Over in his latest post, Bruce Cordell asks the question Should a character at negative hit points who receives healing add those points numerically to her total until she reaches consciousness, or should healing always grant positive hit points?
That is, in my opinion, the wrong question to ask.
A far better question would be Should negative hit points exist? The answer to that one is a fervent no.
I have never liked the idea of negative hit points. Even though they’ve been a part of the game (both officially and unofficially) for almost the length of the game, it still feels like cheating. It’s as if the player is at death’s door and says “oh look! I’ve just found a whole other bunch of hit points I didn’t know about! That was a close one.”. They’re just a meta-game element, and an unnecessary one at that.
At the same time, dying when you get to 0 is no fun either – these are heroes, dammit, where Death has a revolving door. Here’s what I propose. It’s neither original nor ground-breaking.
Any additional damage after your character reaches 0hp comes directly off CON. When CON hits 0, you’re dead. While the character is at 0 hit points they are unconscious (or otherwise incapacitated) but certain characters (barbarians, half-orcs and anyone else too dumb to know they’re out) may be able to take a single action before dropping.
Lost CON is considered to be temporary and does not affect the attribute modifier. A hero with CON 18 (+4 modifier) who is knocked unconscious to 0hp and takes a further 4 damage is at temporary CON 14 but still retains his +4 modifier. This keeps the in-game book-keeping to a minimum but the hero is still closer to death than he was before. If you want a real world rationale, this reflects that fact that a healthy guy with a broken arm is still healthy (but with a broken arm).
Any healing recovers lost hit points and re-awakens the character, but the damage to CON remains. This is recovered between adventures at a rate of 1 point per week (or per day, if you prefer a less gritty campaign). While a low-level Cleric can take away the pain and stop the blood coming out, these wounds take longer (or more powerful magic) to heal fully.
What this does is add a role-playing opportunities to the game. Does the hero who is down to CON 4 press on valiantly, or suggest returning to the safety of the nearest inn and chicken soup? Even though he is back at full hit points (thanks to a passing Cleric) the shadow of death is hanging over him. What would you do?
The advantage to this system is it could apply to anything which drains attributes. The same rules regarding recovery could apply to the STR Drain touch of certain undead, INT Drain from reading Tomes Man Was Not Meant to Know, and CHA Drain from appearing on Reality TV. If the poor hero is suffering from multiple stat loss, these recover at a rate of 1 point per stat per week. For example, a Wizard hit on the head by the Necronomicon and knocked unconscious (hey, it could happen) could recover both CON and INT at the same time while he recovers from the shock.
The in-game effect of this is that CON is no longer a dump stat for any class, and that’s a Good Thing. There should be no dump stats at all in the game, only choices. CON should be just as important to a Wizard as it is to a Fighter. If you want to play an unhealthy (low CON) Wizard this should be a conscious choice, and be prepared to take the consequences.
What say you?