In the beginning, there was Chainmail. And, in Chainmail, characters were either alive or dead. A single hit was enough to kill most characters. However, this was a miniature game, and a single player controlled many characters. Well, figures or models. The more powerful characters, such as the Hero or the Superhero required several simultaneous hits to kill. A Hero required four regular men to hit him in the same turn to be killed. If only three landed blows, he was fit and ready for the next round. The game didn’t track “wounds” or anything like this.
This combat system was the basis for the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and it was immediately apparent that the game would play better if a character could be wounded and not dead. Thus, hit points!
Original Dungeons & Dragons had an interesting method of dealing with them. Every weapon did 1d6 damage. The hit points of a character were based on a dice roll (of several d6s). The dice used to create this total were known as “Hit Dice”. How many did a character roll? It depended on the character’s class and level. At first level, the fighter had 1d6+1 hit points, the cleric and magic-user had 1d6 hit points only. By fifth level, the fighter had 5d6+1 hit points, the magic-user 3d6, and the cleric 4d6+1. A high Constitution score might grant a +1 hit point per hit die rolled, but that was it. In this early form of the game, you died when your hit points reached 0 or below.
If a character wasn’t slain, then they could turn to the cleric for healing. Eventually. A first level cleric possessed no spells. They were basically a fighter with the minor ability to Turn Undead. At second level, the cleric gained their first spell. More often than not, it would be cure light wounds, which would heal 1d6+1 hit points! Clerics very slowly gained additional curative magics, and spending time healing between expeditions was important. A sixth level cleric could have a maximum of two cure light wounds and one cure serious wounds (2d6+2) spells. Interestingly, they received the raise dead spell at 7th level.
Poison? It killed you. If you managed to make the saving throw, it instead removed half your hit points. Beware snakes!
This original version of D&D used what I like to term the “D6 Standard”. That is, the entire hit point and damage system revolved around d6s.
The first supplement, Greyhawk, introduced varying dice for damage and hit dice. It also simplified the determination of how many hit dice a character possessed by changing it to one per level, but varying the sides used depending on class. Thus, magic-users were now using d4s, clerics d6s, and fighters d8s. Monster dice grew to be the same as the fighter, in all but a very few cases. Weapon damage varied from 1d4 for the dagger, up to 1d10 for the two-handed sword. Interestingly, weapon damage dice had two codes, with weapons used against monsters larger than men dealing differing amounts of damage. The dagger dropped to 1d3 damage against an ogre; the two-handed sword reached 3d6 damage against the same!
Meanwhile, the effects of Constitution on hit points also increased; the bonus reaching as high as +3 per die for an 18 Constitution score, while the poor character with a Constitution score of 3 through 6 had a -1 penalty per die (though only to a minimum of 1 on each die rolled). Strength scores increased the damage of character weapons – albeit, for fighters only. A +6 bonus to damage was possible through lucky rolls.
Although nothing appeared in the books otherwise at this time, I’m pretty sure that groups were now playing with house rules indicating that a character reaching 0 hit points wasn’t automatically dead. Perhaps they fell unconscious instead?
This appeared as an official rule in the next major release of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As described in its Dungeon Masters Guide, a character brought to exactly 0 hit points wasn’t slain but instead fell unconscious. Each round thereafter, they’d lose 1 hit point, and would die upon reaching -10 hit points. A character on 5 hit points who suffered 6 hit points damage? He was dead, as before. An optional rule allowed the unconscious state to kick in if they were reduced up to -3 hit points.
Throughout my days playing AD&D, I always ignored the exact rule – everyone I played with always said “if you are dropped to between 0 and -9 hit points, you fall unconscious. You die when you reach -10”. I’m curious to how many people played in this way. My suspicion is that it was many people.
The hit dice for characters got a boost again. Fighters were now 1d10, Clerics 1d8, Thieves 1d6 and Magic-Users 1d4. And such was the pattern of the game set for the next 20 years. Monster hit dice were now set at 1d8, and I tend to think of this as the 1d8 Standard, which is also the damage dealt by a longsword, although there wasn’t really much of a standard about it by this stage. The hit point alterations for high constitution now became a +4 in the case of an 18 Constitution, but only members of the fighter classes could reach the +3 or +4 bonuses; everyone else was capped at +2. Fighters were still the only ones to gain a potential +6 damage bonus, but now other characters could get up to a +2 bonus to melee damage, though this was rare.
It’s worth mentioning that monsters didn’t get Constitution bonuses. Creatures didn’t have ability scores! The closest they got was an Intelligence rating, which was needed for determining the effects of the charm and maze spells. (In one of the most hilarious bits of clunky design, in the Master expansion for the BECMI line, every creature was given an intelligence rating, just so the newly introduced maze spell could work. Right…) Instead, certain monsters gained a hit point bonus. The Ogre was 4+1 hit dice (4d8+1). The Troll was 6+6 (6d8+6). Having a static hit point bonus instead of adding additional hit points was a design technique to take advantage of the fact that monster attack bonuses and saving throws were derived from the hit dice, not total hit points.
However, monsters could have incredible damage codes. A troll dealing 5-8/5-8/2-12 damage in a single claw/claw/bite routine could seriously damage the poor character who ended up in melee with the DM’s dice running hot!
Clerical healing was improved in this edition. They gained spells from first level; cure light wounds now healed 1-8 hit points and a first level cleric could have three of them prepared. However, the gaining of curative magic was slow thereafter. Cure Serious Wounds (2d8+1) was a 4th-level spell, gained at 7th level, and Cure Critical Wounds (4d8+3) was a 5th-level spell.
Poison? If you saved, you took no damage. Probably.
By the time of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition in 1989, the house rule of being unconscious from -1 to -9 (and dying) and dead at -10 was the standard rule. Well, to be exact: it was an optional rule that everyone I knew used. The default rule for this edition was that you died at 0 hit points (which was not the default rule in AD&D, interestingly. Though, given the wild status of the AD&D DMG, might not have meant much).
“Everyone I knew”. It’s hard to explain, in these days of global connectivity, how small a portion of the world that was. Especially for me, living in Melbourne, Australia. It included the people in my local group, the people at my school, the people in the gaming club in university, and the few people I met, twice a year, at the role-playing conventions held locally. However, I can’t remember it ever not being the rule we used.
The way hit points were granted to classes stayed the same in 2nd Edition, for the most part. Poison diversified into types, with most dealing varying amounts of damage instead of just killing you (and doing nothing on a successful save, for the most part). The most deadly type of poison was Death or damage on save, though. Sometime later in the edition’s life, the designers filled out the clerical spell lists with and additional healing spell: cure moderate wounds at 2nd level (1d10+1).
Of course, AD&D was something of a branch from the original rule, even if it was the preferred system and far more popular. In 1977, the original game had gotten an introductory game edited by Eric Holmes, the first D&D Basic Game. This version of the game had a few interesting deviations from the original rules, one being that halflings had only 1d6 hit points, despite being fighters, due to their smaller size. The rules mostly followed the original set with a few additions from Greyhawk. For instance, character hit dice were d4, d6 or d8 and the thief was included. However, the ability score bonuses were per the original game. You died when you reached 0 hit points, all character weapons did 1d6 damage, and poison had no effect if you made the saving throw.
Interestingly, the size of monster hit dice is never directly stated, but as kobolds have ½ hit dice (1-4 hit points), it can be assumed that hit dice are 1d8 in this edition. With weapons retaining the 1d6 score but monsters gaining hit points, it’s a subtly more dangerous edition than before!
Far more radical was the 1980 revision by Tom Moldvay, which we occasionally know as the B/X Basic Game. It completely changed how ability scores worked, with a +3 bonus associated with an 18 score, a +2 with 16-17, and a +1 at 13-15. The modifiers reversed for low numbers. This applied to damage (based on Strength) for all characters, and to hit points (Constitution) for all characters. Magic-User and Thief remained 1d4 hit points, Cleric was 1d6 and Fighter was 1d8. Moldvay solidified the use of “race as class” so that dwarves were 1d8, elves 1d6, and halflings – keeping the version begun with Holmes – kept 1d6 hit dice.
Monsters remained without ability scores, of course, but had d8 hit dice. And damage could be all d6, or an advanced variant that varied the dice could be used. I don’t know if anyone ever used the basic system more than a few sessions!
Both these versions of the Basic game kept the cleric from learning curing spells until 2nd level. The Red Box version, which came in 1983, edited by Frank Mentzer, basically followed Moldvay, although later supplements allowed progression to 36th level, and the levels at which clerics gained access to their most powerful spells were much higher than in AD&D – although the XP required was less. It evened out.
Here’s a quick table to show the differences:
|Original||Greyhawk||AD&D||AD&D 2E||Basic||Basic B/X|
|Constitution||max +1||max +3||max +4||max +4||max +1||max +3|
|Strength||max +0||max +6||max +6||max +6||max +0||max +3|
|Poison||save half hp||save half hp||save neg.||save neg.||save neg.||save neg.|
|Death||0 hp||0 hp||-3 hp||-10 hp||0 hp||0 hp|
|Cleric heal||2nd level||2nd level||1st level||1st level||2nd level||2nd level|
|Cure Light Wounds||1d6+1||1d6+1||1d8||1d8||1d6+1||1d6+1|
|Fire Giant damage||2d6+2||5d6||5d6||2d10+10||2d6+2||5d6|
|Fire Giant HP||11d6+3||11d8+3||11d8+2-5||15d8+2-5||11d8+3||11d8+2|
Why did I include fire giants? Mainly because giants got a change upwards in potency in 2nd edition, as noted by their hit dice. Most categories should be fairly obvious, and summarise details in the text above.
Of course, the way hit points worked was about to undergo a huge upheaval in 3rd Edition, and I’ll get to that in a later article.