RG House Rules: Damage and Death Saves

I was chatting with @XPWebSeries on Twitter a few days ago. They had brought up the stoic attitude most players’ take to falling damage (“What, 30 feet? That’s just 3d6, I’ll jump.”), and while we talked about that I mentioned that for anything over 100 feet (or 20d6, which is the arbitrary damage cap for falling), I narrate the fall, and tell the player they are now at the bottom and have failed their first death save, then I check to see what the rest of the party wants to do. This led to me admitting that I have some house rules around hit points and dying that I think add a bit more of an action-adventure feel to my games. So let’s talk about that.

Hit points. There have been jokes about “hit points as health points” practically since I started playing. I remember many variations of a single-frame comic, usually in Dragon Magazine, featuring a fighter riddled with arrows, axes, spears, and knives, unconcerned, and the caption reads something like, “I’m okay, I still have six hit points left.” My point is, we’ve understood the ridiculousness of treating hit points as if they were directly related to the health of our character for a while. But D&D never claimed to be a simulation, and so hit points were just one of those things I accepted.

Then some books by Monte Cook around the 3.5E era, The Book of Experimental Might and Arcana Evolved, got me looking at hit points differently. He proposed a system whereby half of the hit points were related to health, while half were actually “grace points”, which were generally used first. You can track down his work if you’d like details, but the gist was that grace points are the thing that allows Lara Croft to take hits and endure traps that might fell a normal person, or let Indiana Jones take punches from Nazis and stay on his feet. Once that grace is used up, however, then the character starts taking physical damage, which is harder to heal compared to grace, which you could get back just by resting.

When it came time for me to run my own 5E campaigns, I knew I wanted to use a system close to that proposed by Monte. Looking at how hit points were handled in the game, I could see there was already a dividing line where damage started to be actually life-threatening: when a character reaches zero hit points and has to start making death saves. So that change point became the basis for my system.

So first off, hit points are not life points. Functionally I think of them as “adventure points” or “stamina points”, which are “spent” when something would potentially kill the character in question. A goblin blade hits you? Rather than kill you outright (which, let’s face it, a sword strike would very likely do) it will cost you six adventure points to push past. Spend them, and your armour absorbs the impact, and you get away with a bruising but no life threatening injury. Functionally, it works no differently than the current system. You have a pool of points, and if a monster, trap, or other thing causes damage you subtract points from that pool. This has the benefit of making it easy to mechanically implement at the table.

It does require a bit of a narrative shift, though, because that damage is now just potential, not actual. Looked at a certain way, telling a player their character has taken damage is basically telling them they’ve failed. They weren’t good enough to avoid it and now they’re paying the cost. This house rule changes the focus to how the character successfully mitigates the attack by spending a resource over which they have some control. And now the player gets to tell you how awesome their character is, which is always a way better feeling for everyone at the table. Consider these two sentences, both describing our aforementioned goblin blade:

The goblin sneaks by your defenses, landing a blow. You take six points of damage as the blade drives home in your thigh!

The goblin tries to thrust into your legs, but you spend six points and the blade glides harmlessly off your hurried parry!

The second way of framing certainly sounds more exciting to me than the first, and focuses on character success rather than failure. It makes the character more of an active participant in the situation, giving the player opportunities to describe their character’s actions in an active and heroic way.

So what happens if a player decides they aren’t going to spend their “adventure points”? They can certainly do that, but my base assumption is that every enemy attack, every trap, anything that causes hit point damage, is potentially lethal. So as soon as a character can’t or won’t spend those points, we go to the death saves track and they make their first roll there, regardless of how many points they have left. As long as the character can’t or won’t mitigate whatever that damage was, they will continue to roll on the track. If they fail three time before three successes, they die, as per usual.

Let’s talk about that death track, shall we? I really prefer to think of this as the character’s health track, because this is where the character’s body starts to pay the price. As long as a player’s balance on this track is neutral or positive, they are not impeded in their actions. This represents the character, through sheer physical or mental toughness, enduring beyond their injuries to carry on. The first time the character gains a net negative on this track, and each time thereafter, all of their rolls are at disadvantage and they suffer a -2 penalty to their rolls for each failed save. So while they can still function, now the situation they are in is taking a dangerous physical toll.

An example. The player rolls their first death save and it’s a success! Yay, they stay on their feet and keep being heroic badasses. Next turn comes (or they take another hit they can’t or won’t mitigate with adventure points) and this roll is a failure. Boo! But, still neutral, so still on their feet, no penalty. But the next roll is a failure, too. Oh no! Now all their rolls are not only with disadvantage, but also have a -4 penalty from the two failed death saves. Time to seriously consider whether continuing to fight is worth it.

Now, cure spells and resting still give back adventure points, so if the character gets back to a positive balance in those, or starts using the points they were for some reason saving, they stop rolling death saves. However, failures remain on the death saves track, imparting their penalties, until cleared by more powerful magic, like restoration spells. Lesser restoration will clear one failure per casting, greater restoration will clear all failures at once. Optionally, a player can decide to spend all their remaining hit dice during a long rest to clear failures. If they do this, they do not regain any hit dice the next day, or for an additional day for each death save cleared. This represents their need to recover not only their health, but perhaps some confidence after their near-death experience.

It may seem at first glance a bit more lethal than the standard system. But what I’ve found in practice is that the players enjoy having some flexibility in deciding if they’re going to push it, or play it safe and retreat from the situation until they or their party members can heal. It also offers more inherent reasons for role-playing, as players describe their heroic actions to avoid danger, or make the tough call to push on even though one more failed death save would end them.

To bring it back to what I discussed with @XPWebSeries, the character who has fallen would need to spend 20d6 adventure points and describe for me what they did to keep the fall from killing them outright. They would then find themselves at the bottom of the fall, with a failed death save (and attendant penalties) and however many adventure points (if any) they had left. From there, they have some choices to make, depending on how much danger they might still face.

And that’s my house rule for damage and death saves. There are a few odds and ends I haven’t explained, but if you have questions feel free to comment on our Facebook Page or shoot me a message on Twitter (@DorklordCanada), I’m happy to talk it out. But give it a try at your table, and if you have a house rule around this that works for you, please share! I’d love to check it out.