fight usefully and if the character tried to fight, they knew they were screwed. – See more at:

    The Angry GM mentions at start and finish that he would write more on this.

    Dear The Angry GM,
    I have the same grievance with bull rushing to death chicken. I considered Hackmaster, and thought about a rule for 5e D&D that “If you are not engaged in combat, you may use your reaction to attack a creature that enters your reach”. You’ve mentioned playing Hackmaster, what was your experience there?

    • I don’t think you need a new rule for what you are thinking of for 5e D&D; this sounds just like readying an attack with the trigger condition that ‘a (hostile) creature enters my reach’, which is an action that is already explicitly in the 5e rules

  9. Like someone else mentioned, it’s very reminiscent of the Star Wars D20 (pre saga) Vitality/Wounds system.

    Something to consider though, is that healing is pretty much the only way players can interact with the HP system straight out of the box, as it were. 5th edition does give you some options to up your defense as a reaction like the shield spell or the bard’s cutting words ability, but they still drain resources. They’re only useful if; a) they turn a hit into a miss, and b) if the resources required to undo the damage, ie heal, are of equal value or greater value. Angry mentions the fighting defensively and combat expertise options in 3.5 (I don’t know if they worked the same way in Pathfinder because I never played that system) but these all required feats and were generally only useful to classes who didn’t have a lot of feats to spend anyway.

    Hackmaster 5th has a bunch of combat moves players can employ to increase their defense, built into the core combat system. They’re available to all classes all the time. Yeah, non combat characters tend to give ground or fight defensively all the time, but it’s entirely reasonable they try to stay alive, and give up the chance to deal damage in combat.

    Another thing is the average attacks per character death. Angry says 3 on average, but usually a bit more. If you can reasonably expect to take 3-5 solid hits before you’re in danger then there is no incentive to do anything other than stack more hit points, through magic or through healing. More deadly attacks gives players a bigger incentive to avoid combats or avoid getting hit.

    Conan D20 did a lot of things I really liked. A few things that stood out were increasing weapon damage significantly, changing the “Death by massive damage” rule to a 20hp threshold so a large portion of critical hits would force the save, and only allowing characters to make HP rolls from levels 1-10. After that, you got 1 + con modifier extra HP per level. It made every fight dangerous, even fights where you were a significant favourite. An unlucky crit against you could take you out of the fight.

    Hackmaster 5th does a similar thing with the threshold of pain/trauma check/coup de grace rules, with exploding dice, and with their hugely (overly?) detailed critical hits table.

    None of these rule systems are perfect, but I think they address the issue of HP damage races by doing 2 things. They make the prospect every attack dangerous enough to incentivise avoiding it. They give you the tools in the core combat rules to adjust your risk/reward as the situation dictates.

  10. [This comment has been removed because it added nothing to the discussion and was needlessly dickish and trolly. However, I have paraphrased the comment so that you can see what sort of things I will remove. It read, in essence, “This is a bad idea. But I will not tell you why it is a bad idea. Because D&D is a bad game and I do not like it and I wish it would go away.”

    You are allowed to disagree with my ideas. Frankly, I don’t give a f$&%. Be wrong. I don’t care. And you are allowed to dislike anything you want. But if your only contribution to a discussion is: “you’re wrong because you write about a game that sucks and I wish you never got to play it again,” you’re not contributing anything. You’re being a dick. And there is only one dick allowed on my website. And he pays the bills.

    If you don’t like D&D, that’s fine. But showing up on D&D night just to tell people who like D&D that they shouldn’t like D&D, you’re being an asshole. And they probably aren’t listening because they are too busy having fun with a thing they like.] – The Angry GM

    • Oh, woops. I’ll try to do better.

      In the general case, 5E characters cannot die from losing hit points. The fighting spirit system does not change this, it exacerbates it by moving death further away. Thus, this is not a solution to players who are bored because they never feel threatened. I remain suspicious this is the actual problem most groups face.

      Otherwise, if your problem is that players don’t behave as if threatened when they clearly are, then how is fighting spirit an advantage over just using the existing death saving throws? As a player, the convention we’ve adopted is that so long as magical healing remains available, we will continue to fight knowing we can be brought back up. Once magical healing is exhausted, we run away.

      Is your problem that players aren’t following the convention I’ve just described? Perhaps what I’ve described isn’t elegant enough, or isn’t obvious to your players. But fighting spirit isn’t any more elegant* and certainly isn’t any more obvious. Perhaps it seems obvious to you. Here’s a question, when should a group of players run away? Which players need to be out of fighting spirit before running? The solution to that riddle certainly isn’t obvious to me. Were you planning to just tell the players what their convention should be, or hoping that this new system would be easier to figure out a convention for than the existing system?

      Maybe it is easier to figure out, maybe not. I suspect not. And if you were just going to tell the players what convention they should use, you could have just told them the convention I described under standard rules. Better yet, if the players have obviously bitten off more than they can chew, best to stop rolling combat dice entirely and end combat via DM fiat. The more narrative approach is certainly more appropriate to how 5E is designed.

      * Fighting spirit as written is ludicrously exploitable by a very smart group, it makes 5E’s whack-a-mole gameplay that much easier.

      (Apologies if the above seems combative, it was the easiest way for me to write this comment. I’m not terribly great at expressing myself in writing, hence my original comment presumably being of poor quality.)

  11. I’d really like to try this out – sounds like a useful set of rules. The other problem with a PC becoming unconscious at 0 HP, which I think you covered in your article about death, is that the rest of the party becomes more reluctant to retreat because they would leave their buddy behind.

    Now we just need some rules that allow PCs to retreat effectively! I remember the Mentzer red box had some rules about chase and pursuit, about how intelligent creatures may stop if the PCs drop treasure, or unintelligent beasts might stop for food.

    Perhaps another hypothesis for your experiment will that PCs will start to think more about retreat strategies like carrying caltrops etc?

    • They had rules for evasion and pursuit in 3, 3.5, and Pathfinder in the core rules, though I encounter many people who have missed it due to it’s brevity.

      Determine the length of time (in rounds, minutes, hours, or days) for the pursuit (How long before the pursuer says “nope, not happening”) and make opposed Dexterity (if it’s about who’s faster) or Constitution (if it’s about endurance and keeping up a good stride) checks for one unit of that time period. Whoever does better, wins.

      You just have to remember to drop the combat rules like an elder fire elemental as soon as someone decides to beat feet, and feel free to give a bonus of some assortment (+x to roll or even a freebie win) for things that are done that would help one side or the other (caltrops, Web spell, walls of various materials, cloud spells for poor visibility in a tangle of crossroads, shooting a guy in the nuts/leg/eyes, locate creature spell, etc)

  12. You could generalize FS, And tie it to other things such as carousing, social engagements, character disadvantages, etc. Thus would make an explicit system where having a night out before a major battle was important, where relationship problems carried over into dungeons, where respect/ reputation mattered or where acting out (giving in to a disadvantage) helped relieve combat-impacting stress.

    • I sort of like this concept. It’s a little touchy-feely for Angry me thinks, but I personally find the idea of being able to distinguish some environmental factors from others where it comes to damage highly appealing. Angry mentioned the idea that it was stupid that a high level fighter could survive longer in lava than a low level, but didn’t say much after really putting his idea out there so I find myself wondering if certain environmental hazards (things that specifically aren’t an attack or spell) should cause direct damage to hit points still. That would make a long fall really dangerous for everyone and might also open the door for social/psychological exchanges to have effects on PCs fighting readiness (in rare instances still of course).

    • I like the more touchy-feely aspect of FS. It makes me think of LotR where characters needed to hear a good song or be told a tale around the campfire to rally the party. Now that I think about it, rarely was healing required in LotR… They usually just talked it out and rested to restore their health…

      Also Trauma could be used (there may be another name for it, idk) to permanently reduce a character’s FS. Say a freakish wraith kills a party member brutally. The whole group may have their hope restored later during the funeral where they hug each other and give the eulogy, but there’s a permanent scar on all of the characters who witnessed the messy end of their friend.

      Also reminds me of Darkest Dungeon in a way.

  13. I`ve been using a similar system in my Pathfinder game. The characters have and energy pool and a health pool that are each a little more than half the size of what the character’s hit points would be. Energy can be healed very easily even without a healer; heath is a pain in the a$% to heal even with one. Healers can keep your energy high all the time so you don’t take much health damage; but some attacks and manuveurs deal damage to health directly.

    It actually took a lot of testing and tweeking and changes on how i design my encounters before i could change the players mindset to incorporate more defensive strategies. But i think i’m getting to a good place.

  14. Good to see you came back to this one Angry! I really loved your rant about it from before, so I developed a system after reading it. My solution was pretty different from yours, but its worked really well so far. Here it is:

    I grabbed the bloodied mechanic from 4E (because I loved that) and players now stop when they hit their bloodied value (dmg doesn’t spill over) and take a minor injury card. These can be anything from bleeding wounds to concussions, which put minor limits on what they can do or present future problems (one adds a token each time you attack, and you have to make a fort save at the end of the encounter that increases based off token count). Most of these minor injuries can be healed with magical healing or a short rest and bandages.

    If a hit would kill them, they instead take a major wound card, this card can be a broken bone, losing an eye/ear, etc. These represent nearly fatal wounds that alter the character. These can be healed with higher level magic or (in some cases) extended rest.

    This system has worked very well in letting the players know when they are in trouble. Once those injury cards (sleeved in bright red) start getting dealt out, they rethink their strategy. It also helps that the “disadvantage” from the injury is often balanced by the negation of HP loss (due to stopping at bloodied and negating a killing blow).

    One final note, you can’t receive two of the same injury types in one encounter. One minor, one major. Anyway, this is how I changed death and dying when I read your post before. I like this new stuff and maybe it can work in there somehow.

    As always, thanks for the continual and encouraging articles.

  15. I have a better system, one that is much simpler. At 0 hp or less, instead of falling unconscious you instead gain 1 level of exhaustion each round and make your normal death saves. That way you
    * 1st round with disadvantage on ability checks
    * 2nd round your movement is reduced
    * 3rd round you have disadvantage on saves and attack rolls
    * 4th round your hp max is halved
    * 5th round speed is reduced to 0
    * 6th round you are dead

    If you roll 3 successful death saves you no longer gain a level of exhaustion.
    If you roll 3 failed death saves you die.
    If you receive healing you no longer gain levels of exhaustion, but you don’t lose any either.

    This way hitting 0 hp is something to be feared, but you don’t have a death spiral until you are actually at 0 hp when you would normally be unconscious anyway.

    If you manage to roll success, failure, success, failure, success, failure then you die on round 6 anyway.

    If you want to be lenient you can let these kinds of exhaustion’s be removed with a short instead of a long rest.

    • I like it! Seems more elegant than Angry’s system.

      How are your experiences with the system? One strengths I see in angry’s system over yours is that with ~10 HP left (once FS is gone) they will be very reluctant to stick around. They need to change tactics!

      With your system they have about 2 more rounds where they can still fight pretty normal. It seems to me that this would promote the DPS race rather than prevent it.

      The main difference is: in your system all depends on the death save which can’t be influeced. It’s 50-50, might as well keep fighting. If they take further dmg nothing happens, right?

      So maybe you would need to add something that punishes them if they take further dmg?

      • That’s already in the 5E rules – if you get hit when you’re at 0 hp, it counts as a death save failure, or two failures if it’s a critical hit.

    • I agree that this is a simpler system. I had been giving one level of exhaustion when PCs hit 0 hit points but it’s been so rare that it didn’t make much difference yet. I like the idea of having disadvantage on attacks and opponents getting advantage on saves though while still getting to do something on your turn. It seems like there might be a few other options in the system like spare the dying or restoration that may throw an unexpected wrinkle into the system though.

    • It worked.

      I used it with a new group in a new campaign.

      I modified it by making the player roll a death save when they get to 0 HP. This restores the opportunity for six rolls. I also do death saves at the start of a players turn, given that with these rules, it reminds they of their death spiral.

      Players suffered consequences. A player had to make a decision that might have gotten them really dead one way or another. Emotions got involved. It was glorious.

      Thanks, Angry. I continue to learn the art, and I consider you a mentor.

      Now, will anybody read this?

    • I had just such a similar idea. But I think I would modify it in that if the character suffers damage at 0 HP they take another exhaustion level. Not have it be an automatic decent into exhaustion. When they’re at level 6 they start making death throws. A critical hit while exhausted and 0 HP would take them straight to level 6.

  16. I think the fundamental problem is that most players are neither as interested in, nor as good at, a tactical game as you, and no amount of mechanics is going to fix that.

    That said, I find the solutions offered by dmForLife and, um, the AngryGM as related by Dendar, to be more elegant. My own riff would be to leave the character conscious but somewhat gimped when he hits 0 hit points, and to increase his exhaustion level by one every time he misses a death save (to simulate long term injuries, albeit at the risk of encouraging a 15 minute workday).

    I would treat lost hit points, not as a measure of damage, but as a measure of fatigue. Being battered but not injured wears you out. As you grow fatigued, you are more susceptible to injury (simulated by the events that occur when you drop to 0 hp). It doesn’t fix the “falling in lava” problem, but maybe events like that need their own mechanic.

  17. The whole idea of perfectly-fine-until-down reminds me of fighting games, to be frank. It’s obviously not going to work in D&D, but now you’ve got me thinking about Comeback mechanics, where you become more powerful the more damage you have taken in the fight. Rage gauge, X-Factor, Desperation Attacks, that sort of thing. I wonder if it could be made to work? To the notepad…

    • It could definitely be made to work but I think that would encourage the race to 0 hit points. If players know they become more powerful when approaching death, they’ll be even more likely than they are now to stick with a fight that’s going badly.

    • The thing about comeback mechanics in fighting games is that they exist to counterbalance slippery slope problems. In fighting games, the more you lose, the worse it becomes as the other player gets super meter, better positioning, more strategies he can choose from, etc; so the comeback mechanic is a way to make the losing player still have a chance.

      I think comeback mechanics would work better in RPG systems with some kind of death spiral.

      • I’ve been playing savage lands and his mention of that and the death spiral made me think of exactly this. Now I just have to wait for Angry to switch systems and come up with a system for this.

    • See 13th Age’s escalation die for a simple expression of the characters getting more powerful the longer the battle goes on.

  18. I really like this idea and hope to try out something like it in my games, because I’m also bothered by the idea that the best tactic is always doing maximum damage as fast as possible.

    I have one question and one suggestion.
    — Question: In this system, would sources of temporary hp count as sources of healing, and therefore can apply to either HP or Fighting Spirit? Or can they only be Fighting Spirit? While temporary hp cannot recover someone from unconsciousness at 0 hp in the standard system, applying them to Fighting Spirit here would remove the Dispirited condition, barring some special clause.
    — Suggestion: How about calling Fighting Spirit instead just Spirit, thus allowing the more parallel abbreviation SP: Hit Points (hp) & Spirit Points (sp).

    • Not an Official Angry Answer, but my two cents:
      1) I’d make temporary hit points apply exclusively to Fighting Spirit. Mostly it’s Bards and the like who grant temp hit points, and I find it really thematic for them to be able to pick up their Dispirited allies.
      2) Call them Testicular Fortitude if you want! Your game table, your house rules!

        • Honestly, you could probably just ditch calling them “points” altogether and just call them “Health” and “Spirit.”

    • yea, the name is pretty much irrelevant unless he publishes it, but as far as temporary hit points its important to remember that they only ever act as a temporary shield for your hit point pool. If you start using them to recover any pool (either spirit or HP) it sort of breaks the system because you’ve basically just introduced another much more limited healing spell. That said if it comes down to distinguishing between types of damage some how (like the difference between being attacked and falling in lava) I’d say that temporary hit points shouldn’t really mean sh$!.

    • Under the standard system temporary HP don’t add to your current hp. So i don’t see why they would be either regular HP or FS under the new system. You would simply have a pool of temporary HP that gets depleted before you can take regular damage again. So if you were at 0 FS and got some temp HP you would still be at 0 FS and would still have the dispirited condition. It might be easier to change their name away from temporary HP and into something like Force Fields.

  19. After watching some gameplay videos of Dark Souls 3, i was wondering: “why the best tactics in this game is defending and counter-attacking if there is no permanent death when in RPGs, with permanent death and many hours of gaming involved, almost every group goes nova damage..?”

    I think you answered all my questions just before asking, ty angry!

  20. I like it. I don’t know enough about D&D 5’s edge cases and weird spells and abilities to be comfortable saying it won’t run into any screwy interactions with other rules, but those should be relatively easy to sort out.

    I endorse it. Now if you can just come up with a way for characters to flee combats without getting murdered in the process, PCs may actually retreat from things. 😉

  21. I think it’s a good system for what it is. There are obviously simpler to represent it, but most of those are either just introducing a delayed death spiral after hitting zero hit points (I’ve considered the fatigue thing before myself) and not really addressing the idea that certain environmental factors should sort of have risks beyond the figurative combat readiness represented by typical hit points (why the hell do falling damage or lava just out and out kill people?). That said I think spell effects are going to be one of the largest troubles with it. I always wanted to revamp the way magic works in my worlds. It would be nice to be able to make some effects lighter (like they only effect fighting spirit) and other effects heavier (like they actually create a temporary board element that will out and out kill you if you don’t avoid it).

    The idea of magical effects and damage being almost completely removed from combat effects or completely useless outside of it is extremely appealing to for some reason. Obviously though, both would require a lot of math and tweaking, especially the prior.

    Thank you for the insight, Angry.

    • I always hated fall damage in D&D. In older editions you had much smaller hp pools so it would probably kill someone but a high level fighter with good rolls could be reasonably sure they could tank a lot of fall damage. It is even worse in 5e where if you have more than 90hp you can pretty much survive a fall from any height, and an ork could get up and walk away from a fall from any height. I really think fall damage should be changed into a save or die roll where the difficulty gets much harder based on the height of the fall. Maybe something like a con save with the DC being equal to the distance you fall. There is a reason lots of work safe legislation makes people wear fall arrest gear when they work at heights.

  22. Pingback: Hit points? Let’s think about morale instead @TheAngryGM #DND #Pathfinder #RPG – FreeRangeGeek's Adventures

  23. For fellow Pathfinder GMs, what do you think about just granting Diehard as a free feat? I’m going for the same vein of change as Angry with the fewest new/altered mechanics.

    Only thing I foresee going wrong is that PCs will never just drop to the ground if there’s an option to fight, so they’ll never reach that “out of the fight but still alive” state. Ironically, I think Diehard might increase vharacter deaths.

    • For Pathfinder your best bet may be to just use the Vigour and Wound points variant in Ultimate Combat (and available on their PRD as OGL material). You don’t take penalties until you’re at 1/2 wounds damage, and the penalty acts similarly to having diehard, but with making a Constitution check to avoid passing out from pain anyway (they also cover how to change diehard and the orc/half-orc racial trait to still be viable with Vigour and Wounds in play).
      As per usual, once you are out of Wound Points you are dying and unconscious until negative Con score or aid arrives.

      Like Angry’s method it doesn’t change a ton of things, and gives guidelines for handling things like positive and negative energy, crits and resting.

  24. In the “At Higher Levels” section it says you gain Fighting Spirit at each level and Hit Points at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. Unless I misunderstood, at 4th level you would have (using your cleric example of 5 + Con modifier) 20 + 4*Con modifier FS and 10 + 2*Con modifier HP. Using the current 5e rules you would just have 20 + 4*Con modifier HP. Is the added survivability a trade-off with the weakened state due to dispirited or should you not gain any FS when you hit levels 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19?

    I do like your FS idea and I appreciate the added buffer for 1st level characters. It is a pain that so many of them can be one-hit KO’d from almost anything they run into.

    • I noticed this as well. The FS is a good idea, but how does this extra buffer of defense balance with the monster CR and those sort of things? It makes sense that a weakened state would make up for a chunk of health, but it only activates when you’ve reached your bonus chunk of health, from a balance standpoint

  25. I used combat expertise all the time with one of my characters. We built the entire party around the fact that the DM in order to hit me basically had to roll a natural 20. We also planned our combat strategy around it as well. Worked great until we started going up against foes with a ton of magic at there disposal. I however agree there are few players that would put themselves in a situation where even though it ment there character couldn’t be hit they wouldn’t be able to hit anything as well.

  26. I’ve been considering bringing back negative hit points to work in a similar way, or bringing in “wounds” which are gained after losing hp. If I were to run with this, I think I would make it work around negative hp instead of having two separate values just for simplicity and the “streamlining” that 5e was known for at launch. (Similar to how subdual damage was removed)

  27. First off I never played 5th Edition, so I can’t really comment on mechanics. It seems like the prevention of leftover spirit damage applied to HP could lead to absurb situations where the weakest heal for 1 point totally negates the big bad monster hitting for 100.
    So I guess this safety net should apply only once per fight or something like that.

    Ultimately I may fall into the “its a nonissue” crowd. I like the fact that a character that went into negative hitpoints knows without a doubt he would be dead if not for his allies. That can be a very humbling experience.

    • Honestly, since 5e doesn’t track negative hp, your absurd situation already exists. Someone can be on low health, and hit for a ton of damage – but as long as they don’t go to [negative max hp], then a single heal can bring them back to fighting form.
      You could easily rule that if the damage would be lethal under normal rules, it is here anyway.

  28. Crazy interesting idea Angry! I must admit I don’t run into the whole fight-to-death-whilst-healing paradigm. I think I’m lucky to have a very creative and thoughtful group for whome violence is the last option given other opportunities. And quite frankly, I think I would lose my mind if I witnessed players bullying other players into being a “healers”. A party is a “unique and beautiful snowflake” in my opinion haha. Some of the best in-game situations come from a group putting their skills together and coming up with solutions to compensate for weaknesses. If players can’t deal with that why are they at the table? No one tells fighters they need to fight with two weapons to get more attacks, and no one tells wizards they HAVE to take fireball for group control. That would be absurd. And clerics can do so much more than heal! And because of these pushy groups, lots of people who play clerics don’t even really embrace all the amazing things they can do! Put your spell slots into blade wards and resistances and divine shields, you’ll need half the healing. It works! Clerics are one of my favourite classes, and sadly you rarely see them utilize the sheer versatility that’s built into their magic, because people are too afraid to hit the road without healing spells. Just make sure your group has a couple people proficient with the medicine skill and your good. As a sidebar, I play a half-Orc Lore bard (besides being a dm of Basic) in a 2-player campaign. We’re level 6 at this point. Other PC is a rogue/mastermind. I took NO healing or big attack spells, focusing on divination instead. Now, at the beginning healing was a tough situation, and were also using the Gritty Realism (or whatever it called) option so it’s even worse. But we grew from there. Based on our weaknesses I took Tough feat and learned to focus attention on myself (while Blinking via the spell), giving the rogue (expert at stealth now) time to slip into the shadows and dish out all those wonderful sneak attack dice. We compensated for our deficiencies by learning to work together efficiently, and that’s been extremely satisfying. More satisfying that forcing eachother into stock character designs so we feel safe.

  29. Really loving this idea Angry. There’s obviously a ton of questions and edge cases that need to be hashed out but us GMs can figure all that out at our individual tables.

    However there is one question I feel needs to be answered by you, because I’m wondering if you couldn’t tackle two goalies with one lay-up : what if being dispirited A) increased your speed and B) made you Frightened?
    See a problem with dispirited is that while it emphasizes defensive options it still doesn’t really allow for retreat as an option. This way the increased speed allows for retreat (the flight vs fight) without making it into a tactical advantage (can’t move towards enemies).

    P.s. I found another github tool like the grimoire that is very helpful

    • Alternatively perhaps it acts a but like cunning action and allows for a bonus action move?

  30. I have some new players who dislike math and I’d like to minimize bookkeeping for both their sake and mine. This has inspired me to use this system but with a tweak to prevent tracking of another HP-like number while avoiding the death spiral.

    The changes are that at 0 HP, you gain the “dying” condition which is a copy of dispirited (weakened offense, but able to act). No death saves are made. Instead, when a character takes damage while “dying”, then receive a death failure (can rename to something else. Wound, injury, w/e) and a crit is 2 wounds (this is just taken from the PHB for normal damage while dying). When the character gains at least 1 hp, then lose the dying condition and take damage as normal. The death fails/wounds/injuries are removed on a long rest.

    My intent is to have something easier to track and explain, while allowing PCs to act at 0 HP instead of being pulled out of the game and there’s some persistent danger over the course of the day to make the PCs more cautious the more injured they are. Gaining injuries in battle is the big red flag to get out and heal! For a grittier game, wounds can be removed at a slower rate. I also like that the PCs can push through and fight through the injuries but at great risk to themselves if necessary.

    This does change the progression to Healthy -> In Danger -> Dead, but I’m OK losing that extra barrier. To make this safer, maybe increase the # of wounds required for death from 3 to 5 or something.

  31. I like this because I think it’ll make narrating combat more interesting. Rather than trying to figure out an appropriate wound you can describe the difficulty the PC had repelling the attack – until the PC is at 0 SP, then you know things are going to get serious!

  32. Really interested to hear how this went. I like that actual hit points in the new system are fewer and once you actually start losing hp because FS is depleted you better run to the healer.

  33. RPGs have had this issue for some time. The old verisimilitude vs. fantasy wound simulation. I like having two damage pools as angry suggested. Vitality vs. hit points in the old Star Wars system attempted to address this. I attempted to fabricate a wound threshold system for a Middle Earth/d20 conversion that also bastardized 3.5 and 4th edition D&D (a convoluted hybrid to be sure). In this later idea, based on creature size, x-damage inflicted resulted in x-wounds (10 damage threshold would mean 1 wound per 10 hits inflicted); each wound would resulted in increasing limitations to actions: 1 wound = 1 standard action, 2 = 1 move action, 3 = 1 swift action, 4 = stun, 5 = unconscious, 6 = dying, etc). This would produce a lesser version of a death spiral, whilst preserving defensive capabilities until 4+ wounds applied.

  34. Another great article. While reading it (and the comments), I kept thinking back to your article: “Three Shocking Things You Won’t Believe About D&D Combat”

    In particular the comments regarding the ability of a high-level fighter to survive walking in lava, or fall from a great height, or even survive multiple stabs from an enraged post-doctorate. What Angry suggested could be applied to the initiative, attack rolls, damage rolls (the “Combat Swoosh” of D&D) in 2014, can just as easily be applied to hit points in 2016:

    “[Hit points are] meant to resolve the combat action of trying to kill someone with a weapon while there is some chance he could defend himself.”

    “[Hit points] don’t work particularly well except in very specific situations . . . Specifically, they work well in pitched battles between two roughly equal forces (you know, within a few levels and roughly equally sized).”

    “Always always always ask yourself whether you really have [an injury] meant to be handled by [hit points] before you ask for [damage] rolls…Your game will simply be better.”

    As to the main point of the article, I always wondered if there would be a way to work into D&D a clever mechanic from Greenronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game: “Any damage taken in excess of your Armor Rating applies to your Health. Damage doesn’t reduce your effectiveness in any way unless it reduces your Health to 0 or less, at which point you are defeated.” For the narrative story types, the rule is: “If at any time your Health drops to 0 or lower, you are defeated and removed from the combat. The opponent that defeated you decides what happens to you. Common choices include [death, maimed, unconscious, ransomed, etc.]”

    For the crunchy types, there is this: “An injury is minor, but lasting compared to damage. Anytime you take damage, you can accept an injury to reduce the damage taken by an amount equal to your Endurance rank. Each injury you accept imposes a –1 penalty to the results of all of your tests. You cannot accept more injuries than your Endurance rank.” In addition, “Some attacks are so brutal, so deadly, the only way you can avoid defeat is
    by accepting a wound. A wound removes all damage from a single attack in exchange for a –1 penalty die on all tests. You cannot accept more wounds than your Endurance rank”

    I always thought there might be a good way to incorporate injuries/wounds into D&D and it looks like Angry might be onto something here. Once you reach 0 FS, you take an injury or wound that renders you, at least offensively, hors de combat. You are incapable of effectively “waging war” but can defend yourself and retreat.

  35. First off, this sounds like a great addition, and I will definitely consider using it.

    One very minor thing, though.
    You mention wanting it to be simple and easy to fit within the existing D&D ruleset.
    Then why rename HP before adding something else named HP?
    Why not just leave HP how it is, but add a “Wounded” state inbetween Healthy and Dying, exactly like your “Dispirited” state but with “Wound Points” instead of “HP”.
    Mechanically identical to what you proposed, but easier to just drop in to the existing rules.

    • Because I like the idea of Fighting Spirit and then Hit Points. Give them whatever names you want. To me, the thing we CALL Hit Points should be called Spirit or Morale or Fatigue or Exhaustion or whatever.

      • Thanks for putting into words one of my major complaints regarding proper labeling of concepts like HP. Functions more like “Fighting Spirit!”

  36. I think that this is really interesting but that it does not address the underlying problem. The problem is that the best route of option for players is generally to deal as much damage as possible. If a player is running away, they are essentially useless – they are no longer contributing to the fight, and might as well be unconscious. Therefore, there is no real reason to run, even with this system. Sure, you could maybe retreat and get close to the healer, but then he still has to use an action to heal you, and you basically skipped a turn, and this combat is probably going to be over in a round or two because this is 5e. Why wouldn’t you just take your chances at making another swing or casting another spell and let the healer come to you?

    I think one interesting case to look at is support characters in League of Legends. For most of League’s lifespan support characters were really boring – for the most part all they did was heal or shield their allies. They greatly increased the team’s statistical chances of winning, but they just weren’t fun to play. They didn’t *feel* like they were affecting the battlefield, because all of their power was wrapped up in little statistical bonuses that increased some numbers somewhere in the software (+20 health, yay!).

    At some point, the designers made a big push to fix support characters by reworking old ones and releasing a bunch of new ones using a new approach. If you look at the support characters now, they have huge, game-altering abilities that reward tactical play, timing, positioning, all that good stuff, just like the ‘DPS’ characters! No more ‘Click on an ally to heal them for 200 health.’ (well, at least less of it). Support characters are now generally regarded as really fun to play, and the statistics back it up – support characters are played much more often than they were in the past.

    I think these same lessons and solution can apply to D&D. A lot of support abilities are just boring and don’t *feel* like they are doing that much, even if statistically they are (I haven’t done the math, I’m not sure if they are or not). If supporting could feel really impactful in the same way that dropping a Fireball on a group of goblins feels, I think we might see more people acting in a supportive role. ‘Touch an ally to heal for whatever d8 health’ is just not interesting, fun, or tactically challenging, and to be honest I don’t think ‘when you are low on health, stop fighting and run to the person who can touch you to heal you for whatever d8 health’ is that much better. It doesn’t solve the real problem.

  37. I just watched Angry’s monster manual review / encounter building video. To me, having no spillover damage when fighting spirit is depleted makes perfect sense if you want the players to be willing to run away if you face them with an encounter that should kill them. That makes me more willing to put them in, whereas without FS I’d be a sonuva lich to add such a deadly encounter.

  38. Naaaaaaaaaaaaah not enougth simple, I don’t buy it.

    No need for those rules

    Everytime a character failed a death ST he/she gets a level of exhaustion.

    Nice analysis thougth

  39. Very reminiscent of the Palladium HP/SCD system. I’m really interested to see how it plays out. I’ve been looking for a better damage system, this one may be it. Nice job.

  40. Any idea how to implement this in a system where you don’t get more HP when getting more XP? E.G. Shadowrun or FFG Star Wars

    • Yeah. Rename the hp as fighting spirit and then give them about a quarter as much hp underneath it. You might have to fine tune it, but if they’re usually taking three hits to go down it should be close.

      I’m not sure you’d want this in systems where they’ve got static hp and increasing damage mitigation as they progress, but hey, your call.

  41. What do you think about poisons? I would allow most poisons to damage hit points instead of fighting spirit (e.g. cobra poison). However, that makes monster CR-s slightly off. A poison snake would go from 1/4 CR to 3 (approximately) with a 2d8 HP damaging poison attack.

    • Actually I was thinking about something similar, but with criticals. Like, no matter how much fighting spirit you have, you just CAN’T ignore a dagger through the heart. Bad luck happens.

      This way, I wouldn’t roll twice for damage, I would just make the damage bypass the FS and directly affect HP. Only for monsters, of course. PC’s still get to roll double (or triple). The players wil have one more random chance to die, but also, it is one more way in which they can say “well, that one was close. It’s better I start to run”.

      And I really never liked the way poison worked in D&D (after all, vipers ARE deadly), so I would probably reduce poison damage to 1/3 or 1/4 and make it bypass FS, or just don’t reduce it and still make it bypass FS. It also makes antidotes and protection from poison much more valuable, what for me is a plus.

  42. Pingback: Interesting Article – Murky Tavern

  43. Dear Angry, I love to read and not to comment because your articles are very interesting in the first place because of your great analyzes capabilities so I find it useless to propose alternative solutions or whatever, we all know it would just be endless. But I’m been dealing with this problem since the start, when I was 14 and played AD&D 2nd, back in the nineties. Together with brilliant friends we went all over the place, from one system to another, tested every variety of solution that was out there to make character not feel like made with gum, able to absorb stabs and falls like Mister Fantastic. We found no good solutions and you summarize very well why. My “at present” compromise for 5e is very simple but I have to admit that for the first time it works, since I adopted it now finally players are out there searching for a way for surviving as soon as it’s needed in a kind of fun and making sense way. Maybe it happens just by chance of having good players but I thought you might be interested to know about it. Maybe not, but anyway, you don’t charge for writing comments, so here it is.

    1. Hit points are not hits. Words matter and RPG is all about language, so if D&D insists that hit points are also mental, willpower, fatigue then why calling Hit Points? Sadistic pleasure in confusing people? Will, spirit, morale, whatever…

    2. 0 whatever points means fighting spirit is over. Sure, there are also bruises and scars involved, but why should we keep track of those? Simply as that, fighting will is over.

    3. Player are conscious and able to act BUT despirited, as you call it. Then it could be disadvantages as you say, or I prefer totally incapable of bringing in a properly made and dangerous attack (or aggressive spell), simply swinging a weapon is not an attack but ornament of other actions. Characters don’t deal damage anymore, that’s the mechanic.

    4. There’s no death saving throw to roll, no bleeding crap, D&D is not so detailed in anything, why should it be about the way a character bleeds?

    5. Any further hit received checks a death save failure, critics double, just like in the rules. Those are now wounds, bleeding and painful, no doubt. And I like a lot to differentiate them using a difference system of tracking, no numbers like spirit points, but checks. No damage roll, no variable, if hit that’s a wound, and it’s bad, and you can take three and maybe only two of them before you die, whatever the rest.

    5b. Instant death still exist for dragons and giants to make a difference from a goblin dagger

    6. Death save checks (or wounds) don’t heal with a rest, neither long or short, they heal with magic or a good health care insurance, or eventually with time, but not in a short. Herbs, medicine and the short make it shorter, but not in a hour.

    6b. Other kind of damage, like lava, cause wounds directly, with spirit points intact.

    7. Once your regain your spirit (points) after a rest, you are not anymore disadvantaged in action, but the wounds stay there, meaning that the next time you go down the hill with your will, your body previous wreckage shows up again. Just like a cyclist finishing a 150 miles long tour the France stage with a broken rib, will wins over pain, but the body is anyway damaged. (homage to Angry famous infamous sport metaphors)

    8. No game balance change, if a party rush in without preparing a escape emergency exit and drop to 0, even if it’s not unconscious it’s just a matter of time before it gets terminated, and as you teach, there’s no need to keep rolling boring dices when the question is definitely answered. There’s not anymore need of those stupid Aid action in the middle of a combat of course, and I’m happy about it.

    Of course that system doesn’t come alone. In years I discovered that rolling combat dices behind the screen is another way for players to feel Mister Fantastic. How many time you have to kill their characters before they give up that strong assumption that in the end you would never really really kill them because after all you are a 10 years old friend? Roll attacks and damage in front of them, ruthless, and they’ll feel the fear thorough their spines. Drop them to zero and they all know that’s not anymore a matter of luck and damage dices, they are three hits and maybe two only away from final death, in those three rounds I’m assisting to the most epic and memorable “everybody out” scene in history.

    Of course rolling combat dices in front of them requires a well well balanced preparation, but you teach very well how to do it and anyway, if in doubt, depower enemies a little bit, with this system even a goblin dagger stab feels very very hard.

    Stay Angry.

  44. I converted my campaign to this. One of my players then started a campaign and said “This game will be abslutely by the book, no homebrew at all–except the Fighting Spirit thing, because that’s just a GREAT idea.”
    It was particularly helpful last session, when we bit off more than we could chew but were still conscious and could “exercise a retrograde advance in a timely and effective manner.” And as a side benefit, the DM didn’t have to figure out a reason for the baddies not to feed us to their pet carnivores.

  45. That was a long way of writing “add another resource to track.”

    This house rule tries to fix players, not the game. A compelling combat narrative can create the emergency state, too. If one feels the need to enforce the emergency state, perhaps the problem is one of player buy in.

  46. Obligatory contradiction: I used the shit out of Combat Expertise on several 3E and Pathfinder characters (and on a couple NPCs as a GM). It’s great against anything with low AC and high +Hit (you lose less on your odds to hit than you gain on your defense). Also great against anything that hits really hard but has low +hit (it’s worth digging in when a single attack is devastating). Also great when outnumbered by a swarm of weak melee combatants (you’re not going to miss them, but you can mitigate attrition).

    In particular I used it for a fencer built as an evasion tank/area controller. If you’re building for damage output it’s weak, but his job was mainly to pin things down and provide tactical advantages for the heavy hitters (as a tank should, and sadly as traditional tanks in D&D don’t do very well).

    Ultimately it might have been better to just roll another damage dealer or healer, but it gave the party some options besides playing chicken. If it’s any measure of success, we survived the entire first act of RoR. Or, at least, he did. He was stubbornly unkillable. Eventually our healer bit the dust and the player wanted to do something different so I retired him and rolled healer, but up until then I was really happy with the build.

  47. Fighting Spirit seems like an excellent idea, Angry. I will certainly try it out, although with a name change to better suit the local vernacular.

    When it comes to increasing Hit Points, if they are meant to be around one third of Fighting Spirit, personally I’d probably just say, “Your Hit Points are equal to one third your total Fighting Spirit rounded down, or whatever they were at first level. Which ever is higher.” It seems just a little simpler to me.

  48. This idea certainly sounds useful and I’ve often wondered about ways to make D&D players less bloodthirsty and more likely to take a defensive stand.

    But there are two other things that, for me as a player, always played into the choice to keep hammering rather than taking a defensive posture. I was wondering if there’s any ideas on that topic as well, because as far as I see those haven’t been changed.

    The first is that if you are losing a fight, taking a defensive posture isn’t going to help much. It only prolongs the inevitable loss, since you lose (most of) your ability to take out your opponents. In situations where help is coming in the form of your party, the party is not losing, and since they can heal you back up after (or when you go down). If your party is also losing, a defensive posture just means you die more slowly, but you still die. Usually there’s no cavalry coming to save a party’s ass, so fighting defensively is still fatal. The only thing that might help in this case is a full retreat, which most parties are loathe to try because if everyone runs, almost certainly at least one person will be knocked out, grabbed, immobilized, or just too slow to make it and then that player is #@$@#ed, and nobody wants to be the player who says “sorry you picked a Dwarf dude, but we’re running, so kiss your ass goodbye”.

    The second is that the vast majority of defensive options seem to be in the “maybe” area. If you’re down to 5 hp and you want to not die, then taking an action to increase your AC will only maybe save your ass. Not only that, but you only learn if you can last another turn at the very moment you take another hit and have no more options left. This also means your allies only learn if they should have dog-piled the guy attacking you AFTER they see you take an axe to the face. A huge advantage to “let me swing and see if I can kill him” is that your allies learn if you are in deep trouble BEFORE their turn comes up; because if you miss they can come running to the rescue, but if you go defensive and your opponent hits, their turns are already spent and you are already down on the floor.

    For me, that’s often a reason to keep swinging. Fighting defensively usually doesn’t feel like it would add anything to the fight AND you only learn if it was useful to do after it is too late.

    The idea of additional HP/FS options here did give me an idea though. What would think about a house-rule along the following lines? It gives more certainty to taking a defensive action, which might make it seem a more reliable option to take in combat:

    Each character gets an extra set of Defensive HP, whose value is equal to You are allowed to apply damage to your Defensive HP only while you are actively taking the Defensive Fighting or Total Defense actions. Once Defensive HP runs out; any additional damage is recorded against your normal HP.
    All Defensive HP is restored after a short rest.

  49. Hey Angry,

    New time reader and I am definitely loving your blog so far! This idea is absolutely terrific! What do you think about adding a mechanic where some damage (maybe 1/4 of the FS damage) would spill into HP if the attack does a certain amount of damage or if the attack is a crit? An attack so savage should be able to break their fighting spirit even a little bit, even if the character is still willing to fight.

    Also, what are your thoughts on death saving throws with this system? It still feels weird to be able to function (albeit with a disability) and then suddenly die. I like the flavour of saving throws to show that they are slowly dying. So with this system plus saving throws it seems like a more effortless transition.

    Spirited and willing to fight -> Despirited and physically drained/breaking -> bleeding out -> death.

    Although that is a lot of safety netting so maybe reduce saving throws to best 2 out of 3 and any extra hits after 0 HP is a coup de grace.

    Thanks for the amazing article!


  50. GURPS handles HP in an interesting way that I like better than D&D. 1) You have very few positive HP. Getting hit soundly by 1 blow hurts. 2) Each body part can be targeted, and has damage/effect specific rules. This creates tactics to disable an opponent without a fight to the death. and 3) There are rolls to stay conscious (up to neg HP) then Death Rolls (up to Neg HP x5). Death rolls should happen first, if you have to make them. Other than the party always attacking the vitals/or the eyes (once their skill was high enough), the system did seem to shift the way our combats went, toward caution.

  51. What are your thoughts on the Vitality system in the Unearthed Arcana?

    You get a Vitality score equal to your Constitution, and for every hit you take, for every ten hp damage a hit does you take one point of vitality damage. Your maximum hp is based on a Vitality bonus (worked out at the same rate as regular ability) instead of your Constitution bonus, so if you’re level 10 and you go from 14 Vitality to 10 vitality, you lose 20 hp from your maximum. If Vitality hits 0, hp is also immediately dropped to 0, and death saves start. If hp hits 0, further damage is taken on Vitality until it reaches 0.

    I wouldn’t mind removing death saves entirely if I were using Vitality, and just have Vitality hitting 0 mean straight up death.

  52. I like the Angry Gm’s idea, but I would simply call the condition “Bloodied” and have it applied to creatures that have 0-5 hit points left (no need to complicate things with tracking additional pools of points). At 0 hit point, you remain conscious but fall prone, can only move 5 ft., and roll death saving throws as usual. On a 1st failure, you can roll a DC10 CON save to remain conscious (you can choose to fail the save). On a 2nd failure, the DC for the CON save becomes 15. On a third failure, you are dead.

  53. I actually tried this out, but with few touches of my own. What I did was remove death saves entirely – not sure if you did or not – then I added an additional aspect where they lose 1D4 hit points per turn once they fun out of fighting spirit. I also reduced their speed by half when they reached this point. The group argued with me for an hour – my argument was that they almost let the fucking princess, heir to the throne die last session because she was “fine” with death saves – when I explained this concept to them. We ended up agreeing to give it a try and use it in future sessions if they liked it. Well, it actually made things more interesting for everyone and we decided to use it in future sessions.

  54. Thank you so much for this!!!! I have been chewing on this for a while without any way to resolve the dilemma!

  55. Healthy >> In Danger >> Dying >> Dead implies that you envisioned players rolling death saves when they ran out of both spirit and health. Is that the way you played it? Or did you do away with death saves all together and players at 0 health just die? Thanks for the idea, trying it out in my campaign.

    • I don’t know what Angry does, but my plan is to still have death saving throws. But the system seems to be working in that my characters run away if able when they run out of morale points.

  56. They do actually have that in danger zone in 3.5 and pathfinder. It is called staggered, if you hit exactly zero health. And you know what? When people become staggered, they get the hell out of the way and they know things got serious. In fact, a person that is staggered suddenly has a massive amount of fear instilled into them, because they know one hit is likely to outright kill them because they don’t have enough room left to go unconsciously safely.

    The obviously problem is this condition only exists at exactly zero health, and while you are in it, you usually end up skipping the ‘dying’ part and go right to death. If the stagger area was extended a bit to provide a little more of a buffer, that would probably help with a lot of these issues.

  57. I’ve gone this way…angry.

    Dead on Your Feet. PCs at 0 hp or less immediately gain 1 level of exhaustion. The PC has a choice of falling out or staying in the fight. Staying in the fight means automatic failure of death save at end of round. Intent: End 1 HP fine, 0 HP total incapacitation. Make heroic effort possible but fatal.

    Walking Dead. Players with zero HP gain a level of exhaustion every time they take damage, or two levels on a critical hit, just like the rule on death saves. Intent: Damage after zero still matters, especially multiple blows.

    Dead Tired. Players gain a level of exhaustion on every round they are not stabilized. Stabilization stops the exhaustion level gain, but only long rests remove exhaustion levels. Intent: Make 0 HP have more significance, discourage “race to zero HP” tactics.

Comments are closed.