Hit Points Through the Editions, part 3

Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition was a major change to how Dungeons & Dragons worked. Over the years, AD&D 2E had become a sprawling beast that had a lot of very good ideas, but no unifying mechanics. Every supplement presented new ways of doing things and the resulting system had turned into rather a mess. So, 3E (which dropped the “Advanced”, though being the direct successor to AD&D 2E) attempted to clean things up. It succeeded in creating a unified system. Some of the results of this unification were unexpected.

It made two very important changes to how hit points were handled. First, it gave monsters ability scores and changed how the bonuses were calculated. The tougher monsters gained a notable number of hit points. For example, the hit points of the fire giant went from 15d8+4 (72 hp) in 2E to 15d8+75 (143 hp) in 3E! Monster hit dice also depended on the type of monster. A giant had d8 hit dice. Undead had d12 hit dice. Fey had d6 hit dice.

The amount of damage Fighters could deal with weapons was generally up, as they gained more attacks, and magic weapons and feats to further increase the damage. In contrast, spell damage remained constant from 2E. Against high Constitution creatures, spells like fireball looked positively weak. To help Rogues keep up with fighters in combat, they gained the exciting new option of Sneak Attack. Note that Dexterity increased the chance to hit with finesse and ranged weapons, but it did not increase the damage dealt.

While you could see how 3E was inspired by 2E, the mathematics behind the game were completely overhauled. My experience was that the game broke down badly at very high levels, particularly due to the variance between characters. Consider a Wizard with a 1d4 hit die and no Constitution bonus. At 15th level, that Wizard has a puny 39 hit points, while the fighter might have 15d10+90 (172) hit points. When damage codes were lifted to challenge these fighters, they doomed lesser characters to not even participate.

The change that had the most effect on the game, both then and now, was the introduction of the wand of cure light wounds. In 3E, it was possible to buy one of these wands for 750 gold pieces, or to craft one for 375 gp if you had the wand-crafting feat. The wand contained 50 uses of a 1d8+1 healing spell. By the time you reached 6th level, that amount of money wasn’t a problem, so every group would make sure they had a wand or two when they went on an adventure. After each encounter, the wands would come out and shortly thereafter everyone was on full hit points again.

Compare this to 1E where 6th-level party with two clerics had access to ten castings of cure light wounds, each restoring 1d8 hit points. Hit point totals were lower in 1E, but ten castings compared to 50? Or 100? And clerics could also turn each of their regular spells into healing spells as well! Where Original D&D was a game of attrition where part of the skill was knowing when to retreat and when to continue, 3E kept attrition in the form of spells prepared, but hit points – at later levels – only mattered if you depleted them in one combat.

The increased damage output and chance of hitting of monsters? This also changed things. The orc dealt 2d4+4 damage with a falchion, but had a very good chance of scoring a critical hit, a new part of the game. On a critical hit, the damage doubled and became 4d8+8, an average of 26 damage. If you didn’t have a good Constitution score, it was very easy to be knocked unconscious. A half-orc with a great-axe and a 20 Strength? That could be 3d12+15 damage in one blow, as the damage was tripled!

The rules on death and dying were only slightly updated. It was now an official part of the game that you were knocked unconscious once you reached 0 hit points and began dying, losing 1 hit point per round. Once you reached -10 hit points, you died. It was very possible, given critical hits, that you could be killed from a single blow from a creature, even if you were on maximum hit points, as a second-level ranger discovered in my game facing a lone half-orc warrior. A more significant change – though it is, perhaps, one that reflected how people played the game – was that you no longer needed bed rest after being restored to positive hit points. You could just keep on adventuring.

Placing this all together, the net effect was that individual combats became more significant in adventure building. Characters would go from full hit-points to depleted and then back again to full over the course of a single encounter rather than over the course of the adventure. If you went into combat without having all your hit points, you were at a significant risk of dying. And you could die just because a monster hit you with a lucky blow.

Poison could be very varied in this edition in its effects. The most dangerous type of special damage was Constitution damage, which reduced your bonus to hit points, and thus your maximum hit points as well. One adventurer in my games was reduced to a 5 Constitution score and had to survive a 9th level adventure with only 15 hit points maximum!

Despite this, 3E was a fun game to play. However, after eight years, it was time for a revision. The holes in the design were showing, and it was something new. This was D&D 4E, and it had learned some interesting lessons from the 3E experience.

Original AD&D AD&D 2E D&D 3E
Cleric (5th) 4d6+1 5d8 5d8 5d8
Fighter (5th) 5d6+1 5d10 5d10 5d10
Mage (5th) 3d6 5d4 5d4 5d4
Thief (5th) 5d4 5d6 5d6 5d6
Constitution Max +1 Max +4 Max +4 Max +12
Strength Max +0 Max +6 Max +6 Max +12
Monsters 1d6 1d8 1d8 1d6 to 1d12
Death 0 hp -3 hp -10 hp -10 hp
Dying? No Yes Yes Yes
Cleric heal 2nd level 1st level 1st level 1st level
Cure Light Wounds 1d6+1 1d8 1d8 1d8+1 (to 1d8+5)
Longsword 1d6 1d8/1d12 1d8/1d12 1d8
Fire Giant Damage 2d6+2 5d6 2d10+10 3d6+15
Fire Giant HP 11d6+3 11d8+2 15d8+5 15d8+75

The maximum of +12 for 3E was calculated from the PC having every form of magical enhancement for that ability score at level 20, which gave a score of 34 (+12). Most characters would have lower, but a +5 to +7 was not unreasonable for characters in the level 6-12 range.

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3 Responses to Hit Points Through the Editions, part 3

  1. Eric says:

    Fighters in AD&D first edition had d10 hit dice. As did paladins. Rangers however had d8, but they started with 2d8 at first level. So, at 5th level fighters/paladins had 5d10 HP, and rangers 6d8 HP.

    Also, death occurred at -10 HP. The -3 thing was a bit weird to understand – the way we understood it was that when you lost your last positive HP you’d start at 0 HP and lose 1 more per round. The -3 was the maximum amount of overkill, if by the one blow. For e.g. if you had 4 HP but suffered two wounds of 3 HP damage each, the 1st knocks you to 1 HP, and the next knocked you down to -2 HP. However, if you had just 1 HP left and the 2nd blow was for 12 HP, you’d only be knocked down to -3 HP at the worst. And then you’d lose 1 HP per round.

    DMG p. 82.

    In 2e, death at -10 HP was an optional rule (DMG p.75). They did away with the -3 overkill limit, and added a save vs death if 50+ damage taken (even if HP still remain). Brutal.

    Also, both 1e and 2e had rules that meant if you were saved from dying state you were effectively useless for a long time. Coma for 1d6 turns, plus 7 days bed rest for 1e, 1 day of bed rest for 2e. Casting Cure spells only restored you to 1 HP, no more. Only a Heal spell could get you back into action immediately.

    None of this fall-down-get-up (multiple times!) malarkey these young’uns do.

    grrmph. get off my damn lawn.

    • merricb@yahoo.co.uk says:

      Yes, you’ll find this discussed in the previous parts of this series. The table indicating d8 for fighters was definitely a typo; thanks for catching it!

    • merricb@yahoo.co.uk says:

      I’ve made a couple of updates based on your feedback. Thanks!

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